Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
“How am I to suppress the race? Is it possible to convince each of them of the necessity for abandoning forgetting all questing?”
The Eye hummed, and grew brighter against the darkness of the carved wall behind it, but it was some time before Kor spoke again.
It would be impossible to convince every one. The reasons must be kept from them, and kept from the shared memories; you must not communicate my knowledge words in any way. Consolidate your power, force peace upon them and lead them into acceptance. The knowledge questing can be made to die within them. Remember that there will be no purpose ... in that they must find contentment.
The king priest leader of all Hirlaj waited a moment, and was ready to rise and leave when the Eye spoke again.
You must abolish the priesthood. The knowledge which I have given to you must die when you die.
He waited for a long time in the dim, suddenly cold hall for the god leader to speak again, then slowly rose and walked to the door, the image of the Eye of Kor still bright in his vision. He stopped outside the doorway, hearing the soft wind of the city flowing slowly past the stone archway above him. One of his guards reached out and touched his mind tentatively, but he blocked his thoughts and strode heavily down the steps past them.
The sound of the wind above him rose to a screaming, and suddenly it was as though he were tumbling down the entire length of the stairway, fragments of sky and stone and faces flashing past in a kaleidoscope, and the screaming all around him. He almost reached for his bludgeon, but then he realized that he was not Tebron Marl ... he was Lee Rynason, and the screaming was Horng and he was being driven out of those thoughts, tumbling through a thousand memories so fast he could not grasp any one of them.
He withdrew from Horng's mind as though from a nightmare; he became aware of his own body, lying in the dust of Hirlaj, and he opened his eyes and motioned weakly to Mara to break the connection.
When she had done so he slowly sat up and shook his head, waiting for it to clear. For awhile he had been an ancient king of Hirlaj, and it took some time to return to the present, to his own consciousness. He was dimly aware of Mara kneeling beside him, but he couldn't make out her words at first.
“Are you all right? Are you sure? Look up at me, Lee, please.”
He found himself nodding to reassure her, and then he saw the expression on her face and felt the last wisps of alien fog clearing from his mind. There were tears in her eyes, and he touched the side of her face with his hand and said, “I'm all right. But why don't you kiss me or something?”
She did, but before Rynason could really immerse himself in it she broke away and said, “You must have had a bad time with him! It was as though you were dead.”
He grinned a trifle sheepishly and said, “Well, it was engrossing. You'd better unhook the beast; he had a bad time of it too.”
Mara rose and removed the wires from Horng gingerly. Rynason remained sitting; some of the meaning of what he had just experienced was coming to him now. It certainly explained why the Hirlaji had suddenly passed from their war era into lasting peace, and why the memories had been blocked. But could he credit those memories of a voice of an alien god?
And sitting in the dust at the edge of the vast Hirlaj plain the full realization came to him, as it could not when he had been Tebron. Not only the Temple, but the Altar of Kor itself had been unmistakably the workmanship of the Outsiders.
They left Horng sitting dully at the edge of the Flat and retraced their steps through the Hirlaji ruins, still drawing no notice from the aliens. Rynason had been in some of the small planetfall towns where settlements had been established only to be abandoned by the main flow of interstellar traffic ... those backwater areas where contact with the parent civilization was so slight that an entirely local culture had developed, almost as different from that of the mainstream Terran colonies as was this last vestige of the Hirlaji civilization. And in some of those areas interest in Earth was so slight that the offworlders were ignored, as the Earthmen were here ... but he had never felt the total lack of attention that was here. It was not as though the Hirlaji had seen the Earthmen and grown used to them; Rynason had the feeling that to the Hirlaji the Earthmen were no more important than the winds or the dust beneath their feet.
As they passed through the settled portion of the ruins Rynason had to step around a Hirlaji who crossed his path. He walked silently past, his eyes not even flickering toward the Earthlings. Crazy grey hidepiles, Rynason thought, and he and Mara hurried out across the Flat toward the nearby Earth town.
