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The Forge




Chapter One

The rat screamed.

Raj Whitehall spun on one heel, the beam of his carbide lamp stabbing out scarcely faster than the pistol in his right hand.

"Shit," he muttered, as the light fell on the corner of the underground chamber. The rodent was dead now, dangling from the jaws of a cat-sized spersauroid, a slinky thing with a huge head and slender body carried high on four spidery legs. It blinked at them with eyelids that closed to a vertical slit, and then was gone with a rustle of scales against rubble. Raj grimaced. One of the few pleasant things about living in East Residence was that Terran life had mostly replaced the local. But not in the catacombs, it seemed.

Thom Poplanich laughed. "Careful, Raj," he said. "Those bullets will bounce, you know."

Raj grinned back a trifle sheepishly as he holstered the weapon. A genuine five-shot revolver, it was as much a badge of nobleman's rank as was the saber he carried slung over one shoulder. Both were as familiar as his clothes: Whitehall had been born in Descott County, hard country two weeks' journey north of the capital, where men went armed from puberty. The platinum stars and hunting scenes inlaid in the steel of the revolver were a badge as well, of membership in the Governor's Guard.

"Spirit of Man of the Stars," Raj said, and touched the silver wafer etched in holy circuits that hung around his neck. "This place makes my skin crawl." Everyone knew the catacombs under New Residence were ancient and huge . . . but those were just words until you saw it. This complex could house the whole population of the capital, with room to spare—and New Residence was the largest city on Earth.

"Not a spot for a picnic," Poplanich agreed.

The abandoned elevator shaft he had found below his apartments ended in this floor of rubble; from the hollow sounds and the way it shifted, there must have been levels below. Rust-streaks marked the lines of ancient machinery. Now there was only the cool gray surface of fused stone, and one half-open door . . . no, wait.

"Look at this," Poplanich said. He walked quickly over the broken rock and flicked his lantern's beam downward, moving with a studied grace. "That hasn't been here since the Fall."

It was a tallow candle stub, resting in a congealed puddle of its own grease. There was a smokemark above it, but dust lay thick over all.

"But it's been there long enough," Raj commented, trying the door. It was frozen in its half-open position, but there was just room for his barrel chest. "Hand me the paintstick, will you, Thom?"

They would need to be very careful not to lose their way, down here in the catacombs. He touched his wafer again. Everything around them was a product of men who had lived before the Fall, when the Spirit of Man of the Stars had infused their souls. You could see it in the way the rock was carved, seamless and even, in the strange bits and pieces of shattered machinery, the very materials unfamiliar. There might even be . . .

"If we come across any computers, we'll have to tell the priests," he said.

Thom laughed. "They don't need genuine relics any more," he said with easy cynicism. "Haven't you heard what the last synod ruled about the Miraculous Multiplication?"

Raj flushed; they were both just turned twenty-five, but there were times when Thom Poplanich made him feel very much the raw youth, a rustic squire in from the provinces. Even in tweed and leather hunting clothes, the other man had a slim self-assured elegance that spoke of ten generations of urban aristocracy. Raj touched his amulet again. It was comforting to know that this was the genuine article, recovered two centuries ago and blessed by Saint Wu herself. Even if the Church had ruled that belief made the relic holy, rather than the reverse.

He forced himself into the door and pushed with knees and hands, back braced against the wall. For a long moment nothing moved, until he took a deep breath and threw the strength of shoulders and back into it, timing the contraction to the exhalation of his breath the way the family armsman had taught. A seam parted along the side of his tight uniform jacket, and the thick slab slid open with a protesting screech of tearing metal. Raj dropped to the floor in a crouch, panting slightly.

"Showoff," Thom said as he sidled past. There was surprise and slight envy in his tone; his friend grinned.

"A strong back comes in useful for other things than pulling a plow," he said, raising his own lantern. "Let's keep turning to the right."

* * *

Raj genuflected again, touching brows and heart to the ancient, dust-shrouded computer terminal.

"Look, there's not much point in going on," he said. This was the fifth level down from their starting-point. Emptiness, offices and storage space, eerily uncorroded metal and the smell of damp stone. And enough computer equipment to stock every church in the Civil Government and the barbarian lands as well.

