Super-spy Gertrude Eisenstein in...

The City of Ul Chalan

A 10-Chapter Adventure in exotic Tibet!

by Richard K. Lyon
About the author

Previously: CIA masterspy Gertrude Eisenstein, Jar Quinan, a Buddhist monk and Tibetan freedom fighter, and Red Chinese Army Major Tong have won their way through many perils to reach the entrance to Ul Chalan.  Many have gone into this mysterious place, but none of them returned to report what they found.

Chapter Six - Eaten By a Demon

THEY STEPPED THROUGH THE GATEWAY, armed and alert. They were prepared for danger, but not beauty.

Tong gasped and pointed. Ahead of them lay a broad flat plain and rising from that plain, perhaps ten miles distant, there was a gleaming city. The sky line they beheld was that of a fairyland city, a city which could not exist in this world. The towers, spires and arches rose and flowered in cheerful indifference to the force of gravity. Gertrude was reminded of some of the mobiles she had seen at the Museum of Modern Art. Not that the buildings moved, but many stood on such slender supports that they seemed to float.

To the right of the buildings stood a forest. A forest not of trees but shining pillars of multicolored light. The pillars were all tall slender, and wrought with complex spirals.

"Well," snarled Tong, "now we know two things about Sothatalos, or whoever it is lives at UI Chalan."

"What?" asked Gertrude.

"They love beauty but are unfriendly to trespassers." The major's eyes passed quickly over Gertrude's face and unshapely body. "Certainly none of us will charm them with our good looks."

Gertrude had long ago resigned herself to the fact that no man would ever look on her with pleasure or desire. To her the major's reference to her ugliness was a simple statement of fact, not insulting and probably not intended to be insulting. Jar Quinan, however, bristled at the remark.

In an angry tone he said, "Perhaps they will be more discerning than you."

Gertrude drew her binoculars and examined the city and the forest. There was no sign of life or motion. The binoculars told her that the pillars of the forest were made of crystal and that was one pillar her unaided eye had missed because it was dull, not refracting light as did the others. The terrain was such that although they could see the spires in the distance they could not see the ground ten yards ahead.

When they advanced they got two unpleasant surprises. The first was that the ground ahead wasn't there, instead there was a deep chasm. Its sides were a smooth straight drop of nearly a hundred feet, and the chasm was slightly too wide to jump.

The second surprise was the soldier Gertrude had wounded. The air above the chasm had an odd shimmer so that objects on the other side were blurred. Still on the other side was what very much appeared to be the soldier, lying motionless on the ground. "If a wounded man can jump it, so can we," roared the Chinese.

"No," replied Gertrude. "Since we cannot, neither did he."

She sensed a mystery here and for want of a better experiment she decided to toss a rock across the chasm. She picked up a rock and got another unpleasant surprise: she could not let go of it. Her hand was frozen to the rock.

Major Tong laughed. "A rookie mistake. There you are, all snug in your sheepskin. There's no wind, so your body loses little heat and you feel comfortable. You forgot that it's cold here." The major spat. His spit cracked as it hit the ground, hard ice. "Very cold."

The monk glared at the major as he helped Gertrude warm the rock and free her hand. Being angry Gertrude threw the rock hard. Halfway across the chasm it slowed to a stop, and shot back striking Major Tong in the stomach. Gertrude grinned at the slightly injured and very surprised major.

"Sorry about that."

For her next experiment she kicked a small rock over the edge of the chasm. Instead of dropping straight to the bottom, it curved back and bounced several times against the vertical side before stopping half way down. Jar screamed in horror as Gertrude stepped over the edge. She did not fall but cheerfully stood on the side and began to walk down the chasm wall. Jar followed her.

As he stepped over the edge, the world seemed to shift. The vertical wall became a gentle slope, easy to climb down. Gertrude cheerfully expected the opposite chasm wall would when approached also miraculously become a gentle slope. It did become a slope, but a steep one; worse, Gertrude found she was growing heavier.

With each step her weight increased and her muscles were more strained to lift herself the next step. She was strong enough to climb bearing half again her weight, but it was disturbing. What could she expect next?

The little she could remember of her college physics told her nothing except that all this was impossible. By the time she approached the top of the chasm, she had formed a vague theory. She was very careful of her balance as she eased her body up out of the chasm. Then standing erect she jumped ten feet straight up and slowly floated down. She was right; gravity on this side was only a third of normal.

Major Tong shouted, "What is this?" The major was puzzled to the point of angry frustration.

Jar Quinan smiled at him. "Surely it is obvious. We saw before us a city whose buildings are too weak to bear their normal weight. Naturally the city is in an area where weight is less than normal."

