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Sifting Sand

"I'm in."

Alaire Ardedd popped the helmet of her enviro-suit loose and promptly sneezed at the microbe-fine dust that probed through the released seal. She grimaced, but finished taking the helmet off and dropped it on the floor, then slithered out of the bulky suit. No matter how grimy the environment, she always wanted to be in what she was working on, rock or sand or ancient corroded metal. She wanted to feel the air on her face, press her fingers in the dirt, touch and see, hear and smell and taste.

It didn't even occur to her that she was placing a lot of faith in atmospheric technology she couldn't see. Every bit of Zariden machinery her fellow archaeologists had found was still in perfect condition, enviro-controls struggling to vitalize ancient battle-blasted hulks exposed to the vacuum, artificial gravity still working on all but the smallest pieces of wreckage. Alaire didn't stop to reason why it shouldn't be any different here--she just assumed it wasn't.

"How's it look, Alaire?" Raf Urnvoh asked over the compiece. She detached it from the helm and clipped it to her collar.

"It's dark," she answered.

"Like, cave-dark, or techless-night-dark, or lumis-on-lowest-setting-dark?"

"Cave-dark. Nightmare-dark. It smells like something died in here a long, long time ago."

Alaire rummaged through the discarded suit, slippery in her fingers, and found the detachable lumirod and packet of water pouches. She stood, slipping the water into a pocket, and activated the lumirod. Then she could only stare.

The interior of the asteroid looked like a water-formed cave, flowing mineral patterns rippling down the walls, stalactites and stalagmites casting long shadows in the incandescent light. Yet there was no water--it was as brown and dry as her last archaeological site, in the desert.

"Well, I'd say this is somewhat less than impressive," she said.

"Just tell me what you're seeing."

Alaire described the cave, the stalactites and stalagmites, as she walked further into the cave. "I guess I was expecting some cool technology or something, after that weird energy film that coats the whole asteroid."

Raf's youthful voice was puzzled. "Yeah, but . . . how did water get out here in space to form all that? Why would the Zariden form an asteroid to look like a planet-side cave?"

Alaire realized her space-jock friend had asked an excellent question. "I don't know." She stepped to the nearest stalagmite and placed a hand against its cool, smooth surface, then jerked it away. Was that some sort of electric tingling, deep under the rock's face? "Maybe I'll get a chance to find out while I look for the Acrolais."

"No way, Ardedd. Just get that crazy old book and get out of there."

The young woman was surprised by the tension in her friend's voice. "Hey, this was your idea, Urnvoh."

"Yeah, but I didn't know you'd have to go in there alone. I'd rather be with you. But I couldn't exactly leave this Veritas kid to watch the ship."

Alaire shook her head in agreement. Trey Veritas was with them against his will, after all.

"Don't worry, Raf. I'll get the Zariden 'high book' and be back before you know it."

"You'd better be." The pilot's voice was grim. "I swear I'm gonna kill this kid if you don't stop me. He's driving me spacey, staring at me with those big black eyes of his."

Alaire exhaled in frustration. That Trey Veritas was a strange one, all right. She couldn't decide anymore if he was insufferably arrogant or just painfully shy. But he had done no harm. "Cuff your hands to the pilot yoke, if it will help. I'll definitely be back as soon as possible. This place gives me the crawlies."

"Yeah, hurry, Alaire."

The young archaeologist moved forward into the ancient asteroid, breathing dead air that had lain still and undisturbed for centuries. She liked being alone no more than Raf did, and this place was oppressive in its stillness, even as the rock seemed to tingle with alien power. She wasn't going to linger a single second longer than necessary.


It woke.

Not that it slept, precisely. It was a spirit, though trapped in a body for the duration of its guardianship over the Enemy's book. But nothing had happened for such an unutterably long time, it had allowed itself the rest of dormancy. At last, it seemed, the guardian's patience was to be rewarded.

An intruder. The scent of hot mortal blood in the depthless cool caverns. At last, an opportunity to do something.

To hunt.

The guardian could not smile, but its eyes narrowed in pleasure and satisfaction.


Raf made a small adjustment to keep the Eagle's Kry drifting with the asteroid, again frustrated that he couldn't dock on the hunk of rock. The energy film that encased the asteroid shimmered tauntingly outside the viewport, trailing a few whisps of power like interstellar feathers. Though the film was amazing and would have delighted thousands of scientists, Raf's taut anxiety left no room for him to be suitably impressed.

And the Veritas kid was doing nothing to help. Raf had known the sharp-featured youth was going to be a pain in the glutes when he first saw him sitting with Alaire in the Shell City bar-tent, and he'd been right. It was a screaming shame they'd had to bring him along at all, but they couldn't have the little prig blabbing their plans.

