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 PHOENIX OF MEGARON part 5

Melanion had mastered his sudden rage and was going coldly to work in a
different direction. All would be done by the due process of law. He said,
"We waste time. Let us proceed. Golgos is right. The Constitution allows for
martial law. This is an emergency, and the people cannot meet. The defense
corps is now in charge. I propose that Golgos, as leader of the defense
corps, shall hold the office of dictator while the emergency lasts. Who is
in favor?"
Assent was immediate and total. Military government had voted itself
into power. Melanion said, "The first act of our leader must be to rid us of
these traitors. I also invoke the ancient law against the woman Gelanor,
who has broken the solemn understanding of a twenty-year pairing contract."
With regard to the full compliment of the accused, Golgos said, "There
is no need to take evidence. The offense is admitted before all of these
witnesses. Sentence can be passed by the leader. It is death or banishment."
Karl shook himself free from John and went to Gelanor and Rhoda. Arms
around them both and, in a way, glad to have the right at last to do it
openly, he said, "Then the sentence applies equally to me."
There was a stir in the ranks. Karl had been a popular figure and,
except in the last difficult days, had commanded respect from all of the
community. Golgos was no fool and knew that an extreme sentence might cause
dissension. He thumbed the hull of a strike craft with the butt of his
pistol to procure silence. "We will follow the rule of law. I decree that
Karl, Gelanor, Urion, Hepa, Melas, and Deana are to leave the enclave. They
have one hour ro collect what things they can carry. Beyond that time, they
will be declared outlaws and will be shot on sight. Is that agreed?"
There was not much enthusiasm for it, but the chorus of assent was
positive enough. Golgos went on. "For the strangers, the case is different.
They have broken no law, but they have shown that they are not suitable to
be taken into our community. Even at first, there was doubt, and the vote to
accept them was divided. I reverse that decision. They must go. They also
have one hour. Beyond that time, they will be hunted down if they remain
within ten kilometres of this place." To the surprise of the Alphans and
their Megaronian cohorts, Golgos revealed, "The defense corps was able to
secure the two air cars used by the strangers in their initial flight from
Caster." It was news to John and company. They had been certain that Caster
had retaken those cars. "Those will be the vehicles by which the banished
ones will leave the enclave."
At a signal from Golgos, the guards at the head of the slipway backed
off. The whole defense corps lined the quay, pistols aimed at the group
below. For a moment, John thought that the judicial procedure had been a
charade and execution would follow anyway. But there was no other move
except the silent threat. Time was moving on. He gathered his people and
strode up the slope. It looked like animals moving two-by-two into the
mythical Ark. John and Helena, then Tony and Maya, Alan and Rhoda, Karl and
Gelanor, Urion and Hepa, and Melas and Deana.
Knowing that flight invites pursuit, John kept the pace unhurried. Rhoda
had not been mentioned on any capital charge, but it was implied that the
banishment was hers along with her Alphan comrades.
Outside, the sky was lighter. The long night had finally moved itself to
a new dawn. The ruined tower had never looked attractive. Now, it was a
disaster area, scorched, drab, and evil-smelling. The two small air cars
were fully fueled and laden with six passengers each and the litter of gear
stripped from the wreck of Eagle One. They moved sluggishly for lift-off.
John circled the building. Small fires still guttered at the high levels,
and a thin plume of black smoke was rising against the sky. A dawn wind was
wrinkling the surface of the sea.
Helena asked, "Where do we go now, John?"
John followed the military maxim. Never show doubt. Any order is better
than no order. "For a first stop, there's only one place. Maya pointed it
out on the map. There's a deserted space program site. We'll see of there's
any accommodation we can use, until we sort something out."
The two small cars picked up a course and moved inland down the
peninsula, away from Caster and the Outfarers both.

In the dawn light, the central plateau of the small peninsula was stark
and barren as a Moonscape. Approaching the site on foot, it would have been
difficult to form an intelligent picture of the area, but from the air,
they could see it whole. It had been a massive enterprise. A minor city in
itself.
