Click on image to enlarge.
by Poul Anderson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Bloch
Category: Science Fiction/Fantasy
Description: Poul Anderson, Murray Leinster, Robert Bloch, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Sheckley pool their talents in a classic round-robin novella that stretches humanity almost to the breaking point on the wrack of Time and Space. Humanity was falling before the onslaught of the Cloud People, soon the last remains would be wiped out. So they sent Ban to the Prophetess for an oracle. "What you must overcome is Time itself," she told him and sent him off accompanied only by the youngest of her handmaidens. But as he approached the realm of the Cloud People, Ban was horror stricken to see his weapons disintegrate into rust and find himself withering and about to die of old age! Here, from the July 1960 issue of the legendary pulp Fantastic, is a rare pyrotechnic display of sf writing skills and Styles. More than a great story, it is a revelation into how the minds of the writers tick. Poul Anderson, creating his bravura characters and situations; Isaac Asimov, grounding the conflict in a framework of theory-in-action; then Bob Sheckley ripping the fabric by going to the ends of the galaxy for complications; penultimately, Murray Leinster beginning the fusion of story strands with ideational adeptness; and finally Bob Bloch taking the wildly disheveled story and tying it up in a brilliant job of plot-resolution, down to the patly ironic last sentence.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner Editions,
eBookwise Release Date: May 2008
21 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [73 KB]
Reading time: 42-60 min.
INTRODUCTION TO THE ORIGINAL MAGAZINE APPEARANCE OF "THE COVENANT"
WE'RE rather proud of the literary relay race that features this issue. A "round-robin" story-in which different authors write different parts of the same plot-is not an original idea. It has been done before; but not for a long, long time. And not, we think, with the wizardry of our five writers.
In planning this event, we tried to choose five top s-f authors whose styles both of plotting and of writing are widely, different. Then we commissioned artist Leo Summers to design a cover that had no seeming connection with anything. Then we tossed the over to our writers and sounded the starting gun.
The result is more than an exciting and original story. It is a revelation into the way the minds of the writers tick. Poul Anderson, creating his bravura characters and situations; Isaac Asimov, grounding the conflict in a framework of theory-in-action; then Bob Sheckley ripping the fabric by going to the ends of the galaxy for complications; penultimately, Murray Leinster beginning the fusion of story strands with ideational adeptness; and finally Bob Bloch taking the wildly disheveled story and tying it up in a brilliant job of plot-resolution, down to the patly ironic last sentence.
This is more than a great story. It is a lesson-in-action in both the craft of science-fiction writing, and in the individual approaches to the field which make it the live and lively one it is. * * * *
PART ONE POUL ANDERSON
"TIME," she said.
Ban stirred, uneasy in this dim and rustling air. From outside, he would not have thought The Oracles wide enough to hold as many rooms as now appeared to stretch, doorway beyond arched doorway, further than he could see. Or was this a single great many-vaulted chamber? He didn't know. It was too dark to tell. Too many wings moved under the invisible ceiling. He wondered where the light came from, what little there was of it.
"I beg your pardon, prophetess?" His voice sounded strange in the bones of his head. "I don't quite understand."
"It is as well," said the one who sat across the black table. Her face was not veiled, and he should have been able to see what she looked like. But somehow he had only a blurred impression--eyes which caught more light than they should, so that they became blind luminous ellipses--perhaps, he guessed confusedly, more than somewhat afraid, it was because he could not stop watching her hands. They lay palms down on the table, relaxed, but with strength in every line. They had less taper than a woman's hands commonly do, but he thought he had never seen any so beautiful.
"If you understood," she said, "you might not dare to act."
That touched his pride. He sat up straight, clenching his gun, and answered: "Prophetess, the Cloud-People killed friends of mine. Also, I am the son of the Warden--I have duties--" He faltered beneath her gaze. Something scuttered across the dusky stone floor. Pompousness drained from him. Almost wryly, he finished, "If the Cloud-People take the City itself, what Wardenship will there be for me to succeed to?"
