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Code of the Lifemaker
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"Number two searchlight emplacement hit!" a voice shouted over the radio. "No casualties."

"Near miss on Yellow Sector. We’ve got equipment burning from splashes of incendiary."

Another ball landed just in front of the assembled reception party, which broke ranks and fell back toward the lander in alarm. "That one almost got the ship!" a voice yelled.

"Colonel Wallis, engage with maximum force in the approach zone," Giraud ordered.

"All forward units, fire for effect! Launch gunships and engage enemy below point three-seven hundred!"

#

Thirg whirled to look behind as a thundering roar erupted suddenly from below the rise, mixed with a hail of chattering, loud swishing sounds, and deafening concussions. More roars came from overhead. He looked up. Two of the small dragons were climbing; then violet-flaming darts streaked down and out of view, and an instant later more concussions from beyond the rise jarred his ears. He had never in his life experience anything like this. His senses reeled. He sat frozen, his body and his mind paralyzed by terror.

And then all was quiet. He looked around fearfully. Dornvald and Geynor were sitting petrified where they had been before the thunder. Farther back, Fenyig and the rear-guard were motionless, staring back down the rise. They seemed bewildered. Thirg looked at Dornvald. Dornvald shook his head uncomprehendingly, and after a few more seconds called back, "What terrifies you so, Fenyig? What has happened?"

At first Thirg thought Fenyig hadn’t heard. Then Fenyig turned his head slowly, raised an arm to point back the way they had come, and answered in an unsteady voice, "The King’s soldiers have been destroyed, Dornvald. . . . Everyone of the soldiers is destroyed--torn to pieces and smitten by dragon fire . . . in a moment."

"A storm of lighting bolts!" another, just before Fenyig, choked hoarsely. "We saw it. The whole of the King’s army would have fared no better, nor even twelve-twelves of armies." He looked at Thirg. "What league have you entered into, Sorcerer?"

The servants who had retreated to the dragon for protection were advancing again, and the stunned outlaws were slowly returning to life. More servants were appearing from the concealment on the slopes above--there were more of them than Thirg had realized. Although still shaken, he was beginning to feel that the worst was over, as if they had passed a kind of test. For he had seen the awesome anger of the dragon, and the dragon had spared them. Perhaps then, only those foolish enough to provoke its anger had reason to fear it, Thirg thought. He looked at it again. Still it stood watching calmly, as if nothing had happened. Had disposing of a whole company of King’s soldiers really been so effortless and insignificant as that?

The other outlaws seemed to be arriving at similar conclusions. Dornvald had dismounted and was cautiously leading his mount toward the central group of servants, and Geynor was following suit a few yards behind. The servants seemed to be encouraging them with arm motions and gestures. Thirg noticed a movement just to one side and turned his head with a start to find a servant standing close below, with another watching from nearby. A feeling of revulsion swept over him as he glimpsed the window-face of the head that was not a head—a deformed parody of a face, molded into a formless mass that writhed and quivered like the jelly in a craftsman’s culture vat. Luminous jelly held together by flexible casing! Had the Dragon King made its servants thus as a punishment? Thirg hoped that his thoughts and feelings didn’t show.

Zambendorf gazed up incredulously at the silver-gray colossus staring down at him from its incongruous seat. It had two oval matrixes that suggested compound eyes shaded by complicated delicate, extendable metal vanes, a pair of protruding concave surfaces the were probably soundwave collectors, and more openings and louvers about its lower face, possibly inlet/outlet ducts for coolant gas. It had nothing comparable to a mouth, but the region below its head which was supported by a neck of multiple, sliding, overlapping joints, was recessed and contained an array of flaps and covers. The robot was wearing a brown tunic of coarse material woven from what appeared to be wire, a heavy belt of black metallic braid, boots of what looked like rubberized canvas, and a voluminous dull red riding cloak made up of thousands of interlocking, rigid platelets. Its hands consisted of three fingers and an opposing thumb, all formed from multi-segmented concave laws connected by ball joints at the finger-bases and wrists. A smaller machine, suggesting in every way a ridiculous mechanical dog, stayed well back, keeping the steed between itself and the humans.

What kind of brain the creature contained, Zambendorf didn’t know, but he felt it had a to be something beyond any technology even remotely imaginable on Earth. And yet, paradoxically, the culture of the Taloids showed every appearance of being backward by Earth standards--medieval, in fact. And everything that Zambendorf saw now confirmed that conclusion. So what would a medieval mind have made of the army’s recent performance? He examined the robot’s face for a hint of bemusement of terror, but saw nothing he could interpret. The face seemed incapable of expression.

"I still don’t believe this, Karl," Abaquaan’s voice whispered in his helmet, for once sounding genuinely stupefied. "Why kind of machines are they? Where could they have come from?"

Still awestruck, Zambendorf moved a pace forward. "It seems to want to say something," he murmured distantly without taking his eyes off the robot. "But it makes no move. Does it fear us, Otto?"

"Wouldn’t you, after what just happened to that other bunch?" Abaquaan said, beginning to sound more normal.