The remnants of a perimeter fence still stood, running in a circle on a
diameter that must be all of two kilometres. Set back from the fence was a
broad inner wheel, which had been set out in eight arcs for housing
development, in squat, single-storey blocks, with circulation avenues
leading to the centre. At the hub of the system was an oval outcrop of rock
which had been machine-trimmed to a smooth regular shape and lay like a long
barrow or a stranded whale. Along its broad back, three immense circular
covers lay like pan lids on a cooker.
Tony, fairly bouncing on his seat, said, "Do you see that, John?
Launching silos, Intercontinental ballistic vehicles. Or missiles? Is it a
defense system?"
Karl answered, "You understand, my friends, that this is outside my
experience, but what we have pieced together of our history says that it
is neither of those things. We know that the Megaronians of the great cities
had launched ships into space. This was one of the great centres of the
space program."
John took them down to a perfect landing, followed with identical
finesse by Alan in the second air car, at the end of an avenue, where a
clear paved area surrounded the bank of silos. From ground level, the scale
was suddenly enormous. They were midgets in a giant's playpen. Fully
staffed, the base might well have been home and workplace for 20,000 people.
They had it to themselves.
John could not say what he had expected to find, but he knew for a truth
that unless he motivated his party without delay, the sheer, depressing
weight of their surroundings would sap their will to move. "First things
first. We'll look around this sector. I'd like to get the cars out of sight.
Just in case Mestor gets a signal and takes it into his head to look for us.
Then, a roof over our heads."
Helena, never far off of his wavelength, said, "We have the medical kit
from Eagle One. I can run tests on any water supply we find. But what about
food, John? Rationed out, those emergency packs won't even last a week for
twelve."
"Then we have to get something organized. Conference on that as soon as
we're settled in. As of now, split up in twos or threes and search about.
Don't be too particular. It's a warm climate. We won't need anything
fancy."
Helena joined him as the others moved slowly away from the cars. He
could see the lines of strain on her fine-boned face. Wide-spaced eyes were
enormous. He said, "I'm, sorry, Helena. You must be tired out. It won't be
long. Then, we can catch up on some sleep."
"No more tired than you must be. You've had the extra strain of thinking
ahead for us. I'm the doctor. I should be prescribing a rest for you. What
do you really think, John? Can we make anything of this place?"
"There's no choice. Not in the short term. In the long run, who knows?
There were life signs from other areas. Maybe they haven't all opted for the
way of life in Caster. We have a pair of cars. Alan can check what range
they give us on the fuel that's left. There are endless possibilities. This
is a very select party. We have a medico, a scientist, two strong men of
action, and people who have made a life on this planet out of the rubble of
one city. We're not finished yet."
Hands behind her back, she said, "I suppose I needed a lecture. All
right. Let's go. Where do we look first?"
"We'll look at that silo, or whatever it is."
They crossed the wide pavement hand in hand. When they were close, the
natural-rock wall towered upwards like a smooth cliff. It was a tribute to
human skill and ingenuity. The builders had found a landscape feature and
adapted it for their purposes. Its immense mass would give thermal and
acoustic insulation for even a rocket blasting out of a silo. It would be a
radiation screen, also. John leaned with both palms on the flat rock and
said slowly, "When the civilization ran out of steam and the war lords were
saturating themselves and everybody else with nuclear fallout, a place like
this would be as safe as a deep shelter. The last men here cleaned up and
left it tidy. What would they think?"
"That there was a long night coming, but that in the distant future, the
work might start again."
"Like a pharaoh, building his pyramid to outlast the millennia."
She could have reminded him that the elaborate tombs hardly lasted a
decade before tomb robbers had bored their beetle way into the treasure
vaults, but she kept it to herself. Enthusiasm was as good a stimulant as
any drug in the pack. Disappointment was one thing, at least, that could
wait to tomorrow.
They were about a third of the way along the long axis of the great
hump of rock. They walked slowly to the nearer end, examining the side for
some way of access. There was none.
John said, "They'd need to get in there with heavy servicing gear. Fuel,
maintenance, supplies of all kinds. Maybe it all went by underground
roadways. But from where?"
Around the corner, he found part of his answer, but they had to stand
well back to see it plain. The scale was so vast that at close quarters, the
edges were lost. Fifty metres wide and twenty metres high, there was a
single slab, textured to meld into the face, but showing a faint color
change that marked it out as a single unit.
