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Kirk's Landing
Excerpt

Dave slouched in his chair, surrounded by tattoos and testosterone. Only full patch members were left in the room—all the rest had been sent out. All except Dave, as once again he’d deliberately faded from their notice. He didn’t know exactly how he disappeared—whether peoples’ eyes just slid away from him or if light actually bent around him. His grandmother had never told him. All he knew was that it took a lot of concentration and he couldn’t fool cameras.

“Last call for beer,” said Weasel.

Dave quietly sipped his water. He was tired and needed to stay alert to focus his magical power, as today’s meeting was a key one. The gang would be discussing how they could expand their drug network, targeting new markets beyond the big cities. Dave tipped his chair back, scratched his full beard, and then, despite his good intentions, his thoughts wandered. He reviewed in his mind the number and location of firearms in the room. He then considered the number of members there with known or alleged murders on their scorecard. He’d joined up only a few weeks ago, with a referral from another chapter, but already it looked like his work would pay off well.

Sasquatch—their very large and very hairy leader—finally called them to order. “Okay, let’s get going. Weasel, Spider, good job last week, torching up that club. Now they’ll show us a little more respect, and cash. Oh, and welcome to our newest member, Badger.”

Sasquatch had taken back control last year when he’d been released from prison—with an MBA earned on taxpayers’ dollars. Badger was even newer than Dave, recently arrived from some First Nations group out in California. He’d already been made part of the inner circle, based on an impressive criminal record. They’d met earlier, and he’d given Dave a peculiar look at the time.

“Spider, phones off, and no photos,” said Sasquatch.

“Sorry boss.” Spider put down his cell phone. “Just thought you’d want to see us all together.” He stared at the picture, then pointed across the table at Dave. “Hey, what’s he still doing here?”

Dave woke up with a jolt, crashing back onto the floor, and definitely losing his concentration. With his sudden unfade everyone stared—frozen for a moment.

He knew that every person present would kill him without hesitation. He was on his own in this. He stood and spread his hands, smiling around the room. “Hey guys, lighten up! I just dozed off in my chair. What’s the big deal?” This was not going to work, judging from the angry looks he was getting—especially from the new guy. Badger gestured angrily at him, and Dave swayed with a wave of dizziness. His pause gave Sasquatch long enough to block the only door.

Dave glanced behind him at the large window, almost floor to ceiling, with rows of painted over panes. He grabbed a chair, swung as if to go after Badger but then turned and hit the window as hard as he could, shattering the old wood trim and glass. Good thing he had practised this in simulation exercises. Now was the time to see if his leather jacket was worth the price.

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Sumer Lovin'

Sumer Lovin'

by Nicole Chardenet
photographs by Heinrich von Schimmer & Sonya Yong
cover design or artwork by Ian Thomas Shaw
edition:Paperback
tagged : humorous
More Info
Excerpt

Rachel Brinkerhoff regarded the intense young woman on the other side of the table in the Second Cup booth. Oy, she just knew she'd be a nightmare to work with."So what matches have you got for me?" Alexis asked, leaning forward. Her glossy straight brown hair brushed her shoulders as she watched Rachel from behind her severe rectangular glasses. The brown eyes behind them were striking, but also hard and relentless. What must it be like for some poor young man, squirming beneath that penetrating gaze?"I moved to Toronto a few months ago, so I'm just getting my service up and running," Rachel explained. She deliberately spoke with an unhurried tone, hoping to buy time to think of a good way to handle this. "I'm trying to select a pool of candidates so it'll probably be a few more months before I can start suggesting matches—" Oh, this was good. It would take at least a few months of working with Alexis just to make her presentable for a date.It's not that the 31-year-old wasn't attractive. Alexis was quite lovely, actually. Medium height and fit, with a pretty heart-shaped face. The severe glasses weren't so bad when she smiled - then her penetrating eyes turned friendly and her rich full pink lips invited passionate kisses. The problem was she had a very bad attitude—cynical, jaded, and Rachel just knew she was being treated for depression. Or should be, anyway.Alexis glanced at Rachel's left hand. "So why aren't you married?" she asked. The question was straightforward, like Alexis herself - but the tone less judgemental than when she talked about the men in her past.Rachel sighed and smiled. She hoped her crow's feet didn't show too much. "That's a good question," she said. "I'll admit, I just got divorced. I made a bad choice and the marriage wasn't going anywhere so I got out." Technically true. Austin was never going to change, although one might argue the marriage was going somewhere - in a very ominous direction. "I've learned from my mistakes. I'll choose more wisely next time." Rachel hoped this wouldn't be a deal-killer for Alexis. She felt she could help her, if she was open enough to change."I know how it is," Alexis nodded. "My friends always come to me for advice on how to handle the men in their lives. And I've helped out several of them. It's just not so easy to take your own advice, you know?"Rachel smiled and slid out of the booth. "I'll be in touch," she replied. "I have another appointment in forty-five minutes. Would you know how to get to Yonj and Bloo-er from here?" She dug a wrinkled sticky note from her pocket and squinted."It's Yonge and Bloor," Alexis smiled, pronouncing it Young and Blore. "Are you driving or taking the subway?""I'm driving."Alexis gave her some quick directions and stood up, her glossy hair swinging. "Good luck trying to find men for your database," she said as she headed toward the exit. "You might want to focus on immigrant men. I think you'll find Toronto guys are uninterested in women."

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Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls
Excerpt

Chapter Thirteen Pulau Bidong

Quan and Hue watched the Thieus from a distance. The family moved with such grace compared to the other refugees. Voang bore a tremendous resemblance to their father while Han’s affection toward her children reminded them of their own mother’s soft ways.

Quan and his sister had settled in the Chinese quarter of the camp when they had first arrived two weeks earlier. Although they spoke functional Cantonese, the Hoa Chinese from Vietnam would mock their Hokkien pronunciation. Some Hoa harboured deep resentment toward the Vietnamese who had forced them to sell their entire belongings and flee a country where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years. The fact that Quan and Hue spoke to each other in Vietnamese provoked strong reactions from some of the early arrivals, who had been humiliated and tortured in the first days of the government’s campaign to encourage the Chinese to leave Vietnam. The children’s increasing discomfort incited them to look for shelter elsewhere in the camp.

The Thieu family had chosen to build a new hut in the smaller Vietnamese part of the camp. When Quan saw Voang Thieu struggle with his mangled hand to maneuver the bamboo into place, the young boy marched up and offered to help in exchange for a third of the space in the new hut. Voang was impressed by the confident air of the eleven-year-old, and even more impressed by Quan’s strength. In no time, they had a basic structure in place. Hue took Han around the camp and the neighbouring forest, showing her where edible roots could be found. The plants were similar to those along the Thai border in Cambodia, which Hue had learned to harvest. For the city-dwelling doctor from Saigon, Hue’s knowledge was invaluable in bringing vital nutrients to her family’s diet of boiled rice.

An, now eight, became endeared to Hue who took care of her as her own mother sought to administer simple medical care to many of the malnourished camp residents. With Hue’s help, Han slowly developed from the jungle roots a nutritional supplement for the most serious cases. With the small payments from those refugees who still had some money, jewelery or gold, she sent Voang to buy from the camp guards soap to disinfect the lesions brought on by severe malnourishment.

Minh Chau remained distant from Hue, who was just another stranger, another boat person, perhaps another person who would put a razor to An’s throat. As night fell, her tiny body convulsed over recurrent memories of the boat trip. Cong’s body sinking below the water sickened her with guilt. Her tears would not stop, even as her mother rocked her softy in her arms for hours on end. After nocturnal marathons of trembling, the young girl would succumb to exhaustion in the early hours of the morning.

When dawn broke, Minh Chau would suddenly awake in a state of euphoria. For the rest of the day, she would dance around the camp in the warm Malaysian sun, singing the sweet songs of liberation that Huynh had taught her in prison or hum the gentle melodies of the Vietnamese singer Khanh Ly that Aunt Lan had sung to her as they worked in the household vegetable patch. But Minh Chau replied only laconically whenever her family spoke to her. While her eyes still seemed to sparkle like wedge-like pieces of jade exquisitely placed in dark brown mosaics, a closer look revealed the emptiness of her soul.

Whenever Han or Hue turned their backs, Minh Chau would wander off. Once, they found her tossing small stones onto the roof of the Malaysian guards’ hut. The guards laughed it off that time. Luckily, one of the guards, Dahan, who was a notorious drunk, was not there. Of all the guards, he was the only one who truly hated the refugees. He had come from a small farming village in central Malaysia. When he was a child, his family had been driven off their farm by a rich Chinese merchant who had acquired the farm and all the surrounding farms through a corrupt Malay intermediary. The merchant did not even live in Malaysia, but had moved to Bangkok in the early years of independence. Dahan’s earliest memories were of the Chinese merchant’s henchmen torching the family hut, as his mother knelt crying before it, and his father bowed his head in the shame of his impotency.

Han had heard from others that Dahan had attacked several of the young women in the camp. More disturbing was the rumour that he had been caught fondling a seven-year-old girl. Han spoke at length to Minh Chau and An about the dangers of going too near to the guards and the need to particularly avoid Dahan. An listened carefully to her mother, but Minh Chau remained in her separate universe, and only giggled as her mother spoke to her.

Finally, An came up with a scheme to keep Minh Chau under control. She whispered in Minh Chau’s ear that Quan knew where to find unlimited supplies of the hard candy that Huynh used to bring to Chi Boa Prison. Suddenly, to Quan’s discomfort, little Minh Chau began to follow him everywhere. Sometimes she walked behind him like a soldier marching off to war. Other times, she would dodge from hiding place to hiding place, keeping always only ten feet away.

Quan felt very protective toward both the Thieu daughters, and had come to love their parents, who took the time to teach him to write in Vietnamese and gave him some lessons in rudimentary English so that he could communicate with the Malay guards. Voang Thieu had even taken him aside one day and spoke to him of the importance of the girls’ honour. He then said, “I will give you a secret name. For now on, I shall call you Bao for Bao Ve Phu Nu – the protector of women. You won’t let me down, will you.”

“No, Dr. Thieu, never!”

However, Minh Chau’s constant shadowing of his every move began to wear on his nerves. When he scolded Minh Chau, she collapsed into uncontrollable tears and convulsions. Quan went into a panic. What had he done? He approached Minh Chau and put his arm around her tiny shoulders to comfort her. It was at that precise moment that an intoxicated Dahan stumbled by. “What do you have there, boy? Let me see! Ah, a pretty little thing.”

Dahan effortlessly pushed Quan into the dust, grabbed Minh Chau’s arm and dragged her off toward his hut. Quan tackled Dahan, but the guard, even in his drunkenness, had the strength of a water buffalo. He again threw Quan against the wall of a bamboo hut. Quan got up and took out a slingshot from his back pocket. No other guards were in sight. He fit a large stone in the band of the slingshot and aimed it at the back of Dahan’s head. When Minh Chau screamed in pain as Dahan tightened his grip on her, Quan released the shot. The stone seared Dahan’s shaven head. It was just enough to distract the guard, who released Minh Chau’s arm long enough for Quan to run up, scoop Minh Chau in his arms and head off to the forest. Dazed, Dahan just shook his head and then sat on the ground and pulled out a small bottle of rice wine from his jacket.

