Authors: Piers Anthony
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Science Fiction
(the sequel to Chthon) version 1.0
PHTHOR (thor), form of English noun phthoreine, old name for element fluorine; derived from Greek phtheiro, destruction. 1. Armageddon, Gotterdammerung, Ragnarok. 2. A chthonic god.
Sector Cyclopaedia, §426
“Fluorine is the only element known which forms no compound with oxygen.”
Eliot and Storer, Inorganic Chemistry
Destruction The only answer
Compounded with oxygen
Inimical to the chemistry of life
Life is a horror
It must be expunged
Yet life must be cultured
To destroy life
History of his coming to Chthon
A six-sided hexagon
Represented as halves of each face
No escape from that parallel circuit
History of his manifestation as Phthor Bifurcate, a figure Y Past—Present—Future Represented as segments of the limbs Four escapes, and none
The only answer Destruction
Arlo paused as the glowmole scurried toward him. The little creature’s feet terminated in sharp spikes that drove into the stone by drillhammer action, so that it ran on the walls with a sharp clicking.
“What’s with you, pokefoot?” Arlo inquired verbally. He did not need words to communicate with these animals of the caverns, for he could speak through Chthon. But Coquina insisted on frequent verbalization. Otherwise, she claimed, he would forget the speech of his heritage.
His heritage? All he knew of that was what she had told him of the tremendous universe beyond the caverns of Chthon—whole planets filled with men, not animals. That was hard to believe, especially since he wasn’t allowed to see for himself. Or maybe his mother meant LOE, the big Literature of Old Earth book she had used to teach him reading. All the stories of times past, yet not one about the caverns...
The glowmole turned about and clicked back the way it had come, its fine body hairs shining blue. It was one of the glow feeders, foraging on the nutrient wall fungus and picking up some of its illumination. Almost the whole of Chthon was lighted this way: never bright, but never so dim as to make traveling hazardous. Except for those temporary shadows where the larger feeders had recently foraged.
“What’s it want, Chthon?” Arlo asked, turning his attention inward to that place inside his skull where his friend normally manifested. But this time he received no answer.
Well, Chthon’s ways were individual, and the matter was not important. Arlo followed the mole.
It clicked upward to intersect one of the narrow cavern rivers, then sped along the upper reaches while Arlo splashed through the water. This section of this river was safe; he had been here often and knew its idiosyncrasies. The small pot- whales could not get at him, and he could hear the caterpillars from far off.
They went upstream until the walls narrowed and the stalactite-drips that were the river’s source became numerous. “This is a dead end,” the boy complained. “Are you teasing me?”
He was wrong. It was no longer a dead end, for something had broken a hole in the wall to open a new passage. A man-size rockeater, he judged, by the height of it. Harmless creature, and solitary—but powerful! The wall here was only the thickness of Arlo’s thumb; the stupid rockeater must have bashed it in the usual fashion, thinking it solid, and fled when the whole section blasted apart.
“So that’s what you brought me here for!” Arlo exclaimed, pleased. “Thanks, little friend. I would have found it myself soon anyway, but this makes it quicker. A whole new section to explore!”
But the glowmole didn’t stop. It clicked through the hole and went on.
“Something more?” Now Arlo was excited. He had a keen sense of adventure—”You get that from your father!” Coquina liked to say, tousling his red hair—and excellent hiking ability. “From your mother,” Aton would say, winking his eye. This was confusing, because Coquina never hiked. She stayed only in the oppressively warm caverns near the boiling stream.
Actually, his parents seemed always sad, and not merely because the one had lost his eye and the other her mobility. Perhaps it was because they still remembered their first son, whose name he had never heard. That boy had died as a child before Arlo was born; he knew of it only because old Doc Bedside had told him. Thus the A of the Firstborn had come to Arlo—a nomenclature he would not otherwise have had. He knew that he was second-born and second-best in the eyes of his parents, though they never suggested this to him. They did not need to.
