Snarling hounds as big as ponies milled about the narrow defile, slashing at each other and their masters with finger-sized teeth. Their sparse, coarse hair left dirty gray skin exposed, and failed to hide fresh, gaping wounds. The whole pack had gone mad.
Horny claws left raking tracks in the soft sandstone. The hellhounds shook their massive heads, blinked saucer-sized ocher eyes and twitched their long, rat-like noses as the old man's powdery fire-dust seared their nasal membranes. They howled like canine banshees. They ran in circles and backed across their own tracks as if desperately avoiding swarms of invisible bees.
Unable to identify the source of their excruciating pain, they fell upon each other blindly; great fangs tore patchy fur, grimy skin, and dark red flesh. Gobbets of blood-flecked foam dangled from their jaws and flew through the air as they twisted and spun madly about, oblivious to their hideous wounds and to their hidden quarry.
The old man allowed himself an almost-silent chuckle that was drowned in the howls and snarls of his erstwhile pursuers. He held up a tiny leather bag, gave its drawstring a decisive tug, and tucked it away in his sorcerer's robe. His eyes returned to the bloody carnage beyond.
The dogs' masters, huge men with identical shocks of white-blond, curly hair, waded among the beasts swinging short clubs and heavy chains, their black leather jerkins and trousers impervious to teeth and claws. Sweat thickened with alkaline dust glistened on their almost-identical faces. The hidden man noted with satisfaction that they were reeling with heat and fatigue. A baleful red sun, desert-hot even late in the day, beat down from a dust-laden sky, casting crimson shadows over a rust and ocher and black landscape unrelieved by a single growing thing.
The oldster was not pleased they had holstered handguns-lasers, judging by the powerpacks slung over their buttocks. Forcing his ancient knees to be steady, he rose to his feet and began the arduous climb to the safety of the heights above the ravine.
Atop the gully, the oldster paused to catch his breath and to reflect. Two thousand years, more or less, and at times like this it seemed like nothing had really changed. Two thousand years after the Fall of Man there were still dogs, and leather-clad cops-honches, they were called now. Their wide belts still sagged with leather packets. They were still a-jingle with chains, their garments studded liberally with silver bosses, their calf-height boots strapped and buckled. He recognized them for what they were: shiny, timeless tools of intimidation and threat. Even after two thousand unsuccessful years, those cops were still chasing the last black man on Earth.
Never mind that the steely-eyed aryan types were only half-men spliced together from the genes of military policemen and second-rate TV stars who looked good in uniform-any uniform, from a Roman centurion's or a Nazi SS colonel's to a NYPD sergeant's. They were still cops.
Never mind that the polymorphic, mutated hounds had brains twice the size of an Alsatian's. They were still dogs.
The odds were not much worse than they'd been in Detroit or LA. Those eight honches and all their relatives were identical in mind as well as physiognomy, with none of the quirks or sparks of creativity that had made real cops dangerous. What would fool one would fool all the others, and with two millennia of practice, the old man had learned all the tricks.
Even the hounds were not perfect. They resulted from the chemical mutagens that had poisoned the planet, not from careful design, and were cancer-ridden from the day they were whelped. Their hides were ulcerated by desert sunlight and irritated by salty dust, and their clever brains never had time to learn enough to make them truly deadly. Most lived only two or three years, and none reached five. While the rest of the world, plants and animals alike, were recovering from the PCBs and DDTs and poly-fluorinated this'n that, the honches' unimaginative breeding programs had preserved their hounds' imperfections along with their great size and their brains.
Rising stiffly to his feet, the oldster shook the dust from his faded robe. The mystic symbols adorning it were as old as mankind, and were interspersed with benzine rings, flowchart conventions, and microcircuitry diagrams. Only an educated man would have recognized any of them, and there had been none on Earth for over a thousand years. He wrapped the robe over his all-weather Everlon? utility suit, and strode off in search of his mules.
Kaledrin-something's wrong with this output. This is no classic myth. Who is this old man? What in the name of Sapience is a "honch?" Have you been playing games with the biocybes' input again?
(Saphooth, Head Archivist, Project Mythic)
Patience, Your Intellect. This is preliminary stuff. Abrovid says that the biocybes are self-calibrating quasi-organic computers. They need more input, more myths, before they develop the proper algorithms.
(Kaledrin, Senior Editor)
The mules had not strayed far from where he'd hobbled them. One was saddled, and the other bore battered leather trunks, one on each side. One was four-legged, the other, eight. They had discovered a rare clump of rock-thistle in a shady crevice, and were deftly pulling fat, succulent flowers from the prickly bush with their pink lip-tendrils.
His old brown hands stroked the saddle-mule's cheek. Some ways off now, down in the rocky defile, the hellhounds' harsh baying waned. The old man was unworried, secure among the rocks many man-heights above the trail. His mules stood rested, ready for a long night's work.
A heavy staff crafted of twisted blue beech leaned on a jutting outcrop. Both ends were bronze-shod-the base a scarred cap and the top a sphere the size of a small apple.
"Well enough, old ass," he murmured, peering over his mount's shoulder and down his back trail, "the devil-dogs'll recover soon enough. It's getting dark and we must make tracks. Are you rested enough?"
<Rested?> the beast replied querulously. It's voice was as smooth as the old man's, with no trace of mulish bray. <I carried your sharp-boned carcass for hours, and rested for mere minutes-don't be an ass, yourself. But I'm not ready to be dog-meat. I'm rested enough.> The mule's words came forth without visible movement of its lips and their dangling tendrils. It stood motionless, no shine of superior intelligence in its huge, brown eyes.
<Quit bickering,> said the pack mule, continuing to chew its mouthful of coarse weed even as it spoke. <The honches have eyes to follow our trail, not pepper-filled noses.>
"Don't talk with your mouth full," the mules' owner said. "Nevertheless, your point's well taken. Your hoofprints will stand out even by moonlight. We'll have to lose them in the rocks above."
For all their conversational abilities, the two mules responded no differently than their less verbose ordinary brethren to the old man's attempts to get them moving. Several blows and curses later the trio were on their way up a narrow trail among dry, broken boulders. The hounds' uproar diminished further. Still, the mules' hoofprints stood out clearly in the dusty soil.
"Here's a vantage point," the oldster said, "high enough so they won't see us." The defile was a line of blackness among the rocks, impenetrable to human eyes. The old man swore mildly, fiddled with a tiny bump on his staff, and mumbled an incantation. The landscape took on an eerie reddish glow quite in contrast with the sickly moonlight.
"Seven," he whispered. "Where's the eighth?" The red glow intensified. "Ah! There! He's off the trail, cutting in front of us"
<Oh, no!> The exclamation came from the direction of the saddled mule. <You want us to go over the top, don't you?>
<With both these trunks on my back?> came from the other beast. <Impossible!>
"Not impossible. You'll prance over those rocks like goats, with my help," their owner said.
<He's going to use his staff.> the saddle mule said, dully resigned.
<Not again!> the other replied. <I'm still queasy from the last time he played that trick. Goats, hah!>
"You'll do it," the old man countered. "That pepper will wear off. Those hounds'll be no happier for their new scabs and sores."
<Shut up, old man. Wind up your silly staff, and waft us over the hills.>
"It doesn't wind up, you ass. It's a magic staff."
<Magic, shmagic,> said the mule. <I could put your magic in my left ear.>
"It's a big ear, you being a mule."
<S'what I said. Wind it up.>
The old man peered down the hillside a last time. "They're still on our trail. Six behind us, one cutting ahead, and one staying with the dogs."
There was a route through the rocky, shattered countryside besides the obvious trail-a narrow, difficult side-path over clean, soil-free rock. The honches would follow it, never dreaming that man and mules had gone straight up the steep hillside.
He hefted his staff. "If I remember how to do this ... the honches, ahead and behind, will get the worst of it ... and you fellows'll feel like colts again." He mumbled another incantation and followed it with "C'mon, mules, giddyup!"
Both beasts responded without further prompting. Like goats they took to the heights, finding footholds where none seemed to exist. Even laden with trunks and elderly rider, they seemed to float over small obstacles and climbed easily over larger ones. Below, the honches responded to the spell differently: they moved slowly, without swagger, plodding like fat old men.
The mules reached the top of the ridge. The oldster peered backwards one last time. The six exhausted honches and the one who had tried to cut the quarry off met in mid-defile, and concluded what the oldster had wished: that he and his mules had taken the side trail.
<Well!> his mule exclaimed, <It worked.>
"Of course it did. You doubted my sorcery?"
<Sorcery, shmorcery! A mere cone of deflection between us and the Earth's core, a minor reduction in local gravitation here and an equally minor increase over there. Any horse's arse with the proper gimmickry could do it. Just don't forget to recharge the batteries this time-square of the distance, isn't it? If those honches got everything we didn't, that staff's about shot, right now.>
"Don't tell me my business. It's a clear sky-tomorrow'll be sunny. I'll have all the power I need by noon."
<S'what you said the last time, old man.>
By dawn's first gray glow they were plodding down the northern slope over short, verdant grass. Songfrogs hopped out of their path, chirping merrily, and flying snakes circled about them, bright, iridescent colors flashing off their tiny multiple wings. The air was full of humming, whistling, and nattering creatures, each celebrating the return of day. The bleak lands were behind them.