Poplanich ran a hand over the swivel chair before the terminal. Dust puffed up behind his hand, silver-yellow in the light of the lantern.

"Feel this," he said, fascinated. "It looks like leather, but new leather. This area's been abandoned since the Fall, it should have rotted away to shreds." He swung the chair back and forth. "A greased axle won't turn that smoothly, and this doesn't even squeak."

Raj shrugged. "They had powers before the Fall. The Spirit withdrew them when they proved unworthy."

Thom nodded absently; that was from the Creed. "I still think this was a naval installation," he said, picking up a plastic sign from one desk. It was made of two strips joined at one long edge; one side was blank, and the other bore black letters in the Old Namerique tongue. Wez cainna bie fyr'd: slavs godda bie sold. His lips moved silently, construing it first into modern Namerique, and then into his native Sponglish. He frowned absently. Well, of course, he thought.

"I don't know," Raj replied, heading cautiously out into the corridor again. "The Book of the Fall—hey, there's a stairwell leading down here, hand me the paintstick again—says the military joined the Rebellion." They had both sat through enough droning sermons on that.

Thom's teeth flashed in a grin. "Just as my own interpretation—and please keep this from the Invigiles Against Heresy, will you?—I'd say that the Brigade and the Squadron and the others were pretty low-echelon units, out in the wilds when the Fall came. They didn't cause the breakup of the Holy Federation, they just seized power where they could when we were cut off from the Stars."

Raj felt a slight discomfort; that was not outside the canons of interpretation, but it was dangerously free-thinking. "Come on," he said. "Two more levels, then we go back."

* * *

"That's a light," Thom said in a hiss as they turned the corner. His foot brushed aside a crumbling human femur; they had seen enough skeletons on this level to grow blasé. A brittle pile of brown-gray bone, hardly marked by the teeth of the rats, bits of rope and stiff leather and rusted metal scattered about it.

Raj squinted, then turned off his lamp. His friend followed suit, and they waited for their eyes to adjust. He could feel the darkness fading in around him, and with it the enormous weight of the catacombs. His mouth felt dry. That is a light, he thought. A soft white light that was unlike anything he had ever seen; not like sunlight, stars, fire, or even the harsh actinic arclights that you sometimes saw in the Governor's Palace or the mansions of the very rich. This was the light of the Ancients; the light of the Spirit of Man of the Stars.

"Live equipment," he whispered, genuflecting again. Blasphemy. Fallen Man's eyes are blind to the Light of the Spirit. I am not worthy. With an effort of will he relaxed the rock-tense muscles of his neck and shoulders.

"Thom, we shouldn't be here. This is something for a Patriarchal Council, or the Governor." There was a slight tremor in his hands as he drew his pistol, swinging the cylinder out and checking the load. The unnatural gleam shone off the polished brass of the cartridges. He was conscious of the uselessness of the gesture; what good would a revolver be against the powers of the unFallen? Of course, it was no more useless than anything else he might do . . .

"Priests . . ." Thom visibly reconsidered. "Priests aren't notably more virtuous than you or I, Raj," he said reasonably. His eyes stayed fixed on the unwinking glimmer, shining slightly with an expression of primal hunger. "Of course, if you're . . . uncertain . . . you can wait here while I check. I wouldn't think less of you for it."

Raj flushed. I'm too old to be pushed into something stupid by a dare, he thought angrily, even as he felt his mouth open.

"I'll use the pry bar," he said. "Get it out, would you?"

Thom rummaged in his rucksack, while Raj advanced to examine the door. The feeling in his stomach reminded him of waiting behind the barricade during the street fighting last fall, when the sound of the rioters had come booming around the corner, thunder of feet and massed chanting of voices: Conquer! Conquer! Just like then; he had seen the eyes of the rankers flick toward him, as they stood at parade rest. He had strolled up to the chest-high barrier of carts and furniture and paving stones as if he were walking out the front gate of his father's manor, going to inspect the dogs. Sergeant major, first company to the breastwork; prepare for volley fire, if you please. His voice hadn't been the shaky squeak he'd expected, either.

