THE HOUNDS AND THE BLACK PANTHER
The engineers sees a large object on the tracks ahead, and it is a boulder, far too big for the train to push out of the way without derailing the engine itself.
Stalled, with only half its guards, the train fell easy prey. Twenty some bandits rushed out, with twenty more following them a few minutes later, and began shooting whomever showed the least resistance, while robbing everyone of their valuables, car by car, as they made their sweep along both sides of the train to keep anyone from escaping.
They filled bag after bag with loot, and even though these male low caste passengers were mostly all poor farmers, laborers, and like, the women, many of whom carried the rights of inheritance to property. These womenfolk wore the family's wealth, passed down from one generation to the next, all turned to heavy gold bracelets and necklaces.
Whenever a guard was captured or shot, he was dragged out and dispatched with a curved, hammered steel sword, decapitating him as a warning to guards on the next train following to not put up so much resistance, lest they suffer the same fate.
Damon heard enough from the confused passengers to realize that attacking bandits were responsible for the stalled train, as well as the big commotion of screaming and yelling and gunshots at the rear.
He stepped out to take a look, and did not like what he saw. The bandits would soon reach the First Class cars and do the same to them as they had done to the Second Class compartments. It was going to be a bloody massacre, by the sounds of it.
He had to think fast as to his options. At first he thought he might organize the men to resist, then reconsidered. The bandits were organized and trained for this attack, whereas the men on board were civilians and would not fight as an organized unit. They wouldn't follow orders well, and the bandits would not be held back long, if at all.
As for the fetlers, who were all fighters, they didn't fight together either, and were drunk, so they'd be no good either. In fact, those who did come out to look to see what was going on, were so bleary eyed, they just stumbled back into their car to do some more drinking, or pass out again. One even staggered out, stark naked, and wasn't even aware of it, before another fetler pulled him back into the car.
It was hopeless to resist, Damon saw, so he must flee at once. He announced this to the others in First Class, but they wouldn't think of it. The fools were calling for the conductor and the guards to come to deal with the problem, and were assured that would be sufficient protection against a mere band of ruffians.
Damon tried a final time to make them see the grim reality. "But we just lost three guards a bit ago in the tunnel, and now the bandits are killing all the others they can find. We have no real defense left to us. The bandits will be here in a few minutes, when they finish butchering Second Class and raping all the women they think are pretty enough. If you value your lives, you must get out now and climb up into the rocks and hide wherever you can, or they will capture you, and take everything. That is just for starters! Then they either hold you for ransom, or they may just shoot the lot of you for fun, but they will make you all beg for your lives first."
"Remember, he repeated, eying the ladies, "they are raping the women, both young and old."
If Damon thought that reason or even common sense would get some of them to run for it with him, he was mistaken (and even a man of the world, like Damon, could misjudge his fellow humanity's capacity for folly and irrationality). Not a man or woman wanted to risk such a thing. Run into the hills without a shred of dignity like a wild animal? Leave the train? Forsake the only bit of civilization in this barbaric quarter of the mountains? Unthinkable! They thought it best to try to bribe the bandits, and--thinking that their money would satisfy the ruffians enough to persuade them to let them alone--were assured they could deal with the nuisances.
"You might all be sorry you didn't take my advice," Damon said. "But don't say I didn't warn you when they start slitting your throats or shooting you!"
Then, grabbing his camera equipment, film, and leather jacket, he jumped from the compartment and quickly climbed up into the crags. When he was sure he was high enough to elude easy capture, he stopped to catch his breath and to take a look down to see what was going on with the hostages on the train.
"That must be the one with the gold shipment," Damon thought.
The bandits, after loading up with as much as they could carry, including the best food and drink on board from the diner, tossed the sacks of the gold they couldn't take along into the ravine next to the train, intending to return for it. Then they struggled off with their treasures, vanishing among the big rocks.
After a wait, seeing no more bandits, Damon climbed down from his perch, and went to see if he could help the people. He badly wanted to find Padre Noaik, but he was no where to be seen, and so he thought the padre must have turned back at Port Yosef. Hadn't he said something about distributing Christmas gifts at Port Ulu to the widows and families of drowned sailors? Well, then, there was no help coming from such a fine man, he thought--no words of comfort from a true man of God--which he couldn't not deny the padre was. As for the imans on board, he knew they were worthless for such a task--being in the business of exacting obedience to religion, not relief of unspeakable human distress.
Just as he expected, Damon found the passengers all in an uproar and in total chaos. The train engineer was shot in the leg, and useless, and the conductor dead, which left the fireman, but he was hiding somewhere. What to do? He knew Simla lay ahead, but it was miles off according to his map. Somehow they had to uncouple the wrecked, blown up car, and all pile into the other half of the cars connected to the engine, and then get it to pull them the rest of the way to civilization and help. There were too many hurt people, many in bad shape. He had to get them in to a hospital to save them. Besides, the food and water on the train would soon run out, and they would starve, since the track had been sabotaged further down, no doubt, to keep any authorities coming with soldiers from Port Yosef to reach them and retrieve the gold shipment.
Seeing he had to try anyway to restore order before he attempted anything more, Damon began shouting orders, and gradually the men began to hear him above the uproar and start to do what he told them.
"Simla my beloved city where the End is a New Beginning...
for though dreams die like the swan after many a summer's glide on time's river,
come, look! see the lilies bloom again amidst the tumbled stones of bygone giants!"
Well, the dream of a peaceful trip had definitely ended for all on board, and many feared to board the next train out, if they still had the means to pay the fare. Those who were wealthy could wire for money to be sent, of course. The others had to find relatives or friends, if they could, in the city. There were a few almshouses run by the brethren of the Cross of Yeshua, which the government permitted to operate for the sake of the poor and needy and ill, as the government of H-R did not normally provide such social services, nor could it afford them as well as the support of a bloated government bureaucracy and the sultans and kaliphate in Multan. The caliphate was now suspended by the Leftist governments that gained power over the sultans, but still the expense of the bureaucracy and all its departments and agencies, not to mention the military and the arms race with Publicatexa and the CSA which had gone nuclear, sapped the resources of the dual kingdoms and short-changed the poor where relief was concerned.
Damon, who thought himself Number 1 anyway, didn't mind ingratitude! He did not owe them anything-- and if they didn't acknowledge their debt to him for all he did after the bandits left--well, that was just plain old human nature, as he viewed it. One thing he knew, nothing can change human nature, the one constant in the universe. He knew a pig could be washed, given a pedicure, dressed in nice clothes, scented with the best perfumes, its teeth cleaned, hair groomed, decorated with bows on its tail, etc., and even set at a table with spotless linen and crystal, but the pig was still a swine, and would behave again like one if given the chance. All the costly, nice stuff you did for that guttersnipe was utterly wasted! He wasn't going to change, no matter how much caring and compassion you lavished to pretty up a filthy hog. The moment you let it, it would go and jump right back into the stinking muck and mire of the pigsty--and would be loving it better than anything you had tried to do to improve its life and circumstances!
As Damon made his way through Customs and security posts and then proceeded into the the winter capital of the bygone kaliphs, taking shot after shot of the still impressive marvels, Damon encountered the gazes of the local women, who turned and stared at him, as though they had not seen the like before in those streets. Or maybe they had, and he was familiar somehow? In any case, though his male pride was stroked, it made him a bit uncomfortable, as he seemed to be attracting too much attention. Surely, the authorities, who, like the whole breed in these provincial towns, didn't much like strangers anyway, might pick up on that and want to question him.
Trying to blend in more with the crowd by not taking anymore pictures, he continued on, only to meet some goons in long dark overcoats blocking his way into the main merchantile quarter called the Grand Suk.
He realizes what kind of room it is: a cold storage for the old sultan's ski lodge! That is why it had no windows, and was so thickly insulated and had an iron door to it.
He has to find a way out soon, he realizes, as it dawns on him they have left him to freeze to death. They gave him a blanket, obviously, just to prolong his agony, not to keep him alive indefinitely. Notwithstanding, the thing he misses most is his camera and film. Without them, he feels like the whole experience is worthless, and his trip on the Tea and Sugar and all those unforgettable shots...well, he tries not to think about it. A realist, he knows he will only make himself feel worse than he already feels.
All he has is a bucket for a toilet and an old army issue steel bedstead and one blanket. What can he use to get out? In his apprentice days he had done some photography work once in a prison and learned some techniques the prisoners used to attempt escapes. There was a chance he could use their ideas now to make an escape artist out of himself! What did he have to lose?
He set to work. The bed was not so easy to tear apart, however, but he went at his work with a fury that made up partly for his utter lack of wrenches. He grabbed one end and smashed the other against the concrete wall until it began to come apart. He kept at it, and finally the bolts were loosened enough, and he could work one of the bars free from the frame. When he had his bar, he felt he had a chance to survive after all. With it he attacked the vent, for it wasn't really a window. He busted out the frame, after savaging it for some time, and then finally there was an opening he might possibly wedge his body through. But he was 6 ft. 4 inches, and not exactly slender either at the shoulders. What was he to do? He had to try, this was his only way out, unless he cold bust his way through the iron door, which was bolted on the outside.
Pushing out some of the blanket first, he climbed up and began trying one part and another of his anatomy, seeking the best way to begin his exit procedure. It could not be described, the way he wriggled and squeezed and pushed and collapsed back in exhaustion, to try again. He felt like he was scraping off all his skin and trying to make a jelly fish out of a vertebrate, though the blanket saved part of his body from a lot of abrasion as he was squeezing out.
Escaping from his near freezing confinement in the boarded up ski chalet that once belonged to Prince Yazmir Wallid bin-Alfonzo, a sultan's playboy son, was going to give him a severe test of his survival skills. Getting out of the building was just the appetizer for the main course of the tortures on the menu. Damon's camera and gear, and all his clothes have been taken to keep him from trying to escape (which was thought sufficient to keep him helpless and vulnerable), and so he has only his bed blanket to shield him from the polar temperatures of the wind and snows of the high elevation. He is exhausted and unable to find his way down without using the road his captors are patrolling. Maybe they are not patrolling it, but he cannot take that chance. They'll shoot him on sight, he knows. Sitting down he is trying to conserve his last reserve of body heat and strength, but he is about to give up all hope of getting out of there alive when some musk oxen pass him.
Panhandling alongside some beggars he found working a busy corner of banks and shops (his size preventing them from running him off), he got himself a meal or two to keep going, and kept looking until he found a Sisters of Mercy almshouse. Imagine, reduced to the level of dirty beggars! It was a terrible blow to his pride, as he had never dreamed of that happening to him. As smart, good looking, and resourceful and strong as he was, he had always been the head, and everyone else the tail! But what other way did he have to get himself some decent clothes? It was no crime to go around naked, with only a dirty blanket to cover himself, for there were plenty beggars that did that--but unless he could prove he was registered for begging, they would arrest and throw him in jail, since vagrancy was a felony, punishable by beatings and months of brutal slavery in a workhouse prison.
Its engine roaring, the car rocketed off with Damon hanging to the wheel. Speeding down the avenue, he was fortunate it was not one of the busier streets, as it careened up along the curb, knocking over sign poles and scraping the buildings in between before flinging back toward the street, then hitting two more lightpoles in succession before the engine and crankcase split, and the radiator exploded in a geyser of steam and water, mixed with oil from the engine.
The sedan with the dark tinted windows following him turned away and vanished into a sidestreet as a police wagon gave chase to Damon, catching him only as the engine blew with the radiator.
Since he had no identification on him, they had a real problem, and had to give him strong coffee and wait until he was sober before they could learn enough to pass sentence.
When early the next day Damon was recovering enough to give the police an account of his actions, they still could make no sense of it. They came to the conclusion he was a spy, since his telltale Poseidonian accent betrayed him as a foreigner. But, forgetting his pride after his humiliating ordeal the night before, he pleaded with them, that he was being taken for a spy, but he was only a photographer on assignment in H-R who happened to look like someone who might be a spy. Was that his fault if some stranger happened to approximate his looks?
Where are your credentials, your passport, your camera equipment? he was challenged.
He had nothing to prove, therefore, he decided to tell them everything, the whole truth.
Just the same, Damon used all his powers of persuasion, and he was indeed telling the truth, fact by fact, and he thought surely the more experienced among his questioners could tell a story-telling liar who couldn't get his facts straight and consistent from one who was trying earnestly to cooperate. He left in all the things he didn't really know for sure, without trying to clear up any mysteries or fill any gaps--which he knew would give him even more credibility, than if he embroidered his story to make it more believable and the rough edges all polished off.
He was right. His crazy tale that was the whole truth struck just the right chord of believability, since he didn't try to clean it up, or make it believable.
The Jaisalimur police commissioner was such a man to spot the truth when he heard it, an astute judge of human character good or bad, and one look at Damon convinced him this was not a run of the mill criminal, for he knew the hardened, diehard criminal elements of his precinct well enough. There was no such air of sullen defiance to this young man. He had to be an "innocent," not at all a professional law-breaker. But what about his "innocence," was that an extremely sophisticated, professional cover for some other role for which he was in the country? Was he a foreign spy on a mission of espionarge against the H-R? Yet how could a spy make such incredible blunders as this man has just committed? Spies did not usually land in their assigned countries so poorly trained as this one! Perhaps there was some truth to the wild tale he was telling about being taken for a spy by the real spy ring in the area? He knew there was such a ring, specializing in extortion, money laundering, prostitution, and even some political lobbying and bribery to finance their espionage, and had been seeking to track it for years now--but there were just too many highly connected informants, traitors to H-R, giving them tips to keep them out of his reach! But now...perhaps, if turned loose, the spies would get close enough to him, with his own men following, for him to catch the real culprits? It was worth a try, he decided.
He instructed the police station chief to let the man go with a warning. This was welcome news to the chief. Whatever the man really was about, he was proving a big nuisance, to say the least. He wanted nothing to do with a foreigner, who had driven drunk down a street, destroying some property, but killing no one. Could they recover the money for the damages? Obviously, they could not. This man had not a dinar on him! What about a stint in the workhouse? But that didn't earn them anything--it just kept the prison system going, and the police got nothing for their trouble handling him. So they decided to wash their hands of him, with the warning that a second incident would land him in prison, in the chain gangs of the workhouse, indefinitely!
And the police put men out to follow him, with orders to call the Commissioner immediately if contact was made with the spy ring.
After this shakedown, feeling rattled to the bone, Damon needed a comfortable rest and a decent place to clean up, so he went and took a room at a hotel, ran a bath, tried to wash off the whole experience of the day. He nearly fell asleep in the tub, but climbed out, toweled off, then fell into bed and lost consciousness immediately. But he did not sleep very well, and, pulling on a shirt, he rose while the city was still asleep.
A few hours later, when the hotel's staff busy was preparing breakfast and putting finishing touches to the buffet and the tables, and the lobby was stirring with guests going down to the dining room, Damon thought it was just right to make his break for freedom, rather than wait any longer. Breakfast, he could catch on the run somewhere.
He had chosen the right time, he saw quickly, as the taxi he climbed into headed off from the curb into the morning traffic. Where just a few hours before there wasn't a single vehicle, the whole square was jammed with all kinds of vehicles, pedestrians, and sheep and other animals on their way to market. It was a pandemonium, so common in those parts, colorful, forever changing, yet always the same swirl of life in a provincial town that was fairly prosperous but had once seen more glorious days, if the huge Roman era ruins that studded the city still had anything to say about it.
He wires for funds from his bank, which soon arrive, and then he goes and outfits himself in a fine new suit, silk shirt and silk tie (sewn and tailored on the spot in a mens wear shop). Looking like himself again, he takes care of his other needs at a good hotel, but he doesn't get very far in his quest when he encounters a startlingly exact carbon copy of himself.
So many unbelievable things had already happened, things that made the Tea and Sugar a tea party in comparison, that he was half-prepared for this event. Hmmmm...this should give him some very interesting information, he thinks, as he regains rational thought after his initial novelty wears off a bit. But the man staggers and collapses right in front of Damon. Damon finds the cause, a dagger thrown and sunk into his twin's back, killing the fellow and also any chance Damon could find out from him why he (and no doubt his look-alike too) is being pursued.
Thus, with such stringent controls in place, Damon would never fly into the Port Andros airport terminal, which handled only H-R traffic, or government-approved international flights from the northern tier of countries. That was probably a wise decision on his part, as air marshalls were ordered to take him into custody on sight--an easy matter in the confined spaces of an aircraft or even in the terminal. But the train station, huge and rambling, crowded with thousands of travellers and railway station and train personnel--he could easily pass through without being apprehended.
After some other assurances from the very capable, experienced Arlena, that need not be detailed here, Damon left the train when the engineer, in return for a bribe from Arlena, slowed and stopped the train just long enough for him to leap down.
The train pulled away, and Damon found himself the only human being standing on a lonely stretch of uninhabited country, without a single farm building or any sign that humans lived anywhere within less than twenty or thirty miles.
He felt chilled, for some reason, and for the first time after a woman's love soiled and dirty somehow, even with Arlena's expensive perfume still lingering in his nostrils. He had had married women before, preferred them for their knowing how to please a man--so it had never bothered him before. Why now? What did it make if she was someone else's wife--as long as the husband didn't find out about it and come hunting for him with a cocked heater. Funny, Padre Noaik came to mind then and there, but he dismissed the preaching missionary from Argentina, who said to Damon he couldn't run from Yeshua no matter how far he went--Yeshua was still there waiting for him to "climb aboard His Glory Train".
"Nothing doing, Padre!" he had responded at the time. "I'm too young for religion and got my whole life ahead of me, so maybe later, but not now!"
Even though the padre's appeal struck a chord in him, he wasn't about to climb aboard Yeshua's heaven-bound "Glory Train " now, at any rate. He was his own man--had always been. Even if he had lost some control over his life lately, he wasn't about to surrender all of it to anybody, as long as he had anything to say about it!
Growing increasingly edgy, he was there for about twenty minutes when a car appeared a long way off, and he watched it approach like a little black bug growing bigger and bigger, even as his curiosity grew about it, but not so curious that he did not take precaution to leave the train track, cross the road and continue on into the field. When he thought he was far enough away and might escape detection, he crouched down to watch the car as it neared. The sedan with the dark tinted and curtained window in the back stopped, and Damon felt a chill, only he was glad he had taken the precaution, for he had a chance at least of getting away if it was what he suspected it was. But he was mistaken, he saw. A man got out, exchanged places with the driver, drove off, and then the former driver remained standing there, wearing a farmer's work clothes. So he was only a farm worker?
