Cronos, p.4
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       Cronos, p.4

           Robert Silverberg
 

  But I didn’t get very far. Off we went to the nearby Temple-of the Dolphins, where a kind of tent had been set up for the Prince just inside the outermost row of perfect marble columns. Here he had to be purified, purged of any taint that he might have picked up while dwelling among the grubby uncivilized people of the mainland.

  This Rite of Purification took another day and a night. They bathed him in milk and covered him with the petals of red and yellow flowers and chanted again and again, “May you be free of all uncleanness. May you be free of all uncleanness.” On and on and on. “May the dirt of the mainland no longer cling to your skin,” they chanted. “May you be free of all uncleanness.” Over and over, until I thought I’d lose my mind.

  But it taught me something important about this place.There’s real four-star racism here. That’s what the Rite of Purification is all about. The Athilantans have deep contempt for the mainlanders. They are the dirt of the mainland from which the rite is supposed to cleanse the Prince.

  The Athilantan name for the mainlanders is “the dirt people.”

  My command of Athilantan grammar isn’t yet as strong as I’d like it to be, so I’m not sure whether they mean that the mainlanders live in dirt (that is, their scruffy caves and lean-tos) or that they actually are dirt. But I think it’s the latter.

  So these noble, splendid, magnificently civilized Athilantans regard the people of Stone Age Europe as not much more than animals. Have you noticed that, too, out in Naz Glesim? Maybe it’s different there, where just a handful of Athilantans live in the midst of hundreds of mainlanders. They’d have to be more careful there. But here, where there isn’t a mainland face to be seen, the Athilantans don’t even try to hide their scorn for them.

  “We thank you, O Gods, for the return of our beloved Prince to the human realm from the land of the dirt people.”

  Get that little distinction, Lora. The Prince has returned to the human realm.

  I suppose we can’t really blame the Athilantans for feeling-superior, considering that they live in amazing marble palaces with electric lighting and indoor plumbing while the rest of the world lives in crude Stone Age ways. Still, it’s going too far, I think, to insist that the Stone Age people on the mainland aren’t even human. Backward, yes, by Athilantan standards. But to say that they aren’t human? That’s sheer arrogance.

  When you take into account how deeply the Athilantans seem to despise the mainlanders, my earlier notion about why there haven’t been any Athilantan artifacts found inany of the Paleolithic sites our archaeologists have excavated makes even more sense. If you’ve been ruled for thousands of years by a superior race that regards you as dirt, and suddenly the homeland of that superior race gets blown to kingdom come by a volcano, that gives you a good opportunity to rise up and kill all the surviving overlords. And then you might just want to take every last scrap of material belonging to your former masters that reminds you of your subjugation—every jar and dish and sculpture and even their tools, useful though they might be—and dump it all in the ocean while you’re at it. Makes sense to me.

  We need to check it out via time-search. Once we’ve begun our studies of the actual destruction epoch of Athilantan history, we ought to try to find out what happened afterward on the mainland, whether there really was the kind of purge of the hated masters that I’m suggesting. I think it stands to reason that there was, considering the ugly racist attitudes I’ve started to uncover in the Athilantan culture.

  Anyway: I ought to go on with my story. I’m here to observe, not to judge.

  The Ritual of Purification came to a glorious finale, with Prince Ram clambering into an alabaster tub filled with wine and honey and coming forth dripping wet while choirs of priests and priestesses sang hosannas. Servants robed him in a kind of toga of fine-spun white cotton trimmed with blue, which is what everyone wears here. (The whiteand-blue color scheme, like the marble buildings with the fine stone columns, helps to reinforce the general Greek atmosphere of Athilan. As does the sunny springlike climate.) And off he went, with me watching goggle-eyed from my vantage point within his mind, down the whole tremendous length of the Concourse of the Sky on foot topay his formal respects to his mighty father, Harinamur, Grand Darionis of Athilan.

  The procession took all day. The Concourse of the Sky is lined on both sides by splendid majestic buildings of classical design—it’s as grand a street as the Champs Elysees, or Fifth Avenue, or Piccadilly—and people looked down from every window as the Prince went by. He was bareheaded and wore nothing but that toga and sandals. The sun was very strong as he set out, but by midday the sky darkened and the usual daily rain came, a terrific downpour. He didn’t seem even to notice. I don’t know how long a walk it was— miles—but he never gave a hint that he might be getting tired.

