A heritage of stars, p.8
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       A Heritage of Stars, p.8

           Clifford D. Simak
 
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  “Then one day—I recall this well, for it came as a shock to me—one of the robots told us that after some thought upon the matter he had come to the conclusion that we were machines as well, that if the wrecking of machines continued, we, in our turn, also would be wrecked. The wreckers, he said, had not turned to us as yet because we were of less importance than the other machines that were being wrecked. But our time would come, he said, when they got through with the others. This, as you can imagine, caused great consternation among us and no small amount of argument. There were those among us who could immediately perceive that we were, indeed, machines, while there were fully as many others who were convinced that we were not. I remember that I listened to the arguments for a time, taking no great part in them, but, finally taking private counsel with myself, came to the conclusion that we were machines, or at least could be classified as machines. And coming to this conclusion, I wasted no time in lamentation but fell to thinking, If this should be the case, what course could I take to protect myself? Finally it seemed clear to me that the best course would be to find a place where the wreckers would not think to look for me. I did not urge this course upon my fellows—for who was I to tell them what to do?—and I think I realized that one robot, acting on his own, might have a better chance of escaping the wrath that might come upon us if he were not with the other robots, since a band of us might attract attention while a single robot had a better chance of escaping all detection.

  “So I left as quietly as I could and hid in many places, for there was no one safe place to hide. Finally, I gained confirmation from other fugitive robots I met that the wreckers, having smashed the more important machines, were hunting down the robots. And not, mind you, because we posed any great threat to them, but because we were machines and the idea seemed to be to wipe out all machines, no matter how insignificant. What made it even worse was that they did not hunt us down in the same spirit, in the rage and fanaticism, that had driven them to destroy the other machines, but were hunting us as a sport, as they might hunt a fox or coon. If this had not been so, we could have stood the hunting better, for then we would at least have been accorded the dignity of posing a threat to them. But there was no dignity in being hunted as a dog might run down a rabbit. To add further indignity, I learned that when we were run down and disabled, our brain cases were seized as trophies of the hunt. This, I think, was the final thing that heaped up the bitterness and fear that came to infuse us all. The terrible thing about it was that all we could do was run or hide, for we were inhibited against any kind of violence. We could not protect ourselves; we could only run. In my own case, I broke that inhibition, much later and more through accident than otherwise. If that half-mad grizzly had not attacked me, I’d still be saddled by the inhibition. Which is not quite right, either, for if he’d not attacked me to break the inhibition, I never would have been able to obtain the grease I use to protect myself from rust and would be, by now, a rusted hulk with my brain case waiting for someone to find and take home as a souvenir.”

  “Not exactly as a souvenir,” said Cushing. “There is more to it than that. Attached to the brain cases of your fellows is a mystic symbolism that is not understood. A thousand years ago a man at the university wrote a history of the Time of Trouble and, in the course of his writing, speculated upon the ritual of the brain-case collections and their symbolism, but without reaching a conclusion. Until I read his history, I had not heard of the custom. I spent three years of woods-running, mainly in the South, and I had never heard of it. Perhaps it was because I made it my business to stay away from people. That’s a good rule for a lone woods runner to follow. I walked around the tribes. Except by accident, I stayed away from everyone.”

  Rollo reached for his bag and dug around in it. “I carry here,” he said, “the brain case of an unknown comrade. I have carried it for years. As a matter of sentiment, perhaps; perhaps as a loyalty; perhaps as a defender and caretaker of the dead; I do not know. I found it many years ago in an old deserted settlement, a former town. I saw it gleaming in the sun, not all of it, just a part of it that was exposed. It lay in a bed of rust that once had been a robotic head and skull. Digging further, I found the outline of the body, gone to rust, no more than a discoloration in the soil. That is what happened to the most of us, perhaps all of us, except myself, who escaped the human hunters. Once we no longer had any kind of oil to protect our bodies, the rust would set in and over the years would gradually spread, like a disease over which we had no control, biting ever more deeply into us until the day came when it disabled us and we could no longer move. We would lie where we had fallen, crippled by the rust, and as the years went by, the rust would burrow ever deeper. Finally, we would be a heap of rust, a pattern of rust that showed the outlines of the body. The leaves would drift over the outline, and forest mold or prairie mold, formed either by rotting leaves or rotting grasses, would cover us and hide us. The wind would sprinkle other dust over us and plants would grow in us or on top of us, more luxuriantly than elsewhere, feeding on the iron that once had been our bodies. But the brain case, built of some indestructible metal which today we cannot put a name to, would remain. So I took this brain case and put it in my sack, to cheat the human who might come along and find it. Better for me to have it and to guard it, than for some human—”

  “You hate humans?” Meg asked.

  “No, I never hated them. Feared them, yes; I feared them. I kept out of their way. But there have been some I have not feared. The old hunter that I spent almost a year with. And the two of you. You saved me from the tree.”

