A heritage of stars, p.4
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       A Heritage of Stars, p.4

           Clifford D. Simak
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  #2, who had been gazing up into the sky, now floated a group of eyes down across the smooth ball of his body and stared in some disbelief at his companion.

  “I am surprised at you,” he said. “You surely must be jesting or are under greater strain than I had thought you were. The A and R is neither naive nor dishonest. On the face of what we know, we must accord him the honor of believing in his sincerity. What is more likely is that he has some knowledge that he has chosen not to communicate to us, perhaps an unconscious knowledge that we have failed, with all our investigation and our probing, to uncover. We could have erred in our assessment of the race…”

  “I think,” said #1, “that is quite unlikely. The situation fits a classic pattern that we have found time and time again. There are, I grant you, some disturbing factors here, but the pattern is unmistakable. We know beyond any question that the race upon this planet has arrived at the classic end of a classic situation. It has gone into its last decline and will not recover.”

  “I would be inclined to agree with you,” said #2, “except for certain doubts. I am inclined to believe that there are hidden factors we have not recognized, or worse, factors that we have glimpsed and paid no attention to, considering them to be only secondary.”

  “We have found our answer,” #1 said, stubbornly, “and we should long since have been gone from here. Our time is wasted. This history is but little different from the many other histories that we have collected. What is it that worries you so much?”

  “The robots, for one thing,” said #2. “Have we accorded them the full consideration they deserve, or have we written them off too hastily? By writing them off too quickly, we may have missed the full significance of them and the impact they may have had—or still may have—upon the situation. For they are, in fact, an extension of the race that created them. Perhaps a significant extension. They may not, as we have told ourselves, be playing out previously programmed and now meaningless roles. We have been unable to make any sense out of our interviews with them, but—”

  “We have not, in a certain sense, actually interviewed them,” #1 pointed out. “They have thrust themselves upon us, each one intent on telling us meaningless stories that have no coherence in them. There is no pattern in what they tell us. We don’t know what to believe or if we should believe any of it at all. All of it is gibberish. And we must realize, as well, that these robots can be no more than they seem. They are machines and, at times, atrociously clumsy machines. As such, they are only an embodied symptom of that decay which is characteristic of all technological societies. They are a stupid lot and, what is more, arrogant. Of all possible combinations, stupidity and arrogance is the worst that can be found. The basic badness of them is that they feed on one another.”

  “You generalize too much,” protested #2. “Much of what you say may be quite correct, but there are exceptions. The Ancient and Revered is neither arrogant nor stupid, and though somewhat more sophisticated than the others, he is still a robot.”

  “I agree,” said #1, “that the A and R is neither arrogant nor stupid. He is, by every measure, a polished and well-mannered gentleman, and yet, as I pointed out, he fails of making sense. He is involved in fuzzy thinking, basing his viewpoints on a slender reed of hope that is unsupported by any evidence—that, in fact, flies in the face of evidence. We are trained observers with a long record of performance. We have existed for a much longer span of time than the A and R and during that existence we have always striven for strict objectivity—something that is alien to the A and R, with all his talk of faith and hope.”

  “I would judge,” said #2, “that it is time for us to cease this discussion. We have fallen into crude bickering, which will get us nowhere. It is amazing to me, and a source of sorrow, that after all the time we have worked together we still are capable of falling into such a state. I take it as a warning that in this particular study there is something very wrong. It indicates that we still have failed to reach that state of crystal perfection we attempt to put into our work and the reason for that, in this study, must be that there are underlying truths we have failed to come to grips with and that in our subconscious they rise up to plague us.”

  “I do not,” said #1, “agree with you at all, but what you say about the futility of continuing this discussion is very solemn truth. So let us, for the moment, derive whatever enjoyment we may from our morning stroll.”


  Cushing had crossed the river, using a crudely constructed log raft to protect his bow and quiver and to help him in his swimming. He had started opposite the wall of the university and allowed the swift current to carry him downstream as he kicked for the other shore, calculating in his mind that he would reach it at about the point where a creek cut through the walls of the bluff. This way there’d be no bluffs to climb, the valley of the creek giving him easy access across the southern limits of the city. He’d not been in this part of the city before and he wondered what he’d find, although he was fairly certain it would not be a great deal different from those fringe sections of the city he had seen—a tangle of olden houses falling in upon themselves or already fallen, faint trails leading in all directions, the remnants of ancient streets where, even to this day, the hard surface of the paving kept them free of heavy growth.

  Later on the moon would rise, but now blackness lay across the land. Out on the river the choppiness of the water had caught and shattered into tiny rainbows the faint glimmer of the stars, but here, underneath the trees that grew along the left bank of the creek at the point where it joined the river, the reflected starlight could no longer be seen.

  He retrieved the quiver from the raft and slung it across his shoulder, shrugged into the shoulder harness that supported his small backpack, picked up the bow, then nudged the raft with a cautious toe out into the river. He crouched at the water’s edge and watched until, in half a dozen feet or so, the raft was swallowed by the darkness and the river. The sweep of current from the inflowing creek would carry it out into the center of the stream and there’d be nothing to show that someone had crossed the river under the cover of night.

