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The Quintara Marathon

If the shot Kalia had taken had been basically a chest shot, then Josef could imagine what she looked like under the rust-red environment suit she wore. If she'd kept the scar on her face as a matter of pride and protection, the shot that felled her should settle any remaining questions.

Almost half her face, the right side, which already had the scar, was a mass of charred flesh, through which the huge, ugly scar stood out even bolder. Most of her already short hair had been burned away, and what hadn't, on the left side, was white. Even her left eyebrow was gone, and, when the wrecked flesh was ready to come off, it wouldn't improve things. Her right side had gone from being cruel and somewhat disfigured to being literally monstrous; her left was basically untouched. The left profile would still show something of her old beauty; a right profile would be of some ugly thing, almost as if two different creatures had been joined together. She appeared to move her right arm and hand with difficulty, and only when she had to.

"Are you certain you are up to this?" Josef asked her point-blank.

"The left eye seems all right—I must have closed it in reflex action," she responded. "I am left-handed, and have been as repaired as I can in the field. My legs remain in good shape. I am a soldier of the Mycohl, ready to do my duty until death. You have already stated that death is our most likely outcome. I choose not to be the one left here for sacrifice. If we were in battle, I would be expected to press on with whatever I had left. Failure is death. I choose to live until it is my time."

He nodded. It was what he expected. Still, he had to ask, "Have you seen yourself?"

She nodded. "In the shuttle. A soldier bears the wounds of battle as the medals of courage."

Although a good hospital and modern medicine back home could make her perfect once more, he knew she would never consent to cosmetic rebuilding, just as she'd refused to have that damned scar fixed even before she was in the military with its tradition of wearing your wounds. That scar had liberated her from a short, unhappy life as slave and prostitute, and he wasn't sure if she'd be happy until experience wiped all traces of her former beauty from her. He caught her eye, although she always tried to avoid his, and caught her before she could do anything about it.

"You feel no effects from the wound," he told her in a firm, steady voice. "You are as good as you ever were."

He sighed and let his control of her go. "All right, then. Tobrush—give me a scan. You, too, Kalia."

The telepath and the empath surveyed the scene for a full circle. "Nothing," they both said, almost in unison.

The officer nodded. "All right, then. We can assume that our back shooter has made it up and in there while we were here. That means we can count on at least one ambusher right from the start."

"Let me go in first, then!" Kalia pleaded. "I will draw her fire and locate her, and perhaps I can get her if she makes a try for you."

"You and Desreth will go in together, one to each side. Kalia, the reason you were shot was your left-handedness, which caused you to have to walk out and then turn before you could fire. This time, take the right side. If it's too overpowering in there, get back out and tell us. Otherwise, Tobrush and I will come in one minute later. Robakuk will cover our rear just in case, then enter as soon as he is satisfied. Understood?"

Robakuk looked up at the gaping, jagged entrance to the structure beyond them. "Any idea yet what that thing is?"he asked.

"Too busy to do much research," Tobrush responded. "Not that it matters. Every instrument and scan I've tried on the thing returns impossible and inconsistent readings. We can't even accurately measure the thing the way it keeps shifting. I also get very odd sensations when I attempt a telepathic scan of the thing. I cannot read anyone inside it, but that might just be a result of the field or whatever it is that protects it and causes these anomalous readings. And yet, somehow, I sense a presence, almost as if the thing were alive, but on some level that I cannot comprehend."

"I feel it, too," Kalia agreed. "Have you thought that perhaps it is some great beast, and that we are proposing to rush right into its open mouth?"

"Unlikely," Tobrush responded. "These scientists were here for quite some time. If any of them had been eaten, I suspect that this camp would have been modified a great deal. Also, one does not build a walkway, complete with lights, into something's belly. In fact, those are power cables running along the walk and inside. They were doing work in there."

"Did you get anything from the Holy Horrors before they cut and ran?" Josef pressed. "Any idea of what they might have found in those records to explain what happened here?"

"Nothing much made sense unless they could not avoid it," the telepath replied. "They were very well trained and had a hypno with them. The hypno was the only one I could get much of anything from, and it was all that mumbled mess about angels and demigods and demons."

"The demons were probably thoughts of us," Josef chuckled. "You know that in their cosmology demons are the creatures of pure evil. You've all seen what that carnage in there looked like. It's easy to see them seeing their vision of demons doing just that."

"Now that you mention it—that is very odd," the Julki commented, thinking. "Stray thoughts here and there in the thick of busy times aren't usually worth much, but more than once, from more than one of them, I got a concept that could only translate as 'demon house.' "

"More of their babble!" Robakuk snorted.

"No, I don't think so," Josef put in. "It's easy for us to make fun of them, but let's not forget that they run an interstellar empire and they do it very efficiently and with a fair sophistication towards technology. They may be insane, but they are not stupid! That was a good team they had down here, too—well-trained, effective."

"It beat the living shit out of us and made us look like incompetents and fools," Kalia spat. "That I will grant."

"Are you seriously suggesting that they were thinking objectively of that thing as a demon house?" Tobrush asked him.

Josef shook his head. "Forget it. We'll know when we go in, and there is no more reason to delay this and quite a bit of reason not to. I'd much rather fight it out with the Mizzies inside there than be caught sitting here when an Exchange fleet shows up. Check equipment, everybody! Here we go!"

The building or whatever it was didn't look any less weird up close. Like some monstrous quartz crystal or the great tooth of some incomprehensibly huge monster lying on its side, half buried in old rock, it lay there, shifting now and again without actually moving in a way none of them could quite reconcile, its jagged, hollowed-out end drawing them in.

The door was some sort of energy barrier that kept the elements out but did not impede deliberate entry. It was deep inside the thing, and only the still-operating lights of the doomed scientific expedition illuminated the scene, even though the walls themselves seemed to have a slight luminescent glow.

Guns drawn, flanking the entrance, Josef nodded to Kalia and Desreth, and they went in, the darkness of the "door" quickly swallowing them.

It was a very long two minutes until Josef, on Kalia's side, and Tobrush on Desreth's, entered. Not a sound had been heard, not a single light seen inside.

He was surprised to find the interior fairly well if indirectly lit by a stronger glow from inside the walls, if that's what they were. The entryway was a small chamber, somewhat rounded, as was everything inside, made of the same translucent material as the exterior. It seemed to him as if the thing had been cast as a single solid, then hollowed out by some kind of tremendous heat so that pillars oozed from ceiling to floor and passages melted into the bottom surface. The opaque, sort of pinkish off-white of everything seemed totally plastic, as if everything was the inside of some monstrous, unnatural soft-rock cavern.

He went to Kalia and crouched low. "Anything?" he whispered.

"Some voices echoing ahead," she whispered back. "They sound like they are coming from pretty far in, but it is impossible to say just where they are or how far they come from. This is a very strange place."

He nodded. "What about readings? Anything empathic?"

"The field from this building is far stronger inside here. It overwhelms any strength I might have."

Tobrush, motioned over, had the same report. "Too much interference. I have never experienced this before."

"Well, if we can't get a read on them, then they can't get a reading on us, either," Josef reasoned. He stopped suddenly, raising a hand for silence. From somewhere deep inside he could hear voices, now and again.

"We'll wait for Robakuk and then advance using the same system, only we won't have any more long delays," he told them.

"The interference may make them useless, but I've been tuned on their intercom frequency," Tobrush told them. "If we get close enough, I can tie in the translator and perhaps find what they are saying."

"Let's just kill them and be done with it!" Kalia snapped.

Josef shook his head, then turned briefly to see Robakuk enter and come toward them, then turned back. "No. No one is to fire unless we are discovered. Got that, everyone? No one. Not unless I give the order. We don't know what we're heading into in there. If we can learn something from their comments, all the better."

"They are being too unguarded, too casual," Kalia pointed out.

"You suspect a trap?"

"Don't you?"

"I'm not so sure. If they were going to lay a trap for us, this would be the place to do it. Plenty of cover and we all had to come through there."

"True," Robakuk agreed, "but they also know we're here and bound to come in after them. If their rear guard is here, they are well prepared. If not, then her absence would make them even more wary."