When the community learned of Dahan’s latest rape attempt, an emergency meeting was held. It was decided to write a petition to the new UN-appointed camp administrator. After a short investigation and a considerable bribe in gold from a rich refugee who had three young daughters, the new administrator had Dahan transferred. That evening, men and women lined up to shake Quan’s hand, and Minh Chau sang out, “Quan is my friend, my very big friend.” Then she ran to him and hugged him, singing, “my big, big, big soldier.”

After that, the guards paid Quan special respect. Other parents urged their daughters to play with the Thieu girls just to come under Quan’s protection. Ironically, one eleven-year-old boy had brought more security to the camp than the collective efforts of the one thousand adult men in it.

After Dahan’s dismissal, things improved in the camp in many ways. The UNHCR representatives began to visit the camp more frequently. The locally recruited Malay guards were gradually replaced by regular Malaysian policemen who were stationed just outside the camp and entered the camp only when the local camp committee called on them to do so. The Chinese and Vietnamese inhabitants soon reconciled their differences and started joint night patrols to improve security.

The biggest improvement for Minh Chau, An and Quan was the newly opened school. A young Malay teacher, Abdul Hakim, was sent to teach the children English. He was a jovial type who came to love his young charges. Minh Chau was a particularly bright student, and her first quest was to learn how to say in English and Malay, “Where does Quan hide his candy?” An had told her that Quan did not want to share his candy because it made him strong. Minh Chau was determined to find Quan’s hoard to become just as strong as he was. Abdul Hakim, learning of An’s prank on Minh Chau, decided to join in.

One day, he brought a big bag of hard candy to the classroom. Distracting Quan for a moment, he slipped a handful into Quan’s jacket pocket. He then went off to Minh Chau, who whispered in his ear in English as she did every day, “Where does Quan hide his candy?” Abdul Hakim answered, “If you can also ask me in Malay, I will tell you.” She quickly translated her question into flawless Malay, and Abdul Hakim answered, “Check the left pocket of his jacket.” “No, I already did.” “Check again.” Minh Chau then sneaked over to Quan, who was engrossed in the new Dick and Jane book that Abdul Hakim had given him, put her hand into the jacket pocket and whipped out a handful of candy. “I found it! I found it! Now I will be as strong as Quan!” She then threw candy right and left to other students. Quan looked at her bewildered. Where did she get the candy? Abdul Hakim bowed over in laughter, and the entire classroom became bedlam, as some students jumped up to catch the treasure and others surrounded Quan to beg for more candy.

The next day, Abdul Hakim had twelve new girl students in the class, all of whom tried to sit as near to Quan as they could. Minh Chau made sure that she snuggled even closer to Quan, and stared down her rivals. As often as he could, Abdul Hakim would sneak more candy into Quan’s pocket when the boy was not looking, and it did not take long before Minh Chau or another girl managed to pickpocket it. Whoever got the candy first, shared it freely with the rest. Quan, who was by nature superstitious, started to believe that a Malay jinn had taken hold of his jacket. How else could this constant supply of candy be explained? Minh Chau and the other students were convinced that Quan had smuggled into the camp a huge store of candy, and after school, not only did Minh Chau stalk Quan, but so did three or four other girls. Only An and Abdul Hakim knew the real story.

While Quan became very popular both with adults for his stand against Dahan and with younger girls attracted not only by his seemingly inexhaustible supply of candy but also by his good looks, he remained a deeply disturbed child. At night, as he slept beside Hue, he was haunted by the brutal death of his mother. The Khmer Rouge guards who had raped her to death had escaped from the farm before Quan could take his revenge. In his quest for survival and protection for his sister, he had also frequented some of these same guards for more than two years as he role-played loyalty to their insane and brutal ideology. As his sister Hue grew older in the camp, she again attracted many admirers. Since leaving Cambodia, her life had stabilized. Now sixteen, she began to dream of marriage and starting a family.

Voang Thieu’s words rang in his ears, “You will now be called Bao Ve Phu Nu.” Only twelve, Quan was stronger than most of his sister’s suitors. Quan would scrutinize each of them, and frighten off most. Finally, Hue complained to Han Thieu about her brother’s interference. Han took Quan aside, and explained to him that his sister was old enough to make her own choices. Quan nodded obediently at his adopted mother, just as Minh Chau who had been eavesdropping sauntered up.

“I am old enough too. Can I marry Quan?” asked Minh Chau.

Quan blushed immediately, as Han Thieu smiled at her daughter, “If Quan wants to, I agree, but not before we all go to France.”

“Whoopee. Then I can eat all of Quan’s candy!” cried out Minh Chau, as she gave her mother and Quan a little bear hug.

While Dr. Han Thieu had her heart set on resettlement in France where she had cousins, this was not to be. Instead, one day, the Thieu family were invited to meet a Canadian immigration officer. His name was Denis Prud'homme, and he had a flaming red beard. The family put on their best clothes and the children reviewed their French with Han before the interview. Denis was a kind man. He took down all the details and promised to return for a second interview. Did the Thieus know anyone in Canada who perhaps could arrange sponsorship?

“We know no one in Canada,” said Voang.

“Wait! Marie-Christine Labonté is Canadian,” jumped in Han excitedly.

“Did you say Marie-Christine Labonté?” queried Denis Prud'homme.

“Yes, we knew her in Saigon. Why? Do you know her?” asked Han hopefully.

“Marie-Christine is my cousin! She lives in Bangkok now with her husband. I will see what we can do,” explained the immigration agent.

Just at that moment, Minh Chau could not hold back her curiosity anymore and reached to pull hard on Denis’s beard. While her parents suddenly saw their dream of Canada evaporate, Denis only laughed and then plucked a red hair from the beard and said, “Little girl, you can keep this as a souvenir.”

“I got the magic hair! I got the magic hair! I can go to Canada with my magic hair,” chanted Minh Chau, as she ran off to find Quan to show him her good luck charm.

The Thieus profusely offered their apologies for their daughter’s impetuous behaviour, but Denis Prud'homme shook them off. “You have a delightful daughter and I hope that the hair does bring you all good luck. We need families like you in Canada!”

A week later, Denis Prud'homme not only returned as promised, but brought along Marie-Christine. Han bowed before her friend from Saigon, and Marie-Christine reached out to her and said, “Han, I am so sorry. Thomas tried to save you at the embassy. They wouldn’t let him. They forced him to leave without you. He sends his best. He also says that if you want, he can work on getting you to the States instead of Canada.”

Minh Chau stepped forward, “We must go to Canada because I have the magic hair!”

Voang turned to Marie-Christine, “Madame Labonté, you know that I respect your husband and I worked for many years alongside Americans, but I want to return one day to Vietnam. If we go to the States, that will never be possible. Can you help us go to Canada?”

“Of course, that is why I am here. We have found a church in Quebec City to sponsor you.”

“Marie-Christine, there are two children that we must take with us. They have no one else,” said Han.

“Dr. Thieu, that will not be possible. Our resettlement policy only allows for immediate family members,” explained Denis Prud'homme. “I am sorry. I can try to do what I can for these children, but you should not get your hopes up. What are their names?”

“Hue and Quan Phoc,” answered Han quickly. “I can bring them now. Minh Chau, find your brother Quan and sister Hue.” Minh Chau raced through the camp. She knew exactly where to find Quan. It was Saturday morning and every Saturday morning, Quan bartered Chinese medicine with the Malay policemen for cheap novels in English. He had befriended an old Chinese healer, Jing Zi, from Vientiane, Laos, who knew how to transform the roots and bark of the local trees into traditional medicine. Aphrodisiacs were his specialty and especially popular among the Malays. Quan told the guards that the white powder was ground from rhinoceros horns, and tripled the price in doing so. Apparently, the powder had a very helpful effect on the policemen when they visited their wives on the mainland, and demand kept on growing.

Quan was in the midst of an important transaction at the police station. Not only was the Malay sergeant offering a well-used copy of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, but he had thrown in a vintage copy of Batman Meets Catwoman. The Sun Also Rises would be a gift for Abdul Hakim. Quan had finally realized how all the candy had got into his pocket, and wanted to thank his gregarious English teacher.

Hue was also nearby taking orders to sew the policemen’s clothes. Minh Chau saw Hue first. She rushed toward her when suddenly a hand reached out and grabbed her by the neck. It was Dahan, who had returned to pick up some of his belongings. “Little Vietnamese bitch, I will teach you a lesson,” he swore, overwhelming the child with the stench of gin. Minh Chau squirmed helplessly as the huge man lifted her by the throat high into the air. Her face turned blue, as her nails dug into the arms of her attacker. “Bitch, breathe your last breath.” Hue and a Malay policeman ran toward Dahan and Minh Chau. With two powerful strokes of his backhand, he sent both flying through the air, knocking them unconscious.

Still holding Minh Chau with one hand, Dahan staggered toward Hue, who lay helpless on the ground. He ripped off her cotton pants and spread her legs. As he began to unbuckle his belt, he felt Minh Chau’s body go limp and threw her aside, to concentrate on his new victim. Before he could thrust himself into Hue’s delicate body, he felt a sharp blow to the back of his skull. He reached up to touch the top of his head, only to discover that he could feel his brain. He turned around to see Quan holding the police sergeant’s service revolver. A second shot struck Dahan through his left eye. Hue woke just in time to avoid being crushed by the weight of Dahan’s huge body. Quan calmly walked up and put two bullets in the dead man’s scrotum. Within seconds, the children were surrounded by the other policemen. All had come to hate Dahan, but Quan had stolen the sergeant’s gun and committed murder. They took him to the makeshift jail and debated what to do with him.

Hue and the young policeman whom Dahan had knocked out raced with Minh Chau in their arms to Dr. Han Thieu. For ten minutes, Han used every medical artifice that she knew to revive her daughter. Nothing worked. Her guests, Denis Prud'homme and Marie-Christine Labonté, looked on with horror at the frail immobile body of the child who had enchanted both of them. Finally, Jing Zi came to them with a green potion. With Han’s permission, he poured it into Minh Chau’s mouth. Within seconds, the child convulsed violently and her heart began to beat again.

With Minh Chau now breathing, Han asked Hue what had happened. Hue described the attack by Dahan and how Quan had killed the former guard.

“We must tell the police to release Quan,” said Han. “Monsieur Prud'homme, can you help us?” Han stayed with her daughter as Voang, Hue and their visitors marched down to the police station. Denis Prud'homme spent hours trying to cajole the policemen to release Quan. The sergeant whose gun had been stolen was sympathetic, but the killing of a camp guard, even a former one who was known to be a drunk and rapist, was something that could not be swept under the carpet.