Veritas sat in the unwired passenger's seat, arms wrapped around skinny chest as he stared at the asteroid and the part of the film that had allowed Alaire to pass through. That small portal was too small to admit the ship, and everywhere else, the film was as slick as spit on marble, allowing no grip.

"Wishing you'd gone with Alaire?" Raf asked caustically. "I know you don't like me any better than you do any other worthless Unbeliever."

Veritas slowly turned his head to look at the pilot with those dark eyes that gleamed against his gold tan. He looked somehow other, even though he was as human as Raf and Alaire. "I do not dislike you." How could he be shy, as Alaire had suggested, when his voice was so calm and confident? "I dislike the situation we are in, though. I wanted to go with Alaire, but you both refused. I fear she is in terrible danger."

"You're beginning to sound like a comp locked in an audio loop, kid. We haven't seen any danger yet--why should we now? You think you're some kind of frozen prophet, or something?"

The kid shook his head stubbornly. "I know what I know. This will end terribly."

Raf gave up. He turned to the comfort of his control panel and leaned on it with both elbows, cradling his head in his forearms as he stared at the glimmering asteroid. Believers. Yet another species of scum sticking to the heel of the galaxy.

"And no Unbeliever is worthless," the boy added softly. "Least of all you and Alaire."

How old was the kid again? Sixteen? Raf suddenly regretted having dragged him along, for a different reason than he'd regretted it earlier. He'd sounded so young when he said that.

Raf pushed it away and continued his attempt to develop X-ray vision by staring fixedly at the asteroid. Yeah, Alaire and he had managed to decrypt the stolen starchart and figure out where the ancient hiding place of the Zariden Acrolais was. But it would be no good at all if something happened to Alaire in there, and he couldn't go after her.

Raf hated being alone at the best of times. And he could not remember ever feeling as isolated as he did now.


The next cavern had a floor of sand that seemed to shift in the lumirod's glow, swirling slowly, liquidly, with a suggestion of color like that on a puddle of water and lube. Almost mesmerized, Alaire knelt and sifted the grains through her fingers. It felt like silk--dry, powdery silk. How long had it been since another living creature had walked through this place? The sand seemed as undisturbed, flat and smooth, as the armor of a military spacecruiser.

The feel of sand on her fingers took her back to the desert on the equator of Zarid, where she had worked a boring, thankless assistant archaeologist job, sifting sand through SENscreens for the smallest shards of ancient pottery. The hot air seared her throat and nose, and she yearned for the weekend, when she could travel north or south and enjoy some of Zarid's more pleasant climes.

But this weekend would be much different.

Every two weeks a new group of volunteer students came to the site, eager to shovel sand. The permanents, like Alaire, called them 'fresh meat,' but she said it through gritted teeth. Most of the kids were more interested in gossiping and pursuing adolescent crushes than working. When it became clear that exciting archaeological discoveries were not made every hour, nor every day, and rarely in a week, they quickly grew bored and lazy. They made stupid mistakes like setting their SENscreens for wide mesh instead of fine, so that Alaire was required to resift any sand they had managed to get through their own screens.

But Alaire had noticed one kid in this group who was different. He worked hard, never complaining about the heat and the grit that got into everything, including underwear. He even found a number of missing shards for the clay jug Alaire had been trying to restore.

But this kid was a loner, quiet and separate from the group. He rarely smiled, and Alaire thought, sometimes, that his dark eyes looked sad in the blinding sun, burdened by something he could not share. He seemed lonely, and that was an emotion Alaire knew all too intimately.

So, that Fifthday night, she 'kidnapped' the teenager, intending to show him some fun in Shell City, only a short trip from the site by hoverjeep. Nothing more than a collection of tents and a few launch pits, the 'city' was under no government and had no legal drinking age. Perhaps she could get the shy kid to open up a little, maybe enjoy himself for once. She thought of it as her yearly good deed.

What a mistake it was.

Alaire cupped sand in both hands and let it trickle through, enjoying the dry, prickly sensation. Prickly . . . Odd, but it felt almost as if she was cradling pure energy, motes of invisible light hidden in each grain. This was a much different sand than what she had sifted before. Could the Zariden have found a way to use rock and sand as power conduits? What kind of secrets did this strange asteroid conceal?

Trey Veritas had revealed a few of his own secrets, sitting with Alaire in a dusty Shell City bar-tent. Alcohol was not what affected him--he drank nothing stronger than the rich, powerful local milk, despite her urgings. He had responded to her friendliness instead, though she saw none of the amorous signs she had detected in some of the other youthful volunteers. Trey was steady kid, serious as the Zariden day was long, which was six hours more than standard.

