“The Dream-Quest of Old Kolum”
Jordan S. Bassior
I. The Itorloo
A thin wind blew over the cold scrublands that had once been Ohio, stirring the low bushes to meaningless motion. The sun was setting, and somber shadows stretched across the plains, shivering with the movements of the branches that cast them. It was a landscape of abandoned desolation, and only his reading of ancient records let Zhoran the Historian know that the flat-topped rise a half-mile from the low hill on which he and the other three Itorloo stood was the burial mound of an ancient building.
He drew a small scanner from his belt: directed invisible energies at the low hill. Through his implant, apparently hovering over and within the tell, he could plainly see the tracery of gates, halls and chambers: what had survived of this structure after the devastation of the War for Mastery and some two hundred fifty thousand years of the action of natural forces. The upper sections were long-destroyed, but the lower parts almost perfectly matched the plans Zhoran had extracted from the Archives.
“There,” Zhoran gestured at the hill, uploading the data to their teamnet. “That is the Kolum War Memorial Museum.”
Major Rinnar, the military commander of the expedition, peered at the hill, his ice-gray eyes widening in astonishment as he examined the outline of the ruins. “So much,” he said. “How can so much have survived the ages?”
Engineer Danara, producing her own scanner and pinging the hill, smirked with satisfaction, her pudgy features lighting up at the vista of ancient technology thus revealed. She brushed a wisp of coppery red hair from her high brow.
“That’s phased ceramalloy composite construction: the walls are three feet thick and the main structural members more than a bit overbuilt.” She focused her scanner. “Yep …” she said, “the surface layer of porcelete was just a decorative shell. You can see here…” she continued, uploading, “where the shell’s been vaped right off the north face, probably by the same antimatter explosion that’s still making some of the debris give off traces of gamma radiation.”
She looked at Zhoran approvingly. “You were right, Historian! The Museum wasn’t just abandoned, it was wrecked in the Master-Wars. Upperworks torn right off – you can see some of the towers lying to the south, where they must’ve flew right after the shockwave snapped them from their bases. Part of the upper floors were slagged down by the thermal pulse, but their ablation absorbed enough of the energy to save the floors beneath. Probably didn’t even get too hot down there: if there were survivors, they might have been able to escape by the travel-tubes – see there, some of the tunnels are even intact today. But what was left was just a radioactive heap of slag; and there’s no guarantee that any of the lower passages were easy to find. No wonder it was never salvaged.
“But it stood up to everything our ancestors and two hundred fifty thousand years threw at it. Damn. The Etarlee may’ve been soft, but by the Will, they sure could build!”
Major Rinnar glared down at her..
“They weren’t the ones who did the building, and I hope you remember that. It was our remote ancestors, their slaves, who did all the hard work while the Etarlee lounged about in their pretty pleasure-domes. That was why our ancestors fought the War for Mastery: to win our freedom. I hope that you aren’t forgetting your most basic education, Engineer!” His eyes had narrowed dangerously; his hand unconsciously twitched in the vicinity of his holstered blast-pistol.
To her credit, Danara did not flinch.
“Of course not, sir!” she replied. “Like all true Itorloo, I know that the War for Mastery was needful to win our freedom from the parasitic Etarlee!” It was said quickly, like a lesson learned by rote, which is exactly how she had learned it in elementary school. That it had been learned and recited in such fashion did not mean that she doubted its truth: it was indeed the only truth that most could believe or even postulate about their racial history.
Major Rinnar relaxed slightly.
Zhoran felt the need to correct a possible misconception.
“Sir,” he said to Rinnar, “I do not think that the good Engineer meant the slightest disrespect to the History or Destiny of our Race. Rather, she was merely pointing out that our decadent predecessors possessed advanced technologies, which it would very much be in the interests of the Race to learn. Is that not precisely the purpose of this expedition, as authorized by the Council of Masters?”
Rinnar briefly scowled, then nodded. “That is true,” he admitted, “and of course I meant no accusation of wrongful speculation.”
“Of course not,” agreed Zhoran, and Danara nodded, as if to indicate their complete harmony on the issue.
When Major Rinnar turned his attention back to the tell, she gave Zhoran a sidelong glance. “Thanks,” she mouthed silently.
Zhoran smiled, and dipped his head by way of acknowledgement.
The fourth member of their party, who had remained mute during – and in truth seemed bored by – the technological and historical discussion, now focused intently on something he saw on the hill.
