A Day's Leave

In Atlanta/Hador-Haelic

 

from Galactic Convoy

by

Bill Baldwin

 

Hador was still only a glow on the lightward horizon when Brim signed out for local leave and stepped into the fresh sea air beyond Defiant's main hatch. In the distance, Atalanta's huge fires had burned to a dull glow, and the two stricken merchantmen were little more than twisted skeletons collapsed into their ruined gravity pools.

Yet for all its recent chaos, the base appeared to have returned to normal almost immediately following the emergency. Brim nodded to himself as he caught a local tram for the base's main civilian terminal-the little vehicle was no more than a few cycles late. A hush passed over the passengers when they passed the two freshly burned out gravity pools-still smoking and littered with emergency vehicles. But as the tram bounced along its route through the huge starship base, it was filled and emptied a number of times by energetic-looking workmen who joked and talked among themselves as if this were simply another night shift. Haelicians were tough-he'd learned that in a hurry. And it looked as if Kabul Anak would discover the same thing himself, soon enough. According to top-secret situation reports, the Leaguer admiral had recently transferred his flag to his new super battleship Rengas. The attack wasn't far off now; Brim could feel it in his bones.

When he arrived at the base terminal, the end of the night shift was still more than two metacycles away, and both buildings were nearly deserted. Out in the tram shed, only two large interurban coaches hovered in the maze of shallow stone alleyways the vehicles used for a roadbed.

They were tall, old-fashioned-looking conveyances: Brim guessed as much as twelve irals in height, eight to ten wide, and perhaps seventy in length overall. Floating on two flat gravity packs near either rounded end, the floors of the big machines hovered approximately chest high. Forward, three-pane windscreens extended from slightly arched roofs halfway to the floor. Lines of similarly sized windows ran the length of each coach, the top third of each glazed with green stained glass. Powerful-looking headlamps glared below the center windscreen panels, directly over each car's number in brass Avalonian digits. The passenger entrance was a set of double doors amidships equipped with a retractable step. Open hatches forward and aft had only a short ladder; they were clearly for the crew. Car 312 bore three orange stripes painted across the center of its arched roof; Car 309 had a single blue stripe. Aside from this, however, the trams appeared to be nearly identical except for signs at their turnstiles proclaiming MONASTERY and LOOP 12.

Brim frowned. It was reasonably clear that the former would arrive eventually at the top of Atalanta's hill at the Gradgroat-Norchelite Monastery. But what was a LOOP 12? He rubbed his chin for a moment, then prudently decided on the monastery. If the mazelike Rocotzian section of town were any indication, he would be much wiser spending his time in bona fide tourist attractions until he was fortunate enough to attract another native escort.

He peered around the nearly-deserted car shed; it smelled of stale food, stale sweat, stale mu'occo smoke, and the sharp stench of ozone from the humming, hovering trams. He guessed the last odor would easily reach unpleasant concentrations when the alleys were filled with coaches.
A green-uniformed worker dozed behind the ticket counter, but above his head hung a colorful map of the city. It was also marked with symbols that--wonder of wonders!--matched signs on all the turnstiles. On closer inspection, Brim discovered that Loop 12 was a route that circled the center section of the hill through a veritable maze of narrow side streets: A great place to become lost, he concluded quickly. Nodding to himself, he gently woke the ticket agent, purchased a round-trip ticket on the Monastery circuit, and made his way to Car 312.

Inside, the empty coach smelled of hot oil, leather, and ozone; it was comfortably set up with four rows of carpet-covered bucket seats and a center aisle. It was also spotlessly clean. Brim took a window seat near the front where he could see out the windscreens as well. Then he sat back to wait.

During the next few cycles, he was joined by a number of workmen leaving early for one reason or another--mostly accidents. One limped on board with a fresh patch over her eye, two burly men in stevedore's overalls arrived with bandages around their heads, and a tall, angry-looking woman struggled up the stairs and into a seat despite the great cast that covered her right leg all the way to her knee. She was followed by a brace of grimy, tired-looking Gradgroat-Norchelite priests who smelled strongly of smoke. Brim quickly guessed where they came from. There would be a lot of work for priests at the two burned-out gravity pools. Wreckage such as he'd seen would allow for few survivors...