Helena said, "That's your way in, John. But how in heaven's name do you
open it?"
It was a good question. There were no easy answers to it. John thought
aloud. "It's like the keep of a moat and bailey castle. This one they fix
so there's no way in from outside. So, it has to be opened from the inside.
Because the people who were inside would not expect to stay inside forever."
"So we get inside, and then we can let ourselves out? You've lost me."
"But what else did they have in a Norman keep?"
"A well? A dungeon? A bolt hole? That's what you're getting at. They had
a bolt hole. If the day was finally lost, they could get out under the moat
and come up behind the enemy. Is that what you mean?"
"Something like that. But I was thinking you don't open a massive
entrance like this one every time a crewman goes off duty. This isn't for
personnel. Somewhere, we'll find underground access for people."
"Sealed?"
"Surely, sealed. But it has to be easier to tackle than this."
Back at the cars, he collected a round of reports. The sector that they
were in had been a dormitory area. The buildings had been developed on a
plan. Three blocks were subdivided into suites of rooms leading off a
central corridor. Each unit had a lounge area, with a small food-preparation
alcove, a washroom, and two bedrooms. The fourth block of each set was for
community use. It was divided into public rooms for dining and recreation.
The ancient Megaronians established a nice balance for the public and
private aspiration of those who lived permanently on the base.
What was surprising to all of the searchers was the way that the site
had been left. There was no detritus of occupation, no clutter of broken and
abandoned gear. The rooms had been systematically cleared out and left as
empty shells. There was no glass in any window space, no door in any frame,
but there was no rubble of broken shards or shattered woodwork. There was
only dust, even and undisturbed, on every horizontal surface.
Maya said, "It's amazing, Commander. It was an orderly and controlled
shutdown. There's nothing usable to be found."
Tony added, "Yeah. But why go to that trouble if the base was abandoned
in a crisis?"
Helena said, "In a widespread social disaster, there'd be millions of
dispossessed people looking for a place to live. If there was nothing here
to attract them, they'd go elsewhere. Places like the one the Outfarers
found would offer more. Perhaps that was the point? The organizers of the
base took a long view. they didn't want it overrun. Given the framework
intact, they believed they could revitalize it in another age when the
troubles were over."
John commented, "That speaks of a long-term view, and it means that a
cadre of top management was still in control and still on the site and, for
that matter, still strong enough to carry out its will."
Alan asked, "Where did they get to?"
By a kind of group suggestion, all eyes tracked around to look at a
monolithic mastaba in the centre of the base. It was giving away no secrets,
but the clue to an enigma was there. Nothing short of a direct hit with an
atomic warhead could breach its blank walls. There would be room inside to
house an army.
Karl said, "You must understand that the time you are speaking of is so
long gone that we have no records of it. I believe that those who survived
the great upheavals were so incensed at the scientific knowledge that had
made it possible that they deliberately destroyed all records that could be
found."
John mused, "It can happen. A burning of the books. Books are blamed
rather than the use that people have made of them."
Urion spoke. "Who can say that it is not sometimes necessary? The weeds
of evil may thrive more tenaciously than the good seed. When that happens,
it may be prudent to burn the whole field and plant afresh."
It was the definitive statement to end the dialogue. John kicked his
jaded mind into action. "Where's the mess hall? We'll run the cars inside
and break out some rations. Then a spell of rest."
After the meal, Melas approached John. "I expect, Commander, that you
will wish one member of our party to keep watch. Allow me the privilege of
being first."
Deana joined him. "It would be a lonely vigil. I will watch with you."
Never one to discourage volunteers, John said, "You are right, my
friends. I had it in mind- and I thank you."
There was not much comfort to be had. But at least it was not cold.
Already, there was warmth in the sunshine. They dragged squabs out of one of
the cars and made a mattress for Helena and Hepa. The others laid on smooth,
thermo-plastic tiling, with bundles of cleaning waste, from the maintenance
lockers of the cars, as a pillow. John slept like a sailor as soon as his
head touched down.

Melas' hand was a centimetre from John's shoulder when the Alphan's eyes
flicked open and his fingers closed on the butt of his laser. The Outfarer
said, "You sleep lightly, Commander. I wish you would have slept longer, but
the time is up when you said I should wake you."
