Veg, Cal, and Aquilon--two men and one woman--roamed the alternate dimensions of space and time accompanied by the mantas, strange flying aliens, half animal, half fungus, with the keenest senses of any creature in the universe.
But now, even the mantas were threatened in the hostile world dominated by savage robot machines.
Trapped in an alternative dimension, the group's only hope of escape lay with the being they called OX--an amorphous, telepathic pattern of energy whose infinite power could destroy as easily as deliver...
Twenty-one times New York Times Bestselling Author
Piers Anthony is one of the world's most prolific and popular authors. His fantasy Xanth novels have been read and loved by millions of readers around the world, and have been on the New York Times Best Seller list twenty-one times.
Although Piers is mostly known for fantasy and science fiction, he has written several novels in other genres as well, including historical fiction, martial arts, and horror. Piers lives with his wife in a secluded woods hidden deep in Central Florida.
It had a shiny black finish, solid caterpillar treads, a whirling blade—and it was fast. It was seemingly a machine—but hardly the servant of man.
Veg fired his blaster at it. The projected charge should have heated the metal explosively and blown a chunk out of it. But the polished hide only gave off sparks and glowed momentarily. The thing spun about with dismaying mobility and came at him again, the vicious blade leading.
Veg bounded backward, grabbed the long crowbar, and jammed it end first into the whirring blade. “Try a mouthful of that!” he said, shielding his eyes from the anticipated fragmentation.
The iron pole bucked in his hands as the blade connected. More sparks flew. The blade lopped off sections, two inches at a time: CHOP CHOP CHOP CHOP! Six feet became five, then four, as the machine consumed the metal.
At that point Veg realized he was in a fight for his life. He had come across the machine chewing up the stacked supplies as he emerged from transfer and thought it was an armored animal or a remote-controlled device. It was more than either; it had an alarming aura of sentience.
He tried the rifle. The flash pan heated as he activated it; steam filled the firing chamber. Bullets whistled out in a rapid stream, for the steam rifle was smoother and more efficient than the explosive powder variety. They bounced off the machine and ricocheted off the boulders on either side. He put at least one bullet directly in its eye-lens, but even this did no apparent harm.
Still, the contraption had halted its advance. Something must be hurting it!
The rifle ran out of bullets. Veg grabbed an explosive shell and slammed it into firing position as the machine moved forward again. He aimed at the treads and let fly.
Sand billowed out, for an instant obscuring the target. The machine wallowed—but a moment later it climbed out of the cavity formed by the explosion and emerged undamaged.
“You’re a tough one!” Veg said admiringly. He was a man of barely dominant peace; he loved a good fight when he could justify it. He hurled the rifle at the enemy.
The weapon flew apart as the whirling blade swung to intercept it. One large section bounced away to the side. The machine turned to chase after it, chopping the piece up where it had fallen and scooping it into a nether-hopper. It did not, he saw now, have parallel treads, but a single broad line of cleats, individually retractable like the claws of a cat. The hopper opened just before this wheel/foot—and closed tightly when finished, like a mouth. Sophisticated…
Momentarily, Veg grinned for a moment. Wonderful technology, but the stupid thing didn’t know the rifle was no longer dangerous! It had fought the weapon instead of the man.
Then he sobered. The machine wasn’t fighting the rifle, it was consuming it! It ate metal.
He hadn’t been battling this thing. He had been feeding it. No wonder it had halted; as long as he was willing to serve good metal by hand, why should the machine exert itself further?
This revelation didn’t help much, however. It suggested that the machine was distressingly smart, not dumb. The human party would need that metal to survive. He couldn’t let a ravenous machine gobble it all down.
Still, that gave him an idea. If metal fed it, would food hurt it?
Veg tore open a pack of food staples. Here were breadstuff and vegetables and—he paused with distaste as his hand rummaged—meat.
Then he brightened. What better use for it? He hauled out a plastic-wrapped steak and hurled it at the machine, which had just finished the rifle, burped, and turned back toward the man. The blade rose to catch the package; bits of flesh, bone, and plastic splayed into the air.
This time he observed the scooplike orifice, the hopper, in action behind the blade. The different processes of the machine were well coordinated. The bulk of the freshly sliced meat and bone funneled directly into this mouth, just as the metal had. Veg held his breath, another steak in hand. Would the machine get sudden indigestion?