Did she nod? "Yes," her low tones replied, "there will be nothing then but the Heaths ... a few lonely huts where men huddle and mutter, forgetting they ever raised a City." After a pause: "Time is the strength of the Cloud-People, even as Space is the strength of man. What you must overcome is Time itself."
Ban sat in twilight, and the rustlings and whisperings seemed to go around and around his head, but he could only see the hands of the prophetess. He fumbled for comprehension: "A man may walk or ride or fly in Space from here to there--but no man can swim Time's river. Unless you--What is an Oracle? One who has mastered Time, ever so little perhaps, but not altogether helpless before it?"
She made no answer. "Forgive me," he said. "I am surely wrong. I didn't mean you were merely human, prophetess."
"'There was an age once, which may come again if the last men flee out onto the Heaths, when lightning destroyed where it would," she told him. "Now, a hundred times a year, the highest towers of the City are crowned with lightning, and unhurt. That is one force which men have come to understand a little; and so they are not its pawns. There are others. Once, it may be, there were many others. But the world is very old, and much has been forgotten."
Then the silence lengthened so unendurably that he got the courage, or the desperation, to remind her: "Prophetess, I came to ask on behalf of the City--of all mankind, maybe--how the Cloud-People can be overcome. For none of our weapons has served. You have not replied to my question."
"Not yet," she said. "Not ever, in full. For there is no destiny. Time is not a single river, sweeping from the birth of the stars to their last cinders. It is more akin to a huge many-branched delta."
She sighed. "Armies have been broken. So by now, Captain Ban, you should know the uselessness of armies. One man alone, though--"
Her words were like fingers closing on his heart. But he found the strength to say, "Myself."
"I can tell you nothing." The shakiness in her voice was the most unnerving thing of all. "I can promise you nothing. I can only say, go secretly and alone to the island. Remember that Time is the strength of the Cloud-People, but Space is the strength of man, and remember that in the end Time and Space are the same. More than that, I cannot say. It is too dark."
The beautiful hands rose to cover the face he had never quite seen. "It has always been too dark," she screamed. "Go!"
Ban rose. He didn't even stop to make obeisance. He almost ran, stumbling over his feet and his gun. For a moment the room echoed with his noise, then he lost awareness of the echoes because his own heartbeat grew so loud. * * * *
When he emerged on the terrace--never quite sure how he had done so--it was like waking from a nightmare. He spent awhile simply leaning on the rail, breathing hard. Piece by piece, he began to recognize familiarity. He looked a thousand sheer feet down the black side of The Oracles to an incongruous park where clipped trees and formal flowerbeds made star patterns. Several other towers were visible, though even at this height the City stretched too wide to be encompassed in a glance. He saw the colonnaded tiers of Alpha, graceful against a deep blue late-afternoon sky; the startling red slimness of The Needle; the shifting polychrome which rescued the massive facade of Arsenal from monotony. The sun was low, striking long rays between those walls, flaming off windows and making parks, forests, gardens, crop fields glow an impossibly intense green. Here and there the light flashed off wings, bird or human. And far on the eastern edge of the world lay a blinding silvery gleam of sea.
It was quiet up here. A breeze ruffled Ban's sweat dampened yellow hair. He shivered, drawing the tunic closer about his big young body. From somewhere, freakishly borne across a mile or two, he heard faint merry strains of music. Hard to believe that anyone could dance to a ballad while the Cloud-People laired on this same planet. But he had done it himself, a few days ago. (Only days? It felt like centuries, now.) Life persisted unto the final destruction, and life was not a single thread. It was war and defeat and misery, yes, but it was also eating and sleeping and lovemaking and playing games to pass idle hours and looking at the stars with wonder and disputing with your blacksmith neighbor whose shop got too noisy and--
Urmuz came from behind one of the weeping willows which, with stone seats and an intricately playing fountain, ornamented this terrace. He looked out of place here, his great frame squat and hairy in a black tunic, his face battered beneath a military helmet. "What did she say, sir?" he rumbled. "Any help at all?"
Ban blinked, stared around him, clasped his gun as if to draw strength from iron. He felt dimly surprised, through all the turmoil within him, that he should reply with coolness, "I don't know. I did get some advice. But who ever heard of an Oracle making a straight answer?"
