20. In Castle Inter Lucus
In one sense, Ora could come to terms with the marvels of Inter Lucus more easily than Marty. To her, everything the castle did was magic (scinnlác). The magic of the gods could do amazing things, and since Lord Martin had bonded with Inter Lucus, he had access to the gods’ magic. So, naturally: lights in the underground parts of the castle. Ora recognized that Lord Martin was only a lord, not a god, so there were limits; she could not expect him to do anything and everything. But she was always ready to experience new wonders.
Marty, on the other hand, was constantly guessing at the technology behind the surprises. The underground corridors of the castle were lit by softly glowing strips of some ceramic or glass material embedded in the floors, walls and ceilings. Fiber optics? Marty wondered. In his time as an electronics manufacturer’s agent he had sold some lighting systems that might be considered primitive versions of Inter Lucus’s lights.
Throughout the underground level the ceilings were about sixteen feet high, and the corridors were as wide as an expensive hotel’s. A lot of unused space that has to be heated and cooled; a big waste—if they were building for human beings. Maybe they built for really tall aliens. But if aliens built the thing, why is it inhabited by a bunch of medieval Europeans? And how did I get here? Marty shook his head. So many unanswered questions.
It became obvious that the underground level—levels, because Marty and Ora found staircases leading down—covered a far greater area than the ruins on the surface. Marty counted paces on some long corridors and estimated the third level, the lowest as far as they could tell, reached to the edge of the forest surrounding Inter Lucus. By counting paces Marty also concluded that the corridors made a perimeter around a large section of the second and third levels that had no doors. He speculated that some of Inter Lucus’s vital machinery, perhaps the central computer, lay behind these walls. You would think they had to put in access somewhere, if only for repairs. Try as he might, Marty found no indication of an entrance to the walled off section.
At various places they found signs or messages in a script that resembled the alien letters that had appeared in the south wall of the castle when Marty first bonded with Inter Lucus, always high on the walls. Marty took this as evidence for his “tall aliens” theory. Most of the messages were static, but some of them would fade and be replaced by others. Marty puzzled about them but realized he might never decipher a truly alien language; he didn’t know the letters, the words, the concepts, or the syntax. And the authors of the messages weren’t present for interrogation. I need something like a Rosetta stone for alien hieroglyphics.
While Ora and Marty were exploring the third level, a bell rang. It seemed to have no particular location; the sound came from the walls or the ceiling or both. In the wall to Marty’s right a square lit up, and Roman letters appeared:
Cibum est iam.
Ora looked at Marty expectantly. She couldn’t read the message, but she obviously concluded that letters at eye-level accompanied by a signal had to be meant for them. Marty remembered “cibum” appeared in the list of castle subroutines, and he had a guess as to its meaning. He led Ora up stairways to the first lower level and the open pit by which they had entered. Before they arrived, while still walking the corridor, they smelled confirmation of Marty’s theory.
A portion of the floor had pushed itself up, creating a slab table/counter and pushing aside a portion of the debris pile under the daylight opening. Atop the ceramic slab lay Ora’s fishes, sizzling in shallow depressions in the counter top. Pan fried fish, without the pan. “Cibum est iam.” “Food is . . .” what? Ready? I wonder where they keep the plates and silverware. Lacking these implements, Marty used Ora’s knife to push the fish out of the “pan” onto the counter top. Other than the depression where the fish cooked, the slab’s surface was cool. He cut the fishes into small pieces and they ate with their fingers. Marty attended carefully to the counter top as they ate. Tiny bits of grease or fish scales left behind when he or Ora took a bite gradually disappeared. It’s like the dirt absorbing floor upstairs. On Earth a company with this technology would make a fortune; it’s a true self-cleaning house.
Marty reasoned there ought to be a stairway to the ground floor level, but it took a long time to find it, because, in the end, it was under their feet. The “pit” down which they had climbed by means of a cherry log was actually a stairwell. Somehow the stair had detached from the upper floor and recessed into the lower level floor under the weight of accumulated dirt, leaves and other debris, no doubt pressed down at times more heavily by rains or snowfall. With Ora’s help, Marty dragged the cherry log away from the opening, laying it beside a wall. With bare hands they scooped at the dirt, digging like dogs hunting moles; an unceremonious procedure, no doubt, but without a shovel it was the best option. When they had reduced the pile to only a couple inches of soil, they heard a pinging sound and the stairway began rising from the floor. Like the cooking counter, the stair rose as a solid block, each step separating from the mass when the unit reached the appropriate height. At first the stairs had no handrails, but when the top step joined the upper floor, again with a ping, narrow slabs began to rise from the ends of each step. Marty couldn’t descry any join between the rising slabs; when the stair was finished the sidewalls looked as if made from a single piece of transparent ceramic. But unlike any handrail he had seen on Earth, this rail was not a continuous slope; instead, the tops of the sidewalls stair-stepped exactly like the stairs from which they grew. On the right side of the stairway (going up), the sidewall stopped rising about three feet above the stair; on the left side it rose over Marty’s head. All the stairways they had encountered followed this pattern, convenient rails on the right and impractically tall ones on the left. Earthlings on the right, aliens on the left—is that how it worked? Suddenly Marty had an idea; he rushed up the stairs with Ora trailing behind.
They had spent most of the day below; sun slanted above the ruin of Inter Lucus over the shadows of trees to the west. The dirt in the great hall had drained noticeably in the interim. The weeds and grass were reduced to patches and wood flooring—or something that looked like wood flooring—was showing in many places. But Marty paid scant attention to these details. Aliens to the left. He hurried toward the glass wall, the wall he had come to think of as “the interface.” The ball he thought of as the “control knob” now stood between two and three feet above the retreating grass; when the dirt was completely gone it would be something over three feet tall. To the left stood the much taller column with the broken ball on top; Marty had no doubt it had been a larger version of the control knob. He wished he had a ladder. The alien control knob is broken. Maybe that’s why they left. It couldn’t be that simple, could it? They have to know how to fix things. After all, the place is busy fixing itself. . . . But maybe the control system is a tougher matter; maybe Inter Lucus can’t self-repair that system.
There are other castles. Have the aliens deserted them too?
Marty found himself shaking his head yet again. So many questions, so few answers.
In the meantime, life among the mysterious medieval inhabitants of the planet kept providing complications. Behind him Ora was shouting, and an arrow struck the ground near Marty’s feet.
Copyright © 2012 by Philip D. Smith.
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.