Cronos, p.3
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       Cronos, p.3

           Robert Silverberg
 

  I hid the letter. And then I hid myself, getting down into stasis and just sitting quietly in a subconscious corner of the Prince’s brain all afternoon. I didn’t try to make contact with his cerebral levels in any way whatever.

  (That’s the hardest thing of all to do, I think—when you have to lay low, sitting tight, doing nothing. After all, we aren’t capable of going to sleep. And disembodied entities like us can’t just head out for a long walk to kill the time. So there we sit, unable even to twitch. Like prisoners in a cage no bigger than a human brain, absolutely immobilized, counting off seconds and minutes for lack of anything else to do. It’s maddening, isn’t it? It’s almost unbearable.)

  I guess I could have used the time to prowl through thePrince’s basic memory storage to pick up a little useful data about the Athilantan civilization, but I didn’t dare. He might just be able to detect me poking around—a curious itchy feeling in his mind, let’s say. I didn’t want to arouse any more suspicions than I already had. And it seemed to me right then that there already was an odd new edge to the Prince’s mind, a kind of prickly wariness.

  I’ve seen that happen before. But on other occasions, when my carrier has been allowed to get an inkling of the real situation, it has passed in a few hours. Sure enough, that’s what happened this time. Ram began to relax, the edge on his mind went away, he went about his princely duties as though nothing had occurred. And ten minutes ago he returned to his cabin to relax. I put him under trance and got this unfinished letter out of its hiding place.

  What a strange business this is, hitchhiking through the past inside someone else’s mind! I’ve done it a dozen different times now, and I’m still not fully used to the idea. I’m not sure I really like it very much—treating another human being as a mere vehicle, moving him this way and that for your own convenience, going through his most intimate thoughts and memories as though he were nothing more than software available for scanning. Sometimes it seems a little ugly. Like being a spy, in a way. What it amounts to is that nobody who ever lived has any secrets from us timetraveling, twenty-first century nosybodies.

  On the other hand, since it’s physically impossible for us to travel through time except as intangible electrical impulses, this is how we have to do it. And it does allow us to recapture all kinds of astounding knowledge that otherwise would have been lost forever in the bottomless sea of the past.

  Anyway—picking up where I left off so many hours ago—

  We are obviously moving into subtropical seas. Even in the Ice Age, it seems, the midsection of the world had pretty decent weather, much rainier than it is in Home Era but not particularly cold. There’s a springtime tenderness in the air that everyone aboard ship is responding to. The Prince and his whole retinue have been on the chilly mainland more than a year, and they’re as eager to get back to Athilan as I am to see it for the first time.

  This afternoon the Prince was working on a report to his royal father about the current status of Athilantan trading posts on the mainland—evidently the thing that he was sent to Europe to investigate. There was a map open on his desk as he worked, and I was able to see the whole layout of the empire.

  Incredible!

  They’ve got outposts strung all along the southern half of Stone Age Europe as far east as Russia, and down into North Africa and the Middle East. Most of the trade is done by sea, but a network of roads links everything together inland. It’s awesome how they have it all connected, couriers going back and forth over an elaborate network of highways. (No, I don’t think they use automobiles—all I saw while I was in Brittany were chariots, some drawn by small, sturdy, fierce-looking horses, and some by what looked like enormous reindeer.)

  And all this will be lost. All this will be totally forgotten,-as though it had never been. The memory of it will survive only as fable and myth, which no one will really take seriously until the coming of the age of time exploration. It’s heartbreaking to think about it.

  The Athilantan highway system runs up as far as what I think is the middle of Germany, then zigs and zags through Central Europe, avoiding the most heavily glaciated areas. One of the roads goes straight to Naz Glesim, where you are,the easternmost outpost of the empire. It gave me a funny feeling to see that name on the map and know that you’re there at this very moment.