For the next three months, Denis Prud'homme worked hard to get the Thieu family accepted into Canada and find a sponsor for Quan and Hue. Each time it seemed that he was close, the sponsors balked when they learned that Quan had killed a man. Hue swore that she would not leave her brother’s side. Ironically, imprisoned in the Malaysian police station, Quan became good friends with all. The fact that Jing Zi kept him well supplied with magic potions to barter was a plus. Regular delegations from the various groups in the camp came to pay Quan homage, some of them leaving with purchases of Chinese medicine or goods that Quan had obtained in barter with the policemen. The small jail became, through Quan’s entrepreneurial spirit, an important distribution centre for the camp.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, Marie-Christine convinced her husband, Thomas Smith, to intervene with the Ministry of the Interior to have the charges against Quan dismissed. Finally, both Denis and Marie-Christine convinced their uncle Father André Hibou to sell his parishioners in New Carlisle, Quebec on the idea of sponsoring Quan and his sister. As New Carlisle was too small a place to receive the children, it was agreed that the money raised by the parish would be transferred to Father André’s nephew Mathieu Hibou who studied in Quebec City. Mathieu would be responsible for finding a room for the children and overseeing their integration into Quebec society. The paperwork was complex, and Citizenship and Immigration in Ottawa had misgivings about allowing Quan into Canada. The processing would take at least several months. The Thieu family, Hue, Denis and Marie-Christine held a small conference to decide that the Thieus would go first to Quebec City to take up the offer of sponsorship from the local church. Hue would wait for her brother’s release and then follow in three months.

When the time came for the Thieus to leave for Canada, Denis, Marie-Christine and her husband Thomas Smith all came to the camp. Together they went to the police station to say goodbye to Quan. Abdul Hakim joined them, bringing hard candy. The police sergeant made them all tea, and brought Quan out. His face brightened when he looked at how healthy Minh Chau was. She rushed to hug him, and pressed into his hand several candies, and said, “I brought some treasure for you, Quan. I love you!” When Voang’s turn came to say goodbye, he caressed the boy’s face and said, “Bao Ve Phu Nu, I owe my daughter’s life twice to you. We will wait for you in Canada—you are now my real son!” An stroked Quan’s hand and bowed deeply, “Honoured brother, we all love you.”

Then Minh Chau’s face lit up, and she chanted, “I know how to make Quan come to Canada!” The family and visitors looked quizzically at her, as she reached deep into her pocket and brought out the red hair from Denis Prud'homme’s beard. “Quan, I give you the magic hair to Canada. You must never lose this. Promise me!”

Quan took the hair and put it safely in his own pocket. He then took out the batman comic and handed it to Minh Chau. “When we grow up, I will be Batman and you, Catwoman.”

“Yes,” said Minh Chau, “yes, Batman and Catwoman forever and ever!”

With the Thieu family’s modest belongings, Denis Prud'homme’s Land Cruiser pulled toward the camp’s gate. As they passed the police station, Quan, Hue, Abdul Hakim and the entire police contingent waved. If tears could become pearls, the Thieu family could have transformed their grief at leaving Quan and Hue and their joy at departing for Canada into the greatest treasure trove the world had ever known.

The Land Cruiser drove onto the tiny ferry that would take them to the mainland. The boat pulled out into the sea, and Minh Chau quivered as images of the sea voyage to Pulau Bidong flashed before her. Without Quan at her side, her body began to shake. Quickly, An unwrapped a hard candy and put it into Minh Chau’s mouth and whispered, “Quan’s treasure will protect you from the sea.” The sweet taste of the candy drove the dark thoughts from Minh Chau’s mind, and she dreamed of playing hide-and-go-seek with her protector.

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Bidong

Bidong

edition:Paperback
tagged :
More Info
Excerpt

 

 

 

Chapter11

 

Chapter11

 

Living on the island, every day became a struggle. The constant fight forfood had become an expectation, and death was no stranger to the lifeof a traitor—a person who abandoned their country. Adding to themisery was the uncertainty over when we would leave. It was as thoughwe had been sentenced for life. Dark clouds hung over our heads andanger rampaged through the camps. Bitterness for the hand we had beendealt led many to drown themselves in alcohol.

To bring some hope into our very chaotic lives, Master, Buon and I begana ritual. Every Wednesday at noon we would gather in front of thepost office and listen to the mail call. We hoped somehow we would becalled to join the few lucky recipients of a Christmas present inJuly. We knew we would never receive anything, but we did it just tokeep some hope alive, because hope was all we had. Without it wewould have ended up like many of the other kids who threw their livesaway on drugs or in gang warfare.

Out of the three of us, Master was the one who had been living in therefugee camp the longest. She had been there two years prior toBuon's and my arrival. Master and her uncle had applied to settle inAmerica before but had been rejected due to a lack of proof ofmilitary service. Her uncle had served alongside the Americans duringthe Vietnam War, but when Saigon fell he burned and destroyed anyevidence of his military past, fearing incrimination.

When the American delegate asked for proof of this claim during theinterview, Master’s uncle was able to recite his service number,his unit and the battalion to which he belonged. However, due to thelack of any physical evidence, the file was put on hold for furtherreview.

Nonetheless, Master never gave up hope. Every few months she and her uncle wouldvisit the administrative office and file an inquiry on the status oftheir application with the hope that someone in that faraway placecalled the United States of America would make the connection, verifythe information and send her a lifeline. Waiting for that day hadkept her working hard on her English and gave her reason to moveforward with her life.

Master was my guiding light during those dark days following my rejection bythe American delegate. Without her to push me forward, I might havefollowed Brother's example and drowned myself in poison. Or perhaps Iwould have jumped off a cliff or wrestled a shark—anything for aquick exit out of that miserable place called a refugee camp. It wasmore a place of torment than a camp. I was young and life was harsh,and I didn’t want to live anymore. I was distraught, and would keepto myself most days. I often went to the beach and just stared outinto the water. I would cry about missing home, cursing my situation.Out of concern, Master would come and drag me back to the library tostudy. She picked me up when I needed her most.

To keep the hope of a future alive and give us something to look forwardto, Master came up with a plan. Sitting in the library, she asked meand Buon to write down what we imagined for ourselves, a career inthe future. She wanted us to remind ourselves of this goal every day,to forget all the wretchedness that was happening in the camp.

Master began. She said that if she ever had the chance to go to school, shewould like to be a social worker. She told me she wanted to helpchildren without parents, like us, and guide them to walk the rightpath. This was a passion she could see herself following because shehad experienced such a bad life herself.

When  it was my turn, I shared with Master and Buon my desire to become ajournalist. I loved to write and to read. I wished that some day Icould help kids who couldn’t walk enjoy reading my stories as muchas I enjoyed writing them.

After I finished sharing my dream, I waited to hear Buon’s. Master and Iturned our attention to him. However, over the course of the timesince we began the writing exercise, he had changed somehow. He keptlooking down at his feet like something had been triggered inside ofhim. When we asked what he wanted to do, he didn’t bother toanswer, he just ignored us completely. Not wanting to agitate Buon,Master and I discussed presenting the idea of the writing exercise toour class.

Mrs. Winona was elated upon hearing the idea. I became the class captain,holding and keeping each of my classmate’s precious dreams. I wouldpass out dream paper every week before class began, and we dedicatedan hour to writing, sometimes adding to our dreams and sometimeschanging them completely. We shaped our futures instead of drowningin our sorrows. We imagined the jobs we were going to have, the foodwe were going to eat and the friends who would endure. We often cameup with unbelievable stories, such as eating rice and fried fish inMcDonald’s or driving cars with wings. The whole class jumped onthe bandwagon to see who could create the most ridiculous dream andthose dreams kept our hopes alive, giving us a reason to come back toclass every week.

The more we enjoyed thinking about the future, the more Buon detested theidea. When the whole class laughed out loud at the mundane fish sauceburger, Buon was quiet and kept to himself. Mrs. Winona asked him tojoin and share with the class, but he just kept looking at his feetand didn’t speak to anyone. He became more depressed as the dayspassed. During class when I encouraged him to write down, “What Iwill do when I settle in another country?” he cocooned himself andignored me. He didn’t bother to pay attention. He just kicked atthe floor.

One afternoon I finally reached a point where I couldn’t handle Buonignoring me any longer so I patted him on the back and asked him tostop. To my surprise, he stood up and walked out of the classroom. Iran after him and called out his name, but he yelled to leave himalone. I went back to class feeling rejected. Mrs. Winona came overand told me that I couldn’t help him anymore. He had to helphimself.

What happened after Buon ran out of the class shocked us all. Mrs. Winonaarrived the next day with tears in her eyes. She sat at her desk andcried for a long time. We all anticipated that something horrible hadhappened, something that was causing our beloved teacher to sob herheart out. After a long silence Mrs. Winona composed herself andstood up, and with great effort she told us that Buon was dead.

My world went dark and I lost my hearing. How could he die? You stupididiot! You can't die! You’re supposed to go on and live the lifeyour parents sacrificed themselves for. You’re a coward. You tookthe easy way out. You were among the children of Heaven, and you hadto be strong like our ancestors. They fought the Chinese and theyfought the French, both powerful enemies. They never quit, ever, andhere you lost only your family and you quit. I hate quitters.

And  then seemingly out of the dark corner of my subconscious mind, Icould hear the laughter of the Sea Devil. It chuckled in satisfactionand told me to let it out of the box. It demanded that I follow in myfriend’s footsteps and think of the past, think of the suffering asif it were the key to unleashing it from the prison where I kept itlocked up. “Let me out,” it screamed and shouted at me. I coveredmy ears, but I could still hear it speaking to me. “Why live in aworld with such sorrow? Come and visit your friend. Buon is righthere. He has released himself from all suffering. You should too.”

The box tempted me. It was right. Why live to endure such painfulexperiences, I asked myself. The voice inside the box was gettinglouder and I could sense the devil was getting stronger. As I let myguard down, the chains that I had wrapped around it were about to bebroken free. With just another strong push it would be all over. Iwould follow Buon, and see him on the other side. I would run to theforbidden beach and jump off a cliff. I stood up and was movingtoward the door to follow through with this when a sudden shakebrought me to my senses. Standing in front of me was Master.

“Are you all right?” she inquired. Without waiting for an answer, shehugged me and I held her tight in my arms. Like the sun peeking outfrom the gray sky, the warmth of her love overtook my body. It calmedthe Sea Devil inside the box. I realized that if I ever let the demoninside this box free it would cost me my life. I took the opportunityand put a wall around it, a survival mechanism, with the hope that itwould be strong enough to contain the darkness inside me.

Life went on, but its rhythm changed. It could never be the same with theknowledge that a friend you had cared deeply about had put a ropearound his neck and jumped off a cliff. Dangling in mid-air, he hadswung back and forth like a goodbye that was never meant to be. Afterhe was gone I cared little about leaving this prison. But sometimesmysterious powers have other ideas.

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Last of the Ninth
Excerpt

      

 

 

ChapterII

 

Whomthe gods would destroy, they first make mad.

