Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
He walked up the last few steps and stepped into the shadows of the Temple of Kor....
The walls melted around him and Rynason felt his mind wrenched painfully. There was a screaming all through him, thin and high, blotting out the contact he had held with Tebron's mind. It was Horng's scream, beside him, overpowering. Terror washed over him; he tried to fight it but he couldn't. The shadows of the walls twisted and faded, Tebron's thoughts disappeared, and all that remained was the screaming and the fear, like a mouth open wide against his ear and hot breath shouting into him. He felt his stomach turn and nausea and vertigo threw him panting out of Tebron's mind.
Yet Horng was still beside him in the darkness, and as the echoes faded he felt him there ... alien, but calm. There had been fear in this huge alien mind, but it had disappeared almost immediately with the breaking of the connection with Tebron. All that remained in Horng's mind now was a dull quietness.
Rynason felt a rueful grin on his face, and he said, perhaps aloud and perhaps not, “You haven't forgotten what happened here, old leather. The memories are there, all right.”
From Horng's mind came a slow rebuilding of the fear that he had just experienced, but it subsided. And as it did Rynason probed again into his mind, searching quickly for that contact he had just lost. He could almost feel Tebron's mind, began to see the darkness forming the wall-shadows, when again there was a blast of the terror and he felt his mind reeling back from those memories. The screaming filled his mind and body and this time he felt Horng himself blocking him, pushing him back.
But there was no need for that; the fear was not Horng's alone. Rynason felt it too, and he retreated before its onslaught with an overpowering need to preserve his own sanity.
When the darkness subsided Rynason became aware of himself still sitting on the stone bench, sweat drenching his body. Horng sat before him in the same position he had been in when they had started; it was as if nothing had happened at all. Rynason wearily raised one hand and motioned to Mara to break the linkage.
She switched off the telepather and gingerly removed the wires from his head, frowning worriedly at him. But she waited for him to speak.
He grinned at her after a moment and said, “It was a bit rough in there. We couldn't break through.”
She was removing the wires from Horng, who sat unmoving, staring dully over Rynason's shoulder at the wall behind him. “You should have seen yourself when you were under,” she said. “I wanted to break the connection before, but I wasn't sure....”
Rynason sat forward and flexed the muscles of his shoulders and back. They ached as though they had been tense for an hour, and his stomach was still knotted tight.
“There's a real block there,” he said. “It's like a thousand screaming birds flapping in your face. When you get that far into his mind, you feel it too.” He sat staring down at his feet, exhausted mentally and physically.
She sat on the bench and looked closely at him. “Anything else?”
“Yes—Horng. At the end, the second time I went in, I could feel him, not only fighting me, but ... hating me.” He looked up at her. “Can you imagine actually feeling him, right next to you in your mind like you were one person, hating you?”
Across from them, the huge figure of the alien slowly stood up and looked at them for several long seconds, then turned and left the building.
Manning's quarters were larger than most of the prefab structures in the new Earth town; the building was out near the end of one of the streets, a single-storied plastic-and-metal box on a quick-concrete slab base. Well, it was as well constructed as any of the buildings in the Edge planetfalls, Rynason reflected as he knocked on the door. And there was room for all of the survey team workers.
Manning himself let him in, grabbing his hand in a firm grip that nevertheless lacked the man's usual heavy joviality. “Come on in; the others are already here,” Manning said, and walked ahead of him into the larger of the two rooms inside. His step was brisk as always, but there was a touch of real hurry in it which Rynason noticed immediately. Manning was worried about something.
“All right; we're all set,” Manning said, leaning against a wall at the front of the room. Rynason found a seat on the arm of a chair next to Mara and Marc Stoworth, a slightly heavy, blond-haired man in his thirties who wore his hair cut short on the sides but long in back. He looked like every one of the young corporation executives Rynason had seen in the outworlds, and probably would have gone into that kind of position if he'd had the connections. He certainly seemed out of place even among the varied assortment of types who worked the archaeological and geological surveys ... but these surveys were conducted by the big corporations who were interested in developing the outworlds; probably Stoworth hoped eventually to move up into the lower management offices when the corporations moved in.