  Thibarak, the coastal trading post where I was, in Brittany, is a sort of headquarters for the imperial mainland operations—at least the Western European branch. Couriers go back and forth between Thibarak and Naz Glesim all the time, bearing directives from the home government and reports from the provincial governor. The trip takes a couple of months each way. I should be able to slip these letters into the diplomatic pouch, and if you really did make it into the mind of Provincial Governor Sippurilayl as they planned it when they did the preliminary time-search, you’ll eventually get to read them. Or not, as the case may be. Try to arrange it so that Governor Sippurilayl sends letters back to Prince Ramifon Sigiliterimor. That way I’ll see them sooner or later. Then, of course, we both will have to wipe out of our carriers’ minds all memory of the strange messages in unknown gibberish that they keep getting from each other. But with practice that won’t be too hard.

  I think we’ll reach Atlantis in another four days or so. At sundown the Prince was standing on the deck wearing only a light tunic and mantle, and soft warm breezes were blowing out of the south.

  Poor Lora! You must be freezing your butt off out there on the barren Russian steppes while I sit here telling you about the sweet springlike weather we’re enjoying. Well, I don’t mean to rub it in, you know. It was just the luck of the toss that sent me to Atlantis and you to Naz Glesim, and I’m well aware that a mere matter of heads instead of tails and I’d be the one stuck in the back woods right now. And next trip it may be the other way around for us.

  (A pity that they won’t ever send us to the same locale when we make these jumps. I know, I know, they want tospread us out over the maximum territory. The best we can hope for is to go to the same era but in different geographical regions. Which I guess is better than nothing. As they told us when we volunteered for this, time travel works best when two people who have a strong emotional connection are sent out as a team. And they’re right. Simply knowing that you’re here—thousands of miles away, sure, but in the same era—gives me a warm, comfortable feeling. And that helps immensely in fending off the terrible isolation that would otherwise come with knowing that I’m so distant in time from everything and everyone that I care for. All the same, I’d like to be able to see you once in a while. I’d like to be able to touch you. I’d like to be able to—oh, well, never mind. At least I can write to you. And maybe one of these days the courier will get back from the eastern part of the empire and there’ll be a letter from you to me.)

  Meanwhile Atlantis gets closer every second.

  Until then—give my regards to all my good friends in Naz Glesim, if there happen to be any, which I doubt.

  Miss you miss you miss you miss you.

  —Roy

  4.

  Day 27, Month of New Light, Year of the Great River— Atlantis, Lora! I’m in Atlantis!The island of Athilan, I should say. It came into view in the middle of the night, while Prince Ram slept. There came a whistling at the door and they woke him up, because he had to perform the Ritual of Homecoming. We went out on deck. And then at last I saw it, gleaming in the moonlight right in front of us.

  It’s a lofty island, rising high out of the Western Atlantic. The great mountain in the middle, which is called Mount Balamoris, is as I think you know the volcano that sooner or later is going to blow this whole place to oblivion. Later rather than sooner, I profoundly hope. But obviously Mount Balamoris has been inactive for hundreds or even thousands of years, and a fantastic city has been built on its vast slopes and down along the broad plain that runs to the sea.

  What was on my mind as we made our final approach to Atlantis was the description of it that Plato gave in hi
sdialogKritias, which you and I studied while we were in training. That Atlantis was a “continent,” rich and beautiful, with an abundance of trees and shrubs, flowers and fruits, animals both wild and tame, and precious minerals. And that the capital city, on the southern coast, was a huge metropolis, fifteen miles around, having the form of two circular strips of land divided by three wide canals, with great walls of stone, bridges, towers, and palaces. At the center of the city was a holy quarter within an enclosure of gold, where the temples were covered with gold and silver and their roofs were made of ivory.