  Once the raft had disappeared, he continued in his crouch, all senses alert. Somewhere to the north a dog was barking with determination, barking with a steady cadence—not excited, not even sensible, as if it were its duty to be barking. Something across the creek was rustling in the bushes, cautiously but purposefully. An animal, Cushing knew, not a human. More than likely a coon come down off the bluff to fish for clams. Mosquitoes buzzed about his head, but he paid them no attention. Out in the potato patch, day after day, he had become accustomed to mosquitoes and their venom. They were no more than a nuisance, with their high-pitched, vicious singing.

  Satisfied that he had crossed unobserved, he rose and made his way along the shingle at the river’s edge, reaching the creek and stepping into it. The water came no higher than his knees and he began working his way upstream, on guard against sudden dropoffs.

  His eyes by now had become somewhat adapted to the dark and he could make out the blacker bulk of trees, the faint gleam of rapidly running water. He did not hurry. He felt his way along, making no noise. Low-hanging branches caught at him and he ducked under them or held them to one side.

  A mile or so from where he had entered the creek, he came to what he made out to be an old stone bridge. Leaving the water, he climbed the incline to the bridge to reach the street that at one time had passed over it. Beneath his moccasins he could feel the broken hardness of the paving, covered now by grass and weeds and hemmed in by briars. To the north the dog went on with its chugging and now, to the south and west, other distant dogs had chimed in to answer. Off in the bushes to his right, a bird twittered in alarm, startled by some birdish fear. Through the treetops to the east Cushing saw the first flush of the rising moon.

  He went north until he found an intersecting street and then turned to his left, traveling west. He doubted that he could clear the city before morn
ing light, but he wanted to be as far along as he could manage. Well before dawn he would have to find a place to hole up during daylight hours.

  He was surprised to find himself, now that he was on his way, filled with a strange exhilaration. Freedom, he thought. Was that it, after all the years—the freedom—that exhilarated him? Was this the way, he wondered, that the ancient American long hunters had felt once they had shaken the dust of the eastern settlements off their feet? Was this the feeling of the old-time mountain man, equally mythical as the long hunters, when he had headed for the beaver streams? Was this the feeling that had been experienced by the astronauts when they had pointed the noses of their ships toward the distant stars? If they had, in fact, pointed at any stars at all.

  Occasionally, as he slipped along, he caught glimpses, on either side, of dark bulks looming among the trees. As the moon moved higher in the sky, he saw that the bulks were what was left of houses. Some of them still held the shape of houses and others were little more than piles of debris, not yet having settled into mounds or fallen into basements. He was, he knew, moving through a residential section and tried to picture in his mind what it might have looked like at another time—a tree-lined street with houses sitting, new and shining, in the greenness of their lawns. And the people in them—over there a doctor, across the street a lawyer, just down the street the owner of a hardware store. Children and dogs playing on the lawn, a mailman trudging on his rounds, a ground vehicle parked beside the curb. He shrugged, thinking of it, wondering how nearly he was right, how much the picture he was building in his mind might be romanticized. There had been pictures of such streets in the old files of magazines he’d read, but were these, he wondered, no more than highly selective pictures, unrepresentative of the general scene.

  The moonlight was stronger now and he could see that the street he moved along was filled with clumps of small bushes and with patches of briars through which a narrow trail snaked along, weaving from side to side to avoid the heavier growth that had intruded on the street. A deer path, he wondered, or was it one primarily used by men? If it were a man path, he should not be on it. He pondered that, deciding to stay on it. On it he could cover a fair amount of ground; off to one side of it, his way impeded by heavy growths of trees, fallen timber, the old houses and, worse, the gaping basements where houses had once stood, his progress would be slowed.

  Something caught his foot and tripped him, throwing him off balance. As he went down, something raked against his cheek, and behind him he heard a heavy thud. Twisting around from where he had landed in the briars, he saw the feathered shaft of an arrow protruding from a tree to one side of the twisting trail. A set, he told himself; for Christ’s sake, a set, and he had blundered into it. A few inches either way and he’d have had an arrow in his shoulder or his throat. A trip across the path to trigger a bended bow, the arrow held in place by a peg. Cold fear and anger filled him. A set for what? For deer, or man? What he should do, he thought, was wait here, hidden, until the owner of the set came at morning light to see what he had bagged, then put an arrow in him to ensure he’d never set such a trap again. But he didn’t have the time to do it; by morning light he must be far from here.

  He rose from the briars and moved off the street, plowing through rank growths of brush. Off the street the going was slower. It was darker among the trees, the moonlight blocked by dense foliage, and, as he had anticipated, there were obstacles.

  A short time later he heard a sound that brought him to a halt, poised in mid-stride, waiting to hear the sound again. When it came, in the space of a heartbeat or two, he knew what it was: the soft mutter of a drum. He waited and the sound came again, louder now and with the drumrolls longer. Then it fell silent, only to take up again, louder and more insistent, not simply the tatooing ruffle of a single drum but more drums now, with the somber booming of a bigger drum marking off the ruffles.