The old man was less cheery than his surroundings warranted. <What ails you, old fellow?> his mule demanded. <We lost them, didn't we? And there's a city only a half-day's walk, all downhill.>
"I hope they give up once they're sure they've lost our trail," he replied. "There's a pure-human camp that way. I'd forgotten about it, or I'd never have steered them that way."
"Whuff!" the mule snorted, in an entirely different, definitely more mulish, voice than before.
"You're right," the man replied, "they'll turn before then. After all, they'll be eager for a night in town, too. We're lucky Vilbursiton is large-they'll never find us there."
<What will we find there?> asked the mule.
"Who knows? Perhaps a stable with good oats for you, a warm room and a bottle for me. Then we'll do magic tricks to fool the yokels, write letters for others, and of course there'll be a Temple needing reprogramming and repair-there's always that," the old man's voice grated bitterly. "A thousand years and fifty thousand Temples ... and I've barely begun the task."
<Bury your self-pity, old fraud!> his saddle mule scolded mildly. <You're only responsible for half a continent. Let the other magicians worry about the rest of the world.>
"If there are others," he muttered peevishly. "Old Yasha hasn't reported in for five hundred years-since the last satlink failed."
<Neither have you, Archie,> the mule replied. <After all, the satellites weren't built to work a thousand years overtime.>
"Neither was I," the old man said, shaking his head sadly. "Neither was I."
Kaledrin grimaced. No one not an anachronism himself used hard copy in this day and age. "I'm sorry if the output displeases you, Estimable One," he said aloud, failing to suppress a snide overtone. "The biocybes' instructions were given exactly as specified, and the source-tales were read into their memory from the earliest and most reliable documents-also exactly as directed." Careful, K, he warned himself. Old fool he may be, but still he's your employer. Taking a deep breath, he said "If this 'Archie,' is truly Achibol the Sorcerer, the next batch of output will tell us. Perhaps he's merely a minor character dredged from obscurity by whatever sophisticated new algorithms the biocybes have created for themselves."
"Perhaps so. I fail to understand how such programs, intended to clarify ancient tales, present instead new enigmas. `Honches,' for example. From what forgotten legend do they spring?"
"I don't know, Perceptive One. We've given the Biocybes millions of ancient words to digest, from so many worlds. Speculation is premature. This entry is, after all, a `Prologue'. The next output batch may arrive tomorrow." Kaledrin leaned back on his nether tentacles, his breath whistling evenly from wide-open spiracles, the perfect picture of a relaxed and calm human being. "Surely," he said smoothly, "we can both suppress our ... curiosity ... for another day?"
Saphooth spun about on his two bony shanks. "Twenty million neuro-creds," he muttered as the door irised open before him, "and we get nonsense." He departed abruptly.
"Well?" Kaledrin said, seemingly addressing the musty air of his small office, "Do you see what he's like, now?"
"A crotchety old soul, indeed," replied a second voice, from behind a stack of dusty data-cubes that contained the entire history of the planet Obolost, from its primal mud to the glory of its gleaming interstellar fleets (now themselves dust for several millennia.) "But you told him the truth." The speaker arose with a rattle of chitinous exoskeletal plates. Like Kaledrin, the second man affected the utilitarian, arthro-molluscoid form indigenous to this world, Midicor IV.
"You're the systems operator, Abrovid," Kaledrin retorted. "Why doesn't the tale bear closer resemblance to what we put into the computers?"
"Stop thinking of the biocybes as computers," Abrovid said. "They're class-A self-programming, organic-matrix artificial intelligences. Linked together, they're a synergistic quantum-leap beyond their individual selves. We may never know exactly how they think, or why they've chosen to give us output in the form they have. If you don't like what they're producing, you'll have to change the parameters they're ordered to work within-or Saphooth will. For now, why not follow your own advice-wait and see what they give us tomorrow, or the next day?"
Abrovid rose to full height, motational tentacles curled like helical springs, and glided to the door. A shaft of sunlight fell on him as it opened. "A lovely day for a man to sun himself along the river," he said, but Kaledrin did not reply.
"Dictation!" Abrovid heard the scholar command his personal AI terminal, buried somewhere amid the clutter and dust of his lair. "Editor's Introduction."
The first Tome of Achibol the Scrivener, Sorcerer and Ancient Man. Editor's Introduction
Achibol. His name reverberates down the corridors of prehistory, the primal character in a thousand mythologies. He is Achibol the God, who led the first men from their animal state to true humanity; he is also the Trickster whose attempts to conquer the universe always fail, instead freeing humanity from its planetary prisons and giving it the stars.
In some cultures, Achibol is a savior, in others an elfin spirit. Among the Moldabi he is a molt-sprite who trades gold tenday-pieces for infants' outgrown skins. The Yarbandrum stuff effigies of him with addlewort and dreamdust, and dance in the smoke of his burning, For a tenday they adopt shapes and semblances glimpsed in their hallucinations, all the while vilifying Achibol, father of lies.
Achibol myths are as varied as the somatoforms of those who tell them. Crustacean water-men of Scyllis people their tales with arachnoid and simian demons. Among the arachnoids of the Inner Arm, heroes are eight- or twelve-legged and villains are simian or crustacean or ... but you, whatever your chosen form, have surely observed this.
The single unifying thread of the myths is the struggle to become, to attain mastery of bodily form, whatever one's planetary ancestry. All human evolution converges toward that ability, that sets us apart from lesser lifeforms. But it is the nature of ancestral forms to reject such innovations, and many myths develop to express that primordial conflict.
Does the uniformity of mythic cycles point toward a single origin-world for all humanity, paleontological evidence to the contrary? Several persistent cults continue to believe so, and we hope that MYTHIC's revelations will put paid to such nonsense for once and for all. But these myths have been studied for millennia, you protest. What new insights can there be, after all this time?
Biocybernetic computers have their roots in prehistory. What is new is the application of the total resources of the Midicor biocybes to a single problem in literary analysis. Consider: there are 58,000 worlds with physically distinct sentients who share the ability to shift between shapes suitable on different worlds (and to interbreed freely). There are approximately 58,000 related origin-myths, the Achibol tales, whose universality suggests that they emerged early in human prehistory, during the "interstellar threshold stage" of each race's development.
The biocybes of Midicor IV are capable of holding the sum of human knowledge in their tumor-like memory masses. They have databases of all known languages, current and antique, extensive collections of myths, legends and apocryphal tales from scores of worlds, and billions of terabytes of histories, planetary biologies, and astrophysical compendia.
Use of the Midicor IV facilities by linguists, mythologists, and historians is not new, but the methodology of this experiment is. The experimenters combed the archives of several thousands of planets for variants of the Achibol tales, regardless of literary or historic worth. Apocryphal tales were not rejected, nor were outright works of fiction*. All the data are being entered in the biocybes' memories.
No parameters have been set; no criteria have been stated, no algorithms specified. The biocybes sole instruction is to compile a single version of the Achibol tales that is internally consistent, makes maximum use of the data, contradicts no sound scientific evidence on record, and that has the highest probability of being a factual account of actual historic events. Thus this first episode, this Prologue, is not a direct translation of one mythic sequence but a synthesis of many, each passage reconciled for consistency of form, style, and content by the most sophisticated artificial minds in the galaxy. Without human preconditions, the story you will read is their own interpretation, derived from the most complete data ever assembled.
The biocybes' processes are holographic-or intuitive. Secondary programs written by men and lesser cybernetic minds provide a reliability check on the biocybes themselves, but their function is strictly hindsight-they cannot duplicate what the biocybes do.
The interactive nature of the biocybes' research has amusing side-effects: each time new mythic fragments are introduced, they are analyzed for consistency not only with the developing narrative, but with previously-rejected data as well. The effect is a story that shifts subtly with each new input, as if the whole narrative were a fisherman's net, hexagons tied so that the slightest tug causes every other to change. It has been impossible to pin down the exact origin of particular changes.
Thus the tale you are about to read may change between this issuance and the next. As yet, the differences are so minor as to be unnoticeable, but the possibility exists that the next newly discovered myth from some backwater world* may initiate changes that ripple like a stiff breeze through the entire net. The truth of the whole, and of our human origins, will not be known until the last myth has been input.
(Kaledrin, Senior Editor)
BOOK ONE: MYTHS from the SCATTERED WORLDS
Since Sarbadathan tales are mostly thinly-veiled justification for that cruel rite they call the "crucible of minds," only the account of Benadek's striving to enter Achibol's domain is included here.
(Kaledrin, Senior Editor)
An urchin tugged at the old man's trousers, desperately working to remove them before his victim awakened from his winy stupor-but one shaggy eyebrow already twitched like a caterpillar with hiccoughs, and a drooping eyelid struggled to open, to discover the reason behind the breeze cooling his exposed genitals.
And what genitals! "If I had even the half of this old sot's meat," young Benadek marvelled...
<If you had old Achibol's sausage, you'd be limp as a pudding and no prettier than you are now, ignoramus.>
"Huh? Whozere? Who said that?" Benadek's quick rat-eyes combed the crannied alley for the source of the resonant voice. The passageway was as empty as when he'd first arrived. The old man was still out, his eyes glued shut with road dust and sweat. Benadek tugged harder, determined to get the fancy trousers over those fine leather shoes.