No such luck. A spout opened, and clear liquid dribbled out onto the ground: the surplus juices of the meat, apparently unneeded by the thing’s metabolism. The machine assimilated the organic material as readily as it had the inorganic. And came on for more.
Would liquid short it out? External liquid, not digestive fluid. Veg found a bottle of water and heaved a full gallon at the fan. The machine was drenched.
First it shook, then it glowed all over. Death agonies for this nonliving creature? No—it was merely drying itself off efficiently by a combination of vibration and heat. It had not been incapacitated.
“Takes more brains than I got to handle this metal baby,” Veg muttered as he danced nimbly aside. It was hardly the occasion for introspection, but Veg had high respect for the intelligence of his friend Cal and wished he were here at this moment. Cal could have looked at the oncoming machine and made one obvious suggestion, and the thing would be finished.
The two men had met years before, in space, introduced as a prank by idle crewmen. Veg was a vegetarian and, after too much ribbing, somewhat militant about it. Since he was also an extremely powerful man, the sniggers had soon abated. Rabbit food did not necessarily make rabbits.
Until word circulated of a man who was a pure carnivore, eating nothing but meat—man flesh, at that!—and who thought vegetarians were stupid. Veg had not reacted overtly, but his muscles had bulged under his shirt tensely.
Tiny, weak Calvin Potter—about as inoffensive as it was possible to be. Yet it was technically true: Owing to a savage episode in his past, he had been rendered unable to consume any food except human blood. And he was a genius, compared to whom all other people, including vegetarians, were stupid.
If Veg had suffered ridicule, it was minor compared to what Cal endured. Veg did not like being made a patsy for the torment of another man. He took the unhappy little Cal under his bone-crushing wing, and very shortly no one thought anything about him was even faintly humorous.
Yet as it turned out, Cal was the stronger man, able because of his intellect to tackle even a predator dinosaur alone and barehanded—and to survive. He had actually done it.
There was no way to summon Cal. Veg had beamed through to this alternate world first, to set things up for his companions and scout for any dangers. Aquilon was to follow in an hour, Cal in another hour, along with the manias. All nice and neat.
Only about two hundred and fifty pounds could be transferred at one time, and the equipment had to cool off after each use. That was why things had to be spaced out. Or so the agents claimed. Veg didn’t believe the male agent, Taler; the female, Tämme, was obviously no more trustworthy, but on a woman it didn’t really matter.
He retreated again. Well, he had found danger, all right! Rather, it had found him. An animate buzz saw with an omnivorous appetite. If he didn’t figure out something pretty soon, it would eat him and the supplies and lie in wait for Aquilon…
That goaded him to fury. The thought of the lovely woman being consumed by the machine...
Veg had always been able to take or leave women, and because he was large, muscular, and handsome, he had taken a number. Until Aquilon, the girl who never smiled, came into his life. She was an artist, whose paintings were almost as beautiful as she. Though she was competent and independent, she was also deep-down nice. Veg had not known what real love was, but to know Aquilon was indeed to love her, though she had never solicited it. Part of that love now was to give her up without resentment; that was the essence she had taught him simply by being what she was. She might have split the Veg-Cal friendship apart—but she needed them both as much as they needed her. So they had become three friends, closer than before, with no competition or jealousy between them. Finally she was able to smile...
“I’m going to get you out of here if it kills me!” Veg cried. He hoisted the bag of food to his shoulder and began running. “Come, doggie!” he called, flipping back a package of raisins. “Soup’s on—if you can catch it!”
The machine had been sampling the fabric of the tent-assembly. It angled its blade to catch the raisins. Evidently it liked them better-more iron?—because it followed after Veg.
He led it across the desert, away from the supplies. His tactic was working—but what would happen when he ran out of food?
Aquilon stood chagrined at the carnage. The supplies had been ravaged, bits of meat and metal were scattered across the sand, and Veg was nowhere in sight. What had happened?
She cradled the egg in her arms, keeping it warm. It was a large egg, like a small football, nine inches long. It was all that remained of two fine birds she had known and loved. They had died, protecting her and it. There was no way to repay them except to vindicate their trust and preserve the egg until it hatched.
