Authors: Ben Bova
Tags: #High Tech, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Orion (Fictitious Character), #General, #Time Travel, #Good and Evil
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious, and any resemblance to real people or events is purely coincidental.
ORION IN THE DYING TIME
Copyright © 1990 by Ben Bova
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof, in any form.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, Inc.
49 West 24th Street
New York, NY 10010
Cover art by Boris Vallejo
First edition: August 1990
First mass market printing: August 1991
Printed in the United States of America
Electronic Version by Baen Books
To Lester del Rey, mentor
"An intelligence knowing, at a given instance of time, all forces acting in nature, as well as the momentary position of all things of which the universe consists, would be able to comprehend the motions of the largest bodies of the world and those of the lightest atoms in one single formula, provided his intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to him nothing would be uncertain, both past and future would be present in his eyes."
—Pierre-Simon de Laplace
What if there were more than one such person?
With Anya beside me, I walked out of the ancient temple into the warming sunshine of a new day. All around us a lush green garden grew: flowering shrubs and bountiful fruit trees as far as the eye could see.
Slowly we walked along the bank of the river, the mighty Nile, flowing steadily through all the eons.
"Where in time are we?" I asked.
"The pyramids have not been started yet. The land that will someday be called the Sahara is still a wide grassland teeming with game. Bands of hunting people roam across it freely."
"And this garden? It looks like Eden."
She smiled at me. "Hardly that. It is the home of the creature whose statue stood on the altar."
I glanced back at the little stone temple. It was a simple building, blocks of stone fitted atop one another, with a flat wooden slat roof.
"Someday the Egyptians will worship him as a powerful and dangerous god," Anya told me. "They will call him Set."
"He is one of the Creators?"
"No," she said. "Not one of us. He is an enemy: one of those who seek to twist the continuum to their own purposes."
"As the Golden One does," I said.
She gave me a stern look. "The Golden One, power mad as he is, at least works for the human race."
"He created the human race, he claims."
"He had help," she replied, allowing a small smile to dimple her cheeks.
"But this other creature . . . Set, the one with the lizard's face?"
Her smile vanished. "He comes from a distant world, Orion, and he seeks to eliminate us from the continuum."
"Then why are we here, in this time and place?"
"To find him and destroy him, my love," said Anya. "You and I together, Hunter and Warrior, through all spacetime."
I looked into her glowing eyes and realized that this was my destiny. I am Orion the Hunter. And with this huntress, that warrior goddess, beside me, all the universes were my hunting grounds.
A book of verses underneath the bough
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread—and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness—
Oh, wilderness were paradise enow!
Anya pulled off her glittering silvery robe and flung it to the grassy ground. Beneath it she wore a metallic suit of the kind I vaguely remembered from another time, long ages ago. It fit her skintight, from the tops of her silver boots to the high collar that circled her neck. She was a dazzling goddess with long dark hair that tumbled past her shoulders and fathomless gray eyes that held all of time in them.
I wore nothing but the leather kilt and vest from my previous existence in ancient Egypt. The wound that had killed me then had disappeared from my chest. Strapped to my right thigh, beneath the kilt, was the dagger that I had worn in that other time. A pair of rope sandals was my only other possession.
Anya said, "Come, Orion, we must hurry away from this place."
I loved her as eternally and completely as any man has ever worshiped a woman. I had died many deaths for her sake, and she had defied her fellow Creators to be with me time and again, in every era to which they had sent me. Death could not part us. Nor time nor space.
I took her hand in mine and we headed off along a wide avenue between the heavily laden trees.
For what seemed like hours, Anya and I walked through the garden, away from the bank of the ageless Nile flowing patiently through this land that would one day be called Egypt. The sun rose high but the day remained deliciously cool, the air clean and crisp as a temperate springtime afternoon. Cottony clumps of cumulus clouds dotted the deeply blue sky. A refreshing breeze blew toward us from what would one day be the pitiless oven of the Sahara.