"You're all talking like any of this makes sense," the officer commented dryly. "Well, let's go find out. Weapons for stun except mine. If I get a crack at the hypno I want him out for good. Otherwise, if we can take some alive, all the better. On kill only if absolutely unavoidable. We need to know what they learned back there. After that, you can do with them what you will. Understood?"

They all assented except Kalia, who finally agreed as well when she realized that he was about to use his own powers on her once more.

"Not a word on the com after we start in," Tobrush warned. "If I tune to them, they'll be tuned to us as well, so set your coms now for receive only and use physical signals. Understood?"

"Everybody make those adjustments now. And turn back to full capability on our channel as soon as things start happening," he said. "All right—Kalia, Desreth—positions. One room at a time. I have a feeling that this is very like a cave, and we'll be moving from chamber to chamber."

He was right about the cavern analogy, although it was a strangely artificial one. He just couldn't shake the idea that he was inside a real dwelling, perhaps a research station of some sort, or even a crashed and half-buried ship of some unknown and probably ancient race much like that derelict in orbit above them. Still, what kind of a lab or ship or even dwelling was it that had no furniture, no instruments, nothing but empty room after empty room?

The only thing he'd ever seen, once in his youth, that had any correspondence with this place—elaborate, built with much planning and effort, yet with nothing but empty chambers—had been . . .

A noble family's mausoleum.

The more he thought about that, the more the place, in spite of its eerie lighting, lack of corners or straight lines, and its somewhat melted look, took on more and more the cast of an as yet unused, or at least unfilled, family tomb.

Kalia and Desreth moved through an oval corridor—yet another one—and suddenly both stopped. Kalia turned and, with hand gestures, indicated that the next chamber was not at all empty, nor did it contain just the dead.

Tobrush glided up close to them, as silent as the Julki could be, tendrils extended, and began making small adjustments on its suit external control system. Suddenly voices came to all of them in their own tongue. The translator wasn't a hundred percent accurate and it made everybody sound like Desreth, but it certainly did work.

 

Morok's head moved back and forth on it's long, thin neck in Stargin agitation. "How could anyone, anything do something like this?"

"The two demons were there, encased," Manya said, pointing to the shattered stalagmite-like extrusions that had to be what they had seen on the preview cubes. "The scientists would proceed with extreme caution and the luxury of time. It might have been weeks, even months, before they got to attempting to cut them out of there, or even decide whether or not to do so. When they did, they undid the work of the angels who created this place and liberated the evil, who repaid the favor by killing everyone and everything they saw."

"You no longer think this is a demon structure, then?" Morok asked.

"Doubtful. Why would they encase and imprison themselves? No, these must have been among the most terrible of all demons, whose power and cruelty surpassed all others. They could not be killed, for who can kill a demon? The only recourse was to create this place and encase them in this material from which they would have to stand there for millennia, trapped, held, out of harm's way, on this remote world. Then the Exchange came along and in its ignorance undid the work of the Warriors of the Gods."

Gun Roh Chin looked around at the carnage. "Where are they, then?"

"Huh? What? It is obvious. Demons are not bound by the laws of our plane! They are on the supernatural plane, where they can move unseen from world to world instantly with the power of thought as it says in the ancient books. Probably seeing how things had changed in the eons since they were imprisoned here before plotting ultimate evil. They have made their sacrifices here!"

Gun Roh Chin examined a corpse. He wasn't sure what sort of creature it had been, and that was disturbing. There wasn't enough left of it to even make more than a slight guess, and bones were all over. Bones that looked, well, gnawed upon.

"Maybe they woke up hungry," he suggested. "These people weren't sacrificed. They were slaughtered and eaten. There were no signs of anything being eaten or gnawed in the bodies back at the camp. They were simply ruthlessly murdered, their ship also attacked and rendered inactive, so they couldn't go for help. First they were like wild animals, unreasoning, savage, gorging. Then they began to think, and plan, and act on that planning. They activated weapons, possibly defensive weapons aboard here, to get the ship, which might have threatened them. The ones outside, though, they just took on without much concern. By that time, they knew that the people here couldn't hurt them and were vulnerable."

"Aboard? What do you mean, 'aboard,' Captain?" Morok pressed him.

"Aboard this ship, for that's what I think it is. Some sort of transport. Whatever it carried, it already disgorged, for all the chambers we've seen are empty. Then, on the way back, something happened. It crashed here, well off its flight plan, in the middle of nowhere even to them. The crew, probably just those two, took the only means of survival possible. They put themselves into some sort of suspended animation in the hopes that one day someone would discover and rescue them. The ship still had power, just not enough for transport. It's maintained them, protected them, and kept them essentially above ground and the forces of nature ever since they crashed—perhaps thousands, even a million years. Until they were rescued, not by their own kind, but by these hapless souls. The effect of the long animation—who knows what it would do to them or anyone else? They emerged savage, animals, mad, and starving. Later, they regained their senses, if not their sanity. They needed to buy time and saw these others as aliens, invaders. They eliminated them."

"You sound like the Exchange!" Manya snapped in disgust. "They were imprisoned here! Demons! Real demons! If they were as you say, where are they? They could no more get off with this so-called ship of yours now than before. Castaways from some ancient supercivilization such as you postulate would not kill everyone. They would try and learn who these people were and something about them. They would go through the records."

"She's got you there, Captain," Morok agreed.

"Not necessarily. Look at this place! It's a completely different sort of technology, a completely different approach than we have known from any race. The fact that they recognized the research ship for what it was and could find and destroy it shows that they knew as much as they needed to know. We have no evidence that everyone was killed off the bat, or even that everyone here was killed, since we don't know how many people were here. If they also had Talents, perhaps telepathy, they wouldn't need anything else. With this level of technology, it's even possible that the ship itself had been monitoring and told them all they needed to know."

"It begs the major question," Manya retorted. "Where did they go if not into the other plane?"

Suddenly Krisha's voice came over the suit intercom. "Forty-one B,"it said simply.

They immediately gave the mental instruction to their suit controllers to switch frequencies.

"Company," Krisha reported. "The Mycohl five, just outside the entryway. Slow and easy, move towards cover in the rear."

Inside the corridor, Josef and the others heard the numeric code, then silence.

"They made us," he said quietly. "Attack at will."

Desreth moved forward first, and was immediately met by concentrated fire, all at maximum. Seeing no immediate cover, the Corithian pulled back almost as fast as it entered.

"They have at least two sentinels with weapons trained at maximum on the corridor," it reported. "I fear damage before I can get to effective cover. They have placed their people well."

"Let me try it!" Kalia said eagerly. "I do not need the amount of cover Desreth does."

"You would not get in before they killed you," the Corithian told her. "It took them less than three seconds to concentrate both weapons fully on me and match my movements, and, by now, the others are in position as well."

Josef scratched his chin and thought about the situation.

"We wait—a little while. This was the only way in, and it's the only way out through this maze. If it wasn't for the scientists' power cable we wouldn't have found our own way here. Since we chased them in, it's unlikely they did anything else themselves, so they're stuck. Tobrush, find their current frequency. They'll change often, but if we can get something, we'll take what we can get. Desreth, probe them at five-minute intervals. I don't want them to get comfortable, and, sooner or later, they'll realize that they will have to come to us. Let them walk into us. We have the exit at our backs, not them."

That thought hadn't escaped the Mizlaplanians, who had retreated to the chamber exit in back of the grand chamber, except for Krisha and Savin, who had good cover behind instruments and debris at the far corners, allowing concentrated fire on anyone entering from the front.

"We can't stay here," Gun Roh Chin pointed out, glad nonetheless to be away from the chamber of horrors inside. "It's a complete standoff, only we hold the wrong door at our backs."

"Any suggestions?" Morok asked, his own thoughts echoing the captain's.

"There appears to be considerably more of this structure further on. Probably all empty chambers, of course, but you can never tell. I suspect that if there was anything of real interest back there, though, the Exchange team would have found it."

"That does not improve matters," Morok responded glumly.

"It might, if it's the same sort of labyrinth we saw coming in. We did what they did—we followed the cable. There were other corridors, though, and other branches. It's quite possible that some bypass this central chamber."

"You mean we could flank them, I think the term is? Yes, perhaps. But that assumes that some of them do go around, and that we can figure out the route without any guides."

