The island was called Atlantis. It had been named by a member of the first survey team, who had taken pride in his sense of irony. The Atlantis of Earth, whose sun was not visible to the naked eye in the night sky of Meikor Three, had perished in the greatest volcanic explosion in human history, three and a half thousand years before the start of Man's Atomic Age.
Meikor Three had died uncounted centuries later, blighted by a global total war. Only its alien Atlantis had survived untouched by nuclear death – apparently preserved by its isolation but abandoned for some reason.
Relays of archaeologists had poked through the island's single town but they had found little to justify their presence. The eight buildings were tall and graceful from a distance, showing the signs of at least two millennia of weathering at closer range, and quite empty. Every room of the structures offered blank walls and bare floors.
Everything portable had been stripped out by the inhabitants. There were signs of occupation – steps worn hollow by many feet, repairs carried out at significantly displaced times, but it was easy to imagine that the town had been built for people who had never moved in.
The rest of the planet was natural and unnatural desert, wild, probably mutated jungle, fused, radioactive, glassy wastelands, rich woodland that was peppered with radioactive hot spots, tundra, frozen steppes and polar ice caps that still sent the explorers' radiation detectors wild in places.
A high background radiation count over most of the large continents made Meikor Three much too hazardous for colonization. But, after a little cleaning up, Atlantis was still habitable.
Chad Leston knew this because he was there to stay. At about noon on Atlantis, a personnel shuttle had dived into the atmosphere of Meikor Three, hovered at fifty metres over the square at the heart of Atlantis City to deposit thirteen assorted specimens of humanity and their basic survival kits, and lofted back to the orbiting Chiltan cruiser.
Leston knew that his new home resembled an insect's leg from orbit, even though he had not been offered the use of a viewscreen during the descent. The island was some 1,320 kilometres long and it varied in width from 32 to 196 kilometres. It sprawled between latitudes 20o and 24o in the northern hemisphere of Meikor Three.
400 kilometres to the west of the island lay the largest of the planet's unnamed continents. An unrelieved expanse of open sea stretched away for at least 5,000 kilometres in every other direction.
Leston also knew that its isolation, which had preserved Atlantis when the rest of the planet had been dying, made the island a very effective prison.
The archaeologists had concluded that Atlantis had been a combined nature reserve and holiday island. Only one town had been built to survive for any length of time. It lay at the centre of the arc of a bay on the southern coast.
Some evidence remained of log cabins dotted in tight groups around the island. Even such subsidiary dwellings had been stripped of all artefacts, like Atlantis City.
Chad Leston and a dozen others found themselves standing in the approximate centre of an expanse of smooth, pinkish, marble-like material. It seemed to absorb Meikor's golden rays and return them as a soft glow – except in the region of the crack.
Leston soon became aware of a fierce heat beaming at him from a long, semi-circular depression, which approached to within two meters of his position. It looked as though a giant, returning from a swim in the clear waters of the bay, had indented a massive heel-print toward the centre of the hundred-meter square.
Leston picked up his tackle bag and headed away from the sea and the rest of the group. There was very little shade with Meikor almost directly overhead, but he could see inviting archways at the front of each of the sixty-metre towers. He had never been an outdoor man and he would have more than enough time later on to get to know the rest of the new arrivals.
Buildings clad in silky blue, light grey, pale rose, deepest black, and dazzling white lined three sides of the square. On the southern side, beyond a low wall of badly weathered sandstone, the ground sloped gently with a covering of bluish-green tendrils to a beach of pure white sand.
There were eight buildings around the square – three to east and west, and two facing the sea. The buildings around the square also had a square cross-section, rising from a twenty-metre base and tapering gently. Somehow, the architect had introduced a suggestion of curvature to soften harsh edges.
Leston entered the cool, shadowy interior beyond the archway of the left-hand of the buildings that faced the sea. He found himself in a great cubical hall, a dusty, featureless cavern of the same brilliant white as the exterior, lit from two tiers of vast windows.
He was alone with the sound of his own footsteps on an unblemished floor of the same pinkish material as the square outside. As far as he could see, there was no obvious means of access to the upper floors of the tower.
On his left was a long ledge at a convenient height for sitting. He moved over to it to examine his survival kit. Spare clothes filled one half of his tackle bag. They were light, waterproof and soil-resistant, and they would last a lot longer than his two-year exile on Atlantis.
He also had survival rations for two months and a copy of the Atlantis Handbook, which gave geographical details of the island, an illustrated list of edible plants, hints on catching safe fish and trapping the food animals with which the island had been stocked, and then preparing then for cooking. He found page after page of potentially useful survival hints.
His survival kit also contained a compact medical diagnoster and a limited supply of drugs and dressings. The message seemed to be Don't fall too ill, or else! And there was a toolkit containing such essentials as scissors, cutlery, an Eversharp knife with a ten centimetre blade, which could be used for shaving, a small vibrosaw, a standard hand light-unit, a spare universal power pack and a solar-powered charging unit. He also wore, strapped to his left wrist, a combined chronometer, miniature diran complex, communicator, compass and the inevitable Elapsed Time Counter.
The ETC was showing the figure '973', a reflection of Meikor Three's shorter than standard day. When it reached zero, he and other ‘expirers' would he summoned to a rendezvous for psychological profile testing. The results of those tests would decide whether they could be taken home to Chiltan or if they would be returned to Atlantis for the rest of their lives.