"You did right. Has anything happened?"
"Nothing, Commander. It is strange here. Both Deana and I have felt the
strangeness, as we sat quietly. It is as if the spirits of those who worked
here so long ago were watching us. But as we sensed it, they were not
hostile. Rather, they were curious, as though they wanted to know what we
would do."
John debated about whether or not to awaken Helena. On balance, he
decided that he would have to do it. Her independent spirit would not accept
favors, even from him. She would want to work the same stint as everybody
else. Deana settled down in her place, and Melas composed himself with his
arms crossed on his chest like a stone figure on a catafalque.
The two Alphans checked all of the stores which had been transferred
hurriedly from Eagle One. Tony had made progress on the communications
panel. Helena said, "Is it worth trying to repair it? Who do we have to
communicate with?"
"It has more range than the cars. Who knows? We might hear from Alpha."
"They can't help us."
"True. But I'd like to hear them."
"Could we speak to them?"
"Not by voice. Perhaps by a Morse signal."
Protective fuses had blown on every circuit. There were no spares. He
untwisted a length of multicore lead and bypassed every safety point. It was
rough work, and any Eagle technician would have turned grey, but he
considered that it would hold as a temporary repair. Tony had already
refitted several of the serviceable wires.
John carried the panel into a car and searched the instrument spread for
a power source, and Helena squatted on her heels and watched him. For her,
this was a new side of his character. "I'm impressed. I didn't know you had
such a practical flair. I thought top pilots didn't know what went under the
hood."
"I hope I shall always be able to surprise you."
"You'll really surprise me if Sahn's voice comes out of that."
In the event, Sandra's meticulous tones sounded very faintly in the car.
they looked at each other in silence, each suddenly sidetracked by memories
of Moonbase Alpha.
Sandra said, "Main Mission to Eagle One. Perhaps you can receive our
signal. We will continue to keep this link open as long as there is any
remote chance that you could receive us. Life signs on the monitors tell us
that you are still alive. We wish you good luck, if that can be."
The immense power of Alpha's transmitters could push a voice signal over
the distance. There was no chance that the jury-rigged panel could match it.
John rapidly dismantled the handset and used bare contacts for a make and
break. "Koenig calling Alpha. I read you. Over."
Even at strength one, there was no mistaking the excitement in Sandra's
voice. "Commander! We read you. Is there anything we can do?"
John suddenly recognized that any transmission would be a homing beacon
for Caster's scout cars if they decided to search. He kept it short. "We
send our greetings. Everyone's okay. Will call again in two hours. Brief
calls only. Out."
Helena's eyes were shining. "It makes a difference. I don't feel so
isolated."
"Eventually, they will be out of range."
"I know. But we know that Alpha is operational again and that they know
we're still alive. I can't explain it, but I still feel better about it."
Alan and Rhoda took the next stint, then Tony and Maya. At each watch
change, there was a brief contact with the distant Moonbase. By mid-
afternoon, the whole party was rested and ready for the next thing. They
turned naturally to John for a definition of what that might be.
"As I see it, the key to the complex is behind that rock. We have to
find the way in. It isn't wasted time. While we do it, we can check out the
rest of the site for anything useful. We go together to the next sector,
split and search each building, then go on to the next in line. We're
looking for access to a lower level."
They had the equipment belts from the wetsuits, hung about with sidearms
and the vibrators that John and Alan never discarded. Contact with Alpha had
given the five Alphans a new surge of optimism. Rhoda had listened to
Sandra's voice and was glad that she was a world away. She had seen Alan's
pleasure and was choosing to put a feminine twist on it. As they walked off,
she said, "This Sahn with the cool voice. Is she very pretty?"
"Very pretty. You'd like her. Everyone likes Sahn."
"You work with her?"
"She's our data analyst and sometimes communications person. Top in the
field."
"If she is so beautiful and so clever, you must be in love with her."
Alan suddenly saw the pit that had been dug for him. "Ah! Well, no. She
had what you could call this pairing arrangement with Paul Morrow."
"So, she rejected you. But you still love her?"