Despite her denying it, the garden did remind me of the legends I had heard of Eden. On both sides of us row upon row of trees marched as far as the eye could see, yet no two were the same. Fruits of all kinds hung heavy on their boughs: figs, olives, plums, pomegranates, even apples. High above them all swayed stately palms, heavy with coconuts. Shrubs were set out in carefully planned beds between the trees, each of them flowering so profusely that the entire park was ablaze with color.
Yet not another soul was in sight. Between the trees and shrubbery the grass was clipped to such a uniformly precise height that it almost seemed artificial. No insects buzzed. No birds flitted among the greenery.
"Where are we going?" I asked Anya.
"Away from here," she replied, "as quickly as we can."
I reached toward a bush that bore luscious-looking mangoes. Anya grabbed at my hand.
"But I'm hungry."
"It will be better to wait until we are clear of this park. Otherwise . . ." She glanced back over her shoulder.
"Otherwise an angel will appear with a flaming sword?" I teased.
Anya was totally serious. "Orion, this park is a botanical experimental station for the creature whose statue we saw in the temple."
"The one called Set?"
She nodded. "We are not ready to meet him. We are completely unarmed, unprepared."
"But what harm would it be to eat some of his fruit? We could still hurry along as we ate."
Almost smiling, Anya said, "He is very sensitive about his plants. Somehow he knows when someone touches them."
"And he kills them."
"He doesn't drive them into the outer darkness, to earn their bread by the sweat of their brows?" I noticed that even though my tone was bantering, we were walking faster than before.
"No. He kills them. Finally and eternally."
I had died many times, yet the Creators had always revived me to serve them again in another time, another place. Still I feared death, the agony of it, the separation and loss that it brought. And a new tendril of fear flickered along my nerves: Anya was afraid. One of the Creators, a veritable goddess who could move through eons of time as easily as I was walking along this garden path—she was obviously afraid of the reptilian entity whose statue had adorned the temple by the bank of the Nile.
I closed my eyes briefly to picture that statue more clearly. At first I had thought it was a representation of a man wearing a totem mask: the body was human, the face almost like a crocodile's. But now as I scanned my memory of it I saw that this first impression had been overly simple.
The body was humanoid, true enough. It stood on two legs and had two arms. But the feet were claws with three toes ending in sharply hooked talons. The hands had two long scaly-looking fingers with an opposed thumb for the third digit, all of them clawed. The hips and shoulders connected in nonhuman ways.
And the face. It was the face of a reptile unlike anything I had seen before: a snout filled with serrated teeth for tearing flesh; eyes set forward in the skull for binocular vision; bony projections just above the eyes; a domed cranium that housed a brain large enough to be fully intelligent.
"Now you begin to realize what we are up against," Anya said, reading my thoughts.
"The Golden One sent us here to hunt down this thing called Set and destroy him?" I asked. "Alone? Just the two of us? Without weapons?"
"Not the Golden One, Orion. The entire council of the Creators. The whole assemblage of them."
The ones whom the ancient Greeks had called gods, who lived in their own Olympian world in the distant future of this time.
"The entire assemblage," I repeated. "That means you agreed to the task."
"To be with you," Anya said. "They were going to send you alone, but I insisted that I come with you."
"I am expendable," I said.
"Not to me." And I loved her all the more for it.
"You said this creature called Set—"
"He is not a creature of ours, Orion," Anya swiftly corrected. "The Creators did not bring him into being, as we did the human race. He comes from another world and he seeks to destroy the Creators."
"Destroy . . . even you?"
She smiled at me, and it was if another sun had risen. "Even me, my love."
"You said he can cause final death, without hope of revival."
Anya's smile disappeared. "He and his kind have vast powers. If they can alter the continuum deeply enough to destroy the Creators, then our deaths will be final and irrevocable."
Many times over the eons I had thought that the release of death would be preferable to the suffering toil of a life spent in pain and danger. But each time the thought of Anya, of this goddess whom I loved and who loved me, made me strive for life. Now we were together at last, but the threat of ultimate oblivion hung over us like a cloud blotting out the sun.
