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41. Meteor

The vast artificial lake known for two thousand years as the Sea of Paravana lay calm and peaceful beneath the stone gaze of its builder. Though few now visited the lonely statue of Kalidasa's father, his work, if not his fame, had outlasted that of his son; and it had served his country infinitely better, bringing food and drink to a hundred generations of men. And to many more generations of birds, deer, buffalo, monkeys and their predators, like the sleek and well-fed leopard now drinking at the water's edge. The big cats were becoming rather too common and were inclined to be a nuisance, now that they no longer had anything to fear from hunters. But they never attacked men, unless they were cornered or molested.

Confident of his security, the leopard was leisurely drinking his fill, as the shadows round the lake lengthened and twilight advanced from the east. Suddenly, he pricked up his ears and became instantly alert; but no mere human senses could have detected any change in land, water or sky. The evening was as tranquil as ever.

And then, directly out of the zenith, came a faint whistling that grew steadily to a rumbling roar, with tearing, ripping undertones, quite unlike that of a re-entering spacecraft. Up in the sky something metallic was sparkling in the last rays of the sun, growing larger and larger and leaving a trail of smoke behind it. As it expanded, it disintegrated; pieces shot off in all directions, some of them burning as they did so. For a few seconds an eye as keen as the leopard's might have glimpsed a roughly cylindrical object, before it exploded into a myriad fragments. But the leopard did not wait for the final catastrophe; it had already disappeared into the jungle.

The Sea of Paravana erupted in sudden thunder. A geyser of mud and spray shot a hundred metres into the air – a fountain far surpassing those of Yakkagala, and one indeed almost as high as the Rock itself. It hung suspended for a moment in futile defiance of gravity, then tumbled back into the shattered lake.

Already, the sky was full of waterfowl wheeling in startled flight. Almost as numerous, flapping among them like leathery pterodactyls who had somehow survived into the modern age, were the big fruit-bats who normally took to the air only after dusk. Now, equally terrified, birds and bats shared the sky together.

The last echoes of the crash died away into the encircling jungle; silence swiftly returned to the lake. But long minutes passed before its mirror surface was restored and the little waves ceased to scurry back and forth beneath the unseeing eyes of Paravana the Great.

40. The End of the Line | The Fountains of Paradise | 42. Death in Orbit