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Opening Chapters


by Robert J. Sawyer

Book Two of The Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy

Copyright © 1993 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Paperback: Berkley/Ace, May 1993, ISBN 0-441-24884-5
Trade Paperback: Tor, March 2005, ISBN 0-765-30793-4

British edition: New English Library, March 1995, ISBN 0-340-61803-5

PROLOGUE: The First Sacred Scroll

Five thousand kilodays ago, God laid the eight eggs of creation. When they hatched, the world was born.

From the first egg came all the water. God let it run in a vast circular path and it became the Great River.

From the second egg came Land itself, and God set Land floating down the River.

From the third egg came the air, and God allowed it to flow everywhere that was not the River and not the Land.

From the fourth egg came the sun, source of light and heat.

From the fifth egg came the stars, planets, and moons, and God raised them high above.

From the sixth egg came all the flowers and trees and vegetables and roots and every other thing that is a plant.

From the seventh egg came those lesser beasts that eat the plants, including the shovelmouths and thunderbeasts and hornfaces and armorbacks. Also from the seventh egg came the fish and lizards and shelled creatures of the water.

And from the eighth and final egg came the greater creatures that dine on flesh, the terrorclaws and blackdeaths and runningbeasts and fangjaws and more.

But even with all eight eggs hatched, God was not pleased. She wanted something else, something that would think and pray. So, after much contemplation, She bit off Her own left arm and let it fall to Land. The blood flowing from the stump of Her arm made the soil rich. The fingers of Her hand detached, and each became one of the five original great and proud hunters: Lubal, Mekt, Katoon, Hoog, and Belbar, five females of strength and courage and acumen. And the five hunters pleased God and She watched them hunt throughout Land.

But the hunters themselves were not pleased, and so they prayed to God. "You have laid the Eggs of Creation," they said, "but we, too, wish to lay eggs and have creations of our own."

For the first time, the Land quaked, for God was angered by the impudence of the Original Five. But then God relented. "Only I may create on my own," She said, "but I will give you the power to create jointly." And God sacrificed of Herself again, biting off Her right arm. It, too, fell to Land, and blood from it made the soil even richer. Its five fingers became five more Quintaglios, and these Quintaglios were the same and yet different, for they were male. They each began a different task: Varkev was the first explorer; Dargo, the original healer; Takood, the first scholar; and Jostark, the craftsperson before all others. And, to keep the rest properly obedient to God, the fifth finger became Detoon the Righteous, first of all priests.

The ten who had been the fingers of God came together and produced five clutches of eight eggs. But God said soon all of Land would be overrun with Quintaglios if all those egglings were allowed to live. Therefore, She charged Mekt with devouring seven out of every eight hatchlings, and Mekt was thus the first bloodpriest.

But then Lubal declared that this portion of Land was hers; and Katoon said, and this portion is mine; and Mekt delineated a territory she called her own; and Hoog likewise claimed exclusive dominion over a part of Land; and Belbar asserted a territory, too. And the males, in a similar fashion, divided up the remaining parts of Land.

God was angry, for this was not what She had intended. But She had sacrificed Her arms to make five females and five males and until Her hands regenerated there was nothing that She could do.


       One of them was going to die.

       Toroca, leader of the Geological Survey of Land, caught sight of the confrontation purely by accident.

       He was working nine-tenths of the way up the cliff face, just below the Bookmark layer, looking for fossils.

       As usual, Toroca wasn't finding anything. He'd dug his pick countless times into the gray shale just below the chalk stratum, and each time he'd found nothing but plain rock. It was tiring work, so he decided to take a break. He braced himself firmly in a cleft in the rocks, then gulped water from the shovelmouth bladder he used as a canteen. He half-turned to look out. The cliff face dropped for more than a hundred vertical paces directly below him. Still, it bowed out enough that it wasn't a difficult climb in most places, and in those spots where the rocks themselves did not afford adequate purchase, his surveyors had set up webs of climbing ropes.

       The cliff ended in a narrow expanse of sandy beach and beyond that there were choppy gray waves leading out to the horizon. Above the waves, far, far out, he could see a large wingfinger circling, its furry, copper-colored wings bright against the purple sky, a sky that today was free of cloud. The sun was a tiny white disk about halfway up the bowl of the sky. Three pale daytime moons were visible.