  He puzzled over it. He had struck across the city’s southern edge, believing that by doing so he would swing wide of any tribal encampment. Although, so far as that was concerned, he had been foolish to think so. One could never tell where a camp might be. The tribes, while staying in the confines of the city, moved around a great deal. When the vicinity of one camping ground became too fouled for comfort, the tribe would move down the street a ways.

  The drums were gaining strength and volume. They were, he calculated, some distance ahead of him and slightly to the north. Some big doings, he told himself, grinning in the dark. A celebration of some sort, perhaps a commemorative notice of some tribal anniversary. He started moving once again. The thing for him to do was get out of here, to pay no attention to the drums and continue on his way.

  As he slogged along, keeping off the clearer paths of the one-time streets, the noise of the drumming grew. There was in it now a blood-curdling savagery that had not been evidenced at the start. Listening to it, Cushing shivered, and yet, chilling as it was, it held a certain fascination. From time to time, interspersed between the drumbeats, he could hear a shouting and the yapping of dogs. In another mile or so he detected the flare of fires, slightly to the north and west, reflected off the sky.

  He stopped to gauge the situation better. Whatever was going on was taking place just over the brow of the hill that reared up to his right—much closer than he first had judged it. Perhaps, he told himself, he should angle to the south, putting more distance between himself and whatever might be going on. There might be sentries out and there was no sense in taking the chance of bumping into them.

  But he made no move. He stood there, with his back against a tree, staring up the hill, listening to the drumming and the shouting. Maybe he should know, he told himself, what was happening just beyond the hill. It would take no time at all. He could sneak up the hill and have a look, then be on his way again. No one would spot him. He’d keep a close outlook for sentries. The moon was out, of course, but here, underneath the heavy foliage of the trees, its light was tricky and uncertain at the best.

  Almost before he knew it he had started up the hill, moving at a crouch, sometimes on hands and knees, seeking the deeper shadows, watching for any movement, slithering up the slope, the low-hanging branches sliding noiselessly off his buckskins.

  There is trouble brewing, Monty had reminded him, trouble in the west. Some nomad band that had suddenly been seized with the thirst for conquest, and probably moving east. Could it be, he wondered, that the city tribes had spotted such a movement and were now in the process of whipping themselves into a warlike frenzy?

  Now that he was near the brow of the hill, his caution increased. He slid along from one deep shadow to another, studying the ground ahead before he made any move. Beyond the hill the bedlam grew. The drums rolled and thundered and the yelling never ceased. The dogs kept up their excited barking.

  Finally he reached the ridgetop, and there, below him, in a bowl-like valley, he saw the ring of fires and the dancing, yelling figures. In the center of the circle of fires stood a gleaming pyramid that caught and reflected the light of the leaping flames.

  A pyramid of skulls, he thought—a pyramid of polished human skulls—but even as he thought it, he remembered something else and knew that he was wrong. He was looking at, he knew, not human skulls but the skulls of long-dead robots, the shining, polished brain cases of robots whose bodies had gone to rust centuries before.

  Wilson had written of such pyramids, he recalled, and had speculated on the mysticism or the symbolism that might be behind the collection and display of them.

  He hunkered close against the ground and felt a shiver growing in him, a shiver that reached forward across the old, gone centuries to fasten icy fingers on him. He paid little attention to the leaping, shouting figures, his attention fastened on the pyramid. It had about it a barbaric aura that left him cold and weak and he began inching back, carefully down the hill, moving as cautiously as he had before, but now driven by a gripping fear.

  Near the foot of the hill he rose
and headed south and west, still moving warily, but in a hurry now. Behind him the drumming and the shouting faded until it was no more than a murmur in the distance. But he still drove himself.

  The first paleness of dawn was in the eastern sky when he found a place to hole up for the day. It was what appeared to be an old estate, set above a lake and situated on a piece of ground enclosed by a still-standing metal fence. Glancing eastward across the lake, he tried to pinpoint the spot where the tribe had held its dance, but except for a thin trickle of smoke, he could make out nothing. The house was a stone and brick structure and so thoroughly masked by trees that he did not see it until he had made his way through a broken place in the fence and was almost upon it. Chimneys sprouted from both ends of it and a sagging portico, half collapsed, ran along its front. Behind it stood several small brick buildings, half obscured by trees. Grass grew tall and here and there beds of perennials, some of them in bloom, had persisted through the ages since the last people had occupied the house.

  He scouted the area in the early dawn. There was no evidence that anyone had visited the place in recent days. There were no paths, no trails, broken through the grass. Centuries before, the place must have been looted, and now there would be no reason for anyone to come back here.

  He did not approach the house, contented to view it from the shelter of the trees. Satisfied that it was deserted, he sought a place where he could hide himself, finding it in a thick cluster of lilac trees that had spread over a comparatively wide area. On hands and knees he wormed his way deep into the thicket until he came to a spot near the center where there was room enough to lie down.

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