<Why bother with those gaudy pantaloons, child? Get the shoes, first. Or better yet, take that shiny coin. Surely you didn't overlook it?>
Benadek was not fooled. The voice was real. But where was the speaker? No one should care if an old drunk woke up with his balls in the breeze. The urchin surveyed the alley again. There were no hiding places, but Benadek's search turned up details hitherto unnoticed: next to a nailed-shut door was a bronze-shod staff, twisted wood that resembled a muscular arm. Crumpled on the dirt, was a faded cloth embroidered with odd symbols.
A sorcerer's robe! The urchin's beady eyes darted about. Sure enough, there in the shadow of the boarded-over doorway was a tall hat painted with the same symbols. Why had he not seen that before? Sorcery! Benadek had not survived back-alley life without being observant. But if the stuff had spells on it, how could he see it? And there! A shiny gold tenday piece, not even dusty. Only magic could have made him miss that.
Caution warred with greed. He stretched out a grimy hand, his earlier objectives abandoned.
<That's it, boy! Take the coin. Run away and leave old Achibol to his slumber.>
Benadek's hand jumped back as if the coin were red-hot. Again his beady rat-eyes combed the alley. Again, he saw nothing but staff, robe, hat, and the old wino with his pants down.
Complex emotions flowed crossed his mobile face. An urchin is by nature avaricious, quick to seize the least opportunity for gain: a loose-tied pouch that jingles, a hasp whose rivets are loose, a door left ajar-the stuff of prosperity, or at least of a meal or two. But such opportunities don't include disembodied voices or magically appearing coins.
The trembling in Benadek's limbs was a physical reflection of mental oscillations between warring impulses to snatch the coin and run, to ignore it and run, or to freeze like a frightened nutstealer.
His hand crept outward, beckoned by the prize that glittered atop the alley dust. His eyes darted from the old drunk to the coin, to the niches, crannies and shadows. His nose twitched like a crack-rat's; he lacked only long whiskers to make the semblance exact. His hand approached its goal. He imagined he felt heat from the rich, fiery disk.
<Wait!> The voice came from directly overhead. He stiffened into renewed immobility, a ledgebird caught in the open square. His eyes rolled upward, but they saw only his own eyebrows. <The old fart needs help. You've been paid-now get him to his feet.>
Paid? A familiar word, but not in this context: payment came after an errand was run, a message delivered. Who would give a copper minute-bit for his services, in advance? The oddity of the notion kept him from running away. He was also less than sure that the voice would not follow him, even as he ran.
Urchinhood demands flexibility: no two opportunities are the same. Routine activity leads to habit, and habit to getting caught. Benadek had never been caught. He made his decision: the voice had not harmed him; it had told him to take the coin. In one quick motion he snatched it from the dirt and turned to dart back to the relative safety of the street beyond.
He never made it. The street was not there! He faced a brick wall as solid, old, and dirty as the rest of the narrow way. With sinking heart, he turned slowly, his empty gut knotted around a lump of black coal: fear. Sorcerers trapped unwary boys and turned them into beasts of burden, dooming them to lives of servitude as mules or dogs or...
For all his slight stature, Benadek was no coward. "Well, old man? Is this your best trick? Show me a dragon, not a beat-up wall. Show me a dragon, or let me go on my way. I could have slit your drunken throat, you know, but I didn't. You owe me."
He turned to face his captor. The robe was no longer on the ground. It was on the sorcerer, who stood facing him, staff in hand, tall pointed hat on his head so that he towered over the slight figure before him.
"Never fear, rat-child. The wall can be removed as easily as it was built. As for dragons-dream them yourself. I have trouble with simple things like talking mules. I put the wall there to stop you, else you would have left without your coin."
Benadek's fist squeezed tighter over his prize, over the golden tenday piece that ... was no longer there. His eyes darted from his empty palm to the gleam between the sorcerer's finger and thumb. "You see? You would have forgotten it." With a careless gesture, the old man tossed the glittering disk in Benadek's direction. The boy caught it, and in the same motion backed up against the wall. He backed up one step and two, then three. In the corners of his eyes he saw the ends of the alley-walls, and beneath his feet felt the cobble paving of the street.
The wall was gone! He spun about and ran as he'd never run before. Behind him, he heard a low chuckle that carried further than such a quiet sound should have. With several blocks between him and the alley, he still imagined he could hear it.
Achibol the Scrivener, sorcerer and fortuneteller, charlatan
extraordinary, continued to chuckle as he made his way from the alley
to his commodious room in the old stone inn. Once, in a time lost to
all but memory, he too had been an urchin, a tiny brown face in the
ghetto of a huge city, a brown face among other brown and tan and black
ones, surrounded by a greater metropolis of well-scrubbed pink, yellow,
and white. He sprawled in his lumpy chair, and sighed. It was not good
to remember the old days, he reminded himself. Still, in an ancient,
forgotten dialect, he murmured an idle paraphrase:
<When you gonna learn you can't sing, old man?> his footstool said.
<Same day he learns he ain't Huddie Ledbetter, either!> said his robe from its peg by the door.
"I wonder where that boy is now?" Achibol murmured as he dozed off.
Benadek was at that moment emerging from a gape in the rubble of a collapsed mill-house, a secret place for occasions when he did not dare risk being pursued to his more comfortable regular hideaway. He'd stashed a tin of crackers there, and a water-bottle, but had touched neither.
He had, however, not been idle. Even running away, his mind had worked something like this: "I wish I knew magic! I'd never have to run and hide again. Poots would see me with my bright clothes and my gold, and they'd lift their skirts! Benadek the Magician! Benadek the Great Sorcerer, to whom the stones whisper their secrets!"
Ignoble dreams-but don't great endeavors start with small fantasies, with base desires? Is not Art transmuted Lust, and have not the greatest bards scrawled doggerel love-poems to impress objects of desire?
Benadek climbed from his hidey-hole with one goal in mind: find the old man and throw himself at his feet. Benadek, the wizard's apprentice. Benadek, assistant to the great Whatsisname. Benadek, colleague of warlocks and tamer of demons. Benadek...
He had an opener ready: "Sir, he would say, I'm back to perform your service. I'm sorry I ran, before-your skill and your demon voice terrified me but I, Benadek, will be your apprentice, your good right hand. My wage? Merely throw me the odd tenday piece when my purse grows light, and I'll bend all effort in your behalf. I'll utter the spells you teach me, to save your own throat from strain, and will taste the fine meals you surely demand, so no evil dose passes your lips..." Firing his resolve with such thoughts, Benadek the Urchin strode toward the alley whence he had emerged in terror only hours before.
Expectedly, the magician was no longer there, and no voices spoke from the stones, wood, and tile. Nor were there tracks in the dust. Magic, he determined, not knowing that it had rained while he hid, laying the dust and washing the cobbles.
There was only one inn in the neighborhood, surrounded by a wall twice Benadek's height. From a thief's apprentice, he knew it contained not only dwelling rooms but an alehouse with four porches and a stable for thirty steeds. Against the stable leaned an enormous haystack, its top just below the enceinte wall.
A guard stood at the gate-a honch of menacing demeanor. Blue leather failed to hide rippling muscles. His clothing was a-jingle with chains and shiny buttons, and his belt sagged from a nutwood club and a sword. Benadek was loathe to approach him.
Further along the wall a chokefire vine had established itself. The inn's proprietor, unwilling to touch a noxious plant which bled acid sap when jostled, that filled the air with lung-burning fumes when seriously disturbed, had let it grow. After all, it was no help to a wall-scaler. But Benadek was no average thief. He picked up a broken laundry-pole and probed the thick vine. His eyes burned, but most of the fumes rose straight up. He poked and prodded until he had jostled every branch. Beads of milky sap formed on twigs and leaves. The main branches and stems remained uncontaminated.
It was the work of a moment to slip into a greengrocer's shed to steal a pair of sharp scissors-the screws holding the door's hasp were loose. Benadek had dined on the vendor's produce before.
He clipped twigs and leaves from low branches, letting them fall to the ground. A second tier of foliage and a third followed. In short order, Benadek stripped the thick vine as high as he could reach, and hardly caught a whiff of acid vapor from the exhausted plant. Gritting his teeth against the possibility of stray drops of acid on the stems, he pulled himself as high onto the vine as he could without touching his head to the foliage above or his hands to the stubbed branch-ends, which wept copiously. From one side of the vine he trimmed the other, dodging deadly falling leaves, He shifted to the cleared side and clipped an arm's length more. Finally, he raised himself to the next level and began cutting again, one side and then the other, ascending the chokefire vine, then climbing atop the wall. He dropped safely into the haystack.
Unfortunately, he had little view from his hiding place. He would have to wander about, looking for the magician, and risk being apprehended and the guard called.
No one was in the courtyard. No one sat at the porch tables either. Should he enter the common-room? Benadek sank into the shadow of a well-house to think. If he had a message, and the name of someone to deliver it to... Did he know the name of anyone who might be here? Some prominent citizen, perhaps? No, the inn staff would be alert for such deception. He was not the first boy to enter under false pretenses, but he was determined to be one who got away with it. Minutes passed, and by the time he caught the first glimmer of possibility, he had been seen!
A fat, common fellow approached-a cook, by his once-white apron and the great cleaver dangling in one hamlike hand. "Here then, fellow!" the cook bellowed. "Come forward or I'll call the guard."
What had the sorcerer said? Had he spoken his name? Reluctantly, Benadek obeyed, trying all the while to remember.
"A message, good cook! I have a message for a gentleman here."
"So you all say," the cook said, shaking his head. His jowls flapped back and forth. "And who're you seeking? The lord mayor? The constable? I can find him quite promptly."