  I can hear you reminding me that nobody in modern times takes Plato’s account seriously as history. Well, yes, I know that. I haven’t forgotten that he wrote it around 355B.C.and even he says that Atlantis had been destroyed 9,000 years earlier. Which means he can’t possibly have any hard data about it, because 9,000 years before Plato’s time Greece was deep in prehistoric darkness. I’m aware that it’s been the general scholarly belief for a long time that Plato probably made the whole story up himself—that all it is is a fantasy, just a pleasant work of fiction.

  But is it? I wonder. Now that I’ve had a look at Atlantis with my own eyes, I’m not so sure that Plato was simply making it all up from scratch.

  One thing we know, thanks to time exploration, is that Atlantis actually existed. As recently as the twentieth century it was thought to be purely mythical. But no: we have proof now that a spectacularly great island-city really did exist in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean thousands of years before Plato’s time, and that it really was destroyed by a gigantic cataclysm. So it certainly isn’t beyond belief that memories of the place and its horrendous destruction might have passed into legend, or that tales of fabulous Atlantis could have been told and retold for generation aftergeneration, across time immemorial. And some confused bits and scraps of those ancient legends might still have been circulating in the Mediterranean region at the time when Plato lived.

  The strange thing is how much the real Atlantis, the place that I’m staring at even as I write this, actually does resemble the one that Plato described.

  It isn’t a continent, of course. It’s a just a very large island, maybe the size of Borneo or Madagascar. But how can you tell, when you see some enormous landmass in front of you that stretches a vast distance out of sight in both directions, whether you’re looking at a continental shore or simply a big island? Plato wasn’t that far off the mark. Certainly Atlantis was much bigger than Great Britain or Cuba or Iceland.

  He was wrong about other details. For example, the capitals’s not on the southern shore. It’s on the western one. But the city does have a circular layout, with huge walls made up of giant stone blocks laid one atop another. The masonry work was done with fantastic precision, too. It’s absolutely perfect. There are waterways and bridges inside the walls, and splendid boulevards that no city on Earth could have equalled until modern times. Perhaps no city of modern Earth does.

  And I tell you, Lora, this waterfront district right here is amazing. If you could only see it! There’s a tremendous semicircular harbor with a massive quay of black granite faced with pink marble, and stone piers jutting far out into the water. All around me are Athilantan ships that have come in from all over the world, and right at this minute I’m watching them unloading what must be absolutely fabulous cargoes. Officials are checking everything out on shore, boxes and boxes full of precious metals and jewels, spices, furs, strange animals, rare woods.

  Then, over to one side of the harbor, there’s the Fountain-of the Spheres, which shoots an enormous jet of water into the sky every quarter-hour. On the other side is the Temple of the Dolphins, a white marble structure that has the most incredibly pure, balanced design. Believe me, it makes the Parthenon itself look a little shoddy.

  A broad street, the Street of Starwatchers, runs just back of the waterfront. At the head of the Street of Starwatchers there’s an imposing domed tower, the Imperial Observatory, and just behind it begins a tremendous avenue, the Concourse of the Sky, which cuts through the city for miles, leading to—yes, a central zone of sacred buildings, just like Plato said, set on a sloping hill. The walls of the temples are covered with white marble, not Plato’s silver and gold, but when the afternoon sun strikes them the entire city blazes with reflected light.

  The city continues on the far side of the sacred zone, sprawling right up into the foothills of Mount Balamoris. Beyond are parks, farms, the mines where copper and iron and gold are found, and a huge forest preserve full of all manner of wild beasts, including a herd of elephants. I don’t mean the woolly mammoths that are roaming around in Ice Age Europe out where you are, but plain old ordinary elephants, very much like the ones we can see in the zoo, except I think these are even bigger. They’ve got ears the size of tents.