Chin looked back out at the chamber. "How wide can this thing be, anyway? Long, yes—I'd say we were in the buried section already, although I don't feel the angle. But width? That chamber—it's easily three-quarters of the width of the structure, if I'm any judge."

"The captain is correct on that point," Manya hissed. "The gods will correctly guide the resolute. Besides, if we hesitate too long, then they will also think of it."

The captain looked at the team leader. "You want me to try and reconnoiter the side passages?"

"No," Morok responded, thinking. "If we get lost in here, we get lost together. Under the circumstances, there is more weakness in separation than any other course. If we are correct and they have sent someone the other way, we will have an advantage. If we get all the way around, then the circumstances here will be reversed. It is time to leave this remnant of the Darkness and make a run for home. Others can use what we have to consider future courses of action. We can do no more." He peered anxiously out into the chamber, and one of the Mycohl threw a reckless shot in his direction. It missed, but the point was well taken. "We have to find a way to get Savin and Krisha back with us."

"I will go," Manya told him.

"The Corithian can see you clearly," Chin reminded her.

"Then there are four blind ones and one with sight. If you go, all five can see. With your permission, Holiness?"

"Go, Manya," Morok told her, and she barely hesitated.

Manya was not completely without cover, and the distance from entrance to exit was wide. She moved behind a large pillar that reached from ceiling down to the floor and turned toward Krisha. "In! In!" she shouted, then turned and shouted the same aloud to Savin, her deep, raspy voice creating eerie echoes through the chamber. "I will cover you!"

Krisha broke first, and even as shots started coming her way Manya opened up on the entrance, firing shots in rapid succession. She had little hope of hitting anything, but it might well keep any of them from getting a good enough look to score a hit.

"They're retreating!" Josef snapped. "Something's up! Robakuk! Maybe it's time you gave them some nightmares to think about. The rest—in behind the cover!"

The black Thion moved cautiously to where its huge eyes could take in the chamber. Manya's shots were wild; only a lucky shot would cause him any real damage.

Suddenly, on the floor of the great chamber littered with bodies, some of those bodies twitched, stirred, and began rising off the floor some leaving entrails and limbs stuck to the floor as they rose! 

Manya stood suddenly, transfixed by the horror advancing on her, and she screamed. Krisha, almost inside and safe, froze when she, too, saw the gruesome advance, and Savin was also taken aback.

"Stop it and get in here!"Gun Roh Chin shouted. "They've got a levitator with them! That fifth one we couldn't figure out—a levitator! That's all it is!"

It wasn't his comments but the sudden near misses coming all around them that spurred them into action. They got back in fast, before the oncoming Mycohl team could get into positions giving them full coverage of the exit opening.

"Come on!" Morok shouted. "Everyone move back—together! They can keep themselves under cover and be on us! Best we get back where it doesn't have anything to use!"

Krisha shivered. "If ever I doubt the purity of evil inside each Mycohl, no matter how much like us they appear, I will remember this moment!"

They moved back into the recesses of the demon structure until they came to another chamber with branches.

"Left!" Gun Roh Chin told them.

"But what if it is not the way back?" Morok asked him, uncertain as to the logic of another race on this sort of thing.

"It's as good a choice as any. All are equally likely to be right, or wrong, the captain replied. "We know they will be coming right through here! We can't stand here—let's move!"

They turned sharply left and took the first rounded corridor that seemed to angle back toward the entrance, then stopped, and all aimed their weapons at the entrance once more, just in case the pursuers came the wrong way. For a very long time there was no sound at all except their own slight movements and breathing.

Finally, Morok bent low and whispered to the captain, "Why left? Why were you so certain?"

Gun Roh Chin shrugged. "I wasn't. But we know that their leader is a Terran, and that means that the odds are about nine to one that he's right-handed. Right-handed Terrans tend to turn right when making a choice."

The Stargin was taken aback. "I—uh, you are a most unusual man, Captain."

Chin shrugged. "Might I suggest, Holiness, that we might as well not wait here any longer? Let's see if we can get around them and either ambush them or get out of this foul place. If they want to waste time exploring for us back here, well and good. Let's be somewhere else."

"Very well. Manya, take the point ahead. Krisha, back her up. Savin, you guard the rear but do not hang back too far. Keep us always in sight."

The fierce-looking Mesok nodded.

Morok's eyes looked down on Gun Roh Chin's impassive features. "After you, Captain."

The captain opened his utility pouch, removed a cigar, bit off the end, and stuck it, unlit, in his mouth. Then he followed the women.

* * *

Of all the ones who converged on the tiny, isolated world of death, the Exploiter Team of the Exchange was the only one legally entitled to be there.

They were an odd crew, even for the vast Empire called simply the Exchange, ruled by a hidden race no one had ever seen, which bought, sold, and exploited worlds, people, and assets with abandon.

Fresh off a much-needed and profitable mission that might have enriched them all, they had answered a distress call intercepted by sheer chance, and had come not merely to help but, possibly, to salvage.

The star-shaped Durquist almost draped himself over his instruments, then said, "There is nothing alive on that ship. Nothing at all."

The Durquist—the term described the race, not the individual, but all of them used only it, to everyone else's confusion—was shaped like a five-pointed star around a central orifice that looked very much like a huge set of jet-black human lips, behind which, mostly invisible to the onlooker, were row after row of sharp-pointed teeth. Brain, stomach, all the internal organs were clustered somehow inside that hard center. From it emerged the arms—fluid, sucker-clad, able to stretch and twist and bend in almost infinite ways, yet with incredibly powerful muscles. The Durquist's eyes were a stalked pair on either side of the mouth; this allowed the creature to assume almost any posture, from walking upright on any two arms of its choice and looking weirdly humanoid from a distance, or walking on any combination of four.

"Scan the colony," Modra Stryke instructed him. "I want to know if anything's alive anywhere here." She paused and shook her head. "What in God's name could have happened here?"

Stryke was Terran in origin, a dark beauty in perfect physical shape, with flaming red hair and a hard-bitten demeanor that masked her highly emotional real self. A strong empath, she was married to the team bankroll, and, therefore, the boss, on her last field mission before returning and settling down to a less risky and more comfort-lined life with her husband, whose firm bought and sold futures in worlds as others sold stock.

<Gives you the creeps, doesn't it?>Grysta commented to Jimmy McCray.

"It's the dunes world all over again," the telepath swore under his breath, not really replying to the parasitic creature on his back. "This smells really bad."

McCray was a sandy-haired, craggy-faced Irishman who was no less Irish by being born thousands of light-years from a land he'd never seen save in legends. He believed in legends, and in curses, for he bore one that, for being so small, was an enormously heavy weight on his mind and soul. This was Grysta, a tiny, furry parasite called a Morgh that was firmly embedded in his back most of the time and which required him in order to see and hear the outside world, as well as for nourishment. Through tendrils into his nervous system, she could cause him pleasure or pain, and spoke to him and him alone through direct neural link.

"It is even worse than it looks," the Durquist reported. "I do not scan any living forms below, but I scan not one but three parked shuttles."

Tris Lankur rushed to the command screens. "Put them up, Durquist. Full enlargement."

The ship's captain, Lankur was outwardly a Terran male; large, muscular, with light brown skin and curly black hair. He was also a walking dead man; a man who'd loved Modra and who had not been able to accept her marriage to another. He had blown some of his brains out, and the medical wizards of the Exchange had given him another, artificial brain that governed him to a great degree. He was a cymol, a living creature with a synthetic brain that could mock Terran behavior and personality, but which was far more alien to all of them than Modra was alien to the Durquist.

McCray, Lankur, and Stryke all suddenly gathered around the screen.

"What the hell?" Tris Lankur exclaimed, frowning. "The brown rectangular one there is from the orbital vessel. It's similar to ours. That dull gray oval one, though—that's Mizlaplan! And the black one that's kind of beetle-shaped—that's Mycohlian!"

"They had a bloody interstellar convention down there," McCray commented.

"I read no higher form anomalies below, either," the Durquist reported. "And if those are foreign shuttles, where are their base ships? And what the hell are they doing here in the first place?"