  He handed over the brain case. “Here,” he said, “have a look at it. Have you ever seen one?”

  “No, I never have,” said Meg.

  She sat, turning it over and over, with the firelight glinting redly on it. Finally she handed it back and Rollo put it in the sack.

  The next morning, when Rollo had gone out to scout, she spoke to Cushing.

  “That brain case, laddie. The one the robot let me look at. It’s alive. I could sense it. I could feel the aliveness of it through my fingertips. It was cold, but alive and sharp and dark—so dark, so alone, and yet, in some ways, not alone. No expectations and yet not without hope. As if the coldness and the darkness were a way of life. And alive. I know it was alive.”

  Cushing drew in his breath sharply. “That means—”

  “You are right. If this one is alive, so are all the others of them. All those that have been collected. All those that lie in unsuspected places.”

  “Without any external sensory perceptions,” said Cushing. “Cut off from all sight, all sound, contact with any other life. A man would go crazy…”

  “A man, yes. These things are not men, my bucko. They are a cry from another time. Robots—we speak the word, of course, but we do not know what they were, or are. Robot brain cases, we say, but no one, no one except the two of us, suspects they are still alive. Robots, we thought, were extinct. They had an old-time legendary ring, like dragons. Then one day you came walking into camp with a robot tagging you. Tell me, did you ask him to stay with us? Or did he ask to stay?”

  “Neither one. He just stayed. Like he stayed a year or so with the old hunter. But I’m glad to have him. He is a lot of help. I don’t think you should tell him what you just now told me.”

  “Never,” said Meg. “No, he’d take it hard. It would haunt him. It’s better if he thinks of them as dead.”

  “Maybe he knows.”

  “I don’t think so,” she said.

  She made a cupping motion with her hand, as if she still held the brain case.

  “Laddie,” she said, “I could weep for them. For all the poor lost things shut up inside the darkness. But the thought occurs to me they may not need my tears. They may have something else.”

  “Stability,” said Cushing. “Enduring a condition that would drive a man insane. Perhaps a strange philosophy that discovers within themselves some factor that makes it unnecess
ary to have external contact. You made no effort to communicate, to reach out to them?”

  “I could not have been so cruel,” said Meg. “I wanted to; the urge was there. To let it know it was not alone, to give it some sort of comfort. And then I realized how cruel that would have been. To give it hope when there is no hope. To disturb it after it had spent no one knows how long in learning to accept the aloneness and the darkness.”

  “I think you were right,” said Cushing. “We could do nothing for it.”

  “Twice, in a small span of time,” said Meg, “I have touched two intelligences: the brain case and the living rock, the boulder that we found. I told you that my powers are puny and the touching of those two lives almost makes me wish I had no powers at all. It might be better not to know. The thing within the brain case fills me with sadness, and the rock, with fearfulness.”

  She shuddered. “That rock, laddie. It was old—so old, so hard, so cynical. Although cynical is not the word. Uncaring. Maybe that’s the word. A thing filled with repulsive memories so old they are petrified. As if they came from someplace else. No memories such as could be produced upon the earth. From somewhere outside. From a place of everlasting night, where no sun has ever shone and there is no such thing as gladness.”

  They came upon only one person in their travel—a filthy old man who lived in a cave he had dug out of a hillside facing the river, the cave shored up with timbers, to provide a noisome den in which he could sleep or take shelter from the weather. Two lackadaisical hounds barked at the intruders, with a singular lack of enthusiasm, until the old man shushed them. The dogs settled down beside him, resuming their sleep, their hides twitching to dislodge the flies that settled on them. The man grinned, showing rotted teeth.

  “Worthless,” he said, nodding at the hounds. “Most worthless dawgs I ever had. Once they were good cooners, but now they’ve taken to treeing demons. Never knew there were so many demons in these parts. Of course, it’s the demons’ fault; they pester them dawgs. But it makes a man mad to spend the night out chasing coon, then find a demon up the tree. ’Tain’t worth a man’s time to kill one of them. There ain’t nothing you can do with demons. They’re so tough you can’t cook them enough to get a tooth into them, and even if you could, the taste of them would turn your stomach over.”

  He continued, “You folks know, don’t you, there’s war parties on the prowl. Mostly they stay out on the prairie. No need of coming down here, because there’s water to be found out there. Some big chief has got a burr underneath his tail and he’s out to make some coup. Heading for the cities, more than likely. He’s like to get his clock cleaned. Them city tribes are mean, I tell you. All sorts of dirty tricks. No thing like fighting fair. Any way to win. And I s’pose that’s all right, although it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Them war parties have been going through right sprightly for the last week or so. Thinning out a little now. In another week or two, you’ll see them trailing back, rubbing out their tracks with their dragging rumps.”