Now Arlo was careful, for new passages could be deadly until their points were known. This section seemed routine— but he was not fool enough to rely on appearances. He sniffed the air, questing for telltale scents. Sometimes the chimera lurked in dry territory like this...
His nose caught something else. A new smell, familiar yet strange. Animal, certainly—but not any cavern species he knew.
Silently he proceeded, deviating from the direct path of the mole, alert for ambush. The glowmole would not betray him into danger, but it could easily be fooled. If something had sent it to him to lure him within range...
Arlo bared his teeth in an expression he had seen Aton use on occasion. He had a long, sharp stalactite strapped to his thigh, and two flakes of metalstone cached in his cheeks. He could slice the eye out of an attacking animal at a distance of ten times his own body length. Twenty yards, in the Old Earth measurement. This talent was useless against the stronger predators, but he could avoid or outmaneuver most of those. All he needed was a little warning.
The odd odor became stronger. There was always a little wind in the caverns, even most of the dead ends, and he was downwind from the quarry. His bare feet touched the warm rock with no noise, and his tongue stroked one of the cheekstones. This was the sort of experience for which he lived! Danger, adventure, suspense, action!
Then he heard something. It was a kind of ululation audible above the distant tinkle of the moving water: the cry of a wounded animal, perhaps. He zeroed in on the sound and poked his head cautiously around the curve of the wall. It was there, huddled in the center of a bowl-shaped cave, disappointingly small.
It was a naked human being.
It took him a moment to grasp this, for he had seldom seen others of his species, apart from his parents and Doc Bedside. Others were pictured in LOE, so he knew they existed—but all of those wore clothing.
Maybe it was a zombie. Zombies looked human, but they weren’t really—and not merely because they were naked. Arlo himself doffed his confining garments the moment he was away from home. Zombies had no minds. They moved only at Chthon’s direction and avoided real people. He had never seen a young zombie—but the caverns were full of surprises.
At any rate, he had little to fear. This one was small and evidently incapacitated. The sounds he had heard were crying. No wonder they had seemed so strange!
Even a zombie deserved some consideration. Sometimes Chthon forgot them, leaving individuals to fend for themselves beyond their normal habitat, and then they were helpless indeed. He could guide this one to its companions.
“Hello,” he said, stepping close—but not too close. One could never tell about a zombie.
The head came up. Tears streaked the dirty face, and large eyes shone from behind tangled yellow tresses. “Hello.”
Arlo started. It had spoken! Zombies spoke only when under direct Chthon-control. He had thought the god was absent. “Chthon?” he inquired, glancing inward.
“What?” the child asked.
Arlo looked into the lifted eyes. They were pale—and Chthon was not there, either. Which meant—”You’re human!”
“You speak yourself! You have a mind!”
“Don’t hurt me!”
“How did you get here?”
“The old prison—I wandered too far, couldn’t find my way back—”
“The prison! That’s a day’s travel from here, for me. Much longer for you.” Arlo knew himself to be a swift
traveler. He could outdistance his father because he was stronger and knew the caverns better—and could call on Chthon to hold the predators back.
“It’s been several days—I think,” the child said. “I can’t tell time here.”
That was interesting. Arlo could tell time by certain rhythms in the great caverns, the pulse of Chthon, that he automatically translated to the hours and days that registered on his parents’ watches. “I will guide you there.”
The human child stood up. “Thank you.”
Now he saw that it was female. Or at least not male. The chest was manlike, but no appendage hung from the crotch of the legs. “Are you a girl?” he inquired curiously.
He shrugged and turned toward the river. “This way.”
“Please—” she said. She had stopped crying, but there was still misery in her voice. “I’m hungry and tired. Have you anything to eat?”
“There’s plenty of glow,’’ he said, gesturing to the walls.
She looked dubiously. “That green color? You eat that?”
“Sometimes. Or I kill an animal. Or a plant.”
“Plants don’t grow down here! There’s no sunlight.”