You could get through anything, once you'd decided you had to. Look at it as a job to be done, and then do it, because somebody had to and it cursed well wasn't going to happen if you waited for the next man. Not to mention that his role in putting down the riots had gotten him a Captaincy and the still more important position of Guard to the Vice-Governor.

Closer, and the light was a narrow strip along one side of the door rather than a wedge; he pressed an eye to the crack, but it was reflecting around a tongue-and-groove socket that was almost closed. The air blew from inside to him, dry and metallic and tasting of . . . old bones? he thought.

"Maybe I can get it open," he said experimentally, trying for a grip with his hands. The crack was too narrow, but his friend slapped the octagonal steel of the pry bar into his hand as he reached around behind for it. The metal was as thick as he could comfortably grip and about a meter long; one end flattened out into a wedge, and the other into a hook. The wedge slipped in easily enough, a hand's width, and he braced one foot against the jamb of the door.

"Wait a second," Thom murmured. He pointed to a rectangular plaque beside the blank gray rectangle of the portal. "I've seen an old manuscript that describes doors like these, Annaman's Records of the Settlement. The inscription said 'touche thi squaire, und recessed it shall by.' "

"But will it work now?" Raj said, a little sharply. A Descott squire had better things to do with his youth than pour over ancient manuscripts and parse verbs in Old Namerique, to be sure. But it was still a little irritating, when some city noble trotted out a classical quotation. At least Thom's usually have something to do with reality, he thought.

For answer, Thom pointed at the light that picked out the highlights of their faces, and then slapped his hand on the control. There was a chink sound deep inside the wall, and the door shifted slightly. So slightly that he would not have been conscious of it, except for the tremor of metal against his palms.

"Well, let me try muscle if scholarship won't budge it," Raj continued, forcing cheerfulness into his tone. "And hsssssssaaaa!"

There was a moment of quivering tension, and then the door began to move; in a squealing jerk for the first centimeter or so, then more rapidly. Halfway open it stuck again with a soundless authority that told him something solid had fallen across the trackway. Raj leaned head and shoulders through, squinting and blinking against a fall of dust and the dim light.

"I can see where the light's coming from," he said.

Thom crowded up beside him, craning for a look. Beyond the door was a corridor five meters across, running right into darkness; on their left was a square of brighter light, another door. And the floor was two meters down from where they stood, the sagging remains of a metal stairway offering more hindrance than help.

"If you lay and held onto my wrists, I could drop to the bottom, Thom said.

"And how in the Outer Dark would you get back up?" Raj said dryly. "Here, let me have your belt."

The smaller man handed over the narrow dress belt of his jacket; it was rogosauroid hide traded down from the Skinner country north of Pierson's Sea, and strong enough to hold four times their combined weight; Raj's was much the same, except that it was broader and less elaborately tooled. He looked thoughtfully at the door, tapping the heel of his palm experimentally on the edge. It seemed to have stuck fast. On the other hand . . . The pry bar was just a little shorter than the width the door had opened; he laid it in the opening and stamped on it until it seated firmly, the wedge-end driven under the bottom between runway and door.

"This'll hold the belts," he said, buckling one to the other. "I'd better go first."

Raj took the leather in one hand and his pistol in the other, bracing his boots on the wall and rappelling down in three bounds. Dust spurted up under his feet and bone crunched, spurting more dust. He swore and spat, unpleasantly conscious of how long it had been since he had a drink. Then he swore again, softly, as Thom dropped down beside him and the nature of the floor he was standing on became plain.

"Bones," he whispered. Thom unshuttered his lantern and swung the beam around, brighter than the white glow from the doorway and better for picking out detail.

"Lots of bones," his friend agreed, sounding more subdued than usual.

Not quite enough that you could not find clear space for your feet, but nearly, and the crumbled dust between them spoke of others still older.

"And look," Thom continued. "What the hell's that?" That was a rust-crusted weapon; Raj picked it up, and pursed his lips in a soundless whistle.

"It's a koorg-rifle," he said. "The Civil Government Armory stopped issuing them two hundred years ago."

Raj might not have been to the schools of rhetoric, but there was nothing wrong with his grasp of military history. "Double-barreled muzzle loader with octagonal barrels."