       Toroca's eyes fell back on the beach.

       His survey team consisted of eight Quintaglios. Two of them were visible far below and some distance up the beach. They were almost too small to identify, although their green skin stood out well against the beige sands. On the one nearest to him, he could just make out all four limbs and the tail; on the other one, he couldn't even make out that much detail.

       They were standing awfully close to each other, only five or six paces between them.

       Toroca brought up a hand to shield his eyes. Something funny in the way they were moving —

       Bobbing up and down —

       Toroca's claws jumped out in shock. He brought his hands to the sides of his muzzle and yelled, "No!"

       They couldn't hear him. The wind tore away his words. He began to scramble down the cliff face. Doing so meant turning his back to them so that he could see the rocks, find the footholds.

       Where were the other members of the survey team? Either off exploring elsewhere, or else when they'd seen the territorial challenge display, they'd run away, lest they succumb to the sight of bobbing torsos, rhythmically moving up and down, up and down . . .

       Toroca's claws were chipping against the rock as he continued his rapid descent. He came to a little fissure in the rocks and turned to climb down the web of thick ropes that covered it. He was about halfway down the cliff now and could see the other two better.

       The closer one was Delplas, a middle-aged female. She was still too tiny to recognize by her features, but her distinctive blue and orange sash gave her away. Her torso was tipped right over now, the tail lifted clear off the ground, her body rising and falling over and over again, pivoting at the hips.

       Got to hurry. They'd be at each other's throats any moment. Toroca paused in his descent long enough to shout "No!" again, but either the wind was still preventing them from hearing him, or else they were too deep in the madness of dagamant to listen.

       He'd reached the bottom of the ropes now and turned back to the rocks, the giant claws on his three-toed feet finding purchase in cracks between the strata. His tail hung behind him, a heavy weight. Hurrying, not taking the care he should —

       Toroca slipped. The cliff face curved out enough that he didn't fall right off, but he did skid down several paces on his belly, the rocks badly scraping the lighter-colored skin of his front and tearing open two of the many pockets that ran the length of his leather geologist's sash. He clawed frantically for purchase, but the slide continued, down, down, belly over rocks, skin tearing —

       More climbing ropes. He shot out his left hand, the five fingers seizing the web. His arm felt like it was going to tear from its socket as he suddenly braked to a halt. He looked briefly at his belly: it was badly scraped but was only bleeding lightly in a couple of places. Too bad: it probably would have been a lot more sanitary to actually have the scrapes flush themselves clean.

       Madly, he hurried down the ropes, feet finding homes in the large squares made between intersections of the braided beige fiber. He looked again at the two surveyors, just in time to see it happen.

       Delplas lunged, her whole body darting forward, her jaws split wide, showing the serrated white teeth that lined them —

       The other Quintaglio — Toroca was now low enough to see that it was Spalton, a male surveyor a bit younger than Delplas — tried to avoid the bite, but Delplas had no trouble connecting, her jaws slamming shut on his shoulder, scooping out bloody red meat . . .

       Toroca turned again and hurried down the remaining height of the cliff face, the sound of waves pounding against the shore counterpointing the pounding of his own heart and the roar of the wind no match for his own labored panting.

       Finally, he made it to ground level. He ran toward the fighting Quintaglios, now locked in a great ball of green extremities, tails and limbs sticking out every which way. Toroca's own tail was flying behind him as his feet pounded the sand, sand wet enough from rain and spray to make running difficult.

       The coppery wingfinger he'd seen before, or one just like it, was now circling high above the two Quintaglios, waiting patiently for fresh meat to dine on. Toroca thundered on.


       It was the word Toroca would have called if he could have found the breath to do so, but it hadn't come from him. No, there, nestled in the rocks at the base of the cliff, back to the fighting Quintaglios, was giant Greeblo, another member of the survey team. "Don't go any closer!" she shouted. "You'll be drawn into the frenzy!"

       Toroca ignored her and ran on, his chest aching from without and within as he struggled to continue. Another forty paces to go . . .