He told her about his deep interest in Zariden history, which had led him to seek out archaeological work. Trey had grown up on this planet, hearing the tales of what used to be, of the Unshadowed race that had inhabited this planet, peaceful, artistic, curious, and reverent. They had accomplished incredible things, now-ancient technology still far more advanced then the best 'modern' science could offer.

When the Shadowed Believers came, seeking refuge, the Zariden welcomed them with wide-flung doors. But the vicious pursuers had also come, and within a few years, Zarid was empty of the people who had filled it. This tragedy, still vivid in people's memories generations after, had led to the Galactic Segregation Act, barring Shadowed peoples from visiting Undarkened planets.

Trey spoke with sorrow of those terrible years in which the Zariden were slain. They had shields, of course, but those were meant only to protect their spaceships from micrometeorites and interstellar trash. They deflected some of the weaker matter weapons well enough, but laser weapons ripped through as though the shields were made of leaves. Murders followed, dreadful planetwide massacres. Diseases brought to the previously pristine planet finished the Zariden off.

Alaire knew all this, having paid attention in orientation classes, but she let the kid talk. She'd wanted it, after all. And Trey knew details Alaire had never heard, of the Zariden society before the marauders came.

He finally revealed where he came by this word-of-mouth information--he was a descendant of those first refugees.

Before Alaire could reply to that, they were interrupted by the arrival of a man who fell onto the stool next to Alaire's, causing them both to jump. She was startled to recognize the youthful face, the roguish grin. It was an old friend, Raf Urnvoh, and he seemed very, very pleased to see her.

Enough. What had happened, happened. Alaire had no time for regrets. She had to find the Acrolais and get out of this strange place.


The guardian waited.

It would have preferred to hunt the intruder down and taste the fresh blood now, immediately. Such a long time it had been since the last time the guardian had killed. But the curse that allowed the guardian to stay in the circle of the Enemy's Book also bound the guardian to it. It couldn't leave.

And it couldn't attack, until the circle was violated. But that would come; the guardian could scent the new prey's intent, and she was coming closer, ever closer. However long the journey took, the time would seem a heartbeat beside the centuries the guardian had lain in ambush.

So it waited, as old and patient as space itself.


When communications with Alaire fitzed, then cut out completely, Raf cursed and slammed his fists on the useless com panel. Veritas's eyes were on the pilot, and Raf turned to face him. The kid looked infuriatingly calm.

"You jinxed it, didn't you?" the pilot accused. "You and your 'other-dimension' bogeymen!"

Veritas shook his head slowly. "I am as dismayed by this turn as you are, Master Urnvoh. Please try to get Alaire back."

"I tried. There's too much interference." Yet Raf tried once more, tweaking the gain up as far as it would go, flipping through frequencies to see if she had accidentally switched to another. Nothing but the fuzzy voice of the solar wind.

Veritas hugged his chest, as if to hold inside something trying to escape. His face was as implacable as ever, but his forehead shone with sweat despite the perfect temperature of the computer enviro-controlled cockpit. Maybe the little brat wasn't as cool as he wanted to appear.

Not for the first time, regret pinched Raf's heart. This expedition had been cursed from the very beginning, when his partner was killed stealing that old starchart.

Hey, this was your idea, Urnvoh, Alaire's voice reminded him.

I didn't know it was gonna go like this, he objected. I never would have approached you in that bar if I had known.

Veritas had looked just as calm and serious then, listening to him talk to Alaire. At one point Raf had given the kid a suspicious stare and looked questioningly to Alaire, but she smiled. "Trey's just shy," she said. "Go on--you were telling me about this old map you found?"

"Yeah! No one could figure out where the map led. The people that had it thought it was in some kind of code. But Ty, my partner, he figured out that it was really a starchart! No one ever thought of that. And he knew one of the symbols in the blocks of Zariden glyphs--it was for the Acrolais, that old book or whatever it is."

Alaire looked doubtful. She sipped at her beer. "The Acrolais? Some think that's a myth."

"Sure, but think of all the old documents that refer to it. This is Big Stuff, Alaire, one of a kind. If we can find that book, we'll be fabulously rich."

Alaire shrugged. "Oh. Well, I wish you luck." She turned to the kid.

Raf felt discomfort cross his face. "That's not all, Alaire."

She turned back, green-brown eyes surprised. Her gold-flecked hair caught the sparse light drifting in the bar-tent like the melted sand that surrounded the launch pits.

The pilot paused, arrested again by her face. She really wasn't that pretty, not usually, but when she smiled--by the stars! "Alaire, I need your help."

She was most definitely not smiling now. The young archaeologist looked downright suspicious. "With what, Urnvoh?"

Raf shifted uncomfortably on his stool and looked down at his drink, which was rapidly warming in the all-pervasive heat. "I need you to help me figure out the starchart. Ty was . . . he was killed when we . . . procured . . . the map."