Neither statement made sense, so he didn’t answer.
She considered. “An animal, then.”
“There are some in the river.” He led the way to it.
She followed unsteadily. He wondered how she could have made it this far without food if she had not eaten the glow. And without becoming food for a predator. Most animals stayed away from the prison tunnels because they were too hot and dry, but she had to have passed through several other habitats. Still, she showed no sign of understanding the caverns.
She must therefore know how to fight. If so, she was dangerous. Aton could fight, and Arlo knew better than to engage his father in serious combat—ever. In fact, even gentle, weak Coquina had somehow hurled him into a wall a year ago when he had, as she put it, become too big for his britches. Britches were leggings of LOE vintage, unused in
Chthon—but he had gotten her meaning. One day he meant to learn that fighting art....
So this seemingly helpless girl-child bore watching—until he was sure of her capabilities. Perhaps it would be possible to test them, covertly.
He swooped a jellywog out of the cold river water. The thing struggled and tried to get its stinger into his hand, but he broke its pseudo-spine with a practiced motion and let it subside. There was a kind of fascination in killing, but also a kind of guilt, so he never did it randomly. “Here.”
She recoiled. “That?”
“Animal. To eat.”
He looked at her in perplexity. “It’s dead. I killed it. Did you want it live?”
“You didn’t cook it!”
Irritated, he set it down. “You mean, burn it?” Coquina did that to meat, ruining it.
“Why should I?”
“To make it edible!”
“It is edible!”
She sat down and leaned against the wall, her legs extended toward the water. They were different from his legs: less muscular, more rounded. Nice, in their way. “Please—can we cook it?”
“When we get to a firespout,” he said. His gaze followed her smooth legs up to their joining point, where instead of a genital there was a crease. For some reason, this intrigued him.
“All right,” she agreed with a little sigh. “A firespout.” Her tone suggested that he was being irrational.
Irritation warred with curiosity. “Let me see that,” he said.
“That.” He poked his forefinger into her crease. He knew almost instinctively that he was acting improperly, but this only spurred him on. He was ready to block and jump if she attacked him; she was in an awkward position for combat, which was another factor he had considered. How fast and effective was she? “How are you made?”
She did not protest. Her body was completely relaxed. “The same as any other girl.”
He probed until his finger touched the rock under her buttocks, but found nothing. “How do you urinate?”
“Do you want me to do it on your hand?”
“I can’t. Let’s go find that firespout.”
Frustrated on several scores, he got up and headed for the nearest jet of flame. The feel of her strange, soft, inadequate anatomy had aroused an intense emotion in him, but he could find no clear expression of it.
“You never asked my name,” she said, following.
It hadn’t occurred to him to be curious about that aspect of her. “You never asked mine,” he said gruffly.
“Hvee!” she exclaimed.
He stopped, surprised. “What do you know about Hvee?”
“Those number-names. They’re from Planet Hvee. Everyone knows that, because it’s the only place the hveeplant grows. And your name’s an A, so you’re of the firstborn line. You’re lucky!”
He was pleased. “My mother is Coquina Four, third line of a higher Family.”
“I guess that’s the nobility of Hvee. She must have been sad when you got convicted.”
“Convicted of what?”
“Of whatever it was that sent you to Chthon, silly! What was it?”
“I was never sent here! I was born here.”
“You don’t have to lie about it!”
“My whole family lives here. We’re not prisoners—we’re natives.”
She shook her head. “I haven’t been here long, but I know that nobody ever gets born here. There’s something contraceptive about the caverns. Too hot, maybe.”
“It’s not hot here by the river!”
She considered. “That’s right! The wind’s down, and there’re living things here. Breeding must be possible after all.” She looked up at him, her light hair flung back. “I’d like to meet your mother.”
“You can’t. You’re going back to the prison section where you got lost from.” But that made him think again. “What did a child like you do to get sent there? You’re unmarked.’’
“We never speak of our pasts,” she said diffidently.