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1: The Door to Infinity

Matt Carse knew he was being followed almost as soon as he left Madam Kan's. The laughter of the little dark women was still in his ears and the fumes of thil lay like a hot sweet haze across his vision—but they did not obscure from him the whisper of sandaled feet close behind him in the chill Martian night.

Carse quietly loosened his proton-gun in its holster but he did not attempt to lose his pursuer. He did not slow nor quicken his pace as he went through Jekkara.

"The Old Town," he thought. "That will be the best place. Too many people about here."

Jekkara was not sleeping despite the lateness of the hour. The Low Canal towns never sleep, for they lie outside the law and time means nothing to them. In Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh night is only a darker day.

Carse walked beside the still black waters in their ancient channel, cut in the dead sea-bottom. He watched the dry wind shake the torches that never went out and listened to the broken music of the harps that were never stilled. Lean lithe men and women passed him in the shadowy streets, silent as cats except for the chime and whisper of the tiny bells the women wear, a sound as delicate as rain, distillate of all the sweet wickedness of the world.

They paid no attention to Carse, though despite his Martian dress he was obviously an Earthman and though an Earthman's life is usually less than the light of a snuffed candle along the Low Canals. Carse was one of them. The men of Jekkara and Valkis and Barrakesh, are the aristocracy of thieves and they admire skill and respect knowledge and know a gentleman when they meet one.

That was why Matthew Carse, ex-Fellow of the Interplanetary Society of Archaeologists, ex-assistant to the chair of Martian Antiquities at Kahora, dweller on Mars for thirty of his thirty-five years, had been admitted to their far more exclusive society of thieves and had sworn with them the oath of friendship that may not be broken.

Yet now, through the streets of Jekkara, one of Carse's "friends" was stalking him with all the cunning of a sand cat. He wondered momentarily whether the Earth Police Control might have sent an agent here looking for him and immediately discarded that possibility. Agents of anybody's police did not live in Jekkara. No, it was some Low-Canaller on business of his own.

Carse left the canal, turning his back on the dead sea-bottom and facing what had once been inland. The ground rose sharply to the upper cliffs, much gnawed and worn by time and the eternal wind. The old city brooded there, the ancient stronghold of the Sea Kings of Jekkara, its glory long stripped from it by the dropping of the sea.

The New Town of Jekkara, the living town down by the canal, had been old when Ur of the Chaldees was a raw young village. Old Jekkara, with its docks of stone and marble still standing in the dry and dust-choked harbor, was old beyond any Earth conception of the world. Even Carse, who knew as much about it as any living man, was always awed by it.

He chose now to go this way because it was utterly dead and deserted and a man might be alone to talk to his friend.

The empty houses lay open to the night. Time and the scouring wind had worn away their corners and the angles of their doorways, smoothed them into the blurred and weary land. The little low moons made a tangle of conflicting shadows among them. With no effort at all the tall Earthman in his long dark cloak bended into the shadows and disappeared.

Crouched in the shelter of a wall he listened to the footsteps of the man who followed him. They grew louder, quickened, slowed indecisively, then quickened again. They drew abreast, passed and suddenly Carse had moved in a great catlike spring out into the street and a small wiry body was writhing in his grasp, mewing with fright as it shrank from the icy jabbing of the proton-gun in its side.

"No!" it squealed. "Don't! I have no weapon. I mean no harm. I want only to talk to you." Even through the fear a note of cunning crept into the voice. "I have a gift."

Carse assured himself that the man was unarmed and then relaxed his grip. He could see the Martian quite clearly in the moonlight—a ratlike small thief and an unsuccessful one from the worn kilt and harness and the lack of ornaments.

The dregs and sweepings of the Low Canals produced such men as this and they were brothers to the stinging worms that kill furtively out of the dust. Carse did not put his gun away.

"Go ahead," he said. "Talk."

"First," said the Martian, "I am Pankawr of Barrakesh. You may have heard of me." He strutted at the sound of his own name like a shabby bantam rooster.

"No," said Carse. "I haven't."

His tone was like a slap in the face. Penkawr gave a snarling grin.