Chad Leston was a criminal, an inventive and persistent thief, who was always ready to accept a challenge. After extensive psychological probing and a double failure to respond to rehabilitation training, the board of examiners on his home world of Chiltan had come to the conclusion that Leston had been born without a conscience and he had very little regard for the consequences of detection.
If he wanted something, he took it – covering his tracks very well, of course. He knew that he would suffer some inconvenience if he were caught, but the prospect did not bother him unduly. Exile to Atlantis was a left-handed admission that he had reached the top of the criminal tree.
The Governors of Chiltan considered themselves to be humane people. In response to growing public discontent with the cost of confining criminals for the protection of society, they had decided to conduct a great experiment. All criminals who failed to respond to two courses of rehabilitation training would be sentenced to two years' Exile on destroyed Meikor Three. If, at the end of their short Exile, they were still displaying antisocial tendencies, they would be abandoned there.
Naturally, criminals, their relatives, those involved in the prison, security, and legal industries, and political elements that counted criminals among their traditional supporters, joined together to oppose vigorously the concept of short and long periods of Exile. Equally naturally, the rest of the voting public favoured the idea.
Transporting an offender 5.3 light years to the Meikor system and the provision of a survival kit was significantly cheaper than containing the criminal in a prison for two or more years. And if the criminal was still not prepared to obey the rules of Chiltan society after his or her two-year period of isolation, the voters of Chiltan felt quite justified in washing their hands of the ingrate.
The experiment had been planned to last five years. Its deterrent effect, when the first Exiles, were announced was dramatic. Serious crime figures plummeted. Hardened criminals weighed their life of crime and its rewards against comfortless exile in the tropical boredom of an abandoned playground of a long-extinct alien civilization.
Some changed their ways. Others left Chiltan for less penally enlightened worlds. The advantages of living beyond the law no longer outweighed the punishment. Many of the reformed criminals joined the Abolish Exile movement in an attempt to restore their lifestyle. Despite their efforts to convince the great apathetic public of Chiltan to vote for re-admission of undesirables, the experiment became established practice.
Twenty years on, the shock effect of exile had faded. Chad Leston knew that there was very little chance of his ever finding his way back to Chiltan. The Exile law had become part of the fabric of Chiltan life, and two long, miserable years on Atlantis were not likely to change him. But he remained hopeful that something would turn up, that he would find some way of escaping from that perfect prison.
Leaving the map on the ledge for study, he attached the sheath of the Eversharp knife to his belt and packed away the rest of his survival kit. He had been fed on the cruiser just before the shuttle took him down to his island exile. A drink would have gone down well, but he had not been issued with alcohol, leisure drugs or tobacco or a variant.
Perhaps there's a section on brewing in the handbook, he consoled himself.
He was sealing the flap of his tackle bag when he became aware of a movement. A male figure, wearing just ragged shorts and a pair of sandals, stood outlined and threatening in the archway at the entrance to the hall.
Rather self-consciously, Leston allowed his hand to stray to the vicinity of the handle of his knife. He made no attempt to draw it from the sheath. He had never courted violence but the man in the archway was not to know that. Leston hoped that putting on a show of preparedness would make the other man think twice about trying to take advantage of a tender newcomer to the island of exile.
Realizing that he had been spotted, the intruder moved forward. He limped slightly on his left leg, and when he reached less contrasting lighting conditions, his sinister air vanished. He was just entering middle age, which made him half as old again as Chad Leston's thirty-one standard years.
The other man sported a fine head of ginger hair and a full beard, and his skin was tanned to a rich, dark brown. When he opened his mouth, Leston noticed immediately that he had lost one of his upper front teeth.
There could be no rebudding of defective teeth on Atlantis, merely extraction as an all-purpose form of practical dentistry.
"Larne Vendal," said the older man, coming to a halt a safe four metres from Leston. "I'm a sort of welcoming committee. I heard the shuttle come down just now."
"Chad Leston," replied the newcomer warily. There was nothing overtly threatening about Vendal but one could never be sure. "No one else bothered to look us over. Many people around here?"
"About twenty or thirty based in Atlantis City. A few hundred more dotted around within a couple of days' travel. Looking forward to your short visit?"
"If it is short."
"You don't sound very hopeful." Vendal smiled, showing the gap in his teeth again.
Leston found it strangely disturbing. Everyone on Chiltan had a complete set of perfect teeth. With a shrug, he replied, "You get the impression once you're here, they don't want you back."
"Well, it's not so bad," Vendal assured him. "I'm on a long visit, myself. Been here ten years now."
"Vendal," said Leston thoughtfully. "Mining and exploration, wasn't it? You got away with millions. Something to do with a false prospectus. I remember the campaign to get you released."
"That's where the millions went," grinned Vendal. "They were never mine, so I can't complain. Glad to hear I've not been forgotten."
"You burned too many people to be forgotten. Quite a lot think you're living a life of luxury here with their money."
"People tend to believe what suits them best." The older man shrugged. "As you can see, I'm dressed in the height of Atlantean fashion." He glanced down at his ragged shorts with a scornful grin.