"The magician," Benadek squeaked as the fat man lifted him by his ear. "Ow! Please! Let me down! I have to see him. It's very important." The name. What was the name? It had sounded like a sneeze! "Achoo ... Achoob ... "Achoobowl! I have a message for Achoobowl! Ow! Let me go." The cook relented slightly, allowing Benadek to dance on his toes.
"And what, tell me, does he look like?"
"He's skinny and wears a pointy hat. His skin's the color of an old saddle. Ow! That hurts. Let me down."
"You won't try to run away? You can outrun me, but be sure you can't outrun Pretty Face here." He held the meat knife so close to Benadek's nose that his eyes crossed. "And if you did, Hammer-that's the guard, Hammer-would catch you anyway. You wouldn't want that!"
"I won't run! I have to give my message to Master Achoobowl."
"Then I'll take you to him. You'd better pray he's pleased with what you have to say." He led Benadek up the steps to the dining porch, still pinching his ear. He kicked open the double-hinged door, and dragged him into the common room.
Benadek's eyes adjusted rapidly, and he spied the magician at a far table. "There he is, master cook! That's Achoobowl. Please let me go."
The sorcerer, hearing his name, turned and looked directly at the boy. "Ah, there! Cook, what are you doing to the lad? I've been expecting him."
An expression of surprise crossed the fat man's face. Reluctantly, he let go of Benadek's ear. The urchin gamely resisted the urge to spit on his oppressor. But what luck! He had not mistaken the surprise on the sorcerer's visage, but the old man had rallied immediately, and covered for him! Why?
"Now boy," Achibol said mildly when Benadek came close, "have you come to apologize for your sudden departure? It wasn't necessary, you know."
"Master, I owe you a service. I've come to pay my debt, or to return your coin."
"Ah, but you already did that. Don't you remember?" The sorcerer pulled a gold tenday piece from his sleeve. "See? I have it here."
Astounded, Benadek reached into his crotch-pocket for his own coin, but it was gone. Was the one the old brown man tossed from hand to hand his? How could that be?
"Master, is it the same coin? Can it be?"
"One and the same, boy. You disbelieve? Here, take it again." He tossed it to Benadek, who again caught it and held it tightly, only to feel it fade from his fingers like cool steam and to reappear in the sorcerer's palm moments later. "See?" Achibol said with a dry chuckle. "It's a magic coin, boy. You can have it, but you can't keep it. But that's the way of all gold, isn't it? But is that all you wanted? To set matters right between us? If so, you may go now, with your conscience at rest."
"Master, I want to serve you," Benadek blurted, all his fine speeches fled like mist before a breeze. "Will you have me?"
"I don't need a servant."
"An apprentice, Master. I want to be your apprentice." Now that he'd said it, Benadek was amazed at his temerity. The sorcerer could call up demons to press his robe and fairies to polish his boots. Why would he need a boy? He hung his head.
Achibol did not disabuse him. "What makes you think I need an apprentice? Men like me live a thousand years, even forever. Why would I want to share anything, let alone a thousand years, with a mortal?"
The old fellow inflated his skinny chest. "I've had apprentices before-bright boys who've come oh-so-well recommended, with fat, jingling purses to pay for their keep and their training. I've seen them come-and go. Yes, go! Tender ones slunk off home, unable to withstand this old owl's hooting. Impatient smart ones, all hot to learn a few of my tricks, were unwilling to sweep mule-droppings or carry water. You see?" He shook his head, his ancient, wrinkled face now a caricature of sadness. Benadek was hard put to keep up with his mercurial shifts in mood.
"Worst of all," the sorcerer continued, "were the dedicated ones-the little boys who wanted nothing but to learn my lore and perform my chores, who in spite of my temperament and my tongue came to love me. Yes, those tested me most sorely of all. Why, you ask? Because they grew up, and went their own ways, as is natural for boys. Then, having spent their natural span toadying for townmasters, priests, and wealthy old boffins, they died."
Did a tear glitter on the brown leathery cheek? Benadek kept his eyes respectfully downcast. The sorcerer's voice dropped to a mumble. "There's no future for my apprentices, boy. Would you wait for me to die, to inherit my books and potions and tools? Can you wait a thousand years, or two or three? I've watched faithful boys grow old and die, waiting and serving me. And even worse ... oh, so much worse..."
Pulling himself out of his lachrymose slump, the old man met the boy's eyes. "See what you've done, boy? Spoiled my meal and my evening. I need no more of this-and no apprentice." As he reached for his wine-glass, his still-blurred eyes caused him to misjudge, and he knocked it over. A flash of anger lit his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Master," Benadek murmured. "It was a foolish hope. With your permission, I'll leave now."
"Hmm. Where will you go?"
"Back to the warrens, where I live. If I can get past the guard on the gate."
"Ah, yes. The redoubtable Hammer. Has he set his sights on you, then?"
"I entered by a different gate."
"There is no other, boy." Achibol grinned. His bright brown eyes gleamed among nut-brown crinkles and folds. "You're not only bold, but clever and resourceful. Perhaps I can arrange for you to pass the gate, earn a less elusive coin, and do me a service as well. Would that please you?"
Benadek's hopes rose again. If he performed the service well, perhaps Achibol would reconsider, or at least retain him for such tasks in the future. "I'm at your service, Master Achoobowl."
"Then take this token to the Temple priest. Tell him it's an offering from Achibol the Charlatan, who will visit his brothers in supernatural knowledge on the morrow." Achibol carelessly tossed the same (was it the same?) gold coin to the boy. "Mind you, make sure the message is delivered just as I have spoken it."
Benadek repeated the message to Achibol's satisfaction. The old man called for paper, and wrote a brief note requiring all to pass his messenger through without delay, and signed it with a grand flourish. He waved Benadek away.
The urchin approached the guard, his note at arms length. Hammer squinted intensely at it. Recognizing Achibol's distinctive rune, he allowed the boy to pass, all the while creasing his brow and wondering whether he himself had let Benadek in. But that was impossible. For all their social faults, honches' memories were perfect, a record of laws, infractions, and crimes, faces of officials, criminals, and ordinary citizens. He would have remembered the boy. Only long after Benadek had disappeared in the darkness of a narrow passage did he satisfy himself that the boy must have passed by his counterpart on the earlier watch.
"Why?" Abrovid asked. "You don't control the biocybes' output."
"Can't you see? This Achibol is an anthro-form like Saphooth."
"So what? Lots of people choose that form. It's handy for climbing ladders. Why, on some planets, people are even born like that."
"Saphooth was," Kaledrin said darkly, "and he'll die that way too. He's an immutable."
"Really?" Abrovid's eye-stalks stiffened in morbid interest. "You mean he can't change? He's stuck in that somatotype? Is it a disease?" He shuddered, and tucked his manipulator-tendrils safely behind protective chitin.
"Of course not," Kaledrin chided him. "There are hundreds just like him-stuck for life in one form or another-on every inhabited planet."
"Hundreds-among how many billions on Midicor IV alone?" Abrovid whistled derisively. "No wonder he's disagreeable. But why should he blame you? I don't see the connection."
"Because all the characters in this `translation' or fantasy or whatever it's turned into-except those stupid `mules'-seem to be two-legged, bilaterally symmetrical anthro-forms, just like Saphooth, and he'll never believe this entire tale isn't a ghastly jape at his expense," Kaledrin moaned. "I may as well start packing right now."
Kaledrin need not have worried. At that very moment Saphooth held a printout of Chapter One on his lap, and was chuckling contentedly. He obviously saw something in the tale that Kaledrin missed. "Benadek, Father of Humanity, indeed! The little bastard," he grinned. "I wonder when Chapter Two will be done?"
Most chapter headings in this volume are taken unchanged from the orthodox Ksentos Venimentum text, long considered the most complete and reliable rendering of the Achibol legend. The KV is a derivative story based upon ancient, perhaps autochthonous* tales. Use of the well-known KV headings is this editor's whim. Their archaic flavor provides piquant contrast to the biocybes' contemporary style, and highlights the changed emphases of the new text.
The Demon incident exemplifies this. Schoolchildren know it as the climax of the Battle for the Temple, but herein it is only the passing, fearful fantasy of a child; it emerges, is dealt with in short order, and is dismissed forever. Forbidden Knowledge, contrastingly, has been de-mystified, presented as oddly distorted 'science,' plausible-sounding, only slightly at odds with what we know.
(Kaledrin, Senior Editor)
The Temple. Benadek alone, as far as he knew, had never been in a temple. Everyone else paid visits. Travelers made detours in order to call at a temple. Regular visits, every month or so, were the rule.
Rites of passage took place there: boys became cozies, honches, or boffins, and girls** became poots, and fertile. Old folks and sick ones died in the temples-or at least were never seen to leave.
Once, Benadek had worried that he would remain always a boy, lacking whatever magic the temple performed, but his fears had been groundless. His body hair arrived on schedule, and his libido grew strong-uncomfortably so, for no poot would submit to one as ugly as he. Perhaps that was the temple's magic-to gift boys with whatever it was that made poots like them. Surely, temple magic made muscular honches or smart, edgy boffins out of some boys, and plain, stolid cozies out of the rest. But he, Benadek, who had never been 'templed,' was neither fish nor fowl, and did not belong.
Many times, after humiliating rejection by one poot or another, Benadek had come close to giving in. He'd come as far as the temple's courtyard gate, but people died in there. As his father had died.