  He spat into the dust and said, “What’s that you got there with you? I been studying it and it makes no sort of sense. It looks plumb like one of those robots some people talk about from a long time back. My grandma, I remember, she had stories about robots. Stories about a lot of things, clacking all the time, always telling stories. But you know, even when I was a tad, I knew that they were only stories. There never was a lot of them things that she talked about. There never was no robots. I asked her where she heard them stories and she said her grandma had told them to her and that her grandma probably had heard them from her grandma. It do beat hell how old folks keep them stories going. You’d think that in time they’d just die out. But not, I guess, when there are so many grandmas clacking all the time.”

  He continued, “Would you folks be of a mind to break bread with me? It’s almost that time now and I’d be proud to have you. I have a sack of fish and a haunch of coon that still is pretty fresh…”

  “No, thank you, sir,” said Cushing. “We’re in something of a hurry. We must be getting on.”

  Two days later, just before sunset, Cushing, traveling along the riverbank with Meg and Andy, glanced up at the bluff and saw Rollo tearing down it. He was coming fast, his metal body flashing in the light of the westering sun.

  “There’s something up,” said Cushing. “There is some sort of trouble.”

  He looked around. In the last few days the river had narrowed and the bluffs on either side of it had grown less steep. A thin strip of trees still grew along the water’s edge, but not the tall trees they had found farther down the stream. In the center of the river lay an island, a small one covered by a thick mat of willows.

  “Meg,” he said, “take Andy. Cross over to the island. Work as deep as you can into the willows and stay quiet. Keep Andy quiet. Don’t let him made a sound. Get hold of his nostrils so he can’t whicker.”

  “But, laddie boy—”

  “Move, dammit. Don’t stand there. Get over to that island. It’s less than a hundred yards of water.”

  “But I can’t swim,” she wailed.

  “It’s shallow,” he snapped. “You can walk it. It won’t come up higher than your waist. Hang tight to Andy; if you get into trouble, he’ll take you across.”

  “But—”

  “Move!” he said, shoving at her.

  Rollo was off the bluff, running like a whirlwind for the river. A flurry of dead leaves danced in his wake.

  “A war party,” he shouted. “Close behind me, coming fast.”

  “Did they see you?”

  “I don’t think so.”

  “Come on, then,” said Cushing. “Hang tight to my belt. There’s mud on the bottom. Try to keep your feet.”

  Meg and Andy, he saw, had almost reached the island. He plunged into the water, felt the current take hold and tug at him.

  “I’m hanging tight,” said Rollo. “Even should I go down, I could crawl across the river, underwater. I would not drown. Breath I do not need.”

  Meg and Andy had reached the island and disappeared into the willows. Cushing, halfway across, glanced over his shoulder. There was no sign of anyone atop the bluff. A few more minutes, he thought. That is all I need.

  They reached the island and plunged up the shelving bank, crawled into the willows.

  “Now stay quiet,” said Cushing. “Crawl over to Meg. Help her keep Andy quiet. There will be horses. He may try to talk to them.”

  Turning back, Cushing crept to the riverbank, staying low. Shielded by small sprays of the leafy willows, he looked across the river. There was no sign of anyone. A black bear had come down to the stream, just above the point where they had crossed, and stood there with a silly look upon his face, dipping first one paw, then the other, into the water, shaking each paw daintily as he took it out. The blufftop was empty. A few crows beat up toward it from the thin strip of woods that ran along the river, cawing plaintively.

  Perhaps Rollo had been wrong, he told himself—not wrong about seeing the war band, but in calculating where they might be heading. Perhaps they had veered off before they reached the bluff. But even so, even if Rollo’s calculation had been wrong, with a war party in the vicinity, it had not been a bad idea to go to cover. They had been lucky to have the island near, he thought. Unlike the valley farther down the river, there was not much cover here. Later, farther up the valley, there would be even less. They were getting deep into the prairie country and the valley would get even narrower and there’d be fewer trees. The time would come when they’d have to leave even the scanty cover that the valley offered and strike west across the plain.

  He glanced up and down the river and saw that the bear had left. Some small animal, either mink or muskrat, probably a rat, had left the lower tip of the island and was angling down across the stream toward the bank, swimming strongly.

  When he looked back at the blufftop, it was no longer empty. A small group of horsemen stood against the skyline, shouldered spears po
inting at the sky. They sat motionless, apparently looking down into the valley. More came riding up and aligned themselves with those already there. Cushing held his breath. Was it possible that looking down at the river from their elevation, they could make out some sign of those who hid in the willows? Watching them closely, he could detect no sign that they could.

  Finally, after long minutes, the horsemen began to come down the slope, the horses lurching over the edge of the bluff and coming down the slope in stiff-legged jumps. Most of the men, he saw, wore buckskins, darkened by work and weather. Some wore fur caps with the tails of wolf or fox or coon fluttering out behind. In some cases, similar animal tails were fastened to the shoulders of their buckskins. Others wore only leather trousers, the upper torso either bare or draped with furred robes or jackets. Most of them rode saddles, although there were a few bareback. Most carried spears; all had quivers, bristling with feathered arrows, at their backs.

 
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