She felt a sudden urge to paint. She always painted when upset; it calmed her marvelously. She had painted the phenomenal fungus landscape of Planet Nacre, where she and the two men had had their first great adventure together. She had painted the savage omnivore of that world—and seen in it the mere reflection of the worst omnivore of all, man himself. She had painted dinosaurs—but how could she paint the ravening monsters that were the souls of human beings, herself included?
She could try; it might work this time. To make visible the egg of the human omnivore...but to do that she would have to put down the egg...
Then she saw the tracks. Veg’s footprints led away from the camp, partly obscured by something he must have been dragging. Had he gone exploring? He should have stayed nearby, securing the camp against possible dangers, not gallivanting about the countryside. Not that there was much countryside to see; this was about as gaunt a locale as she cared to endure. Sand and boulders...
But what would account for the destruction of supplies? Someone or something had vandalized them, and she knew Veg would not have done that. The cuts were peculiar, almost like the marks of a rampant power saw. Strange, strange.
She was worried now. If something had attacked, Veg would have fought. That was the omnivore in him despite his vegetarianism. That could account for the mess. But if he had fought, he must either have won—or lost. If he had won, why wasn’t he here? If he had lost, why were his footprints leading away? Veg was stubborn; he would have died fighting. He would never have run.
She had thought she loved Veg at one time. Physically, sexually. She had tried to be a vegetarian like him. But somehow it hadn’t worked out. She still cared for him deeply, however, and his unexplained absence troubled her.
She contemplated the prints. Could he have lost—and been taken captive? If someone held a gun on him, even Veg would not have been so foolish as to resist. Yet where were the prints of his captor?
There were only the treadlike marks of whatever he had been hauling...
No, she still didn’t have it. First, there would be no one here to hold a gun or any other weapon on Veg. This was an uninhabited wilderness desert on an unexplored alternate world. They were the first human beings to set foot on it. Second, the prints diverged in places, sometimes being separated by several yards. If Veg had been dragging or hauling anything, the marks would have been near his own prints, always.
She stooped to examine the other marks more carefully, cradling the big egg in one arm. She touched the flattened sand with one finger. Substantial weight had been here—a ton or more, considering the breadth of the track and the depression of the sand. Like tire marks but wider, and there was only one line instead of parallel lines. What sort of vehicle had made that? Not a human artifact...
The obvious thing to do was to follow the tracks and find out. But she wasn’t supposed to leave the campsite until Cal and the mantas were through the aperture, and she didn’t want to walk into the clutches—treads?—of whatever had followed Veg. There was no real cover here, apart from the boulders; as soon as she got close enough to see it, it would see her. And if it had made Veg move out, there was no way she could fight it. Veg was an extraordinarily able man physically.
So she would have to stay here, keeping a sharp lookout, and clean up the mess. If she were lucky, nothing would happen until Cal arrived. If she were luckier, Veg would return unharmed.
She turned, letting the bright sunlight fall on the egg, warming it. Ornet was inside that egg, the embryo of a bird that possessed a kind of racial memory: perhaps a better tool for survival than man’s intelligence. If only the right habitat could be found. And if only a mate for the bird could be found, too. Maybe one could be fetched from Paleo, the first alternate-Earth, and the pair would start a dynasty here in some desert oasis, and she could watch the community prosper...
Desert oasis...this was Earth, or an alternate of it; the landscape matched some place and some time on the world she knew. Where—on Earth—was this? Cal was the only one who could figure that out.
The shadow of a human being fell across the sand before her, jolting her out of her reverie. Aquilon froze before she looked up; it was too soon for Cal to appear, and Veg could not have come upon her unawares. Who, then? She looked—and gave a little gasp of amazement.
A beautiful blonde girl stood before her, shaped like a siren beneath her flowing hair. Siren in more than one way: She was nude.
The apparition’s blue eyes surveyed the scene coolly. Aquilon, functionally attired in denim, felt out of sorts. “Who are you?” she demanded.
“Pointless to go into all that now,” the nymph said. “Please give me the egg.”
Aquilon stepped back involuntarily. “No!”
“You must. You can’t preserve it any longer. Not here in the desert with the awful machines. I have found a new Garden of Eden, a paradise for birds; when it hatches there—”
“No one else can—” Aquilon broke off, realizing what her mind had balked at before. “You’re me!”
