Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
“I hear you. Are you hurt?”
“Not badly. Lee, what are you doing? I saw the flyers land.”
“Manning wants to attack the city as soon as the land party gets here. What's going on there?”
“I'm ... in the temple. I've been trying to communicate with them. I've got an interpreter, but they don't listen to what I say. Lee, this is incredible here! They've brought out a lot of weapons ... some of them don't work. The hall is half-filled with dust and sand, and they move so clumsily! They're trying to hurry, because they saw you too, but it's like ... like they've forgotten how. They think they can get rid of us all, but they.... It's pitiful—they're so slow.”
“Those disintegrators aren't slow,” Rynason said. Manning was standing beside him; he dropped a hand on his shoulder, but Rynason shook it off. “Are they using the machine ... the altar?”
“They were using it when they brought me in. I think it
the Outsiders. But they don't seem to know it's just a machine—they kneel in front of it, and chant. It's so strange, in that language of theirs ... those thin, high voices, and the echoes....”
“They're holding you prisoner?”
“Yes. I think they want to hold you off till they can get ready for their own attack.”
For their what?
” Rynason stood up, and looked toward the city; he could see no movement there.
“I know ... it's incredible. Lee, they don't know what they're doing. Horng said on the interpreter that they were going to drive us off the planet, and then rebuild their cities, and re-arm. It's something to do with Kor, or the Outsiders. The orders have changed. They think that if they can drive us away for awhile they can build themselves up to where they can repel any further touchdowns here.”
“This order came from the machine?”
“Yes. There was a mistake, and Horng realized it after you linked with him this morning. The Outsiders, or Kor or whatever it is, had overestimated us.”
“Maybe then, but not now. They're committing suicide!” Rynason said.
“I know, and I tried to tell them that. But the machine says differently. Lee, do you think that's really the Outsiders?”
“If it is,” he said slowly, “they wouldn't send the Hirlaji against us without some help.” He thought a minute, while the wind of the Flat blew sand against his leg and static came from the radio. “They could be making another mistake!” Mara said. “I'm sure what they told the Outsiders wasn't true—they think they're as strong as they were before. But their eyes ... their eyes are afraid. I know it.”
“Do they know what you're saying to me?”
“No. Lee, I'm not even sure they know what a radio is. Maybe they think I carry my portable altar with me.” Her voice had taken on a frantic note. “It's a ... a simple case of freedom of religion, Lee! Freedom of religion!”
“Mara! Calm down! Calm down!” He waited for a few seconds, until her voice came again, more quietly:
“I'm sorry ... it's just that they're so....”
“Forget it. Sit tight there. I think I know how to slip in—alone.” He switched off.
He stood up and shrugged his shoulders heavily, loosening his tensed muscles. Then he turned purposefully to Manning.
“The rest of the party won't be here for awhile yet, so you can't possibly go in now. I'm going to try to get Mara out before any fighting starts.”
“What if they capture you too?” Manning said. “I can't hold off an attack too long—you could be right about the Outsiders helping them. The sooner we finish them off, the better.”
Rynason looked coldly at him. “You heard what Mara said. We won't have any trouble taking them. You can't attack them while she's in there, though. Or can you?”
“Lee. I've told you—I can't take chances. If the Outsiders are in this, it's a dangerous business. You can go in if you want, but we're not waiting more than half an hour for you to get out.”
Rynason met his gaze steadily for a moment, then nodded brusquely. “All right.” He turned and moved into the over-hanging shadows of the mountains, toward the ancient, alien city.
He stayed in the shadows as he approached the walls of the fortress, darting quickly across exposed ground. The Hirlaji were large and powerful, physical battle with them was of course out of the question. But he had some things on his side: he was small, and therefore less likely to be seen; he was faster than the quiet, aged aliens. And he knew the city, the fortress and the temple, almost as well as they did.