"Then why the chasm? Why did that stone Gertrude threw come back?" demanded the major.

"Clearly an interface phenomena," replied Gertrude. "This is a localized gravity warp, and the potential energy has to be adjusted to match earth's gravity potential. That requires odd fields at the edges." Gertrude went on to spout quite a bit of scientific nonsense until the major smiled and said he understood it.

"Unfortunately we have another mystery to solve." Jar Quinan pointed to what had appeared to be the wounded soldier. It was only his uniform and equipment. The clothes were all arranged inside each other as if a man were wearing them, but the body was gone. "Why would whoever killed him arrange his clothes thus?"

Tong swore under his breath as he examined the remains. "The body is gone, the belt, the boot laces, the pack straps, and every other bit of leather are gone. Here is the bullet hole where you shot him, but nowhere in his clothes are there any blood stains." Opening the soldier's pack, he lifted a can and examined it carefully "This can of meat shows no sign of tampering, but --" he pulled it open "-- it's empty. Tell me, monk, have you an obvious explanation for this."

"Certainly, this poor man and all the animal matter he carried were eaten by a demon. I realize you Chinese don't believe in our Tibetan demons, but it ate him anyway."

Tong's eyes flashed but he managed a calm voice. "You may not be far from the truth. Before the dwellers in Ul Chalan and their powers we are but three ants. To us such powerful beings must be demons. If they notice us, it will be to step on us."

Jar opened the other supplies from the soldier's pack. "Let's eat. You'll feel less pessimistic on a full stomach."

Tong sat down and snapped, "In all my years in the army, that's the first good idea to come from a chaplain."

Jar hit a chocolate bar with his pistol butt. It broke like plate glass. "Here, Gertrude, put small pieces into your mouth and let them melt." When they finished the frigid meal, Jar announced, "As a native Tibetan I should have little trouble breathing at this altitude without this oxygen tank. For me oxygen is a luxury but not for Gertrude. Since the supply is limited, I'm going to stop using it and I suggest, Major, that you use your oxygen tank sparingly."

Suiting his actions to his words, he turned off the tank valve and removed the mask. He breathed the air of Ul Chalan and with a puzzled expression turned blue and keeled over. Gertrude caught him, reopened the valve and put the mask back on Jar's face. His breathing did not resume, and Gertrude gave mouth to mouth resuscitation. This was awkward with the oxygen masks, but in a moment Jar revived. As his eyes opened, Gertrude hastily removed her face from his.

"What happened to me?"

Tong laughed. "This mystery I can explain. Look." He struck a match. While there was a tiny brief flash, it refused to ignite. "The atmosphere here has no oxygen."

"In that case we had best do what we can rapidly, for we have only a few hours of breathing left. Major, if you will bring the soldier's oxygen tank."

Gertrude rose and began to march to the city. The plain through which they walked had appeared completely barren from a distance. The granite rock of the plateau was covered in places with drifts of yellow and red sand. In other places there were green brown discolorations on the naked rock. On closer examination the discolorations proved to be plants. At first glance Gertrude thought they were lichens such as grow in the Chang Tang, but there was no real resemblance. The plants, though ugly in overall shape, were beautiful in fine detail, lovely intricate lace work.

Tong touched the plant. "This thing is not frozen." His knife flashed; he cut one of the plant's stem, and got a drop of its sap on his finger.

"Wait," said the monk. "Is it wise to taste this alien thing?"

"Bah, you Tibetans are afraid of everything foreign." Tong touched the sap to his tongue. "The plant's not frozen because its sap is good vodka." Tong tried to uproot the plant but could not. Its roots were not in cracks in the rock, they were sunk directly into the unbroken granite. They hastened toward the city.

Near the city the ground was very flat and three foot cubes of'rock were arranged in neat rows. The plants growing on the rock cubes were much larger and fatter than those they had seen before.

Tong snarled, "This farm must yield enough vodka to keep an army drunk, but what do they eat?"

The attack came without warning. Before Gertrude could raise her forty-five, the thing was upon her. It was black with a broad thin flat body like a vast opera cloak. Gertrude struggled furiously to level her gun, but could not for the monster held her tightly in its tentacles. The thing's nightmare face bent slowly toward Gertrude's face, the three eyes glowing with an avid hunger.

What is this alien thing that eats from a can without opening it? Is it still hungry? Find out in the Next Thrilling Episode: BATTLING THE DEMON HORDE!

Previous episode: Rogues' Alliance
Next episode: Battling the Demon Horde

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The City of Ul Chalan was originally published in Analog Magazine, July 1973, copyright Richard K. Lyon.  It is reprinted here with the author's permission.