"You stole it?" Her eyes widened. "Raf, I never approved of your fortune-hunting, and these guys you ripped off sound macro dangerous. No way are you dragging me into this."

"Alaire, I need you." The pilot consciously adopted the drek-pup look, the one that had never failed in their youth. "You're an archaeologist. It's the weekend. We can get the book and be back by Seventhday night."

"Go by yourself, or wait until I can wangle a few days of vacation time," she said decisively. "I have obligations here."

"I have to go now, Alaire," Raf said. The band in the corner, which 'til now had been playing pseudo-Zariden music, calm and cool and pleasant, began the urgent beat of a pop song. Raf liked the change. "Those guys are after me, and the docking for the Eagle's Kry, Ty's ship, is only paid to an hour from now. I spent my last coin on this beer, and finding the Acrolais is my only hope of earning more. I can't read the glyphs. Please, Alaire." The quiet desperation in his voice was genuine, though he had fudged a few of the facts. He didn't want to do this alone. "You're my last hope."

Alaire groaned. "Oh, Raf." After a moment that seemed to stretch to infinity, she sighed deeply. "Fine." She reached into her pocket for coin to pay for her drink and the kid's, which looked suspiciously like milk to Raf. "We have to get Trey back first, but I'll go."


Raf almost fell off his stool at the loud cry, and Alaire looked no less surprised.

The kid, Trey Veritas, was standing, thin chest heaving. "No, Alaire, you must not go!"

Alaire grabbed his elbow and hauled him down. "Shh," she hissed. "People are looking! What are you talking about? Why shouldn't I go?"

The sharp-featured youth looked panicked. "You must not try to find the Acrolais! It will be your death!" His voice was only barely under a shout, despite Raf's waving hands, gesturing for quiet.

"What makes you so sure?" Alaire's eyebrows wrinkled, quite alluringly, Raf couldn't help but notice.

"The High Book of the Zariden is guarded, Alaire! It will be death for an Unbeliever to try to retrieve it!"

"Unbeliever? What are you blathering about?" Raf demanded. "Are you a Believer?"

Veritas hesitated for a second; then he nodded shakily. "I know we are not welcome on this planet, so long ago ravaged by those who pursued us here, now occupied by their descendants. But we guard the ancient truths, and we know what is real and unreal. I cannot allow you to try to the get the Acrolais, Alaire! You have been so kind to me--you will die! An embodied Katamobe waits there--it will tear you to pieces!"

"Katamobi!" Raf snorted. "Children's tales of monsters and bogeymen!"

"They are real," Veritas said through gritted teeth. "They are not bogeymen, but spirits that inhabit another dimension. The bodies they take to affect our universe are supernaturally strong, and have an unquenchable thirst for blood."

"Wonderfluff and nonsense," Raf said. He looked accusingly at Alaire. "You don't believe any of this trash, do you?"

Alaire looked worried. "I--I don't think so . . ."

Veritas jerked to his feet again, throwing off Alaire's hand. "I cannot allow this," he said with irritating youthful dignity. "I will inform the authorities that you have admitted to a theft, and they will stop you."

Other patrons stared at the straight-backed kid as he strode purposefully to the tent-flap, then pushed outside into the hot Zariden twilight. Raf looked apologetically at Alaire. "Sorry about this."

Then he rushed outside and struck the kid down before he could find a com.

Now an uneasy truce held between the pilot and the boy. Veritas had not spoken of Raf's treacherous blow, even when he woke, sick and disoriented, on a ship already hurtling into deepspace. Raf stubbornly refused to bring it up himself, though he had to admit, silently, that he felt terrible about it. He didn't know how the youngster felt, but Raf doubted he himself would be capable of forgiveness, were their positions reversed.

Alaire had been somewhat shocked by the violence, but she went along, helping Raf load the unconscious kid into the hoverjeep, then onto the Eagle's Kry. But she refused to help Raf with the chart until Trey woke up, instead sitting by the medcot holding his limp hand while Raf piloted the ship. She'd obviously felt guilty about getting the youth into this. He had looked pretty pitiful, lying still on the medcot, gray under his tan, a lump swelling on the back of his head.

The lump was gone now, with Alaire's treatment and several days of healing. Luck continued to elude them--it took Alaire and Raf all weekend just to decipher the ancient starchart, much less find the asteroid itself. Solar drift complicated their calculations, too. It was more important than ever that they find the Acrolais, since by now Alaire had lost her job.

After Raf refused Trey's offers of help two or three times, the kid gave up and just watched them with those scary space-black eyes that glittered with trapped stars. He also spent some time staring out at the unblinking stars and reading the few bookchips Raf and Ty owned.