At length the crew arrived: conductor and motorman dressed in dark green tunic and trousers, white shirts with green bow ties, shiny black boots, and orange-beaked pillbox hats decorated by a device that looked like a wheel pierced by a golden lightning bolt. Shortly thereafter, bells sounded officiously, doors rattled closed, and the floor vibrated beneath Brim's feet while ancient gravity packs ground into ponderous action, moving Car 312 out of the station and onto a main alleyway heading inland. As the big, top-hampered coach picked up speed, she began a rhythmic swaying motion that, coupled with the monotonous throb of her packs, had a soothing effect all its own.

Relaxing in his seat, Brim squinted at the window itself. It was a tall affair with polished wooden frames and brass hardware that allowed the bottom to be raised past its green stained-glass partner above-hadn't they heard of environmental control? The transparent bottom pane even boasted beveled glass! Outside, they were now crossing a bridge that paralleled the seven moss-covered stone arches of the Harbor Causeway--he remembered that bridge from his evening with Claudia.

For a moment, her oval face and soft-looking brown hair filled his mind's eye--he imagined the musky fragrance of her perfume teasing his nose. Somehow, she had been popping in and out of his mind a great deal since that night, much more than she should have. Truth to tell, he felt more than a little guilty about being attracted so strongly to her-especially when he was pledged to someone else.

Then he shrugged. Right or wrong, that was the way things were. For the next precious metacycles, he intended to relax and enjoy his anticipated leave. Tomorrow was time enough to moralize...

Car 312's gravity packs increased to a throbbing pulse beneath the floor as the alleyway began to climb City Mount Hill, and they entered a confusion of three- and four-story structures built mostly of whitewashed stone and mortar. By the early-morning light, Brim could see tiny gardens crowded into every possible nook and cranny, dappled with flowers that splashed the waking cityscape with a million dabs of color. These buildings were so close to the street that their balconies nearly touched overhead. The net effect was almost tunnel-like as the big car clawed its way up the steep grade, sharing the narrow street with dogs, barnyard animals, priests, fishermen, storekeepers, stonemasons, rothcats, dockyard workers, occasional Blue Capes, and droves of men and women in colorful native dress. None moved out of the way until the last possible moment, when the conductor applied the car's shrieking, ear-piercing whistle--which he was obliged to do almost every few irals.

All too often, they thundered past burned-out, roofless buildings-abandoned and left gaping at the sky. Many of the side streets Brim could see were filled with piles of tumbled brick and stone-clearly impassable for the duration of the war. Sometimes, whole blocks had been gutted, with narrow paths cleared through the rubble to uncover the interurban alleyways. The motorman sped through these, pursued by billowing specters of gray dust. They made Brim shiver. No glory here, only the remains of fragile homes, crushed and broken by the wild, blind lashings of wartime insanity. He shook his head. Somehow, sights like this never seemed to register with the leaders. Usually, he supposed, their homes were well protected...

In due course, the car crossed a stone bridge over a deep ravine. Brim glimpsed the distant harbor far below. Admiral Hober and his battlecruisers were just putting out to space: Iaith Galad, Oedden, and Benwell, great hovering shapes on the placid morning waters.

Even while he watched, Benwell began her takeoff run at the head of a towering cloud of water vapor. In spite of himself, he felt shivers of thrill race along his back while the interurban's windows rattled in the rolling thunder. Battlecruisers were the stuff of dreams for him. Especially Benwell--built as replacement for Nimue, which had mysteriously disappeared more than five Standard Years ago, taking the legendary Star Admiral Merlin Emrys with it. Like every young man in the Empire--even in Carescria--he had worshiped Emrys and the great ebony battlecruiser that ghosted in and out of harbors all over the galaxy, showing the colors-and power-of Greyffin IV's Galactic Empire. Their loss had been devastating at the time. Now, both man and ship were only half-remembered entries in a casualty list that would have seemed unbelievable at the time. But they would always hold a special place in his heart.

At length, the car thrummed across two intricately filigreed metal trestles, glided through a long, pillared colonnade, and came to rest on a spacious plaza planted with ancient, ocher-colored trees and paved with complex patterns of reddish-gold paving stones. On one side it fronted a colossal saffron granite crag at least two hundred irals in height and half a c'lenyt in circumference. A spectacular staircase and balustrade-sculpted from the granite itself-wound through a dozen switchbacks to the monastery above. It was occupied by black-garbed priests with high orange collars, Friars and Sisters in their long crimson gowns, novices wearing short robes of rough cloth, and an occasional, brightly outfitted layperson.

