FICTION / FANTASY /GODS
For Mike this is the beginning of an adventure beyond imagining, an adventure that will put him in constant peril of his life as he shuttles between past, present and future of an alternate reality, fighting beside the descendants of the Incas as they battle to erase Pizarro's bloody footprints from the New World, and secure the reality of their own existence.
But is the "alternate reality" really an alternate, or is Mike actually struggling to erase the very future that gave him birth? The answer lies in the source of all his troubles and his only hope of survival: THE MASK OF THE SUN [Ace cover blurb]
It is an ancient Aztec mask, worth a fortune in gold, but it holds more power than the human mind can comprehend. Tom Gabrieli has dredged it from the sea and vanished. Mike Gabrieli dared to wear it and his life will never be the same. Suddenly he is the focal point of an inconceivable war between time-traveling Tenokas and 16th century Incas. But more than his life is at stake; the total dissolution of history as we know it will be the price for his failure. The key to victory is an unimaginably awesome weapon from the future, and the only man who can defeat Mike Gabrieli also wears THE MASK OF THE SUN. [TOR cover blurb]
One of the characters in this story says ". . . don't worry if you don't understand it all. Like trying to make common sense out of the theory of relativity." Truer words were never spoken. The reader follows the main characters rapidly from 20th to 16th to 23rd centuries, passing through several "branches" of history as well as time slots. Most of the action takes place in a restricted geographical area known today as Peru. Mike Gabrieli, of the 20th century, dares to wear a solid gold mask his borther has found in the sea. It shows him the immediate future and leads him safely through it to 16th-century Peru at the time of Pizarro who, by the way, has an identical mask that enables him to destroy the Incas and to establish Spanish dominion (in one branch of hisotry). Mike, appalled by the viciousness and greed of the Spaniards, uses his mask in an attempt to defeat Pizarro and save the Incan Empire. (That is another branch of history.) [Kliat]
This is an exciting book, especially for anyone interested in history. There is a great deal about historical 16th-century Peru as well as highly imaginative alternatives. Saberhagen always provides a good adventure story, and this one might send young adults to history books.[ S.A.L.]
Among other things, a story of Greed - individual and institutional.
It didn’t pay to reach too fast for gold.
Better to savor the still-possible dream for a few moments longer ...
At low tide in this part of the Gulf, the white sand bottom was nowhere more than about ten feet below the surface. A snorkeler could let his finned feet trail and for a moment imagine himself a soaring bird, looking down on an unpeopled world and letting his thoughts roam as wild and fantastic as he liked. When Tom Gabrieli’s eye caught a single faint golden gleam from the trough of one winding sand-ripple, hardly more than arm’s length below, old habit made him slow his gliding progress to a halt, savoring the dream still possible, before it turned out to be a yellow metal beer can dropped last Tuesday.
Then he reached down—the water was little more than four feet deep just here, and you could hardly call the requisite maneuver a dive—and brushed away the sand. His fingers touched smooth, rounded hardness that somehow, before he even tried to move the thing, gave an impression of substantial weight. Throat muscles spasmed on his held breath when the first golden surface, broad and curved as a cheekbone, came into view.
A moment later, he was standing chest deep in water, his snorkeling mask already pulled off and tossed into the nearby boat. What he held in his shaking hands was a different kind of mask, of thick, solid gold, with inlaid squares of ceramic decoration here and there. Realistic enough to be a life-sized portrait, with the cheekbones broad and high, and the mouth curved in a subtle, lordly smile that might have been meant to express hauteur and hatred instead of joy. The nose was hooked and decidedly masculine; the nostrils, like the mouth, were closed as solidly as a statue’s. The inlaid eyes, of some white stone or glass, were a little more prominent than life beneath the heavy ridge of brow. At each temple, and again in the center of the upper forehead, were golden flanges pierced with holes, through which straps or thongs might have been strung—
With a surging splash, Sally came up on the other side of the boat, and clung there to the gunwale. Her own snorkeling mask was held in one hand, her blond hair coming out from under its cap, strong sunbrowned arms and shoulders agleam with water above a yellow bikini top. Tom glanced at her, then brought his eyes back to scan the golden mask held in his hands. His senses registered that Sally was calling something to him, but he could not really hear a single word ... the mask he held would not be wearable, not with those opaque eyes. Why, then, the places to secure a strap? Of course it might be funerary; meant to cover eyes no longer seeing, a face no longer fit for others’ sight.