We walked on until the lines of trees abruptly ended. Standing in the shade of the last wide-branched chestnut, we looked out on a sea of grass. Wild uncut grass as far as the limestone cliffs that jutted into the bright summer sky, marking the edge of the Nile-cut valley. Windblown waves curled through the waving fronds of grass like green surges of surf rushing toward us.
Silhouetted against the distant cliffs I saw a few dark specks moving slowly. I pointed toward them and Anya followed my outstretched arm with her eyes.
"Humans," she muttered. "A crew of slaves."
"Yes. Look at what's guarding them."
I focused my eyes intently on the distant figures. I have always been able to control consciously all the functions of my body, direct my will along the chain of neural synapses instantly to make any part of my body do exactly what I wished it to do.
Now I concentrated on the line of human beings trudging across the grassy landscape. They were being led by something not human.
At first it reminded me of a dinosaur, but I knew that the great reptilians had become extinct millions of years before this time. Or had they? If the Creators could twist time to their whim, and this alien called Set had comparable powers, why not a dinosaur here in the Neolithic era? It walked on four slim legs and had a long whiplike tail twitching behind it. Its neck was long, too, so that its total length was nearly twenty feet, about the size of a full-grown African bull elephant. But it was much less bulky, slimmer, more graceful. I got the impression that it could run faster than a man.
Its scales were brightly colored in bands of red, blue, yellow, and brown. Horny projections of bone studded its back like rows of buttons. The head at the end of that elongated neck was small, with a short stubby snout and eyes set wide apart on either side of a rounded skull. Its eyes were slitted, unblinking.
It strode up at the front of the little column of humans, and every few moments turned its long neck back to look at the slaves it led.
And they were slaves, that was obvious. Fourteen men and women, wearing nothing but tattered loincloths, emaciated ribs showing clearly even at the distance from which we watched. They seemed exhausted, laboring for breath as they struggled to keep up to the pace set by their reptilian guard. One of the women carried a baby in a sling on her back. Two of the men looked like teenagers to me. There was only one gray head among them. I got the impression they rarely lived long enough to become gray.
Hiding behind the bole of the chestnut tree at the edge of the garden, we watched the pitiful little parade for several silent moments.
Then I asked, "Why slaves?"
Anya whispered, "To tend this garden, of course. And the other desires of Set and his minions."
The woman with the baby stumbled and fell to her knees. The giant reptile instantly wheeled around and trotted up to her, looming over her. Even from this distance I could hear the faint wailing of the baby.
The woman struggled to her feet, or tried to. Not fast enough for the guard. Its slim tail whipped viciously across her back, striking the baby as well. She screamed and the baby shrieked with pain and terror.
Again the tail flicked back and struck at her. She fell facedown on the grass.
I strained forward, but Anya grasped my arm and held me back.
"No," she whispered urgently. "There's nothing you can do."
The huge lizard was standing over the prostrate mother, bending its neck to sniff at her unmoving form. The baby still wailed. The other men and women stood unmoving, mute as statues.
"Why don't they fight?" I seethed.
Anya replied, "With their bare hands against that monster?"
"They could at least run away while its attention is diverted. Scatter—"
"They know better, Orion. They would be hunted down like animals and killed very slowly."
The lizard was squatting on its two rear legs and tail now, nudging the woman's body with one of its clawed forepaws. She did not move.
Then the beast pulled the infant out of the sling and lifted it high, swinging its head upward as it did so. I realized it was going to crunch the baby in its jaws.
Nothing could hold me back now. I bolted out from the protection of the trees and raced pell-mell toward the monster, bellowing loudly as I could while I ran. All my bodily senses went into hyperdrive, as they always do when I face danger. The world around me seemed to slow down, everything moved with an almost dreamlike languor.
I saw the lizard holding the squalling baby aloft, saw its head turning toward me on the end of that long snaky neck, saw its narrow slit eyes register on me, its head bobbing back and forth as if it were saying no. In reality it was merely trying to get a fix with both eyes on what was making the noise.