This was strange to Damon. Where was his tools or equipment? Why did he come here to such a isolated spot? But as he waited he heard another car coming, and this it came on much faster than the other, and skidded to a halt. Immediately the man leaped in, the car door slammed, and the it sped off on squealing wheels in the opposite direction!
Damon, without any time to do anything, realized this had been his chance, and he had blown it royally! He ran back to the road, and was gasping for breath, feeling himself the biggest fool in the world for muffing his big chance to end the wretchedness of a cat and mouse chase, when he heard a strange whump-pity-wump, whump-pity-whump sound, growing louder and louder.
Then he realized what he was hearing, before he even saw it. The H-R military, he had read somewhere, had earlier employed as its first line of defense a certain Dutch-invented aircraft, the gyrocopter, as its gunship. The gyro had proved serviceable for many other uses as well in campaigns, but with the advent of jets and rockets, it was instantly obsolete, a museum piece. Selling off the deposed sultan's jewels and other royal state treasures to finance the changeover, Heruka-Ratna was just too poor to junk all its gyroplanes, however, so most of its gyro-fleet was outfitted as cropdusters after the military hardware was janked out.
Gazing in the direction of the sound, Damon was bored before he even saw it, and was wondering what direction he should start walking when he noticed the crop-duster was not doing what crop-dusters ordinarily did--dust the fields with either insecticides or fertilizer. This one was headed straight for him!
Damon did not stop to wonder about it. He started running, away from the road, which was too open, and gave him no protection. He hope to find a gulley or ravine to jump into for cover, but no such luck! The fields were rolling, but not one hole appeared as he ran. The gyro quickly narrowed the gap between them, and Damon turned his head and saw the thing was going to swoop and squash him like a potato bug if he didn't do something.
Leaping up, Damon dashed in the opposite direction, trying to zig zag like a game hare chased by trained hounds. Why didn't they just shoot him? he wondered. But no bullet ripped into him, and he realized they were enjoying the chase so much they didn't want to make it too easy for themselves.
He was just about to run out of steam and collapse in exhaustion when he tripped over an iron hoe left lying in the field.
Snatching it up, he started running again, but the gyroplane was going to get him this time, he knew. What could he do? All he had was this old iron hoe!
He stopped, wound up like a discus thrower, and with all his might flung the hoe straight into the approaching whirling screw-blades.
The gyroplane passed over him with a deafening roar of wind and screw-blades and motors. Nothing touched him, though about a couple inches of soil was lifted all around Damon's sprawled form and the sweep of the rotary screw-blades was strong enough in suction to tear up the plants in a big swath along the plane's path.
Damon couldn't see a thing in the blinding whirlwind of dust, but he could still hear. The gyroplane was climbing, or wanting to climb, but there was a grinding, snapping sound this time, followed by a much louder smashing of metal blades colliding with each other. The dust had cleared somewhat, and Damon caught a glimpse of the stricken gyro. It was still trying to climb, but the grinding and smashing sounds were worse, joined by a tremendous rattling and drumming and a final ear-splitting screech, as the whole superstructure tore itself apart. The gyro, flinging huge sections of its screw-blades like a disintegrating grass-mower and automated cocktail swizzle, sank toward the ground, and it hit hard, and Damon saw a flash, and before he could duck down and shield his head in his hands, the whole aircraft exploded in a ball of fire and billowing smoke.
That left the train or taking the roads away from Multan toward his homeland. He suspected the train would not be any safer than Multan, and possibly a greater danger, so he started walking. If anyone came driving his way, he decided to get off and hide and let it go by before continuing. He might even walk at night, and hide by day in whatever shelter he could find.
That seemed a good idea, and he felt he had made the best decision he could. If only he could reach a town or some farmstead where he could hire a driver and car. He had enough money to get home, as long as he wasn't robbed. Dividing up his money, he put some in his shoe and left some in his wallet. He had lost his travel bag somewhere in the field, but had no desire to search for it. His watch too had come off his arm, the band had probably broken in is many falls and tumbles. He would have to have it repaired, first chance he got, so he put it in his pocket until then.
At first it felt rather good to walk off his stiffness and soreness, even the bruises felt a little better.
After an hour he was in the first of the foothills of the mountains, feeling thirsty and hungry, when he heard the sound of a vehicle, from the direction in which the train had gone, headed for the Poseidonian border. It didn't sound like a standard motor, more like the racket of small farm machinery, but he climbed up into the rocks near the road, and was out of sight when it started to come into view. He was right, it wasn't a car or truck but a motorized cycle with a sidecar.
He waited and could see the driver, a man with goggles, wearing a leather cap and body suit also of leather, the type used by hired taxi-cycles in Multan that were thick as the flies there. But the passenger made his heart beat faster. There was something about her--Arlena? She had sunglasses on, and a jacket, but it was her, he could tell, as she wasn't wearing a hat or scarf and her hair was the same color and style, it couldn't be anyone else.
They were about to go by when he stood up, throwing a small rock down across their path. The cycle skidded to a halt, then they were looking up to where he was standing. He climbed down, jumping onto the road, and walked over to them.
Arlena stood up in the sidecar, and tried to get out, and her driver hurried cut the motor on the cycle and hurried round to help her down, but Damon reached her first and she stayed where she was.
"Damon! So glad I found you! Come on with me, I will take you back. That is why I hired this nice man here--I had an idea you might be in trouble of some kind. And I saw the wreckage back there! How terrible? Whatever happened?"
Damon wasn't going to explain anything to her, he was glancing at her driver, and the looks both of them exchanged only increased his suspicion and sense that something was afoot.
He smiled, however, and acted as casually as he could. "What do you mean wreckage? I didn't see it. I've been walking since I left the train, for no one showed up like you said--he must have missed the assigned meeting time, right? I thought you knew what you were talking about--that someone would be sure to be there--but I saw no one!"
Arlena seemed troubled, but quickly smiled. She motioned for him to come close, for a private conversation. When he bent over to her, she continued. "Oh, it was just those men I told you about I overheard talking on the train in the corridor, who must have meant some other place for the meeting, or I got the information wrong. They really did seem up to some mischief, and after what I knew about the Grey Wolves going to stage a coup, it seemed credible enough that the agent you are seeking is the one they want to stop collecting information on them. But, darling, the important thing is you weren't involved in that flier's accident back there?-- how wonderful! It looks like such a dreadful accident! It doesn't seem like there could be any survivors, and the police will be here to look into it, no doubt."
She glanced back up the road toward Multan. Then with a look of anxiety toward Damon. "Get in, darling! We have no time to waste. They will be coming soon, and wanting to know the cause for the crash, since they would naturally think we were witnesses of it, and we need not be questioned for hours if we leave now. Damon, we can talk on the way--but we will go to the next town and get a room there. I think I know of a hotel, and it is clean enough. You can wash up there and--"
She looked more closely at him head to foot.
"My, you have gotten dirty! Your suit! You look like you have been rolling in the fields like a regular farmhand! Whatever have you been doing? Has those men you told me about been after you again?"
She swung the sidecar's door open, and beckoned to him to hop in beside her (as if there was room for more than one passenger in the single passenger cab).
Still Damon hesitated. The driver inspired no confidence in him whatsoever, he looked like an assassin who would just as soon kill him, given enough money to do the job. Besides, Arlena's favorite perfume, jasmine, was washing over him, bringing back memories of her lying beside him, but the horrors of what had happened shortly afterwards were also assailing his senses--it was all so fresh to his mind--he couldn't bring himself to trust her again.
Suddenly, seeing the driver had left the key in the cycle's ignition, he had an idea, that solved his quandary.
"There's time for a cigarette, dear. I must have one first."
Arlena fumbled in her purse, taking out a cigarette case and a lighter. She lit a cigarette and took it from her mouth and handed it to him--just the way she always did it to please a lover.
Damon jerked his head toward the driver who was watching them intently. "How about him? He's seems to be a good fellow, driving you all this way just to pick me up! Give him a little reward for his trouble. I insist on it!"
She handed her cigarette case to Damon, and he let the driver take one, along with the lighter.
"Thank you, Effendi, thank you, M'lady," the driver said, bowing to each while smiling and revealing some gold teeth in front.
Arlena gave him a tiny smile and a little wave of her hand to the driver, which Damon saw, and the driver handed back the cigarettes and jeweled platinum lighter and stepped away a few yards, standing with his back to them as he drew on his cigarette.
Arlena reached out and took Damon's arm, pulling him closer. She looked up into his face. "Darling, it will be nice tonight when we reach the next town. I will make it up to you--your not finding that man you are looking forward. I was so worried it might not work out, so I had to come and find out for sure if you were still here in the area. I couldn't leave you like that--not knowing!"
Damon's eyebrows narrowed, but he was still smiling. "I am so glad you did. You saved me a very long, tiring walk! I might have caught a ride with someone, but there is so little traffic along here, it might have been a long time, even days, before someone would stop for me."
"So you are coming!" she said brightly, moving aside to make room for him.
"Not so fast, darling!" he said. "Let me finish my cigarette. I don't like the ashes blowing back into my face!"
"Of course!" she laughed. "Finish your cigarette then! But we really should be going as soon as you do!"
As Damon was aware now, it was the time to act. And drawing on his cigarette he took a few silent steps around the cycle, paused, smiled back at Arlena, and took a few more steps behind the driver, who was standing enjoying Arlena's expensive, scented cigarette at the edge of the road, his back still turned to them. Without a shoulder, the road dropped off into a small ravine about twenty feet deep at the bottom--a drainage for the fields--with some water and mud in it. Then the driver did something that provided the perfect set-up, he leaned over to pull up his sock or retie his boot lace.
With the Baton Roo Consul-General's wife his captive, Damon drove the cycle's four cylinders as hard as he could, hoping the fuel aboard would be enough to get them to the next town. There was another small tank aboard the sidecar, but was there anything in it? He didn't want to stop to find out. If the motor began sputtering, he would stop to look. Until then, he didn't want to give Arlena a chance to jump out and run away from him. He still had some questions he wanted to ask her, when he got her to a safe enough place where they wouldn't be interrupted.
He was thinking hard as he was driving. What was Arlena's real motive in coming back for him anyway? Was it to find him dead or alive? Just to verify his remains or actually to save him from his pursuers--the hired assassins who were no doubt hot on his trail now, once they heard about the crash or saw the wreckage of the gyroplane. After her bad advice to him nearly cost him his life, he did not have a shred of confidence in a single word of hers--everything she said could be a lie just to set him up for a take-down.
And how had she heard of the crash? If she had searched the field first round the crash scene, she knew that he had escaped somehow, and had gone in search of him back on the road. And it had paid off--she had found him, or rather he had let her find him.
But what then? What was this driver she brought with her going to do once they found him? He was carrying something, by the looks of that bulge under his arm.
Damon glanced back at Arlena, who sat, her head down as far as possible from the now chill, mountain air, her jacket collar up round her neck and part of her clothing pulled up shielding her face to keep warm.
Thinking that a cycle fitted up for passengers might have a luxury or two, he was right. The cycle had a switch for a heater, and he found it and gave her some heat. She looked up surprised, and then snuggled down in the cab, and seemed to be resting as they continued the climb.
Without having to worry about her freezing, he had only himself to be concerned about, as the wind was cold, and his suit was wool but not warm enough.
The grade was increasing, and the climb was slower, but he kept going, with high white peaks rising all around them, and a cliff edge meeting the edge of the road without any guardrails.
He was so surprised, not pleasantly either, when he saw a car headed his way from the heights above. He saw the vehicle rounding the curve above them, so he spun the cycle and cab around, and tried to outrun the car before the killers could see them and begin chase.
He glanced back once and saw Arlena's eyes were wide open, and she was looking back, almost as if she meant to climb and jump out, the moment he slowed down.
Giving her no chance, he continued, then saw a road, or what had been a road in centuries past, once level, but now sloping steeply down. It was not much more than a goat track, but there were what looked like ancient stones set up to mark its borders, but which were the remains of pedestals that had held the giant winged raptors that once guarded the processional road to the site. Arlena's face was pale white as she gripped the sides of the cab for dear life as they bounced and bumped down the fragmented roadbed, hitting stray stones which threatened to overturn the cycle and throw them over the side and down the cliffs toward the ground far below.
He had to use the brake most of the way, and then finally he couldn't go any further. The road dead-ended at an enormous stone platform set with the shell of a ruined temple, only columns remaining, atop some huge stone figures he had never known were there. He had seen great stone colossi of the gods of Mizraim, and photographed them for a travel magazine, in the far southwestern part of H-R, but these near the border of H-R and Poseidonia were a mystery to him. It seemed possible to him a recent earthquake had set off a massive landslide that uncovered the ruins--that had happened before in other places--but nothing on this scale had ever been seen in these mountains. If only he had his camera, and he wasn't running for his life! It was a photographer's wildest wish-fantasy--being first on the scene to shoot a world-class ruin, a Wonder of the World from the ancient past, that represented a complete mystery.
The fame of his discovery would spread world-wide in hours--and he could name any price for his pictures!
He cut the motor, and waited, as an ashen-faced Arlena tried to get out of the cab. It had been a horrible, rough, bone-bruising ride down, and she was shaken, and struggled to get the cab open. She was quite a sight, and he felt pity for this woman, so sophisticated, so used to luxury and having things her way, with servants answering her every need. Now she was in the utter wilds, in his control. He went round to her side, and opened it, and then helped her down, trying to be as gentle with her as he could.
"Are you crazy?" she said, her face full of fury, making it even more beautiful somehow. "Where are we? Why did you drag me here to this awful place? You've nearly killed me!"
Damon had to laugh, despite her anger at him. "Sorry! I couldn't waste any time getting here. Your friends--of maybe friends of your friends-- were coming down to get me and finish me off--I saw their car ahead of us back up there. I thought I'd best pull off to this sweet little garden spot and let them drive by, if you don't mind, darling! We can leave in a few minutes, when I see the coast is clear."
Arlena, to her credit he thought, did not show any resentment that he had found her out, that she might not be acting in his best interests.
She flicked open her cigarette case. "Light mine for me, will you?"
He did so. Then he stood watching her. After a few moments, she turned to him. Her voice was different, more resigned and matter-of-fact than before, as if she knew he knew the game was up, so why pretend any longer?
"Well, I can't tell you their identity, or precisely what government they work for, but they caught me with a fellow they planted on me, and they photographed us and then blackmailed me. They threatened to tell my husband, show him all the photographs they had, and so I had to cooperate or be ruined! I had to do whatever they told me to do, only I didn't know I would have this feeling for you when I did what they said, let you in my cabin--I guess I hadn't met someone like you before, and that made me do a stupid thing--I really didn't want you killed by them--no! I knew the man you were being taken for--and I thought--well, it didn't work out. The fates were against it. Damon, you've got to believe me, I am telling truth this time! This is the real woman, the real Arlena, talking to you! Not someone trying to manipulate you! I'm done with that. Believe me, Damon!"
He found her gripping his shirt in front, and he gently but firmly unfastened her hands and pushed her back away a few feet. "You will have to do better than that, sweetheart," he said coldly.
"The story is just too good, too neat. You have much more to tell than that. But I am certain you won't want to tell me the rest--it would be too, ah, damaging?"
Arlena gave him a look that might have killed him, and the marvel to Damon was that she looked all the more alluring and provocative. "All right, have it your way! After what happened to you back there, I suppose you think you have every right to treat me like this, suspect me, even when I am telling you the truth! I admit I have some of it coming! But what would you do, in my place, if you were blackmailed? I had to go along with them if I was to keep from being exposed by the scandal they would create."
She looked at him with narrowed eyes, in her sidelong glancing way. "But, darling, what do you intend to do now? You have no way out of here really? They will watch the road both coming and going. In fact, they may find this place--then what? Where will you run? It is a cul de sac. There are nothing but cliffs all around us, and these old, barbarous statues or gods, or whatever they are, down below us! I am your hostage, is that it? What good will I do for you? You can't demand ransom for me--they will never pay it! I am nothing to them. Let me go! You can just leave me here and escape. Why drag me along?"
Damon peered closely at her, and saw she was resolved, but he wouldn't give up. "We've just begun to try this way--a little more, we can be sure they can't reach us, and then maybe they will grow tired of this and let us go. They might think we fell and killed ourselves, if we just keep out of sight."
Arlena shook her head. "They won't give up that easily. I know them that well. They won't suppose anything, and won't be satisfied. They have to report to their superiors, and so they can't take back stories. They must have us, dead or alive.
Damon sighed, and couldn't think what to say next to dissuade her. But he had to know something. "You know them, you said. Who are they? Why are they hunting me down like this? And I keep running into someone who looks like my twin brother? is that the reason? The last twin I ran into was knifed. But they still kept chasing me. So what is going on?"
Damon felt all his self-assurance crumble, as all his individualism meant nothing as long as he was a target of the secret services of H-R and who knows how many other countries! What could he do now? He couldn't change their view of him, or their objective which was to liquidate him like a bug.
"For once, Damon, I've slowed down enough to have some second thoughts. This is what I have put off until now. I've got to do something to help someone else--even if it doesn't help me. What good is both of us dying? And I really have nothing to return to? Nothing! They've destroyed me already. You might as well try to escape if you can. Don't try to rob me of one good thing I can do with my life, the last bit of it, by staying here. I've been a selfish woman all my life, and only self-gratification mattered--and I used everyone I could to amuse me. But you are different. I see something about you I really liked. But I am not the woman for you. I maybe could be, if I had changed in time, but there is no chance of that now. You must go! So go!"
He no sooner reaches the right side, when he feels sands and bits of stone raining down, and realizes someone is coming down that way for him.
Time to move? But where? This time he decides to cross over to the monolithic nose, if he can. Maybe he can crawl up inside a nostril? At least he wouldn't be so exposed on the outer surface.
Arlena has already decided what would work best, based on her particular talents. "I'll let him dig his own grave," she thought grimly.
"I can see what's on his pea brain!"
It took some time but he finally reached her perch. But first he decided to have a little fun with her if he could. Why not? He worked hard for a living, why not enjoy a little R& R with this classy little tush? It wasn't often that types like her crossed his path. He usually had to resort to back alley sluts he had to shell out a lot of cash for, and they were toothless hags compared to her! Who could blame him? Besides, the boss was up in the car and what he didn't know didn't hurt him!
She looked so frightened of him and where she was, that he saw he wouldn't have to work very hard to convince her, that he was due something for getting her out of such a jam as she was obviously in.