– cited byPlutarch of Chaeronea

 

TheDanube Frontier 162 AD

 

The road was lined on either side by forested bluffs. On a cliff highabove, a dark shape was concealed in the light and shadow of minglingleaves. An angry gust ripped through the forest canopy, and for aninstant the figure coalesced, and then dissolved again into thefoliage. The next draught of air revealed it to be a hooded mancrouched at the edge of the precipice, gazing downward in raptconcentration. Poised on his haunches, he peered over his barelyraised thumb, holding his arm as if it were an instrument and makingsmall adjustments as he traversed it slowly from right to left.

His calculations complete, Decimus Malorix pulled back his hood to feelthe warmth of the morning sun on his face. Before his eyes it burnedaway the layers of mist that had concealed the rugged hills onlymoments before. The daylight confirmed the suitability of theirchoice of location and a signal from Vadomar showed that all was inreadiness. "Eight," he said quietly. He would have justeight seconds from the time their quarry emerged from the trees untilit moved around the cliff face beyond his line of sight.

The Greek and his escort likely judged that they could chance thissegment of the journey—making better time here than by keeping tothe more discreet but difficult terrain of the trails to the north.This was an isolated road, even by frontier standards, and the Greekdoubtless did not expect to encounter any Roman patrols. It was amistake, and within the hour he would regret his decision. ForClaudius Maximus had sent word that it was time to make an end of it.That’s why Malorix was here. Malorix was the end.

He pulled a pair of arrows from his quiver and stuck one of them headdown in the ground. The other he notched to his bowstring and drewback three times, testing the tension. This was not a Roman bow. Thebody was carved from richly cured heartwood, the curved tips werelaminated layers of sheep’s horn and rawhide. It was decorated withanimal images, more beautiful to Malorix than all the statuary thathad surrounded him in his youth, growing up in the imperial court.The recurve bow was the most deadly in the world, and the pride ofthe Sarmatian horsemen who ruled the eastern steppes. It was theweapon of the tribe of the Jazyges, his ancestors, who two centuriesearlier made the long migration from their Sarmatian homeland to thebanks of the Danube.

"Breathe," he said aloud. He felt the quickening in his blood. The rush beforethe kill had led more than one archer to shoot wide of the mark. Thecurse of Artemis, some called it. The old ones just called it "thefever." Scant months ago Malorix would have said it nevertouched him. Until the dreams came. That’s when everything changed.

The breeze cooled the sweat on his brow, the telltale sign that gavevoice to what his mind refused to acknowledge. He inhaled deeplythrough his nose and released the air slowly through his mouth. Inhis mind he recited the measured cadence of the formulas he hadlearned from his Sarmatian father, who had learned them from hisfather, and his father’s father. "Aboveall prepare your mind … the world is nothing … the arrow's flightis all." Theywere handed from father to son, down the line from the time oflegends. Now they belonged to Malorix, the Emperor’s assassin.

"Breathe."

His head snapped involuntarily at the sound of a sharp exhalation. Thelaboured breathing of a horse was getting closer, louder. The roadwas steep, and the animal was struggling. Taking the flight of hisarrow between thumb and forefinger, he gently slid the bowstring tothe notch, as he knelt and listened. Hold. When it comes you’llknow ...

A hoof sent a stone hurtling into a tree with a resounding crack thatechoed deep into the forest. On the road below him the leavesshimmered like the water of a pool disturbed by a pebble. A warriorholding a long curved falx cradled in his arms entered his line ofsight. The Greek followed, his legs dangling listlessly at thehorse’s side. The third rider sat casually in his saddle with itshigh seat distinctive of the Roxolani, the dominant Sarmatian tribeof the eastern steppes. A circular shield was slung over his back andhe held a long sword across the base of his horse’s neck. Of thetwo escorts, he looked the most alert to danger.

Malorix raised the bow slowly, stretching one arm to its full extension anddrawing the bowstring to his ear with the other. Any sudden movementnow and he would be seen. Instinct told him to go for the lead rider,to have more time for the second shot. Experience taught himdifferently. The fleche of the arrow brushed his cheek as he drew inanother draught of air and then gently exhaled.

"Easy…"

His  fingers held the strain and then he let them lose their purchase likea slow seduction. There was no need to look—mechanically his handreached down for the second arrow. He felt cold, outside himself, ashis fingers notched the shaft. He swung the bow upward, and drew thebowstring taut once again.

The Roxolani warrior took the first shot full in the chest and flewbackward, his arms stretched to either side as though imploring anexplanation from the heavens. As the others half turned, their mountsreared at the unexpected motion behind them. Recognition of theambush came as the forelegs of the horses struck the rough flagstonesof the road, and horses and men uncoiled in unison to make the dashto safety. As Malorix felt the string slipping from his fingers asecond time, he was counting.

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Tales of Other Worlds
Excerpt

 

Phane

I

It was on one ofthe ‘scorraging’ hunts while Phane’s greenish-yellow sun wasbanking low on the horizon that Kolbe received his first real glimpseof reality. He and his five friends were out roaming the sandy,boulder-strewn landscape tinted in an eerie shade by the dyingafternoon light, when they halted before a small knoll brushed withhyssop. Mid way up, a crusty-leaved barrier hedged the slope, pastwhich none had ventured, despite what Wensel, the freckle-facedbraggart of their lot claimed about his ‘solitary’ excursions.

Far to the east,Morfast’s towers of metal and pink stone rose like limbless trunksin the faraway glimmering. Squadrons of birds played black circles inthe air, settling to haunt the metallic traceries that identified thegraveyard of a lost empire. Separating the youths from the ruinedcity stretched an endless plain littered with islands of rusty debrisand sporadic patches of crabgrass and twitch-weed.

The six ofthem—Kolbe, Wensel, Jesset, Vonny, Lees, and Ua had made good timein the open country. They were garbed in one-piece jumpers and worepale canvas shoes that were scuffed and very poorly laced. Nothingmore than mischievous adolescents who had seen eight of Phane’slong, lazy, shimmering summers (8 summers = 12 earth years), theirlaughter and jokes were merciless intrusions upon the silent fastnessof Phane’s landscape. Ua, the unspoken leader, a youth of a dozenvolatile temperaments, harboured a florid face and a savage brush cutthat perfectly suited his squat frame. He was just short of animpressive 5’8”. Kolbe, lean, grey-eyed and serious-minded was acompulsive ruminative and showed no arrogance in assuming himselfcleverest of the group. Vonny and Lees were sandy-haired brothers,happy-go-lucky and easily the most suggestible of the party. Wensel,with his tubby paunch and shock of red curls, was proud andself-absorbed. Jesset, the olive-skinned, straight-haired,smiley-faced youth was somewhere in the middle of these diversepersonalities, and the most like Kolbe.

Despite theominous angle of the sun, Vonny and Lees were all for going on withtheir trek. Kolbe felt this tickle of adventure coursing in hisveins, but unlike the others, he stood aloof, restrained by doubt.

Yesterday they hadstumbled upon an underground trench, some kind of tunnel burrowingdeep under a collapsed bridge. The cavity could have been anything: adrainage well, a waste disposal conduit, or an old ore pit, but Kolbenoticed that it ran straight in the direction of Morfast’s crippledtowers. He thought that it must have been some breed oftransportation network. But that the network extended this far fromMorfast only confirmed his belief of what an ingenious race the‘Builders’ or ‘Creators’, had been.

The discovery ofthe ruin had been a circumstance nothing short of marvel. Jesset hadput his foot in a wrong place and almost plummeted down a deepsinkhole. Sand and rocks had slipped down the shaft and landed with ahollow thud on something metallic below. Six sets of wondering eyescaught a glimpse in those musty bowels thirty feet down, of onceshiny metal spread with fallen debris. Squinting like hawks, they hadcaught the dull flicker of a blue- and white-striped rectangularcarriage linked with another and poised on rusty wheels. None of themcould see very far through the dust-speckled gloom, but none failedto sense that electrical tingle stroking the back of his neck at theprospect of climbing down and finding out what was up. They wouldhave to return with torches to investigate, if they could figure away down. Actually ‘down’ was the easy part; getting back up wasnot so straightforward.

Today, they werefar from that place under the sand. Just over an hour of lightremained before the eight hours of bottle-green darkness overtookthem. They were following an old buckled stone road running rightthrough the parched and rolling field habitually where they rootedaround until dusk for old relics of the inexplicable past. ‘Scorragehunting’ they called it—that kid-dumb pastime of rummaging underold wrecked bridges, amidst crumbling outposts or ‘Hoves’, alongfence lines, for whatever hunks of junk they could find; to tear themapart and give them a proper stomping or burning in whatever oldbarrels they could find along the way. After that, if luck permitted,the ‘hunting’ portion would begin: where they would forage forclumps of dry yellow buds from the onik-bush and eat plenty of the‘laugh-weed’—the seeds which made them all bubbly and gigglyinside and feeling that everything was all right—substances whichof course, were forbidden in Ona Ward.

Ua, when he gotinto the laugh-weed, was never fun to be around. Not just because heget intoxicated, but because he sometimes turned ugly. Even now, onlya half hour into their trek, he had gulped down a score of laugh budsand already Kolbe saw the transformation: the glassiness of the eyes,the harsh metallic speech.

Before them laythe unsaid scorraging barrier: a plum-grey wisp of prickle underwhich the high strato-clouds eternally lingered, always the samedrowsy shade of washed-out lime permeating Phane’s moody sky.

Wensel and Uasurged ahead past the score of stunted bushes. Again Kolbe hesitated,wary of some inexplicable feeling tugging at his innards. His voiceheld onto a shakier edge than usual: “Let us visit some of ourhaunts west a-ways, okay, Ua? Remember where the scout thingamajigsits with the sting-ray antennae?”

Ua sneered.“What’s the matter, Kolbe? Scared or something?”

“Aw, look at hisfingers shake,” jeered Wensel. “He is afraid. Let himcrawl back to Ona and cry on his momma’s shoulder!”

Jesset made adiplomatic suggestion. “It is getting late, raiders. What about ourmystery tunnel down by Saller’s bridge? We haven’t a clue aboutwhat those hulks are yet—and not far away are those sealed cratesburied in behind Hasser’s Three Hoves—”

“Kid’s stuff!”snapped Ua. “We’ve been through those piles of junk a milliontimes.”

“Yeah!” criedVonny.

Jesset and Kolbewere outvoted when Lees chimed in his bid in favour of pushing on. Itwas either tag along with the pack, or tuck tail between legs. Apractical enough endeavour if not for the hot derision and peercontempt chafing on Kolbe’s back. Kolbe, who didn’t care so muchfor that kind of thing these days, was all for taking off, but he wasgripped by a sudden vivid anger. He whirled on Ua, teeth-gritted.“Okay, you mope! Let’s go have a go at it. But I don’t want tohear any more of your tongue-wagging about me being scared!”

Ua waved a hand ofdisclaimer and pulled Wensel along. Kolbe hung back as they set outover the hill; they mounted a crumbling stone fence and wound downthe other side.

The air was warm;it was getting toward the end of the day. Barely a wind stirred theleaves of this still planet and played circles on the lake of auburnsand, fine as loess. But then again, Phane was a world of littledisturbance. Always the air was stretched taut and thin, as ifawaiting for something to happen.