"That's easy enough," Lankur replied. "They're here, someplace. Either automated or with a standby skeleton crew, watching us from out there someplace. Or chasing each other. I can't see those two groups in particular having any sort of friendly arrangement."

"You think the winner's getting ready to jump us?" McCray asked. "I mean, what if them bastard heathen Mycohl jumped the research ship and camped down there 'cause they were onto something real important and stuck all out here in the middle of nowhere? The Holy Joes get wind of it and figure on an ambush—or vice versa. You said yourself they're all pretty close by here, all crunched together."

"Yes, but this is our territory, damn them!" Modra Stryke responded, feeling oddly angry about the sight. "And if they're here to get something, they have to pick it up and run. More of our people will be here in just a few days."

"Aye, and the winner of their free-for-all will be all set to prove that they came here in response to a legitimate distress signal, found everybody already dead—whether they did or not—and the colony abandoned. Then they'll stake their own claim on it and there'll be hell to pay," McCray theorized. "I'm no patriot, and I'm not keen for a fight, but how many of our people would be represented on a thing like this? Forty, fifty in the ship, maybe half as many down? It sticks in my craw that if we just sit they might just get away with it."

<Another way to try and commit suicide, Jimmy?>

Modra looked around at them. "McCray's right. This is our space, our territory. And if anybody's going to put in a claim on a planet so important it would tempt in both of our enemies just to get it from us, it's going to be us."

"As an officer of the Exchange I've got to investigate," Tris Lankur reminded them. "As a member of this team, my presence is as good as all of us for our own claims. I have to go down. The rest of you could lay off and give me what cover you can."

Modra Stryke shook her head firmly in the negative. "Oh, no, Tris. No offense intended, but, God help me, you're a dead man. You look like Tris and talk like Tris and mostly act like Tris but we have no idea what you have in your head or whose marching orders you follow in a pinch. The Exchange thought this was so important they didn't even put it up for bids. They kept it, and kept it quiet, too. As far as I'm concerned, that doesn't put you squarely on the Team's side in this. Uh-uh. We go down as a team. Same as always."

"I hate to keep bringing up nasty and inconvenient things," the Durquist put in, "but all evidence seems to indicate that whatever hit that ship did so from the planet's surface, not from space. And no matter if the Mizlaplan and Mycohl both have ships down there—I am registering no known life forms on the surface, either! I think that suggests several prudent courses of action."

Tris Lankur nodded. "All right, then, if it's a full team job, then we have to approach it that way. For one thing, we don't land where they did. I'd much rather come in from the other side if there's any sort of clearing, even if it means a little walk. Tran will drop the I.P. inside the camp but will then withdraw. I'd like to keep this ship in orbit for a lot of reasons, and I'm not really nervous about attack from enemy vessels—even if one of them did do all this, hitting us as well in our own territory would make it impossible to explain. I am concerned that nothing from down there does to this ship what it did to the research vessel. We'll drop a relay beacon here so we can be in touch, then Tran will lay off and out but within range, so he can come in quick and dirty if need be. Understood?"

"Agreed," Modra responded. "Full packs and equipment, too. Durquist, any last bad news?"

"I am trying to figure out what that structure or outcrop or whatever it is down there is," the Durquist responded. "It has rather—bizarre—properties, and is certainly what these people were studying."

"Well, I don't care what it is right now," Tris told him. "I think we'd better get suited up and ready and drop that beacon and get down there as fast as we can. It's going to be almost dark by the time we get into that camp, and I don't want any nasty surprises just in case that thing's masking our instruments or has a Mycohl military team inside it just waiting for us."

Back in the ready area, Jimmy McCray was surprised to see Molly come in and start rummaging around. "What are you doing here? You can't come with us on this."

"Where you go, I go," she told him. "Besides, Molly did what Bigbrains couldn't. Molly got funny suit. Molly go with Jimmy."

This was the last of the team, as it were, although only nominally. Of all the creatures that made up the Three Empires, Molly was almost, but not quite, unique, for her race was artificial, and she'd been born in some remote laboratory, a genetically engineered impossibility designed specifically, in her case, to allow lonely sailors of Terran and Terranoid races to have safe and superior sex. Her skin was a pale pastel blue; her lips, even her hair, a darker blue. From just above the hips up, she was in every way an exotic, sexual Terran woman with all of the physical attributes exaggerated, save for the two tiny horns protruding from her hair just above the scalp line. At the hips, short, thick curly blue hair extended down to a pair of thick but equine-like legs terminating in broad hooves, and she had a long, silky equine tail emerging from the small of her back and going down to her knee.

A broadcast empath designed to inspire passion in the paying customers, she had a mind that worked so strangely even telepaths like McCray couldn't really follow her thoughts, but they were very basic thoughts on the whole, almost like a small child's. No one was certain what mental limits were put on syns like her, but, to ensure that no syn would ever develop ambitions, the designers had omitted thumbs.

Jimmy McCray had rescued her in a moment of pity and found himself her keeper and ward as a result. Unable to reconcile slavery with his Irish soul, and mindful of his own condition, he'd married her to give her legal status, but it was without passion and certainly without consummation. Grysta would have no others ahead of her.

And so Molly was here, because she had no place else to be.

The fact was, she did have an environment suit, although she couldn't manage to do much with it other than exist on the automatic Systems. She had to; you couldn't go into space on anything less than a capital ship without one.

<Order her to shut up and stay here!> Grysta snapped. <She's just gonna get us both killed.>

For once he agreed with his unwanted mate. "No, Molly! It's too dangerous! This isn't like being off the Hot Plant."

Molly stared at him. "Jimmy say Molly free girl?"

"Yes, but—"

"Didn't Jimmy say back there that Molly part of team?"

"All right, damn it, but I didn't—"

"Then Molly go," she responded with total finality in her voice.

"Molly," Modra put in sweetly, trying to be kind. "There might be a lot of bad people down there. Shooting and killing. We're afraid you might do something because of that that might get some of us killed."

"Molly had lots'a bad men in life. Molly not as dumb as folks think!"

Modra looked around. "Tris? Durquist?"

"I don't like it, but we can lose what little light we have arguing with her," Tris Lankur pointed out. "Either somebody's got to club her into unconsciousness or she's going to go."

"I agree," the Durquist sighed. "Molly, if you come, you must be a full member of the team. You must be very quiet and do exactly as we say, no matter whether you agree with it or not. You must obey us instantly because we have done this before and you have not."

"Molly understand. Molly also know rest of you had first time sometime, right?"

Modra Stryke sighed. "Give it up, Jimmy, and help her into her suit."

 

Molly had been very good and very cautious, and she was strong as an ox, which allowed Lankur and the Durquist to bring some extra equipment and supplies along.

They had landed about four kilometers northwest of the camp and trekked in. It wasn't an easy walk, but compared to some of the worlds they had been on, it was almost absurdly simple, and they arrived at the camp just at sunset, then fanned out to find out as much as they could.

"Stay away from entering or even touching the foreign shuttles," Lankur warned them. "We want to know if anybody's aboard, dead or alive, but nothing more. They're almost certainly booby-trapped."

The grisly scene of carnage that had shocked and baffled the Mizlaplanians had no less effect on them. More, in some ways, because all of them were their people, Exchange citizens.

"There's been a fight here, too," Modra noted. "See some of the searing on the exterior walls there? Whichever of them was here first fought at least a brief battle with whoever came second."

"No signs of foreign dead, though," the Durquist noted, a bit shaken to discover that some of the original victims of the carnage had been Durquists as well. He felt as if he were looking at his own end. "None of the victims we found were shot, and all the clothing and equipment here appears to be ours. I did an entire surface scan."

Tris Lankur stood in front of a huge cabinet in the administration hut that had clearly been filled with the accumulated scientific recordings made there. "Maybe nobody shot these folks, but somebody shot the data," he noted. "I bet there isn't a single intelligible or salvageable data cartridge there. Somebody wanted to make sure that we had as little to go on as possible."

"Or, more likely, whoever was here first didn't want the newcomers to know what they were in for," the Durquist said from behind him. "And they did a very nice job of that, too."

"I wouldn't worry so much about them," Modra replied. "There are surely tons of materials on the ship in safely insulated interior regions, or maybe already sent back to the Exchange. That vandalism is just senseless."