I saw the baby still clutched in the lizard's claws, its tiny legs churning in the empty air, its blubbering face contorted and red with crying. And the mother, her naked back livid with the welts from the beast's tail, was pushing herself up on one elbow in a futile effort to reach her baby.
The lizard dropped the baby and turned to face me, hissing. Its tongue darted out of its tiny mouth as its head bobbed left and right. The tail flicked as it dropped to all fours.
I had my dagger in my right hand. It seemed pitifully small against the talons on the monster's paws, but it was the only weapon I possessed. As I closed the distance between us I saw the other humans standing behind the lizard. My brain registered that they were totally cowed, unmoving, not even trying to get away or distract the beast in any manner. I would get no help from them.
The lizard took a few trotting steps toward me, then reared up on its hind legs like an enraged bear. It towered over me, advancing on those monstrous clawed hind legs while its neck bent down between its wide-spread forelegs, hissing at me. Its teeth were small and flat, I saw. Not a flesh-eater. Just a killing machine.
Suddenly bright yellow frills snapped open on both sides of its neck, making its head appear twice as large; a trick for frightening enemies, but I knew it for what it was.
I ran straight at the big lizard and saw its long tail whipping toward my left. Like a slow-motion dream I watched its tip swinging toward me. I gauged its speed and jumped over it as it snapped harmlessly beneath my feet. My impetus carried me straight toward the lizard's scaled underside and I sank my dagger blade into its belly with every ounce of my strength.
It screeched like a steam whistle and reached to grab me. I ducked under the clutching claws and plunged my dagger into its hide again.
In the heat of battle I had forgotten about its tail. It caught me this time, knocking me off my feet. I hit the ground with a thud that made me grunt with pain and surprise. The lizard reached for me again, but with my senses in hyperdrive I could see its every move easily and rolled away from those clutching claws.
The tail slashed at me again. I stepped inside its arc and carved a bloody slice down the lizard's thigh. My blade caught bone and I worked it in deeper, hoping to disable its knee joint and cripple it. Instead I felt its claws circle around me, cutting into my midsection as it yanked me high into the air. The dagger was wrenched from my grasp, still stuck in its knee.
It carried me up above its head and I saw those narrow yellow reptilian eyes staring coldly at me, first one and then the other. Its teeth were not made for rending flesh but those jaws could crush my body quite easily, I knew. That was just what the beast was going to do. Its yellow collar frills relaxed slightly; the monster no longer felt threatened.
I strained to break free of the demon's claws, but I was just as helpless as the baby had been moments before.
Anya's voice made me glance down while I struggled in the lizard's powerful grip. She had come up behind me and was pulling my knife out of the lizard's knee. Before the beast understood what was happening, she threw the dagger as expertly as any assassin. It pierced the soft folds beneath the lizard's jaw with a satisfying thunk.
With its free hand the dragon started to reach for the steel in its throat. But I was closer and faster. I grabbed the projecting hilt of the dagger and began working the blade across the lizard's jawline, back toward the frills that had snapped fully erect once again. It shrieked and released me, but I clutched at its neck and swung up behind its head, pulling the dagger free and jamming it in beneath the base of the skull.
It collapsed as suddenly as a light being switched off. I had severed its spinal cord. The two of us came crashing down to the grassy ground. I felt myself bounce and then everything went blank. I opened my eyes and focused blearily on Anya's beautiful face. She was kneeling over me, deep concern etched across her classic features. Then she smiled.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
I ached in every part of my body. My chest and thighs were slashed from the lizard's claws. But I consciously clamped down on the capillaries to stop the bleeding and closed off the pain centers in my brain. I made myself grin up at her.
She helped me to my feet. I saw that only a few moments had passed. The big lizard was now nothing more than a huge mound of brightly colored scales stretched out across the grass.
The crew of slaves, however, was something else. The slaves were terrified. And instead of being grateful, they were angry.
"You have slain one of the guardians!" said a scrawny bearded man, his eyes wide with terror.
"The masters will blame us!" one of the women wailed.
"We will be punished!"
I felt something close to contempt for them. They had the mentality of true slaves. Instead of thanking me for helping them, they were fearful of their master's wrath. Without a word I went to the dead beast and pulled my dagger from the back of its neck.