“Gentlemen, there's something very wrong about these dumb horses we've been dealing with,” Manning said. “I'm going to throw out a few facts at you and see if you don't come to the same conclusions that Larsborg and I did.”
Rynason leaned over to Mara and murmured, “What's his problem today?”
But she was frowning. “He's got a real one. Listen.”
Manning had picked up a sheaf of typescript from the table next to him and was flipping through it, his lips pursed grimly. “This is the report I got yesterday from Larsborg here—architecture and various other artifacts. It's very interesting. Herb, throw that first photo onto the screen.”
The lights went off and the screen in the wall beside Manning lit up with a reproduction of one of the Hirlaji structures out on the Flat. It stood in the shadow of an overhanging rock-cliff, protected from the planet's heavy winds on three sides. Larsborg had apparently set up lights for a clearer picture; the whole building stood out sharply against the shadows of the background.
“This look familiar to any of you?” Manning said quietly.
For a moment Rynason continued to stare uncomprehending at the picture. He had seen a lot of the Hirlaji buildings since they'd landed; this one was better preserved but not essentially different in design. Larsborg had cleared away most of the dirt and sand which had been packed up against its sides, exposing the full height of the structure, and he'd apparently sand-blasted the carved designs over the entrance, but....
Then he realized what he was seeing. The angle of the photo was a bit different than that from which he'd seen the other structure back on Tentar XI, but the similarity was unmistakable. This was a reproduction in stone of that same building, the one they'd reconstructed two years before.
He heard a wave of voices growing around the room, and Manning's voice cut-through it with: “That's right, gentlemen: it's an Outsiders building. It's not in that crazy, damned metal or alloy or whatever it was that they used, but it's the same design. Take a good long look at it before we go on to the next photo.”
Rynason looked ... closely. Yes, it was the same design a bit cruder, and the carvings weren't the same, but the lines of the doorway and the cornice....
The next picture flashed onto the screen. It was a closeup of the designs over the entrance, shot in sharp relief so that they stood out starkly. The room was so quiet that Rynason could hear the hum behind the screen in the wall.
“That's Outsiders stuff too,” said Breune. “It's not quite the same, though ... distorted.”
“It's carved in stone, not stamped in metal,” Manning said. “It's the same thing, all right. Anybody disagree?”
No one did.
“All right, then; let's have the lights back up again.”
The lights came on and once more there was a murmur of talking around the room. Rynason shifted his position on the seat and tried to catch the thought that had slipped through his mind just before the screen had faded. There was another similarity.... Well, he'd seen a lot of the Outsider buildings in the past few years; it wasn't necessary to trace all the evidences right now.
“What I want to know is, why didn't any of the rest of you see this?” said Manning angrily. “Have you all got plastic for brains? Over a dozen men spend weeks researching these damn horsefaces, and only one of you has the sense to see the evidence of his own eyes!”
“Maybe we should turn in our spades,” said Stoworth.
Manning glared at him. “Maybe you should, if you think this isn't serious. Let's get this clear: these old horsefaces that so many of you think are just as quaint as can be have been building in exactly the same style as the Outsiders. Quaint, are they? Harmless too, I suppose!”
He stood with his hands on his hips, dropped his head and took a long, deep breath. When he looked up again his forehead was furrowed into an intense frown. “Gentlemen ... as I call you from force of habit ... we've been finding dead cities of the Outsiders for centuries. They were all over God knows how many galaxies before your ancestors or mine had stopped playing with their tails; as far as we can tell they had a civilization as tightly-knit as our own, and probably stronger. And sometime about forty thousand years ago they started pulling out. They left absolutely nothing behind but empty buildings and a few crumbling bits of machinery. And we've been following those remains ever since we got out of our own star-system.
“Well, we just may have found them at last. Right here, on Hirlaj. Now what do you think of that?”