Alan stopped and took her shoulders and turned her to face him. A simple
man, he could only stick to the fact as he saw it. "I enjoyed living on
Alpha with many good friends that I miss, but if it was a choice between
Alpha without you and this crazy world of Megaron with you, I guess I should
have to choose Megaron."
Gold-flecked eyes were serious and searching. Then, her arms went
impulsively around his neck. When they caught up with the column, John and
Helena were already searching the first block in the new sector.
It was the first of many, and John came to the conclusion that all of
the building on the side that they were on, was the accommodation. The
parallel of the castle continued. The courtyard was for housing the workers.
The high command had its place in the tower.
They missed out a number of sectors and rounded the far end of the
central rock. There was evidence here also of a huge slab entrance for major
equipment. A wide roadway ran straight to the perimeter. On either side, the
buildings were long, empty storage sheds. They marked a change in the
building plan. The next sector was clearly not for accommodation and might
have been an admin silo. Floors still showed traces of discoloration where
hardware had been bolted down.
Tony said, "This looks like an operations centre, John. They'd
administer the outer zone from this point. Flow control for stores coming
in. All the thousand and one details to keep tabs on personnel. Kind of a
city hall."
Helena had been examining an interior wall. She called, "John!" and the
excitement of her voice had the whole party turning to observe her. Maya
was closest and rushed to her side. Palms flat on a highly corrugated
surface, the two Alphan women lifted a flexible shutter which retracted
into a housing in the ceiling.
When it was away for a full due, they stood in a line looking into five
elevator cages with dull, bronze gates. Four were closed, intact, and
undisturbed. The centre one had its gate forced from its hinges and leaned
against the back wall. The centre of the floor had been broken through in a
ragged opening almost a metre across.
It was the first evidence that others had visited the site after the
careful shutdown. Tomb robbers had been at work.
A sound crossed John's audio threshold, and he knew that it had been
building for some time before he recognized it. Rhoda was onto it at the
same time. She said, "An air car!"
John ordered, "Get down. Below window level."
The hum built to a drone, and a racing shadow flicked across the floor.
The pilot was flying low, taking a look along the radial avenues.
Lying next to John, Karl said, "If he's observant, he might see traces
of where we first landed."
John added, "It's a long chance, but we can't ignore it." He moved to
the open door and looked out. The car had run on to the perimeter and was
turning. It flew back the way that it had come and was out of sight behind
the rock.
Hepa said bitterly, "Even here they are hunting us. They are not content
even to let us die in our own time."
With an arm around her shoulders, Urion comforted her. "Have courage. It
may not come to that. And nobody knows we have come here. Now that they have
looked here and not found us, they will look elsewhere."
John went back to the elevator trunk. Leaning well against the hole, he
shone a light down the shaft. Counterweights hung in a channel in the rear
wall. Another channel held a broad metal strip perforated with foot- and
handholds. It would be possible to hang below the cage on a crossbeam,
traverse hand over hand, and reach it. He pulled back and explained what he
had seen to Tony.
"That's just like you, John," he said with the usual good-natured
irreverence. "You won't rest until you've taken a look. Maybe we should
bring the cars here and make this our base."
"I want progress. I'm not satisfied that the car has a nil report. He'll
be in Caster in fifteen minutes. We could have them on our backs again in
less than an hour. This is the best hideaway we've seen yet. But you have a
point." He turned to Alan. "Alan, you go with Tony, Karl, and Melas. Get
into the cars. Load the gear and bring it along. Meantime, we'll take a look
below. All right?"
"Check." He turned to Rhoda and said, "Back before you know it."
The others all chimed their agreement with John's instructions.
"And watch how you go, all of you. Just in case that car dropped a foot
patrol before we saw it."
The four men departed, and John fixed his lamp on a headband and dropped
below the cage. Maya took her place on the floor and watched him move easily
across to the ladder. As John's feet touched the footholds, he saw the band
shiver, and a warning was stillborn in his throat as John's weight went
fully onto it. There was no time to articulate. The Alphan was already
slipping away. The band was free to move.
But it was friction loaded. He was going down steadily, but with no
acceleration. On a count of ten, the band shivered to a stop and John was
looking up the well. "Maya?"
"Yes, Commander."