Opposite this stairway, the plaza was bounded by another ornate balustrade, also of saffron granite, but interspersed by graceful, flower-filled urns twice as tall as a man. From here, Brim got a spectacular view of the harbor and the great Imperial base thousands of irals below. He felt the morning sea breeze on his face, cool and fresh at this altitude. He picked out Defiant on her gravity pool and grinned to himself. He'd seldom had a chance to see her at such a distance. "Graceful" was the word that came to his mind first. She was a beautiful ship, long and lean as she hovered--impatiently, as it seemed--to break the bonds that kept her from her own element.
With a whole day on his hands, he relaxed a few extra cycles at the balustrade, looking down at the many-hued roofs of Atalanta. Behind him, he heard the coach's doors rattle shut; presently it ground its way out of the plaza. Somehow its departure severed a symbolic tie with the war, and he suddenly felt freed--no matter how temporarily--from the death and destruction that swirled through the galaxy. He took a deep breath while a feeling of peace swept over him in the quiet, breeze-swept plaza.

Fifty irals to his right, another staircase-t-his built into the steep hillside--connected with the streets below. Like its opposite, it also carried considerable traffic. High overhead, a colorful Gradygroat Zuzzuous lifted from the monastery and crackled up into the morning sky. As the archaic little spaceship banked steeply over the harbor, Brim saw that it was filled to capacity. He shook his head and smiled. A whole spaceship of Gradygroats flying out to service weapons systems that generations of Admiralty scholars dismissed as mere artifacts--unworthy of further study. He laughed to himself. Talk about wasting manpower! Yet the forts held a certain fascination for him. Silently, he promised himself that if he ever had more than a single day on leave, he would try to fly out and see one for himself. Then he laughed. Fat thraggling chance of extended leave in a place like Atalanta...

At length, he turned and made his way through the dusk-blue tree shadows-boots clicking among gently dancing puddles of golden sunlight--until at length he came to the foot of the great staircase. He followed a trio of Friars onto the marble treads, and quickly discovered that Gradgroat-Norchelite clerics set a rapid pace on the way up. He laughed to himself as he found himself breathing deeper and deeper. Clearly, the staircase was a daily occurrence for them--and considerably longer than Defiant's longest companionway.

He paused at a landing near the top while he caught his breath. From this high angle, he could see Car 312 with its three orange stripes following a twisted route back down the hill. He idly watched the streets he would follow were he walking to intercept its course. An easy route, he discovered to his surprise. The hilltop was so steep that the heavy car required numerous switchbacks to negotiate the slope, and although it had clearly traveled a long way since leaving the plaza, its actual distance from the monastery was little more than an easy c'lenyt's walk from the lower staircase. He even strongly considered making the walk himself once he completed his visit to the monastery. When he reached the top a few cycles later, however, all thoughts concerning possible walks--or anything else, for that matter--were swept away by the mind-boggling structure looming before him.

Blazing in Hador's late-morning brilliance like a golden icon, the monastery's colossal, flame-shaped spire stood at least a thousand irals higher than the two massive, disk-shaped tiers that formed its base. The bottom story was nearly a quarter again as large as the top, and both were surrounded by lofty alabaster colonnades formed of pointed arches and graceful columns that were easily more than a hundred irals high at their apex. A second grove of gigantic ocher trees surrounded the sprawling campus, shading what appeared to be veritable c'lenyts of quiet paths dotted by rushing fountains and quiet glens.
Before Brim's nearly unbelieving eyes, a wide avenue led across the first-story colonnade and into a pair of massive, ebony doors that themselves were at least sixty irals high. At present, both were open to a darkened space beyond. The Carescrian shook his head. Never--anywhere--had he encountered such an extraordinary structure. Greyffin IV's palace in Avalon actually paled in comparison.

Above the massive door frame was a carved motto written in Xantos, the archaic Universal script that even Carescrian youngsters were required to learn:

IN DESTRUCTION IS RESURRECTION;
THE PATH OF POWER LEADS THROUGH TRUTH

Brim chuckled as he stepped across the threshold into a darkened anteroom--Gradygroats made about as much sense as Sodeskayan Bears when it came to mottoes. When his eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, he pushed open a second, inner door, and...

Unconsciously, he caught his breath. Sensible or not, the great circular commons room they had constructed was in many ways as impressive as the whole monastery.

