Authors: Piers Anthony
Neqa consulted her map. "Yes, this is it."
"This--your supplier?" he demanded.
"Helicon. But something is wrong."
"We destroyed it," he said. "The Weaponless did, I mean; I was not there. I could have told Dr. Jones, if I'd known he was talking about the mountain!"
"Oh, no!" she cried. "Helicon manufactured all the technical equipment! We cannot do without it!"
"Maybe some are alive, inside." Knowing Tyl's efficiency, he doubted it, but he had to offer her some hope.
She moved around the center column of the hostel, looking for something. This hostel had not been ravaged, but there was no food in it. She opened the shower stall and stepped in.
"You're still dressed," Neq reminded her.
"I know it's here," she said, as though he hadn't spoken. "I memorized the instructions." She counted tiles along the wall, then pressed on one. She counted from another direction and pressed again. And once more. Nothing happened.
"You have to turn the knobs," he said. "One for hot, the other for cold. But you don't need to take a shower right now, just when you're beginning to smell like a true nomad--"
"I must have done it too slowly," she said. "Now I know the tiles, I'll try it faster."
She went through her mysterious ritual again, while Neq watched tolerantly. The crazies were crazy!
Something snapped inside the inner wall. Neqa pushed on yet another tile and it tilted out, revealing a handle. Neq gaped; he had never known there were handles behind the shower wall! If not for hot or cold water, what?
She twisted and gave a sharp jerk--and the entire wall swung toward her.
There was a compartment behind the shower--in the heart of the hostel's supposedly solid supporting column!
"Come on," she said, stepping inside.
Neq joined her, clasping his sword nervously. There was barely room for them both. She pulled the wall shut and touched a button inside. There was a hum; then the floor dropped.
Neq jumped, alarmed, but she laughed. "This is civilization, nomad! It's called an elevator. We have them in our buildings, and the underworld uses them too. This is a secret entrance, that we use for transfer of supplies. When nomads see a crazy truck outside, they assume it's a routine servicing--but the truth is we're taking supplies out. Most of the heavy stuff pomes through other depots in the area, of course, that the nomads never see."
The floor stabilized. She pushed open the side again, and now there was a tunnel, curving into darkness.
"Bad," she said. "The lift is on hostel power, that charges whenever the sun shines. But the tunnel is on Helicon power. That means the underworld is dead, as you said." She turned on a flashlight Neq hadn't known she possessed. "But we'll have to look."
The passage opened into a room where empty boxes were stacked. "Someone's been here," she remarked. "They took the merchandise. But the crates were never restored."
"Probably the last truck--that didn't return."
"Our men never went beyond this point," she said. "But obviously there is a pasage to Helicon. We'll have to find it."
"It may not be pretty." He had heard the tales of labyrinthine underground tunnels choked with bodies. Such claims were probably exaggerated; still....
"I know it." She kissed him--she was able to do that now, and was proud of herself--and began pushing again at places in the wall, randomly.
"If they didn't want you inside, it wouldn't open that way," he pointed out. "Might even be booby-trapped."
"I don't think so. They might guard it, but they wouldn't do anything to antagonize us. The crazies, I mean. Helicon needed us as much as we needed it, because they'd largely shelved their hydroponics and couldn't grow really decent vegetables, and of course no wood. It was more efficient to trade with us, so they concentrated on the heavy industry we couldn't touch. Dr. Jones can talk endlessly about such things--what he calls the essential interactions of civilization."
"So it's safe to break in, you think," he said.
She continued to tap at panels without effect. Neq studied the wear-marks on the floor, analyzing their pattern as though he were verifying the situation of a vacated campsite. "There," he said, touching one section of the wall. "It opens there."
She joined him at once. "Are you sure? This seems solid."
He pointed to the floor marks her flash illumined, and she understood. With this hint, they were able to locate a significant crevice. "But it doesn't open inward," he said. "No hinge on this side, no scrape-marks."