Leston knew that the material was supposed to remain ‘as new' for at least four standard years. The shorts could have been a remnant of the prison uniform that Vendal had been wearing when he had been dumped on the island. They were long overdue for recycling – except that technology of that level did not exist on Atlantis.
"What are you going to do when they finally drop to pieces?" Leston inquired casually.
"Of course, you've not had the second lecture, have you?" returned Vendal. "Not yet. They keep track of us with these." He held up his left wrist to show his chronometer. "We get supply drops every so often. Clothes, boots, cleansers and so on. Enough for the replacement needs of the current population."
"Keeping your other outfits for special occasions?" suggested Leston.
"The clothing gen is a bit greedy at the moment." The older man shrugged again.
"The what?" frowned Leston.
"The gens are sort of syndicates, communes, something like that. Each of them controls one of the basics. If you want more clothes, you have to go to the Casor gen and do a week's work for them. When they find out about you, all the gens will want you to do your bit for them."
"I don't think I need any clothes right now." Leston looked down at his new outfit. "I've got enough stuff to last out a short visit."
"That's not the point," chuckled Vendal. "Everything on Atlantis is the property of one or other of the gens. Even the stuff you were landed with. I'd say you owe the Casor gen four weeks. And a week to the Mickels for that knife. Plus all the rest. All in all, I'd say you've got a busy six months ahead of you before you can call your time your own."
Leston stared at Vendal, alarm and suspicion written all over a thin face.
"You're thinking that's not fair," laughed Vendal. "Well, it isn't. But only in normal terms. Anything goes among the rejects on Atlantis. Your best bet is to hide your tackle bag and tell them it was stolen. They might believe you. Or you could head out into the country and keep clear of all settled areas for a couple of years."
"Why are you telling me all this?" demanded Leston suspiciously. "What are you after?"
"News from home. Even the long visitors can't do without it."
"And when are they likely to come looking for me?"
"They'll be on their way now. The people who live in Atlantis City tend to be loners like me. The gens are based outside the city, where the crops grow. The nearest is the Andras gen. They're boots. They'll be here in about half an hour."
Leston glanced down at his chronometer automatically, then he noticed again the crude sandals on Vendal's feet. "I see you've not done business with them recently."
"Saving them for the rainy season," smiled the older man. "Want me to mark the gen towns on your map?"
Leston clamped a stick of epton root between his white, even teeth and sucked in refreshing juices. He was unwilling to trust the older man but unable to fathom his motives.
"You think I'm trying to sell you a dry hole in the ground," laughed Vendal. "They all do. Trust is in exceedingly short supply on Atlantis."
"Which is why I'm wondering about you," returned Leston. "You might be trying to con me out of my tackle bag. Or you might be working with one of these gens to steer me into a trap."
"And the one thing you can't do is take me at face value," added Vendal with a big smile. He seemed to be a cheerful sort. It could have been the masking, false good humour of a con merchant, but Leston sensed something deeper. Larne Vendal had to be up to something.
Chad Leston's head turned from the tanned long-visitor as he realized that someone was blowing a whistle not too far away. The sound wiped the grin from Vendal's dark face.
"I think the half hour was over-optimistic," he decided. "Those are gen whistles, directing a search for the new arrivals. Including you. So I'm off. You can come with me if you want. Or you can stay to say hello."
Leston gripped the sling of his tackle bag indecisively, watching the lean figure hurrying across the pinkish floor, his sandals making soft, slapping sounds. The whistles seemed to be getting nearer. He was trapped between two unknowns but he felt inclined to accept Vendal at face value for the moment.
A whistle blasted just outside the archway, echoing screams of both pain and terror. Vendal had reached the far side of the cubical hall. Leston started to run towards him. A voice whooped in triumph behind him. Leston put on a burst of speed. Vendal had opened a doorway in the featureless wall. Leston headed straight for it.
A violent pain sliced through his left thigh. Agony spun Chad Leston round and smashed him to the floor. Vendal scuttled out of the doorway and tugged at his tackle bag. Leston's fist clenched reflexively. There was a tugging at his belt. A knife blade flashed in front of his face.
Leston had a sudden vision of his tackle bag being carried away in Larne Vendal's greedy arms with his hand still grasping the carrying strap.
The next thing he knew, Vandal was tugging at his arm and urging him forward. His left leg screamed pain signals but the dragging sensation had gone. Feet pounded across the hall as Leston moved at his best speed, half crawling, half being dragged by Vendal. Then they entered darkness.
Coloured shapes exploding before his eyes. Leston sprawled on a hard, cold floor, unable to move, weakened hopelessly by the swamping pain in his left leg. A bright glow back-lit his kaleidoscope vision. Someone jarred his leg painfully. Then a cooling, soothing numbness swept the pain and the fogging of his vision sway.
"Feeling better?" asked Vendal, displaying an encouraging hint of his grin around a stick of epton root. He sucked noisily, devouring the uplifting flavour. "I haven't tasted this for a couple of centuries, feels like."
"My one luxury," said Leston automatically.
Vendal was holding his light unit. By the stark glow, Leston could see a lot of blood on the left leg of his uniform. At the top of the stain was a metal cross. Its arms were the length of a thumb. They expanded in width to about five millimetres at the tips and they pressed deeply into the pale blue fabric.