"Your boyfriend left you high and dry, I see!" he called over to her in his friendliest manner. "Some fine gentleman he is! Well, I can fix that! I'll get you outa here safe and sound, just trust me! I'll take care of it just perfect for a lady like you, just you see!"
She didn't say anything, but he could see she wasn't going to resist, so he proceeded to edge her way, talking to her all the while.
"Don't be afraid, missy, you're in mighty good hands now, sweetheart! Just you relax, I know just how to handle a woman of high class like you, so you don't have to worry your pretty little head any--nossir!"
Finally, he reached her, and she seemed so helpless and utterly grateful to him, he put his arms out around her and sort of overplayed his role of knight rescuing a damsel in distress, perhaps. Going for his first kiss, he let down his guard, in any case, and the next thing he knew her knee caught him sharply in the groin, and the steel cleat on her high heeled shoe came crashing down simultaneously on his left temple, just above the eyebrow.
But who created this new monstrous race of giant, immensely powerful beings who could construct such a place as this and stock it with their ingenious, inscrutable treasures? He had to find out somehow, if he could, even while he knew the spies were still out to hunt him down, and there might be more coming than the ones he had already eliminated.
He must do something to help if he can--being Ero, he cannot do otherwise. The Greek he is rises up, his true manhood and its instincts intact, and so he cannot watch a fellow human being destroy herself.
Ero works at the popup feverishly, to direct the mast-head back down. Wally the programmer had provided Zoom In, Zoom Out, and other directional modifiers, but the program was deliberately made difficult, to keep it from being used too much, and Ero was swearing in Greek as he navigated through Wally's "helps" to get the mast where he wanted it to go.
He sighed! It was just too quiet out there, and something had gone wrong again! When he could hear nothing more for some time, he had to assume things were not going to get any better for his team whom he knew were no better than nincompoops. Even if ugly morons had all been given plastic surgery and made to look like him (he, the Shadow, wasn't going anywhere unless he had several decoys along!), no amount of expert cosmetology could give them a boost in IQ.
Now he would have to check in to it personally. This was a bloody nuisance--he didn't need anyone if they were going to bungle a simple little assignment like this! One dude and a snooty little broad running off together--rounding them up should have been a no-brainer! Why, he should have gone alone and done the job himself, making sure it was done right! Now he would have to clean up the mess they had made of it!
Getting out of the car, he decided to strip down and dress in his working clothes--just in case. In his profession, he knew being prepared was everything. Better fighters than himself, he knew, were dead meat if they came unprepared. He pulled out the trunk in the back, which had his personal gear which he let no one use but himself. Slipping out of his clothes, he pulled on his black body suit, which was a close,seamless fit, with nothing that could be grabbed or catch on something. A cap covered his head. He slipped on special shoes, and threw his alligators in the trunk, along with his fine, tailored, mohair suit, and silk shirt.
His equipment was topped by a customized luger in an underarm holdster and a long, razor-sharp knife in a sheath completed his weapons. Last of all, he pulled on leather gloves, with a spare in a pocket on his left thigh.
Taking a 150-200 coiled length of thin, light, but very strong rope, he headed for the cliff edge. Leaning over, he quickly sized up the best spot for descent.
Not if he could help it! With a rock, he drove his pronged anchoring nail down in the hard ground, fastened his rope to it, pulled with all his might, and then threw the rest of the rope over the edge. It was more than enough to get him to the bottom, or close enough anyway. He wasted no time. In a flash he was flying down the cliff face.
He came down just a few feet from the mast, and then giving a kick off a statue, he swung right down over the mast, and then dropped the rest of the way down to it.
Yet as he looked up at the statue, he was astounded at what he saw. It did not look like stone, no more than it looked human. A sort of colossal hawk sat on the golden and jewel-encrusted throne all enclosed in a thin crystal sheath much like a butterfly pupa in a chrysalis. But this was no butterfly in the making. The hawk had legs and arms like a man, only the head was not a man's but a hawk's, with a huge raptor's beak!
Appalled, Damon could not stand to look at it, but he had to. He had to find out what it was, and why it was being fed the globes. Even as he watched, a globe passed to the hawk-giant and dissolved, and the monster shuddered a bit and seemed to glow a little brighter.
Then the beak moved, and the eyelids quivered, as if they were about to open. This was not just horrible, but frightening to watch.
Backing away, Damon turned. His devil-take-the-hindmost-daring, gone. He had never even imagined a monstrosity like this one could ever exist--half-human, half-raptor, and of giant size. What kind of civilization had birthed it, pasting human and animal together liked that to make one monstrous being? The Indian tribes had stories they told and retold, he knew, that spoke of a bygone age when superbeings stalked the earth and ruled it--but those were only myths laughed at by his teachers in school, and he hadn't taken any of them seriously--until now. The Indians also described how the Earth was located in another quarter of the sky, the Indians, and was burning up and dying from too much heat from Brother Sun, and Raven had come to the rescue of people and animals and tied the Earth with strong leather cord to the tip of his arrow, and with his bow shot them all to a new home in the heavens where they could revive their strength and hunt the buffalo again.
The Indian tales gave this and other information he had to think over some other time, if he survived to think about them, that is. Whatever the species was that manufactured such monsters, he wanted nothing to do with it! Where they entirely without sense? For all their marvels, they couldn't have anything the least good to offer humanity--and if they let humans live, he thought, it would be just to grove at their feet and serve them as slaves!
He ran back all the way to the crystal, and crouched down along the side for cover. What if the beast suddenly woke up and stepped out from its chair and saw him! Wouldn't it go after him like a bird of prey would a rabbit? He would be torn to shreds by that beak in a moment or two!
Feeling defenceless and totally exposed, Damon thought hard about what to do. He needed to get clear of the giant raptor, he decided, before it woke up completely, saw him, and tried to run him down. This was, after all, its territory, its palace, not his. He didn't know his way around, as it must know.
Still crouched down, trying to keep out of sight of the thing, Damon was thinking about making a dash back to the entrance when a crazy thought flashed into his mind. No! he thought immediately. He couldn't do such a thing. Why take a chance like that?
But the thought kept coming--"Stop its feeding from the energy prism and starve the dormant White Land king to death!"
Damon almost burst out with a laugh. How? Could he move the giant crystal, the empowering prism that fed the abomination in its chrysalis? The crystal looked like it weighed tons. He only wanted to get out of the place, then report it once he was safe back in civilization. Let the government confiscate the gold and jewels and artifacts--he knew he could live nicely on his fame for discovering the site--without having a lot of wealth to protect and keeping a bodyguard the rest of his life.
Even being raised thousands of feet by upthrusting volcanism and coming to rest inside a mountain, that did not destroy the facility, it was so well anchored inside the solid rock--with an ingenious system of giant levers that kept most of it both level and free from damaging rocking back and forth.
He came to a hall that contains nothing but hundreds of glowing mirrors, or such they appear. But the mirrors are flickering with scenes, not imaging their surroundings. The largest shows a vast panorama, a riverine plain studded with cities. As he watches, it takes him closer into the scene, descending into one of the cities, and he sees the inhabitants going about their business as usual. The architecture of the structures is strange, mostly geometric, with a great many columns, and squares and avenues set with statuary of immense sizes, but somehow familiar. Where had he...? Yes, of course! The buildings most resembled the pyramids and cones and obelisks of Mizraim, did they not? In addition, strangest of all, there were hundreds of others that looked like immense sundials, or solar panels--though they weren't reflective, and he could not guess at their uses or purpose. Mizraim once had avenues such as these, too, set with giant sphinxes, rams, hawks, lions, bulls, and all sorts of other creatures the Mizraimites worshipped as gods. But most impressive than even the temples and public buildings were schools of wisdom and learning, where the astrologers and wisemen ruled hundreds of neophytes and trained them in the secret lore of the power crystals.
The resemblance in everything he saw, the Mizraimite connection, was almost uncanny, though in the projected scene the buildings were not just massive stone concretions but crystal structures, and so massive that even the smaller ones could comfortably house any number of Mizraim's Houses of Eternity and temple complexes.
As for the inhabitants, they seem to be mostly slaves serving the golden, jeweled nobility and aristocrats, the elite ruling class of masters and mistresses of the super-race who sometimes appear in public, but mostly are hidden deep within the palaces and temples and pleasure pavilions of the city.
Hadn't he also caught glimpses of gangs of slaves, chained together, working the fields outside the city? They all appeared humans, with no superhuman powers, but their masters? Were they human too? Or something else? He could not tell, except that they preferred animals to humans and blended with them in new hybrid beings they themselves created. Whether or not human, the only thing certain was that the governing class was oppressing the human slave class in the most hideous way--making them do all the work of supporting them in the upmost luxury amidst magnificent settings while most of them scarcely had a rag to cover themselves.
Meanwhile, the air was thick with flying globes and disks of all kinds. They mystified him, until he saw one being boarded by the ruling classd. A transporting machine of some kind! he realized. Fashioned of a special material found on asteroids and rarely, only in tiny amounts, on earth, it absorbed its energy at one of the conelike structures, then rose and flew out the top, vanishing into the clouds, flying swiftly and without a sound. What an advance this represented in fuel, technology and aircraft! His world had nothing to compare with it! He watched a number of events being staged, all sorts of nobility present, with the emperors and empresses in attendance at a number of them in special pavilions. In one more private ceremony, a chief astrologer greeted the Queen after performing the secret rite that only her eyes could see that insured the safety of herself while travelling in her newly finished and staffed cosmic chariot to other stars and back. The few human slaves allowed were put to death immediately afterwards, of course.
Cobras appear to be most venerated, even sacred, for he sees they are allotted whole temples and the priests serve them.
Damon has the answer ot his question. Blood-sucking Vampires! So that is how they get their primary food source! Fresh fruits brought in each day and the other condiments added to them were nothing but dessert served after the main course: human blood! That proved to him that they could not be human--they treated human beings as nothing but cattle to be disposed of any way they choose.
They were also cruel sadists that enjoyed inflicting pain.
For entertainment at parties and special events drawing thousands of these gilded and jeweled vampires, huge tanks, many of gold-inlaid marble-like stone, were filled with starved sharks or crocodiles and South American piranha, and human slaves--men, women, children, babies (they particularly liked using babies) were thrown in. Thousands were sacrificed in this way, as the lords and ladies were served sherbets and other cool desserts and chilled wines in the viewing stands, oftentimes by relatives, wives, mothers and family of the perishing slaves.
The slaves, however, had no stake in the imperial dreams of glory preserved forever in such archives. He could tell that they knew they were not going to be leaving the site--that they were digging their own graves, not just working an some imperial underground building project.
Even after thousands of years, the smell of death and decaying dead men's bones, even a certain sense of the stark horror and fear experienced by the doomed men, sickened and appalled him. He could hardly walk after he left the hellhole.
He was trying to sneak by the raptor when he saw that it was fully aware of his presence this time. Its eyes were following his movements! He tried to hide behind a crystal, but the blood in his veins froze as he saw the monster rising to its feet.
Damon could not stay where he was! He had to try to escape, now or never!
He made a dash out of the chamber, past a very dead giant guardian-cobra (it had not survived the cold in its dormant condition, despite the energizing it received from a crystal), but a guardian raptor (not the king, but full giant raptor), revived enough to detect his alien presence, was swift, too, and as Damon rushed toward the entrance, he could hear the movements of the thing behind him, close on his heels.
There was a deafening screech as the raptor reached the open air and the sunlight, which stunned the creature for a few moments, giving Damon the window of time he needed to find a hiding place. There were shadows on the ground, moving right across the ground, that cause him to glance up as he ran for hiding. He saw the flying mast moving first to one side and then another, banging against the cliff, knocking off some of a statue's features, and two men aboard the mast fighting.
Ero had just caught Arlena, as she fell or threw herself from the ledge above, and found she was wasn't even conscious--that the surprise of a black-suited assassin joining them made it impossible to fend him off.
The only thing that helped them was the instability of the mast, which was not programmed for three occupants, with no adjustment being made by the guidance system for the added weight. The mast swung violently to the right and smashed against a giant's nose, chipping it. Then it swung violently in the opposite direction, nearly throwing Ero and Arlena off, and also making it impossible for the assassin, whose knife, meant to finish Ero off, sliced empty air.
Below them, Damon finished his dash to safety, squeezing into a crevice between two boulders, and he looked out and saw the mast overhead swinging and bucking from side to side as though it were a Publicatexan long-horned steer trying to throw its riders. What was this thing? He recognized Arlena, but not the two men with her, though he realized that one--the dark one-- was probably one of the agents aiming to snuff him.
The imperial archives' security raptor was poking with its beak and scratching about the base of the statues for Damon, at the same time, for it had recovered enough sight to ferret him out of his hole.
But the commotion overhead distracted it from Damon, and he was left alone as the monster thought it had sighted its quarry.
It began to beat its humongous wings, though the air pressure now was so low it was not going to fly as easily and swiftly as it had thousands of years earlier in a far different kind of world. Leaping upwards, however, it gained some height as the mast dropped almost within the grasp of its huge, snapping beak. Some flaps of its wings put it even closer to the prey.
What Damon saw next took his breath away, for he was sure the raptor was going to succeed. The mast-bot swung again, to one side and then another, dropping further down, and then gave a violent jerk--at the same moment that Ero gave his assailant a kick right in his sternum--and the spy chief sailed into the air, head over backwards, straight into the open beak of the giant raptor below.
So much for the popup and its half-hearted "weaponry"--"Put in Recycle Bin," "Delete," "Reserve For Other Uses"!--instead of "Kill," "Vaporize," and "Exile to Antarctica".
Yet Ero chalked up his winning score a little too soon. An agent of the Shadow's caliber, who had put hundreds of enemy agents and any number of world leaders six feet under, wasn't going to go whimpering and limp-wristed into final retirement, even when shaken by the beak like a mouse being played with. No, he was going out--if he had to--with his boots on!
Cursing from the pain of the crushing beak, he still managed to free his C.S.A.-made luger and pumped a whole clip of rapid-fire rounds into the monster's head.
As the soft-headed slugs tore through its brainpan, the fowl security dick screeched to high heaven, flapping its wings, without letting go of its prey. Then it closed its beak with a snap like a steel trap, severing the hapless Shadow cleanly in half, who thusly ended his long, nefarious career with his designer boots on, not lying back with an iced absinthe in hand, a chocolate-hued Jamaikan mistress in the other, in a lounge chair beside a posh Jamaikan hotel's pool as he had planned.
But since immortal monsters of Atlantis I, even with craniums full of lead like this raptor, do not expire so easily, having already lived thousands of years and thousands more in a dormant state, it wasn't a death-agony--not yet anyway. When Ero got control back at the mast, and was trying to fly Arlena anyplace where he could let her down before she awoke and saw him and maybe had a heart attack, the monster revived. He could see it running, flapping its wings frantically, then sail off a cliff, nearly colliding with mountain peaks as if it wanted to get away at any cost from whatever the nasty thing was that had pierced its skull and given it such a splitting headache.
He had second thoughts about diving in to her life. Glorious as this woman was in his arm, she was not his. He had absolutely no right to her, he knew. Damon was somewhere below, hidden by the rocks, no doubt watching them, anxious to get to her.
Ero thought then that he could let her down on the ground, but how would she get back up to the road? It would be a dangerous climb for her, perhaps impossible. No, he had to take her back up, even beyond where she had been when he first saw her. He would find a spot where he could leave her, but not so hidden that Damon could not find her easily.
He had to move quickly, he knew, and Wally's trusty popup this time made the necessary adjustments in the guidance system, and in a few moments they arrived at the top of the statues and hovered over various possible landing sites. He scanned the vicinity of the temple ruins, and moving closer saw the agent's car standing empty, a door left open and keys in the ignition, and thought for a moment of putting her in it where she would be comfortable until Damon could reach her. The spies had all been eliminated, so there was no chance they would return and find her there. He was about to set down but then saw something else, a cycle with a sidecar, parked behind a big rock. That was just the place for her. As for agents' vehicle, he knew Damon could drive it back to town, since the keys were in the ignition.
He soon gently laid her in the back of the sidecar. It was hard to leave such a lovely woman, but he knew it was best.
Should he help him? No, he decided to let Arlena's rescuer do his own rescuing. He was making good progress up the cliff, much better than his going down it.
Through his half open eyes, he saw the car, its door open, and he thought Arlena must be in the car. He ran toward it, but, no, it was empty. Slamming the door, he called her name, and dashed this way and that, when he thought to check the cycle, and there she was! Her eyelids were fluttering, and shot open, and they fixed on his face as he was running toward her.
She started to cry, then shook off his hands as he tried to pull her up from the sidecar. "No, I'm all right. Leave me here! I'm just fine."
Damon, who had seen the reason for her being in the sidecar, was full of questions, but she wasn't hearing any. She glanced toward the spies' vehicle. "Are they coming back, Damon? Maybe we ought to leave now, before they do!"
This practical advice brought Damon to his senses, for he was beside himself with worry for her.
"I'll take care of it! Just wait a minute here, and I will be back."
He already knew what he would do. The spies were unable to return for it, he knew, but others might.
Climbing half in the driver's side, he left the door open and started the motor, set it in gear and revved it with the brake on, then released the brake and dove out as the car leaped forward.
Spinning wheels and throwing dust and gravel behind it, the heavy touring car lurched onwards to its doom like a tank, letting nothing in its path stop it from reaching the edge of the cliff.
Then, briefly, relative silence, as the car became airborne.
Returning to Arlena, he found her wide-eyed.
When she saw he was all right, she was furious. "Why, why didn't you tell me what you were going to do? I thought--"
Damon laughed. "Sorry, I was wrong, honey. I will explain everything from now on. But first we have to get clear of this place as fast as possible. Where these goons came from there are bound to be more just like them! And they like to keep in touch, I take it. They will be missed, make no mistake about it! And they seem to have had enough reason to kill me, without this too!"
Damon leaped on the cycle. His head was bursting with the incomprehensible marvels he had seen in the underground halls and temples, but there was no time to tell Arlena about them now. Perhaps, later? Kicking as hard as he could down on the starter, the engine sprang to life, and with Arlena handing on in her sidecar, they jolted up the slope toward the road while Ero followed them, discreetly hovering just on the other side of the glass ceiling in order to remain invisible.
It was good they left when they did. The whole landscape shuddered as they were moving upwards, and puffs and clouds of dust shot up from fissures and widening cracks, as the hill and cliff began to slip, disintegrate and move south. Revving the motor for speed, Damon sent the cycle climbing in high gear, regardless of the rough, steep grade, and hoped poor little Arlena could hang on in the jolting sidecar and not be thrown out. They came to a crack, which was rapidly becoming impassible for any motor vehicle. But they could not stop now, they might not make it across the crack in time before it opened up a hundred feet or more in depth. Was the whole mountain side going to slide off into the valley? It looked that way!