Makheel was a big Itorloo, some four foot eight inches tall and broad-shouldered: he must have weighed almost a hundred pounds. The suit of light infantry armor he wore made him look even bigger. While the rest of the party had only blast pistols, standard issue for personnel venturing Outside, Makheel bore a big blast rifle, powerful enough to bring down a rocket car. Now, he pointed that weapon at something on the hill.
“Vermin, sir,” he commented, in a voice which was startlingly high for such a big person. “Towndogs. I could pot some for us.” The eagerness in his tone, combined with the size of the weapon, bothered Zhoran in a way he found difficult to define.
“Very well, Sergeant,” said Major Rinnar.
Meanwhile, Zhoran had adjusted his scanner to lifesign, and saw what had attracted the attention of the big noncom. Atop the tell, running down the slopes, were a colony of prairie dogs, as they were in these days of Earth’s Dusk. Commonly called tiktikallee, more formally Cynomys sapiens (the actual words Zhoran thought were derived from Etarlee rather than Latin, but they served the same function of scientific classification), they lived in organized subterranean towns, and were almost as intelligent as were the Itorloo themselves. Magnifying with a blink, he could distinguish foot-long furry brown bodies, fight black eyes, snouts pointed at his party, whiskers twitching with curiosity.
Zhoran saw this only for an instant – then the prairie dogs, alarmed by their motions, darted for their dens. Almost immediately came the flicker and crackle of the sergeant’s big blaster. It was subtle – nothing like the glare and roar of that weapon’s wasteful ancestors – but on low power and wide aperture, the area of effect was rather like that of a giant long-ranged shotgun. Against small unarmored targets, it was quite lethal. Two of them flared into flame and fell, fur smoldering; the third, caught in the fringe of the area of effect, stumbled but managed to hurl itself down a hole.
Makheel smiled in satisfaction. He turned to Major Rinnar, grinning broadly.
“Want some bush meat, sir?” he asked.
“That’s thoughtful of you, Sergeant,” replied the Major, “but we don’t know where they’ve been. I’ll stick to my own supplies, personally.”
The Major glanced at Zhoran and Danara. “The Sergeant and I will approach the hill on foot. You two follow in the rocket-car. We’ll rendezvous at the foot of the hill by 1800.”
“Yes, sir,” acknowledged Zhoran.
The two soldiers departed for the hill, setting a brisk pace. Zhoran and Danara watched them for a short while.
“Troops and their weapons,” Zhoran commented. “ I think Makheel did that just to have a chance to let off that miniature cannon.”
“Well,” pointed out Danara, “you can hardly blame him. The Strahl-90 is a sweet gun. Plenty of power, great sights, fine aperture control. I wish they’d issued me one of them – as long as I didn’t have to carry it,” she added, wryly grinning. “But I can’t say much for Makheel’s taste in food. Give me some good old-fashioned vat-grown meatmeal, any shift of the cycle. And plenty of it, with extra sauces!” Her smile grew even broader.
Zhoran smiled back. He had figured out why she was so overweight, though he wisely did not attempt to share his discovery. Instead, he turned toward the car. “Come on,” he said. “The sooner we reach the site, the sooner we can set up camp – and have a real dinner.”
To that proposition, the Engineer enthusiastically agreed.
Neither of them much cared that two sapients had been snuffed out, and a third one condemned to an agonizing end, for the momentary amusement of and provision of a dubiously-useful meal for one whom they both considered to himself be little better than a brute, intellectually scarce the superior of his primitive prairie-dog victims. Neither cared, because it was not in the nature of their kind to care, and indeed if either of them had cared, that one might have viewed the emotion as an indication of incipient insanity, and reported in to the psychotherapists for immediate reconditioning.
For they were Itorloo, the cruel Children of Men, the Master-Race of the Earth’s premature Dusk, who dominated by pain and fear all other life on their dying world. They knew that their planet had once been of mighty consequence in the Galaxy: homeworld of the Men of the Dawn, who half a million years before had exploded outward to settle a myriad of worlds in the Solar System and around the stars beyond. That had been long ago: the Itorloo had been born when Earth was already a backwater, and risen to power only after Sun and Earth alike had been drained and devastated in a terrible cosmic war. Their interstellar cousins had gone on to become the high and mighty Star Gods – meanwhile the Itorloo huddled in their subterranean cities on an exhausted and senescent sphere, and resented their state. They vaguely believed that the Universe had used them unfairly, and that consequently it must be considered a harsh place, best met with a ruthless disregard for the fate of al other life in the struggle for survival. In this belief, the Itorloo were not entirely mistaken – but they took it too far.