Jimmy McCray, still in the research prefab, turned and surveyed the lab, with its twisted, wrecked bodies and dried blood of a half-dozen races all over everything. "And this makes sense?"

Molly had been more shaken by the gruesome sights than she wanted to let on, still fearing they'd send her back up. She wandered over to where a huge hole had been made in the side of the building and looked out.

"Whoever do this thing don't like doors," she noted.

McCray went over to her and looked at the huge inward burst and through the hole. "No, my dear, you're absolutely right. Whatever monstrosity came through came right through here—everything's bent inwards. And if they came on a straight line, then . . ." She followed his eyes as they looked at the bizarre structure not too far up on the bluff.

Molly frowned thoughtfully, something she rarely did. "Jimmy, you think that be somebody's house? They maybe not like be broken into."

He stared at her in surprise. "You might just have something there, darlin'." He suddenly paused. "Huh. Gettin' pretty dark in here. I think either I better find the lights or I'm gonna be spooked right to Jesus."

"Somebody already got lights on," she said, pointing.

In the near darkness, the huge alien structure was definitely glowing, although slightly.

 

"There's no two ways around it," Tris Lankur told them, shining his light on various signs of a fight leading from the camp up toward the thing embedded in the bluff. "We either camp here and wait for something to happen or we go up and see just what the hell that thing is, with the likelihood that either it will kill us or that it contains both whatever did all this and two very mean and fully armed foreign crews."

<I vote to stay here!>

"Shush, Grysta. You don't get a vote in this."

"Alas," the Durquist sighed, "I fear he's right."

Modra looked around in the near total darkness. "I think I'd rather take my chances up there than spend the night in this morgue," she said. "And I don't see how waiting until morning will help us. I think we call into Tran, make our report, then go in. Funny. I'm feeling remarkably wide awake for somebody who's walking right into death."

<Shit!>Grysta swore.

"You can always hop off now," Jimmy McCray suggested hopefully.

"Team to Widowmaker, team to Widowmaker," Tris called. "Do you read me, Tran?"

"Coming in fine," Trannon Kose responded. "I wish I were down there with you."

"I wish I was up there and you were down here," the Durquist commented sourly.

Quickly but thoroughly, Lankur made his report on their findings, which would supplement and detail the recordings of their intercom communications automatically registered on the ship.

"People go in there and they don't come out, or so it seems," Lankur concluded. "As a result, I recommend that nobody, repeat, nobody, follow us in. At least not until experts have recovered the data on those cartridges and know exactly what they are facing. Instead, I recommend active quarantine of the planet until they are a lot more confident and I also recommend a military sweep of this system. If the foreign ships are hiding out in there, they could probably learn a lot from them."

"Affirmative, Tris. You sound like you don't think you're coming out, either."

"I don't know. None of us do. But come in briefly and blow up the foreign and base camp shuttles as soon as we go in. Understand? Blow them up. Make them unable to fly. If anybody except us comes out of there, I don't want them getting off this hellhole. But you blow them and then back right off. You understand? Come in, blow, and withdraw. Then you wait, either for us or for reinforcements."

"Understood. Take care, all of you. I should very much hate having to break in another team."

"You can bloody well afford the best, Trannon Kose," Jimmy shot back. "If we don't come out of there, you get the whole bloody payment!"

Kose was silent for a moment, then responded, "I hadn't thought of that, McCray. Now I know I'll see you again. The way you've been, you'd come back from the grave to claim that money before you'd let me have it all."

"All right," Lankur sighed. "We'll keep our monitors on, but since we're not getting even carrier signals from the Mycohl or Mizlaplanians, the odds are pretty good that ours won't carry, either." He drew a deep breath. "All right, everybody—let's see what the hell this is all about."

They walked up the well-worn path in the eerie darkness.

"Place feel real strange," Molly commented as they neared it.

Modra nodded. "I feel it, too. Something on the empathic band, but not like anything I've ever felt before. It's almost as if that was some kind of new life form rather than a structure. Something somehow alive, yet so different, so alien, it's like nothing we know."

<I knew it! It's some kind of gigantic stone beast and we're walking right into its stomach!> Grysta cried to Jimmy McCray.

Jimmy tried to ignore that comment as he did most others, but damned if it didn't echo his own dark thoughts. He could sense secondhand what they were feeling by scanning their thoughts, but scanning the object produced nothing except the creeps. "Nothing on my wavelengths," he told them.

"The glow is very low-level energy," the Durquist reported. "Essentially a trickle charge through the thing almost too low to measure at all. The stuff, whatever it is, must be built to glow. It might even be simply radiating back absorbed sunlight."

Standing at the end of the thing, they could see where someone, presumably the scientific team, had laid down a plastic carpet up to what had to be the entrance. It looked dirty and well-trod.

"Well, if anybody thinks it's going to eat us, I think that should disprove at least that much," Lankur noted. "From the looks of this and the data modules and equipment, I'd say our people have been going in and out of here for a long time."

"Strange how it seems to change, somehow, every time you look at it," Modra commented. "And yet, you can't ever catch it in the act."

"Weapons on full lethal except Molly," Lankur stated flatly. "Don't give anything or anybody a chance to pick you off first. Check equipment, then report."

Molly didn't even draw her pistol. She doubted if she could harm anything, even something trying to kill her. The fear of death, or the unknown, didn't enter into her mind. To the syn, it was always "now."

"Okay, everyone. Let's go in," Tris Lankur said in a flat, yet determined voice.

 

The eerie, opaque, creamy-colored walls seemed almost to be dissolving about them, although intellectually they all knew that it was really just some sort of design feature of some mind alien to each and every one of them.

"Keep your suit lights on," Lankur warned them. "We get to depending on this place and suddenly something cuts the power. On your guard."

"We may be nuts but we aren't dumb," Jimmy McCray muttered in reply.

"I'm going through that entrance there," the cymol said, pointing. "Durquist—left. McCray, right. I'll go through the middle, you two follow on my signal or if I open fire."

He crouched down and let the other two get into position, then checked and double-checked his rifle, took a deep breath, and charged into the nearly heart-shaped opening.

For a moment there was silence, then Tris Lankur's voice came, "It's all right. Come on in. There's nothing alive here . . . now. Modra, come on up with us if your stomach will take it. It's worse than the base camp. Molly, you were bothered by that scene. I'm not real sure you should even see this."

That brought them all in a hurry, Molly, somewhat indignant at the patronizing, charging right through. She, and the others, stopped dead just behind Tris Lankur as they entered the chamber, though, transfixed, as he seemed to be, by the scene.

Everywhere there was blood. Red blood, green blood, blue blood, all the colors of the rainbow, smeared all over in such a pattern that it seemed as if some mad artist had been loosed inside.

The chamber was huge, far larger than could be accounted for by the apparent size of the "house" or whatever it was, with the slightly rounded floor characteristic of the rest of the place, and in the center were the remains of what had once obviously been two pillars rising from floor to ceiling, although it appeared to need no support—which was good, since much of the pillars was now gone, shattered, mixed in with the blood.

It was Lankur who moved first, walking over to the closest remains of what might have once been a living creature. The heaps of bone, flesh, and muscle were so mangled and distorted that it wasn't even possible from just looking to tell the racial origin of any of the remains.

Lankur approached the bloody, twisted lump cautiously, almost as if he expected it to come alive in some hideous form and leap upon him, even though cymols were supposed to be immune to fear and imagination's tricks and that thing was through ever leaping anywhere.

"It's been gnawed," he said hoarsely. "Who—whatever did this, it indiscriminately tore up and gnawed on every one of them. It was a blood feast, without any sense of reason at all. The ones back at the camp were just sadistically murdered—not these. What in hell did they set loose in here?"

The Durquist moved next, over to Lankur's right and near the pillar. "It was our doing, whatever it was," he noted. "This is—was—a Durquist. Mangled, but ungnawed. Whatever it was knew not to eat a Durquist."

Of all the known creatures, the Durquist was the only one whose flesh had proven toxic to any living thing that consumed even a small part of it.

Modra Stryke walked carefully across the remains of carnage and up to the base of the shattered pillar nearest the Durquist. She was shaken, certainly, by the sight, but she was also a pro. She could be sick later.