"What happened?" grunted Leston.
"They don't give us firearms or energy weapons," said Vendal. "So some clever sobok re-invented bows and arrows. They got you with a man-catcher crossbow. Just a minute." He did something with the knife at the back of Leston's leg. Then he pushed. Leston watched in horror as a length of red-soaked wood emerged from the numb flesh.
"They attach a line to the other end of the bolt," added Vendal. "When it's gone through your leg, the business end opens out into this cross shape." He demonstrated, flapping one of the arms up and down. They were hinged just below the point, forming a solid head in the closed position. "When they've hooked you, they either tie the line off or haul you in like a fish."
"How did we get away?" croaked Leston, his mouth painfully dry.
"There was only one of them," grinned Vendal. "And you couldn't let go of your tackle bag. So I borrowed your knife to cut the line and dragged you in here. Without a thought for my personal safety."
"And now I owe you something?"
"I do expect a certain measure of gratitude, yes," nodded Vendal. "Don't forget, I can always shove you out there to play with the gensters. The ones out there now wondering how to open the trap door."
Leston's head flew round – to see an unbroken expanse of wall. They were in a long, three-metre wide corridor. Deep gloom thickened beyond the lens of light cast by Leston's light unit.
"We're all right," laughed Vendal, responding to the alarm on the younger man's paler than normal face. "They're not sure where the door is and they haven't got a key. Wouldn't know one if they tripped over it," he added, applying a dressing to Leston's thigh with an air of expertise. "The combination of my lucky accident and an inquiring mind isn't likely to occur again in a hurry."
"What's so special about this key?" asked Leston, staring up at the ceiling and trying to keep his mind off what had happened to his leg.
"It's half physical and half mental. There's a library in number four. That's the next building on this side of the square. Seaview Square, I call it. The archaeologists left a full record of what they found here. That's how I was able to find out what the key was. You use it to identify yourself to the door mechanism. Then it opens to mental commands afterwards."
"You just think it open?" said Leston incredulously.
"And closed. Very convenient when there's a genster after you. There. That should do you." Vendal looked down at the dressing with pride. "That arrow didn't do your muscles any good. Tore them up a treat. Missed the bone, though. Well, they do. If they smash your bones up, they have to look after you that much longer before you can work off what they decide you owe them."
"And how long will I be out of action?" asked Leston uneasily.
"And how much do you owe me for my medical services?" grinned Vendal. "I think a couple of sticks of epton root should cover that. As for your leg, you'll have to stay off it for about twenty hours. While the med-kit's accelerators encourage your muscles to regrow. And take it easy for at least a day after that. Then you can run around as you were doing a few minutes ago."
"Feels like hours," grunted Leston. "Thanks. And help yourself to the epton root."
"I already have." smiled Vendal.
"Don't they know what does on here back home?"
"And why don't they do something about it, you mean? Why should they? All of us here have rejected the rules of Chiltan society. This place is supposed to be an awful warning to the short-stay visitors."
"It's that all right," Leston said with feeling. "Where are we now?"
"I think these are the original Atlanteans' equivalent of glider tubes to the upper floors." Vendal nodded toward the featureless northern wall of the corridor. "But there's no power for them. There are stairs at either end, though, if you fancy tramping fifty odd metres up to the top floor. There's only seven floors above us, as opposed to fourteen in most of the other buildings. This might have been some sort of exhibition complex."
"Where do you live?"
"Next door. In number four. I think it used to be an office building of sorts. Of course, there's nothing much left. They stripped the place. And I suppose the archaeologists cleared out everything they overlooked. It's just space now, divided into units by bare walls. But the pattern of plumbing suggests offices. That's where our library is. On the first floor. The archaeologists found some keys. Opened up one of the stairways as far as the first floor. I suppose they wanted to put the diran complex out of reach of a hurricane tide."
"You get weather like that?"
"Oh, yes," smiled Vendal. "It's very typically tropical here. But as I was saying, the diran they gave us Exiles is a proper library with full reference channels, entertainment, everything. But not too many people use it themselves. The entertainment stuff reminds them too much of what they've been exiled from. And most of the reference material is irrelevant to life here. After all, what use is a detailed account of stellar physics or shipbuilding for beginners to the likes of us? Anyone using it usually wants medical information. This place is full of hypochondriacs. Or detailed information on agriculture, building, basic chemistry, stuff like that. Very little theory but plenty of practice."
"Now what happens?" Leston looked down at the white patch on his thigh and imagined the matching one on the back of his leg.
"Now we go to number four," said Vendal. "You need to rest and it's a bit more comfortable than here."
"How do we know when the mad archers have gone, though? So we can get out of this tunnel?"
"The stairs go down as well as up. There's a system of service tunnels connecting all the buildings. If you lean on me and take it slow, we'll be there before you know it."
The journey through long, dark tunnels lasted an eternity for Chad Leston. His injured leg swung loose and out of control, lacking all feeling and sense of belonging to the rest of his body, but mercifully without pain. As they moved along in their pool of light, he sucked on a stick of epton root and tried to ignore the passage of time.
They would reach their destination eventually, he knew. All he had to do was keep going until they arrived.