Perhaps better, in fact, for his purposes. For while he had shared Tebron's mind he had been ... not only Tebron, but also Rynason, Earthman. A corner of his mind had been alert and aware ... hearing the distant screams of Horng, wondering about the design of the Altar of Kor. And he had seen other things when he looked through Tebron's eyes: when the ancient warlord had stormed the city-fortress, there had been an observer in him who had said: An Earthman could go in this way, unobserved. A smaller attacker could slip through
, could conceal himself where no Hirlaji could reach.
He arrived, at last, at the base of the wall where the blunt rocks of the mountains tumbled to a dead-end against flat, weathered stone. So far he must not have been seen; there had been no disintegrator beams fired at him, no leathery Hirlaji heads watching from the walls. He flattened against the stone and raised his eyes to the barriers.
The wall here had been built higher than the portions which faced the Flat, and it was stronger. No one had tried to storm the city from this position, because it was too well protected. But the walls had been built against the heavy, clumsy bodies of the grey aliens; with luck, a man could scale this wall. The footholds in the weathered stones would be precarious, but perhaps it could be done. And the Hirlaji, who regarded this wall as impregnable, would not be guarding it.
Sighting upward from flat against the wall, he chose his path quickly, and began to climb. The stone was smooth but grainy; he dug his fingers into narrow niches and pulled himself slowly upward, bracing himself with footholds whenever he could. It was laborious, painful work; twice he lost handholds and hung precariously until his straining fingers again found some indentation. Sweat covered him; the wind from the Flat whipped around the wall and touched the moisture on his back coldly. But his face was set in a frozen grimness and though his breath came in gasps he made no other sound.
When he had neared the top he suddenly seemed to reach a dead-end; the stones were smooth above him. His arms ached, his shoulders seemed deadened; he clung numbly to the wall and searched for another path. When he found it, he had to descend ten feet and move to the right before he could re-ascend; as he retraced his route down the wall he noticed blood where his torn fingers had left their mark. But he could not feel the pain in his fingers.
At last, when the wall had come to seem a separate world of existence which was all that he would ever know, a vertical plane to which he clung with dim determination, hardly knowing why any longer ... at last, he reached the top. His groping hand reached up and found the edge of the wall; his fingers grasped it gratefully and he pulled himself up to hang by both hands and survey the interior of the fortress.
A deserted floor stretched before him, shadowed by the late-afternoon darkness which crept down from the mountains to rest on the aged remains of the city. Forty feet down the walkway he saw stairs descending, but his head swam and all he could focus on clearly was the light film of dust and sand which covered even this topmost level of the city, blown in shallow drifts against the walls which rose a few feet above the floor here. There were no footprints in that dust; no one had walked here for thousands of years.
Wearily, he pulled himself over the last barrier and fell numbly to the floor, where he lay for long minutes fighting for breath. His lungs were raw; the thin air of the planet caught and rasped in his throat. His hands were torn and bleeding, and the knife-scar over his right eye had begun to throb, but he ignored the pain. He had to clear his head....
Eventually he was able to stand, swaying beneath the dark sky. Below him he saw the city, broken and dim, empty streets winding between fallen walls and pillars. Mara's flyer lay shattered against one of those broken walls; seeing it, he wondered how badly she had been hurt.
He moved toward the stairs, and descended them slowly. The stairs of the city were as he had remembered them from Tebron's memories, and yet not the same. To the Earthman they were steep: the steps were like separate levels, three feet across and almost four feet deep. His legs ached at each step as the shock of his weight fell on them.
He reached the bottom level and paused in the doorway onto the street. It was empty, but he had to think a moment before he could remember his bearings. Yes, the Temple was that way, somewhere down the dusty street. He moved through the deeper shadows at the base of the buildings, remembering.
Tebron had taken this city at the head of a force of warriors. To him it had been large and majestic, a place of power and knowledge. But Rynason, moving wearily through the dust of the ages which had fallen upon the city since the ancient king, found it not merely large, but huge; not majestic, but futile. And the power and knowledge which it once had held was but a dusty shadow now. Somewhere ahead, in the Temple, the survivors of that ages-old culture were trying to bring the city to life again. With or without the Outsiders, he felt, they must fail. They really wanted to bring themselves back to life, to reawaken their minds, their dreams, their own power. But they tried to do it with memories, and that was not the way.