His friend's light picked out other items of equipment; off by the other wall there was what looked like one of the ceremonial weapons the mannequins of the Audience Hall Guard carried. Raj looked closer: it was not, it was a real laser, the ancient Holy Federation weapon. The metal men in the Hall of Audience carried non-functional replicas, but this was the real thing. The soldier's eyes narrowed as he followed the line of the muzzle; there was a deep pit to the upper right of the door, melted into the stonework, with a long dribbling icicle of lava below it. Nothing on the metal of door or frame, although the melt would have crossed it.

"Thom," Raj said briskly. "This has gone too far; this is seriously strange. We should fall back and report. Now."

Reluctantly, the other man nodded. And—

CRANG. The door above their heads slammed shut so quickly that the huge musical note of the pry bar breaking was almost lost in the thunder-slam of its closing. A fragment of the steel bar cannoned across the corridor and ricocheted back, falling at Raj's feet. He bent to touch it, and stopped when his skin felt a glow from the torsion-heat of breakage. Thom was standing and examining the linked belts; the buckle that had fastened them to the bar was missing, and the tough reptile hide cut as neatly as if it had been sliced with a razor. Raj felt a giant hand seize his chest, squeezing, tasted bile at the back of his throat.

"Well," he said, and heard it come out as a croak. "Well, it is still active."

Thom nodded jerkily. "Notice something about the skeletons?" he said.

Raj looked around. "Pretty dead."

"Yes, and no marks on the bones. Looks like they fell in place, and nothing disturbed them."

Raj Whitehall nodded. The surviving skeletons were eerily complete, like an anatomy model; no toothmarks, nothing disturbed by scavengers.

"I don't think there's much point in going that way," he answered, waving to the darkness on their right. The beam of his lamp showed nothing but the walls of the corridor, fading to a geometric point with distance. "That heads due east, near as I can tell." Out from under the city and towards the hills. "If there's anything beyond that . . . light . . . we might find another shaft leading up."

Thom nodded, wiping a sleeve across his mouth. "Maybe. I wish we'd brought some water."

Raj grinned. "I wish you hadn't said that," he said. "I really do."

* * *

"Mirrors," Thom said. For the first time in Raj's memory, there was real awe in his friend's voice. "I've never seen mirrors like this.

"I've never seen a light like that, either," Raj said.

The room was circular, floored and roofed with mirrors, and with a single seamless sheet of mirror for the walls. The center of the circle was a pillar of light; white, glareless, heatless, odorless, shining on the endless repeated figures of the two men. Raj felt himself stagger in place, lost and splintered in fractions of himself. It was a moment before he noticed the last, the intolerable strangeness.

"Thom," he said urgently. "Why don't the mirrors reflect the light?" There it was before their eyes, a column as physically real as their own hands, a light that was all that kept this place from being as dark as a coffin. Yet in the mirrors there was no trace of it, only the two men and their equipment.

Thom blinked for an instant; then his eyes widened and he turned to run. Did run, one single step before freezing in place as if turned to stone. Even his expression froze, and Raj could see that his pupils shared the paralysis. The doorway that had been Thom's goal had . . . not closed, simply vanished; only the direction of the living statue that had been his friend enabled Raj to tell it from any other part of the smooth mirror curve. The light-pillar in the center of the room blazed higher.

Raj fired, with his second finger on the trigger and the index pointing along the barrel, the way the armsman had taught him: at close range, you just pointed and pulled. The five shots rang out almost as one, the orange muzzle flashes and smoke dazzling his eyes. Almost as loud was the bang-whinnnng of the soft lead bullets ricocheting and spattering off the diamond hard surfaces of the room; they left no mark at all. Something struck Raj in the foot with sledgehammer force, a bullet tearing off the heel of one boot. A long tear appeared in the floppy tweed of Thom's breeches . . . Then nothing, nothing except an acrid cloud of dirty-white powder smoke that made Raj cough reflexively.

Raj's muscles seized halfway through the motion of reloading. A voice spoke: not in his ears, but in his mind. Spoke with an inhuman detachment that had a flavor of hard-edged crispness:

yes. yes, you will do very well.  


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