To one side, in an attempt to convey reassurance, Charles Giraud and Konrad Seltzeman, a linguist, were gesticulating at two robots who had dismounted, but without much apparent success. Maybe the robots hadn’t realized that they were safe from their pursuers--some of them kept looking back, as if they still thought they were likely to be attacked. Zambendorf thought he could do something about that. He operated the channel selector on his wristset to display the view from over the rise being picked up by an image intensifying camera in the army’s forward observation post, and raised his arm so that the robot could see the screen. The robot looked at his arm for a second or two, move its head to glance at his face, and then studied his arm again. Zambendorf pointed to the wristset with his other hand.

Why did the servant wear a small vegetable on his arm, and why was he showing it? Thirg wondered. Perhaps it was an indication of rank or status. No, that wasn’t it; the servant wanted him to look at it. He looked. Shapes were visible in the square of violet light, faint and difficult to distinguish in the glare. Thirg adjusted his vision to the nearest he could manage to dragon light and stared for a while before he realize what he was seeing. It was a view looking over the open ground they had crossed back beyond the rise. Piles of debris were scattered here and there and lots of buckled and twisted machine parts spread over a wide area, with violet glows and obscuring patches of smoke hanging above. . . . And then Thirg gasped as he realized what it meant. Now he understood what devastating powers Fenyig had been trying to describe. In those few brief seconds . . . and there was nothing left. Then it came to Thirg slowly that the servant was trying to show how the dragon had helped them.

But what from of magic vegetable was this, that could see through a hillside? Thirg looked at the servant, and then turned his head several times to look back at the rise, just to be sure he was not mistaken. Zambendorf felt a surge of elation. Something that they both recognized as having meaning had passed between him and the robot. "It understands!" he said excitedly. "Rudimentary, but it’s communication! It’s a beginning, Otto!"

"Are you sure?"

"I showed it the scene from over the hill. It understood. It’s trying to ask me to confirm that it’s seeing what it things it’s seeing."

Abaquaan motioned for the robot to climb down from its mount, and after a few seconds of hesitation it complied. Then it gestured at Zambendorf’s wristset some more, and held up a hand and began pointing at it repeatedly first from the front and then from the back, and in between pointing back at the rise. "It can’t make it out," Abaquaan said. "It cant’ figure how the picture could be coming through solid ground from behind the hill."

The robot was mystified and curious. Suddenly much about it seemed less strange. Zambendorf could feel himself warming toward it already. "I’m sorry, but how could I even begin to explain the technology, my friend?" he said. "For now, I’m afraid, you’ll just have to accept it as magic."

"Try getting the idea of a camera across," Abaquaan suggested. "At least it would say we’re not actually seeing through the hill from here."

"Mmm... maybe." Zambendorf switched the wristset to another channel, this time showing a view of the lander and its immediate surroundings from the drone hovering above the landing site.

It took Thirg a while to comprehend that he was looking down on the Dragon King now. Then it came to him with a jolt that the dots to one side of the dragon were the dragon-servants and robeings around him; in fact one of them was himself! He looked at the servant and pointed down at the ground, then up at the sky. The servant confirmed by mimicking him. Thirg tilted his head back to peer upward, and after searching for a few seconds made out a pinpoint of violet light hanging high overhead. Could the servant’s magic vegetable see through the eyes of the flying dragons? But that meant the a mere servant who possessed such a vegetable could send his eyes anywhere in the world and see all that happened without moving from one place. If the dragon bestowed such powers upon its servants, what unimaginable abilities did it posses itself?

Zambendorf could sense the robot’s awe as it finally made out what the screen was showing. He switched from the drone’s telescopic channel to a lower resolution, wide-angle view. The screen now displayed a much broader area of terrain, with the lander barely discernible as a speck in the center. After more pointing and gesticulating, the robot seemed to get the idea. Zambendorf switched to a high-altitude reconnaissance flyer circling just below the aerosol layer, whose cameras covered several hundred miles of the surrounding desert and a large tract of the mountainous region beyond its edge. Then the robot started making excited gestures, pointing upward again with its arms extended as far as it would stretch. "High! Higher!" It was important. The robot seemed to be going frantic.

Zambendorf frowned and turned his head inside his helmet to look at Abaquaan. Abaquaan returned a puzzled look and shrugged. Zambendorf stared at the robot, tilted himself back ponderously to follow its pointing finger upward for a few seconds, and then looked at its face again. Then, suddenly, he understood. "Of course!" he exclaimed, and changed bands to connect the wristset through to an image being picked up from orbit by the Orion and sent down in the trunk beam to the surface lander via a relay satellite.

Giraud and the others had noticed what was going on and were gathering round to watch curiously. "What’s happening with this guy?" one of the group asked.

"What lies beyond the clouds has always been a mystery to its race," Zambendorf replied. "It’s asking me if that is where we come from, and whether we can tell it what’s out there and what kind of world it lives on. They’ve never even seen the sky, don’t forget, let alone been able to observe the motions of stars and planets."

"You mean you could get all that from just a few gestures?" Konrad Seltzeman sounded incredulous.

"Of course not," Zambendorf replied airily. "I have no need of such crude methods."

But beside them, Thirg had almost forgotten for the moment that the dragon-servants existed as he stood staring without moving. For he was seeing his world for the first time as it looked from beyond the sky.

It was a sphere.

And behind it, scattered across distances he had no way of estimating, were more shining worlds than he knew even how to count.

 
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