Leston found Larne Vendal's suite of rooms disturbing. The primitive furniture jarred with the stark, alien perfection of the rooms with their smooth walls and precise harmonies. The furniture was made of wood, secured with wooden pegs at the joints and padded with cushions of hairy cloth that looked home-made.
Vendal's meagre possessions were set out on two trestle tables, like exhibits in a museum, but also ready to hand. A pair of boots and a coverall remained from his survival kit. The rest had been acquired from the appropriate gen. A set of nine hand-blown glass jars in misty green acted as his larder. They seemed a typical example of the depressed state of current technology on Atlantis.
Leston hovered in the doorway, bracing himself with his hands, while Vendal untied and rolled out a quilted mattress. They had decided that the injured man would be better off lying down, When Leston was settled comfortably, Vendal retired to a corner of the four by six metre room. Leston watched curiously as he poured water into an earthenware pot, then cautiously poked two wires into neat holes in a lifeless, grey wall.
"Odd place, this," remarked Vendal when he had adjusted the wires to his satisfaction. "All sorts of things work and all sorts of others don't. As you've seen, the doors do and the gliders don't. And there's plenty of power about if you can work out where to tap it."
"Useful," remarked Leston as the world started to recede at high speed.
Vendal checked the younger man's pulse in a professional manner, then he covered him with a thermal wrap taken from his tackle bag. The water in his dark brown pot started to bump and boil. Vendal tugged the wires of his immersion heater out of the wall and dropped leafy powder into the pot, pinching it out of a glass bottle between finger and thumb.
Fermented and dried, the leaves of the native arcade plants offered an acceptable alternative to Terran teas, and there were beans that could be roasted to form an acceptable coffee substitute.
A woman of about Vendal's age appeared in the room as suddenly as if she had been teleported. She was deeply tanned, a brunette with laughing but secret eyes, and rather better dressed than her husband in a jungle-green one-piece and matching boots.
"I wish you wouldn't creep up on me," sighed Larne Vendal as his heart slowed from the shock of finding himself observed.
"I wanted to see what your latest catch looks like," returned Cassia Vendal, unrepentant.
"Skinny, pale and kept out of shock by the tissue-growth accelerator cocktail." Larne decanted orange liquid into two glass cups.
"He night even be quite handsome when he's awake," said Cassia as she studied Leston's slack features. "Pity you couldn't get him out of the way before the gensters sniffed him out."
"Not much time and a high suspicion threshold."
"Bet they didn't like you cutting him free, either."
Larne shrugged. "I got to him first. Second has no claim."
"Anyway, he's going to be around here for a couple of days?"
"Which means you'll have to make yourself scarce in the morning."
"Look at all this lovely epton root!" crooned Cassia.
"Hands off!" Larne offered her a glass cup. "We don't want our young friend to think he's fallen among thieves."
"He's probably used to their company. I wonder what he's down here for?"
"The old unwritten code. You don't ask him, you just find out from the next lot down. Well, he should be out until this time tomorrow. How's lunch doing?"
"It's been ready for ages," his wife told him with a malicious smile. "I think your charm must be wearing thin."
Chad Leston awoke the following afternoon feeling weak and hollow. There was a faint throbbing above his left eye and his left thigh itched annoyingly. When he reached down to scratch the irritation, his hand met a ragged tear in his trouser leg and a slick, smooth dressing.
Memories flooded in. He had been marooned on Atlantis. He was in a room on the first floor of number four, Seaview Square. He was stuck in Atlantis City. Someone had shot a hole in his leg with a crossbow. And his tanned host was called Larne Vendal.
Sweeping the thermal wrap aside, Leston wriggled until he was sitting up with his back resting against the wall.
"Ah, you're with us again," Vendal remarked. "How's the leg today?"
"The plumbing's through there," added Vendal. "It looks a bit strange but everything does what it looks as though it should. And there's running water, hot and cold. The circulation system seems to have survived here and in a couple of the other buildings. Just touch the square I've painted on it and the door will open for you."
Leston eased himself to his feet cautiously. His injured leg had a tendency to give way if he tried to put too much weight on it, but he could move at a hopping limp.
A hairy, Atlantis-made blanket had been cemented with natural resin to the back of the door to mark its position. As Leston hobbled out of sight, Vendal plugged in his immersion heater to brew a pot of arcade tea.
"I see what you mean about the plumbing," remarked Leston as he returned from the service module.
"Part of the evidence that the original Atlanteans were quite closely humanoid. Along with the size of the doorways, stairs, the height of handrails and sinks, and so on. And my evidence, of course," Vendal added in a throwaway fashion.
"Yours?" invited Leston, picking up the cue as he lowered himself onto one of the very basic chairs.
"I mentioned a key that opens all the doors for me just by thinking? I went swimming once, after a storm. A pretty huge one. The worst I've ever seen. I found the key at the tide-line, along with its owner."
"Its owner!?" burst from Leston.
"What was left of him. Or it. I got our diran complex to scan the skeleton – size and shape of bones, limits of possible relative movements, attachment areas of the muscles and ligaments, and so on. Assuming a human-type skin and muscular development, the diran came up with something very much like you and me. A bit shorter, perhaps, just under two metres, and rather more heavily built. But quite acceptably humanoid if you don't spot the hands and feet are a finger and toe short."
"Assuming your assumptions are valid," Leston pointed out.