"There appears to have been some kind of hollow center in the pillars," she noted. "The rubble isn't quite enough for solid posts of that thickness and height." She stooped down and picked up two shards, not randomly chosen but selected for their obvious difference.

"Look at this," she said, holding one shard in each hand. "The one here is better than ten centimeters thick. This one, though, is very thin, very fragile—a few millimeters, no more."

The Durquist's stalked eyes turned away from the sight of his dead relation to the contents of her hand. "Interesting. Two enclosures, then, one inside the other. The outer thick, perhaps for protection and support, the inner—a capsule? You suppose that whatever it was was in some sort of capsule, suspended, and then the pillar was poured from the top down, over it, to seal it in?"

"Yeah, but what was inside the thing?" McCray asked, looking nervously around. "And where is it now?"

"Not here," Durquist responded. "Not now. Whatever it was was big. Look at the teeth marks here. And those really nasty marks there—what could make them? Fangs?"

"Their weapons seem to be still here," Tris Lankur noted. "I found a few. Small stuff but it should still have been adequate to have stopped just about anything I know."

"If they had a chance to use 'em," Jimmy put in.

"They did. You can see the marks on the walls all around you, and at least the one pistol I just checked is totally discharged. It's a near certainty that whatever it was wasn't invisible, or faster than lightning, and there were a fair number of people here. Whatever it was got hit all right. Got hit—and kept on coming. And it was fast. There wasn't even the obvious element of surprise implicit in the base camp attack. I—uh-oh."

"What's the matter?" Modra asked, tensing.

Lankur kneeled down before another mass of mangled flesh, then reached out and began peeling parts of it away. Modra, even McCray, found themselves averting their eyes. "What the hell you doin', cymol?" Jimmy asked.

"You said it right," Lankur responded. "I am and this is all that's left of another. Jesus! The skull's been crushed!" There was a sickening popping sound. "Ah! Got it!"

"What the hell are you doing, Tris?" Modra almost screamed. It was like a dead man loose in a slaughterhouse.

"Sorry to be so ghoulish," he responded, "but I got what I was looking for. Maybe damaged, maybe not. Hard to tell until I connect up."

They all turned in spite of themselves and saw that he was now standing, holding something that resembled a crudely shaped lump of some dull, lead-colored material to which small bits of organic matter still clung.

"I have one of these in my head," he told them. "Different size and shape, probably different capacity, but something like this just the same. Odd—never actually saw one before."

"That—that's the cymol part?" Modra asked weakly, wondering if in fact she could wait until later.

He nodded. "It's inert—now. No thought, no life left in it. But if its recording function is intact, I might well be able to learn just what happened here."

"You want to take it back to the ship?" she asked hopefully.

"I think I want to try it here. But—uh, sorry. Let's move back into one of the earlier chambers."

They got no argument, even from the Durquist, and when they entered the antechamber they found Molly already there, looking like she'd just puked.

Lankur unlatched the small case he wore on his belt, did something, and the case opened to reveal a dull metallic checkerboard surface. He removed a cable, stuck one end on the box, where it seemed to stick like glue, then reached up and removed a small section of hair and possibly skull. Modra watched in horrified fascination, unsure whether this sight was worse or not as bad as the one in the other room.

"This won't take long. Not at the speed I can operate in that direct mode," he told them, sticking the other end of the cable into the space in his skull.

Somehow they all expected him to assume some trance-like state, but he seemed much the same, eyes darting to each of them, face nearly expressionless. After a minute, perhaps less, he sighed and said, "It is badly damaged. I can't believe the kind of strength this would take. I don't have it all, but I think I have enough. I can tell you just what was inside there, and a little of what happened right at the end."

 

"The demon message was correct, no matter how mad the fellow was," Tris Lankur told them. "About three months ago, a scout discovered this world and this place, the only artificial structure on it. The scout didn't enter but did send in a probe, and got back pictures of that central chamber in its original state. You were right, Modra—two bodies, one in each pillar, sort of like giant stalagmite sarcophagi, each containing the body of a demon."

"Demon? What do you mean, 'demon'?" Jimmy McCray asked him.

"Just what I said. It was always theorized that we'd find at least the remains of them sooner or later. Hundreds of worlds, hundreds of races, and two out of three of them have demons. Even some water-breathing and silicon-based races have demons. Changed, altered, filtered through countless generations of legend, superstition, and racial viewpoints, but demons all the same. Tall, bipedal creatures—the one looked to be two and a half meters easy, the other maybe two—with horns, blazing, fiery eyes, ugly expressions, fangs, cloven hooves, pointed tails—the whole business. Ugly as sin and twice as fearsome-looking. My old Islamic grandfather would have recognized them in an instant, as would your Catholic priest, McCray, or your high priestess, Modra. Even you would have known them instantly, Durquist, although they look considerably more humanoid than your people's version."

"Demons," the Durquist mused. "Xotha, in my mother tongue, which is, by the way, the exact same word as ours for 'evil' but for the inflection that makes it refer to a living thing rather than a concept. The universal personification of evil—except to the Mycohl, who have them in place of demigods or angels or whatever."

Tris Lankur nodded. "It was long theorized that such memories couldn't have arisen independently, even on early worlds like Mother Earth where cultures and religions were so different, let alone on worlds that had no creature in any way resembling them on their planets. An early, brutal, interstellar race that made such an impression that ancient cultures preserved their memory in legend and myth."

"Some impression," Jimmy McCray muttered. "The personification of evil."

Lankur shrugged. "Well, you saw the other room," he noted. "I'd say that they more than lived up to their reputation."

"They did that?" Modra asked, incredulously. "Just two of them did all that?"

Lankur nodded. "Just two. And two who'd been probably in some kind of suspended animation for thousands upon thousands of years."

"The two—a set?" the Durquist asked him.

He nodded. "Yes, a male and a female. Conventionally bisexual, racially, although his organ looked big and half bone. Their females had to be really tough, I suspect, or have no pain nerves in the vaginal area. Probably both."

"The story now appears obvious," the Durquist said. "As far as it goes, anyway. Such a discovery had the Exchange rush their best scientific team here, along with a military guard ship to keep everybody else out, both entrepreneur and Mycohlian. Then they tested, poked, probed, and eventually would come to extracting the pair from their tombs. When they broke the seals, the two awoke and—well, fulfilled expectations. But how did they also cream the naval frigate?"

"That's not in here," Tris told them. "It must have happened either after they did this or simultaneously. I played back the end scene frame by frame and it's still not really clear. Too much disorientation and shock, too much damage. But it appears they only cut through the base of the female—that was the one on the left—and suddenly this whole place lit up. I get a picture of the light being much brighter all of a sudden, and a kind of pulsing, almost like this building was some kind of living organism. It's like—well, maybe examining a bacterium under high magnification. Fluids moved, tiny things pulsed and flexed—I'd say this place is alive, somehow."

Jimmy McCray looked nervously around. "Jonah all over. And we walked right into the fucking whale's stomach!"

"Artificial life," the cymol responded. "No offense, Molly, but you're an example of the earlier stages that this represents. They grew and designed artificial life as their housing, as their machines, everything. It probably thinks, even anticipates. Don't worry—I think I know what happened. I think they cut a little too high. I think they were going to cut just a little of the female's right leg, at least if my figures are correct. It triggered the defensive mode of this place. It revived the pair and shattered the external casings, which kept her from being sliced, and at the same time it automatically reacted against everything that could be perceived as a threat. That means it has the power to shoot and take out even a warship in high orbit."

"You mean—this—place—did that to them in there?" Modra asked, growing more and more nervous by the second.

"No," replied the cymol. "Not this place."

* * *

The cutting laser was having trouble with the substance, even though it could cut through the toughest known alloys. It did slice, but not cleanly, nor easily, nor particularly straight. It began to get jagged, and the robot saw stopped a moment and said, "Warning! I cannot guarantee that I can get through without raising the angle. This has the potential of cutting into specimen." 

Professor Makokah, a Brudak, flared its umbra in frustration. "What do you think?"  

The Durquist, a female of high rank, snorted. "Too bad, but we have to get them out of there. She won't feel a thing. My instruments show she's been dead a mere three quarters of a million standard years, more or less."  