Down into alow-cut ravine the scorragers descended. They discovered three newhulks, dead and dry—huge, monstrous insects. ‘Haulers’ theycalled them—each as wide as two houses and set with two large backlug-wheels pitched deep in the black sand. Behind the largest washitched a kind of flat wagon, all metal, red, sunken and corrodedwith age.

They came out ontop of the ravine and gazed upon a low, thicketed plain edging itsway toward a dingy line of scraff-forest. Behind, the white-washedhuts of Ona Ward were now hidden by the hill’s ochre brow.

Late afternoonshadows played tricks on the eyes: hazy shapes and shimmering patchesformed dull mirages. But as they forged down into the virginterritory, the illusions vanished and they let up on their approachof what looked like a tower-like mound about twelve hundred feetaway, tilting solemnly away from them.

It was, if not themost bizarre-shaped landform, certainly the weirdest looking Hovethey had ever seen. Certainly no mirage. Ua led them down in hiscommanding dogtrot toward the impression. Kolbe’s eyes gleamed. Theplain narrowed to bushes and terminated at a bluish wall of stuntedtree growths. Something was odd about this anomalous Hove that stoodframed so singularly in the foreground. The towerish spire leaned ona slight cant to the left. It looked like fins or buttresses wereslung outward from its eight-foot base. The whole structure probablystood about fifty feet high. A tall cylindrical shaft, coveredcompletely with moss and mauve grass-vine, shot above the base andloomed over the thickets and silent, blue-eaved forest. Dun-coloured,umbrella-like foliage appeared to have been planted around thefoundation, as if to hide evidence of the fact that this was not anatural formation.

Ua dug his heelstriumphantly into the sand. “A little mountain for us to climb!”

“No, it isn’t,”scoffed Wensel. “I bet it’s old man Simil’s Hove. Nees, myolder brother told me about this place when he was into scorragingway back.”

Ua snorted. “Idon’t care whose Hove it is! We’re all going to have a look-see.”

Why Kolbe had sucha bad feeling about this, he couldn’t say. Perhaps the protrudingshape? The peculiar resonance? It was as if from another time. Washis prickly imagination running wild?

It was more thanthat. Destiny. A thin voice seeped from the looming monstrosity—andhe was afraid to listen to it.

Cautiously hefollowed the others around the back of the Hove. He glanced aboutwith unease as the five adventurers ground to a puzzled halt. Theystood before a chalky door etched in festoons of vine along theHove’s base. The doorway, though not obviously visible until seenat close range, led somewhere inside the peculiar-looking jut. Thefootprints etched in the milky sand indicated that people had been inand out recently.

Kolbe glanced overhis shoulder. The sun Heradra had slipped down a notch to theink-stained hills. It sent mauve shadows dancing across the dimminglandscape. He couldn’t help thinking about Simil, the reputedrecluse sorcerer. Who else had been chased away from one of theoutlying wards for insubordination?

Ua boldly put hisshoulder into the door; grunting bravely, he blundered on through.Dutifully the companions followed him.

What they saw waslike nothing they had ever seen before. Gleaming metal walls, a highleaden ceiling pocked with neat little holes, shelves of neatlystacked books, gunmetal counters ranging round the periphery with allcountertops polished clean and littered with curious gizmos of allshapes and sizes: black and silver boxes, flat screens, touch-pads,dials, pulleys, knobs, outlets, black coils, synthetic rope windingeverywhere. There were sheets of clear, transparent material, veryhard and durable, which Kolbe had glimpsed before at many ascorraging site. A flight of grey steps circled up to a level above.

What was mostmysterious about this new place was the bulbous object, big as ahedge-apple that hung upside down on a twisted chain from theceiling. It was shaped like an egg but emitted an artificialyellowish glow that lit the whole room in eerie splendour. Kolbereached up cautiously to touch it, but he drew back his hand,startled when it almost burnt his finger.

“Wow, what atreasure den!” cried Ua. “I told you we’d hit it big!” Hescooped up a black-gleaming box about as big as a bread loaf.Grinning, he made a point of letting it drop on the floor. Vonny andLees smirked and took up some pieces of their own and dropped them.Jesset hesitated, but Wensel intruded an impish yell and joined thetroop.

Kolbe rushed overin dismay to snatch the object from Wensel’s grip. “Don’t breakit, you dimwit! This stuff is valuable—we might actually learnsomething here. Not like the junk we’re used to wrecking.”

“Learn?”jeered Ua. “What’re we going learn, fancy pants? I got enough ofold mother Hotch and her Learn-Circle lessons in flower naming.”

“Yeah,” criedLees. “This is what scorraging’s all about—wrecking things,burning and looting places and having a grand old time!”

“It isn’t a‘grand-old time’,” growled Kolbe, snatching Lees’s toy andputting it back on the counter. “Breaking things that are alreadywrecked is okay—but these things have been fixed up. They’resomeone’s property—maybe old Simil’s himself—I don’t feellike crossing him.”

Ua pushed Kolberoughly away. “Get away, you smook!” He slapped the rectangularcontraption out of Vonny’s hand, whereafter a sickening crunch hada maze of tubes, chips, wires and plastic pieces spewed onto thefloor.

A bump and suddenscraping from overhead had them quieting down. They craned theirnecks in suspicious manner. The sound was repeated: a kind of dullsliding, as of a stool being drawn back on a metal floor.

The veins in Ua’sneck bulged. “Something up there. Quick! Maybe some kind ofanimal.” He snapped his fingers, emboldened by the laugh-weed.“Let’s hide behind this door and conk out whatever it is when itcomes down. We can even catch it if we’re clever.”

“We aren’tgoing to ‘catch’ old man Simil that easily, you fool!” hissedWensel.

“Shut your trap,Wensy! That old goat’s been dead for years.”

Down the stairscame a clip-clopping of old, tired feet. Certainly no animal, Kolbemused wryly. The scorragers instinctively crouched behind thedoorway.

A figure emerged:a stooped man with a button nose and bald, gleaming patch of head. Hewas thin and wiry and long-boned and kind of bent, as if weary fromhard work and a lot of thinking. Silvery wisps of hair trailed downthe sides of his head onto a pair of hunched shoulders. He wore ashabby, dun frock. He halted, frowning with dismay at the wreckage onthe floor. His eyes, obviously keener than his frail looks, caught afurtive movement.

“Here, you mangyrats!” he barked. “Go forage in someone else’s back yard!” Hemade a grab for the nearest shoulder and gave it a sharp pull andwhack with his walking stick. Ua jerked to his feet, hissing a curse.Gripping the appliance in a vengeful fist, he swung it at the oldman. Smug cruelty gleamed in his eyes—a teenager’s pride hurt bythe absolute voice of adult authority. Only once had Kolbe seen thatlook in Ua’s eyes, and he had not wished to see it again. The piecegrazed the old man’s temple and he sagged dazedly to his knees. Adrop of blood trickled from his head. Savage delight burst from Ua’ssmirking lips and he rushed forward to kick the man to submission.Wensel whistled a cat call. Vonny and Lees froze, as did Jesset, butKolbe knew that something had to be done to avert this disaster.

Kolbe sprintedover four steps and checked Ua’s swift bulk with a hip-check. Uatoppled sprawling to the floor near the dazed man, who tottered,blinking the stars out of his head. Vonny and Lees gasped and shrankback.

Wensel, seeing theold man on his feet, drew a caustic breath. He made a clumsy efforttoward the door. The others fled. Ua included. But not Kolbe. Hedidn’t bolt like his peers—perhaps it had something to do withhis not wanting to be part of that reckless company any more. Hestood completely vulnerable, watching the old man dab the trickle ofred at his forehead and gaze disconsolately at the ruined apparatusat his feet.

The device washopelessly broken and the old man spun angrily on Kolbe. “Youscallywag! Why do you stand there like a simpleton? Be off with yourrabble!” The voice was harsh, full of frustration.

Kolbe dropped hishead. “I’m sorry, sir. We didn’t mean—we didn’t know anyonewas here. We just thought it was another abandoned Hove, forexploring—that’s all.”

The old man gave amiserable grunt. “Exploring? Try breaking and entering.” Hegrunted, flourishing a gruff hand. “Never fear! I saw what you did,lad, and if you hadn’t, my skull’d be eggshells. What’s gotteninto your nasty chum, anyway? He’s like a time bomb.”

Kolbe nodded.“Ua’s gotten mean—the laugh weed pushed him over the edge.”

“Some excuse!”snorted the old man. He quieted down and thrust out a hand, if notrather sombrely. “The name’s Simil. Who are you?”

“Kolbe—fromOna Ward.”

He seemedsurprised at that. “This neck of the woods is a bit far out of yourreach, don’t you think?”

“We were outscorraging.”

“Oh, thatexplains it,” he grumbled. “You know, if you brats’d spend aquarter of your time trying to figure out things instead of wreckingthem, we’d be out to the stars again by now.”

Shamefaced, Kolberubbed his eyes, then jerked forward. “What do you mean,‘stars’—and ‘again’?”

Simil smiledharshly. “All those little lights in the sky. Those are stars—likeHeradra—Phane’s own sun. We—as in you and I—and all the othersorry souls on this backward planet would be out and away amongstthem, if we’d put our minds into the right places.”

Kolbe gasped,“Heradra’s huge! The Night Eyes are so small. They couldn’t besuns.”

“Yes theycould!” jeered Simil, “The ‘Night Eyes’ are not small;they’re just faraway.”

Kolbe felt abaffled knot constricting his throat. “You mean all those millionsof points of light are actually suns?”

Simil’s greyeyes glinted with mischief.

“But how faraway are they to be that tiny?”

“Very far away,my friend. Farther than either you or I could imagine. The ringer ofit all is, that we came from one of them way up there called Sol. Sofar away that you can barely see its feeble little orange twinkle ona clear night—and then only if you squint your eyes and look asidefor a while. It’s about right there, I believe.” He pointed up ona sixty-degree angle, which Kolbe guessed to be roughly northeast.

“Of course, theydon’t teach you that in Learn-circle, do they?”

Kolbe’s jawslackly dropped.

Simil laughed. “Noneed to answer that, friend.”

Kolbe ignored thecomment and motioned to the litter of gizmos piled on one of thecounters. “What is all this junk anyways?”

“You call itjunk?” Simil’s face crinkled in pain. His hand flapped.“This ‘junk’ as you call it, is all the bits of contraptionsand gizmos I’ve managed to salvage from across these lands. Withoutgetting tried for criminal activity! Most importantly of all, I’vemanaged to decipher and repair most of it, though a few ends and oddsI haven’t a clue as to their purpose. No matter! It’ll come to meone day. No use trying to fix this up in any of the hidebound-brainedWards either. This is why I live out here, away from the small-mindedcircles who’ve made it taboo to take up such unlawful acts as‘gathering’. My granddaughter, Ekissa, and I used to live in OpusWard about eight miles past Nher’s Wall, but after her parentsdied, we moved here.” He leaned back on the counter, reminiscing,curious of Kolbe’s reactions.