Benadek pushed such thoughts away. He'd forced himself to forget all but the bare fact of his father's death, but this much he remembered: the temple had killed him. And old Klert, who had suffered from nearsightedness and headaches-he'd gone to the priests for a cure, and had never come out. Even young Jigbo, frightened when he discovered the stub of an extra finger on his right hand, had gone to the priests, and was never seen again. Benadek had neither headaches nor extra fingers, nor was he nearsighted-but neither had been his father. No, he had determined to stay well away from the priests and their lair.
Now he had a problem: how could he deliver Achibol's message without going inside? The sorcerer would discover if he lied and pocketed the gold piece, and that would put paid to his hope for a career. Not that Achibol had made any promises, Benadek reminded himself, but he had not really said 'no,' either-at least not directly.
Benadek thought long and hard. Could he skirt around his instructions? Achibol would not fault him if he delivered the message in a different way-perhaps he'd never even know about Benadek's improvisation.
The boy scurried down the street to a scribe's kiosk, devising a stratagem en route. "Sir scribe!" he called out, "I delivered the six chickens to your room."
"Chickens?" The boffin, skinny and sharp-faced like all his kind, set down the pen he had been sharpening. "You mistake me for another, boy."
"Don't you live over the Broken Axle? I've seen you there. At any rate, I brought the chickens, and spread papers from your table about, to protect your clean floor from their droppings."
"My papers! My letters!" Grasping his purse, the scribe dashed off to rescue his labor from the imaginary chickens. He left pen, ink-pot, and blank sheets that fluttered to the ground with the breeze of his exit. Benadek hid them in his shirt. Mission accomplished, he strode jauntily away.
Benadek believed himself the only urchin who could read and write. He had vague memories of the mother who had lovingly taught him, but memories of that part of his life were vague, shut out to damp the pain of his losses. But he had not forgotten his letters.
In the quiet dimness of the crawl-space beneath a tailor shop he drew forth a dogeared book of ABC's. Referring to it for the correct shapes of certain letters, he scribed Achibol's words on his stolen paper:
Outside the courtyard wall, Benadek waited and listened. On occasion he'd noticed that, where a warehouse across from the temple leaned outward, voices from inside the wall bounced off the smooth stone and were directed downward to the street. He would know if chattering priests passed on the other side of the wall.
Sure enough, he had not waited two fingers of daylight when voices seemed to issue from the blank stone above. For a moment he was distracted: had the voice in the alley been Achibol himself, somehow casting his voice to reflect from those walls? But Achibol's mouth had not moved, and the voice had been clear, not muddled with echoes.
He remembered his reason for being there, and tossed the paper-wrapped coin over the wall. Muffled, echo-distorted voices told him his delivery had been found. Satisfied that he had fulfilled the spirit of his task, he turned once more toward the inn.
Assured that his message and offering had been delivered, Achibol bought Benadek a meal the likes of which he had never imagined-tiny fowl stuffed with chopped nuts and dried fruits, vegetables lightly fried in sweet oil, a slab of meat, red in the center and crisp around the edges, so tender that he hardly had to chew it, and finally, a bowl of creamy stuff so cold it made his teeth hurt but tasted of fresh raspberries! With each course, Achibol urged upon him a fresh, tiny glass of tart wine, a different flavor each time.
Later, when the sorcerer led him to his room above, Benadek was so full of food and wine that he could hardly have cared if the old man had taken advantage of him (some urchins earned coins that way), but Achibol tucked him in a bed, muttering the while about children who took advantage of foolish old men.
"But he can read," Achibol had marveled again and again, "and even write, after a fashion!" Benadek was vaguely aware that he had, after his fourth or fifth glass of wine, told Achibol how he had delivered the coin and message.
Having seen the boy to bed, the mage unlocked his two heavily-built trunks then spent an hour or so poring over a heavy tome from one trunk and a map from the other. But the wine he had imbibed affected his concentration, and he laid his head on his arms for a short rest. He slept more soundly than he'd expected-surely more soundly than he would have, had he known Benadek was awake.
With a youngster's resiliency and an urchin's instincts, the lad threw off the wine-fumes and quelled the fatigue that had incapacitated him. In a glance, he took in the sleeping sorcerer, the guttering wick, and the open trunks. He slipped silently from the bed. The trunks had locks, he reasoned, and must therefore contain things of value that warranted his inspection.
Benadek did not intend to steal from the man who he hoped would take him on, but it was impossible to ignore the trunks. The habits of his short lifetime were grounded in one basic precept: survive. Survival meant never overlooking potential gain. He peeked in the first trunk. Books. Books and wooden racks of tiny bottles strapped with canvas and buckles. The books' lettering was a strange script, unreadable. Perhaps someday... Perhaps the bottles were love-potions he could use to his own advantage, but how could he tell? He could make nothing of their labels.
The second trunk held instruments of unfamiliar design, and tiny packets that must contain things of value. There were clothes, and beneath those... He insinuated a hand beneath folded fabric, and was rewarded by something slick and cool, of irregular shape, heavy, but not as dense as metal. Just then the dying light went out.
Benadek held the object in moonlight from the window. He gasped. With shaking hands he replaced it. He shut the trunk lid and slipped the padlock through its hasp, but did not snap it shut. Perhaps the mage would not notice anything amiss. He retreated to the bed.
From under his coverlet he peered across the room, every sense honed. When nothing happened after an undefined but interminable time, Benadek dozed. He awoke in a state of confused panic, then dozed again. Finally, he slept, but not without frightening dreams of what he'd held in his hand.
Death. He had held death, and stared into its dark, empty eyesockets. He had held the cool, heavy skull of a man. The mage's familiar, to be called up and refleshed at the sorcerer's command? Had Benadek known human anatomy he would have seen that the cranium was not ordinary. With a little knowledge he might have suspected it was that of a demon. With a little more, that it was human, but incredibly old. Had the light been better, and had he turned the ancient calvarium over, he might have seen tiny white-painted lettering:
Had he possessed the ability to peer beyond the veil of time itself, he might have seen what part that same ancient skull would play, in one possible future, in saving him from a fate far worse than mere death could ever be.H. Sapiens neanderthalensis
MUSEE de l'HOMME
In the morning, Benadek was treated to a repast only slightly less impressive than supper had been. He ate eggs whipped with cream, deftly cooked in butter until they were light as air; he tasted crisp sliverings of roast meat from the proprietor's dinner table, refried and hot; with stern urging from Achibol, he drank a bitter, hot, black brew that the sorcerer insisted would make him preternaturally awake and alert. Philosophically, Benadek drank it, though he shuddered with each sip. Everything could not be wonderful-and it was, after all, a magic potion, not really a drink.
"Well, isn't it time we were on our way?" Achibol asked, suddenly impatient. "The morning gets no younger." We? Benadek wondered, hardly able to believe his good fortune. Was he to stay on? He dared not broach the subject, afraid of breaking the delicate spell of hope. "The temple, boy, the temple. I-or rather, you-promised I'd pay them a call."
Benadek was ecstatic at the chance of further employment (and soft beds and delicious food and fine, tart wines,) but deeply concerned that he would not be able to avoid entering the temple itself, the very place from which his father had emerged, screaming and clawing at his body as if invisible fire... No! He would not think about that. Not now, not ever! Numbly he followed Achibol through the dusty streets.
The sorcerer strode up to the temple gate and struck the bell with unseemly vigor. A dark-robed figure arrived immediately, a silhouette with a drawn, white face. "Open for Achibol the Charlatan, colleague. I wish to pay my respects to your superiors."
"In one sense," the priest replied dryly, "All men are my colleagues. In the same sense, hardly stretching the reasoning, the fleas and lice that infest your shabby garments are colleagues as well, for in their own way they glorify the spirits with their tiny lives. In that sense, I accept your affiliation with my order. You and your tiny colleagues may enter. But my superiors can't be troubled by the importunements of semi-literates and late-risers."
"Semi... See what you've done, boy?" Achibol said. "Your poor scribbling has cost us our converse with the high priest. And a great loss it is." He stepped through the opening gate. "Even among the poor, uneducated clergy of underprivileged towns like this, even in such tatty, run-down edifices, occasional bits of wit and wisdom can be gleaned, if only by the bleak example the priests set, illustrating the fate of laziness and sloth in the schoolroom.
"Very well then," he said to the priest, whose white face had turned fiery, "Since your own masters have shut themselves in the latrine without rags or papers, I'll be content merely to experience the temple's rite. Move aside."
Surprisingly, the priest did so, and Achibol strode in with Benadek close upon his heels. The boy tried hard not to gape, his terror masked by confidence in Achibol, but priests had been known to seek out those who avoided the temple rite, and Benadek had carefully maintained his position as a dirty-faced urchin interchangeable with other boys. He hoped the priest would assume that he had come into town with Achibol, and had performed the rite-whatever it was-in another place.
Achibol seemed to know his way, and the priest did not follow. There was much to gape at. The temple anteroom had been cold and stony, dingy with time and neglect, but the inner corridor walls were smooth and jointless, and the ceiling glowed with cold, white light. The floor looked ground from a uniform mass of pebbly rock, cracked in a few places, but otherwise shiny and perfect. The last door they passed through was metal. Iron-bound doors were common on better houses and shops, but how could a smith have hammered a single piece of iron so flat and smooth?