"Any chance of better luck with the male?" asked Juria, a matronly-looking human cymol who was the theoretical official in charge.  

"Negative," the robot responded. "The problem is the thickness of the base and the nature of the material. I am the finest precision cutting tool we have. Something catches and twists the beam but does not weaken it, and their interior chambers give almost no latitude at all, being, as you noted, form fitted. The tolerances built into me should be adequate, but they are not. My own abilities do not foresee a way to prevent loss of at least most of the foot."  

Juria sighed. "My computations do not see any way out. The drill knows what it talks about. We shall have to accept the damage or leave them there."  

"Very well," the professor responded. "Proceed, then. The anticipated damage is rather minor compared to the value of an actual autopsy."  

The drill turned itself back on, and in that moment the walls, floor, and ceiling of the chamber suddenly burst into illumination, but they no longer had the hard, quartz-like appearance and texture. Rather it seemed almost as if there was a tremendous network of transparent veins and arteries, cells and other objects, suddenly alive, suddenly moving, like some great beast.  

The drill, programmed to stop at any unusual occurrence, shut down, and the people in the room were still gaping, in shock and wonder, when the two pillars burst at the center with a loud double explosion that both deafened them and nearly knocked them down.  

Great demon figures stepped out, and from their backs spread large, barbed, leathery wings. They did not step out as if suddenly revived, nor were they groggy, fearful, or even, apparently curious.  

The only two words Tris Lankur could come up with were imperious, and, somehow, arrogant.

The guards' weapons came up, and even as Juria shouted, "No! Don't shoot them!" the pair made incredible leaps on the nearest living things and began to use razor-sharp claws and fangs and great strength to tear head from body and limb from limb. The soldiers hesitated for fear of killing others, but when they saw the ferocity of the demons, they opened up, pouring every bit of their charges dead into the two attacking monsters.  

The demons appeared to find the shots, sufficient to vaporize part of the inert drill, mildly irritating, and immediately went after the soldiers, falling upon them and making of them very quick work.  

Several of the team members, including the cymol, started to make for the exit, but, to their horror, the wide, ovoid opening through which they had come suddenly shut, as if it were more valve than door, trapping them inside!

It did not take the demons long to finish them off at that point, going next for the cymol, whose memory and sensors became disoriented, then failed, but not, as first suspected, of immediate damage.  

As the first demon, the male, touched her, there was a sudden shock, a sudden opening of receptors, and some kind of contact, somehow, was made between the cymol computer in her head and whatever that thing was. There was a sudden, tremendous surge in her head, like contact with the Guardians themselves but with a difference; with a strange, terrible alienness about it, and crude, terribly crude, without regard for what it might do to her. She felt the contents of her cymol capsule being written out, copied, somehow, but the two-way contact fed her such a totally alien stream of incomprehensible thoughts and images that she could not grab hold of them, nor make any sense of them, even as her cymol half tried to do so.  

Then, suddenly, that cymol brain assembled something—a thought, a concept, a distorted and meaningless misinterpretation based on overload—who could tell. It said:  

"The Quintara—they still run!"

Then all was blackness.  

 

"I wish I could show them to you," Tris Lankur told them. "Alive, animated, they are like nothing I've ever seen before, even though they are in every sense the classical demon. It's not just the size and strength and form, it's something else, something inside them, that radiates out from them with every look, every gesture, every move. Almost the way . . . well, that an entomologist might look at a collection of insects. Only, no, even that doesn't convey it. Maybe . . . the way he'd look at a collection of common insects, of no particular interest. The kind even an entomologist wouldn't hesitate to step on without another thought. It's not even viciousness—they're so damned smugly superior for that. But it is power. Incredible power."

For a moment, there was silence, and he asked, "Any questions?"

"Yeah," Molly said, voice trembling slightly. "What the hell we still doin' in here?"

"She's got a point," the Durquist noted. "On a strictly pragmatic level, our current weapons aren't even a match for the soldiers, not really, and we have no idea how far back this thing goes. They certainly didn't go out onto the surface—we'd have detected them as life forms, at least—and they didn't just spread their wings and fly off into space. Whatever they are, I refuse to renounce the laws of physics. That happened days ago in there. They were certain to be hungry—pardon—with three quarters of a million years between supper and breakfast, but one would suspect that by now they would have at least a passing interest in lunch."

"I'm afraid it makes no difference," Tris Lankur commented. "If this thing is alive, it's monitoring us right now. If it's got armaments capable of what we know it has, then we're no safer up there than we are down here right inside it. In other words, if it wants us, there's not a damned thing in creation that can stop it."

Jimmy McCray let out a long breath. "Well, that sort of says it all, doesn't it? Kept around like mice in a snake case until the snake gets hungry. And if we try and leave, it can bloody well just blow our ship to Kingdom Come."

"Wait a minute! Wait a minute! This thing's got us all spooked!" Modra snapped at them. "There's no evidence that we're anything of the sort. It did nothing to the scout's probe, nor to the people here until they made a decision that would have harmed one of the owners. It didn't just shoot us out of the sky when we arrived, so it isn't in defensive mode all the time even now, and maybe it can't use all that stuff on its own initiative. Maybe, just maybe, it had to be directed to shoot."

"A telepathic link to machinery?" Jimmy McCray scratched his chin thoughtfully. "Well, it's been attempted for centuries, but I don't know that it's ever been done or can be."

"I think she is right," the Durquist put in. "Consider that all prior attempts have been to link people to machines. This isn't a machine—not in the sense we think of it. It's no more a machine than Molly there is a machine, and they found a way to induce broadcast empathy in Molly. If the Exchange knows how to do that, who knows what sorts of creatures with what sorts of powers they're producing or at least working on right now? And, if the Exchange can do that much, how much of a stretch is it to imagine that a technology that could create a station or base or whatever it is like this couldn't design in telepathic abilities as well?"

"You make me feel like some kind'a space suit or somethin'," Molly responded sorrowfully.

"No offense meant, I assure you," the Durquist responded.

"Well, Grysta just pointed out to me that it's no skin off us," Jimmy commented. "We've done the job, right? We answered the call, inspected the deed, didn't disturb the evidence much, and it's now up to us to make our report for other, wiser heads to follow up and then head home to collect on our successful mission. Personally, I don't give a damn where those demons are, so long as they're not near me."

Tris Lankur thought about it, then nodded and put away his equipment. "All right. Your little companion is a hundred percent right as far as my own obligations are concerned. Still, I hate like hell to turn this over to anybody else after we beam the report. After all, a claim's a claim and salvage law is still the law."

"You mean claim this place as salvage?" Modra was appalled by the idea. "But—that would mean some of us would have to stay here until the salvage claim was registered."

"We'll have to stay in the area, anyway, until somebody else gets here," Lankur pointed out. "You can bet that the Mycohl are headed this way as well. They had to pick up that call. If we're here, they won't get the claim—they'll be blamed for it if they try anything straightaway. Only if we aren't here and can't file a report can they get in under the same salvage."

"Well," the Durquist sighed, "if we are stuck, and we are, and if we are targets anywhere, which we are, I suggest that we are much more comfortable targets aboard Widowmaker."

"Agreed," responded McCray, and the others nodded. "Let's get out of this accursed place."

They picked up their gear and started back the way they came, Molly, in this case, taking the enthusiastic lead.

They walked for some time, from chamber to chamber, but there was no sign of the entrance.

"Wait a minute! We've gone much further than we did coming in," McCray commented. "We must have taken a wrong turn."

"Impossible!" Lankur snapped. "It was a straight line and we retraced exactly. Trust me."

Molly suddenly stopped after hearing this. "Uh-oh! I got bad feelin' 'bout this. Real bad."

"The instruments aren't working right in here," Modra said, "so I can't say for sure, but I think you're right, McCray."

"Press on for a little," the cymol urged them. "It's this place. It's got us all spooked."

But after a half hour or more and chamber after chamber, even Tris Lankur had to admit that things weren't right.

"Who'd have thought this thing was this huge?" Modra said more than asked.

"A tesseract," the Durquist mumbled. "We're in a real, live tesseract!"

"A what?" Molly asked, looking totally confused.