Kolbe could onlyscratch at his face with profound wonder. “You fixed up all thisstuff? Unbelievable! We usually wreck stuff like this.”

Simil let out asad breath. “I’m torn between feeling sorry for you, boy, orgiving you a good walloping! Look at these fine objects!” He spreadhis hands and fixed the boy a cutting gaze. Seeing his critical look,Kolbe dropped his head sheepishly. The old man marched over to abooth tucked along the far counter where he grabbed a heftyrectangular box so sparklingly polished that it showed his gauntreflection with flawless perfection. “Sure, it may not look likemuch, but here’s a toaster, it cooks bread in a jiffy. And thisoval thing over here a computer, one of the more primitive kind.Series III. Only fifty Gig of memory and no Ultra-res.” He tappedon a bunch of fluorescent keys. Fluttering around a flattened tubeswarmed a series of brightly-silhouetted holo-symbols and pictures.

Simil directedKolbe’s attention to a thing with a pointy end, smooth hard blackbody, and a ridged handle which he called an ‘electric drill’. Heintroduced other strange and wonderful tools, as if oldacquaintances, amongst which he named to precision: ‘wrench’,‘jig saw’, ‘lathe’, ‘spokeshave’, ‘water-maker’.Kolbe blinked. Could all these objects perform the marvellous thingsthe old man claimed? His mind reeled with the possibilities.

Simil explainedthat these gadgets ran on an energy called ‘electricity’—thesame stuff that powered the magic light, an electric ‘bulb’swaying overhead. Another wonder of ‘Science’, Simil claimed,which incidentally was another word for ‘Knowledge’. Kolbeessayed to rub the ache out of his head but was unsuccessful. Similchattered on what electricity was, an invisible energy that ranthrough these tangles of black wires running here and there—a powergenerated by a heavy, whirling thing in the basement—as god-awfulas it sounded, it remarkably ate up only a tiny bit of pale greenfuel called eltrosene, and that he would see for himself in a jiffy.

Kolbe expresseddoubt at the concept and Simil laughed and wagged a lecturing fingerat him. “This is what happens when you skip Learn-circle and doyour own researches.” He pulled down a couple of dusty books fromthe high shelf. He began flipping through old moth-eaten pages,showing Kolbe pictures of various machines and people dressed inweird, tight-fitting clothes fashioned in bright colours—eachbearing a cloud-ringed insignia on the breast. Some pictures showedgigantic machines even building other machines—and men and womenplanting crops in greenhouses, growing foods of remarkable kinds.Kolbe saw detailed pictures of magical metal birds with glossy wingsseeming to fly through the air at supersonic speeds and to hover inthe sky like hummingbirds for indefinite periods. Simil motioned to athick, well-read journal entitled ‘Science Explained’, a worknumbering clearly amongst his all-time favourites. Here Kolbe saw allkinds of inventions, mostly mechanical things networked together withthe same kind of smooth thin black tubing that snaked all overSimil’s counters. The frayed, yellow paper swam with strange tinymarkings: little dark loops, dots, squiggles.

Simil read theconfused expression on his face and explained amusedly: “Those are‘letters’. They comprise ‘writings’ that describe what is inthese pictures. I can decipher most of this chicken-scratch now—butat one time I was as mystified as yourself. Thanks to more thantwelve years of study, and a lifetime of curiosity and odd-ballinclinations, I grasp what all this is about.” He gave a croakinglaugh. “It’s enabled me to fix up this motley crew of parts, atleast to any sane degree. That and a lot of guesswork.”

Simil pulled outone of the books and sat on a stool, flipping pages. Kolbe peeredover the old man’s shoulder. He saw a faded photo of a huge boxcarwith shiny glass windows and lots of chrome. It was sliding oversteel rails. “Hey,” he cried excitedly, “we happened uponsomething similar in an underground tunnel the other day.”

“Themagno-tram,” declared Simil. “About a thousand years ago theywere commonplace in Morfast. A whole network used to transport peopleto and from the cities via underground link. They were all over theplace until—”

“What, thecities?” inquired Kolbe incredulously.

“Actually, I wastalking about the underground networks. The cities are another thing.The trams—they were primitive things in their day, in comparison towhat was to replace them.”

Kolbe laugheddespairingly. What could replace such a wonder as a covered wagonthat could move underground?

Simil seemed tosense his inundation. “An above-ground, transparent capsule thatcould shoot you at high speed anywhere about the city at a fractionof the time.” He gave the boy a curious inspection. “Where didyou see this tunnel anyway?”

Kolbe lifted ahand vaguely to the east. “About halfway to Ona Ward by the oldsand bridge.”

The old mannodded. “That was the ‘Yellow Line’. It went straight intoReamer’s Square downtown.”

Kolbe shook hishead. “Have you been to Morfast?”

“Many times,”he said.

“But it’sdangerous! Falling masonry, shafts and pits that’ll gobble you upand let you fall right to the centre of Phane. What about theman-eating Covix birds?”

Simil threw up hishands and gave his head a dull shake. “Malarkey! I know the oldwives’ tales and Ward gossip and fruitcake talk! Those birdswouldn’t hurt a fly so long as one doesn’t fool with their nests.How would I know? Because I’ve been there.” He turned away,mumbling, “Best fool thing they could do for your education is totake you there and see what the old city’s about—but would theydo it, the silly, fearful fools?”

An image flashedin Kolbe’s mind: of how Jer Croh, small-time deacon of Ona, hadonce conducted a public burning of all the scrolls, journals, andpictures found and accumulated by the villagers over the past year.What a bonfire that had been! A local custom long before Kolbe’sfather’s time, now it was unspoken law that all material be turnedover to Croh and destroyed. A sudden depressing thought struck Kolbe.Was it this type of narrow-minded impulse that had inspired thedestructive scorraging excursions in the youth?

Kolbe’s voicewas one of frantic desperation. “Simil, all these books, all thesetowers in Morfast, all the strange inventions—whose . . . “”

“Who do youthink?” he snapped bluntly.

Kolbe swallowed.“Old Hotch says it was giants fifty feet high—” He hung hishead. “I think we did it. A long time ago . . . then weforgot.”

Simil clapped himsoundly on the back. “Bravo!” A large grin spread from ear toear. Kolbe managed a thin smile; his deepest conviction wasconfirmed. The legends were myth. Humans had been the real geniusbehind everything on this planet.

Kolbe turned hishead; the back door swung inward. A young girl of his age, maybe ayear younger slid across the threshold with an innocent adolescentgrace. She saw the gash on her grandfather’s forehead and dashedover to his aid. “Grandfather, you’re hurt!” she cried, lettingthe small bag of seed trailing at her hip spill on the floor. In herother arm she held a triangular-shaped metal case caked with sand,probably found lying under some bush or buried in some drop hole.

Simil gave her ahappy hug. “Ekissa, it’s alright. Meet Kolbe from Ona Ward. Theyoung man saved me from a beating.”

Kolbe puffed outhis cheeks, feeling proud and guilty at the same time, consideringthat he and his hooligans had initially come to pillage andvandalize.

The girl haltedand stared at him, eyes full of suspicion. Kolbe felt awkward underher encompassing gaze, but her features grew soft and gradually sheput out a creamy hand, which Kolbe took in his own. She was atawny-haired youth, only slightly less than his own height, andremarkably pretty for her age. Her clear, aqua eyes shone like the‘Night Eyes’ and her dove-like features sparked his interest. Shewas dressed in a beige, loose-fitting cloak and wore soft featheredmoccasins. The fine, straight lines of her face bespoke a person ofintelligence, and too, one different from the girls of Ona Ward.Where she was innocent, open, and receptive, the others seemed imbuedwith an annoying air of snobbishness, which always had made himclench his fists in irritation.

Simil picked uphis granddaughter’s device, raised his brows in delight. “So!Finally found your first set of walk-coms, did you?—this one’s intolerable condition.”

Ekissa beamed withpride, but not presumption. “I found it down in the gulch under oldyaysing roots.”

Kolbe masked hisgrimace. If it were Ua and his gang or even himself who had found it,it would’ve been stomped to oblivion.

Simil motioned thetwo below to his second workshop—a startling, large basement area,more remarkably an underground museum full of inventions. Down theclinking stairwell, Ekissa followed him shyly and almost withcuriosity, as if her innate inquisitiveness were quietly reaching outto his soul, a quality which peculiarly mirrored his own.

To say thebasement was vast was a mere understatement. A wide corridor lit byfive lamps drifted off into coppery shadow. The sidelines werelittered with counters of countless machines, parts of machines,coils of wire, crystals, spheres, tools. Whoever had carved all theseside wings, spanning corridors and alcoves, Kolbe could not guess.The air was heavy, redolent with a must; age and a dry chemical smellpermeated the surroundings, though thoroughly alien to hisinexperienced nose. The hum of machinery was not far off: a circularwheel-drum, a famous ‘electrical generator’, which, sittingupright twenty feet away, seemed to power most of these machines inthis warren and above. Attached to its transom was a pliable hose,thick as a serpent, which pumped the wind of the engine’syellow-brown exhaust outside somewhere.

In the niches andwell-ordered shelves, Kolbe witnessed marvels beyond his wildestdreams. Simil led them down the avenue and spoke of each of hisdiscoveries, punctuating his discourse with a healthy jargon ofterminology that left Kolbe’s mind spinning with impressions thathe could barely hang on to.

What was perhapsonly an hour stretched into several, and Kolbe let out a gasp whenSimil, in an effort to let some air into that stuffy place, steppedup on a ladder and pried open a small window at the chamber’s farend. Framed in wood was a dusky patch of purple sky.

Kolbe leaped toget away. His parents would crucify him!

“Come back anytime!” Simil shouted after him as he vaulted up the stairs. “Don’ttell anybody about this place, will you?”

Kolbe’s mouthtwitched as he shot through the Hove’s back. It was bad enoughalready that the others of his small gang knew so little about Simil.Kolbe left the jut, a plum-shaped shadow at his back, and doggedthrough the dusk-haunted landscape, back to the small bungalow wherehis father, mother and sister lived between the raster-briar and thedusty path that wound through Ona Ward’s small square.

 

II

 

That night Kolbelay awake pondering the recent events in Simil’s home. He couldhear his sister Pae’s sibilant breathing through the thin wall inthe adjacent room. The downy leaves brushed his skin; its tart,jasminey fragrance gave him a kind of warm comfortingreassurance—from days when he was younger and the dry, wastrel windwould rustle through the casement across the plain and his motherwould recite to him a story at night, then to wake up to thetap-tap-tapping of his father’s stone hoe clinking in the patch ofland in the valley below.

Kolbe could nothelp but think how deeply his encounter with Simil had altered hisperspective. No more could he listen to old Hotch’s dogma withoutthe trace of a cynical smile. Old Miss Hotch had told the studentsthat the old ruins of Morfast were built then abandoned close to athousand years ago by a forgotten race of giants, that the brightestspeckles of light littering the firmament were the ‘Night Eyes’,those same Dragon Giants that watched everyone’s movements, evenunder Phane’s soft daylight. He could hear her thin, tinny voicestretching the air like shards of glass: “How else could Morfast’shuge masonry, iron pilings and lofty spires have been raised, if notby all-mighty, magical beings!”

