Prologue It was purple. It stood taller than any ordinary man, and its muscles had been pumped up to obscene dimensions by long dedication to that brutal form of exercise known as pumping iron. Its hair was heaped up upon its head in a monstrous topknot, for that hair had been uncut through all the days of its life. It wore long, flowing robes of a purple which matched its skin, and as it entered the dim-dark of the laboratory it looked for all the world like a High Priest of one of the Wild Tribes entering upon the bloodstained gloom of some obscure temple of torture.
Chapter One - so burning down from out of the sun, burning down from out of the blind brightness, the singlefighter struck, and the hapless foe screamed in pain across the Openband, and wrecked went down in flaming agony. As the enemy fighter fell, Lupus Lon Oliver sent his own craft plunging down the gravity well. Down from the sky he came, his singlefighter hurtling down, low and lower, so low that the warning klaxons shrilled and screamed: "Pull up! Pull up!"
Chapter Two The man died, and every death amongst the Frangoni brought the people down from the Frangoni rock to the waters of the Yamoda River. So it was that Asodo Hatch came to the riverside with his family, or at least with that part of it which remained in Dalar ken Halvar. His living children numbered three, and all were daughters, but two of those daughters - Shalamith and Yelada - had left Parengarenga to make new lives for themselves as wives of men who belonged to the Frangoni community of the far-distant Ebrell Islands.
Chapter Three Again the burning sun, again the downstrike, again the wrenching turn, again the searing explosion, again the downfall of the enemy. Lupus Lon Oliver had done this for what seemed like a lifetime, pitting himself against machine-generated enemies time and time again. But what good would any of this training do him? None, if he failed against Hatch. And he could still fail, he knew it. He could fail, wasting a lifetime's chance, the unexpected opportunity of a lifetime.
Chapter Four And so his father died, expiring on the sands in the Season, but Hatch was not going to die likewise, no, he refused that death, though everyone knows the son may follow when the father dies. At least when the father dies in that manner. But no, he would not, not now! Now the singlefighter was singing, now Hatch had his enemy in his sights, now he fired.
Chapter Five It was mid-morning when Hatch exited from the lockway. Polk the Cash, the noseless moneylender who had lately assumed such a dominant place in his life, should have been there to greet him, but was not, which irritated Hatch intensely. In these days of tension, irritation was becoming Hatch's dominant operating mode. Which was understandable. He was desperately busy, and right now he wanted to make a deal with Polk, to hurry himself to House Jodorunda, then push on to Temple Isherzan to keep his appointment with the High Priest.
Chapter Six If one is of the Frangoni - and Hatch was of the Frangoni - then the Elephant Coast is ever one's home, regardless of where one was born. But five generations previously, the people of the Elephant Coast had met defeat in a perishing war which they were as yet far from forgetting, and the burden of that defeat was that the kings of the south paid tribute to Plandruk Qinplaqus, the mindmastering wizard of Ebber whom they acknowledged as emperor, and some of the Frangoni dwelt yet in servitude in Dalar ken Halvar.
Chapter Seven With his audience with the High Priest Sesno Felvus satisfactorily concluded, but with some residual anger still remaining from his confrontation with Son'sholoma Gezira, the Frangoni warrior Asodo Hatch descended from the Frangoni rock. He made his way down Cap Uba toward Zambuk Street, the arrowline west-east avenue which ran from the Dead Mouth to the Yamoda, thus dividing the northern commercial area of Actus Dorum from the southern slumlands of Spara Slank.
Chapter Eight Lupus Lon Oliver saluted Asodo Hatch when that Frangoni warrior ventured from the shelter of House Jodorunda; and Hatch for a moment was positively glad to see this enemy of his, so tense had been the confrontation with Oboro Bakendra.
Chapter Nine In Dalar ken Halvar's wormlight dark, the Frangoni warrior Asodo Hatch made his way homeward, journeying through the familiar dooms of night to House Takabaga, his home atop the Frangoni rock.
Chapter Ten At dawn on the Day of Four Fishes, just four days short of Dog Day, Hatch shook himself awake from beggar-rag dreams of buttercup blood and dragon-bone, of slunk-oil wine and hard-clay feasting, and was soon on his way to the Combat College.