Shouting to Arlena to hold on hard, he kept going, and the cycle hit a rock and the wheel went up, the cycle and sidecar with it, and they barely cleared the huge crack, which was the fault line in quake, for everything south of it was moving downwards and fracturing to pieces at the same time.
He was thinking about this a moment, when he realized that it was not all dust, there was smoke, and where there is smoke, there has to be fire! The quake generated by the shifting fault line in the Moon Mountains, it had crushed the crystals no doubt, something they were not going to take lightly. The incalculable energies pent up in them were now releasing--without any control whatsoever. They were like nuclear bombs exploding from under all the debris pile, one after the other lifting thousands of tons of rock and blasting them hundreds of feet into the air.
The ground and the road beneath them was shuddering with each concussion, and the hillsides nearest them were beginning to break off and slide down over the cliffs. Would the road get buried too or entirely break away and take them with it? They had to get out of there if they could, immediately!
It did matter now to Damon which direction they took--they had to put as much distance as possible between them and the melt-down of the crystals if they were going to survive. Getting Arlena back into the sidecar, by sweeping her up and putting her there without a word, he leaped to his seat on the cycle, gunned the motor into life, and they were off down the road.
It was only a few miles later that he saw a car up ahead. His heart sank. It had stopped, and seemed to be waiting for them.
Damon pulled over and cut the motor. He took the keys. He knew all he had was his bare hands to fight with, he had not taken the time to search the spies' vehicle for any hardware, so he was not defenceless. If he was going to have to fight, he thought Arlena might have a chance, if she would run and hide somewhere in the rocks.
Arlena was more recovered now, after a short time feeling the breeze on her face riding down a real paved road instead of a rocky obstacle course or goat track, saw what he was doing, however, before he could give her last instructions, and called out to him.
"No, it's my car! I always have it parked, my driver waiting for me, wherever I plan to get off the train, ready to take me home, as I cannot be traced so easily that way, should my husband ever get suspicious or "receive certain information" and hire a detective. He can trace me very easily on a train, but not in my own car, taking my own way home. But this time, since I was interfered with, I sent for it ahead of my planned destination, to meet me here on the road instead. No doubt he's been searching for me all up and down it. Let's go. My driver will take us back. Don't say anything. Not one word, or he'll remember you and he'll be made to talk or bribed to talk. I'll explain who you are. It will be worthless if he ever has to give it to someone. He won't ask anything more, and I can trust him not to say anything. That's why I kept him--he doesn't ask questions and he has few words to say about anything. Just to make certain of him, I pay him well to keep him happy with the arrangement! I kept having to fire chauffeurs, just to find one that was reliable, but this one, I've been able to keep him for some months now."
Damon wasn't so sure. He remembered a former hired driver, who was somewhere down the road, no doubt furious he had lost his cycle and probably ready to kill the borrower on sight if he could.
"Half all right," he said to Arlena. "You ride in the car, but I will ride right along you in the cycle. That way if everything goes as it should, I will not need this for a getaway. Besides, I want to return the cycle to its owner, who is just a poor fellow who has to make a living with it--right? Or is he just another spy friend of yours?"
He winked slyly at her, and she shot him a look that told him she was angry, outraged he should suggest such a low-bred thing!
Yes, he was being altogether rude to her, deliberately provoking her. But how could he tell which way the wind really blew with a woman like Arlena? Had she really turned a new leaf and wasn't going to cooperate any longer with the spy rings so she could keep up her secret love life--after all, blackmail and the fear of exposure can do strange things to character, he thought. Beautiful and alluring as she was, he wasn't going to be her fool if she changed her mind. This little test wouldn't hurt. Let him see just how she acted when she had things back in her control, in the palm of her little hand, once again. Then he might decide whether to accompany her the rest of the way, in her car, with her driver.
Damon escorted her to her car, a luxury, customized Zinzind, or Z-Series saloon with all walnut and leather interiors, bar, telephone, intercom for instructing the driver, and other amenities enclosed in a private, glassed in compartment for herself in back. He waited for her to be seated comfortably, then watched the driver as he mixed her the drink she requested, inserted a fresh rose the driver took from a refridgerator for the vase nearest her, opened a box of chocolates, and arranged her cushions for her, all the things a chauffeur would do for a wealthy employer.
She must have given another word to her driver, for the car suddenly accelerated and left him in choking in its exhaust and dust.
"No, you don't! Not even a good-bye, huh?"
He dashed back to the cycle, and a moment or two later, he was barrelling it down the road after the limo.
He had just pulled up over the last hill when for a brief moment he saw the bridge in the distance--or, rather, what was supposed to be a bridge over a gorge, but there was only a big gap where it had been.
The momentary image flashed upon him, then he was speeding down the road, wondering if he had really seen the bridge gone or not. A few hundred feet more it began to dawn on him, and horror began to flood him.
He continued on, pushing the cycle to the limit to narrow the gap between him and Arlena, and keeping his eye peeled at the same time for the bridge in the distance that was supposed to be there, but maybe wasn't.
But there was no sign of the bridge, it was too low in the distance to be seen, and they weren't climbing anymore hills so he could take a look far enough from its vantage to make sure his eyes hadn't played a trick on him.
Not knowing was bad enough, but what if the bridge was out? He had to try to stop Arlena. But every time he pulled up behind her, he was spotted, and her more powerful vehicle accelerated and he was not able to get close enough to yell to the driver to stop.
He pulled up again when her car slowed, but she accelerated again, driving him crazy, for he was frantic by now, certain that the bridge was indeed gone, and shouting himself hoarse as he tried to be be heard, though it was useless to do it, they couldn't possibly hear him.
All he could hope was the authorities had found out in time to set up roadblocks ahead. But that too was unlikely, he knew, for this was so far out from any town or city, they might not even know. And when had it happened? Perhaps it had just fallen in the latest quake, and there had been no time to react to it.
His blood seemed to freeze and alternately boil in his veins as he chased in vain after Arlena. She played a cat and mouse game with him, letting him get only so close, then pulling away once again. He couldn't stop her teasing him at the cost of her life! But he couldn't give up--or should he? Maybe she would stop in time for him to warn her? He thought of one last way he might possibly get her to quit playing her deadly game.
It was worth trying! He braked and then pulled over, and waited. Every minute dragged in the most painful way, as his heart pounded and he could hardly think straight, wondering if what he did was working or not. Had she noticed that he was no longer playing her game, and stopped to wait for him ahead on the road?
He waited ten more minutes, then couldn't bear not knowing, and started ahead, going slowly, for he didn't want to start the chase again the moment she saw him coming.
There was no sign of her car for the next mile, and the next too. The bridge wasn't too far off by now, he knew, and dread grew with each passing moment, which he fought with all his might. The bridge towers rose up into view, but they seemed damaged. But that didn't mean the span was gone, even if the towers were somewhat damaged. He still had some grounds for hope, he assured himself.
One hope remained--perhaps his eyes had seen wrong, there really was a bridge span, even if the superstructure was damaged. After all, he had only the briefest impressions way back in the mountains, and the light was maybe playing tricks. He hoped with all his might that...the last fifty feet were an agony. Only then did he come to a row of rocks someone had dragged there, an improvised roadblock. Who could have done it? Arlena and her driver? No, that didn't seem likely. They would have been there, waiting for him, unable to go on any further. But who else could have done it?
He couldn't stay on the cycle anymore. He pulled over and letting the motor run, let the kickstand down, and began walking the rest of the way.
His feet dragged like those of a terminal patient in a hospital, taking his last walk in the corridor. He was not even aware of breathing. All time seemed to stand still. He heard every cricket, drumming on his ears, and the singing of other insects, high pitched and painfully piercing his brain, stabbing at him as he heard his own heart laboring inside his chest, beat after beat.
His eyes did not lie. The bridge had collapsed into the gorge, which was hundreds of feet deep. A river ran in it, deep, ugly with brown, silty waves, and swift.
The wind whipped at him as he crept to the edge of the broken off span. He crawled the rest of the way and looked over the edge. His eyes were so blurred with the effect of the wind in his face, and the horribleness of what he feared was so overpowering, he could see nothing but dirty water sweeping below him, the missing span broken up and washed downstream or drowned by the deep water.
If there were parts of it visible, he wasn't able to see them, as his eyes were too watery, and he didn't want to see any more, he turned and crept backwards, then turned and lay on the broken bridge, face down, for how long, he was not aware.
He had forgotten the cycle completely, and only gradually did he hear the motor and remember he had left it running. Getting to his feet, without a look back at the river, he made it back to the cycle, staggering part of the way as if he was drunk. When he reached it, he collapsed against it and stood there, unable to comprehend what had happened, for he could not think she and her driver had escaped death in the river.
After a while, he heard the sound of aircraft, and eventually the sound came closer, and it was a gyroplane. He did not move, and the gyro circled the bridge site a couple times, then moved toward him. Then he saw it was going to land on his side, and he stood watching it as it did so, settling down a couple hundred yards up the road from him, and presently two men came walking from the craft toward him. They were government soldiers, by the looks of their uniforms.
He told them why he was there, looking for his lady friend, who had been travelling the road just ahead of him in her own car, and that both she and her driver had vanished. The soldiers eyed Damon, then went to take a look down into the river, and returned, shaking their heads. "No one will live who falls in," he was told, as if he couldn't figure that out himself. Asked if he had seen any traffic on the road, he made no mention of the spies and the huge chambers full of crystals he had seen but told them he had seen the road was gone further up, so there would be no traffic down to the bridge, at least from that side.
An hour later, their reports were completed, and they had asked him all the questions demanded by their superiors at HQ, but Damon, who had no license for the cycle and no identification, had to be taken in to be further questioned at their army base commander's office. There he told them everything, his profession, and reason for visiting H-R, and that he was on his way back to find the owner to return the cycle his lady friend had hired. But when he came to the bridge it was gone, and the car she was being driven in had evidently plunged off the bridge into the river. As for the rocks someone had laid down as a roadblock, he had no idea who had done it. Perhaps because he was believed, and they felt so sorry for him, he was still surprised when he was released and led out, and told to find his Consulate if he needed help or money for travel back to his own home country. One of the soldiers was detailed to drive him back to Multan, as he was a courier with copies of the completed reports to the commandant at the Multan army garrison concerning the bridge.
It was a long, tedious journey in the army jeep, a shockless vehicle which jolted Damon with every bump in the road. They drove along in complete silence, the soldier smoking his entire pack of cigarettes after offering Damon one, and Damon was grateful that the soldier had nothing to ask him after all the questioning had drained him of every possible fact on the subject of himself and Arlena and her driver and the car they were in when last seen.
Let off in the city center, Damon turned toward his last hotel where he had been known. He was glad he had been careful to leave a good impression with the staff and concierge, for he was hoping he might be able to make a call from there, since they might still remember him at the desk and allow him the hotel's courtesy phone at least.
Numb as he still felt from the shock of losing Arlena like that, he hardly cared about what happened after that, he felt like he was just going through the motions while he completed these arrangements.
Recognized by the smiling concierge, he was soon given the courtesy phone without any hesitation and told he could call as much as he pleased, as he was fully trusted. Calling numbers he could remember of his family, he started with his father and mother who would be anxious about his whereabouts, since he had not contacted them for days. Indeed, they were anxious about him--though used to long weeks of waiting for word for him while he was off on long photographic or filming safaris in isolated areas. This time, however, they were more than anxious, as they had heard radio reports about tremendous quakes and explosions, perhaps volcanic, in the mountains they knew he would be passing through.
Relieved though they were to hear his voice, he had all he could to assure them he was perfectly all right, and would be coming soon, provided they could wire him the needed monies direct to his hotel. Deciding not to worry them too much by telling them about the bandits and later the explosions that nearly engulfed him and Arlena, he only gave out about how he had lost his wallet, camera gear and prized shots all along the Tea and Sugar train route, and his money and identification. The losses of all that were due to problems he did not specify, but which they thought, he knew, were connected with the reports on the radio. This accomplished, he reassured them he was fine, and was just going to check in and would get some rest, before leaving for home in the morning on the next train or plane.
He was shown to his room on the third floor by a porter, who then went and returned bringing him some pajamas and bathrobe and toiletries he might need while his clothes were cleaned by the hotel staff. After thanking him, Damon closed and locked the door, glad he was in a safe place to spend the night and not out in the open being chased by two sets of spies who obviously wanted to draw blood.
The driver would not even get out of the car, he was so tranfixed at the sight of Ero and his mast-bot, but Arlena did. She started walking toward him, evidently not afraid of man or beast, or whatever he was.
Then something happened that Ero did not consider. The driver, who had been observing both of them with wide eyes, hit the accelerator, no doubt by accident, and the car leaped forward. Before Ero could do anything, the car plunged off the span, though the driver tumbled out at the last moment and lay sprawled on the pavement. The fellow sprang up the next moment, took another look at Ero, yelled something, then dashed round the mast and Ero and, screaming at the top of his lungs when Ero ran to stop him, jumped off the bridge. Ero was appalled. He had no idea the fellow would be so terrified he would lose all his wits and jump. He ran to the mast, and tried to get it to take him in pursuit of the driver, but he was having no success, having interfered too often with the guidance system, and he saw Arlena was trying to get away from him too. He motioned to her without any attempt to pursue her, though he didn't speak her language, and could only make signs to her she might understand.
She stopped trying to get away from him, and he approached her, and found her weeping as she glanced down toward the spot where the driver had gone over the edge. Ero went to the edge, searching the water, but there was no sign of any car, much less the witless fellow.
He went back to Arlena, and it took her a little while to compose herself after seeing her driver drown himself. Next, she was glancing anxiously up the road. Ero understood she was looking for Damon, wondering when he would get there.
But Ero had other ideas, knowing that he could remain there, meddling in things, without losing his berth on the mast-bot. Was he prepared to stay on the ground indefinitely and take his chances with all sorts of hostile people who wouldn't understand or appreciate his presence? Hardly! Pulling some rocks away from the sides of the road to make a temporary roadblock, he was satisfied that would be enough to stop Damon, and then turned to Arlena. She understood, and seemed relieved.
It was time for him to go. He could do nothing for the driver. As for Arlena, she had been on the mast once before, without knowing it, and he offered her a place on it as he boarded it made it move toward her.
Using the translator on his popup, he typed in his message to her, and Wally's HELP and translator came up with just the right words, or a good approximation, for she nodded the moment she looked where he was pointing on the screen. Yes, she wanted a ride home!
As to destination, he pointed four ways, and she understood and pointed north. That was all he needed, and he gave the instruction to the guidance system.
That decided, it was only a moment before they were airborne. She wasn't terrified by the flight on a mast-bot, but he noticed when he glanced at her that she was determinedly looking away from the bridge, as if she didn't want to see Damon reach it and find her gone.
Would Damon understand if he found no car there and only the roadblock? Obviously, not! But there was no help for that, Ero thought. Only then did he look at her again and see her eyes were wet. Women! They were all the same. Why did she want to leave, if she felt that way about Damon?
The mast carried them swiftly northward, with the huge smoke and dust cloud from the underground complex still filling half the sky while government gyroplanes and other aircraft circled it, and they were soon descending toward Port Andros, which shone brightly at the end of the peninsula, now that the shallow sea water between the island port and the coast had been filled in as well as bridged with a causeway and road.
It wasn't a good idea to approach too closely, Ero decided, lest he be fired upon, so he set down on the outskirts in the midst of palm trees and hoped they would go undetected. She could walk from there to the nearest house and call for a cab or hired someone to driver her to town. Either way, she was able to make it safely home, he decided.
Arlena did not seem to want to remain a moment more on the mast than necessary, and did not look back as she hurried away, leaving him without a word.
What sense did she make out of him coming to her aid like that? he wondered. He would never know, he could only guess. And he had other things more important than to spend his time guessing. With Arlena taken care of, and still very sorry about her driver, though nothing could have stopped him from jumping, Ero returned to his main duty station, the tracking system in the popup locating Damon in Multan.
Meanwhile, Damon did not want to go anywhere but back to his room, not just to wait for money to arrive so he could pay the bill and leave as soon as possible for home, but to be alone to think over the astounding things he had seen. What did it all mean? He knew somehow that all his education had been laid on the wrong foundation. This revelation in the mountains of the prior civilization created by a superrace that enslaved humans and drank their blood like vampire bats confounded all his training, his entire view of the world was thrown into a wastebasket. He would have to start all over! But from what point? Where was "God"--if there really was such a One ruling the earth--in all this? Ismanic religion did not say one word that explained what had happened to the world, if what he had seen was real, and he knew it was real.
His world had been turned upside down! But words and warnings from Padre Noaik now came to mind, and entered into this most bewildering issue. Did the grinning padre from South America, from the Argentines, have the answer to unlock the entire mystery that gripped his mind and thoughts like a tightening vise? Was this Yeshua he kept preaching about as the God of all the Universe, the Lord of the Earth, really what he said? Who was right? Isma or the padre's? His teachers or the padre? He hadn't cared much to find out the truth before, because he had never encountered such a major contradiction as he had just viewed deep in the mountains. It was now apparently destroyed, or reburied so deep nobody could ever get to it to explore and itemize its contents, but he couldn't forget what he had seen and experienced there.
Lying down on his bed after a bath, he did not want a meal sent up and just wanted to rest. His pajamas and robe lay neatly on a chair nearby, but he felt too warm for them. and decided to try to sleep if his thoughts would only calm and allow him to drift off. His thoughts of Arlena, losing her like he had, did not help much. The hours went by slowly, as he heard the hotel quieten for the night, while the religious police goons made their rounds outside to clear away the drinkers and take them to wherever they took them, as well as arrest hoofers who were not operating from the government taxed brothels.
At last, however, in the wee hours, he began to doze off, lying with his uneasy dreams beneath his mosquito net.
The light flicked off, and the mosquito net was wrenched back away from the bed.
"Get up!" a voice growled.
The gun barrel still pressed to his head, Damon tried to sit up. He could smell the man's cigarette breath on him, so his face was close to his own.
"Please, let me get something on."
"Forget that, you won't need clothes where you're going!"
The savage, snarling voice made Damon's blood freeze in his veins.
Barely able to move in his panic, he swung his legs out of bed and rose to his feet. Meanwhile, the gun was still held smack against his head the whole time and his skull was hurting already.