<A what?>Grysta echoed to Jimmy.

"A what?" asked McCray.

"A tesseract. Purely theoretical, of course. Or was. A structure of some sort built in a shape or form that intersects more than the usual dimensions. The plaything of mathematicians for centuries. Any structure, even us, exists in the three obvious dimensions plus time. A tesseract is folded so that it goes through more dimensions than just those. That's how this place seems larger on the inside than on the outside and why it appears to change its dimensions now and again. It seems larger because it is larger. The rest of it is folded through other dimensions we can't perceive. But, since we're inside, we're carrying our own dimensional perceptions with us, so nothing appears to change—it's just a lot roomier. One wonders what a pair of anything needs a place this big for."

"Maybe they don't," Lankur responded. "If you're right, and everything says that you are, if this is a true tesseract, it might just be that all these rooms are necessary only because they're needed to create just the right folds. Who on our side knows how to build one of these things? What's needed to be included to maintain structural integrity? A tesseract must be potentially incredibly unstable."

"I think I get what you mean, sort of," Modra said, sounding like she really didn't. "But if I follow you at all, then the front door might still be wide open. We might just have taken a wrong turn into some other dimension or something."

"Possible, but unlikely," Lankur replied. "The scout probe got in and out in a straight line, and that team was here for months and never had a problem. Unless . . . Hmmm . . ."

Perhaps it was triggered to switch when the place activated. Become a one-way door."

"In which case it's probable that the owners are indeed still inside," the Durquist noted uneasily.

"No, they can talk with the place, remember? They can open the door any time they want and have an illuminated roadmap and complete directions. No, you have to ask why they'd want to go out the front door."

"To get outside, I assume," the Durquist noted.

"To what? A world of trees and oceans, totally deserted, and all creation inevitably bearing down on them? Uh-uh. But maybe you only have one exit at a time. If this thing folds through space and time, they might not even need spaceships; I'm sure they had plenty of time to read the chronograph in this thing and all the other data and they know how long it's been. And if I woke up under those conditions, the first thing I'd try to find out is what happened to the rest of my people. What's home like? And that . . . uh-oh. Now there's a wrinkle I hadn't considered."

"What's one more in a furrowed brow?" McCray asked sourly.

"They got a complete readout of the cymol data from that dead cymol hack there. Not enough for military secrets or stuff like that, but it's a good bet that they know pretty much what we know. They know about the Three Empires, about the various races, the systems, that sort of thing."

"Three quarters of a million years ago my ancestors were slithering through the jungle marshes in a constant search for food and worshiping our sun," the Durquist noted, "and probably communicating in grunts and whistles. I suspect that your ancestors were not that much more advanced. Even the Guardians themselves were an interstellar civilization within the last hundred thousand years. A civilization this high and this pervasive a quarter of a million years ago would either be gods of the universe by now or they are extinct, at least until that pair breeds. Hmmm . . . I wonder how many children they have, and how quickly?"

"I wonder about that last enigmatic thought that the cymol got," Tris Lankur responded.

"The Quintara—they still run. Suppose, somehow, it was a last analytical gasp. A warning, in hopes another cymol would do as I did? If these demons are the Quintara . . . well, you see what I mean."

"They can't still be around!" Modra asserted. "It's got to be just some garbage. After all, she was being torn to pieces at the time. Even a cymol is bound to be a teensy bit less than clear under those conditions. Like the Durquist said—if they were around, and were at this level that long ago, as is probable by the demon legends, then we'd know."

"That pair of demons was around a quarter of a million years," Tris Lankur pointed out. "And we didn't know about them until recently."

"What do you—oh! I see! How many more are there out there? Sleepers? Sleepers who now can be awakened. Oh, my God!"

"The front door was open," Tris Lankur noted. "I assumed that the back door is now open. All we have to do is find it."

"And go where?" McCray asked.

The cymol shrugged. "Anywhere. Anywhere but here."

"And then what?"

"I don't know. We'll find out when we get there. We can't stay here. We'll run out of food and water eventually, and then power as well. As for me—they've got at least a four-day head start."

All the others suddenly started and stared at him. "You intend to pursue?" the Durquist asked.

"If I can. Things will have changed in all this time. They, too, have to eat—that's obvious. And drink, presumably. The preliminary reports said they were carbon-based life forms, fairly standard for all the extraordinary abilities and immunities they showed. I think they can be tracked. And, of course, I doubt if it would even occur to them that any one of the likes of us would give chase. After all this time, I don't think they'll be in a hurry, and subtlety isn't their strong suit."

"And then what?" McCray pressed. "Suppose you catch them? Your pistol's useless. Your strength's no match for them, and they at least know a little more of the stashes along the route than you do. You're going to wind up in a loincloth with a homemade spear stalking them in their own element. The odds of you catching up to them, let alone catching them, are remote. And, if you do, the best you can do is be dessert."

Tris Lankur looked at the telepath squarely. "McCray, did you see any Mizlaplan bodies around? Any Mycohl? No. And neither did I. There was nothing in here that recently dead." He stopped, stooped down, then picked up something off the floor. He examined it, then showed it to them.

"A cigar butt?" Modra responded, looking at the curiosity.

"Yes. A cigar butt. Not dried out, either. The tobacco is still moist in the unsmoked part. That small yellow band there near the end tells me that it was a Mizlaplanian who smoked it."

"I didn't know any of them had any bad habits," McCray commented dryly.

"One of the foreign teams landed, found what we found, and probably also still had use of the recordings back in the office. They know what was here and what was done. The second team surprised them and they had to fight, eventually taking refuge inside this thing, whatever it is. The newcomers, maybe fearing a trap, maybe just out of good sense, didn't pursue right away. They went back, found probably the recordings that the first group watched and saw them, too. Then they destroyed them, in the hopes that nobody could or would follow them soon. Then they, too, came up here and came in. I don't think the second group found the first one. In this sort of place, it would be nearly impossible for everybody to miss and I can't believe they're all lousy shots."

"One can imagine what being faced with live, real demons would do to the Mizlaplanians," the Durquist noted. "It would be like their angels suddenly face to face with the physical forces of Hell itself. No force other than death itself would prevent them giving chase, no matter how hopeless it seemed."

"And the Mycohl venerate the demon figure as a kind of demigod," Tris Lankur pointed out. "Although, to be fair, they are about as deep-down religious as the average Exchange citizen, which is to say, not much. But if they followed the Mizlaplanians in, and found them gone, what were they going to do? Go on a hunt, or camp out by the front door until the Exchange came in and, at best, arrested them? They had no choice—and they at least have some reason to believe that, of all three systems, these demons will be more favorably disposed to them than to the other two."

"They're probably all dead," McCray pointed out.

"Probably. But what if they're not? What if this back door opens right into some ancient base world of the demons' civilization? What if these two are all that's left? Think of the knowledge, and power, represented here. No, go camp out front for a few weeks or come with me."

Modra shook her head in wonder. "I don't think we have a choice. If there is a back door to someplace else, perhaps another world, perhaps another dimension, as the evidence, over logic, seems to suggest, I'd rather go there than camp out here and hope against hope that somebody will come in and rescue us. If there is only one exit, you take it."

"Consider the possibility, though, that it does not lead directly to them, but rather to intermediate stops," the Durquist chipped in. "Perhaps a great number of intermediate stops. A tesseract is a rather odd thing. That would mean that we would be in both a chase, and a race, with two teams of mortal enemies, to catch up with representatives of an ancient race we might be powerless to do anything to. All the time the three teams would be going not only after the same unholy end, but fighting each other every step of the way. And we are already behind, perhaps half a day, perhaps more. One feels the firm bounds of reality slipping madly away in this, particularly when such an insane race as we propose is in fact the more desirable course!"

Jimmy McCray gave a wan smile and looked at each of the others in turn, then said, "Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! Step right up, ladies, gentlemen, others, those of all races and creeds and nationalities! Three highly trained teams are about to set out on aracecourse blindfolded, where they will attempt to murder one another in their quest to catch creatures that will certainly eat the winners! Yes, indeed, beings of all races! Don't dare miss—The Quintara Marathon!"

<Shut up, Jimmy!>snapped Grysta.

 

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