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Jack McDevitt

THE ENGINES OF GOD

In the streets of Hau-kai, we wait. Night comes, winter descends. The lights of the world grow cold. And, in this three-hundredth year From the ascendancy of Bilat, He will come who treads the dawn, Tramples the sun beneath his feet. And judges the souls of men. He will stride across the rooftops. And he will fire the engines of God.

— Uranic Book of Prayer (Quraqua) (Translated by Margaret Tufu)

PROLOGUE

lapetus. Sunday, February 12, 2197; 0845 GMT.

The thing was carved of ice and rock. It stood serenely on that bleak, snow-covered plain, a nightmare figure of gently curving claws, surreal eyes, and lean fluidity. The lips were parted, rounded, almost sexual. Priscilla Hutchins wasn't sure why it was so disquieting. It was more than the carnivorous aspect of the creature, the long slow menace of talons, the moonlight stealth of the lower limbs. It was more even than the vaguely aggressive stance, or the position of the figure in the center of an otherwise lifeless plain beneath the October light of Saturn's rings.

Rather, it seemed to flow from its interest in the ringed world which was forever frozen above a tract of low hills and ridges in the west. Stamped on its icy features was an expression she could only have described as philosophical ferocity.

'I keep coming back.' Richard's voice echoed in her earphones. It was filled with emotion. 'Of all the Monuments, this was the first, and it is the centerpiece.'

They stood on a ramp, designed to preserve the tracks of the original expedition. Here was where Terri Case had stood; and there, Cathie Chung. The heavy bootprints circling the figure, up close, those belonged to Steinitz himself. (She knew because she'd seen the ancient video records countless times, had watched the astronauts clumping about in their awkward pressure suits.)

She smiled at the memory, pushing her hands down into her pockets, watching Richard Wald in his rumpled gray jeans and white sweater, his Irish country hat pressed down on his head. (It didn't quite fit within the bubble of articulated energy that provided breathing space.) He was slightly out of focus, difficult to see, within the Flickinger field. Much as he was in ordinary life. Richard was one of the great names in archeology. He would be remembered as long as people were interested in where they'd come from, as long as they continued to send out explorers. Yet here he stood, as awed as she, momentarily a child, in the presence of this thing. Around them, the silence and the desolation crashed down.

Hutchins, on first glance, might have been one of those diminutive women with finely chiseled features and a beguiling smile who seemed more akin to the drawing room than to a bleak moonscape. Her eyes were dark and good-humored, and an initial impression might suggest that they reflected empty conviviality. But they were capable of igniting.

Her black hair was cut short. It peeked out from beneath a broad-brimmed safari hat. Everyone who knew her believed that it was her slight stature that had fueled her various ambitions; that she had chased men, and professional success, and eventually the stars, all out of the same drive to compensate. She knew it wasn't true, or believed it wasn't. The reality was far simpler, but not the sort of thing she would tell anyone: her father had taken her to Luna when she was eight, and she had felt the full force of the enormous age of the place. It had occupied her dreams and overwhelmed her waking hours. It had driven a sense of her own transience into her soul. Live while you can, indulge your passions. Make it count. The ancient storm stirred again while she looked into the frozen emotions of the ice creature. And recognized them.

Richard Wald folded his arms and pressed them against his sweater, as if, inside his energy envelope, he was cold. He was tall, and embodied the kind of self-conscious dignity one finds in those who have achieved a degree of fame and never quite come to terms with it.

Despite his sixty years, Richard was a man of remarkable vitality. And exuberance. He was known to like a good drink, and a good party; and he loved the company of women. He was careful, however, to maintain a purely professional demeanor with Hutchins, his pilot. There was something of the Old Testament prophet in his appearance. He had a thick silver mane and mustache, high cheekbones, and a preemptive blue gaze. But the stem appearance was a facade. He was, in Hutchins' amused view, a pussycat.

He had been here before. This was, in a sense, where he had been born.

This was the First Monument, the unlikely pseudo-contact that had alerted the human race two hundred years ago to the fact they were not alone. Explorers had found thirteen others, of varying design, among the stars. Richard believed there were several thousand more,

The Great Monuments were his overriding passion. Their images decorated the walls of his home in Maine: a cloudy pyramid orbiting a rocky world off blue-white Sinus, a black cluster of crystal spheres and cones mounted in a snowfield near the south pole of lifeless Amis V, a transparent wedge orbiting Arcturus. (Hutchins' throat mike was a cunningly executed reproduction of the Arcturian Wedge.) Most spectacular among the relics was an object that resembled a circular pavilion complete with columns and steps, cut from the side of a mountain on a misshapen asteroid in the Procyon system. ('It looked,' Richard had told her, 'as if it were awaiting the arrival of the orchestra.') Hutchins had only seen the pictures, had not yet visited these magic places. But the was going. She would stand one day in their presence, and she would feel the hand of their creators as she did here, Itwould have been difficult to do on her own; there were many pilots and few missions. But Richard had recognized a kindred spirit. He wanted her to see the Monuments, because in her reactions he could relive his own. Besides, she was damned good.

Of all the artifacts, only the lapetus figure could be interpreted as a self-portrait. The wings were half-folded. The creature'S taloned hands, each with six digits, reached toward Saturn. Clearly female, it looked past Richard, arms open, legs braced, weight slightly forward. It was almost erotic. Its blind eyes stared across the plain. It was set on a block of ice about a third its own height. Three lines of sharp, white symbols were stenciled within the ice. To Hutchins' mind, the script possessed an Arabic delicacy and elegance. It was characterized by loops and crescents and curves. And, as the sun moved across the sky, the symbols embraced the light, and came alive. No one knew what the inscription meant. The base was half again as wide as Hutchins with arms out-spread. The creature itself was three and a half meters high, That it was a self-portrait was known because the Steinitz expedition had found on the plain prints that matched the creatures's feet.

The ramp was designed to allow visitors to get close enough to touch the artifact without disturbing anything. Richard stood thoughtfully before it. He pressed Jus fingertips against the base, nodded, and unhooked a lamp from his belt He switched it on and played it across the inscription. The symbols brightened, lengthened, shifted.

'Nice effect,' Hutchins said.

Each of the Monuments had an inscription. But no two seemed to be derived from the same writing system. Theory held that the objects were indeed monuments, but that they had been constructed during different epochs.

Hutchins stared into its blind eyes. 'Kilroy was here,' she said.

She knew that all the Monuments were believed to date to a five-thousand-year period ending roughly at 19,000 B.C. This was thought to be one of the earlier figures. 'I wonder why they stopped,' she said.

Richard looked up at the stars. 'Who knows? Five thousand years is a long time. Maybe they got bored.' He came over and stood by her. 'Cultures change. We can't expect them to do it forever.'

The unspoken question: Did they still exist?

What a pity we missed them. Everyone who came here shared the same reaction. So close. A few millennia, a bare whisper of cosmic time.

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