  The climate here is extremely gentle. Judging by the fact that night and day are just about equal in length even in midwinter, I’d say that Atlantis is located smack on the Tropic of Cancer, or else not very far north of it. There’s a little rain just about every day, but it clears off fast and in a little while the sun is out again and everything’s nice and warm. The air is mild and beautifully transparent, the sky is a delicate blue, and wherever you look you see flowers inbloom. It’s hard to believe that at this very moment most of Europe and North America is buried under ice. Or that enormous shaggy shambling mammoths and rhinos are grazing in the places where our great cities are going to be built some time in the far future. Or that little bands of men clad in furs are out there trying to hunt them with crude weapons made out of stone.

  No wonder shimmering memories of this place continued-to glow in the minds of people like Plato thousands of years later. In every human tribe the wise old storytellers must have passed vivid legends of it down and down and down through the eons, across all those thousands of years of darkness that followed the time of destruction. That great lost city, that barely remembered paradise, that vanished realm of miracles and wonders—what tales they must have told of it! And went on telling, year after year, century after century, while the ice slowly retreated, and mankind rediscovered the skills of farming, and learned to build towns and villages, and eventually, in Sumer and Egypt and China, began once more to approach the level of accomplishment that we call “civilization.”

  The astounding thing, the utterly unbelievable thing, is this: that the old legends didn’t even begin to tell the full story of how miraculous Atlantis really was. The actual Atlantis of the year 18,862B.C.,with its steamships and its electricity and its astonishing architectural and engineering marvels, is tremendously more fantastic than any of the Greek or Roman talespinners ever imagined.

  I mean it. So far as technology goes, it’s right up there with today’s New York or Paris or London in many ways, only much more beautiful than any of them. And it existed all the way back here in Stone Age times, when no one else in the rest of the world had managed to get very far beyondliving in caves and fashioning knives and axes out of pieces of flint.

  Right now I have no explanation of how this could have been possible. None whatever.

  Prince Ramifon Sigiliterimor’s return to the isle of Atlantis involved him in so much ritual and formality that I began to think I was never going to get to see the city at all. We remained cooped up on the ship for an incredible length of time. It was almost as crazy-making as those days of waiting around at Thibarak harbor for the end of the departure rituals so that the royal fleet could finally set out.First came the Ritual of Homecoming. In this one the Prince gave thanks for his safe voyage home with a lot of praying and burning of incense and the sacrifice of a bull. The Prince performed the sacrifice with his own hands. I hated having to watch at such close range, but I didn’t have any choice. At least he killed the animal fast. He’s evidently had a lot of practice. He used a jewel-hilted blade made of what almost certainly was steel. I find that fascinating in a creepy sort of way, don’t you? That they’d use high-technology stuff like a steel weapon t
o perform a barbaric rite like animal sacrifice, I mean. A weird mix. The bull was actually an aurochs, that extinct ancestor of modern cattle, an enormous beast with terrifying black-tipped curving horns at least a yard long.

  I thought we’d be going ashore then, but no, after a lot of chanting and parading around, and a feast of charred, half-raw aurochs meat that made me glad the Prince was putting it in his digestive tract and not in mine—though it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference when you’re a timetrip passenger, you know—the Prince went belowdecks and busied himself in front of a little shrine in the captain’scabin, invoking this god and that, for hours. A team of priests came on board and took part in this; but when they left, Prince Ram remained on the ship.

  Night fell. Crowds stood along the quay, singing and hailing the Prince. He waved back at them from the deck of his flagship. There was a fireworks display such as I’ve never seen in my life.

  In the morning, the Prince’s younger brother and sister came to give him the official family welcome. Princess Rayna is about fifteen, I’d say, and Prince Caiminor maybe thirteen. They look very much like Prince Ram, stocky and short, olive-hued skin, dark eyebrows.

  Their reunion with their brother was all very formal, with touching of fingertips taking the place of kissing. The Ritual of Greeting lasted right on into mid-afternoon. Then at last they escorted him from the ship, and—by courtesy of my carrier, Prince Ramifon Sigiliterimor Septagimot Stolifax Blayl, Premianor Tisilan of Athilan, I got a chance finally to set foot on the shore of lost Atlantis.

 
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