On impulse, he lifted the gold face to his own and found his chin fitting neatly into an interior hollow while the side flanges gently clasped his temples. And at once he discovered that the eyes were not truly opaque. Darkly translucent, they transmitted a shimmer of faint rainbow light. He vaguely supposed this must be some result of the sun on the miles of little waves that danced around him out to the horizon ...
“Tom? What in the hell? Tom—?”
This time he heard her plainly. And at the same moment it flashed on him that someone else, in some distant boat or aircraft, might be able to see him too—might just possibly be scanning with binoculars or telephoto lens. He snatched the mask down from his face and plunged it into concealing water. Holding it submerged, he turned to scan the horizon.
There were some clouds, and sun-hazed sky, and a million gentle waves upon the shallow waters. To the east, the nearest of the Keys made a green smear along the boundary of sea and sky. Green would be the mangroves along the water’s edge, screening the buildings and other vegetation behind them.
“I found this, Sal.” Reluctantly he brought it up again, held it above the water long enough for her to see.
“Oh, my God!” Sal had climbed into the boat, and was now leaning out of it on his side to look. Her blue eyes were wide, and she had pulled off her cap, making her head a blond explosion. “Is it gold?”
“Just like that ... ten times as much as I ever found when I was in the business. A hundred times. Sure it’s gold. Unless they’re buried deep in the bottom, damn few things'll last submerged in sea water for any length of time. Pure gold is one.”
He kept turning and turning it over in his hands, held just below the water’s surface. Almost unconsciously, he had turned his body so that the mask would be between him and the boat, thus providing the maximum degree of shelter from any prying eyes. Of course he knew it was unlikely that anyone was really watching him with a telescope. But still.
Tom said, “There’ll be a couple of pounds of gold in this. A few thousand bucks just for the metal. But the thing itself ... it’ll be worth a fortune.”
“What’re you going to do with it?” Sal’s voice was quieter than before.
“Right now, put it away.” He moved against the boat, snatched up a towel lying inside, wrapped the mask quickly, and shoved it under a thwart. Again he looked around, unable to shake the feeling that the state tax agents—or somebody—were already cruising toward him to take away his treasure. But there was no one. No vehicle approached.
He quickly put his snorkeling mask back on and began to swim around the boat in an everwidening search pattern, scanning the bottom as he had never scanned before. Nothing. Back at the very spot where he had found the mask, he tore into the sand with hands and feet. Nothing.
At last he gave up and clung to the side of the boat. He said, “You look as if we just lost a fortune overboard instead of bringing one up.”
“Tom. If it’s real, wouldn’t there be a ... a chest, or something? The wreckage of a ship?”
“No. No, not likely.” He levered himself up into the boat, felt once of the hardness wrapped in the towel below the thwart, and then started to take off his fins. “That’s got to be from some Spanish treasure ship. And it was four hundred years ago when they came up this way from Mexico and Peru. By now, any wood is gone, completely rotted away.”
“Peru’s on the Pacific.”
He got the impression that she wanted his find to be unreal. “Sure it is. But they brought the stuff in ships up to the isthmus of Panama and lugged it across, then put it in different ships on the Atlantic side. Then up this way, hugging the coast all around the Gulf. That was the easiest route men. But what with war and pirates and storms, a good pan of their loot never made it back to Spain.” Black-haired, black-bearded, his chest hair a dark mat slow-drying even in the sun, he worked with practiced hands at getting the boat ready to head home.
Meanwhile the girl sat there holding her bathing cap and looking under the thwart.