And when they'd finally found the asteroid, of course, it was covered with this ancient shield film that allowed no grip. The Kry's docking clamps just slid right off. At last they found a point where the shield was permeable, but it was only large enough to allow a single person entrance. They sent a tiny probe--the air inside was cool, but breathable. And Alaire, as the only archaeologist, declared herself sole member of the search party.

And now communications were gone. Raf cursed softly to himself, fingernails biting into his palms. What else could possibly go wrong?


Alaire had developed some theories about this strange old asteroid. The idea of stone and sand being somehow modified to conduct power non-lethally was one, but she had another. She didn't think this was a treasure vault, as they had supposed.

The asteroid had been difficult to find, true, and the energy film had denied physical attachment, but those were the only points against her new theory. If this place was meant to guard the treasure, why were there no inner shields, no traps? There weren't even any doors.

The chambers led on in a distinctly logical manner, despite the alienness of the construction. The first cave had been almost like a vestibule, a cloakroom, with stalagmites available for the hanging of hats and outer clothing. The next room, with the floor of sand, could have served as an entrance hall, an auditorium where tour guides gave orientation speeches.

Tour guides . . . The idea sparked another chain of thoughts. The chambers since the sand one had been hewn smooth, geometrically shaped in nine-sided figures, which were a mainstay of Zariden architecture. The walls were inscribed with glyphs and painted murals, a thorough detailing of history that Alaire had tried to capture with her vis-recorder. This place was an archaeologist's wildest dream.

Alaire had been hurrying through, ignoring the intersecting chamber entrances, intent to find the Book. Now she paused, staring dreamily at a mural depicting an ancient garden filled with Zariden in various positions of rest and play. The rooms, the paintings, the inscriptions--all seemed to be culminating to a point of significance. Probably the Acrolais. It was a curiously methodical organization for something she and Raf had thought was no more than a big, well-hidden safebox.

It wasn't. It wasn't a safebox at all. Alaire almost whooped in delight. It was a museum. No, even more important, more revered. A shrine.

"Oh, marvelous!" she couldn't help but shout aloud. She wished she still had com with the Kry, so she could tell Raf about her discovery.

But if this place was meant to welcome visitors, why was it so dark? Why had the outer film refused purchase?

"It's been locked down for off-hours," Alaire answered her own question. Of course. As for com, the Zariden probably had a different form, more efficient than the beam she suspected had been blocked by layers and layers of dormant power in stone and sand.

This gave new light to the existence of the first cave-chamber, too. It was a reconstruction, as everything in the shrine-asteroid was. Probably something to do with the Acrolais. Alaire couldn't wait to find out--the information was probably inscribed somewhere in here. Perhaps it took up a paragraph or two in the tour guides' opening talks.

Stars, she could stay here for years.

But Raf was waiting, and he was probably getting more anxious by the minute. He wasn't usually a nervous guy, pretty laid back and easy-going, but he hated being alone and cut off. Alaire wondered how he had fared these past few years, drifting aimlessly through the stars. She had not asked earlier, too busy figuring out the old map.

Alaire shone her lumirod on the wall, then reached out and brushed the smooth surface past the mural with tentative fingers. No branching entrance opened in this wall, so it might be at the edge of the public space. If so, maybe there was a . . .

Maintenance door. Alaire smiled as her fingertip found a vertical crack in the wall. She traced it up and found a horizontal crack at a right angle to the vertical one, not far above her head. Grinning broadly, she put her hand at the edge and pushed.

For a moment she thought nothing was happening, which would be a really lousy end for her new theory. But then the slab of stone gave, swinging away from her. She stepped through and shoved it lightly, and the door shut.

This tunnel was even dirtier. Alaire sneezed three or four times, her eyes watering. Surrendering, she drew a cleanser cloth from one of the many pockets on her jumpsuit. She held it over her nose, and the microfibers in the cloth caught the dust, allowing her to breathe more freely.

The corridor was small and undecorated, which made sense, considering the pragmatic reason for its existence. Visitors wouldn't come down this way. That also accounted for the extra dust--a busy caretaker wouldn't mind letting dirt build where it couldn't be seen.

Keeping a mental map of everything she had explored so far, Alaire took turns that would lead her closer to the center of the pattern. A practical people, the Zariden had generally placed important things like power controls in the middle of their ships, and hopefully the logic would hold true here. The Acrolais was probably in the absolute center, but some kind of engine room ought to be close.

Alaire's heart quickened as she drew nearer to the goal, her breath coming in swift, excited pulls. No, dramatic archaeological discoveries were not made every hour, day, or week, but once in a while . . . Once in a while, if a young archaeologist was very lucky, she got to see history in the making, be a part of it. It was almost enough to make her feel like a child again. Almost.