"No matter. I have heard of you, Carse. As I said, I have a gift for you. A most rare and valuable gift."

"Something so rare and valuable that you had to follow me in the darkness to tell me about it, even in Jekkara." Carse frowned at Penkawr, trying to fathom his duplicity. "Well, what is it?"

"Come and I'll show you."

"Where is it?"

"Hidden. Well hidden up near the palace quays."

Carse nodded. "Something too rare and valuable to be carried or shown even in a thieves" market. You intrigue me, Penkawr. We will go and look at your gift."

Penkawr showed his pointed teeth in the moonlight and set off. Carse followed. He moved lightly, poised for instant action. His gun hand swung loose and ready at his side. He was wondering what sort of price Penkawr of Barrakesh planned to ask for his "gift".

As they climbed upward toward the palace, scrambling over worn reefs and along cliff-faces that still showed the erosion of the sea, Carse had as always the feeling that he was climbing a sort of ladder into the past. It turned him cold with a queer shivering thrill to see the great docks still standing, marked with the mooring of ships. In the eerie moonlight one could almost imagine. . .

"In here," said Penkawr.

Carse followed him into a dark huddle of crumbling stone. He took a little krypton-lamp from his belt-pouch and touched it to a glow. Penkawr knelt and scrabbled among the broken stones of the floor until he brought forth a long thin bundle wrapped in rags.

With a strange reverence, almost with fear, he began to unwrap it. Carse knelt beside him. He realized that he was holding his breath, watching the Martian's lean dark hands, waiting. Something in the man's attitude had caught him into the same taut mood.

The lamplight struck a spark of deep fire from a half-covered jewel, and then a clean brilliance of metal. Carse leaned forward. Penkawr's eyes, slanted wolf-eyes yellow as topaz, glanced up and caught the Earthman's hard blue gaze, held it for a moment, then shifted away. Swiftly he drew the last covering from the object on the floor.

Carse did not move. The thing lay bright and burning between them and neither man stirred nor seemed even to breathe. The red glow of the lamp painted their faces, lean bone above iron shadows, and the eyes of Matthew Carse were the eyes of a man who looks upon a miracle.

After a long while he reached out and took the thing into his hands. The beautiful and deadly slimness of it, the length and perfect balance, the black hilt and guard that fitted perfectly his large hand, the single smoky jewel that seemed to watch him with a living wisdom, the name etched in most rare and most ancient symbols upon the blade. He spoke, and his voice was no more than a whisper.

"The sword of Rhiannon!"

Penkawr let out his breath in a sharp sigh. "I found it," he said. I found it."

Carse said, "Where?"

"It does not matter where. I found it. It is yours—for a small price."

"A small price." Carse smiled. "A small price for the sword of a god."

"An evil god," muttered Penkawr. "For more than a million years, Mars has called him the Cursed One."

"I know," Carse nodded. "Rhiannon, the Cursed One, the Fallen One, the rebel one of the gods of long ago. I know the legend, yes. The legend of how the old gods conquered Rhiannon and thrust him into a hidden tomb."

Penkawr looked away. He said, "I know nothing of any tomb."

"You lie," Carse told him softly. "You found the Tomb of Rhiannon or you could not have found his sword. You found, somehow, the key to the oldest sacred legend on Mars. The very stones of that place are worth their weight in gold to the right people."

"I found no tomb," Penkawr insisted sullenly. He went on quickly. "But the sword itself is worth a fortune. I daren't try to sell it—these Jekkarans would snatch it away from me like wolves, if they saw it.

"But you can sell it, Carse." The little thief was shivering in the urgency of his greed. "You can smuggle it to Kahora and sell it to some Earthman for a fortune."

"And I will," Carse nodded. "But first we will get the other things in that tomb."

Penkawr had a sweat of agony upon his face. After a long time he whispered, "Leave it at the sword, Carse. That's enough."

It came to Carse that Penkawr's agony was blended of greed and fear. And it was not fear of the Jekkarans but of something else, something that would have to be awesome indeed to daunt the greed of Penkawr.