On the outskirts of the town, where the packed-dirt streets faded into loose dust and garbage was already piled several feet high, they were met by Rene Malhomme. He sat long-legged with his back leaning against a weathered stone outcropping. He seemed old already, though he was not yet fifty; his windblown hair was almost the color of the surrounding grey dust and rock—perhaps because it was filled with that dust, Rynason thought. He stopped and looked down at the worn, tired man whose eyes belied that weariness.
“And have you communicated with God, Lee Rynason?” Malhomme asked with his rumbling, sardonic voice.
Rynason met his gaze, wondering what he wanted. He lowered the telepather pack from his shoulder and set it in the dust. Mara sat on a low rock beside him.
“Will an alien god do?” Rynason said.
Malhomme's eyes rested on the telepather for a moment. “You spoke with Kor?” he asked.
Rynason nodded slowly. “I made a linkage with one of the Hirlaji, and tapped the race-memory. I suppose you could say I spoke with Kor.”
“You have touched the alien godhead,” Malhomme mused. “Then it's real? Their god is real?”
“No,” said Rynason. “Kor is a machine.”
Malhomme's head jerked up. “A machine?
Deus ex machina
, to quote an ancient curse. We make our own machines, and make gods of them.” The tired lines of his face relaxed. “Well, that's a bit better. The gods remain a myth, and it's better that way.”
Rynason stood over him on the windy Flat, still puzzled by his manner. He glanced at Mara, but she too was watching Malhomme, waiting for him to speak again.
Suddenly, Malhomme laughed, a dry laugh which almost rasped in his throat. “Lee Rynason, I have called men to God for so long that I almost began to believe it myself. And when the men started talking about the god of these aliens....” He shook his head, the spent laughter still drawing his mouth back into a grin. “Well, I'm glad it isn't true. Religion wouldn't be worth a damn if it were true.”
“How did the men find out about Kor?” Rynason asked.
Malhomme spread his hands. “Manning has been talking, as usual. He ridicules the Hirlaji, and their god. And at the same time he says they are a menace.”
“Why? Is he still trying to work the townsmen up against them?”
“Of course. Manning wants all the power he can get. If it means sacrificing the Hirlaji, he'll do it.” Malhomme stood up, stretching himself. “He says they may be the Outsiders, and he's stirring up all the fear he can. He'll grab any excuse, no matter how impossible.”
“It's not so impossible,” Rynason said. “Kor is an Outsiders machine.”
Malhomme stared at him. “You're sure of that?”
He nodded. “There's no doubt of it—I saw it from three feet away.” He told Malhomme of his linkage with Horng, the contact with the memories, the mind, Tebron, and of the interview with the machine that was Kor. Malhomme listened with fascination, his shaggy head tilted to one side, occasionally throwing in a comment or a question.
As he finished, Rynason said, “That race that Kor warned them about sounds remarkably like us. A warlike race that would crush them if they left the planet. We haven't found any other intelligent life ... just the Hirlaji, and us.”
“And the Outsiders,” said Malhomme.
“No. This was a race which was still growing from barbarism, at about the same level as the Hirlaji themselves. Remember, the Outsiders had already spread through a thousand star-systems long before this. No, we're the race they were warned against.”
“What about the weapons?” Malhomme said. “Disintegrators. We haven't got anything that powerful that a man can carry in his hand. And yet the Hirlaji had them thousands of years ago.”
“Yes, but for some reason they couldn't duplicate them. It doesn't make sense: those weapons were apparently beyond the technological level of the Hirlaji, but they had them.”
“Perhaps your aliens
the Outsiders,” Malhomme said. “Perhaps we see around us the remnants of a great race fallen.”
Rynason shook his head.
“But they must have had some contact with the Outsiders,” Mara said. “Sometime even before Tebron's lifetime. The Outsiders could have left the disintegrators, and the machine that they thought was a god....”
“That's just speculation,” Rynason said. “Tebron himself didn't really know where they'd come from; they'd been passed down through the priesthood for a long time, and within the priesthood they did have some secrets. I suppose if I could search the race-memory long enough I might find another nice big block there hiding that secret. But it's difficult.”
“And you may not have time,” Malhomme said. “When Manning hears that the Altar of Kor was an Outsiders machine, there'll be no way left to stop him from slaughtering the Hirlaji.”