"I don't find any other crease," she said. "But it has to open somehow." She banged at the corner with the butt of the light. "Unless it slides--"
Neq forced the point of his sword into the crevice and leaned on it. The wall gave a little, sidewise. "It slides-- but it's locked or blocked."
"Naturally it would lock from the other side," she said. "Can you free it?"
"Not with my sword. But we can get a crowbar from the truck. Enough leverage, it'll give."
They returned to the vehicle and collected an armful of tools. And in due course they had it open.
Behind the wall was a set of tracks. "They used a railroad!" she said. "To haul the supplies along, maybe by remote control. How clever."
But there was no wheeled cart, so they had to walk between the tracks. Neq was nervous about this, not liking the confinement, but she didn't seem to mind. She took his hand in the dark and squeezed it.
He counted paces. It was over a mile before the tracks stopped. There were platforms, with boxes stacked, and sidings with several carts. Neq opened one crate and discovered singlesticks--perhaps fifty of the metal weapons.
So it was true: the underworld had made the nomad arms. Hadn't the Weaponless known that when he destroyed it?
They walked along to the end of the platform and passed through a dark doorway. Then up a gradual ramp, through a charred aperture, and into a larger hall. The air was close and not sweet. Neqa passed the beam of the flashlight over the floor.
Ashes lay across it, with occasional charred mounds. The ambient odor was much stronger here.
"What happened?" she inquired, perplexed.
Neq saw that she didn't comprehend. "Fire. They couldn't get out in time."
"They?" Then she recognized the shape of the nearest mound and screamed. It was the remains of a human being.
Neq led her back down the ramp. "See--after they were dead, the wooden door finally burned through. It must have locked or jammed, like the panel back there. Someone must have poured gasoline all over everything and--"
She turned to him in the darkness, the flashlight off. "The nomads did this?"
"Tyl said it happened before they broke in, actually. The fires were still hot, and the smoke was everywhere, so they didn't stay long. I don't know."
She made a choking sound. He felt something warm on his arm, and knew that she was vomiting against him.
"Helicon was the last hope of man!" she exclaimed, and heaved again.
"I don't think we need to look any more," he said. He took the flashlight from her flaccid hand and guided her away.
Neqa insisted on writing her report. "In case anything happens, this will tell the story," she explained. "Also, I'm sure of the details now. I hope I forget them by the time we get back."
They slept in the truck that night, though the hostel bunks were handy. The tunnel connection to the Helicon carnage was too direct; it felt as though the fumes of death were filtering along, enclosing the hostel in their horror. Neq had been objective about the scene at the time, but at nighf his imagination enhanced the underworld's gruesomeness. Fresh death in the circle, or fighting outlaws--that was one thing. But this helpless doom of confined fire....
There was no question of trying to make love. They clung tightly together, holding the morbid blackness off.
Next day Neqa completed her report and locked it in the dash compartment of the truck. They moved out. Neq still didn't see any reason for a written description; the place was dead, and that was it. Such a message would hardly be any comfort to the crazies. They would be finished anyway, and the nomad culture would degenerate into complete savagery.
What colossal folly had led the Weaponless to lay siege to Helicon? He had brought it down, somehow--but had destroyed both the crazies and the nomads with it. The dark age of man was beginning.
Neqa didn't say much either. He was sure that similar thoughts were obsessing her. If information was all they had come for, the mission had been successful. But what a miserable mission it was!
* * *
The second day of the return trip they encountered a barricade that had not been there before. Neq was instantly on guard; this surely meant trouble.
"Coincidence?" Neqa inquired.
"Can't be. They saw us go by before, knew we would have to come back this way. So they set it up."
They had to stop. There was no way around, no room to turn.
"If we're lucky, they won't have more than a guard or two here right now. They wouldn't know exactly when we might come along," he said.
They were not lucky. Men converged from both sides. Sworders, clubbers, staffers--at least a score of warriors. A number stood back with drawn bows.
"Do you think this is where the other trucks were lost?" she inquired as though it were an interesting footnote for her report.