 

* * *

 

The days passedand Kolbe could not resist the lure to return to Simil’s Hove andgaze anew at the old man’s array of magical machines, listen to hisarcane knowledge and his explanations of what they were capable of,and where they came from. During Simil’s long, laugh-fillednarratives, the thrill for Kolbe was always present: the thrill ofknowing where he had come from, what had once been the rich,technologically advanced lives of his ancestors who were now dustymemories.

His youthful mindfloundered in an attempt to grasp the extent of the universe and themillions of years of human achievement behind a declining race which,so Simil explained, had originated on an Eden Oasis called Earth.Mankind had spread their influence throughout the galaxy and now werein an age of decline—it was totally mind-numbing, like somethingout of a fairy-tale.

Kolbe learned thatman’s small arm of the galaxy, the Milky Way, hosted the hundredsof habitable worlds amongst the millions of star systems, and hadbeen in decline for eight hundred years. In the last tragic battlefor supremacy, man’s technology had been wiped out by a monstrousgathering of forces: galactic war vessels, essian battle cruisers,robot probes, laser scouts, heat seeking missiles. All majorground-force planetary and moon-based military bases were targeted bysuperior weapons to erupt in a glittering ruin of gas and twistedmetal, along with the important orbiting space stations. Whole citiesrose in gaseous conflagrations—miniature suns writhed in orange,red and yellow ruin—the mystery of trans-light travel, thattheoretically impossible gravo-crystal-based technology that drovethe wondrous spheres and ovoids of metal in between the hopelesslydistant stars, was lost forever.

As for the sourceof the conflict, it was a complicated—a political and appallinglyprimitive affair. None were to gain, all were to lose. Varying sideswere embodied in the tale, each that could fill a volume, but Similpointed out that the simplest cause was the time-old syndrome: ‘onefaction wanting to rule the other’. Of course neither side waswilling to make the necessary concessions; all fronts possessed thetechnology to wipe out each other, and eventually, as Simil explainedin near frustration, reduced each other’s technology to dust.

In a matter ofyears the galactic empire had descended into the greatest Dark Age ofMan ever. In the small populations that remained, no one knew how torepair the few machines that were left standing and which becamequickly and ultimately dislocated, worn and unusable. Space travelwas reduced to a few floating derelicts. Three hundred years afterthe ‘Battle of Cygnus’, not a single ship was ever spied inPhane’s sky. The spaceport of Morfast lay empty, abandoned.

In the aftermathof the war, man’s technology consisted only of stone and flinttools. Despite his memory of what was, his island-world settlementswere reduced to disparate hunting and gathering societies. Thesurvivors who abandoned the cities like Morfast, now only superfluousruins, drifted to the bleak, smoke-hazed countrysides to seek theirfortunes, to discover a new way of living. On Phane, where oncemillions flourished, only a few thousands remained. In thegenerations that followed, only isolated pockets of folk living inthe small hamlets called ‘Wards’, sheltered on the high groundbetween stunted kalk-forests where fresh water could be tapped fromcool springs.

As men resorted tocarrying water, chopping wood, and building rude shelters by hand,the centuries passed, and no contact was made to the surroundingworlds. The world of Phane had been somewhat lucky. Whereas, underthe ugly pressures of a new primordial age, others had resorted toviolence and barbarism, Phane’s ascension was more gradual andpeaceable.

In the last of thewritten books of human history, Phane was described as ‘one of themany remote planets far from the galactic hub’ and ‘one of thefirst in the Lylilion Sector, 6.5 light years from Antares to losecontact with the rest of the worlds’.

Simil’s eyesgrew dreamy. “There are so many other worlds out there, Kolbe. Alljust waiting for a new start and a new unity. They must be contacted!We must face the new age of decline with hope!”

How this was to beaccomplished Kolbe could not guess, and in times of Simil’sanimated mutterings, he held his tongue.

 

* * *

 

Kolbe returnedoften to Simil’s abode, and the more he did, the fonder he grew ofEkissa, whose striking beauty, inquisitive smile, rare fix-it talentand intelligence numbered as only a few of her attractive charms. Hewould not like to admit that he was falling in love with her. Hersilken locks, serious face and singsong voice reminded him ofsomething he had always wanted. Liis and Jara from Ona Ward werecharming enough, but they were not as approachable as Ekissa. She hadbeen influenced by Simil and had missed out on the starchyconditioning of the Wards and their customs and rules, theirnarrow-mindedness, particularly toward their heritage. Kolbe wasshrewd enough to know this, though it took him long enough tounderstand it.

 

* * *

 

Two months passed,during which Simil took Kolbe on as almost an apprentice. Perhaps hewas delighted with the boy’s curiosity—or his unassailable thirstfor knowledge. “I stay here,” Simil chuckled sadly, “where Ican fiddle with these marvellous toys left behind by our forefathersand make inventions of my own. I dare not accost the youths in OnaWard, or Opus or Cagma, and try and enlighten them on my remarkablediscoveries and encompassing view of the universe, for fear ofalarming their parents and their fragile concepts. This big projectI’m working on—” He frowned, as if in hindsight not wishing tospeak of it. “I’m just lucky enough to have Ekissa, who hasspecial kinship, and who daily scouts for the few odds and ends Ineed to complete my researches—things that my old legs aren’t ascapable to track down.”

 

* * *

 

Kolbe approachedSimil curiously one time with a book entitled ‘The Craft ofAviation’. He bent quietly over the daunting bit of literaturehimself, looking as if he were trying to wrap his head around aconcept so utterly complex that only a genius could grasp.

Kolbe pointed to aseries of flying objects depicted on the old paper, with wings, somewithout. “How can these monstrosities stay up?”

“Verycarefully,” the old man grunted. “It is a matter of forces: liftversus gravity.”

“Gravity? Whatin Phane’s name is that?”

“It’s whatkeeps you and I stuck to this planet instead of floating up in thesky like those birds in Morfast. Look”—he grabbed a book off theshelf—“it is explained easily in this volume of physics—drag,lift, gravity.” He pointed to a photo of an airborne vehicle withtwo opposing wings and directional arrows showing forces and windvectors.

Kolbe tugged athis chin. “What are all these symbols splashed everywhere? Theymean nothing to me.”

“Nor shouldthey. Sigma is a summation symbol directing to the reader to sum theforces listed afterwards. And here: many of these symbols are ancientGreek symbols—used as variables in equations of mathematics.”

Kolbe frowned.“Mathematics?”

“That’s what Isaid—an exact science allowing a scientist to precisely define theparameters of the natural world with practical ease. With its elegantsimplicity it has allowed mankind for ages to understand all kinds ofempiric phenomena in ingenious ways. A fascinating pursuit!”

Kolbe didn’tdoubt that it was; nevertheless, he demanded, “I don’t see howall this chicken-scratch can help anybody.”

Simil gave anironic laugh. “Nor could I when I first saw them. Yet the factsremain, Kolbe. Mathematics is where it all starts.”

Kolbe’s facepinched into a frown. “I’ll never learn any of this.”

The old man laid asoft hand on his shoulder. “Never say never, for it is a badthought. I shall teach you.”

 

* * *

 

Kolbe proved to bea faster learner than Simil had expected. Indeed many times did theman’s brows lift in wonder as he saw the wiry, moody youth from OnaWard grasp introductory trigonometry then basic science thenrudimentary reading and writing. Three weeks later he was tacklingalgebra and physics. It was all a matter of teaching for Kolbe; itwas just that he had had no prior guidance. He was solving equationsand blasting his way through analytical problems and writingmathematical proofs as if he had been doing it all his life. He wasgobbling up all the texts on astronomy that he could, as if theywould all be burnt tomorrow.

In the intensemonths that followed, Kolbe learned so much from Simil, from readingand writing to economics and science, that Simil was utterly amazed.

Simil’s praisereached no limit. “You’ll go far, son! Very far.”

 

* * *

 

As time passed,Kolbe learned much about the fabulous machinery of the past: machinetools, walkie-talkies, radios, monitors, motors, sonic-generators,computers. In fact, most of the electro-gizmos in the basement he nowretained a decent grasp of, with the exception of the iso-analyzerand the fasono-macroscope. He could even build his own radiotransmitter. After installing an antenna six feet above the Hove’sbase, he could send a message to Ekissa’s receiver two hundred feetaway, though Simil pointedly told him to dismantle the antenna so asnot to attract the attention of some wanderer from the Wards.

Kolbe agreed, butfelt racked by the guilt of his scorraging peers who knew the exactlocation of Simil’s Hove. He had a sinking feeling that they wouldbe back before long to wreak havoc. Nevertheless, Kolbe took solacein the thought that boys’ memories were short and doubtless thescorragers would be visiting many other places nearer to Ona thanSimil’s hideaway. What a paltry way to idle away one’s time! Nomore did his foolish pastime of raids and missions of destructioninterest him.

Kolbe becameestranged from his friends over time—even Jesset, to whom he hadonce been as close as a brother.

 

* * *

 

Kolbe returnedoften to read Simil’s books and listen to his wonderful lecturesand watch him tinker away at his workbench full of wires, crystals,chips, emitters, tubes, coils, and manuals. As the youth’s talentsgrew, so did his bond with Ekissa. For hours they would work side byside building things, and she, degrees superior with her hands, washappy to help him improve his craft, even while his grasp of abstractconcepts, particularly math and physics, was deeper than hers.

Kolbe experimentedin the basement and fussed over new gadgets, plugging in wires hereand shaping raw materials there for his newer, bigger and bettertransmitter. Often Simil would wander to the levels above the Hoveand not return for hours. What he did up there, Kolbe did not know.Simil never would talk of his personal work in the mysterious upperlevels, places where he himself was not invited.

Kolbe had askedEkissa about the old man’s activities there and she had repliedcryptically, “Simil’s dream is one day to travel to the stars.”

Kolbe laughed.“Your grandfather is clever, Ekissa, but not that clever. All thebrainiest scheming in the world shan’t get him there!”

“We shall see,wise one. As you know, Simil is a man of miracles.”

“Yeah, nodoubt.” He could see the enigmatic tensions hidden in her coyexpression and he wondered what she was thinking.

She put her handon his. “I like you, Kolbe.”

“So do I,” hemurmured. He felt the warmth stirring in his breast. His throat feltdry; his heart beat fast. On impulse, he held her close and brushedhis lips against hers. She did not mind. He kissed her again . . .

 

III

 

On one late, duskyafternoon, a rustle and a thud came at Simil’s door. Kolbe,battling away over a nearby counter on a stubborn circuit board,scowled. A second later, the door was wrenched open; it was whippedback with a jarring crack.