"Lay down on the floor, face down!" the voice barked.
Damon had no choice, and did as ordered, though the tile was cold enough to make his vitals recoil for a moment from it.
Damon heard the door open, and some footfalls come in the room and stop. The door closed, softly.
"Well?" said a voice new to Damon.
"It's him," said the first voice.
"Good, he's caused me no end of trouble. You leave now and wait for me in the car. I want to make sure he is out of the picture myself. He won't be messing up my operation, after all the pain I went through to look like him!
Some footfalls, and Damon was about make a move to jump his assassin, but the hit-man was quicker.
Damon stayed where he was, thinking fast, but unable to come up with with any strategy. This was the most helpless state he had ever been in, his entire life. How could he have prepared for it or avoided it? It was even too late to think about that now.
"Look at me," the man said, turning a small torch on himself.
"Damon raised his head and saw...recognized, with a nasty jolt, HIMSELF holding a gun directly aimed at his own face, only the eyes were not his, they were utterly cold, pitiless, strange--like a predatory animal's eyes set in a little doll's head, made all the more repulsive in the greenish light.
The Damon look-alike laughed. "I can tell you, since soon you won't be able to tell anyone a single word. Your looks and identity and even your role as a magazine photographer were a useful cover, to a certain point, in penetrating some rather sensitive installations, but you had to run across our tracks once too often and mess everything up for us. We had to get rid of the original, which you are. We should have done it at the start, but we slipped up and lost you for some time. Then our competitors in this racket were on your track too, as you probably could tell. They didn't know what you were about, obviously, and let you go a time or two. But at last we have you, and you won't get away this time. Now shut up! No more questions!"
Again the gun was pressed against Damon's skull.
The fake Damon swore, and rattled the gun, then was pulling out another clip to insert when Damon saw his chance and gave his would-be killer a kick that sent him rolling and crashing against some furniture.
In Damon's room there was even a smashed nightstand and broken lamp and water glass, to confirm what Damon had said about kicking his attacker and hearing him crash into something in the dark.
When the police finished their report and decided not to take Damon but let him go, the hotel manager apologized profusely to him, and a nurse and doctor at the hotel's expense was called to care for his cuts and bruises and any broken bones. A guard was set by the hotel staff outside his door, so he wouldn't have to fear any more intruders the rest of that night or the next day either while he recuperated and rested.
When the doctor came, bringing a nursing assistant, he soon had Damon in bed, bandages and gauze dressings top to bottom, and then on leaving gave Damon strict instructions to rest for several days until he checked his condition again. As for the nurse, she and a head nurse and another nurse, were to be on hand to care for him, and report his condition if he were not responding well enough. After all, he had suffered a broken rib, and two others cracked, and numerous cuts, bruises and abrasions.
But later, with his dressings back on his wounds, and his chest wound with the gauze bandage, he was given something to eat. This was his chance, as the other two never lowered themselves to feed him. They seemed to like best stripping off his bandages and seeing him turn pale and gasp with pain!
But though he could only get a few words exchanged with her while she served him his food, he made the most of it. with this young woman in the crisp, white nurse uniform.
The older women were so dictatorial and mean to her! They were so lazy and made her do all the menial tasks, and then spoke harshly, ordering her about in a way it make his blood boil. Yet she didn't snap back, not once, though they made her do all the hard work! How could she stand such treatment? Was she their slave just because she worked for the doctor? He was mystified by her. She somehow kept her cool composure, and not once did he see anger or resentment flicker in her face. He had to find out more if he could.
A few days passed (with the torturous daily strippings and baths), and he found out that her name was Natalia de Silva and she was a follower of Yeshua, as her father, brother, mother, and herself had listened to a travelling padre a year or so ago, and had come to faith in Yeshua, the One he had introduced to them.
So the grinning padre had touched base with her too! It had made all the difference in their lives, she told him. That gave him much to think about, as he mended from his injuries and the nurses and doctor had him begin walking the corridors for exercise--and then even took him into the courtyard garden after a trip down the elevator.
With so many people around him constantly, it was safe enough. The spies? Evidently, they saw it was a lost cause, losing their Damon look-alike, the only reason for the operation. What did they care now what happened to Damon? They had lost too many agents in the blow-up in the mountains lately to recoup their losses quickly. They would only waste more time and men for nothing, even if they could take him out--though they were all a bit leery of him now, thinking he led something of a charmed life.
The day came when the doctor put away his instruments after checking his patient out head to foot, and declared he was dismissed (along with all the charges) as his patient (courtesy of the hotel) could go if he liked. The head nurse and the other older nurse were tiring fast of him too, he could tell, as he wasn't passing out from pain anymore in their arms after they wrenched off his bandages. Damon was now a free man, and soon could leave the hotel, wearing only the soft cast of the big bandage around his ribs for a couple weeks more. As long as he didn't try anything really strenuous, or bend and pick up anything heavy he could buy himself another camera and return to his profession without having to defend himself from all sorts of unknown, unnamed assailants. But that wasn't the thing uppermost on his mind anymore. They had suffered such losses in the mountains, they probably would leave him alone for quite some time, he thought. Even Arlena--she was no longer a center of his feelings--for a nurse like the one he had, she had stolen his heart, bit by bit, as she cared for him and answered his questions in her slow, sober way.
As Natalia was tidying up the room in preparation for leaving him, he decided to take the opportunity now that they were left alone. Getting her to laugh and forget momentarily her nursing, that was the first time he felt they really connected. He told her about some of the crazy things he had experienced on the Tea and Sugar and then in the mountains, leaving out the worst parts, and she was fascinated. The expression in her eyes changed at the same time to unprofessional admiration and something else. He saw she thought he had lived a life of wonderful adventures, unlike her life, which was one of service to her family and to her employer.
"My family is anxious to have me return home so they can see how I am, but I'll be here a few more days at least, and will go on walks to get my strength back, so if you come to visit me you can walk along with me. I can tell you more stories in the meantime. Would you like that?"
Her eyes lit up even more, she nodded, then seemed to remember her place and duties and grabbing her things he hurried away.
After severals days of walks, feeling better, he decided he would be able to leave soon, and he was getting tired of making and receiving calls all the way from home, and the hotel was being imposed upon, granting him so many courtesty calls. If he had paid for the service, it would cost him a small fortune! They were good to bear all his doctor and medical expenses, and had even given him free board and room all that time he had been there, so he did not want to overstrain his relations with them.
Not that he wasn't able to pay, now that his family had wired a good part of his savings. He always put a part aside from all his sales to magazines of his photography, so it had mounted up to quite a sum, not enough for retirement yet, but close. He would be able to buy his camera equipment in Multan, where the prices were lower than at home, and also a nice little runabout, with one seat and a large trunk for his clothes, gear, food, water, gas, and othe supplies. No chance would be taken of anyone jumping him on a flight or on a train! He preferred the car trip, as he could get used to his new camera on the way home, in preparation for new assignments.
He was turning back toward the hotel, watching the traffic carefully so he wouldn't have to jump out of the way of anything and hurt his healing ribs, when he saw Natalia! She was walking his way after getting out of a car that had dropped her off at the hotel entrance, which was just a stone's throw from him.
She saw him, and waited for him to reach her. "Couldn't we walk along the street a little further down--there are too many eyes on us here," he said. She nodded, and so they turned away and proceeded down toward the ruins of a Coliseum.
They were almost there, without saying more than a few words, when a man hurried over to them. He showed Damon his badge and card. "Effendi, please give me a moment. We have found you at last! You were at the hotel, when we checked there. But they said you went out walking along these streets, and I just now found you! Here is the camera and film you lost, turned in to our headquarters a few days ago, with apologies for not returning them sooner, as we did not learn your residence until today. Well, here your items are. Do you care to check them? Let us know if they are satisfactory to you."
Damon was astonished as he took the camera bag, and the man's card. He had thought his camera and film utterly lost! But were they really his? Was it some trick? But everything seemed to be as he had left it, as he quickly looked into the case. He knew the approximate number, and the way he marked the little containers before he sent them into a trusted developer--and as far as he could determine at the moment they checked out."
"We are glad you are pleased. Have a good trip to your home country, for I expect you will want to return home after your accident, yes? Now I must go, as my duties call me!" The man tipped his hat, smiling, and then disappeared back into the traffic and pedestrians swirling around the Coliseum at that busy time of day.
Damon and Natalia stood looking at each other.
"I prayed you would get your things back, no matter how hopeless it seemed. What an expense, to have to buy all your needed equipment again, but Yeshua has spared you that! But now you can go and travel and do your fine work! I am happy for you!"
Suddenly, another jewel-like entity shot up into the sky, and now there were two! They did not turn but continued on, faster and faster. And he was pursuing, though he didn't know what to do if he ever caught up with them. Then something stranger happened. A copy of himself was created, perhaps to make it more difficult for them to deal with him, and so now two Eros and two mast-bots were matched with the two star-stones.
What could these things be? he wondered.
Now the popup came back to life, and there was his answer. It did not explain everything, for it was more in the nature of an advisory.
"CONINUE TRACKING THE EMERALD AND TOPAZ. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO STOP OR INTERCEPT THEM, FOR THEY WILL AVOID DIRECT CONFRONTATION IF THEY ARE NOT AGGRESSIVELY INTERFERED WITH. THEY ARE WORLD-DESTROYERS, THAT IS THEIR MISSION AND OBJECTIVE. I HAVE MY CHAMPIONS TO DEAL WITH THEM, BUT YOU SHOULD KNOW THAT THEY ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR MUCH OF WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN AND EXPERIENCED SO FAR.
The answer had come to quickly, it was as if his thoughts were being read. Could Wally do that? He had seemingly thought of everything, but this time it seemed different. Ero had a hunch, and he thought right then to ask another question, using the popup. "Who is issuing this instruction?"
"I am Yeshua."
"What purpose is it I have been shown all these things?"
"PEOPLE WILL VIEW YOU SOMEDAY, PEOPLE OF ALL KINDS LIVING IN DIFFERENT TIMES AND DIFFERENT WORLDS, WHO ARE YET THE SAME, PRISONERS AND SLAVES IN THEIR OWN CIRCUMSTANCES, AND WHEN THEY SEE YOU EXPERIENCE THESE THINGS, THEY WILL SEE THERE IS HOPE OF RELEASE, OF LIBERTY. THEY WILL ALSO SEE FAITH IS A CHAMPION WHO CAN SAIL ACROSS ANY SEA OF DOUBT, NO MATTER HOW VAST AND STORMY, AND NOT DROWN, OR CLIMB ANY MOUNTAIN, NO MATTER HOW HIGH AND IMPOSSIBLE, AND NOT BE DISCOURAGED OR DEFEATED UNTIL THE SUMMIT IS CONQUERED."
She took a look in the mirror at her new self, wearing a nice little suit of clothes she had intended to give a maid, but which fit her perfectly. She plucked the diamonds from her arms, and put them away. Then she went down to the kitchen, startling the help with her appearance. Kitchen maids, butler, dragoman, all stared at her.
"Hello, everybody! I will be taking my husband's food and drink up to him, and administering the medicines too, from now one. Could someone point out to me where I can find the items I will need?"
"Why, Madam, yes, of course!" the butler almost shouted, beside himself. He bowed, and she had to stop the rest from bowing.
"None of that is necessary. Just regard me as one of yourselves from now on, and let me come and go without paying attention to me. I will try to keep out of your way, for I know you all do a lot of work, fine work, for the household. Now...?" She picked up a tray from the counter, and a maid, suppressing another bow, quickly led her to the pantry and the medicine cabinet, showing her where everything was so she could take what items she wanted.
Soon she was on her way up the big, curving marble staircase to her husband's rooms, managing to carry the tray without spilling the water and juice and the bowl of soup. Getting it all the way to him without mishap, she was very proud of herself! It was the first such thing she had ever done for him, or anybody. She had always had servants to do such things for her, from childhood and on to married life. But how she loved it! She positively glowed with accomplishment and purpose and meaning. Even her husband noticed it as he lay back on his pillows. He raised his head slightly as she came in the room and set the tray longside him on the bed. As she went to leave, he caught her hand.
He had never done that before, and she waited.
He seemed to just want that, and no more, and when he let her go, she went out into the hall. Fortunately, no servant was in the area, so she could just have a cry, not so much for him, but for the change in her...it was so awesome, it took her breath away, and her whole body was shaking. "Could I really be loving another, in doing these simple, domestic things? Could this be genuine love, giving and not taking for once? I feel that somebody is here, helping and guiding me! Who could it be?"
She somehow recovered her composure and walked to her own rooms down the hall on the same floor, shut the door, then before she turned in for the night, she itemized her schedule for the next day to fit her husband's, so that he would lack nothing in attention. Setting her alarm clock for an early hour, she climbed into bed. For the first time, she didn't feel any need for her sleeping pills. She was at peace with herself, there were no churning emotions gnawing at her heart and mind all night long unless she anesthetized them first with her sedatives. She closed her eyes as her head lay on the pillow, and slept like a baby until the alarm rang.
A moment or two passed like that, while she did not dare draw her breath, and then as the swallow flew off, it was over, without fanfare, just as it had begun. Yet she felt different somehow. Her checks were wet. She reached up, and realized her eyes were streaming.
"It was Him!" she thought. "He really came here, here to me!"
She could hardly walk, as the realization of what had happened struck her head to foot. After seeing to her teary face, restoring her eye makeup, she went out soon as she could to the family's pharmacist who operated nearest their gated embassy. It was in the old quarter of the city, and the sidewalks were non-existent or very narrow at best.
Not wanting to attract attention, she left her big car locked and parked by the curb, which she had driven herself, and walked the rest of the way. Suddenly, she found her route blocked by three men. She was about to step around them and risk being hit in the street by trucks and pedicabs and bicycle traffic when one of the men, the biggest of them with an ugly, bushy mustasche, called her name.
Shocked, she paused and looked back. "Wait and hear what I have to say, or you may regret it, sweet lady."
Infuriated that a common stranger should speak to her this way in the street, she kept going.
"Your husband will feel the edge of my knife if you don't do as we say!"
The menace in the man's voice was enough this time, and she turned around. "All right, what do you want? Do you think you can threaten me and my husband the Consul-General? I will call the embassy and they will deal with you--accosting me like this in the public street! This is an outrage!" she spat at them.
The man smiled, a chilling smile for a canary or mouse to see.
"Nothing doing!" she flung back at him. "I don't go into public cafes with low, dirty wretches and dogs like you!"
But she stopped anyway, as a truck was blocking the traffic ahead momentarily. The man dropped his cold smile, then continued. "The matter is simply this. Your lover boy the photographer is carrying some rather interesting films back to his home country. You must go and meet him, and when you have the films, we will arrange to pick them up, in exchange for this, that no harm will come to you and your beloved husband up sick in bed on the second floor of the east wing of your fancy mansion! If you refuse--well--we cannot assure you of your own personal safety, nor can we speak for your husband's. Besides that, before we cut him to pieces before your eyes, we will first inform him, of course, with photographs, of your lovers! Would you want that to happen? So what do you decide?"
Arlena was stunned. She thought it was all over--her shady involvement with these various gutter rats of the espionage and secret intelligence services. Whom did they represent? Her own country's--the City-state and Republic of Baton Roo? Or H-R, or Poseidonia, or Publicatexa, or Panamania and the Argentines? Who could tell?--they were all present, fighting to gain access to each other's state secrets in the White Continent. It didn't matter now--they would kill her and her husband if she refused. What could she do? Betray Damon once again, luring him into some hotel so she could get his films and then they'd probably kill him too, even with his films in their possession. She was beside herself, as she stared at them and was pushed by foot traffic and narrowly missed being struck by passing bicycles and pedicabs who were both swerving aside and swearing at her at the same time.
Feeling faint in her legs, she staggered up on the sidewalk and put her hand on a lamppole for support. The leader of the three grabbed her by the hand, squeezing and twisting it at the same time. She screamed, but another hand was quickly clapped over her mouth, and then her fighting Baton Roon instincts, plus the thought she was truly needed by her husband, took over, she bit hard, right to the bone, while giving a kick that sent her attacker and would-be kidnapper into a crouched position, his face green, and nothing coming from him but groans. The men with him leaped to grab her, but she was too quick, and ran toward her car, then changed her mind, and dashed into a crowded cafe, and went straight to the manager's desk. She knew the cafe and they knew her from previous liaisons and assignations arranged for their premises, and were well paid to keep her arrangements there secret. She called the CSA embassy colonel in charge of the guards to send his men immediately, as the local police would be too slow and not well equipped for these professional killers.
The two men pursuing her backed out when they saw her on the phone, with the manager and some waiters standing by her side. Though they hung about for several minutes, they fled at the first sight of the CSA embassy guards.
She did not even take a male servant along for protection. Her car was in traffic one day, hedged in by the pedicabs and bicycles and wagons, when she saw an open space ahead, and before she reached it, another car came at her from that direction.
Arlena, her thoughts fixed on her husband's sinking condition, paid it little attention when a car swung right next to hers, the pedicabs swerving to avoid them both--and then rapid gunfire raked her vehicle all along the side.
The embassy car lurched to the side and crashed against a parked car. Police rushed up, saw the embassy flags on the bigger car, pushed everyone away and Arlena was taken out of the wreck, but she was gone, killed instantly in the gunfire.
As for the assassins, they had instantly sped away, driving a lot of other traffic to either side and against the walls of buildings.
As for the incident, which had happened under his jurisdiction, the Poseidonian president soon issued an official apology to the CSA and the Baton Roons, but it was not enough. The CSA demanded a full investigation, and sanctions of various kinds were threatened if the criminals were not found and executed. Receiving the CSA's demands, Poseidonia was up in arms too. Its leaders were infuriated at the way the CSA and the Baton Roons reacted, because the governments involved knew full well the realities, that all sorts of organizations, some foreign agencies operating in the country illegally, others carrying out secret missions no government could divulge facts on, couldn't be held accountable for the killing of the Consul-General's wife. On her way to the market to purchase something, she had just blundered into the wrong place at the wrong time and an unfortunate mishap had occurred--it was regrettable, but that was all. As far as the Poseidonian government was officially concerned, even her death was no justification for demanding things that could provoke a hot war!
At least, that was the official spin on the event. In actuality, considering the secrets of state that had been stolen and were in the form of contraband films of nuclear weapons and missilery, it really was justification for all-out war, and everyone at the highest levels knew it, and trembled behind their smiling exteriors and the uniforms with all the showy medals and epaullets, wondering what might happen next if the incident escalated even further.