Chapter Eleven So it was morning, and a morning unlike any other Hatch had ever known. First rose the ferocious white spark of an intolerably bright sun, a sun so fierce that Asodo Hatch and Lupus Lon Oliver had to shield their eyes against the blistering light. Then up from the sea there slowly lumbered a huge and swollen sun of torrid red, at which the brightwhite star snapped out of existence - a phenomenon Hatch found to be inexplicable unless that superlit luminary be presumed to be artificial.
Chapter Twelve Hatch made his way through the cream-colored corridors to the cafeteria, where he heaped a platter high with baked fish, baked apples, roast onions, roast carrots, boiled broadbeans and broccoli. The cold of the Combat College always incited his appetite, and after a long spell in the illusion tanks he always felt hungrier yet.
Chapter Thirteen On leaving Shona, Hatch did not go to his own home, but headed instead to the elegant house known as Pan Lay, the house which was the home of the Lady Iro Murasaki. If his murder was on the agenda, then he would surely be safer at Pan Lay; and, besides, he was in a mood to see the lady.
Chapter Fourteen On the heights of the minor mountain of Cap Ogo Blotch, the northernmost of the great rocks of Dalar ken Halvar, stood a building of whitewashed stone. That building of whitewashed stone was the palace of Na Sashimoko, that Shrine of Thrones (or, in the mouths of some, that Shrine of Shrines) from which the Silver Emperor ruled the City of Sun and the realms of Parengarenga.
Chapter Fifteen Fears for his own safety had earlier kept Asodo Hatch away from his own house. For, after all, Dog Java had made a determined effort to kill him, which suggested he might be the target of a conspiracy of murder. And murderers in search of Asodo Hatch would surely and logically look for him under his own roof.
Chapter Sixteen So it came to pass that, early on the night of the Day of Three Fishes, just three days short of Dog Day, Asodo Hatch was woken from sleep to find Dalar ken Halvar in disorder and Scorpio Fax sprawled full-length on the floor of House Takabaga.
Chapter Seventeen On entering the Combat College, Asodo Hatch naturally headed for Forum Three, for that lecture theater was where Paraban Senk habitually dealt with matters of communal discipline or communal crisis.
Chapter Eighteen There was no big mystery about the presence of Manfred Gan Oliver. Guests were allowed to enter the Combat College to observe the gladiatorial combat of those who were fighting for the instructorship. Lupus Lon Oliver had earlier given Paraban Senk a list of his guests, and so, when Senk had despatched messengers to summon Lupus and Hatch for combat, Senk had sent messengers likewise to summon the invited guests.
Chapter Nineteen Hastening from Forum Three, Hatch took himself off to the Combat College's cure-all clinic, and was shortly bending over the patched-up body of Scorpio Fax, and endeavoring to rouse Fax to wakefulness.
Chapter Twenty So forced by five gravities he burnt low across a sea of green, a sea not grass but tarnished water. Slammed through the lower atmosphere beneath a sky of burnished copper.
Chapter Twenty-One So he was in the singlefighter with the jungle green around him and the sky a moody gray above. All ship tell-tales were registering nonsense, their functions jumbled by the interference generated by a low-grade probability storm, that storm itself a typical aftermath of a battle involving heavy use of the Weapons Major of the Nexus.
Chapter Twenty-Two "So what's Lon Oliver going to argue?" said Hatch. "I've no idea," said Paraban Senk. "Can we be heard?" said Hatch. "Right now, I mean? By those in Forum Three?" "They get to watch you while you're in the illusion tanks," said Senk. "They get a full-color full-sound split-screen presentation of the battles. But right now you've got a guarantee of privacy."
Chapter Twenty-Three "Startrooper Hatch," said Senk. "Startrooper Lon Oliver. I have something very special in store for you." There was momentary pause. Hatch briefly thought that Senk was going to command them to fight each other in the fact of the flesh, blade against blade or fist against fist. If so - then so be it! He was ready. But - "Combat will take place in the illusion tanks, as usual," said Senk, as if reading Hatch's mind. "You will each have command of a Galactic Class MegaCommand Cruiser."