Whether it wasfate or the consequence of Kolbe’s three-summer-ago desertion oftheir little scorraging group, Kolbe was unsure. He whirled in timeto see the gleaming glare of five sets of white eyes, weasel eyesthat drew eager attention to the contents of Simil’s citadel. Sincetheir last unlawful entry, Ua had grown three inches and gained atleast forty pounds. Lees and Vonny were leaner and meaner than heremembered and had lost most of their pre-adolescent innocence. Nees,Wensel’s older brother, a slack-witted lout with shiny grinningteeth was amongst the vandals, as was Clauve’s brother, Keren, who,with steel-pipe in hand, stood feet-braced grimly apart, hispeach-fuzzed jowl and red scarf wrapped around his neck.

Kolbe’s innardscurdled in panic. He had unwittingly led this mob here on his arrivalonly an hour ago. How foolish of him to be so unwary!

With whoopingtriumph, the gang struck out and grabbed up whatever objects theycould find off counters and began smashing them to pieces on themetallic floor plates. No reasoning could deter them; the destroyerswere on a rampage, full of laugh weed and their sallow faces showedit.

Slap! Theunfinished crystal transmitter that Kolbe had worked on for a monthwas snatched from his hands and smashed to the floor before he couldexpel a breath. Kolbe pitched forward, rammed fists into Ua’s gut,shrieking in rage. For a second Ua’s tank-like body ground to ahalt. Then he slid forward again and sent Kolbe sprawling onto hishands and knees.

“Littlebrown-noser! Lie down in the dirt like the dope you are! We’regoing to trash this place, aren’t we, boys? Burn it to the groundlike we should have a year ago!”

Down the stairwellcame Simil screeching to a halt as he took stock of the situation andthe ruin spread on the floor. He tried to wrench the black-casedimpulse recorder from Nees’s grip, but the big youth laughed andyanked it away and kicked the old man. Ekissa, who was on hergrandfather’s heels, put her hands over her mouth and gave ahigh-pitched scream as a metallic object came flying at her head.

Keren snatched atthe old man’s wrist and hooked out a foot to trip him. Kolbeshimmied in between the two and gave the older youth a swat acrossthe neck with the back of his hand, only to feel the blunt end ofpipe thrust rigidly into his ribs. He doubled over in pain.

Simil was not soartless as to try to stop the vandals, especially as deranged withlaugh-weed as they were. Painfully he groped to his feet and grabbedKolbe and pushed him and Ekissa back up the stairs, hustling themtoward the steel-vaulted door.

“Now!” sneeredKeren. He brandished his chunk of pipe. “No need to skip off insuch a hurry, old man.” He whirled and made a grab for them, butthe steel door slammed shut and the iron bar shot down before hecould wrench it open.

Below Kolbe couldhear angry shouts and thuds on the metal plates. He scuttled his waywheezing up the steep flight while Simil laboured behind him andEkissa. Kolbe pushed his belly up on the cold metal floor and gazedaround in surprise. Standing waist high in the chamber was a longcounter littered with keypads and touch-sensors. From the ceilinghung a host of circular telescope-like screens, showing symbols,graphs, pictures, all green and white. The nearest wall was a maze ofdials and knobs, packed with circular tape wheels spinning atdizzying speeds, buzzing with the sound of inner machinery

Ekissa’s crystunned Kolbe out his reverie. At the room’s far end, she crouchedby a circuit-panelled wall, pointing frightfully at what was a smallfist-sized portal that looked south toward Ona Ward.

Kolbe dashed overto see a swarm of Warders marching over the coppery landscape: men,women, youths, all gathered in numbers, wielding mattocks, sticks,hoes—weapons of useful destruction to punish Simil. Amongst thethrong was Elow, Kolbe’s father. He knew vaguely where Kolbe spenthis time, but up until now he had decided not to think about it. Nowhis eyes were painfully grave and queerly indecisive as if heresented this rally amongst the crowd, but was forced to participatebeyond his choice. Jer Croh, the village adjudicator barked orders tothe pack, leading them ever onward toward the Hove. Kolbe coulddiscern the angry words framing his swollen lips, “Look! Theinfidel’s Hove!” The group looked serious and fanatical—likevigilantes desperate to hang and burn.

Simil wasted notime. “Up into the nest!” He shuttled them up another flight ofstairs—a titanium-runged ladder. He followed them halfway beforehimself hesitating, as if gauging some pivotal decision.

The barred doorpounded behind them—the sound of metal pipes gashed on steel. Ajittering smash rent an ugly bubble in the door. Simil’s eyesbulged; he made up his mind. Kolbe caught the look of desperation inhis eyes.

“Go! I’ll keepthese goats busy.” Another resounding crash smote the door andKolbe watched as Simil dashed down the ladder and began piling platesof metal up against the door. But how long could the portal lastbefore they burst through?

Perplexed, Kolbewhirled on Ekissa. She was blundering down the ladder. He tried topull her back but she wrenched herself free and Simil croaked,reaching for her, as if wanting to touch his granddaughter for thelast time. “Get going! Little time remains!” He cranked a key onone of the consoles. The whirring of an automatic door sealed.“Farewell, my bonny.” Tears were in his eyes; he turned withchoking emotion.

Kolbe’s lastview of him was a pale, tired face pitched on a bent, scarecrow-likeframe seeming to disappear down a concealed flight of steps.

Ekissa let out agrievous wail. Kolbe hoped her grandfather had sense to staypermanently out of the clutches of Ua and his creeps.

Suddenly he felthis stomach give, as a flying lurch had him jerking backward while agrinding rumble shook the framework underfoot, as of great enginesroiling tens of feet below where they stood.

Now Ekissa tuggedKolbe up the stairwell. They passed a third level, much like thesecond . . . Never before had Kolbe been so high up in the Hove.

The vibrationsrumbled more intensely now; they had to cover their ears to thwartthe pain. The floor shook beneath them with mighty thunder. They werein an oval, vaulted chamber. A cone-shaped roof gaped above them. Twopadded seats stood nearby, before which a dim amber glow emanatedfrom some unknown source. The dull roar continued to reverberatethrough their skulls, like a loose cannon.

Suddenly a darksection of shielding slid away. Kolbe looked down through a patch ofexposed glass upon a dusty, twilight strip of Phane. Lights flared upon the fabulous console. A calm computerized voice spoke: “Sequencedata delta one point zero one in progress . . .”

Ekissa snatched apair of monstrous head goggles—they were wired into the console—andslapped them on. She yelled at Kolbe to slap them on and straphimself into a seat, to which he immediately objected, but she pushedhim down with a force that was unlike her and proceeded to tie therestrainers down over his shoulders with merciless precision.

The sickeningvibrations caused another section of grassy earth to slip away fromthe bubble. Looking out, Kolbe could see more of the sandy plain andthe frantic figures running to and fro sixty feet below under theshadow of the Hove. The villagers were mouthing shrieks. They wereafraid to go near the vibrating hulk frothing steam and smoke fromits base—the same superstructure that was forming itself into someraging dragon of myth before their very eyes. Kolbe saw Simil divingout of the Hove with his hand clasped over his ears. He tottered onunsteady legs, but squinted up with a mixture of awe and pride.

He made asemi-confident salute before hobbling away into a patch of brush outof the clutches of the confused villagers who were now scattered inwild fear.

Ekissa tilted herhead in last, teary farewell . . . as if she knew she would never beseeing her grandfather again.

Kolbe’s mouthsagged. What was the fool doing out there when he should be in heretrying to sort out this mess?

Ua and his bullieswere scrambling for cover from the base of the Hove. Even before themonotone-computerized voice droned something of staid warning about alaunch in ten seconds, Kolbe was struck with an absurd thought ofwhat was really happening. All those fantastic books he had readabout space travel, all the outlandish stories Simil had whispered tohim—about hunks of metal hurtling amongst the cold expanses—theywere real, not just fairy tales. The coloured lights glimmered aroundthe console; the dull roar of the first-stage engines and thepanelled walls blinking with their reams of computer circuits, thelogi-analyzers and things which his paltry grasp of electricity,transmitters and mathematics could never reach . . . they were allreal. He and Ekissa were in an interstellar vessel of profoundproportion, akin to those that crossed the unimaginable gulfs betweenthe stars. No guns of destruction had found this rogue ship, the samewhich had lain silent for an age, and which Simil had hidden underearth and the moss and tended with fanatic, protective care.

Wide-eyed, Kolbepeered over at Ekissa, who sat strapped in the seat beside him. Shecould only shrug and cast him a now-you-know nod.

In the flaringsaffron and tumultuous roar, the machine lifted its nose—a sightand sound that hadn’t been witnessed in Phane for over eighthundred years. The blasted ground dipped away as the mammothamber-streaked fuselage flecked with dark bits of soil and grassreared up and cast an ominously broad grey-black shadow over theplain. Ona’s crowd ran for their lives, bleating like sheep.

The craft’s nosetilted southeast. Engines flared, sheets of stricken sand whippedaway in miasmic gale, billowing into extraordinary mushroom shapes.

At fantastic speedthe ground rolled underneath Kolbe and Ekissa. Hills became mothmounds; forests became black-green motes strewn like blight acrossthe dryland. In seconds Ona Ward was leagues behind.

The ship haltedits ascent at three thousand feet. As with a frighteningly peculiarintelligence, it pointed its nose on a cant toward Morfast. BelowKolbe could see the city shimmering in a blue-green haze. In aninstant of discovery regarding the non-existence of Morfast’s spaceport, the ship began making a cold decision, and in three waveringseconds Morfast became a miniscule circle whose huge, girder-browedtowers were no larger than matchsticks.

From starboardport, Kolbe caught a glimpse of a placid sheet of satin rimmed withgunmetal wavelets sheening off to an illimitable horizon—Castor’smajestic sea, which Simil had spoken of in some kind of exaltedvoice.

Next, everythingseemed to stretch and slide. The youths were out in near absolutedarkness with Heradra’s light glistening like a cool beacon thesize of a pearl, and the yellow-green world of Phane tumbled farbelow growing ever smaller like an insignificant pebble. And aroundthem the Night Eyes glittered like myriad opals.

Those uncountableangry little light-birds did a very funny thing then. They meshedtogether in a fabulous synchrony of iridescence and movement,ineffable as the starship blasted through a pre-computed maze ofpathways almost alien and utterly unlike anything Kolbe couldimagine. His heart skipped a beat; his mind receded into cool,unknowing emptiness. It was as if ship and soul were blasted tomicrons into the canals of an impossibly miniature chip-like crystalunknowable to even Simil’s far-reaching grasp of clever mankind’sscience.

For a brief timeKolbe felt one with the hazy trans-light slip, joined in spirit in away that he could not accurately gauge and that he would puzzle overfor life. Time had no meaning. The compact bubble where a billionmiles was like the breadth of a hair, a trillion miles or a thousandlight years, the extent of one man’s dying breath was like a dropin an ocean. Kolbe, in his timeless haze, wondered if Ekissa felt asseparated from his body as he . . .

Kolbe could notguess what was in store for the two of them now—but despite thesheer mystery and impossibility of it all, he knew that thepotentials were staggering. That out there in that black ocean ofglowing islands of gas, something wonderful was to come.

. . . After 8silent centuries, two youths were again to look out upon the lostsplendour of the galactic worlds.

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