"Most of them. This. is well organized." He studied the situation.. "Too many to fight. And if we try to back out now, those arrows will get us. See, they're aiming at the tires. We'll have to go along--as far as we can."
A sworder strode up to Neq's side. "You're a warrior. What are you doing in a crazy truck?"
Before Neq could reply, a man called from the other side: "Hey, this one's a woman!"
"What luck!" another exclaimed. "Is she young?"
" 'Bout nineteen."
"OK. Out, both of you!" the sworder said.
Neq was furious, but glanced again at the bows covering them and dismounted. No honest nomad would use the hunting bow against a man, but that didn't dimmish its effectiveness as a long-distance weapon. Neqa slid over to step down on his side. She stood close to him, but clear of his sword, so as not to obstruct his draw. He knew she was ready to snap her dagger into her hand: she was tense.
"Know what I think?" the sworder said. "I think they're crazies, both of them, pretending to be nomads. They want us to think they hijacked the truck themselves, so we'll leave 'em be. See, her hands are smooth, and he's too small to really handle a sword. And unmarked--no scars on him."
"Pretty smart," a staffer said.
"The crazies are awful smart--and awful stupid."
"All right, crazy," the sworder said. "We'll play this game. We got the time. Who do you claim to be?"
"Neq the Sword."
"Anybody hear of any Neq the Sword?" the man shouted.
There was a reaction. "Yeah," a dagger said.
"Me too," a clubber agreed. "In Sol's tribe. A top sworder--third or fourth of a hundred swords, I heard. And better against other weapons."
The sworder smiled. "Crazy, you picked the wrong name. Now you'll have to prove it--in the circle. With your doll watching. And if you can't--"
Neq didn't answer. The circle was exactly where he wanted to be--with Neqa in sight. These were certainly outlaws, but the tribe seemed to be large enough to require the discipline of the circle code. It was a matter of logistics: one tough man could control five or ten warriors by force of personality on an informal basis, and a few more by judicious intimidation; but when the number was thirty or forty, it had to be more formal. The circle code was not purely a matter of honor; it was a practical system for controlling large numbers of fighting men in an orderly fashion.
And where the circle code existed, even imperfectly, Neq could prevail. He had indeed been third or fourth sword of a hundred. But first sword had been Tyl, who had retired largely to managerial duties of empire. Second had been killed in a noncircle accident. Third had been Tor, now retired. And Neq had kept practicing. The result was that at the time of the breakup of the empire he had been unofficially conceded second sword--of three thousand. And he had had private doubts about Tyl's continuing proficiency in the circle.
It was true, too, that the empire training had brought particular competence in inter-weapon combat. There had been half a dozen staffers who could balk Neq in the circle, one or two stickers. Bog the Club who was now dead, and no daggers or stars. Against these men he would take his chances, sometimes prevailing in friendly matches, sometimes not.
Neq feared no man in the circle.
They were conducted to a camp similar to those of the empire. A large canvas tent was surrounded by a number of small tents, and there were separate latrine, mess, and practice sections. A good layout.
The chief of this tribe was a huge sworder, grizzled and scarred. Chiefs were generally sworders, for the weapon had a special quality that awed others into submission that an equally competent staff could not. When the man stood, he towered over Neq.
"Neq the Sword, eh? I am Yod the Sword. And she wears your band?"
"Now I know of Neq," Yod said. "Maybe the top sworder of the empire, a few years back. He never gave his bracelet to a woman. Isn't that strange?"
Neq shrugged. The chief thought he was toying with the captive.
"Well, all shall be known," Yod said. "I shall give you the tour."
And a tour it was. "I have fifty excellent warriors," Yod said, gesturing to the tent. "But for some reason we're short of young women, and that makes the young men restive. So the girl will have a place with us, regardless."
Neqa walked closer to Neq and let her bracelet show, defensively.
"I have supplies enough for many months," Yod boasted. "See."
Four crazy trucks were parked behind the main tent. There was no longer any doubt who was the main hijacker. But it made little difference, since Helicon was dead.
"And entertainment." Yod gestured to a hanging cage.