He paused. “Look, Sal, I’m gonna split this right down the middle with you. And it can be worth a fortune. For your part, what you’ve got to do is keep this absolutely quiet. I know how these things work. If we’re good little citizens and tell everybody what we’ve found, the state government steps in, and they’ll rip us off for more than half. And it might be years before we get what little we’re allowed to keep.”
Sal had nothing to say, and she maintained her silence until the boat was moving and the Keys were noticeably closer. Then she suddenly said: “I don’t know if I want half.”
Tom looked at her. “Sure you do. Later you will, if not right now. Look, I’m going to handle all the business. All you have to do is keep quiet. If anyone should ever ask you, all we did today was swim and snorkel and mess around. The subject of treasure never came up.”
He swept his eyes hurriedly once more round the horizon, then bent and with one hand unrolled the towel and lifted out his find. His fingers held it. Incredible. Wanting to get Sal more involved in this thing, he asked, “You want to try it on?”
She had pulled her sunburned feet back as if to keep them away from the towel when it was being opened. She didn’t answer. But her body was tilting forward slightly, as if being drawn; her eyes were fascinated.
Before handing it over, he raised it to his own face once again, seeing the watery light-ripples float in through its eyes. Seeing—
He jerked the mask down from his face and sat there blinking at it in his lap. He rubbed his eyes.
“What’s wrong, Tom?”
“Nothing.” He gave the yellow weight to her. “It was like I thought I could see through the eyes. And there was...”
“Like a couple of men.” He cut short his answer abruptly. When he looked up again from tending the boat, Sal was sitting there holding the thing in both hands, her eyes wide and face solemn, a little pale around the lips. He wasn’t sure whether she had tried it on or not.
“You’re gonna want to kill me, but I wish you’d throw it overboard again.”
“All right, all right. But at least don’t wear it anymore. I don’t like the way it looks. And I don’t care if I get any money or not.”
He reached for the thing, smiling with one side of his mouth and repeated. “You will, later on.” He wrapped the golden weight and tucked it far back under the thwart; a casual glance would not even notice the towel.
Now some detail could be seen in the rim of vegetation ahead on the horizon. A couple of other islands in the staggering chain were visible, along with the white tracery of the connecting highway bridges. On an island to the south he could see a high-rise going up, looking as out of place as it would have at the North Pole.
He had to say something about it, thought he really didn’t want to: “I thought I saw my brother Mike, as if he was sitting right there beside you ...” He let his voice trail off. It had been too crazy. A white-haired man’s figure near Mike, and somewhere in the air behind them a huge golden sun-disc, and stylized red daggers or lightning bolts in a circular pattern.
Sal took his revelation with surprising—no, disturbing—calm. She said, “I saw—myself, throwing the thing overboard.” She wasn’t joking in the least, or even smiling. “Maybe that’s just what I should have done. You could have found it again if you’d tried hard enough. And that way you’d have believed me—that I don’t want the money. And you’d have kept me out of all of it from here on.”
Tom shook his head. He had read somewhere that certain psychic disturbances could be contagious. There had been epidemics of people thinking themselves possessed by demons. He said aloud, “Out of all what? There’s not gonna be any trouble, just some money. The light must come through in some funny way, and you saw what you were thinking about anyway, something like looking into a fire. You’ll take money when the time comes, kid. You’ll be willing.”
After that they were quiet for what seemed a long time, riding the light chop between infinite sky and sea. Only when they were actually coming into the harbor did he speak again.
“I’m going to find a good place to hide it, to begin with. And I damn sure don’t mean to give it away.”
“Why don’t you call your brother about it?” Sal suggested after a moment’s silence, sending prickles down his spine through the July heat. He was certain he had said nothing to her about Mike’s holding a telephone in his vision.
“Why do you say that?” he asked. “You haven’t even met him.”
“Just the way you talk about him sometimes. He sounds—I don’t know. Smart. Competent.” She still hadn’t found the exact word for what she meant.
Tom smiled faintly. “He’s lucky, is what he is. And if you think I have a mean streak, you should see him sometimes.”