This final room had metal boxes with tiny windows that pulsed and glowed with pure shades of monochromatic light: cerise, cyan, emerald, and amber. A few had larger windows, where numbers and letters scrolled down, or wavy, jagged lines cavorted. Only Achibol's calm, unruffled presence kept Benadek from bolting. He sensed an evil presence, but that could have been only active imagination.
"Now, boy, we have work to do." Achibol swung his robe from his shoulders and spread it flat on the floor. He removed an array of shiny tools from pockets in his undergarment, a form-fitting black suit of leather unlike any Benadek had ever seen. Surprises and mysteries multiplied. Who is the magician-or what? What is this forbidding place? Why are we here? Surely, this is not the temple where dutiful citizens make monthly pilgrimage. Was this what those who disappeared saw, before they vanished forever? Was a room like this the last place his father had seen? He shuddered uncontrollably, expecting priests or demons at any time.
"Don't gape, boy," Achibol scolded. "Bring me that toolbox-the grey one by the door. I can't do all this myself, or we'll miss dinner." The sorcerer's voice should have brought priests scurrying, Benadek thought. He looked meaningfully at the door.
"Don't worry about the priests, boy. They are enjoying a rest. None will disturb us while I fix this damnable machine."
Machine? But machines are noisy, dirty things of wood and iron that leak and spit black oil. Benadek's concept of 'machine' broadened immediately.
"Rest, Master?" he asked. "Why are they tired? It's still morning."
"Magic, boy. The magic of my talisman and that coin you delivered yesterday. They'll sleep-or at least stand motionless and oblivious-until I am ready to leave, and be none the wiser for the time that has passed-if, that is, we hurry, so the discrepancy is not too great. Now get the toolbox."
Benadek fetched it, then watched the sorcerer open first one box, and then another. He connected colored strings to shiny knobs in the toolbox, and stretched them to points within the innards of first one box, then another, punctuating his actions with muttered exclamations and sighs. "It's a wonder this system's stayed on line as long as it has, with only oafish priests to care for it. There was a dead roach on that circuit board! A roach, mind you. If not for me, every temple in the land would be spewing toadstools instead of simples."
"What are simples, Master?" Benadek asked as he handed the oldster a 'screwdriver.'
"Simples are people like you and those priests-poots, honches, ordinary cozies like the innkeeper and cook, boffins, and a rare pattum or so."
Benadek had never known there was a collective term like 'simples'. People were just people. There were poots-the female of the human species, desirable to every male past puberty but interested in nothing more than cooking and raising babies (unless it were making more babies.) A delicious shudder ran from Benadek's groin to his extremities.
Cozies were ordinary males with common jobs and tastes, and faces much alike but for age and attitude. Benadek suspected he was a cozy, but he was not old enough to know for sure. He was smart, so maybe he was destined to become a boffin, like the scribe or the lord mayor. He was absolutely sure that his further development would not make him a honch, for honches, of all people-all 'simples,' he corrected himself-were cruel and domineering even as children, and progressed by matters of degree to full, burly adulthood. Of pattums, he knew nothing, except that poots threatened uncooperative infants by saying "the pattum'll get you."
"And you, Master? What sort are you? A boffin?"
Achibol laughed. He bellowed, and slapped his skinny thighs. "I'm sorry, boy," he said when he'd recovered. "I'm not a simple."
Benadek suddenly saw the sorcerer in a different light. What, if not a person, was he? A demon! The being Benadek had hoped to apprentice himself to was not a man, but a denizen of the black depths, come to devour and destroy! No wonder he had fed Benadek-he was fattening him like a poot fattens a hen!
The boy backed slowly until the door was cold and hard against his back. His hand groped for the handle.
"What's wrong, boy?" the demon demanded, with a leer that Benadek would have interpreted minutes earlier as a puzzled frown. "What's eating you?"
The phrase was unfortunate. With a shrill cry Benadek turned and clawed the door, breaking fingernails and tearing skin from his fingertips. Achibol, concerned, grasped him by the shoulder, and the boy collapsed in a dead faint.
He awoke in the old man's arms, staring into his brown, leering face. "Are you going to eat me now?" he asked in a quavering falsetto.
"Eat you? Whatever for?" Achibol asked, genuinely surprised. "In a thousand years, I've never eaten anyone-though, when I was younger, there were women I wouldn't have passed up, had they been shorter of leg, and I longer." It was a joke, Benadek realized. He was not about to be eaten. Not right then. But what was a woman*," anyway? Achibol questioned him further, and gradually came to understand what had terrified the boy.
"I'm not a simple, boy, but I'm still a man, not a demon. Some of my kind call themselves 'pure-humans' or 'true humans', and consider all others to be 'simples'. Actually, we're all humans, and the 'pure' ones are no more pure than the rest. They are less ... less simple. It's a matter of genetic makeup." Benadek watched the blinking, winking lights that flickered across the sorcerer's dark face.
"Once," Achibol explained, "there were really 'pure' humans, with a full complement of human genes. You know what genes are, boy? Of course you don't. But no matter-listen, and you'll learn. The world was different then. There were no song-snakes in the trees, no liver-beasts in forest pools, and no simples. There were millions of different kinds of creatures, all neatly divided into species, so that all of a species were much the same. 'Dogs' had four legs and fur, snakes had no legs and scales. There were no six- or eight-legged dogs, and no snakes with feathers.
"Humans made machines to do everything for them-wash their clothes, cook their meals-and dirtied the world with machine by-products-PCBs, PBBs, mercury, dioxin, acids of every kind, and finally DFK and compound X. Some chemicals were mutagenic; in combination with the deadly sunlight of an atmosphere stripped of its protective ozone, they caused species to change. Most changes were lethal, but some creatures survived, to pass on their changes."
Benadek understood only a fourth part of what Achibol said, but was heartened by the magician's assumption that there would be further opportunities for him to listen and sort out the unfamiliar words. His fear faded. A demon would not have explained anything.
"Humans," Achibol continued, sorting through his odd tools, "either died or changed. None were pleased, because they believed they were created in the image of a god, and to be different was a terrible thing.
"The poisons and mutagens were long-lasting, and the atmospheric degradation wasn't reversible in their lifetimes or their children's children's. A thousand years would have to pass before the human genetic code would be safe from meaningless change. But in a mere hundred years their race would be dead, or changed beyond recognition.
"Boy! Hand me my talisman-the small gray box with the buttons. Ah! Good, you're learning something.
"Desperate proposals were made. Suggestions that humanity migrate to orbital habitats were dismissed-the hazards in space outweighed those at home. Living in sealed caves for a thousand years was an unhealthy solution, and for only a few; sterilization or extermination of the new, changed humans was rejected too, because the mutation rate threatened to match exactly the birthrate.
"In desperation geneticists, molecular biologists, eugenicists and other scientists developed a plan to simplify the human genome to the point where it could be recorded in the memories of computers like these that surround us here. The simplified codes would be inserted in fertilized human eggs and implanted in host wombs where they would develop, eventually to be born as the first of the new, simplified human race.
"The advantages of the plan were many: first, the simpler code, though just as vulnerable to change as the old natural one, was more easily read by machines. As each 'simple' human had four copies of their streamlined code, it was easy for the machines to tell when a copy had mutated. Cell samples could be taken from children before puberty, and those with defective genes-genes that did not fit the established template-could be painlessly sterilized.
"Second, 'defective' pregnancies could be aborted, and females implanted with standardized fertile eggs even if their own genetic capabilities had been altered by the mutagenic environment.
"But less that a millionth of the world's population could be so treated. The rest had to be sterilized, or left to die of their own genetic flaws. It was necessary to automate the process, because a reduced population could not keep up the science, technology, and culture of a system that had evolved to serve-and to be served by-billions. The poor remnants of humanity couldn't maintain the computerized laboratories that would preserve them. Those had to be reliable enough to maintain themselves for a thousand years.
"The engineers built such automated genetic laboratories in heavily protected installations, each able to grow and implant standardized embryos in suitable human subjects, or to sterilize 'flawed' ones. No human needed to enter the labs except as a subject.
"The system worked, as far as it went. But when a thousand years was up and the danger was past, real human genotypes had to be reintroduced into the world. Until then, those would exist only as information in computer memory, but would be reconstituted, and implanted into the wombs of simplified human females. The changelings would, in a matter of generations, re-assume their proper place, and the last 'simples' would be sterilized or euthanized. For that to happen, the laboratories had to know when the time was right.
"They were programmed to record the deviance of every genotype they examined. Such information was sent, via satellite links, to a central storehouse deep in a mountain burrow. The central computer would signal the laboratories when the level of deviations dropped below a predetermined point, and command them to instigate the full-human regeneration program. It should have worked, too."
Achibol began putting away his tools. "Time passes, boy. The priests will suspect something is wrong. They've lost half an hour from their miserable lives, as it is. Pick up those screwdrivers."
"Master?" Will you finish the tale later?"
"Finish? It isn't over yet. How can I, a mere charlatan and an old man, finish it? Must I perform heroic labors to bring on the new age? How do you suggest I go about that?"
"I only wish to know. I understood what you said only in small measure, but my head burns with the desire to comprehend."
"Good! Such burning is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing how little one understands is the spur to discovery. Later, then, when we're out of here." He draped his robe over his leathery suit. "Come. We must awaken the priests." He flourished the worn metal rectangle with tiny tiles on its face. Minuscule black numbers and letters marched incessantly across it. "My magic talisman controls the coin. When we approach the final door, I'll deactivate the sleep-function.