"Yes, but given a similar skeleton, they could hardly have looked much different from us. They couldn't have had two heads or three eyes."
"They could have had green skin and been as ugly as a chirotan. And as bald."
"Unlikely," smiled Vendal. "Given the attachment areas and a gravity very similar to Chiltan's, what the diran projected for the features would be fairly accurate. And I'm sure body hair played the same protective role it did in our own development."
"And he or it had the key?"
"A sheet of some ceramic material in a woven metal pouch. A centimetre thick and about the size of your hand. The diran had a key on its list of suggestions about what an alien would carry around with him. Took me weeks to figure out how to use it."
"Smart of you." Leston accepted a cup of arcade tea. "Hello, what's this?"
"Something we all get used to. The Atlantean equivalent of tea."
Leston sipped cautiously. "Not bad. Where's my bag? My stomach thinks my throat's been cut."
"Here it is," said Vendal, swinging the tackle bag onto the mattress. "Unless you'd like to try the native diet? It's quite a bit more filling than concentrates."
Leston shrugged. "Okay, I'll trade you a concentrate meal for one of yours."
"Nothing for nothing," Vendal said with a smile. He slipped into another room and returned with a steaming glass bowl.
Leston dipped into it with his fork and chewed thoughtfully. "Not bad," he admitted. "Tastes of fish."
"Caught this morning. We Atlantis City dwellers tend to be mainly vegetarians. There are plenty of grains and pulses growing wild just outside the city and you can store them for ages. Meat-eating involves catching and butchering live animals. Not the sort of thing everyone cares to do. But we trade dried meat for fish with the gens. Somehow, killing a fish comes easier than a warm-blooded animal."
"You do business with these gens?" Leston asked suspiciously.
"Gens trade and I'm a sort of one-man gen."
"And what's your speciality? Slightly damaged new arrivals?"
"Information. It's all very well having the sum total of human knowledge stored away in the diran complex, but it can be vervoek's own job solving a problem. If you don't know exactly the right questions to ask, you can spend day after day eliminating irrelevant information."
"And you know the right questions to ask?"
"I have a talent for extracting and reducing practical information from a mass of theory," Vendal said modestly. "How's the food?"
"It's a whole lot better than I expected," Leston admitted, digging into the bowl again.
"I'll trade as much native stuff for your concentrates, meal for meal, as you want."
"Sounds like they're a bit of a delicacy here."
"A delicacy!" said Vendal with an unconvincing laugh. He changed the subject with suspicious speed. "How are things back on Chiltan?"
"Doesn't the shuttle squirt your diran an update when it drops visitors off?" said Leston with his mouth full.
"The human angle," Vendal said with a polished smile, which was spoilt only by the gap in upper teeth. "The scandals that don't reach the official records. That sort of thing."
They chatted fairly aimlessly for an Atlantean hour. Leston sensed that the older man's interest was fairly genuine but he couldn't shake off a feeling that he was being sounded out. And there was the business of the concentrates.
Those given to an outcast were intended to keep him (or her) alive until he could become familiar with the native diet. They were balanced, nourishing and about as interesting to eat as vacuum-suit sealing-foam. They were certainly not in the same league as the vegetable and fish mixture that he had enjoyed for lunch.
Perhaps Vendal was going somewhere, Leston decided. On a long journey, on which the weight of his food supply would be significant. But where could he go? The nearest land lay four hundred kilometres distant – several days sailing for a raft. And what could he hope to find on the mainland apart from mutant vegetation and radioactive hot spots?
Even so, no matter how unlikely it, seemed, Vendal was definitely giving the impression of someone planning to go somewhere.
A muffled voice shouting the older man's name ended their conversation. Vendal explained that someone wanted to make use of his expertise with the diran complex. When he had gone, Leston pushed himself to his feet and limped across the room, using the furniture for additional support.
A long window offered a prospect of Seaview Square from first floor level. Beyond the pinkish square with its heel-like depression and a belt of white sand, he could see a small boat cutting across the shimmering blue of the bay, driven by a pure white sail. It was the sort of view that one would expect from a holiday hotel rather than an abandoned alien building on a prison island.
Leston scratched lazily at the dressing on the back of his leg. He was feeling drowsy again. Keeping his eyes open was just not worth the effort. He returned to the mattress and eased himself into a prone position.
The room was in darkness when he woke again. After a few moments, Leston realized that he could see outlines. Meikor Three had a satellite. It was on the small side but the albedo was relatively high. In the Atlantis handbook, it said that one could read by the light of the full moon.
Leston hobbled over to the window again. The moon was low in the sky, hidden from view by the grey bulk of number three, Seaview Square and casting long, dim shadows.
Suddenly, Leston became aware of a voice. It was humming a cheerful tune but there seemed to be an extra rhythmical element involved, as if the man were counting. There was a bright line on the left hand wall. When he investigated, Leston found a door which had not closed completely.
Unable to see a painted square, he ran his hand up and down the smooth surface until the door slid away to his right. Larne Vendal was sitting with his back turned at a trestle table in the other room, stacking concentrated rations into a series of cubes by a portable light unit.
"You look like you've got enough of those to last you a year," observed Leston.
Vandal started guiltily and knocked over a wall of pink capsules. "Ah, you're awake again," he remarked, as if seeking time for thought.