“And you’re me, close enough,” the blonde said. “So you can trust me. You—”
“But you’re—you’re more—”
The woman’s eyes dropped momentarily down to her own bosom, following Aquilon’s gaze. “I bore a child; that’s why. I lost mine; you’ll keep yours. But you can’t keep the egg.”
Aquilon retreated. “A baby? I—”
“You are in danger. You can save yourself but not the egg. There is little time, and it’s too complicated to explain right now. Give it to me.” She reached out.
“No!” Aquilon retreated again, hugging the egg. Her mind was spinning with this inexplicable development. How had her buxom double manifested here? Could she trust her—or was it some weird kind of trap? To know that the egg really was safe...
“Give it to me!” the blonde cried, diving for her.
Aquilon straight-armed her, but the force of the woman’s lunge shoved her back. Her heels caught against a bag of supplies, and she tumbled backward, the blonde on top of her. Both of them screamed.
The egg, caught between them, had been crushed. The large embryo within, released too soon, flopped blindly and died.
Cal looked about. The supplies had been savaged. Veg was gone, and Aquilon was lying on the ground near a mound of sand. He rushed to her.
She was not dead. She was sobbing. She lifted a sand-smudged face to him as he put his hand on her shoulder. In one hand was a fragment of broken shell.
Cal realized that the precious egg had been smashed. She must have fallen while holding it and then had to bury the remains. Hence the tears, the mound of sand.
He felt sharp regret. That egg had meant a lot to her, and therefore to him. He had hoped it could be preserved until it hatched, inconvenient as that process was.
But more important, now: What had this loss done to Aquilon? And where was Veg? Had Veg had something to do with the destruction of the egg? No, impossible!
He let her be. She would have to recover in her own fashion. There was no genuine comfort he could provide; the egg was irrevocably gone. He analyzed the tracks instead—and was amazed.
Veg had gone somewhere across the desert and not returned. Aquilon had apparently fought someone—a barefoot person, possibly female, for the prints were small. Those tracks staggered a short way over the sand and then vanished. And some kind of vehicle had come and gone, doing damage to the supplies enroute.
Had the agents sent in other missions? Other people, with power equipment—and bare feet? For what reason? If there were two or more missions, they should have been informed of each other’s presence so they could rendezvous. Certainly they should not have raided each other. And Taler, the agent leader, had had no reason to lie about this.
Still, the rebuilt-human-androids that were the agents were smart, strong, and ruthless in the performance of their assigned missions. Cal had a sober respect for them even when he had to oppose them. One agent of the SU series, Subble, had been assigned to ascertain the truth about the Nacre adventure; he had done so. Three of the TA series had been sent to salvage the alternate-Earth Paleo for human civilization; they had made a devastatingly direct attempt to do that, also, despite all Cal’s efforts. As a result, the enclave of dinosaurs had been wiped out, the Orn-bird killed, and the trio of “normal” people taken prisoner. As though a girl like Aquilon could ever be considered typical, or a man like Veg!
“Hex! Circe!” he snapped, turning to the creatures who were sitting motionless near the aperture, their lambent eyes fastened on him. “Find Veg. Careful—danger.”
The two mantas leaped into the air, flattening into their speed-form as they moved. They sailed across the desert like two low-flying kites, swift and silent.
Aquilon rose. “Cal!” she cried despairingly.
He walked toward her, wishing with one part of his mind that she were the kind to fall into a man’s arms when she needed comforting. But she was not; very seldom did she break down. She was a tough, realistic girl. As long as she lived, she would function well. That was probably why he loved her; her beauty was secondary.
“What happened?” he asked gently.
“A woman came and broke the egg,” she said. “And she was me.”
“You?” Those bare, feminine prints...
“Me. My double. Only more so. I hit her...”
Something clicked in his mind. “The alternate framework!” he exclaimed. “I should have known!”
“What?” She was so pretty when she was surprised!
“We’re dealing in alternates now. There must be an infinite number of alternate-Earths. Once we start crossing those boundaries, we run the risk of meeting ourselves. As you did...”
“Oh!” she said, comprehending. “Then she was me. Only she’d had a baby. But why was she here—and where did she go?”
“We can’t know yet. Did she say anything?”
“Only that I could survive but not the egg. She wanted to take it to some Eden...”
“She must have known your future. Perhaps she was from a slightly more advanced framework. In a year she could have had her baby and lost her egg, so she knew from experience—”
“No—it was her baby she lost.” Aquilon shook her head, unsettled. “She said I would keep mine. But I’m not pregnant!”