"Boy?" Achibol asked, as an afterthought" Do you crave templing? I'll wait while the rite is performed."
"Oh no, Master," Benadek replied, almost too abruptly, "I feel no need."
"Very well then, let us be gone."
They returned to the inn with Benadek still safely untempled, and Achibol went to his room. He seemed to have forgotten the boy, who followed, painfully reminded of his tenuous hold on his new profession.
In the corner chamber with cool, whitewashed walls and glass doors opening onto sunny balconies, there was little sign of Achibol's occupancy except for his trunks. The mage withdrew a book with covers of the same material as his under-suit. Its leaves were smooth and white, like no paper Benadek had seen.
Achibol made tiny, neat entries with a cylindrical pen that needed no ink-pot. Magic-or is the ink held inside that fat shaft? Even with short exposure to the old man, Benadek's ways of thinking were changing.
With no desire to disturb Achibol at his writing, he sat on grassy matting in a bright sunbeam, and let its warmth lull him to sleep.
Achibol interrupted his doze. "It's time to dine." Benadek had observed that townsmen took meals at sunrise, high noon, and sunset, but urchins ate when there was food in hand, and fasted otherwise. But regularity freed a portion of his mind from constantly thinking about food. He had time to think upon his new experiences, and to catnap as well.
Their noon meal was cold meat sliced thin, on slabs of black bread drizzled with rich, spicy red sauce.
"Can you tell me more of the world that was, Master? My mind still burns."
Surprised, as if he had forgotten Benadek's presence, Achibol set down his mug of cool ale. "Of course, boy. Where was I? What were we talking of?"
"I asked you why I am a simple, while you are not. And you were going to tell me why the plan to bring back real humans failed."
"So I was-and both are related. The plan failed because the scientists were sure that the increasing mutation rates would kill off those who were not simplified. With four copies of every essential gene, 'simples' could take much more damage without dying for want of an enzyme or an amino acid, you see. But there were too many humans, back then. The survival rate of the "pure-humans" didn't have to be high to insure that a few kept on breeding.
"Their population has never been large. Most live in small villages, or isolated families. But they mix with simples all too often, and that's where the plan failed.
"To explain this, I must tell you of another of the planners' clever tricks: they needed a way to assure that simples would visit the laboratories periodically, to be checked against the standard genetic templates, so they omitted the genes for a particular neurotransmitter hormone and an associated polypeptide-substances the body needs. Without them, simples become irrational, depressed, and eventually go mad and die. The only sources of what they need are the laboratories. Are you getting this?"
"I think so, Master. Are templates the same as temples?"
"Ah! You're perspicacious, boy. The 'temples' are buildings put up by unscrupulous priests-boffins-to bilk the population of their coins. That's a tradition far older than temples, planners or plan. The true templates are inside the machines themselves, and are mere memories of the patterns that make up men. But as the machines house the templates, and the laboratories house the machines, so the 'temples' grew up on the laboratory sites, often covering them entirely, as has been done here.
"To continue, simples come to the temples, and thus to the laboratories, when they sicken, are brought by relatives if they become irrational, or by honches-city guards and the like-if they are wild or mad. Those occasional pure-humans who drift into the towns are eventually 'templed' too. And that's the greatest problem of all."
"Why? Do they suffer the same lack as simples?"
"The priests suffer always from a lack of cool, shiny gold, so their honch minions bring all strangers to the temples. Failing that, if the pure-humans become disagreeable or seem odd (and don't all foreigners seem so, at times?) then their neighbors force them. Too, when they hear of the benefits of templing, they're often convinced to go on their own."
"What happens to them?"
"Can't you see, boy? Have you been daydreaming? The machines read their strange genetic codes, and pronounce them defective, and they are destroyed. And there the problems begin."
Benadek's head filled with horrid images of his father writhing and screaming. He shuddered, but Achibol had not noticed, and was still talking.
"...the tallies of mutated versus normal 'templings' are sent to the central processing facility. The computer considers all the counts of flawed genes-mutant 'true human' ones-and puts off the day when the original human genotypes will be reconstituted. This has happened again and again." He shook his head sadly, then fixed Benadek with a bright, reptilian stare. "Do you know how long it's been since the world has been free of mutagens? Almost a thousand years! It's been two thousand years since the plan was effectuated, and there will never be an end to it, I fear."
"Can't something be done, Master?"
"I try, of course, but then, I'm only one man, and the world is large."
"What do you do?"
"I reprogram 'temples' to erase readings outside simples' parameters, so the mutation counts stay low, where they belong." Seeing Benadek's blank look, he rephrased the statement: "I cast spells on them."
"How did you learn so much, Master? Who was your teacher?"
"I had many teachers. They've been dust for ages. I'm a tool of men and women who opposed the planners, set in motion long ago and still running on my own inertia." He shook his head sadly and then, annoyed that Benadek had seen his lapse into self-pity, snapped at him. "Enough questions, boy. I can't spend all day entertaining you. Run off and play."
"Can't I stay, Master? I won't be in the way." Though hurt by the sudden dismissal, Benadek was determined not to be thrust aside. "Your shoes are dusty. I'll clean and oil them."
"Enough, I said! Find someone else to bother! And the same goes for tomorrow, and the next day. I have no more time to waste on foolish boys." He got to his feet and stalked off to the stairway. Benadek, hopes crushed, slowly trudged through the gate into the narrow street that led, eventually, to his cold burrow and a crust of stale bread.
"Indeed!" Saphooth responded, his two-eyed face expressionless despite its evocative wrinkles and creases, his beaky breathing-bulge unflared and still.
"What quirks of simian evolution does such odd physiognomy represent?" Kaledrin wondered, not for the first time. Three breathing orifices, two which function as chemosensors as well, and the third a toothy ingestor and communicator-and gods know what else. How crude! How inefficient! "What do you think of the tale, so far?" he asked, not without trepidation: MYTHIC had been his idea, and while Saphooth would bask in the glories of its success, failure would fall upon Kaledrin alone.
"Intriguing," Saphooth mused dryly. "A melange of myth and pseudo-science that might credit an imaginative school-child ... but a scholarly work?" His blue-grey light-sensors flashed reflected sunlight from beneath bushy, pileous over-shades. "This is, after all, your project," he reminded Kaledrin ominously. "What do you think?"
"I'd rather not speculate, Cognizant One. The tale is evolving. What makes little sense now may be clarified further on."
"Indeed," Kaledrin silently complained even as Saphooth departed, wearing an expression he suspected was self-satisfied, even smug, "it evolves, and I have no more idea than he what it will become-my guarantee of tenure in the Great School, or a monster that will consume me.
"Dictation!" he snapped at his resident AI. "Introduction to Chapter Three." He did not want to work any more, but it was too early to leave. The sun-wallows would not even be warm, this early in the day.
(Kaledrin, Senior Editor)
Benadek's return to his old life was harder than before. Achibol had showed him what life could be-not just enormous, delicious meals or clean, well-kept surroundings, nor the ale and wine that Achibol bought so freely. It took the boy a while to decide what he missed most: the hope that he could become, through listening and learning, more than just an older urchin, then later a cozy doing odd jobs for minute-coins, and finally a useless oldster, ready for a final templing.
Achibol's dismissal was so abrupt. Just when he'd begun to believe he was a real apprentice, with direction and purpose, all had fallen apart.
He moped about the town the following day, passing by the inn several times, and by the alley where he'd first encountered the sorcerer. Peer as he might through the gate, and into the recesses of the alley, and into shops and stalls in the bazaar, he saw no tall, pointed hat, no gaudy robe, and no brown face.
By the end of the day, having exhausted his store of self-pity, he decided that he would not be thrust away without a fight. Achibol had told him not to bother him: "not tomorrow nor the day after." But "tomorrow" was almost over. Another day, and he'd return to the sorcerer as if nothing were wrong. He'd fight for what he wanted. He did not know how, but there had to be a way.
He sat in his burrow and tried to sleep, but speculations, visions of success and failure, swirled and entwined before his closed eyelids. Finally, he gave up.
"A poot," he decided. "I'll find a poot, and forget the old codger."
Benadek never had luck with poots. Females found his slight body and ratty eyes unappealing, and rejected, with catcalls and laughter, his most determined efforts to seduce them. Still, with the optimism of youth, he continued to pursue.
After all, the attraction to poots was the one thing all the kinds of male people had in common. Whether cozies, (ordinary illiterate laborers and tradesmen all), or unstable, fidgety, intelligent boffins, or sullen, tough, methodical honches, they all wanted poots, and poots reciprocated their desires-so why not him? He too was male, and though he wasn't old enough to tell whether he'd be a boffin or a cozy when he grew up (he couldn't even imagine becoming a surly honch), he was old enough to burn with desire. Somewhere out there was a poot who felt similarly toward him ...
This night turned out no differently than most. The first unescorted poot he approached, a pretty one with impressive hips and thighs, ignored his soft-spoken greeting, swung into an open doorway, and slammed the door in Benadek's face. The second, a slender brunette, laughed outright and made obscene suggestions that in no way implied her participation. Benadek faded into the deep shadows.
Frustrated and indignant, he returned to his burrow and dug up his pitiful hoard of coppers, hiding them in his clothing.