The CSA would not be satisfied with mere words--squadrons of the best equipped fighters and bombers headed south toward Multan as if on a bombing mission, and as if H-R was believed to be behind the incident, not Poseidonia. H-R, on Red Alert, mobilized defense forces and sent up interceptors. Missiles were put on stand-by for a command to fire from Multan's Supreme Commander. Poseidonia, the venue of the assassination, was also in deep trouble with the CSA. Was this the pretext the CSA wanted to use to start the all-out attack and war many in its government had advised for years to happen. But it was not going to be any surprise, as H-R would retaliate immediately with all its weapons, many of them now converted to nuclear. Would the CSA be able to sustain a bloody repayment for whatever it could do to both H-R and Poseidonia?
It was a cliff-hanger, an impasse. The sabres were rattling on all sides, but no one knew just how it would go, or who would give the order to stand down. All sides were just to proud to do that.
The Baton Roo Consul-General himself was too ill to be reached for comment. He never knew anything about the incident, in fact. He passed away quietly and apparently without pain in his sleep the same day.
Feeling relief at the words spoken in her heart, she had gone out, not knowing it was her last glance and that her wifely work of love was finished.
Going by the map showing towns, garrisons, and country fuel stops, he found the nearest one to him only after some difficulty. It was several miles off the highway, occupying a ranchero's main house. He found two children playing in the dirt out front, and they fled at first sight of him. He got out and went cautiously to the front door, rang the big brass knocker, but nothing happened. After some minutes, he decided to go round the house to see if the station operator was out back in the gardens or the in the various outbuildings tending to whatever lifestock he kept.
The moment he saw it, he wondered if it really was abandoned--though he had seen such wrecks often enough and thought nothing about them. This time, however, he felt something was different. Should he go back?
Against his own will, he did. He felt he was wasting his valuable time, but he had to make certain it really was abandoned. What he found was a surprise. He was so glad he had listened to whatever had spoken to him and obeyed.
Damon introduced himself. The captain seated himself, then continued. "This is most unusual, so I am so happy to have you in here to tell me all about it in private. Please be seated, here in my best chair reserved for the general when he inspects us, Effendi. Now would you have something to drink? Some tea in iced water? Chilled wine? Anything you like, we will have it brought to you from the cafe outside the gate, the canteen isn't good enough for you! We want you to feel most comfortable and at home. Now back to how you found my poor soldier. They were on patrol and were attacked by bandits come on a raid from the mountains, and left to die. One was dead, we have seen it already--a patrol sent word even as you were arriving here. Then you took him all the way here, out of your way, no doubt, not sparing yourself the inconvenience. Most unusual! Except for your compassion, he would have died like his comrade--like two dogs in the gutter! What may we do for you in exchange? All the garrison is talking about what you did, bringing this man back to us alive. No one ever dared do that before, or cared about someone else like that to do it. But first do me the honor, tell me your story yourself of the incident."
"Excuse me, Effendi, I have a call, it will just be a minute or two, please relax with something to drink while I am gone," the commandant said, and left Damon. Some minutes passed, while another aide served Damon iced water and tea which he enjoyed, feeling very refreshed with two glasses he was given. When the commandant returned and sat back down at his desk and gazed at him, Damon felt somehow there was a drop in the temperature--it was a degree or two colder, for some reason.
The room did not seem to warm up even when commandant smiled, perhaps too long, and Damon, who was very keen on observing human behavior, caught a certain frigid control in the man's demeanor, along with reserve and--what? Calculation? Plans of some kind in the making?
"Now where did we leave off? Oh, yes, I recall--but," the commandant rose up abruptly from his desk, extending his arm, "but by all means come with me now. You will be tired from your long trip by car, and after all you have done, please do me the great honor of sharing a humble dinner my wife and daughters will have prepared for us. I already made the arrangements. Please do not disappoint them by turning down our invitation, Effendi! They will be crushed if you do not come for dinner, after all the excitement you have caused her with your act of compassion in this wretched backwoods we find ourselves in here. It is most exceptional! Most natives hereabouts would not dare to be seen with a government soldier in his bad condition in these parts, lest they be thought accomplice to the bandits! Ha! Many of them are--we know it too--so they are right, we would hold them accountable and punish them severely!"
Damon knew how brutal the "backwoods" society could be from previous travels, did not want to interrupt his journey in the captain's company. "Sir, I really cannot! You are most kind to invite me, but my dear family is anxiously awaiting me, and--"
The commandant went to Damon and the door opened to them to go. "You can at least come and tell the rest of your story to my wife and family--surely you have time for that! I will then let you go on your way, if you still must go! Please, I beg you, let us have just a few more minutes of your time, Effendi!"
Yet the commandant's pleadings could not be put down either. Perhaps, it would do no harm, he thought. "Just a few minutes then, sir," he said, rather reluctantly. "But that is all I can stay for."
The commandant then bustled him out of the garrison headquarters, with soldiers saluting them, and then led him on foot back of the building and several army barracks and a canteen, through a gate, then into his own private area, a compound that actually lay outside the garrison's chain linked fence and watchtower.
It was so different there from the garrison buildings. There was grass, with luxuriant palms and fruit trees, and a white-plastered, two storey adobe house set amidst a garden, with a pool outside the front door.
"You will find my stable out back holds some promising racers, so allow me to show it to you before we go in to meet the family," the commandant said.
Not able to object out of politeness, Damon gave way to this too, though he was anxious to get away soon as possible.
Around back of the house were some outbuildings, and one was a stable, and inside it a stable man jumped up from sitting on a pile of fresh hay and fodder for the horses. The commandant had to tell Damon about each horse as it was brought out of its stall, and then finally they could go.
"Exceptional horses, sir!" Damon commented, quite surprised at the quality of what the captain had to show. Indeed, they were--evidently, the commandant was not the usual outback commander scratching a living on a small military salary but raising world-class thoroughbreds for the races in the capital, to which thousands from several countries flocked regularly every year and a lot of money changed hands.
"If we win even the second prize with my favorite," indicating a particularly beautiful black stallion, "I can resign this paltry position here, and I can retire as a major to a nice stone house on the coast someplace, with a beach and a boat, gardens and pools, and all the nice things I would like to have! Being a high goverment official's third son, I was born to it--not this fly-specked garrison and wretched town of clay and straw bricks! This desert is a dusty, dirty place, not fit for a pig! This is the reason for this stable and all the work it takes to raise these fine horses and train them. It's our only chance of escape to a better life. But now, let us stop in at the house."
The moment Damon stepped inside, he saw a banquet table all spread on a big table in the biggest room downstairs, everyone waiting for them."
He protested. "But, sir, I really can't stay! You are all too kind..."
But the commandant's pretty, three teen-aged daughters and wife rushed forward, and he found it impossible to get away. He was soon seated at the table, at the side of the commandant in the place of special honor, and the family was plying him with questions about his career as a photographer and all the amazing sights he had seen in his travels across the world north and south, east and west. When the dinner of lamb, beef, chicken, all barbequed and served with spicy-sauced rice and peppers, was over, the commandant asked if he could just spare a few more minutes, could he show a few of his pictures to his daughters who were so anxious to see his latest work? They had seen his pictures and read his name in various magazines, and had collected them all, after seeing his picture once and finding him very young and handsome.
Damon smiled at the girls, but had to shake his head. "I'm so sorry to disappoint you. None of the recent shots I took have been developed. I have to wait until I get home to my own dark room."
He saw the girls' faces fall immediately, but it was the truth, he had nothing to show.
One girl, however, looked pointedly at her father, who spoke up. "But you have films along," do you not? I see you carrying a bag--isn't that carrying your camera and some films of shots you have taken?"
"Yes, of course."
"Well, then, there is no problem," the captain continued. "You can still develop a few of his pictures for his daughters who were so avid to see them that they would not sleep if they missed seeing them!"
"How is that, sir, do you have a photographer good enough in this town to do the quality work I must have? You see, they must be the grade that magazines will accept, or I will have wasted all my time and expense getting those shots."
The captain waved the objection aside. "Yes, yes! I wouldn't think of subjecting your films to anything this town can do--the photography shop here would ruin them for sure! But we need not go to him."
The girls now were whispering and laughing among themselves, Damon noticed.
Damon did not know how to refuse the commmandant's daughters after all the homey hospitality he had just shared, but how was he to show them pictures when all he had was his unfinished films? He waited, and the captain, after holding him to all this suspense, making such a dramatic moment out of so trivial a question, finally came out with it in a grand way.
The commandant rose magisterially, as if the announcement he was about to make demanded his full military authority bearing upon the matter. He then explained that the house was singularly equipped. It had a small dark room for Damon's professional use, which had been left there from the previous tenant, a captain who spent nearly all his time there as an amateur photographer when not drinking, neglecting even his duties at the garrison. Everything was just as the captain had left it, the angry general sacking him for incompetence and sending him on his way to another, even more isolated duty station in the Poseidonian Eastern Ergs. Poor fellow! The general let him take his personal items in a couple bags, but he was hustled from the house before he could pack it all his household things and his prized dark room equipment. These things were all in the house and were sold off, with the general receiving the compensation, but the dark room was forgotten in the sale, and survived intact, with everything left just as it was when its owner was thrown off the premises.
"What bad Kismet!" the captain nearly shouted. "Have you ever witnessed the like? I almost could feel sorry for him, that old drunkard! Served him right, but just the same--run out of here like a chicken chased by a pack of dogs! Really so undignified for an officer, it is quite--quite--"
All the while the captain went on in this way, having himself a good laugh at his predecessor's calamity, his daughters were giggling among themselves, and even the captain's wife was having a hard time not joining in. Only Damon was feeling as if the rug were being pulled from beneath him, and a big hole was opening at his feet!
It was now late, and the commandant urged Damon to stay the night, as the roads were most dangerous at that hour, just after dusk. He might not make it back to the main road in fact. Couldn't he just stay the night, take some time to develop a few of his pictures they could all enjoy seeing, then take a leisurely rest in a good bedm, and go safely on in the morning? They had just the room prepared for their honorable guest!
Of course, the captain's family all chimed in, urging him to stay.
Wondering how he could have been such a fool as to give in to the first urgings of the commandant, Damon resigned himself to staying the night. He smiled as best he could, and took his camera case and was shown to the dark room. It was exactly what Captain Koresh had described. He had all he needed to develop a roll of film.
It was the last thing he wanted to do! But he was trapped. "I might as well get it over with as soon as possible!" he thought, gritting his teeth to keep from swearing.
Shutting the door, he set to work. Twenty minutes later he was removing the first pictures from the chemical developing solution in the pan and then laying them out to dry on a rack.
When he turned on the light he picked up the first one to look at it. He didn't recognize anything!
What was he to do? How many more such spy films did he have in his bag? Was it a mixture as he suspected? He had to check some of the others to find out. Time was passing. He had to come up with something he could show the household. How else could he explain all the time he had just spent. Could he lie, that the pictures had not turned out? Would they believe that?
No, he felt he could not lie, so he snatched another roll of film to develop. Hardly able to breathe, he developed a few pictures, and when they had dried, he turned to look at them. Tea and Sugar! The whole film roll obviously was Tea and Sugar shots. Putting the spy shots away in his bag, he took the Tea and Sugar pictures to show the family, and tired as they were of waiting, it seemed to be sufficient, and they all soon went off to bed. As for the other two dozen or so rolls, they would have to wait for his own dark room.
Later, Damon, finding his room to his satisfaction, did not feel at all easy as he lay, still fully clothed, on his bed. He knew he had a bombshell in his camera case, which was just waiting to go off! What would he do with it? Other things bothered him too. The commandant was just too friendly the entire time from the moment he met him. Was this all his attempt to delay him at the post? What was that general's call about anyway? Was it about him? Perhaps that explained the coolness he detected in the commandant's eyes, if not his manner? He felt on edge, tense, waiting for something to happen.
Going to the window, he looked out and saw the stable roofs. Then he remembered. He had seen a gate that opened on the open desert ground beyond, where the horses had room to stretch their long legs and were raced. If he could get to that gate, he could leave the place, unbeknownst to the commandant. As for the stable keeper, he would take care of that when he came to it. Perhaps a bottle of wine his host had "thoughtfully" put in his room? If not that, maybe a little bribe would do it. Stable men were notoriously low paid and despised. They came and went as hirelings without any status. They could have little loyalty to a horse breeder, who usually kicked them around like dogs.
The bottle of fine, imported wine proved just the thing too for the next watchman on the premises. Lifting a lantern to see who was disturbing his sleep, the stable man, with scarcely a bow and a grin that exposed the stumps of yellow teeth ruined by his chewing tobacco, snatched at the bottle the moment it was offered. He slunk off to a dark corner of the stable, and Damon was free to roam around as he pleased.
First, he made a little show of looking in the stalls of each horse, and acting as if he had come just for that, and later when he checked on the stable man he found him far gone in his cups. It was time! Could he take a horse out and ride him to the next town down the road? It was very tempting. He could make quite a distance on one of these fine Arabs of the captain's! Yet he heard "no" in his spirit--so he couldn't. It had to be Yeshua guiding him, he felt. Besides, he thought, "What if his horse, unused to a stranger like himself, threw him? That could happen, as a lot of horses would reject an unknown rider. He would be badly hurt, since his ribs were barely healed. No, he had to go on foot. That would have to do. He knew he shouldn't dare try to get to his car, which was probably guarded night and day. It might not have been left where he parked it either--it could have been hotwired and impounded by the captain to prevent his escape.
Damon went to the gate he had seen previously, found it unlocked but chained, and let himself out. On such a clear night, with so much moonlight gleaming across the whole desert landscape, he had no trouble finding a dry wadi that was easy to run on. Besides, his ribs were not completely healed. They were hurting some even now after the time he was bringing the soldier in, so he had to be careful. But once he started running, he realized he needed to keep on, even if it grew painful. He had to make it back to the main highway. He couldn't trust the access road, he knew. In confirmation to that, he heard a voice, as it were, telling him that he had chosen the way of safety and that his enemies would be looking in the wrong places.
So that was the captain's aim and the reason for the general's call! Capt. Koresh had obviously waited until the hour when he thought Damon would be most sound asleep before making his pounce, only to find his bed empty. Had he also discovered his stable man drunk out of his wits and figured out the the way he had escaped? Perhaps not at once, but he soon would after a search of the area. Damon knew he had to cover the 4 or 5 miles as quickly as he could, then pray Yeshua would send someone, anyone but the military, to take him as far away as he needed to elude the captain and general's dragnet. As for his fine car, a 12-cylinder speedster he bought for half its value from a bankrupted playboy prince, he could replace it. The films and his own freedom (if not his very life) were the valuable things now.
How he prayed, consequently, just as earnestly as he had prayed face down on the cold tile floor at the hotel with a brain-blaster pressed to his skull!
So as soon as he reached a spot near the highway, he knelt down and prayed earnestly. It was simple and short. "Please, Lord Yeshua, send me the best way out of here, whatever it is, whoever it is. I desperately need your help right now!"
He saw a sedan approaching on the highway. As it came closer he saw there was a man at the wheel, no one else in the car, and it was a nice car. He would have a nice ride if the fellow stopped for him. That has to be it! he thought. It must be Yeshua's choice for me. I can't wait any longer! Please, Yeshua, make him stop!"
He smacked his fist in his palm. "I've got to get a ride, and that was probably the only one for the next hour or so! What am I going to do now?"
He was right, or it seemed so. He waited quite some time more for a vehicle to come, an hour or so, and the dawn was now turning the whole landscape different colors. Soon the full light of day would be breaking. He felt so exposed, being so close to the garrison camp. He wondered if he should just start walking, off the side of the road, rather than stay there, visible for over a mile.
Not sure what to do, he was watching when he saw some dust or smoke cloud approaching him from the access road. What was it? A dust devil. There were dozens like what he saw, and they came and went all the time across that torrid landscape which bred them like the desert bred rabbits and coyotes.
The dust devil grew bigger gradually, with a lot of strange knocking noises and hisses and grinding sounds, and it turned out to be an old vehicle, an army vehicle sawn off and somehow attached to an old, wooden wheeled hay wagon!
What was this? A hay merchant?
Damon was astonished when the contraption stopped, expelling a huge cloud of steam and fumes and smoke, with a terrific clattering noise of protest from the engine, such as it was.
The driver got out, a strange looking man to Damon's eyes. Looking like nobody he had ever seen, the fellow did not pay any particular attention to Damon, but didn't seem to be unfriendly either. Damon went over to him as he was tinkering with the motor with a stick he held. He whacked some ailing part or other, and then the smoke and clatter subsided somewhat. The man seemed satisfied and turned to get back into the cab of this truck, which had no doors or windows. Since he was a big man, there was no room for any rider beside him. What was Damon to do?
The driver hadn't spoken one word to him, so Damon went right up to him again. "Can I get a ride to the next town, sir? I will pay you well!"
He felt almost a kick in the pants as the hay wagon part began to pass him.
Then he realized what he must do: he went and jumped on. But the back board that served for the territory of the hayman's dog did not serve for two occupants at the same time, and the dog began to snarl at him.
"All right, all right, don't mind me, dog!" Damon said, rising up, and he climbed back into the big pile of hay, and the dog settled back down too, with a moan or two.
Riding there, it was really quite comfortable, and he felt rather sleepy too, despite some fumes now and then from the smoking engine up front.
: gypsies in that part of the country, making a living by all sorts of trades such as this, delivering hay or wood in desert country to the outlying garrisons and occasional rancheros and fuel stations, or mending pots and pans, selling trinkets and and little hand mirrors and bottles of cologne and sundry domestic cleansers, whatever business they could drum up in the sparsely populated regions of the western wilderness and foothills of the border with H-R.
He knew from the past accounts taught in school that the gypsy people were not always so lowly in social status. Once it they high and mighty and ruled cities and had princes and courts--but somehow, perhaps grown prideful and corrupt, they lost it all, descending to the lowest level of society, where they had stayed until now, working at jobs nobody else wanted. They had their own language, though, and kept their ancient ways and customs despite the culture around them--and people left them pretty much alone, unless they were missing a chicken or something from their yard or house, and then people wanted them to move away from the area, blaming them for whatever was missed and calling them thieves.
Was the funny old fellow at the wheel a gypsy? He wasn't selling anything but hay, it seemed, and he certainly was a loner, not like the other gypsies with the usual horde of children and the harried wife carrying a baby at her breast. Whatever he was, he was simple and friendly, even though he was speechless. Why? Was he missing his tongue? A deaf mute? Or was he just a harmless, old, simple-minded imbecile? Yet he could make this incredible truck-wagon of his run--he had to have some smarts to do that, and operate a business of sorts too. The man's dog didn't look starved in the least either, and hopped off the backboard now and then just to run and get some exercise, before hopping back on and taking another snooze.