No one said anything for a minute. Rynason looked down at Mara, caught her smile, and stood up.
“I don't think the Hirlaji are the Outsiders,” he said calmly.
Manning shot a sharp glance at him. “You saw the photos.”
“Yes, I saw them. That's Outsiders work, all right, or something a lot like it. But it doesn't necessarily prove that these ... how many of them are there? Twenty-five? I don't think these creatures are the Outsiders. We've traced their history back practically to the point of complete barbarism. Their culture was never once high enough to get them off this planet, let alone to let them spread all over among the stars.”
Manning waited for him to finish, then he turned back to the rest of the men in the room and spread his hands. “Now that, gentlemen, just shows how much we've found out so far.” He looked over at Rynason again. “Has it occurred to you, Lee, that if these horses
the Outsiders, that maybe they know a little more than we do? I suppose you're going to say you had a telepathic hookup with one of them and you didn't see a thing to make you suspicious ... but just remember that they've been using telepathy for several thousand years and that you hardly know what you're doing when you try it.
“Look, I don't trust them—if they're the Outsiders they've got maybe a hundred thousand years head-start on us scientifically. There may be only a couple dozen of them, but we don't know how strong they are.”
“That's if they're really the Outsiders,” said Rynason.
Manning nodded his head impatiently. “Yes, that's what I'm saying. If they're the Outsiders, which looks like a sensible conclusion. Or do you have a better one?”
“Well, I don't know if it's better,” said Rynason. “It may not even be as attractive, for that matter. But have you considered that maybe when the Outsiders pulled out of our area they simply moved on elsewhere? We're so used to seeing dead cities that we think automatically that the Outsiders must be dead too, which I suppose is what's bothering you about finding the Hirlaji here alive. But it might be worse. That whole empire could simply have moved on to this area; we could be on the edge of it right now, ready to run head-on into a hundred star systems just crowded with the Outsiders.”
Manning stared at him, and the expression on his face was not quite anger. Something like it, but not anger.
“The ruins we've found here were built by the Hirlaji,” Rynason said. “I saw them building when I was linked with Horng, and these are the same structures. But the design was copied from older buildings, and I don't know how far back I'd have to search the memories before I found where they originally got that kind of approach to design. Maybe back before they developed telepathy. But this race simply isn't as old as the Outsiders; they came out of barbarism thousands of years after the Outsiders had left those dead cities we've been finding. The chances are that if the Hirlaji were influenced by the Outsiders it was sometime around thirty thousand years ago ... which means the Outsiders came this way when they left those cities. That would mean that we're following them ... and we might catch up at any time.”
He stopped for a moment, then said, “We're moving faster than they were, and we have no idea where they may have settled again. One more starfall further beyond the Edge, and we may run into one of their present outposts. But this isn't it. Not yet.”
Manning was still staring at Rynason, but it was a curious stare. “You're pretty sure that what you've been getting out of that horseface's head is real?” he asked levelly. “You trust them?”
Rynason nodded. “Horng was really afraid; that was real. I felt it myself. And the rest of it was real, too—I could see the whole racial memory there, and nobody could have been making that up. If you'd experienced that...”
“Well, I didn't,” Manning said shortly. “And I don't think I trust them.” He paused, and after a moment frowned. “But this direct linkage business does seem to be the best way we have of checking on them. I want you to get busy, Lee, and go after that horse's thoughts for us. Don't let him drive you out again; if he's hiding something, get in there and see what it is. Above all, don't trust him.
“If these things are the Outsiders, they could be bluffing us.”
Manning stopped talking, and thought a minute. He looked up under raised eyebrows at Rynason. “And be careful, Lee. I'm counting on you.”
Rynason ignored his paternal gaze, and turned instead to Mara. “We'll try it again tomorrow,” he said. “Get in a requisition for a telepather this afternoon; make sure we'll have one ready to go first thing in the morning. I'll check back with you about an hour after we leave here today.”