"There's a big landing and a corridor going towards the rock. This is
the way in for personnel... And Maya..."
"Yes, Commander."
"No worry about getting back. There's a locking lever here for the
band."
The light disappeared as he left the bottom of the shaft. Maya sat back
on her heels, her Psychon features denoting sudden thought. There was
something that did not jell, and she was thirty seconds before she knew what
it was.
"Here's a logical puzzle, Helena. This ladder moved down with the
Commander's weight. He says he can fix it solid to climb up. Now, we believe
that somebody opened the door and went down there. How did they climb out?"
"You've just told me. They fixed the ladder so it was not free to move."
"But just now, when we found it, it was free to move. Who released the
lever down below?"
"The last man."
"And how did he get out?"
Rhoda had been watching the exchange, looking from one to the other. She
said, "Unless he used a rope or another ladder, he's still down there."
As if on cue, John's voice reverberated up the shaft. "Helena! Maya!"
"John?"
"Commander?"
"Your tomb robber. He didn't get very far. He's still here."
"How did he die?" Helena queried.
"Violently."
Helena and Maya exchanged glances. "We're coming down."
"No, just Helena!" John retorted. "Maya, stay with the others."
Helena fixed her headband lamp and did a neat, athletic job of swinging
along to the ladder. With more light, it was easier to see the layout. The
corridor from the circular landing area was ten metres wide and three metres
high. It had once been lit by a continuous lighting strip recessed in the
roof. The floor was tessellated with blue and yellow tiles under a thin
screen of dust. It led straight as a die to a red corrugated shutter which
closed off the far end. Footprints in the dust showed the pattern of John's
sneakers forward and back. One other set, fainter and dusted over, had a
one-way ticket.
Their owner was lying face down, a metre from the shutter, skeletal
hands fixed to the sides of his skull, legs drawn up, miming the last human
gesture he had made. Something had struck silently and unexpectedly and
brought his journey to full stop.
John said, "Not too close. Whatever he ran into may still be
operational. I'd say he tripped some relay and triggered a protective force
field."
He looked more closely at the footsteps. They went on to a point beyond
where the feet were lying. The killing blow had come at a point somewhere
along the site of the corpse. He went forward, half a step at a time,
dropped to a full knee bend, keeping his head back, and took hold of the
bony ankles. There was so little weight that he almost fell backward. Then,
he was out of the danger zone, drawing his hollow man after him.
Clothing showed no sign of decay. He was wearing thronged sandals, a
fluted metal cloth tabard of silver grey, belted at the waist, and an
embroidered chiton almost knee length. Hidden by the body and dragged along
with it was a curious, bulbous-nosed handgun.
No stranger to death, Helena shivered. There was something lonely and
sad about the dead Megaronian. He had lain there for many centuries, with
his violent end unmarked by any rites of passage. After the breakup of the
great cities, there would have been many lonely, wandering men and women
ending their days in bitterness and isolation. It was, anyway, more than
likely to happen to the Alphans themselves, and this was a preview.
She said, "I think you must be right. Death was sudden, and he had no
way of avoiding it. Perhaps it was an automatic device or, perhaps, at that
time, the rock was still held and this was a deliberate, selective strike."
John shone his light slowly over the roof. The tiled roof was solid and
showed no opening which might house a beam system. There was a call down the
shaft, and Helena went to check it out. It was Maya. "Helena, tell the
Commander that the men are back. No trouble. As far as Tony can tell, there
was no patrol left behind."
John joined her. "I heard that. I'd like you and Alan and Karl down
here. What can we use to make a scaffold?"
"Three of the squabs?"
"Right. As soon as you like. Have Tony and the others keep their ears
open. If Mestor sends a mopping-up party, we can hold out down here. They
can pass the gear down."
With Alan and Karl steadying two uprights and a seat squab lying across
the top, John had a working platform. He used a vibrator to slice out a
panel in the lighting strip and then moved slowly along. The duct contained
short lengths of tube filled with a blue gas. Every other one had an angled,
camera-type fitting beside it.
Maya said, "They monitored this passage quite thoroughly. Nobody would
come along here without being seen."