From a stupendous balcony formed by the monastery's second tier, men's voices intoned one of the Gradgroat-Norchelite anthems--ancient words and music that stirred the hearts of believers and nonbelievers alike:

"Oh Universal Force of Truth,
That guards the homeland of our youth,
That bidd'st the mighty cosmos deep,
Thine own appointed limits keep:
Oh hear us when we cry for Grace
F or those at peril far in space..."

Brim followed no particular religion--by any stretch of the imagination--but he nonetheless found himself lifted on a cresting surge of emotion. He'd loved the hymn as a child who dreamed of the stars. Now that he'd found those stars and called them his own, the words were still never far beneath his personal veneer.


Before him like some preposterous crystal plain, the lens-shaped floor was dotted here and there by figures of men and women who appeared to be diminished--somehow, humbled was a better word--by sheer, unmitigated magnitude. Taking a pamphlet from a table marked, "Information: Imperial Language," he discovered that the surface actually comprised three concentric circles. Spaced equally around the outer ring, three inlaid sets of Xantos symbols faced the center of the room and spelled DESTRUCTION in shining gold metal. The middle ring contained three sets of gold inlaid symbols for RESURRECTION, also facing the center. And the unmarked inner ring served to frame a large, central cone of gleaming gold-colored metal studded with irregular patterns of what appeared to be a thousand or more multicolored gems. The symbol group for TRUTH was deeply engraved three times into a polished band of clear metal around its base.

Overhead, soaring high above the balcony, a monumental dome modeled the nighttime firmament over Atalanta with Hador blazing forth through a lens-like aperture that seemed to hover in the center of the sky surrounded by the word POWER, in Xantos letters. Brim frowned as he stared up into this artificial starscape. Something peculiar about it... He snapped his fingers. Of course. The dome itself was unquestionably constructed of some translucent material, and whatever the Gradygroats were using to model Hador shone from considerable distance behind its surface! He smiled. Clever, that. A shimmering beam of focused brilliance plummeted straight from the "hovering" lens to shatter on the jeweled cone in the center of the floor; its light then mirrored back to the dome in a thousand separate reflections to form the stars. Brim nodded in admiration as he studied the cone. Each of its seemingly scattered jewels had actually been placed with exquisite care! He wondered what sort of artificial flare the Gradygroats had placed behind the dome to shine like that one did.

Interestingly enough-a-t least to Brim--the tower itself was almost fourteen hundred irals high, but the inner dome above his head extended no more than three hundred irals into it. Rather disappointing, when he came to think about it. Idly, he wondered what the Gradygroats did with the remainder of the space-he certainly remembered seeing no windows in the tower, at least from the outside.
On the surrounding wall, scores of inset display-window tableaux depicted the long, varied history of The Order. Brim promised himself ample time to digest these-especially ones depicting the thirteen orbital forts and their mighty disruptors. Wouldn't Wellington love this, he thought as he continued his fascinated inspection of the commons room.


***

During the next metacycles, Brim availed himself of everything the monastery had to offer: its great circle of tableaux, the library with the rare collection of Primitives, the museum, the art gallery, and the gloriously wooded parks. Each was fascinating in its own way, and to his surprise, neither the Friars nor the Sisters he met attempted to proselytize him or, so far as he could see, any of the other visitors, although there were only himself and perhaps four or five families on a holiday. Wartime, he supposed, severely limited the tourist trade. At length, he deposited a generous--for a Carescrian--donation at one of the intricately carved alms boxes, then strode down the top staircase to the coach plaza. He had most of the long afternoon still before him. Warm breezes carried the voices of the choir from the monastery:

"Far-called, our starfleets melt away;
Dominions and our pow'r depart;
Lo, all our fame of yesterday
Without The Motto, leaves the heart-
From Truth the path of Power leads yet,
Lest we forget-lest we forget!..."

Leaning his elbows on the balustrade, he peered down at the roofs of the city again. An afternoon sea breeze was still surprisingly cool on his face, and the sky was now dotted by ranks of flat-bottomed, fair-weather clouds. He watched one of the big coaches glide into the alleyways, exchange passengers, then growl on its way again, disappearing at length among the giant trees. Once again, he gazed into the distance at Defiant, then at his timepiece. Impulsively, he vowed he would present himself at the sign-in desk no more than a milliclick before he absolutely had to. Then, with a smile of determination on his face, he started down the staircase toward town...

 

 

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Copyright (c) 2010, Bill Baldwin, all rights reserved, worldwide.