He walked down the river road then. As he left the central town, the size and solidity of the buildings decreased. More were wood, less stone, and the road between them grew wider, even grassy in spots. Courtyards became small farmyards confining four- and eight-legged wool-beasts. Some had spiralling horns that swept backward the length of their bodies; others displayed branched horns, or none at all. They blatted their dislike of him, a stranger, and he walked swiftly past. His destination? The house of Agby, a poot of advanced years who, he'd been told, might accept a copper or two in exchange for her acquiescence.
Her house was marked by an ancient brass bedstead, long turned entirely green in the weather, atop the roof ridge. What if she were with someone? What if she were really old and ugly? What if she laughed at him? He did not think he could stand that-to be laughed at by even the lowest of all the poots. The young and pretty ones . . . he was used to that.
Agby's door swung open. She came out on the arm of a brutal city guard whose reputation Benadek knew. His trousers were still unbuttoned. Agby hung on his arm, cackling. She ran ancient spotted hands up the honch's arm, and wheedled "Wasn't that worth a little tip?"
The honch saw Benadek. "What are you staring at, boy?" Benadek saw the poot's sunken eyes in a face that looked to be one solid bruise, and said "I've come to the wrong place." He backed away, then turned as he reached the street. Even several buildings away, he could hear the honch laughing at him. "At least I still have my money. Tomorrow I'll buy a fat sweet roll and some fried meat." The thought of such a meal, with a cup of spice-bark tea, helped him sleep, for the imagined tastes and aromas drove out bleak thoughts and optimism alike.
When morning came, the thought of sacrificing his meager assets for a mere breakfast had less appeal. He settled for crusts left out for a neighbor's chickens. Though he could have snatched one of the birds as well, Benadek was careful to behave in this, his own neighborhood. His claim on his burrow was tenuous, and if a hue and cry should go up, even over someone else's folly, he could lose it to thief-hunters who would burn his blankets and kick down his dirt walls.
The day promised to drag on and on. Purposeless, he wandered squares and marketplaces, never spending too long in any one-urchins were always suspect whether they pilfered or not, and guards acted first, and invented incidents to sustain their arrests as they needed them.
Before midday his perambulations took him by the inn, where he saw six strange honches in black leather, bedecked with trail gear and strange weapons. When he saw the objects of their interest, his heart sank: they surrounded two mules, one carrying the leather trunks from Achibol's chamber. His dismay was multiplied when two more honches exited the inn, propelling a protesting and expostulating Achibol between them.
The honches surely bore his hoped-for master no good will. That was an unhappy circumstance, not likely to cheer the magician or make him receptive to the importunements of a skinny urchin.
Achibol should be able to use his spells and magic to free himself, but he seemed to be doing no such thing. He fumed and jerked in his captors' grasps like any cranky boffin, helplessly. Is he a fraud? Why doesn't he destroy his persecutors?
What grieved Benadek most was that Achibol had been leaving without him-the laden mules told the tale. Affecting an air of nonchalance, he strode by within the mage's sight. The honches did not notice him, but Achibol's voice rose above the city sounds...
"I've decided to teach you what you wish to know," he said abruptly. "To enter the inner temple, you must find the talisman with five and twenty keys." He directed his voice past the honches. Benadek understood: he saw the sorcerer's talisman hanging from a thong on the riding mule's saddle, and lifted it free. Achibol's fleeting grin rewarded him. He slipped back, still within earshot, and pretended to doze against a water-trough on the far side of the street.
"The keys, used in the proper order, will open the inner temple doors. But any one of them, used in improper order, could destroy you and all you strive for!" The speech was clearly intended for Benadek, not the honches, but Achibol was at pains to conceal that from his dusty leather-clad captors.
"Wait!" one honch grated. "A scribe has been summoned." Even as he spoke, an eighth honch came around the corner dragging the boffin Benadek had victimized before.
Achibol sneered. "Are you ready, now?"
"Tell us how you enter the temples," snarled the honch leader.
"You heard my warning: touch only those keys I tell you."
"I heard that, old man. Scribe! Note down that caution."
"The first key will be marked with four crossed lines, the second with a star." Benadek peered at the talisman, and found two buttons so marked. He extended a finger and cautiously touched [#], and then [*].
"Keep this simple, now," the honch cautioned.
"Would you have me miss a step? You'd end up lost in eternal night. Listen well, and hope your scribe does too." The honch, chastened, leaned a bit less closely. "The next key will be marked with an upright cross. Touch it once, and then once again."
Benadek saw a button marked [x]. No, an upright cross! He touched the [+] key twice. Blue letters on a white ground began marching across the tiny window over the keypad:
Achibol risked a glance in Benadek's direction. The boy nodded slightly. "Find the keys numbered one, three, nine, and two, and touch them in that exact order. Scribe! Have you written that?" The scribe, his brow furrowed in concentration, nodded even as he scratched at his paper. "Make sure of it," Achibol stressed, "for should one of these guardians be inundated in demon-fire that burns forever, or turns inside out with his bowels to the breeze, those who survive will fetch you to correct your error."REDIRECT OUTPUT: READY.
ENTER INSTRUCTION SEQUENCE.
The scribe paled. "The numbers, good master. Say them again." Achibol repeated them. Benadek tapped the sequence:    , and nodded again. The numbers appeared in the window, after the message already there.
"The next sign has the form of a bent arrow which points leftward..."
"A moment, old man! Just how will we know left from right? Won't it depend on how the key is held?"
"These are no ordinary keys," Achibol sniffed. "You'll know."
"Perhaps we'll keep you here, old fraud, until we enter a temple or two, and your words prove out."
Benadek touched the key. Numbers scrolled too rapidly to distinguish individually. The talisman emitted a chirp. A surreptitious glance told him that no one but Achibol had noted it. The magician allowed himself a faint grin. Benadek saw that the scrolling numbers were gone, replaced with another cryptic message:
Benadek did not understand the message in its entirety, but its urgency did not escape him. He raised a questioning eyebrow toward Achibol. The old man looked at him and said "You must delay your progress then, for guardian spirits of sleep will seek freedom, and you stand in their path. Remove yourself from the vicinity of the keys for a time."INTERFACE: NERVESYNC MODULE 4: ENGAGED.
CAUTION: PROJECTOR IS WITHIN ACTIVE RANGE OF
CONTROL UNIT. IS OPERATOR SHIELDED?
1: ABORT 2: PROCEED 3: DELAYED ACTIVATION
"How long? How will we know it's safe to return? And how far must we go? Try no tricks or clever words, old man. You alone will suffer for them."
"When the '3' is touched, walk away at an ordinary pace. Forty such paces, and you'll be safe. As soon as you've gone the distance, you may return at once."
Both the honch and Benadek nodded. Benadek touched the arrow-key, and walked away. He fought a strong impulse to run, and another to look back over his shoulder. He counted off thirty paces, then lost track and started over.
He crept back along the path of his flight. To his amazement, the honches were all prone, and the scribe as well, his paper fluttering away. "Here, Master. Your talisman. I know I was not to return to your service until the morrow, but sensing the urgency of your situation, I disobeyed. I'll accept whatever punishment you command, master-but consider that my disobedience was out of loyalty to you. I am, after all, your bound apprentice"
"Punishment? Nonsense, boy. Apprentice? Did I say that? Never mind. Such things will sort themselves out. But now, we must go. They'll not sleep forever. Here. Help me mount this mule. The stubborn beast sidles away as I approach."
<Foolish old men who feed loyal mules only straw deserve such treatment,> the mule muttered. Benadek, after all that he'd seen in his new master's service, was hardly startled by the beast's speaking.
"Shall I mount behind you, master?" he asked. "Or is my place with the pack mule?"
<Your place is with both feet on the ground and your nose in our dust,> snorted the saddle mule.
"Master?" Benadek questioned plaintively, putting on his best beggar's face.
"Ignore this surly mismatched horse. Ride behind me in the saddle."
Benadek sprung over the mule's hindquarters and grasped Achibol by the waist. He was happy to ride so, where his face could not be seen, for his gleeful grins alternated with grim, fearful looks into the future ahead. Perhaps it was only the stress of the day, and not a premonition, but he was convinced that his association with Achibol would not be easy, and that honches might be the least fearsome dangers he would face.
The tone of letters and comments in the simulnet were noncommittal or downright negative. Kaledrin all too easily pictured himself, a year or three older, as an impoverished data-collector on some sunless world, exchanging his photosensitive chitin for wooly fur and his carefully-tuned energy-tapping antennae for a rude protein-engine of a body, running on the heat and ferment of decaying, half-chewed meat. He shuddered, rattling his chitin. Perhaps he was only tired. Too much work, too much energy expended, and no time to spread his radiation-absorbing body-plates beneath the bright, white rays of the star Midicor, the local sun. He should not work so hard, he scolded himself, nor live entirely on energy-supplements in this dark, academic womb.
He considered the latest submission from the biocybes: Chapter Four. Fringe cultists would consider it sacrilegious. With Saphooth refusing to communicate, he would have to send it for publication under his name alone. But that was not all bad-if the biocybes explained themselves in future chapters, and if the project gained the respect of highly-placed academics, then his, Kaledrin's, name would stand alone on several chapters, And if future chapters degenerated from inexplicable to ridiculous?
"Dictation!" Kaledrin ordered, words forming in his mind even as the
office AI readied itself for voice input.
Copyright ? 1999-2009, L. Warren Douglas Version 2.1, April 2009
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