Carse swore contemptuously. "Are you afraid of the Cursed One? Afraid of a mere legend that time has woven around some old king who's been a ghost for a million years?"

He laughed and made the sword flash in the lamplight. "Don't worry, little one. I'll keep the ghosts away. Think of the money. You can have your own palace with a hundred lovely slaves to keep you happy."

He watched fear struggle again with greed in the Martian's face.

"I saw something there, Carse. Something that scared me, I don't know why."

Greed won out. Penkawr licked dry lips. "But perhaps, as you say, it is all only legend. And there are treasures there—even my half-share of them would make me wealthy beyond dreams."

"Half?" Carse repeated blandly. "You're mistaken, Penkawr. Your share will be one-third."

Penkawr's face distorted with fury, and he leaped up. "But I found the Tomb! It's my discovery!"

Carse shrugged. "If you'd rather not share that way, then keep your secret to yourself. Keep it—till your 'brothers' of Jekkara tear it from you with hot pincers when I tell them what you've found."

"You'd do that?" choked Penkawr. "You'd tell them and get me killed?"

The little thief stared in impotent rage at Carse, standing tall in the lamp glow with the sword in his hands, his cloak falling back from his naked shoulders, his collar and belt of jewels looted from a dead king flaring. There was no softness in Carse, no relenting. The deserts and the suns of Mars, the cold and the heat and the hunger of them, had flayed away all but the bone and the iron sinew.

Penkawr shivered. "Very well, Carse. I'll take you there—for one-third share."

Carse nodded and smiled. "I thought you would."

Two hours later, they were riding up into the dark time-worn hills that loomed behind Jekkara and the dead sea-bottom.

It was very late now, an hour that Carse loved because it seemed then that Mars was most perfectly itself. It reminded him of a very old warrior, wrapped in a black cloak and holding a broken sword, dreaming the dreams of age which are so close to reality, remembering the sound of trumpets and the laughter and the strength.

The dust of the ancient hills whispered under the eternal wind. Phobos had set, and the stars were coldly brilliant. The lights of Jekkara and the great black blankness of the dead sea-bottom lay far behind and below them now. Penkawr led the way up ascending gorges, their ungainly mounts picking their way with astonishing agility over the treacherous ground.

"This is how I stumbled on the place," Penkawr said. "On a ledge my beast broke its leg in a hole—and the sand widened the hole as it flowed inward, and there was the tomb, cut right into the rock of the cliff. But the entrance was choked when I found it."

He turned and fixed Carse with a sulky yellow stare. I found it," he repeated. "I still don't see why I should give you the lion's share."

"Because I'm the lion," said Carse cheerfully.

He made passes with the sword, feeling it blend with his flexing wrist, watching the starlight slide down the blade. His heart was beating high with excitement and it was the excitement of the archaeologist as well as of the looter.

He knew better than Penkawr the importance of this find. Martian history is so vaguely long that it fades back into a dimness from which only vague legends have come down—legends of human and half-human races, of forgotten wars, of vanished gods.

Greatest of those gods had been the Quiru, hero-gods who were human yet superhuman, who had had all wisdom and power. But there had been a rebel among them—dark Rhiannon, the Cursed One, whose sinful pride had caused some mysterious catastrophe.

The Quiru, said the myths, had for that sin crushed Rhiannon and locked him into a hidden tomb. And for more than a million years men had hunted the Tomb of Rhiannon because they believed it held the secrets of Rhiannon's power.

Carse knew too much archaeology to take old legends too seriously. But he did believe that there was an incredibly ancient tomb that had engendered all these myths. And as the oldest relic on Mars it and the things in it would make Matthew Carse the richest man on three worlds—if he lived.

"This way," said Penkawr abruptly. He had ridden in silence for a long time, brooding.

They were far up in the highest hills behind Jekkara. Carse followed the little thief along a narrow ledge on the face of a steep cliff.

Penkawr dismounted and rolled aside a large stone, disclosing a hole in the cliff that was big enough for a man to wriggle through.

"You first," said Carse. "Take the lamp."

