Read The Altar at Asconel Online

Authors: John Brunner

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The Altar at Asconel

THE ALTAR AT ASCONEL

John Brunner

www.sf-gateway.com

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I

A
T LAST
, after almost ten years, the moment had come. He felt himself ready for the task he had undertaken.

Spartak of Asconel closed the latest of hundreds of books which he had consulted, drew a deep breath, and gazed around his cell. Other books were piled high on every shelf; beside them were tape, crystal and disc recordings, reels of microfilm, manuscripts—the winnowings of a decade-long search through the unparralleled store of knowledge here on Annanworld.

The switch from student to teacher was as easy as picking up the microphone of his own recorder and uttering the first words. Yet it was somehow not easy at all. In one instant he would change the pattern of his life—not obviously, as when he left Asconel forever, but subjectively. The realization brought with it a curious floating sensation, as though he were suspended in space between two planets.

Abruptly he was impatient with his own reluctance. His
hand closed on the microphone as though seizing a noxious plant that must be gripped firmly to prevent it stinging, and he began to speak in a measured voice, not diffident or hesitant, but nonetheless unassured, as if it were a long time since he last made a dogmatic assertion of the truth.

And that was so. Life on Annanworld centered on a single basic assumption: that mankind knew a great deal, but understood virtually nothing.

“The fall of the Empire,” he commenced, and heard in imagination the crashing of worlds like bowling-balls being hurled down a skittle-alley, “is for most people shrouded in a mystery only less deep than the obscurity attending its foundation, and that although the former event is closer to us in time than the latter by some ten thousand years. The reason in both cases is the same, and so simple that it generally has to be pointed out before it is noticed. It is as difficult to maintain detailed records during a landslide as it is during an explosion.

“The erosive effect of ten millennia has stripped the deceitful flesh from the story of the Imperial rise; today we are fortunate enough to have only the skeleton arrayed before us. We know that we were borrowers; we know that we inherited the abandoned property—most significantly, the interstellar ships—of a people who matured and died in the galactic hub while we were struggling outward from our legendary planet of origin. We know that this chance bequest allowed our race to spread among millions of stars like an epidemic disease. We know that our reckless habit of spending our resources as though their store was infinite was sustained for the entire lifetime of the Argian Empire by the billion-vessel spacefleet of our mysterious benefactors. Details beyond this bare outline, however, can now almost certainly never be reclaimed. It is as though one were to blink and find a century had passed. Blink now, and man is creeping along the galactic rim, in those areas which were later to be regarded as the home of mutants and pirates—but which, significantly, were and remain the only areas where interstellar ships have been built by human beings. Blink again, and Argus is already a wealthy world, imposing economic domination on its neighbors like Phaidona. Blink
once more, and the Empire’s writ runs all the way to the Marches of Klareth, and the threshold of the Big Dark.”

Now he was warming to his tale, the greatest in the checkered span of human history. His hooded eyes saw other sights than the plain stone walls of the tiny room; the note of uncertainty was fading from his voice. He was scarcely aware of the opening of his door, and did not turn to look at the gray-clad novice who appeared in the entrance.

“So total was the absorption of our borrowings into the pattern of human development,” he continued, “that tens—perhaps hundreds—of billions of people were born and died without being able to conceive an alternative to the structure of the Empire. Yet … something strained past its limit. Something was overburdened, and broke. And the Empire fell.”

The novice, impatient perhaps, moved from one foot to the other; the disturbance caught a fragment of Spartak’s attention, and he bowed his bearded head in a brief nod of acknowledgment, though without breaking the flow of his discourse.

“The collapse left more worlds than we can count suspended, as it were, in a void between a glorious past and a future so bleak it has been nicknamed, already, the Long Night. Most relapsed towards barbarism; having been dependent for millennia on the tightly-knit network of galactic trade they could not support their own populations. Others, somewhat more fortunate, contrived to hold on to a portion of what they had formerly enjoyed, but at the expense of extreme privation and a near-total denial of individual liberty. An example in this category was Mercator, which conquered and then bled two nearby worlds to preserve itself. Again, there were worlds—including Argus itself, the galactic capitol—where the dissolution proceeded slowly enough for adjustments to be made without undue violence.”

A draft from the still-open door stirred some notes before him, and reminded him that the novice was waiting for a chance to speak to him. He began to hurry, wishing to get the whole of his initial argument on record before interrupting himself.

“The purpose of this present work, however, is to make a contribution towards the documentation of the first truly
human expansion through the galaxy—one, that is, which does not depend on the leavings of another species. It may never take place; we may have squandered our energies too swiftly, and already be going into a permanent decline. On the optimistic assumption that the present trend is to be reversed, the seeds of such a regeneration may most likely be found on worlds sufficiently far from the cataclysmic effect of Argus’s decay to have maintained their society under the guidance of benevolent rulers, like Loudor, Klareth, and the subject of this study: my home world of Asconel.”

He put aside the microphone, and the hum of the recorder died. Shifting his lanky body in its coarse brown robe to face the intruder, he looked questioningly at him.

“I’m sorry, Brother Spartak,” the novice said. “Brother Ulwyn sent me with a message from the gatehouse. There is a man demanding to see you who claims to be your brother.”

Spartak repressed an exclamation of astonishment and put his hand to his crisp brown beard. He said, “Ah—well, it’s not impossible. I have brothers, though I never expected to see one of them on Annanworld.…What’s his name?”

The novice looked unhappy, and shuffled his sandal-clad feet on the stone flags. He said, “I’m afraid Brother Ulwyn didn’t tell me.”

“What does he look like? Did you see him?”

“I caught a glimpse of him through the bars of the gate. He’s—well, not as tall as you are, and he has red hair. And there’s a long scar down his right cheek, which looks like a sword-cut.” The novice added the final detail eagerly.

“That’s not very helpful—all three of my brothers have red hair and all are shorter than I am, and last time I saw them none had a sword-scar!”

“He bears no resemblance to you that I could tell,” the novice suggested after a pause.

“That’s no help either,” Spartak grunted. “I call them my brothers, but in fact we’re half-brothers, only. Well, it can hardly be Hodat, who rules on Asconel, so it must be either Vix or Tiorin. Does he—? But why am I asking these ridiculous questions? All you have to do is send him in!”

“Unfortunately—” The novice swallowed in enormous embarrassment.
“Unfortunately Brother Ulwyn cannot admit him. He carries a gun, and will not part with it.”

In spite of himself, and his oath of allegiance to the principles of his non-violent Order, Spartak felt he was beginning to grin. “It sounds like Vix,” he said gravely. “Tell me, has he already threatened to burn his way in if the gate isn’t opened?”

“I—I imagine so, from Brother Ulwyn’s agitation,” the novice confirmed, and ventured a shy smile.

“That’ll be Vix,” Spartak murmured, and got to his feet. “Ten years haven’t changed him very much, that’s obvious. Well, I’ll go with you and find out what he wants.”

They passed through twilit passages, cool for all the baking heat of noon outdoors, and walked the length of the gravel paths between the crisp green lawns, the low trees and beds of carefully tended flowers. Here and there, groups of gray-clad novices—among them an occasional off-world student in gaudier clothing—gathered about their brown-robed tutors, discussing knotty points of human history. Spartak caught random phrases as he passed, but only a few, for without realizing he had quickened his stride till the novice was scuttling to keep up. After all, the appearance of a brother he hadn’t seen in a decade—even a half-brother—was an event.

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