As they reached the site of the long-gone execution, he broke out a
strip running to the end of the footsteps. There was a new feature. A fan-
shaped fitting of bright metal filled the lighting trough. An emission from
it would cover the corridor from wall to wall. Using his laser and standing
back, he sent a searing beam at the inlet and where it appeared at ceiling
level. The whole structure glowed and began to deform. Finally, it broke
free and dropped clear.
At the same moment of time, the whole lighting strip glowed into
brilliant life, and Tony called urgently down the shaft, "John! There's a
squadron of cars circling the complex!"

John weighed the options. The Megaronians were determined to hound them.
A last stand on the surface might make them pay dearly for it, but it could
only end one way. On balance, they were better to dig in where they were. He
organized the movement of as much of their stores as they could handle and
then gathered his party in the vault.
He posted Alan at the bottom of the shaft. The first Megaronian to poke
his head through the gap in the floor would have it ventilated by a
terminal hole. Even if they went to work methodically and breached all of
the elevator cages, so that more than one at a time could drop to the lower
level, the advantage still lay with the defense. Meanwhile, the only
possibility of progress was to enter the rock fortress. First priority was
to see whether he had scotched the protective beam-gear.
A movement caught his eye. Urion had been talking to Helena and now knew
the score. Before anybody could stop him, he walked firmly down the
corridor, past the rickety dolmen of seat squabs and on toward the end.
John's shout of, "Wait!" went unnoticed or unheard. Urion had closed
his mind to any outside interference. He reached the closed end still erect
and unharmed and turned around to face them. He said simply, "It is safe."
Hepa was first to join him. She said, "That was very brave. You might
have been killed."
"I am nearest to oblivion of our party. I can most easily be spared."
"Not by me."
"I am old."
"What has age got to do with it, when minds are in tune?"
Almost shyly, he took her hand and kissed it. "You are very kind to say
that."
John and Karl joined them. John said, "We are all very grateful. Now, we
have to open this door. The engineers who devised it were contemporaries of
those who built the city block. They might have used the same techniques.
Search the walls and floor for release gear."
Maya found it, shoulder high in the right-hand wall; a section of tiling
pivoted away to reveal a recess. Inside were the familiar levers.
"Good girl," Tony said to his favorite Psychon. The shutter was stiff
from centuries of non-use, and Tony and John could not budge it. John nodded
in affirmation at Maya, whose form altered to become that of a gorilla.
Those of the party not yet privy to Maya's extraordinary ability started
backward in alarm before being calmed by Rhoda's reassuring hands.
Simian palms flat on the shutter, the ape creature heaved away and felt
it lift. It was waist high when John suddenly thought that there could be
other protective gimmickry behind it. "Hold it there, Maya."
The gorilla, through Maya's spiritual control of its brain, understood
the command, and John dropped to his knees to look through the gap. The
interior was well lit, with no visible light source. Surfaces were dust-
free, clean, and shining. Walls, floor, and ceiling were clinically white.
Directly ahead and twenty metres off, a flight of wide, shallow stairs with
bronze handrails ran up to the next floor. Craning his neck to follow them,
he saw feet on the top landing and then the whole person of an incredibly
ancient man in a blue, belted robe.
The advantage in the encounter was all with the oldster. He knew who the
visitor was, crouched on hands and knees at the foot of the throne. His
voice was hardly more than a wheeze, but it carried the distance. "Commander
Koenig. You may bring your people in. I shall not harm you."
John was on his feet, laser in hand. There had been enough surprises on
Megaron. He said harshly, "Your protective ray would have been all you
needed. Why this change in heart?"
"I switched it off when I gave you light."
It could have been true. Keeping his eyes on the oldster, John spoke to
the Maya ape, "Take it up, Maya."
The gorilla fully lifted the shutter, and it slid away into its housing.
Maya resumed her lovely female form.
The old man, clearly impressed but not particularly startled by Maya's
metamorphic ability, spoke again. "I welcome you, Alphans and Outfarers. I
am Cydon, the last custodian of the old wisdom. With me, the light goes out
on Megaron.
It was a big claim to make, and before John could comment on it, there
was a further complication. Alan called urgently down the corridor.
"Visitors, John!"
Cydon said, "You have no choice, Commander. You will have to trust me.