Though crawling along at a snail's pace, and the engine requiring water or oil or a whack of the stick every ten miles or so, they were making progress, and despite his urgency, Damon was enjoying the relaxing journey in the hay mow. As desert jack rabbits sped by them along side the road, however, he had to wonder how long it would take him to get to another town. There he he could find a bus or perhaps buy a new car. Thinking about this and other things, he was surprised when the truck grinded to a halt, its first gear complaining all the way. Was it breakfast stop? He had noticed the sausages and even some bread and cheese hung up on a line to keep them from the dog and other critters. There was a water bag out front, cooking their drinking water too.
Damon dove under the hay, and then heard the truck begin to go through its routine of all sorts of explosions up front. This time it was far worse than usual, it was life threatening. A huge cloud of steam and fumes and dark smoke erupted like a volcan o, along with the clattering and screaching of gears and parts that probably did not fit each other and couldn't possibly recognize each other, being composed of wood and metal, wire and anything else the driver had gerrymandered to make do for the original engine's parts. It was so bad in fact that the soldiers and their sergeant backed away from it, and not even the sergeant could give the order for them to move forward.
Not asked for help, Damon watched all this with amazement. Now he knew why the hay mow was so shallow. He had only a foot or two hay in the back there to cover himself with, which he had discovered when he went to hide in it. The hay stack was nothing but a cover! Beneath it was the merchant's real wares, he suspected, the reason for his travelling about the countyside. Beneath those planks under the hay, what couldn't the gypsy merchant be keeping out of sight and beyond the reach of tax collectors? Perhaps he would soon find out too, as soon as they stopped again in some town or village on the merchant's itinerary.
Damon's suspicions were correct, he found, when the next day after breakfast they headed back down the road and came to Zenjirli, a legendary fortress city guarding a main trade route to the west.
Famed for their vast military machine and fighting prowess on horseback as well as their ability to besiege the greatest walled cities, the Assyrians were even more famous for their savagery when waging wars to carve out an empire. They especially liked to cut off the heads of the people of captured cities, pile them in huge pyramids outside the gates of the city, and then they burned everything down and what slaves they took they put fish hooks in their noses and led them off tied to a single, long string. No wonder theyw ere so hated! he thought. Their enemies were kept at bay by fear, but not even fear could surpass the desires for avenging what the Assyrians had done to all the nations and peoples they could reach with their burning and looting and raping armies. In o ne day the capitals of Assyria were overwhelmed by the allied Elamites and Babelites and the Assyrian heartland wiped out, so that the capitals could not even be found anymore, they were so deep under the sands and rubble.
Zenjirli, located so far out from the major destruction, was not leveled like all the larger cities. It survived under Elamite administration with an Elamite governor installed. Then it passed to other kingdoms, one after the other, on up to modern times. The twenty or thirty foot thick ancient walls, built to last forever, were still useful to keep the bandit bands out, so they were maintained almost the same as the Assyrians had left them. The city's population gave away its Assyrian roots, with all the hooked noses and black, coarse, curly hair and beards of the men. Other than the walls and that physical throwback in the men to the past, it was much the same as any other Poseidonian country town, Damon recalled. But now he was coming in a very different manner. He was entering the life of the town as an unknown, and he wished to keep it that way. He did not dare to show his camera and identify himself as the well-known photographer, as no doubt there were eyes watching for his reappearance and he would be quickly reported, for a reward, to the authorities who were out to haul him in.
Hadn't he been connected in some way with the mysterious eruptions in the mountains? Poseidona had heard all about it, and was buzzing with speculation about it, no doubt. And the secret services were probably in the thick of the effort to bring him in. Without any fault of his own, he had become the most wanted man on the White Continent.
He was disappointed though when the "hay merchant" pulled through the city gate, which was a narrow squeeze for the big hay wain, and then found a space wide enough in an alley and then gone promptly to sleep after pulling an old rug over his head as he slumped down across the truck seat.
"No supper?" Damon wondered. The dog too seemed to know the routine whenever they hit town, and he too took a few turns round on top the back gate, then settled down for the night after a couple growls and groans.
Wondring if he might safely hop off and go in search of an eatery, Damon could not decide and then his eyelids drooped, and he too dropped off to sleep, as the city around them closed its shutters with a bang and went to bed early, with no real night life except for a constable or two and watchman making his rounds on the walls and in the main streets. A couple time in the night the dog awakened at someone approaching, snarled like a tiger, and sent whoever it was packing--and then the silence resumed and they could sleep.
But it was still pitch dark when Damon heard a commotion up front, the hay merchant evidently was up and at it very early, a hour or more before dawn.
Deciding to stay where he was, comfortable in the hay, Damon couldn't, after a few more minutes, as the hay merchant came and began cranking up the impossibly engine.
The engine restarted somehow, and slouched and rattled its way through the alley to the open square beyond. There they halted, with the hay wain turned outward.
Damon wondered what was next, and soon found out, as the gypsy came pulling at the boards under the hay, and then began spreading whatever he took out on the back gate.
It was still too dark for Damon to see anything, so he just stayed where he was.
But the hay merchant handed him some slices of a sausage and an apple and a cheese of some kind, and Damon took it and it asked no questions.
Damon would have liked some eggs and bacon rashers with it, but he thought he might go for something more in the neighborhood. He rubbed his chin and felt the rough beard he was growing. He felt he needed a bath too, and wanted badly to clean up in a nice hotel suite after riding so long in the dusty hay. But he thought about it. Wasn't it good his appearance had become so unkempt? He didn't look his old self, but that would help him elude detection. He might even look quite like a gypsy as he now was, but he could really pass for one if he just tied a scarf around his neck, pulled on a wool cap, and added some jewelry to his wrists or neck.
Waiting for more light, he heard voices approaching, mostly women coming in to the square with carts heaped with vegetables, baskets, pots, even live chickens, and some sheep.
It was the city market! He had photographed it once, he recalled, but in far different circumstances. Now he was part of it, and could observe it as it really operated from his vantage point in the hay merchant's wagon. That was really a different role for him--becoming one of the common people, observing them as one of them instead of an affluent foreigner who comes to mix with them just to take photographs like he would with animals and exhibits in a zoo or circus and then fly off somewhere.
The various women who decided they wanted something, would bargain with him over the price, and Damon watched the gypsy hold his own with them, with an amazing repertoire of hand signs and gestures that the women seemed to recognize.
When the whole business of the price was concluded to the satisfaction of both parties, the money was cast up into a big bucket he kept hanging a little higher up from his wares, higher than anyone could comfortably reach, so it wasn't within the children's grasp. A number of times the women paid, not with coin or paper cash, but in eggs, or cheese, bread, and even some woven goods. The hay merchant took them cheerfully, and put them away immediately under the boards.
The market women all seemed to know the hay merchant, and the buying and selling went quite briskly and uneventfully for a time, but as the dawn came, the women drifted back to their own spots to tend to their various wares for the busy morning ahead.
By noon they would be packed up and on their way back to their various homes to tend their families, and work in their gardens and care for various livestock, whatever they had been able to make a go at in in this frontier.
As soon as the market women went back to their work, however, the gypsy sprang up from his carpet, threw it into the truck cab, and went to work putting all the unsold items back under the planks beneath the hay, and then went to the cab, climbed in, and the dog too hopped back on the back gate and, without any inquiring constable detaining them or some city authority demanding the local customs tax on sales, they were off!
Damon was glad he hadn't run off, or he would have missed his ride. He had intended to find a bus or even buy a car if it was good enough, but had second thoughts and stayed with the hay wain. He knew perfectly well that he wouldn't have made it out of town. He would have been recognized and arrested if he once showed himself like that in a business transaction. Any barber too would have reported him, for barbers knew all the talk and gossip of a wide arrea, and would alert the authorities to their customer being a wanted man.
Snuggling down in the hay wain, Damon decided he had best stick with the mute old gypsy trader as long as he could, at least until he could hop onto some city transportation nearest his home where he could travel anonymously among many other passengers. Here in the frontier towns, there weren't enough people passing through for him to travel alone and not be noticed and stopped for interrogation by the police.
Why couldn't he speak normally anyway.? he wondered, as the cart and truck moved slowly out of the city and down the road, before the authorities got their uniforms on squarely, their pants pulled up and all their buttons buttoned on their flies. Was he born that way? Or had something happpened--a blow to the head, paralysis, who knew? Yet the old man seemed to get on quite well without uttering one word to anyone. He used all sorts of signs, made by his eyes, hands, facial expressions, and even a shrug, and communicated what he wanted to say.
"I don't even know his name!" Damon thought. "I would like to pay him something too, but he doesn't seem to care if I pay or not for the ride he is giving me. Should I bring it up myself? Why, I don't even know his name!"
When the gypsy merchant stopped for the night, in a lonely place far down the road and a little off the road where there was no chance of being disturbed, Damon determined to see if the man would take some money--just to see his response.
It was too dark when the gypsy finished making camp, however, so Damon had to wait for morning, as the old gypsy turned in without supper, and Damon went to bed, but not without cutting off a piece of sausage hanging nearest him. That would take care of his hunger pangs, he knew. So it did. He rose early with the old man before dawn, and recalled his intention of the night before.
The old man just stared a brief moment at the money Damon held out to him. A quick shrug, and he went back to his business of getting them back on the road. That was that!
"He doesn't want it!" Damon thought. "What on earth! Doesn't he want to make some money off of carting me half across the country! Without him I would probably be rotting in some jail, or worse. I owe him a great deal for my freedom. His truck and cart are a perfect cover for me, and maybe I can reach to a big enough city where I can melt into the crowd and find a cab or another car that will get me home safely."
They never starved, however, despite how forsaken and depopulated the countryside was, being mostly high desert or shrubby wilderness. The gypsy always seemed to have enough food in his portable larder, even if they got nothing from the town. One thing he could comfort himself with was that the patrols were few in those areas, being not thought important enough for soldiery and expensive garrisons. They met few government or army vehicles, and then they didn't detain them or even take the trouble to inspect the hay merchant's truck and hay wain, particularly since it always kicked up such a fuss with extra amounts of explosive backfirings from the "engine" and huge clouds of smoke.
How did he manage that? Damon wondered. Did they all know him and thought him completely harmless--a nuisance but nothing more? One thing seemed sure. None of the authorities they met with wanted to inspect something that promised to blow up in their faces--so the hay merchant was waved on at the few checkpoints they did encounter in the out of way places they were visiting. But, there was an old story too, well-known in Poseidonia, that gypsies were thought bad Kismet and even baby snatchers (they would put their babies in the place of precious Poseidonian children!). That is why they were never allowed to settle in towns and cities, and were exiled to the roads and rivers, always moving about, staying seldom more then a day or so in anyplace they stopped to trade.
After a week of this, Damon was wondering seriously if he would ever make any progress home. He was about to jump ship too, being disgusted with the gypsy's meanderings which seemed to have no purpose at all to them. The very day he decided he had had enough, the hay merchant turned in at what looked like nothing more than a goat track and took a couple turns around some ridges of rock and there it was, an Argentine ranchero! But what a ranchero!
The strangest thing happened the moment the truck came to a snorting, puffing, smoke-billowing stop. The dog jumped at its lease, barking furiousy, and all the household came running out. Children were first to reach the old man. "Daddy!" they all cried, for there was no mistaking the universal word though translated into many languages. Women came next, followed by many white-garbed servants. They all greeted him a like they were his family. Then, last of all, a woman appeared at the manor house's entrance between the big white pillars. She waved, but did not come forward. Instead, the old gypsy dropped his neatly folded carpet rug he used at night to sleep under and hobbled as fast as he could to her, and she threw her arms around him, and he did the same to her.
Damon, stared at by the children, who were jumping up and down, all laughing and shouting things he couldn't comprehend in their Romany language, stood with his mouth hanging open. Who and what was this odd man who had carted him all round western Poseidonia without charge in his raunchy old rattletrap and then brought him home to a grand mansion like this?
When they finally let him go, one of the bigger boys took him on horseback to the distant ridge where the stream from their artestian spring joined other springs and became a tributary leading to the great river beyond that ran all the way to the eastern sea.
Damon knew the area well enough from previous photography tours (what part of the White Continent wasn't he conversant with?), and he knew the main highway would be just over the next ridge, and a town lay down that road half way to the river. It was large enough for him to hire or even buy a car, and he could travel the rest of the way in the way he preferred--alone, with his camera and film beside him, not exposed to loss or robbery. Since the films he knew had been added to his were so hot, he had all the more reason to travel alone and incognito.
Fortunately, he had enough money wired him for this last leg of the trip home. He had almost emptied an account he had, thinking he was out of his mind to do so, but now it was a big help to have the extra cash he needed to replace the car he had lost.
It was hard, to refuse the boy. Damon liked the gypsy's family, every one of them. They had accepted him completely, not like his own family, particularly his father who had never accepted his choice of career. He really felt at home for the first time among the gypsies. Their way of life really appealed to him--an isolated ranchero with its huge, open spaces, fine riding horses, and the camaraderie among the cattlemen and ranch hands--it was wonderful to think about sharing that and forgetting all the stresses and strains of big cities and the dog-eat-dog life that went on there. But he couldn't. He had "promises" to keep, he felt. This was just too easy for him, if he remained with the gypsies. He felt he had a challenge he could not shirk. What was it? He didn't quite know. Besides, if he stayed, wouldn't he just draw the hounds down on them all, and his adopted family would suffer. No, it was best to go, and draw the hounds pursuing him as far away from these kind-hearted gypsies as possible.
So Damon and the sad-faced Mariano exchanged the special handshake and the pecular Romany word for friends taking leave of each other, and Damon was on his own. Mariano gave a slap to the rump of Damon's horse, a beautiful black stallion, which flew off back toward the ranchero. A moment later Mariano leaped up on his own horse. Damon took the time and watched the boy on his pinto gallop away back to the little paradise up on the high desert plateau, a rider and his horse growing smaller and smaller, then vanishing amidst the mesquite and joshua trees.
Damon knew no such happy home as this one of Mariano's, his own being urban, set in a big city beside the river (once a royal city took, with streets of palaces and government buildings set in parklike settings), where he had grown up in a waterfront villa. There he had always known all the comforts and privileges of a well-to-do family whose father was a successful physician to high government officials. Yet it was not satisfying to something in his spirit and heart, so he had determined to find another line of work, a trade by which he could travel and seek out how the rest of the world did things, and perhaps he might find the thing or person that would fill the need he felt deep inside that his father's house and the life they knew could not. Choosing photography against his father's wishes, he had stepped down in society with such a trade, but it was a great way he found to make a lot of money if one was good enough at supplying the magazines with the shots of the exotic places their readers demanded. Yet it hadn't given him everything on a deeper level.
He envied the boy, his simple, carefree existence, but he recalled the lot of most gypsies he knew of, how they were so despised and downtrodden, with scarcely anything to enjoy in life like what he had seen. What was the old gypsy's secret? He couldn't talk, but he made the best of it, operating a trade route that worked well for him because he could keep his profits from being robbed from him and others couldn't. He had a good reason for his silence: no tongue. It had been a shock to Damon to find that out, coming out from the back of the hay wain to see what the gypsy was doing, and finding him asleep at the wheel, his head thrown back on the seat, his mouth open.
He was horrified and backed away, taking silent steps until he was out of sight. Then he knew: the rumors were true that he had heard years before, how gypsies were treated when a mob in town or some city wanted to have some fun with them. It was a cruel age, he knew, when innocent, mild, gentle people like this man and his family were had to fear such atrocities from the society around them. He didn't like it anymore. He hardly felt like a Poseidonian or wanted to be one.
What could he do anyway to change it? Nothing!
He walked in to town and headed for the main business district, where he knew he could find anything he wanted. You could always find a group of dealers and procurers, gathered there to arrange business ventures and sales, big or small. Money could buy anything, and if it wasn't in the town, it would soon be brought in, for these man had wide connections.
That very day he was on his way home, making good time too on the highway. The only problem was that someone had spotted him, he soon found out.
Knowing what would happen to him--he'd soon be dead meat for a bunch of vultures to dine on--Damon jammed the gas pedal down, the car reached 80-90-100 and beyond--then he swung sharply to the left, shot down the incline of the road bank, uprooting some shrubs on the way, and then went airborne as his wheels cleared the edge of the levee.
The river was full of 100 foot high lanteen sails, which was not unusual as the traders were always active at this time when the river was full of snow melt and they could sail up the tributaries and reach towns that were out of reach most of the year during the long, hot, rainless summers.
Since Poseidonians, though riverine in their culture, accustomed to a lot of water due to the two great rivers that watered the canals that traversed most of their country's farmlands, despised river folk and their ways as an inferior class, the boatmen were a class unto themselves, made up of mostly upcountry tribes, Persians, Hittites, Elamites, and the like. These peoples had all been defeated unconditionally, their various empires destroyed and their capitals and chief cities buried by sands, ashes and rubble--but the various nationalities survived the bloody wars somehow and lived on and made do with commerce and trading on the rivers.
A Persian merchant boat was nearest the spot where Damon's car went under and on its way downriver. It was a surprise that added some interest to their tedious day of work on the river keeping their boat off the sandbars and drifts of submerged logs and debris, but they had seen other vehicles miss the road and land in the river before. Perhaps this was just another such mishap of a drunk driver, the boatmen thought, and whoever was nearest and quickest might win a reward for making a rescue of the driver. They even had winches aboard to pull up vehicles, if they weren't too heavy and the winch didn't break! Trucks were out of the question, but cars--yes, they could do most of the smaller kinds. That work of course had to bring a substantial reward. Also, Persians, who had been renowned for ages as horsemen, out of necessity to find new ways of making a living rather than ruling and taxing others far and wide, learned a new thing, they become expert divers. They could retrieve valuable items from the vehicles too, even if they couldn't be raised. It was a chance to turn a nice profit, and perhaps make the entire voyage a success before they even delivered their shipment of sugar cane to the warehouse down on the docks at Poseidia's port.
All he saw was that he was in the cycle-cab, and he and Arlena were dodging a lot of nasty-looking hooks and sharks. Where was it? He had no idea. The air was so murky, full of dirt, and yet the cycle-cab ran just like it always had. He thought he was doing a good job so far when suddenly he must have grazed a hook for he felt yanked violently by the arm and everything went black.