No one was guarding the Temple. Rynason went up the steps as quickly as he could, vaulting from level to level, trying to stay in the shadows, listening for movement. But sounds did not carry far in the air of Hirlaj; the aliens would not hear him approaching, but he might not hear any of them either until he stumbled upon them.
At the top of the stairs he darted into the shadows of the colonnade which surrounded the interior. Doorways opened at intervals of fifty feet around the building; he would have to circle to the side and enter there if at all. He slipped quickly between the columns and paused at the third doorway. He dropped to the floor, lay flat on his chest and looked inside.
They were all there—two dozen heavy grey aliens, sitting, standing, staring quietly at the floor. There was little movement among them, but nevertheless he could feel the excitement which pervaded the Temple. No, not excitement—anxiety. Fear. Watching those huge bodies huddling into themselves, he heard an echo of Horng's screams in his mind. These creatures were afraid of battle, of conflict, and yet they had thrust themselves into a fight which they must lose. Did they know that? Could they believe what the machine of the Outsiders told them, after it had been proven fallible?
The Eye of Kor glowed dully in the dark inner room; two of the Hirlaji stood silently before it, watching, waiting. But the religion of Kor had played no part in the lives of the Hirlaji for generations. Now that the ancient, muddled religion had been brought to life again, could it have the same hold on them that it had once had?
Mara was on the floor of the Temple, leaning with her back against the wall. One of the doorways from the outer colonnade was nearby, but five of the Hirlaji surrounded her. And with a start Rynason noticed that her left arm hung limp and twisted at her side, and blood showed on her forehead. Her face showed no emotion, but as he watched she raised her right hand to run fingers through her long dark hair, nervously.
She had not seen him, but she was waiting. When he made his move she would follow him. Rynason slipped back from the doorway and circled the building again until he had reached the entrance nearest the girl. He drew out his stunner from its holster and looked at it for a moment. He would have to be fast; his weapon would give him no advantage against the disintegrators of the Hirlaji, but surprise and speed might. And, perhaps ... fear.
He broke around the corner of the doorway at a dead run, firing as he went. Two of the Hirlaji fell before they could even turn; they crumpled to the floor heavily. Then he screamed—a high scream, like Horng's, and as loud as he could make it, a wail, a cry of anguish and terror and pain. They felt it, and it touched a response in them; the Hirlaji who surrounded Mara twisted to look at him, but they instinctively shrank away. He continued to fire, bringing down three more of them while the confusion lasted. He broke through to Mara, who was already on her feet; without breaking his stride he grasped her by her good shoulder and pulled her along with him as he ran through.
But some of the Hirlaji recovered in time to block their escape. Rynason wheeled, looking frantically around the room for an unguarded exit. None of those within reach were clear. He fired again, and ran for the altar.
One of the Hirlaji had raised a disintegrator; Rynason caught him with the stunner as he fired, and the beam of the alien's weapon shot past his leg, digging a pit into the floor beyond him. Other weapons were raised now; they had only seconds left.
But they had reached the altar; the two Hirlaji there moved to block them, but they were unarmed and Rynason dropped them with the stunner. He pushed Mara past them and around to the side of the altar, seeking cover from the disintegrators.
Behind the altar, there was a space just large enough for them to squeeze through. Rynason's heart leaped; he pointed quickly to it and turned to fire again as Mara pushed her way into the narrow aperture. A disintegrator beam hissed over his head; another tore into the wall two feet away from him. The Hirlaji were trying to keep their fire away from the altar itself.
Rynason turned and squeezed behind the altar as soon as Mara was clear. It was tight, but he made it, and once through the narrow opening they found more room in the darkness. They could hear noise outside as the Hirlaji moved toward the altar, but it sounded far away and dim. Mara moved back into the darkness, and he followed.
They moved perhaps twenty feet into the wall behind the altar before they were brought to a halt. The passage ended. Well, no matter; if it was not an escape route, at least it would afford cover from the weapons of the Hirlaji. Rynason dropped to the floor and rested.