“He doesn’t sound mean, the way you talk about him.”
“All right, he’s not mean. Basically.” And with that he had to get busy docking. As he worked, he could catch glimpses of the masts of the treasure-hunting company’s vessels, moored not far a way. If they ever learned of his find, they would think it was something he had located while working for them and had somehow managed to keep for himself till now. They would be putting in a claim. If that happened, Sally could testify ... but once the legal wrangling started, most of the money would be lost to him, one way or another.
No, he was going to think positive. This time, for a change, he was going to screw the world. Maybe in a secret sale he could get fifty thousand dollars for this thing. Then, even allowing for a split with Sal—say he gave her fifteen, twenty thousand, that would be enough, more might scare her too much—he would have a stake big enough to give him a fighting chance against the world. To get somewhere and be somebody.
But maybe he could sell a thing like this for as much as a hundred thousand. To do that would for damn sure take some hard bargaining. Nobody gave away that kind of bread. But he knew for a fact, from stories heard when he worked for the treasure hunters, there were wealthy art dealers and collectors willing to pay such sums and ask no questions beyond authenticating whatever they bought.
In silence he and Sal left the rented boat at the dock and went to unchain their bicycles from the uncrowded rack. One thing about the Keys in summer—you rarely had to wait in line for anything. And once you got through the bottleneck of the single connecting highway, heavy traffic was six cars coming along without a break.
Tom had stuffed the wrapped mask along with other odds and ends into his habitual backpack. Sal still in her bikini, himself in trunks and T-shirt—sweat-soaked the moment he put it on—they pedaled through the humid heat, past weather-beaten houses, oleander, cheap bars, breadfruit, old and new motels, palm trees, uncrowded beaches, bougainvillea, tourist-trade shops, royal poinciana, open-air laundromats. An active little city, you could usually find what you wanted in it. The trouble was, despite all the underground stories and rumors he heard when he was in the diving game, he had no names of any of these wealthy and unscrupulous collectors, nor any way of getting in contact with them, in New York or Chicago or wherever in hell they lived.
He could start trying to make contact by talking to some shady people he knew. He had in mind one sometime drug dealer that he thought he could find, here on the Keys or in Miami Beach. Of course he wouldn’t trust that cat for a moment. And meanwhile, where was he going to hide the thing?
Following Sal, Tom climbed the narrow stair to her small apartment over a Spanish grocery store. As expected, her roommate was out at work. Tom slipped off his backpack and stood there swinging the promising weight of it by a strap while she closed the door and peeled off her bra and stood luxuriating in the cool wash from a window air conditioner that had been left running.
Maybe two pounds of gold. He had to get it stowed away somewhere, then do some thinking. “I’ll see you later, Sal.”
Today was not the day to change his routine, and Tom went as usual to the book-and-record store, in the new shopping center, where for a couple of months now he had been working evenings as a clerk. He would call Mike, he thought. After work tonight ...
Business was slow. The Chevrolet crowd of summer tourists didn’t buy as much as the Cadillac people who came in winter, so he had time this evening to sit behind his counter and think. The break was welcome. From a display table he picked up a gift volume, Central American Art. It proved to be full of beautiful color plates, though short on the hard information he was seeking.
He felt sure the mask was Indian—pre-Columbian—though he wasn’t an expert and couldn’t begin to pin it down any closer than that without help. He wanted to identify it before he went to anyone. If he didn’t sound stupid, they wouldn’t try to cheat him so badly. Tomorrow he would try the library.
... Jesus, it had been weird. In the background, red daggers and a great golden disc. Up front, apparently right in the boat, Mike, holding a phone, plain as day. Certainly Mike, though near as Tom could remember, the face had looked sort of like a drawing rather than an image from memory. Some psychologist could explain it, sure. But meanwhile he wasn’t going to put that thing on again—
The shop’s door chime signaled a customer. Tom looked up at the approaching white-haired man, whose face might be taken for young or old—a strange face that would be hard to forget.
Tom had never met the man before. But he had seen him. Just today.