"You're saving those up for something, aren't you?" Leston persisted.
Vendal frowned to himself thoughtfully as Leston dragged a chair up to the table. Then he shrugged. "I suppose there's no harm in telling you. I think I know where the original Atlanteans went. Well, not where exactly. But how they left here."
"I thought that was one of the great unsolved mysteries of the universe?"
"Being here concentrates the mind wonderfully," smiled Vendal. "I've had ten years to chew over what the archaeologists found. And do my own research. Ha!" He released a short bark of laughter. "You should see the inside of six and seven. They're the grey and pink buildings on the western side of the square. I chipped so many holes in the walls tracing the power circuits, it's a wonder the places are still standing. That's how I knew where to tap into the power circuits for my immersion heater. It was from comparing the two that I found out they used the same basic system in all the buildings. The power's the key. To how they left."
"Most people think they went up to orbit by shuttle, and then left on a slowliner," said Leston. "Some people say they're still travelling in suspended animation. At pretty close to light-speed now. And they'll have one bock of a job slowing down if they ever get to a habitable planet."
"They needed a theory and that's the one people can accept," said Vandal smugly, implying that he knew better.
"And what do you think?" Leston offered a stick of epton root to ease along the flow of information.
"Thanks," approved Vendal. "Yes, the power's the key. I think the square outside is a sort of solar converter. Assuming hundred-percent efficiency, there would be up to ten megawatts available at noon on a good day. Of course, in its present damaged condition, it's anybody's guess what the output is. Which explains why the doors work and the gliders don't."
"The door circuits are still intact," nodded Leston. "But what's this to do with where the Atlanteans went?"
"To cut a long story short, I've found a sort of gateway," beamed Vendal. "A set of circuits peculiar to that building."
"A gateway?" repeated Leston with a blank frown.
"A link to somewhere else. Perhaps a bridge to another planet that we haven't run across yet. Perhaps a doorway back into this planet's past. I prefer the former myself. It fits in with the original Atlanteans stripping this place of more or less every single artefact. And it avoids running into paradoxes if they've gone to another part of this time frame."
"Taking everything possible to their new home?"
"And where is this gateway?"
"It's on the ground floor of number seven. Six and seven don't have any power, which is why I was able to do circuit tracing without frying myself."
"If there's no power, how did you find the gateway and what are you collecting the concentrates for? I thought you were off on a boat trip to the mainland."
"Ah, but there is power now," smiled Vendal. "I've done a spot of repair work. The only snag is, I can't keep the gateway open for longer than about fifteen minutes. The circuitry starts to get rather hot where I've made my connections. I'm afraid of melting something if I keep the gateway open longer. Of course, I tapped into the night storage circuits so I could hook everything up during the day without frying myself."
"Have you been through it?" Leston interrupted, leaning closer as if to be sure of catching every word.
"And of course, I did the work during the day so I could see what I was doing." Vendal continued his planned explanation until the question registered. "What? Been through it? For a few minutes only."
"It's quite a pleasant world. Green vegetation, blue sky and a wonderful, fresh smell in the air."
"What about the people, though? The Atlanteans?"
"I didn't see any of them but I was only there for a few minutes. I imagine they've settled elsewhere. That's why I'm collecting up these concentrates. To look for them."
"You think that's going to take a year?"
"Just a safety margin," smiled Vendal. "Until I know I can survive there. In case there's anything in the food that's poisonous to humans. I think that should be more than enough time for the Atlanteans to make it safe for me."
"What makes you so sure they'll go to all that trouble?" scoffed Leston.
"I'll be the most important person on the planet," Vendal told him confidently. "Just think: a visitor from a completely different species, a different culture, arriving by the gateway built by their ancestors. I'll be made for life. Compare that to scratching out a living here."
"Hmmm!" nodded Leston. "I see what you mean."
"They'll have had more than enough time to rebuild a decent level of technology. No gens to take everything off you then sell it back on their terms."
"Hmmm," said Leston thoughtfully as he realized that he had still to face that particular problem himself. "You're not looking for a partner, are you?"
Vendal shrugged. "I haven't really thought about it."
"I was just thinking," Leston said almost casually. "A visitor from another species would be a lot more welcome if he could take along something of his culture. How big is this gateway?"
"Big? About four metres square. Why?"
'Suppose you took a diran reader through. And the memory core?"
"I could never carry all that!" laughed Vendal. "Not with the food."
"Two people could. On a sort of sledge."
"The gens wouldn't like that!" laughed Vendal.
"The gens wouldn't be able to do anything about it. Nobody would. If the gateway overloads after we've used it, we'll be away from here and free of the past. Who's to know if we edit the sections on ourselves in the memory core?"
"You know," Vendal decided, "it's a very attractive idea. And it would be a nice way of stabbing the gens in the back, taking the memory store."
"We'd really be made for life!" enthused Leston.
"Perhaps I do need a partner, after all," Vendal admitted. "Would you like to have a look at the gateway?"
"Yeah, why not? I think the leg can stand a short walk."
Vandal led the way to a set of stairs, using a light unit to guide them along inky corridors. Leston's limp had improved until it was only slightly worse than his host's.