Despite all the care she was taking, however, she missed it the first time. After a few moments she realized she had passed the center, the tunnel curving around the middle of the asteroid instead of traveling straight. Alaire turned to walk back, watching even more closely for an intersecting corridor. Nothing.

She held her lumirod up to the inner wall. Perhaps there was another door. Foot slow and careful, the young woman walked along the curve, trailing one hand of fingertips against the wall.

At last she found the crack, in the middle of the curve. She traced it down to an indentation that took two of her fingers, and pulled.

The door opened, but not to some kind of control room. The chamber was completely round, but ringed around the curving walls were cones of water-formed rock in ceiling and floor that almost, but didn't quite, meet. More stalactite and stalagmite reconstructions. Alaire barely noticed them.

The floor was tiled in complex nine-sided patterns, creating a perfect ring. The tiles stretched flat and empty for meters and meters from the rough, natural-looking walls to another, inner circle, then another and another--nine in all. Each circle was a different color, but it was hard to make out the shades in the lumirod's light. It didn't matter--Alaire barely noticed them.

At the very center, almost at the limit of the rod's range, sat a pedestal as tall as the young archaeologist. On top rested a Book that looked enormous even from so far away, open as if someone had been reading it only a few moments ago. The Acrolais. The High Book of the Zariden.

Alaire ran a tongue over lips suddenly dry and trembling as she slowly folded the cleanser cloth back in a pocket. They had done it. They had found the Acrolais. She wished the lights were on so she could see the full chamber the way visitors and pilgrims must have seen it centuries ago, but it didn't truly matter.

As she moved forward, almost in a trance, Alaire's hand bumped a stalactite that rested a bare centimeter above its stalagmite brother. A grinding of stone slashed the silence that had lived here so long. She jumped and threw up the lumirod with a gasp, staring at the stony columns. They now met, one continuous pillar of drab brown from ceiling to floor.

Hesitantly, Alaire placed a palm on the join of upper and lower. She almost fell over. Power. Power flowed through, from top to bottom. She had completed some kind of circuit.

Shaking gently, Alaire moved over to the next pair, still separated, and laid a hand against the cool surface of the stalagmite. Power brushed her again, but it felt . . . disconnected. Cut off.

Switches. It was a control room. Alaire stared around at the huge room, at the dozens and scores of disconnected pillars. Incredible.

She turned back to the stalagmite she touched. How to repeat what she had done by accident? The stalactite, her hand had brushed the stalactite.

It moved under light pressure, as finely balanced as the maintenance doors. Upper tooth of rock touched on lower, completing the circuit, and Alaire stared up in awe as the chamber filled with pure, natural-feeling light. The place was enormous. It would take hours to connect all the stony switches, even if a touch would suffice.

Surely the Zariden hadn't wasted time connecting every pillar individually. That was too inefficient for the sensible race historians and archaeologists were discovering. There must be some kind of master control somewhere . . .

Alaire turned around, searching the entire room for a switch that somehow stood out from the others. She completed a one hundred and eighty-degree arc, and there, directly behind her previous position, was an enormous pair, larger than any of the others. They were not drab brown, but pure white, and waited right next to the maintenance door she had come in through.

Of course. Why make things any harder than they had to be? The Zariden were indeed a wise people.

Alaire touched the white stalactite.


The Katamobic guardian trembled with the nearness of its prey. She was in the very room. The scent of her blood was warm in the creature's nostrils. Intoxicating. So very, very close.

But she had not yet violated the innermost circle. Before she stepped across that line, the embodied demon could do nothing. It almost moaned in ecstatic anticipation. She smelled so delicious.

The Katamobe crouched waiting, watching the human girl play with the stones on the edge of the room. Soon. Soon she would belong to the guardian, its first meal in too many dry, bloodless centuries.



A small, strangled noise, halfway between a gasp and a yelp, broke Raf from his gloomy reverie. He spun around and stared--Trey Veritas was sitting forward on the seat, hands knotted into fists pressed against his thighs, the cords of his slender forearms standing out. His face was ghostly white under the gold tan, and his expression frightened the pilot.

"Kid--Trey, what is it? What's the matter?"

"Something is happening," the youth said faintly, staring past Raf's shoulder.

Raf spun around again and gasped. The film around the asteroid was changing, shifting color from yellow to pale, tender blue. Then it began to expand, moving out from the asteroid as if reaching for the fragile metal vessel they cowered in, blowing up like an inflatible ball. But the movement did not seem menacing. It was a welcome.

"Oh, how utterly frigid," the pilot breathed.

"No," Trey choked. "No, something else is happening. Something else." His voice was small and frightened.

"It's okay," Raf said, trying to soothe the kid. "Alaire must have found some kind of control in there. This is so far beyond cool."