Bring your people inside and close the seal. I will complicate its capacity
to open."
John came to a decision. Cydon's offer, good or bad, had to be better
than a slow war of attrition which could only end one way. He said, "Tony,
tell Alan to fall back. The two of you bring as much of our equipment as you
can. Helena, pick up your Medical kit. They can have the rest of the stores.
I have a feeling we won't be needing them."
As the three rejoined the main body, Maya, again simian, closed the well
shaft. As it hit floor level, there was a definitive click and a
subterranean rumble. The counterweight system had been disconnected. There
was no way in for the attackers. And no way out for the besieged. John spun
on his heel. The stairway was empty. Cydon's wheeze came from nowhere in
particular. "Do not be concerned. I was never with you. Come forward. You
will have no difficulty in finding me."
Once more in her Psychon form, Maya remarked, "Projection? That's
feasible. A thee-dimensional freestanding projection. This is very
interesting, Commander. At last, we may see how far the Megaronians went
with their technology."
Cydon was the soul of truth in one thing at least. There was no problem
in finding him. At the head of the stairway, there was an oval landing with
a circular kiosk where a commissionaire might once have sat. Six corridors
opened off. Only one was lit. The twelve visitors followed it to another
oval interchange and on through another lighted corridor. At the end, there
was an elevator with its hatch open, waiting to receive them. It took them
for a short, swift ride and stopped at a landing, where the character of the
set showed a change. It was executive country: deep-pile carpets and walls
paneled in light-yellow wood like pine.
A section of paneling slid silently aside. Cydon, if this was the real
man and not another trick image, was standing on a strip of blue carpet, in
a room that was partly furnished as a lounge area and partly filled out with
very sophisticated hardware. He was as tall as John, thin to the point of
emaciation, eyes deep sunk in a time-ravaged face. The eyes, like Rhoda's,
were golden brown and contained all the vitality that the years had left to
him. He said, as though each word was fought over, "Be seated. You are not
strangers to me. I watched from the moment that you left your base on the
Moon. It is a great pleasure to speak again at last. I have not spoken since
Helice died. that must be twenty years ago."
John could not help the thought that if the silence had been broken a
little earlier, they would have been saved a lot of grief. He asked, "Do you
have the power to speak to Alpha?"
"Indeed I do. This base was the nerve centre of our space program."
On the same wavelength as John, Tony queried, "Didn't you think we
would have welcomed a reply to our signals?" John nodded in agreement. The
question was more than valid.
Cydon night have been old, but was far from stupid. He understood the
criticism behind it and looked around the circle before answering. When he
did answer, it was obliquely. "You Alphans are a young and vigorous people.
The civilization of Megaron was old when your ancestors on home planet Earth
turned from a nomadic way of life to that of small, settled communities." He
nodded at Maya, "The same applies to your people as well, Maya of Psychon."
Looking back at John and Tony, he continued with his main point. "There are
great differences between us."
Helena said, "But finally, you decided to help us. You could have left
us to die outside your barrier. We thank you for allowing us to come
through."
Tony asked, "How is it you know so much about us?"
The ancient man answered, "Through a tap on your computer system. It was
very discrete and I do assure you a peaceable move on my part. I was
naturally curious about you." He gave a long sigh. The strain of making
personal contacts after his long solitude was beginning to tell. His voice
was barely audible as he said, "There is much to discuss with you, and I
have very little time. We have watched the people of Caster for many years.
It is time they awoke from their long sleep. Do not judge them too harshly.
What was done there went wrong, but the intention was not bad in itself."
"Not bad?" Tony asked incredulously.
"You cannot understand the great trauma which what you call the human
spirit suffered on Megaron. The Outfarers here have no doubt explained the
rudiments of our history to you. Those who set up the system in Caster were
protecting the community from the unfettered excesses of the human will,
which had almost ended life on Megaron. As head of Security on your
Moonbase, Mr. Verdeschi, this consideration must often be on your mind."
Tony could relate. He nodded.
Cydon continued, "But in doing what they did, they stifled the striving
and the good, which also exist."
Karl said, "I have seen more of the evil than the good."
"Just so. Just so... But I must speak, while I can, to the Alphans.
Perhaps I can help you. Look."

 

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