Anya said to them, "We could not stand idly and watch the monster kill the baby."
The baby, I saw, was alive. The mother was sitting silently on the grass, holding the child to her emaciated breast, her huge brown eyes staring at me blankly. If she was grateful for what I had done, she was hiding it well. Two long red weals scarred her ribs and back. The baby also had a livid welt across its naked flesh.
But the scrawny man was tugging at his tangled gray beard and moaning, "The masters will descend upon us and kill us all with great pain. They will put us in the fire that never dies. All of us!"
"It would have been better to let the baby die," said another man, equally gaunt, his hair and beard also filthy and matted. "Better that one dies than all of us are tortured to death. We can always make more babies."
"If your masters do not find you, they cannot punish you," I said. "If the two of us can kill one of these overgrown lizards, then all of us can work together to protect ourselves against them."
"Where could we hide that they will not find us?"
"They have eyes that see in the night."
"They can fly through the air and even cross the great river."
"Their claws are sharp. And they have the eternal fire. "As they spoke they clustered around Anya and me, as if seeking protection. And they constantly looked up into the sky and scanned the horizon, as if seeking the first sign of avenging dragons. Or worse.
Anya asked them in a gentle voice, "What will happen to you if the two of us go away and leave you alone?"
"The masters will see what has happened here and punish us," said the beard tugger. He seemed to be their leader, perhaps merely by the fact that he was their eldest.
"How will they punish you?" I asked.
He shrugged his bony shoulders. "That is for them to decide."
"They will flay the skin from our bodies," said one of the teenagers, "and then cast us into the eternal fire."
The others shuddered. Their eyes were wide and pleading.
"Suppose we stayed here with you until your masters find us," I asked. "Will they punish you if we tell them that we killed the beast and you had nothing to do with it?"
They gaped at us as if we were stupid children. "Of course they will punish us! They will punish every one of us. That is the law."
I turned to Anya. "Then we've got to get away."
"And bring them with us," she agreed.
I scanned the area where we stood. The Nile had cut a broad, deep valley through the limestone cliffs that rose like jagged walls on either side of the river. Atop the cliffs, according to Anya, was a wide grassy plain. If this region would truly become the Sahara one day, then it must stretch for hundreds of miles southward, thousands of miles to the west. A flat open savannah, with only an occasional hill or river-carved valley to break the plain's flat monotony. Not good country to hide in, especially from creatures that can fly through the air and see in the dark. But better than being penned between the river and the cliffs.
I had no doubt that the slaves were telling the truth about their reptilian masters. The beast Anya and I had just slain was a dinosaur, that seemed certain. Why not winged pterosaurs, then, or other reptiles that can sense heat the way a pit viper does?
"Are there trees nearby?" Anya was asking them. "Not like the garden, but wild trees, a natural forest."
"Oh," said the scrawny elder. "You mean Paradise."
Far to the south, he told us, there were forest and streams and game animals in endless abundance. But the area was forbidden to them. The masters would not let them return there.
"You lived there once?" I asked.
"Long, long ago," he said wistfully. "When I was even younger than Chron here." He pointed at the smaller of the two teenage boys.
"How far away is it?"
Pointing southward, I said, "Then we head for Paradise."
They made no objection, but it was clear to see that they were terrified. The spirit had been beaten out of them almost totally. Yet even if they did not want to follow my lead, they had no real alternative. Their masters had frightened them so completely that it made no difference to them which way they went; they were certain that they would be caught and punished most horribly.
My first aim was to get away from the carcass of the lizard. It would take a while for whoever was in charge of the garden—Set, I supposed—to realize that one of his trained animals had been killed and a crew of slaves was loose on the landscape. We had perhaps a few hours, and by then it would be nightfall. If we could move quickly enough, we might have a chance to survive.
We climbed the cliff face. It was not as difficult as I had feared; the stone was broken and tiered into what seemed almost like stairways. They puffed and gasped and struggled their way up to the top with me leading them and Anya bringing up the rear.