Vendal switched the light off. Leston grew alarmed when he stepped out into the moonlit square. His new partner assured him that it was quite safe to prowl around Atlantis City at night. Most people tended to lead a dawn-to-dusk existence in the absence of a system of electric lights.
The small, bright moon gave them long shadows as they approached the tall building in the middle of the western side of Seaview Square. Leston paused to rest on the ledge to the right of the entrance archway, Vendal continued deeper into the gloomy interior, into the corner.
Leston's eyes began to probe further into the gloom of the hall. The ceiling was at least fifteen metres high. Long, window-shapes of moonlight competed with Vendal's splash of light in the corner.
Then a ghostly square formed, rising from the floor.
Leston could see the interior of the building all around the apparition, but within the bounds of the shimmering, pinkish glow, there was just deepest blackness.
"Night's probably the best time to see this thing anyway," remarked Vendal, his voice echoing faintly.
"Looks very impressive," said Leston.
"Hard to believe it's what it is, though," chuckled Vendal. His light bobbed toward the gateway.
Leston pushed to his feet and limped over to join Vendal.
"Here's proof it's real." Vendal showed his companion a large pebble, which years of sea-scouring had smoothed to a fine polish. "The stone that never came down." He pitched it forward with an underarm sweep.
The pebble flew into pink-rimmed blackness. Leston waited for it to clatter and skitter on the hard floor of the hall. Inky elsewhere swallowed and retained the pebble and returned nothing to reveal its fate.
"Is it night there too?" said Leston.
Vendal shone the light unit on his chronometer and touched a key. "Yes, it's after sunset. Why? Oh, you mean because the gateway's black?"
Leston nodded in the moonlight.
"No, it's always like that. Day or night, it's always hole black. Night's a good time to see wherever it is," Vendal added, almost to himself. "It has three small, very bright moons, their planet. When they're together, you can almost see them racing each other across the sky. And the stars! You've never seen so many!"
"Closer to the heart of the galaxy, maybe?" suggested Leston, limping toward the misty pink and solid black shape.
"I suppose I could take a quick look?" Leston added.
Vendal shrugged. "Yes, if you want. But no more than about five minutes. Remember what I said about my connectors getting hot."
"I'll be back in four." Leston set the alarm of his chronometer.
When he reached what looked like a solid, black wall, he pushed out an exploratory arm. It disappeared – it was swallowed up to the elbow without meeting resistance. Encouraged, Leston stepped right into unrelieved blackness.
Larne Vendal watched the other man disappear. Then, guided by the light unit, he returned to the corner in which the gateway controls were located and touched a panel switch.
The pinkish glow disappeared. Moonlit window shapes reappeared in the hall. There was no point in wasting any more power on the gateway. Chad Leston wasn't coming back. None of the others had.
A soft whistle trilled a partial scale from the archway to the square.
"All right, I won't accuse you of creeping up on me," laughed Vendal.
"I see he's gone," observed Cassia, his wife. "And your conscience remains clear and your hands clean."
"There's a world of difference between killing someone for his tackle bag and giving him a chance to explore a new world and meet the Builders Of The Gateway," laughed Larne.
"You manage to sound like a high priest when you talk about the original Atlanteans."
"And if they bother to investigate his mysterious disappearance," Larne continued, "a spotless conscience and clean hands will keep both of us out of the reconstruction wards."
Arm in arm, they strolled out onto moonlit Seaview Square. A breath of wind was carrying the scent of jamman blossom out to meet the gentle rushing on an incoming tide. Larne Vendal bit the end of a stick of epton root and inhaled fresh euphoria.
He was a confidence trickster by inclination as much as by profession. Circumstances had reduced him to swindling greedy and gullible new arrivals out of their few possessions. But, as that was the only game available, he was content to play it.
"That was a good idea of his," remarked Cassia. "Taking a reader and the diran memory core through."
"Yes, slightly more inventive than some," agreed her husband. "I must remember that. Might come in useful with the next one."
A door opened to a mental command. Larne Vandal switched on his light unit to guide them up a concealed stairway to the first floor. Their apartment glowed with soft light, which oozed out of the walls. The furnishings were rough and ready by Chiltan standards, but luxurious compared to the norm on Atlantis.
In her more poetic moments, Cassia Vendal likened her husband to a large, ginger spider, who lay in wait for innocent new arrivals. They were not married officially, of course, but their monogamous relationship was one that suited them.
‘Suit yourself as long as you don't trespass on gen preserves' was the way of life on Atlantis. New arrivals were a grey area. Larne Vendal picked up only the singles who ventured into his buildings – numbers four and five, Seaview Square. His was a small drain on the gens' resources but his expertise with the diran complex was useful to them. They could live with his small predations. And the new arrivals added spice to Vendal's otherwise dull Exile.
Next time the shuttle arrived to drop off Chiltan undesirables, update the diran and run an electronic census of the population of Atlantis, the count would come out at least one short. But everyone on Atlantis was a reject and the odd lost reject was hardly worth the trouble of an investigation. But if the shuttle captain did happen to feel like obeying the letter of regulations, Larne Vendal had a beautifully clear conscience.
The last time he had seen Chad Leston, the new arrival had been alive and well, moving under his own steam and following his own free will. Vendal could not be blamed if Leston had disappeared off somewhere, nobly leaving his survival, kit behind for the benefit of others. ■