Captives of the Flame
It had been silent for sixty years. Then, above the receiving stage in the laboratory tower of the royal place of Toromon, the great transparent crystal sphere glowed.
On the stage a blue haze shimmered. Red flame shot through the mist, a net of scarlet, contracting, pulsing, outlining the recognizable patterning of veins and arteries. Among the running fires, the shadow of bones formed a human skeleton in the blue, till suddenly the shape was laced with sudden silver, the net of nerves that held the body imprisoned in sensation. The blue became opaque. Then the black-haired man, barefooted, in rags, staggered forward to the rail and held on for a moment. Above, the crystal faded.
He blinked his eyes hard before he looked up. He looked around. “All right,” he said out loud. “Where the hell are you?” He paused. “Okay. Okay. I know. I’m not supposed to get dependent on you. I guess I’m all right now, aren’t I?” Another pause. “Well, I feel fine.” He let go of the rail and looked at his hands, back and palms. “Dirty as hell,” he mumbled. “Wonder where I can get washed up.” He looked up. “Yeah, sure. Why not?” He ducked under the railing and vaulted to the floor. Once again he looked around. “So I’m really in the castle. After all these years. I never thought I’d see it. Yeah, I guess it really is.”
He started forward, but as he passed under the shadow of the great ribbon’s end, something happened.
At least the exposed parts of his body--head, hands, and feet--faded. He stopped and looked down. Through his ghost-like feet, he could see the rivets that held down the metal floor. He made a disgusted face, and continued toward the door. Once in the sunlight, he solidified again.
There was no one in the hall. He walked along, ignoring the triptych of silver partitions that marked the consultant chamber. A stained glass window further on rotated by silent machinery flung colors over his face as he passed. A golden disk chronometer fixed in the ceiling behind a carved crystal face said ten-thirty.
Suddenly he stopped in front of a book cabinet and opened the glass door. “Here’s the one,” he said out loud again. “Yeah, I know we haven’t got time, but it will explain it to you better than I can.” He pulled a book from the row of books. “We used this in school,” he said. “A long time ago.”
The book was Catham’s Revised History of Toromon. He opened the sharkskin cover and flipped a few pages into the text.
“ ... from a few libraries that survived the Great Fire (from which we will date all subsequent events). Civilization was reduced beyond barbarism. But eventually the few survivors on the Island of Toron established a settlement, a village, a city. Now they pushed to the mainland, and the shore became the central source of food for the island’s population which now devoted itself to manufacturing. On the coast, farms and fishing villages flourished. On the island, science and industry became sudden factors in the life of Toromon, now an empire.
“Beyond the plains at the coast, explorers discovered the forest people who lived in the strip of jungle that held in its crescent the stretch of mainland. They were a mutant breed, gigantic in physical stature, peaceful in nature. They quickly became part of Toromon’s empire, with no resistance.
“Beyond the jungle were the gutted fields of lava and dead earth, and it was here that the strange metal tetron was discovered. A great empire has a great crime rate, and our penal system was used to supply miners for the tetron. Now technology leaped ahead, and we developed many uses for the power that could be released from the tetron.
“Then, beyond the lava fields, we discovered what it was that had enlarged the bodies of the forest people, what it was that had killed all green things beyond the jungle. Lingering from the days of the Great Fire, a wide strip of radioactive land still burned all around the lava fields, cutting us off from further expansion.
“Going toward that field of death, the plants became gnarled, distorted caricatures of themselves. Then only rock. Death was long if a man ventured in and came back. First immense thirst; then the skin dries out; blindness, fever, madness, at last death; this is what awaited the transgressor.
“It was at the brink of the radiation barrier, in defiance of death, that Telphar was established. It was far enough away to be safe, yet near enough to see the purple glow at the horizon over the broken hills. At the same time, experiments were being conducted with elementary matter transmission, and as a token to this new direction of science, the transit ribbon was commissioned to link the two cities. It was more a gesture of the solidarity of Toromon’s empire than a practical appliance. Only three or four hundred pounds of matter could be sent at once, or two or three people. The transportation was instantaneous, and portended a future of great exploration to any part of the world, with theoretical travel to the stars.
“Then, at seven thirty-two on an autumn evening, sixty years ago, a sudden increase in the pale light was observed in the radiation-saturated west by the citizens of Telphar. Seven hours later the entire sky above Telphar was flickering with streaks of pale blue and yellow. Evacuation had begun already. But in three days, Telphar was dead. The sudden rise in radiation has been attributed to many things in theory, but as yet, an irrefutable explanation is still wanted.