Reluctantly Penkawr obeyed, and Carse followed him into the foxhole.

At first there was only an utter darkness beyond the glow of the krypton-lamp. Penkawr slunk, cringing now like a frightened jackal.

Carse snatched the lamp away from him and held it high. They had scrambled through the narrow foxhole into a corridor that led straight back into the cliff. It was square and without ornament, the stone beautifully polished. He started off along it, Penkawr following.

The corridor ended in a vast chamber. It too was square and magnificently plain from what Carse could see of it. There was a dais at one end with an altar of marble, upon which was carved the same symbol that appeared on the hilt of the sword—the ouroboros in the shape of a winged serpent. But the circle was broken, the head of the serpent lifted as though looking into some new infinity.

Penkawr's voice came in a reedy whisper from behind his shoulder. "It was here that I found the sword. There are other things around the room but I did not touch them."

Carse had already glimpsed objects ranged around the walls of the great chamber, glittering vaguely through the gloom. He hooked the lamp to his belt and started to examine them.

Here was treasure, indeed! There were suits of mail of the finest workmanship, blazoned with patterns of unfamiliar jewels. There were strangely shaped helmets of unfamiliar glistening metals. A heavy throne-like chair of gold, subtly inlaid in dark metal, had a big tawny gem burning in each arm-post.

All these things, Carse knew, were incredibly ancient. They must come from the farthest past of Mars.

"Let us hurry!" Penkawr pleaded.

Carse relaxed and grinned at his own forgetfulness. The scholar in him had for the moment superseded the looter.

"We'll take all we can carry of the smaller jeweled things," he said. "This first haul alone will make us rich."

"But you'll be twice as rich as I," Penkawr said sourly. "I could have got an Earthman in Barrakesh to sell these things for me for a half share only."

Carse laughed. "You should have done so, Penkawr. When you ask help from a noted specialist you have to pay high fees."

His circuit of the chamber had brought him back to the altar. Now he saw that behind the altar lay a door. He went through it, Penkawr following reluctantly at his heels.

Beyond the doorway was a short passage and at the end of it a door of metal, small and heavily barred. The bars had been lifted, and the door stood open an inch or two. Above it was an inscription in the ancient changeless High Martian characters, which Carse read with practiced ease.

The doom of Rhiannon, dealt unto him forever by the Quiru who are lords of space and time!

Carse pushed the metal door aside and stepped through. And then he stood quite still, looking.

Beyond the door was a great stone chamber as large as the one behind him.

But in this room there was only one thing.

It was a great bubble of darkness. A big, brooding sphere of quivering blackness, through which shot little coruscating particles of brilliance like falling stars seen from another world. And from this weird bubble of throbbing darkness the lamplight recoiled, afraid.

Something—awe, superstition or some purely physical force—sent a cold tingling shock racing through Carse's body. He felt his hair rising and his flesh seemed to draw away from his bones. He tried to speak and could not, his throat knotted with anxiety and tension.

"This is the thing I told you of," whispered Penkawr. "This is the thing I told you I saw."

Carse hardly heard him. A conjecture so vast that he could not grasp it shook his brain. The scholar's ecstasy was upon him, the ecstasy of discovery that is akin to madness.

This brooding bubble of darkness—it was strangely like the darkness of those blank black spots far out in the galaxy which some scientists have dreamed are holes in the continuum itself, windows into the infinite outside our universe!

Incredible, surely, and yet that cryptic Quiru inscription—fascinated by the thing, despite its aura of danger, Carse took two steps toward it.

He heard the swift scrape of sandals on the stone floor behind him as Penkawr moved fast. Carse knew instantly that he had blundered in turning his back on the disgruntled little thief. He started to whirl and raise the sword.

Penkawr's thrusting hands jabbed his back before he could complete the movement. Carse felt himself pitched into the brooding blackness.

He felt a terrible rending shock through each atom of his body, and then the world seemed to fall away from him.

"Go share Rhiannon's doom, Earthman! I told you I could get another partner!"

Penkawr's snarling shout came to him from a great distance as he tumbled into a black, bottomless infinity.


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