Trey did not respond.

Raf's hands danced over his panels, reading the energy film that now surrounded the Eagle's Kry, including the ship in the protective sphere it formed around the asteroid. Inside the blue bubble was breathable air. That ought to be impossible.

"Oh, how utterly, utterly frigid," Raf said again.

He moved the Kry forward, toward the small entrance Alaire had used, and extended the docking clamps. They attached to the ordinary stone as easily as ever, and controls indicated that they would hold quite firm.

"Yesss," he exulted, and clapped his hands in glee. "Okay, kid, we can swim on over and join Alaire. Won't she be glad to see us?"

The youth said nothing. Raf turned around impatiently. "Didn't you hear what--"

He bit off a curse. The kid was gone.


The first circle was black. But not just black--all the shades of black that existed, that had ever existed. All the hues and tints and gradations that the clothes nets gave names like 'midnight,' 'black opal,' 'ink,' and 'space.' The designs were still nine-sided, but they spun off in infinite tessalations, in swirling, mixing, dizzying shades of darkness.

Without border, without announcement of any kind, the circle became blue. All the shades of blue, from thinnest ice to darkest twilight, from farthest atmosphere to deepest sea. Then red of rose, of blood, of youthful blush, of auburn hair. Yellow from faintest pastel to darkest flame, light daisy to deep tulip.

Brown that spoke of dirt and rocks, the caverns around her, the trunk of a tree and Raf Urnvoh's unkempt hair. Purple in all its glorious regalness, royalty of nature, pale lavender or dark violet. Orange, fruity and delicious, the shades of sunset and fire, peaches and baby skin.

Green, life and laughter, its variations myriad. Every species of vegetation in the galaxy had its own particular shade of green--all were represented here. Alaire could have stared at the designs beneath her feet for hours, flowing from green to green like a fish moving unresisting down a mountain stream, from pool to unique, separate, living pool.

Alaire wondered whether the order of colors had a significance to the Zariden. Did it symbolize something, from black to primary colors, from brown to secondary colors? Perhaps it was only a pretty pattern.

The last circle was white, and here the pattern changed. Instead of the shades mixing randomly, they moved from outer to inner with a definite logic--from darkest to lightest, mother-of-pearl to purest, blinding, sun-core white. Naturally, the most radiant surrounded the pedestal's base, as if refusing entrance to the unsanctified. No dust had drifted there, trapped instead on the book above, she assumed.

Alaire stared at the white circle for a long time, hesitant to step into it. The act felt like a trespass, somehow, a forbidden deed, though she had not felt that she was intruding until now.

"Come on, Alaire," she exhorted herself. "People were supposed to touch the Book. It was here to be seen and admired. It's not like some Zariden guard is gonna pop out of nowhere with a sign that says 'Please don't touch the displays.' You don't actually believe Trey's fey-tales, do you?"

At last the running footsteps behind her pushed her across. That had to be Raf and Trey coming, having found a way in after she reversed the lockdown. No way were they going to catch her standing here staring at the book like some timid child about to steal from the sweet jar and feeling guilty in advance.

The Acrolais was enormous, easily as wide as the maintenance door and half as tall. No dust blurred the pages, Alaire noted with surprise, and the letters seemed to glow with their own light. What were the pages made of? It was no substance she had ever seen, not paper, plastic, or compsheet . . .

"Alaire, no!" a breathless voice cried, but she had already stepped into the white circle and placed her hand on the book, cataloguing all these details in a flash, before what happened, happened--

A gigantic body slammed into her like a hovercar spinning out of control, throwing her out of white and into green. Muscles, endless black fur, flashing claws, a body far too big to exist outside of a nightmare, and a mouthful of white teeth, mother-of-pearl, the darkest shade of white, teeth bearing down on her throat. Alaire had no time even for a final scream.

A muffled whoomph of air and the foulest breath that had ever tortured her nostrils, and Alaire opened her screwed-up eyes with a gasp. The monster was no longer standing over her--it was rolling over and over on the floor, wrestling with a small figure. Trey Veritas!

The boy was yelling indistinctly, something about a golden eagle and binding. Alaire scrambled unsteadily to her feet and looked for a weapon but saw nothing. Trey clenched a small knife in his fist, which she recognized as a scalpel from the Kry's med supplies, but it seemed pitifully small against the immense blackness he battled. The monster rolled and thrashed, roaring in anger, teeth and claws tearing at its diminutive adversary. Trey's blood smeared on the nine-sided patterns.

They rolled over the circles, trailing red over green, orange, purple and brown. Then another liquid splashed the tiles, but it was black. It couldn't be, could it? This was something out of a nightmare, a children's tale!