Urmuz spat. "Old Mother Grotta, on the twelfth floor, she'll speak plain. I told you not to monkey around with these here upper-level seeresses. Let's go find Mother Grotta right now."
Ban actually chuckled. "I don't need homely common sense, Urmuz, or a fake love philter--"
"Dammit, captain, her love philtres work! I know!"
"The situation has gone beyond that." Ban's smile vanished, though his lips remained tense. "I suppose it was always beyond that, though we realized too late what the coming of the Cloud-People meant."
"What good are these upper-level prophetesses?" persisted Urmuz. "They're frauds, captain, that's what they are. Their words're so bloody vague that after things've happened, they can always claim that's what they meant. Me, I'll waste my money on blondes and booze."
"Be quiet!" Ban yelled. "What do you know about it, you mud-brained sub-level mechanic? Go back to school and learn about the prediction paradox, at least, before you start quacking--" He saw the ugly face stricken, and knew he was only venting his own fear. Urmuz had stood with him in the last battle when others fled and the Cloud-People laughed unseen. Urmuz had guided his first baby footsteps, and taught him to handle a gun, and carried him home from youthful nights when they drank down stars and moon and sang the sun awake ... "I'm sorry," said Ban. "Nerves."
"Nothing to be sorry about, captain," said Urmuz. "Part of my job, being cussed out. Well, so what did she tell us to do?"
Ban looked away. "I have to do it alone," he said. "Secretly."
Another emerged from the willows. She was as young as he, and her light white robe did not much hide her fullness and suppleness. The loose hair streaming down her back was the color of a sunset after storm, and her eyes were great and gray in a sweetly shaped face. "Ban," she said, making his name beautiful to him. "Captain Ban--"
"Yes?" He turned with eagerness to watch her, thinking that he would probably not have many more hours to watch anything at all.
She stopped before him, flushing, and they stood a while in mutual awkwardness.
Finally she sighed. "May you reveal what the prophetess told you?" she asked.
Ban shook his head. "Best I don't."
"He has to go somewhere secret," blurted Urmuz. "Why don't you wait here, captain, and I'll get our kit and we can start right out?"
"At once?" breathed the girl.
"I think so," said Ban. "No way to tell when the Cloud-People will attack next, but it will be soon--and that next attack will bring them to the edge of the City."
She looked seaward and shivered. "Mists out there," she said, "and cold, and thin singing. Is that how it will be?"
"If we don't stop them," he said. "Yes, I'd better leave at once."
Before I become so afraid I can't leave at all, he thought.
"I'll get our kit, sir," repeated Urmuz.
"You stay here," said Ban.
All at once Ban had no strength left to argue. "Very well," he said. "Go fetch the stuff, then, and come back here."
"Yes, sir!" Urmuz snapped a salute.
"Don't tell anyone," said Ban. "Not even my father."
"No, sir. Of course not."
Urmuz touched the flight stud on his brass belt. The wings unfolded from the flat pack under his tunic, catching the light in a gauzy metallic shimmer. The noise of his takeoff resounded loudly among the willows.
When he was out of sight, Ban took the girl's hands. She tried to withdraw them. "Please," she whispered. "Don't. I am her attendant--"
"And someday you'll be her successor," he said bitterly, not letting go. "Oh, yes. But still, if the Covenant allowed me to come up here, again and again, and allowed you to sit by me and talk in the moonlight, surely I can touch you when I say good-bye!"
She gulped and stopped pulling. Her head drooped.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"I haven't any," she said in a hurt, uncertain tone. "You know that."
"You must have had one once, before your mother gave you to the prophetess. What was it?"
"Please," she begged again.
He released her. One hand smacked against his bare thigh, the other clamped on his gun. "All right," he said harshly. "As you will. Goodbye."
"You aren't--your man won't be back till--"
"I sent him off to get rid of him," said Ban. "Someone has to go, and alone ... she told me. It may as well be myself."
"No!" she cried. "Someone else, Ban!"
"I am the Warden's son," he declared, "and you won't tell me your name. So good-bye."
He opened his wings with a savage blow on the belt control, and whipped off the terrace while her mouth was still parting to speak.