A short time later he was back, he hadn't found much, just a soggy case of some sort.
It hadn't actually been in the car, but was thrown out, yet somehow it had landed on the car's hood. Rustem couldn't see exactly what it was, but he had brushed against it, then realized it might be something the driver had brought, and not a piece of wood or other debris in the river. Pulling its straps round his neck, he pushed off the car and rose quickly to the surface and then made for the Xerxes the Great King, the leaky old sugar boat his rich uncle owned and operated.
Persians! Damon thought. Well, that was progress. They maybe could understand a few more words he knew from that language, if he could think more clearly and remember them. Maybe now he could get some help out of his predicament.
He tried to rise up, but his whole body now began to hurt. He had seemingly wrenched every muscle in his body, so he lay back down and just lay there, resting for a few moments. He tried again, but the pain was worse. His eyes clouded, and he felt like he might pass out from the pain.
Rustem, seeing his fish wasn't doing very well, went for an extra blanket his uncle kept in case it was needed, and brought it and covered Damon, who was now shaking from cold and shock from the accident.
Rustem's uncle returned to his business, getting the boat safely to the port to drop off the sugar cane, and so the boat returned to the main channel as Damon rested, and continued swiftly on its way with the big sail added to the current's push.
Later, when he was free for a moment, Rustem brought Damon something to eat, just some dried figs and a piece of smoked fish. Damon couldn't get the fish down, and the dried fruit stuck in his throat, so Rustem got him some wine, not very good, but better than river water right now for someone who had drunk far too much of it to stomach a drop more.
The wine seemed to warm him, and Damon went back to resting and slept. Rustem decided he didn't need his own blanket and laid it over Damon so he had two to keep him extra warm, as cold wind from the high desert could sweep down and nights could get chilly even on the river.
Damon dreamed again of Arlena and himself, but the dream changed. He was no longer trying to take her through an obstacle course of hooks and sharks but showing her his father's beautiful villa, room by room. After a tour of it, Arlena turned to him and said, "It is a nice house your father has. He wants to leave it to you someday, he says. You are the head of the family when he passes. Yours is an old, important family, I take it, with a fine name and fortune. You should be happy to be back safe with your family again. Why don't you stay and make them happy? They all seem so relieved you are all right. Haven't you had enough adventures for a lifetime? Why don't you do as your father desires and settle down? As for me, I am going back to Port Andros. I am needed there."
"No, don't go, I want you here!" he cried, but she faded, and Natalia took her place. What a shock that was! At the same time, he realized his heart told him, here is the one you really want for your wife. But...what about his career in photography? It got him into too much trouble-- especially with the spy pictures--and he couldn't expose Natalia to such danger! If he stayed in one place, he would be an easy target, and she wouldn't be safe beside him. He had no choice, he had to travel and keep on the move, to be one step ahead of whoever was pursuing him..."
Natalia didn't agree. "But, Damon, it's not necessary to live like that!" she said. She smiled, telling him that they could trust the Lord Yeshua for their protection. "With Yeshua, you see, we don't have to run from them, no matter how many they are! We have power in Him. We don't have to go it alone. That is what you have always done. Gone through it alone, taking your chances, trusting in luck. Has it worked? Has it?"
Thinking she was crazy, she didn't know what she was talking about, he was trying to tell Natalia not to come any closer to him, when she too faded and men jumped at him from the shadows. It was the same old thing. Would he ever have his private life again? Not since his identity had been stolen had he been able to go one day without a pack of baying hounds hot on his trail!
He was twisting in his blankets, kicking and hitting at leaping shadows when Rustem ran over and seized his arms, holding him until Damon came back to his right mind and subsided.
When Damon realized where he was, he was relieved and closed his eyes again, his hand lying on an object he only gradually realized was his camera case, only it was so soggy it felt like a dead river carp.
He thought about his benefactors, these simple boat men. Wouldn't they now be at risk, giving him refuge and shelter? He ought not to expose them to attack. What should he do? Ask them to drop him off as soon as he could make it on his own two feet? His ribs were calming down, he felt, after all the wrenching he had undergone in crash into the river. It was a wonder he had not rebroken them!
As he was wondering what was best to do, his thoughts drifted into cloudiness and he was fast asleep again, not knowing it was broad day and the sun was pouring down on the ship and the river. Only when he felt the burning sun on his blanket did he waken and crack open his eyes.
Just as he thought about the top secret photos, another shadow darted overhead, travelling from downriver. It was no doubt an aircraft coming from the big government air base outside the capital. Was it sent out to search for him and this particular boat? He had no reason not to consider it. But what was he to do? Hide under the sugar cane?
He sat up, rubbing his face and eyes to get the sleep out. He felt so much better. His body didn't hurt all over. He still had some bruises and some scrapes and his clothes were just what he saw before him, but he was going to be all right, he realized. But for how long? He had to be moving, or someone was going to be meeting him at the dock wherever this boat came to land--he knew for certain. They had to be tracked. But why didn't they just send a boat out to intercept him? Just as he thought that, a dark painted motor boat, low in the water, was indeed headed their way.
Oh, no! Damon thought. He jumped up, forgetting his tender ribs, and pulled on his pants. He wasn't going to be arrested without his pants on! He stuffed his wallet, money, and identification in his pockets, then turned to see if he could get anyone's attention, to see if something could be done to stop whomever was in the approaching motorboat from dragging him off.
Just then Rustem leaned out on that side and saw the strangers and their weapons, and he rummaged quickly under the sugar cane, and brought out his own answer to the challenge, a silver-engraved antigue firearm. He also pulled out a wooden casque, scooped with his hand, stuffed the huge barrel with all sorts of sharp projectiles. Then he leaped up, facing the strangers, his finger cocked on the trigger by the time the motorboat came alongside. The helmeted and heavily armed government soldiers aboard, or men who were dressed in government uniforms at any rate, shouted up to Rustem. It was clear what they wanted. They had onboard a wanted criminal, they said. "Hand this state traitor down to us immediately or pay a severe penalty."
Rustem didn't flinch. He stood and did not answer.
The officer shouting at him shook his fist. He glanced up at the boat's flag that had a Persian fire altar, then down at Rustem with contempt. "Put down your rifle! We will shoot both of you if you resist, you dirty, little miscarriage of a Persian bitch!"
Rustem shook his head, as if he could not comprehend, but his face was red, hearing what they had called him. The shouts got more angry, and their rifles were pointed at him, but Rustem kept his rifle pointed at the whole group. He had more than enough nails and tacks and glass shards in his firearm to deliver them all a nasty surprise and a hard reproof, if they persisted in threatening him and his uncle's ship.
Damon, watching this whole scene, heard a throat being cleared, and someone, it turned out to be Rustem's uncle, who was standing up on the cross mast, muttering equal sentiments about the stranger spitting in the direction of the government men's parents and wives and daughters. The next moment, as if that was a signal, Rustem's firearm discharged, accidentally or purposely, it did not matter. The men in the boat and their colonel-uniformed commander caught the contents and were screaming and writhing in the boat, while it began to drift away. They never got a single shot off at Rustem in return. Rustem's uncle spat again, as if saying "Good riddance to filthy rubbish!"
Rustem turned back to Damon, as if in apology for the fuss. He went and pulled a blanket up over Damon's shoulders, and waved his hand to the bedding as if Daman should go back to his rest and leave the rest of the voyage to Rustem and his uncle.
What could Damon do now? The trouble was taken care of. The government would think twice about approaching this boat again. But maybe they would have an even greater force awaiting them at the port. Well, if that was so, Rustem's expression was carefree, smiling as before, and he evidently lived in the moment and didn't worry about the rocks and turbulence in the river ahead as long as he had smooth sailing now.
Sitting back down as his host had suggested, Damon saw Rustem going back to his duties, scrambling like a monkey with his little brother up the tree-tall mast to adjust the sail.
After some lunch that Rustem's little brother brought him in a piece of sail, Damon ate, drank some wine, then rested some more. The hours passed as they continued down the river, the current sufficient and strong to carry them even without the sail. There were no more flyovers. It seemed the world had forgotten them, after the government boat had gone, its men too badly cut up to try again take Damon off.
The hours slipped into dusk, while Damon rested comfortably.
Then he heard something scraping against the hull. A moment or two later, fingers showed, then a hand and a head as someone came aboard from a small boat.
Rustem jumped down and put his arm over the other man's shoulders, as they greeted each other in the energetic Persian fashion.
Just as formal as a Persian nobleman, Rustem showed their guest around the ship, then turned to his passenger who was sitting up, watching them.
Rustem introduced them. "Sasan will take you to land, and any place you ask him. He can get you safely anywhere. You may trust him with your life!" At least that was what Damon understood in the mixed Persian and Poseidonian Rustem used.
Rustem then did something that Damon knew was a custom of some kind with these Perisans. He put Sasan's hand across Damon's which he had taken, as if to say, "You are in hand, so do all he tells you."
He then went and got an identification paper of Damon's that contained his home address, and showed it to Sasan, who nodded, took the paper and handed it to Damon. With a single glance at Damon, Rustrem left them, vanishing up into the sail and rigging.
Damon stared at Sasan, not sure what he should say or do. He was struck by the man's kindly eyes. Sasan in turn looked long at Damon, as if taking his measure as a man.
Damon did not know what was going on, but he let Sasan lead him down into his boat. It was a small one, too, and Damon almost upset it. But when Damon was lying down in the bottom where Sasan put him, with a carpet covering him from sight, only then did he untie his mooring rope from the ship and cast off.
Slowly the boats separated, then Sasan began plying the oars, and they quickly turned over toward the shore.
Damon lay rocked in the bottom of the boat, not uncomfortably, and wondered where he was going. Would Sasan be able to get him all the way home?
How capable was he anyway? Though he had some paper money, what good was it if he couldn't show his face? Perhaps Sasan would cash it for him, or pay for cabs or bus and train fares which they were going to need. He knew they had to be at least 100 miles out, and possibly more, from the capital, though he had to guess, not knowing the river like Rustem and Sasan and the other Persian mariners evidently knew it.
Damon was surprised when Sasan left his boat, tying it up at a place where a ladder had been sunk with iron rungs into the stones. They climbed up the seawall and started across the vast square which was empty except for pieces of the colossal statue of whatever Roman emperor had once stood there after conquering all the way to the Eastern Great Sea.
With wide eyes, Damon watched Sasan jump in, start it, and then back out, the engine backfiring and throwing out a lot of smoke that reminded Damon of the Gypsy's old claptrap. The back seat lay down, and here Sasan led Damon, and he climbed in, finding there was just enough space for him if his knees were drawn up. As soon he was positioned, Sasan pulled a tarp pulled over him, hiding him from view just as he had been in the boat.
Damon didn't like the trip in the car one bit, it was just too bumpy in the back of the car, and Sasan drove like a madman.
He felt sick to his stomach by the time Sasan pulled up somewhere in a garage, the door pulled down the moment they were inside.
Damon didn't care who saw him, he sat up. Sasan was out of the car, and was talking fast with a lot of hand gestures to a man dressed like a mechanic in soiled overalls pulled over his other clothes. It looked like any auto repair shop, with pieces of car frame here and there on the walls, and headlights on a shelf, and all sorts of wrenches and equipment and the stains of oil everywhere.
The mechanic came over to the car and opened up the back, and Damon climbed out, sore and not a little annoyed after the rough ride.
The mechanic didn't smile, but turned and Sasan pointed to Damon to follow him as the man led the way, taking a door way that had been covered up with a car hood stood up against it. Behind it was a stairway that led up. Damon climbed the stairs with them, and they reached a room which had a single light, and a bed and some clothes and a few other items that looked like slippers and a man's cap and head covering.
The bathroom in a tiny niche of the room was visible, without a curtain. Damon didn't like the looks of it, and Sasan grinned. The mechanic left them and went back down the stair.
"What is this place?" Damon burst out. "Where is this? I'm not staying here! There isn't even a window! I've got to be able to look out. I can't stand being confined in a small space. It reminds me of--"
Rustem shook his head, smiling, at Damon's protests. He picked up the clothes lying on the chair next to the bed, and handed them to Damon, who understood but didn't want them. He looked them over. Even if they weren't to his taste, they were clean and close enough to his size to be comfortable. He decided he might try them, after a momentary struggle. He pulled on the shirt of plain white muslin. It felt good. He also thought to try the shoes. They were slip ons, and fit enough to wear. But one item he objected to. He wasn't going to put on the head cloth, which resembled those worn by the outlying desert tribes, but Rustem insisted, by holding it up for him to take.
Frowning, Damon tried it on, and with a few adjustments by Rustem to get it just right, giving it the look tribal men thought fashionable, Rustem seemed pleased, and then showed him the mirror, holding it up for him.
What did he look like now?" Damon thought. A common tradesman from the tribes! No one would look twice at him in the street. Tribal people people were always coming in to sell things in the markets, wherever they didn't get too much trouble from the local police. Poseidonian housewives liked to buy from them, however, for their prices were generally low, and they sold handcrafted articles and beautiful, tribal weavings, items they couldn't get in the stores.
Feeling like he would not mind his new set of clothes so much after all, Damon took a look into the small bathroom, found a shower and used it, then redressed himself, and by this time Sasan had found a dinner for the two of them. It was native dishes of Persian kind, a lot of rice pilaf and lamb bits and some hot pepper and spicy pickles, with carafe of wine. They sat on the bed, with the chair as a table, and enjoyed it, as the food was hot and well-prepared--as good as any Damon had tasted even in the better restaurants.
Finished, Sasan did not stop to put anything away. Even though Sasan looked tired, he moved quickly enough, leading Damon back down and out of the garage, this time they were going on foot. It was a small town, and they crossed it in minutes, and on the outskirts they came to a shed, where a motor boat was kept. Unlocking the chain on it, Sasan drew the chain into the boat, then took the driver's seat, and the other was for Damon. This time Damon wasn't made to hide. He sat up, wearing the head cloth and in his clothes he wasn't going to look like himself.
Sasan took an oar, and polled the boat out of the shed and into the river, and then let it drift for a while away from shore, and when they were beyond the town he started the motor, then climbed back into the driver's seat, and they were off!
The wind gusted and blew off Damon's head cloth, and Sasan laughed when Damon snatched for it, but couldn't catch it in time.
They quickly ate up the miles as they raced along, passing many a trader and now and then an incoming, seagoing ship or fishing boat. The river traffic was increasing, Damon noticed as they neared the capital. But Sasan did not slow up. He did turn off the river, however, taking the first of many canals that intersected the city. Once in the maze of canals, the going was slower, as the canals were more closely patrolled by police and there was a lot of local traffic as well. Wasn't he taking a chance coming in like that? Damon wondered. Sasan didn't seem to be worried or concerned, as Damon glanced at him from time to time. He felt so exposed, sitting up front there, as they headed down a canal Damon knew was taking him directly to his father's villa. It was located right across from big government buildings of the Foreign Intelligence Ministry, he knew. He had never been concerned about that before, but now it seemed the worst neighbor his father could have ever picked.
What if he was spotted, after all the trouble taken to get him this far. The Persians--Rustem, his uncle, and then Sasan and his mechanic friend, they had all put themselves at risk for his sake--and for what? They hadn't indicated they wanted one thing from him in return. Would they take any money? He had to try. Mere thanks seem to be a shabby return for all their help and the danger they had faced because of his company and harboring him from the authorities. He got out his wallet and saw he had a good amount left. Sasan could have it all, as far as he was concerned. He had earned it!
They had come in sight of his father's villa when the unexpected happened. Sitting tensely, watching for any government or police boat, Damon felt like time was standing still.
Then suddenly a strange shaped, motorless aircraft flew down and blocked their path. It was manned by what looked like an ancient Hellene-- an extinct race of people who had lived on the Middle Sea, on the eastern islands in it, as well as far south, adjoining what had been ancient Mizraim! What was he doing?
Sasan did not miss a beat. He gunned the motor, made a sharp u-turn, and they were off at full speed, pursued by a government patrol boat and the Hellene on his motorless, flying spike! Damon hung on, the spray soon drenching him as Sasan swung the boat violently down one canal and another, swerving round other boats. At one turn they almost lost control, but made it, but their pursuer wasn't as good at the wheel as Sasan, for they heard a sickening crash. A big smoke cloud burst behind them too, and they knew the men in it didn't have a chance to get out.
Sasan kept going, however, without a glance back. Damon couldn't help it, though. Then he saw the spike with the man holding to it following.
Vaguely, he recalled something like that, way back in the White Mountains. It had happened, yes, but he had put it from his mind. Hadn't he seen this thing before? What did it have to do with him? What was it anyway? Sasan wasn't any help. He had seen it, but had made no comment. But then, Sasan didn't say anything if he could help it in Poseidonian, leaving him to try and figure things out with just sign language.
They turned again, as Sasan did not like to stay any considerable time in any one canal. But this was not a good decision, they soon found out. A line of gunboats blocked the canal. Sasan turned back around, and raced to get out of the trap.
But they weren't going to escape the dragnet after all, both saw at the same time. The way ahead was also blocked by boats that slid into view from the sides.
Just then the spike and its rider swooped down, and the Hellene aboard reached and grabbed at Damon. Realizing what was meant, Damon caught the man's hand, and the moment Damon was pulled up, danging for a few moments as he scrambled aboard the strange aircraft, Sasan dove from the boat.
The boat shot straight ahead, ramming into the cordon of boats, blowing up and scattering the men aboard as they leaped into the water.
Meanwhile, Damon was being lifted high and beyond the city, but he got off a glance or two back to see how Sasan was doing, and couldn't see a sign of him. Or was it he who was climbing out and running off? It was only a momentary glimpse, but he hoped it was.
But there was much bigger trouble brewing, Damon soon discovered.
The international furor over the Consul-General's wife's assassination in Port Andros, or was it something else? Whatever it was, it had come to a flash-point even in the last seconds of Damon's near capture. As they shot upwards, taking a westerly course, there was a blinding flash and Damon was fortunate he wasn't looking directly at it as many did and were blinded as a result.
The whole world seemed to be coming to an end in the next seconds as a monstrous cloud erupted, pulling upwards most of the capital into its churning column of smoke and debris.
Damon, sinking down at the mast, realized what was happening, though he had always thought no one would be stupid enought to start a world war with nuclear weapons.
Well, the worst was happening. His world was self-destructing, and his family? His family? They were close to epicenter. There was no possibility of escaping alive. He could not bear the thought. He clung to the mast, shattered by what he knew was taking place.