Chapter Twenty-Four Hatch stood close to the Officer of the Watch, close enough to kiss or kill. The man was sweating. The MegaCommand Cruiser was cool, yet San Kaladan was perspiring like a sledgehammer laborer at high noon on the thirstiest day of the year. "Field collapse imminent," said San Kaladan. "Count," said Hatch, speaking in the curt and brutal Code Five, the military dialect of the Nexus Ninetongue.
Chapter Twenty-Five So. So this is how it was. The two MegaCommand Cruisers were blind, dead and disabled. The ship captained by Asodo Hatch was on a collision course with that which was ruled by his rival. Hatch and his men had suited up in their deepspace battlearmor. The space armor, and the lightbattle Weapons Minor which came with those suits, were powered by corrosion cells, powerpacks in which small quantities of antimatter were destroyed by controlled contact with normative matter.
Chapter Twenty-Six Asodo Hatch entered Forum Three with a sack in his hand. The sack was of synth, and waterproof, which was just as well, for there was liquid within as well as something weighty.
Chapter Twenty-Seven With riot subdued and order restored, those scheduled to leave the Combat College packed up, then took their final pay and spent it. With the last of their Combat College pay they bought goods freshly fabricated by the marvelous machineries of the Nexus: books, bolts of cloth, blocks of chocolate, toys and such minor medicines as could be freely bought from the canteen. Then for one last time they made their way through the cream-colored corridors to the lockway. After an earlier lapse, the lighting near the lockway had been restored to normal. But as for the dorgi - ah, that was quite abnormal, for that mechanized dog-beast had withdrawn to its lair, where it was sulking.
Chapter Twenty-Eight Asodo Hatch slept through the afternoon of the Day of Two Fishes, and slept solidly through the night that followed. At dawn on the Day of the Last Fish, the day before Dog Day, Asodo Hatch lay dreaming of Thaldonian Mathematics, of equations breeding and mutating in a warm sea of dogfish-ducks, of seagull-sharks and floating skulls. The skulls were purple, and, as the quills of shellfish plucked themselves to deliquescent music, the skulls became warthogs, and sunbloated smoothly into the brown melt of chocolate.
Chapter Twenty-Nine "I must what!?" said Paraban Senk. "You must tell the world that the Chasm Gates have been reopened," said Hatch. "You must tell them that we are reunited with the Nexus." "How does this help us?" said Senk.
Chapter Thirty Asodo Hatch ventured out of the Combat College with the intent of spreading the news of the opening of the Chasm Gates, but found there was no need for him to take any steps in that direction. In a city at peace, the news of the opening of the Chasm Gates might have taken a while to spread. But Dalar ken Halvar was a city poised for war, its leadership of the moment in nerve-edge readiness for trouble, its sentries posted, its couriers running messages routinely through the streets, its people acutely tuned to the faintest rumblings of the rumor-mill.
Chapter Thirty-One "What do you think?" said Oboro Bakendra. "It's a bluff," said Hatch. "Of course it's a bluff. It would be too much of a coincidence for any such thing to happen now." The two brothers were in the kinema, the natural amphitheater outside the lockway. The Eye of Delusions, the big entertainment screen set above the lockway, was screening the image of a strangely mutated human with insectile mandibles.
Chapter Thirty-Two Forum Three was quiet. Silent. The empty banks of seats sloped steeply down to the stage on which Asodo Hatch and Lupus Lon Oliver had so recently dueled each other in debate. Above that stage was the big display screen which had shown to the world the battles in which Hatch and Lupus had dueled each other with singlefighters and MegaCommand Cruisers.
Chapter Thirty-Three Asodo Hatch woke in the cure-all clinic to find his sister Penelope - no, she was Joma, he would make no concessions, Joma she had been born and Joma she must stay - bending down over him.
Chapter Thirty-Four Thus it was that Asodo Hatch dueled with a demon inside the minor mountain known as Cap Foz Para Lash, and won a great victory over that demon. Inside of a month, the details of that duel were known to all of Dalar ken Halvar. Asodo Hatch - this is how the story was told, and nobody doubted it - had challenged Paraban Senk to a duel. Senk had accepted the challenge. In an arena generated by the machineries of the illusion tanks, Asodo Hatch had met with Senk, and the pair had fought it out to the red-blood finish, with the rule of the Combat College as the prize.