[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
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Opening Chapters


by Robert J. Sawyer

Book Three of The Quintaglio Ascension Trilogy

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.

Paperback: Berkley/Ace, March 1994, ISBN 0-441-00017-7
Trade Paperback: Tor, July 2005, ISBN 0-765-30972-6

British edition: New English Library, July 1995, ISBN 0-340-61804-3

Historically, there have been three great blows to the Quintaglio ego.

First, Afsan delivered the cosmological blow by taking God out of our skies and moving us from the center of the universe to one of its countless backwaters.

Then, Toroca dealt us the biological blow, showing that we were not divinely created from the hands of God but rather had evolved through natural processes from other animals.

And, finally, Mokleb administered the psychological blow, proving that we were not rational beings acting on lofty principles but are in fact driven by the dark forces that control our subconscious minds.

— Briz-Tolharb, Curator
Museum of Quintaglio Civilization

Chapter 1

       Afsan couldn't see the sun, but he felt its noontime heat beating down. With his left hand he held the harness attached to Gork, his large monitor lizard. They were moving over paving stones, Afsan's toeclaws making heavy clicks against them, Gork's footfalls echoing that sound with a softer ticking. Afsan heard metal-rimmed wheels rolling over the roadway, approaching from the right.

       Afsan had been blind for twenty kilodays. Det-Yenalb, the Master of the Faith, had pierced Afsan's eyeballs with a ceremonial obsidian dagger. The priest had rotated the blade in each socket, gouging out the empty sacks. Afsan didn't like thinking about that long-ago day. He'd been convicted of heresy, and the blinding had been performed in Capital City's Central Square in front of over a hundred people, a mob packed with as little as three paces between each of its members.

       The city had changed since then. The landquake of kiloday 7110 had destroyed many roads and buildings, and the replacements were often different from the originals. The growth and redevelopment of the city had left their marks, too. Still, Afsan always knew where he was in relation to the Central Square. Even now, having to walk through it made him anxious. But today's journey would take him nowhere near —


       Suddenly Afsan felt his middle toeclaw catch on something — a loose paving stone? — and he found himself pitching forward, his tail lifting off the ground.

       Gork let out a loud hiss as Afsan, desperately trying to right himself, yanked hard on the lizard's harness.

       From ahead, a shout: "Watch out!"

       Another voice, a different passerby: "He's going to be crushed!"

       A loud roar — a hornface? — dead ahead.

       Afsan's chest scraped across the pavement.

       The sound of cracking leather.

       The hornface again.

       A snap from his shoulder.

       A jab of pain.

       His muzzle smashing into the ground.

       Blood in his mouth.

       Two curving teeth knocked loose.

       And then, an explosion within his head as something heavy kicked into it.

       His head whipped sideways. His neck felt like it was going to snap.

       Crunching sounds.

       More pain.

       Indescribable pain.

       A scream from the roadside.

       More teeth knocked out.

       Afsan was unable to breathe through one nostril. He felt as if that whole side of his upper muzzle had been crushed.

       Running feet.

       Afsan let out a moan.

       A stranger's voice: "Are you all right?"

       Afsan tried to lift his head. Agony. His shoulder blade was a knife, slicing into his neck. His head was slick with blood.

       The high-pitched voice of a youngster: "It's Sal-Afsan!"

       Another voice. "By the Face of God, it is."

       And a third voice: "Oh, my God. His head — Sal-Afsan, are you all right?"

       More running sounds, toeclaws sparking against paving stones.


       "You ran right over him!"

       "He stumbled in front of my chariot. I tried to stop."

       Chariot. The wheels he'd heard. The hornface must have been drawing it. The kick to his head — a hornface's forefoot. Afsan tried to speak, but couldn't. He felt blood coursing out of him.

       "The left side of his face is smashed," said the youngster. "And look — there's something funny about his shoulder."

       Another voice. "Dislocated, I'm sure."

       "Is he dead?" called a new voice.

       "No. Not yet, anyway. Look at his skull!"

       Afsan tried to speak again, but all he managed was a low hiss.

       "Someone get a healer!"

       "No, it would take too long to fetch a doctor; we've got to take him to one."

       "The palace surgery isn't far," said one of the voices. "Surely Sal-Afsan would be a patient of the imperial healer, what's his name . . ."

       "Mondark," said another voice. "Dar-Mondark."

       "Take him in your chariot," shouted a voice.

       "Someone will have to help me," said the charioteer. "He's too heavy for me to lift on my own."

       Silence, except for Afsan's labored breathing and, nearby, Gork's confused hissing.

       "For God's sake, people, someone help me! I can't do this alone."

       An incredulous voice. "To touch another . . ."

       "He'll die if he doesn't get medical help. Come on."

       A new voice, from farther away. "Make room for me to pass. I'm just back from a hunt. I suspect I can touch him without difficulty."

       Shuffling feet. Afsan moaned again.

       The charioteer's voice now, close to his earhole: "We're going to touch you, Sal-Afsan. Try not to react."

       Even in agony, even with a broken skull and dislocated shoulder, instinct still reigned. Afsan flinched as hands touched him. Fingerclaws popped from their sheaths.

       "Careful of his shoulder —"

       Afsan howled in pain.

       "Sorry. He's pretty heavy."

       Afsan felt his head being pulled out of the thickening puddle of blood. He was lifted up and placed facedown in the back of the chariot.

       "What about his lizard?" said the charioteer.

       "I'll take him," said the youngster who had first identified Afsan. "I know where the palace surgery is."

       The charioteer shouted, "Latark!" His hornface began to gallop along the road, Afsan's head bouncing up and down, the sound of metal wheels over the stones drowning out his moans.

       After an eternity, the chariot arrived outside Dar-Mondark's surgery, a typical adobe building just south of the palace. Afsan could hear the charioteer disembark and the sound of his fingerclaws clicking against the signaling plate set into the doorjamb. The door swung open on squeaky hinges, and Afsan heard Mondark's voice. "Yes?"

       "I'm Gar-Reestee," said the charioteer. "I've got Sal-Afsan with me. He's hurt."

       Afsan heard Mondark's heavy footfalls as the healer hurried to the chariot. "God," he said. "How did this happen?"

       "He tripped and fell into the roadway. My hornface kicked him in the head before I could stop my chariot."

       "Those are massive wounds." Mondark leaned closer, his voice reassuring. "Afsan, you're going to be all right."

       The charioteer's voice, incredulous: "Healer, your muzzle —"

       "Shush," said Mondark. "Help me bring him inside. Afsan, we're going to pick you up."

       Once again, Afsan was carried. He felt cold in the side of his head. After several moments, he was placed face down on a marble tabletop. Mondark had treated Afsan kilodays ago on a similar table after Afsan had plummeted to the ground from the top of a thunderbeast's neck. The surgery chamber, Afsan knew, was heated by a cast-iron stove burning coal. He also knew that the roof above the table was made largely of glass, letting in outside light, illuminating the patient.

       "Thank you, Gar-Reestee, for bringing Afsan in," said Mondark. "I will do everything I can for him, but you must leave. The physical contact for treating his injuries is something you shouldn't see."

       The charioteer's voice was full of sorrow. "Good Sal-Afsan, I'm terribly sorry. It was an accident."

       Afsan tried to nod, but daggers of pain stabbed through his muzzle.

       The charioteer left. Mondark went to work.


More Good Reading

An excerpt from Foreigner by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.

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

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Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
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