Katamobi were mythical! Yet this was, undeniably, a Katamobe, embodied and supernaturally strong. And it was killing Trey. She and Raf had discounted Trey's words, ignored his fervent conviction, and now he was going to die for her.

"No!" Alaire screamed.

She snatched a tool from one of her pockets and ran toward the tumbling mix of monster and youth. The tool was only a shaker, used to vibrate dust from small artifacts, but it could deliver a good sonic jolt if the controls were set right and the head was pressed against flesh. Her numb fingers fumbled with the setting buttons.

"Get back!" Trey yelled.


Before she could talk herself out of it, Alaire pressed the shaker's head against the Katamobe's rump as it rolled by and pushed the button. Startled, the monster howled in fury and came up on its feet, leaving Trey gasping on the floor. Black blood trailed from a gash on the creature's shoulder, but the youth had not managed to slash its unnatural throat.

"Oh, scat," Alaire breathed, and began backing up. It was coming after her now.

She tried to get the shaker up--pathetic excuse for a weapon that it was--but it slipped from her sweaty fingers onto the tiles, half over brown, half over yellow. She could have sworn the monster was grinning, black tongue flicking at its chops.

"Scat, scat, scat . . ."

The Katamobe gathered its legs under itself, catlike, preparing to spring. Alaire stumbled and fell on her back, lacing her fingers over her eyes as she cringed. It occurred to her that this was a really embarrassing position to die in.

The monster roared, and Alaire was reprieved again. She opened her eyes--Trey was straddling the Katamobe's back, knife flashing up and down, one slender finger digging into that black, whiteless eye. The monster staggered, sinking to its belly, and two shards of silver light pierced the black body, arrowing from the wall.

A whimper, and the nightmare was dead, falling bonelessly to the floor. Trey rolled off it and lay panting and trembling, soaked in blood, both the monster's black and his own appallingly bright red. Appropriately, they had ended up in the red circle, and the runnels on the floor seemed part of the pattern.

Alaire crawled over to the youth, barely glancing up as Raf knelt on Trey's other side. The pilot was shaking, the beamer wavering in his fist. "Real," he moaned. "It was real."

Alaire gave an understanding nod, but her attention was on Trey. The boy's cheek was ripped open, as well as his chest and arm, and who knew how many injuries were hidden from cursory inspection. Blood slicked back his hair and coated his sharp features, and his tunic hung on him in red-soaked tatters.

"Raf, find out which wounds are bleeding worst and apply pressure," she said hoarsely. "Trey, can you hear me?"

Trey's eyelids fluttered in exhaustion and pain, but his grip on her hand was strong. "None . . . of my injuries . . . are serious," he whispered. "I can tell. Might . . . might bleed to death if I . . . were alone, of course. But the demon was . . . constrained . . . from giving me mortal hurt. I am a Believer."

"Oh, Trey." Alaire closed her eyes and felt herself sway. "I'm so sorry. I never meant you any harm."

"I know." He paused, gathering strength. "Were you hurt?"


"Then I am not sorry. It would have killed you, Alaire, after mangling you, playing with you. I was able to bind it, partially." The boy shuddered suddenly. "Its eye turned to ash under my finger."

"I don't understand."

Trey wearily tilted his head toward the creature's monstrous corpse. "Katamobic bodies are twisted, corrupt. They crumble to ash when the spirit is dispatched."

Alaire looked--the body was indeed no more than pile of black dust. She blinked and brushed at Trey's face--the black blood disintegrated at her touch and fell away, though the red just stuck to her fingers. He smiled painfully.

Alaire swallowed. "Oh, Trey. It would have been better if I'd never left my old job sifting sand."

The young Believer's mind seemed to be wandering. His voice was soft and dreamy. "We are all just sifting sand in search of ancient truths. I believe--no, I know--that I have found reality. What you choose to believe is your own business, of course." He looked at Raf, squinting as if to make out something far away. "You can stop feeling guilty about hitting me, friend Unbeliever. I forgave you even before I realized that I would be needed here, and it was good you took me on your ship. The Eagle's Kry . . . It is a good name . . ."

It sounded so much like a deathbed statement that when Trey's voice trailed off and his eyes trailed shut, Alaire gasped in fear.

"Is he--?"

Raf shook his head. "Just unconscious. C'mon, let's get him to the medcot on the Kry. I moved the ship right up and extended the docking tunnel over the entrance you went in, though this crazy kid went for it without even putting on a suit. I guess he was right, though, wasn't he?" He looked at the senseless youth, the muscles bunching on his jaw. "He was right about everything."

Alaire just shook her head in agreement. They did not speak of the Acrolais as they gathered up the injured boy and carried him back to the Kry. They could go back for it later. It wasn't going to walk away.


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