“I'm not sure there'll be any real trouble,” Rynason said.
Malhomme's lips drew back into the deep lines of his face. “There is always trouble. Always. Whoever or whatever spoke through the machine knew that much about us. The only way you could stop it, Lee, would be to hold back this information from Manning. And to do that, you would have to be sure, yourself, that there is no danger from the Hirlaji. You're in the key position, right now.”
Rynason frowned. He knew Malhomme was right—it would be difficult to stop Manning if what he'd said about the man's push for power was true. But could he be sure that the Hirlaji were as harmless as they seemed? He remembered the reassuring touch of Horng's mind upon his own, the calmness he found in it, and the resignation ... but he also remembered the fear, and the screaming, and the hot rush of anger that had touched him.
In the silence on the edge of the Flat, Mara spoke. “Lee, I think you should report it all to Manning.”
Her face was clouded. “I'm not sure. But ... when I disconnected the wires of the telepather, Horng looked at me.... Have you ever looked into his eyes, up close? It's frightening: it makes you remember how old they are, and how strong. Lee, that creature has muscles in his face as strong as most men's arms!”
“He just looked at you?” said Rynason. “Nothing else?”
“That's all. But those eyes ... they were so deep, and so full. You don't usually notice them, because they're set so deeply in the shadows of his face, but his eyes are
.” She stopped, and shook her head in confusion. “I can't really explain it. When I moved around him to the other side, I could see his eyes following me. He didn't move, otherwise—it was as though only his eyes were alive. But they frightened me. There was much more in them than just ... not seeing, or not caring. His eyes were alive.”
“That's not much evidence to make you think the Hirlaji are dangerous.”
“Oh, I don't
if they could be dangerous. But they're not just ... passive. They're not vegetables. Not with those eyes.”
“All right,” Rynason said. “I'll give Manning a full report, and we'll put it in his hands.”
He picked up the telepather pack and slung it over his shoulder. Mara stood up, shaking away the dust which had blown against her feet.
“What will you do,” Malhomme asked, “if Manning decides that's enough cause to kill the Hirlaji?”
“I'll stop him,” Rynason said. “He's not in control here, yet.”
Malhomme flashed his sardonic smile again. “Perhaps not ... but if you need help, call to God. The books say nothing about alien races, but surely these must be God's creatures too. And I'm always ready to break a few heads, if it will help.” He turned and spat into the dust. “Or even just for the hell of it,” he said.
Rynason found Manning that same afternoon, going over reports in his quarters. As soon as he began his description of the orders given to Tebron he found that Malhomme's warnings had been correct.
“What did this machine say about us?” Manning asked sharply. “Why were the Hirlaji supposed to stay away from us?”
“Because we're a warlike race. The idea was that if the Hirlaji stayed out of space they'd have about five thousand years before we found them.”
“How long ago was all this? I had your report here....”
“At least eight thousand years,” Rynason said. “They overestimated us.”
Manning stood up, scowling. There were heavy lines around his eyes and he hadn't trimmed his thin beard. Whatever he was working on, Rynason thought, he was putting a lot of effort into it.
“This doesn't make sense, Lee. Damn it, since when do machines make guesses? Wrong ones, at that?”
Rynason shrugged. “Well, you've got to remember that this was an alien machine; maybe that's the way they built them.”
Manning threw a cold glance at him and poured a glass of Sector Three brandy for himself. “You're not being amusing,” he said shortly. “Now, go on, and make some sense.”
“I'd like to,” Rynason said. “Frankly, my theory is that the machine was a communication-link with the Outsiders. It could explain a lot of things—maybe even the similarities in architecture.”
Manning scowled and turned away from him. He paced heavily across the room and looked out through the plasticene window at the nearly empty, dust-strewn street for a few moments; when he returned the frown was still on his face.
“Damn it, Lee, you're not keeping your mind on the problems here. While you were looking into Horng's mind, how do you know he wasn't spying in yours? You had an equal hookup, right?”
Rynason nodded. “I couldn't have prevented him in any case. Why? Are we supposed to be hiding anything?”