“The advance of the radiation stopped well before the tetron mines; however, Telphar was not lost to Toron for good, and...”
Jon suddenly closed the book. “You see?” he said. “That’s why I was afraid when I saw where I was. That’s why...” He stopped, shrugged. “You’re not listening,” he said, and put the book back on the shelf.
Down the hallway fifty feet, two ornate stairways branched right and left. He waited with his hands shoved into his pockets, looking absently toward another window, like a person waiting for someone else to make up his mind. But the decision was not forthcoming. At last, belligerently he started up the stairway to the left. Halfway up he became a little more cautious, his bare feet padding softly, his broad hand preceding him wearily on the banister.
He turned down another hallway where carved busts and statues sat in niches in the walls, a light glowing blue behind those to the left, yellow behind those to the right. A sound from around a corner sent him behind a pink marble mermaid playing with a garland of seaweed.
The old man who walked by was carrying a folder and looked serenely and patiently preoccupied.
Jon waited without breathing the space of three ordinary breaths. Then he ducked out and sprinted down the hall. At last he stopped before a group of doors. “Which one?” he demanded.
This time he must have gotten an answer, because he went to one, opened it, and slipped in.
Uske had pulled the silken sheet over his head. He heard several small clicks and tiny brushing noises, but they came through the fog of sleep that had been washing back over him since Chargill’s departure. The first sound definite enough to wake him was water against tile. He listened to it for nearly two minutes through the languid veil of fatigue. It was only when it stopped that he frowned, pushed back the sheet, and sat up. The door to his private bath was open. The light was off, but someone, or thing, was apparently finishing a shower. The windows of his room were covered with thick drapes, but he hesitated to push the button that would reel them back from the sun.
He heard the rings of the shower curtain sliding along the shower rod; the rattle of the towel rack; silence; a few whistled notes. Suddenly he saw that dark spots were forming on the great fur rug that sprawled across the black stone floor. One after another--footprints! Incorporeal footprints were coming toward him slowly.
When they were about four feet away from his bed, he slammed the flat of his palm on the button that drew back the curtains. Sunlight filled the room like bright water.
And standing in the last pair of footprints was the sudden, naked figure of a man. He leaped at Uske as the King threw himself face down into the mound of pillows and tried to scream at the same time. Immediately he was caught, pulled up, and the edge of a hand was thrust into his open mouth so that when he bit down, he chomped the inside of his cheeks.
“Will you keep still, stupid?” a voice whispered behind him. The King went limp.
“There, now just a second.”
A hand reached past Uske’s shoulder, pressed the button on the night table by the bed, and the curtains swept across the window. The hand went out as if it had been a flame.
“Now you keep still and be quiet.”
The pressure released and the King felt the bed give as the weight lifted. He held still for a moment. Then he whirled around. There wasn’t anyone there.
“Where do you keep your clothes, huh? You always were about my size.”
“Over there ... there in that closet.”
The bodiless footprints padded over the fur rug, and the closet door opened. Hangers slid along the rack. The bureau at the back of the closet was opened. “This’ll do fine. I didn’t think I was ever going to get into decent clothes again. Just a second.”
There was the sound of tearing thread.
“This jacket will fit me all right, once I get these shoulder pads out of it.”
Something came out of the closet, dressed now: a human form, only without head or hands.
“Now that I’m decent, open up those curtains and throw some light around the place.” The standing suit of clothes waited. “Well, come on, open the curtains.”
Slowly Uske reached for the button. A freshly shaven young man with black hair stood in the sunlight, examining his cuffs. An open brocade jacket with metal-work filigree covered a white silk shirt that laced over a wide V-neck. The tight gray trousers were belted with a broad strip of black leather and fastened with a gold disk. The black boots, opened at the toe and the heel, were topped with similar disks. Jon Koshar looked around. “It’s good to be back.”
“Who ... what are you?” whispered Uske.
“Loyal subject of the crown,” said Jon, “you squid-brained clam.”
“Think back about five years to when you and I were in school together.”
A flicker of recognition showed in the blond face.
“You remember a kid who was a couple of years ahead of you, and got you out of a beating when the kids in the mechanics class were going to gang up on you because you’d smashed a high-frequency coil, on purpose. And remember you dared that same kid to break into the castle and steal the royal Herald from the throne room? In fact, you gave him the fire-blade to do it, too. Only that wasn’t mentioned in the trial. Did you also alert the guards that I was coming? I was never quite sure of that part.”