       Spalton had the advantage now, having slammed Delplas onto the ground. He was coming in to bite down on the back of her neck, a sure way to make the kill —

       Territoriality. Toroca cursed it as he closed the remaining distance. The madness of territoriality. Delplas and Spalton had worked together for kilodays now, and yet, somehow, one of them had moved too close, encroaching on the other's territory, and instincts ancient and savage had come into play. The bobbing; the showing of teeth; perhaps for the male, Spalton, the inflation of the dewlap sack on the neck into a ruby-red ball; and then —

       The veneer of civilization gone, melted away under the fires of instinct. Claws would have popped from their sheaths, vision clouded over, rational thought drowned out by the rage boiling up within —

       They wouldn't last much longer. Delplas had rolled onto her belly, just in time to avoid Spalton's scooping bite, and she'd smashed him in the side of the head, right over his earhole, with a vicious swipe of her tail. Spalton now had tumbled onto his side, muzzle hitting the wet sand hard. Delplas pushed up with her arms, regaining her feet, and once again her jaws opened wide, wider still, the sharp white teeth slick with crimson, her dexterous neck bending down, muscles bulging, readying for the kill —

       "No!" shouted Toroca, finally reaching them, the sands beneath them already a slurry of quartz grains and blood. Delplas looked up. She seemed momentarily confused, startled for an instant out of the madness of dagamant, but then she turned back to the prone Spalton, her jaws gaping —

       Toroca reached out, grabbed her shoulder. "Stop it!" The touch shocked her — he could see her inner lids flutter across her obsidian black eyes. He yanked her aside, and brought his other arm up to her other shoulder, shaking her violently. "Stop it!"

       Her jaws were still split wide, her whole muzzle a killing maw filled with white daggers. She faced Toroca and turned her head sideways, ready now to bite down on his muzzle or neck, tearing him open —

       "No!" shouted Toroca.

       Behind them, Spalton was getting up. His left arm hung loosely from his shoulder, half-severed by one of Delplas's great bites. He opened his jaws, ready to take out Delplas from behind, but then he staggered from side to side, and his jaw went slack, half closing, his eyelids likewise shutting partway, and he fell onto his side in a heap behind Delplas.

       Delplas, oblivious to all this, snapped her jaws shut, but Toroca did the unthinkable in a territorial battle. He stepped backward, dancing out of her way. Her massive head failing to connect, she lost balance and tipped way, way forward. Toroca moved in from the side. He interlocked the fingers of his hands to form a massive club, like the tail knob of an armorback, and pounded down on her shoulders. She lost her footing and slammed down onto the sand. Overhead, the wingfinger let out a shriek, but the only sound Delplas made was a soft oomph.

       Toroca leapt onto her back, pinning her. He was taking a big chance that Spalton wouldn't recover enough to attack him from behind, but he couldn't let them fight like this.

       Delplas tried to push up off the beach, but she was near exhaustion. Toroca continued to hold her down.

       He couldn't release her, not until he was sure the madness had passed. At last she spoke, her voice hoarse. "How . . ."

       Come on, Delplas, Toroca thought. Give me a coherent sentence. Let it be over.

       "How," she began again, and a moment later, the rest of it came, "did you do that?" He got off her. She tried to rise, but was too tired or too injured to do so. Her inner eyelids were fluttering in astonishment, but as Toroca moved away from her, he saw her claws slip back into their sheaths.

       "How did you do that?" she said again.

       He moved over to Spalton, still lying on his side, the vessels in his arm having mostly sealed, but some blood still seeping out. His breathing was shallow but even, the respiration of unconsciousness, not the frantic gulping of air that comes with the territorial madness of dagamant.

       "How?" said Delplas again, still too weak to get up. "How did you avoid getting drawn into the territorial battle? How could you touch me without your claws coming out?"

       Toroca bent over to minister to Spalton's wounds. He'd kept it a secret this long; he had no intention of offering an explanation now.


An excerpt from Fossil Hunter by Robert J. Sawyer.

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More about Fossil Hunter
"Random Musings" column: Are the Quintaglios Too Clever?
Essay: Writing The Quintaglio Ascension

Robert J. Sawyer's awards and honors
Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
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