“There are other alternates,” he pointed out. “An infinite number of Aquilons will have had babies, and an infinite number more will be due. She could have mistaken you. She meant well.”
“And I fought her,” Aquilon said. “I shouldn’t have done that...”
“How could you know? And you had a right to retain your egg no matter what she knew. You fought for it before to save it from dinosaurs.”
“But now neither of us have it. She was crying as she left...”
“She wanted to save the egg—and instead destroyed it,” Cal said. “She felt as you would feel.”
Aquilon looked at him, her tear-streaked face, still sandy—and lovely. “Then she is desolate. I should have given it to her.”
“No. Each world must look out for its own. We fought to prevent Earth from despoiling Paleo; we must also fight to prevent other alternates from despoiling us. But we must understand that they are very much like us...”
“Omnivores!” she said bitterly.
“But there is a positive side. Orn’s egg has been lost in this alternate—but there must be many alternates where it was saved. In some you kept it; in others the other Aquilon took it. But the chick isn’t dead, there.”
“Ornet,” she said. “Offspring of Orn and Ornette...”
He smiled. She was coming out of it. “By any other name...Now we must find out what happened to Veg.”
Her eyes followed the tracks across the sand. “Do you think he—?”
“I sent the manias after him. Somehow they know; they would not have gone if he were dead.”
“Yes, of course,” she murmured.
They cleaned up the supplies somewhat, making packs for each person, just in case. A blaster and a rifle were missing, and one of the long crowbars, suggesting that Veg had taken them. “But we already know that we face a strange situation,” Cal warned her. “Conventional weapons may be useless.”
“Machine!” she said suddenly.
Cal looked up inquiringly. “We have no machines here.”
“My double—she said something about machines, here in the desert. ‘Awful machines.’ A danger—”
Cal looked once more at the tread tracks. “A machine,” he murmured thoughtfully. “Following Veg...”
“Oh, let’s hurry!” she cried. “And take weapons!”
They started out warily, following Veg’s tracks and those of the mystery vehicle. Cal was ill at ease; if a human being could appear from another alternate, so could heavy equipment. Suppose some kind of tank had been dispatched to hunt down the visitors to this world? They just might have walked into an inter alternate war...
Aquilon stopped abruptly, rubbing her eyes. “Cal!” she whispered.
Cal looked. At first he saw nothing; then he became aware of a kind of sparkle in the air ahead. Faint lights were bunking on and off, changing their fairy patterns constantly.
“A firefly swarm?” Aquilon asked. “Let me paint it.” She was never without her brush and pad, and now, without the egg to hold, she could paint again.
She hesitated. He knew why: Her sudden freedom made her feel guilty. How much better to have given the egg to her double! The woman would have taken care of it every bit as well as Aquilon herself because she was Aquilon—wiser for her bitter experience. Or at least, so it would seem—to this Aquilon at this moment. He had to divert her thoughts.
“Fireflies? With no plants to feed the insects?” Cal asked, posing what he knew to be a fallacious question. “We have seen no indigenous life here.”
“There has to be life,” she replied as she quickly sketched. “Otherwise there would be no breathable atmosphere. Plants give off oxygen.”
“Yes, of course...” he agreed, watching the swarm. “Still, there is something odd here.”
The sparkle-pattern intensified. Now it was like a small galaxy of twinkling stars, the individual lights changing so rapidly that the eye could not fix on them. But Aquilon’s trained perception was catching the artistry of it. Color flowed from her automatic brush, brightening the picture. This was the marvelous, creative person he had known, expressing herself through her art.
The flashes were not random; they moved in ripples, like the marquee of an old cinema house. These ripples twined and flexed like living things. But not like chains of fireflies.
“Beautiful,” Aquilon breathed. Yes, now her own beauty illumined her; she was what she perceived.
Suddenly the swarm moved toward them. The lights became bright and sharp. The outline expanded enormously.
“Fascinating,” Cal said, seeing three-dimensional patterns within the cloud, geometric ratios building and rebuilding in dazzling array. This was no random collection of blinkers...
Aquilon grabbed his arm. “It sees us!” she cried in abrupt alarm. “Run!”
It was already too late. The glowing swarm was upon them.