  And eventually he reached the imperial palace, a splendid-many-columned marble building that sits high up on a huge stone platform overlooking a great plaza, at the far end of the Concourse of the Stars.

  He paused there, at the foot of a flight of what must have been at least a hundred immense marble steps, and looked up and up and up. At the top of this colossal stone staircase was a broad porch. His father the King was waiting there for him. And Prince Ram, who had just walked something like ten or eleven hours through the streets of the city to reach this place without resting even for a moment, unhesitatingly began to climb those hundred gigantic steps.

  “Hail, O One King,” the Prince cried. “Harinamur, Grand Darionis! And then—in a softer voice: “Father.”

  “Ram,” the king said. And they embraced.

  It was incredibly touching. Mighty father, invincible son: so happy to see each other again, so intensely happy. I was always fairly close with my own father, you know. But I never felt, with him, anything remotely like the powerful force of love that was passing between these two as theyhugged, in full view of the Athilantan multitudes, on that gleaming marble porch atop those hundred giant stairs.

  It was a little embarrassing, too, eavesdropping on Prince Ram’s feelings in this moment of reunion. But you have to force yourself not to think about things like that. As I’ve said before, and hardly need to point out to you, being a time-traveler involves being a sneak and a snooper and an eavesdropper on somebody else’s most private moments, and there’s simply no way around it. Since we can’t go to the past ourselves, we have to invade the minds of its inhabitants without their knowing it, and you can’t pretend that there’s anything very nice about that. But it’s necessary. That’s the only justification there is. If we’re going to salvage anything out of the vanished past, we have to do it this way, because this is the only way there is.

  The King is the most awesome human being I have ever seen. In grandeur and presence and authority he is like a combination of Moses, Abraham Lincoln, and the Emperor Augustus. He’s very tall, particularly for an Athilantan, with long white hair and a thick, full, white beard. He has a look of such nobility and wisdom that you want to drop down before him and kiss his sandals. This day he was dressed in purple robes woven through with thread of gold and silver, and he wore a crown made of laurel leaves set on golden spikes.

  With immense solemnity he took Prince Ram in his arms and held him close, and then he stepped back so that they could look in each other’s eyes; and in the King’s dark shining eyes I saw such warmth, such depths of love, that I actually felt sad and envious, thinking that no one else on Earth could ever have been loved by his father the way this prince was.

  “We have missed you every day of your absence, and every hour of every day,” the King said. “We have asked thegods daily to preserve you and bring you safely back to us. And now our prayers have been answered.”

  “Father. Grand Darionis. One King. My thoughts have ever been upon you while I traveled abroad.”

  They touched fingertips, very quickly and delicately, in the formal Athilantan manner.

  Then six priests appeared, leading out another aurochs, and father and
son slaughtered the poor beast right then and there, each of them wielding one of those jewel-hilted swords. A fire was lit; the meat was cooked; the priests hacked chunks off the carcass and brought them to the King and the Prince, who fed each other with their own hands.

  It was, I know, meant as a ceremony of renewed love. But to me it also seemed a bloody, barbaric business, and I was glad when it ended and the Prince and his father went side by side into the royal palace.

  You would not easily believe the splendor of the place. The lavish draperies, the carvings in ivory and jade, the many-colored stone pillars and filigreed window openings— it’s your basic Arabian Nights palace made real. You look at it and your heart aches, because you can’t help telling yourself that all of it is doomed to wind up at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, buried under thousands of years of muck and silt. You stand amid all this fantastic dreamlike loveliness and you know that its days are numbered, that it’s not going to last beyond next month, or next year, or maybe next century at best, and it hurts to think about it. (The ruins of the palace must still be down there on the ocean floor somewhere! But could we ever find them? And would any shred of their beauty still remain?)

  Each member of the royal family has a private suite of rooms within the palace. Prince Ram’s suite is in back, on the second floor, looking out over a courtyard and garden.It’s grand enough to make any king happy. I wonder what the King’s own rooms are like, if this is what a prince gets.

  By this time Ram was so groggy with fatigue that I was having trouble making sense of his thoughts. Everything that was passing through his mind was reaching me in blurred and woolly form. He tried to pretend that he was fine, and for a time he and the King sat together in one of Ram’s rooms, discussing some important governmental matters that I couldn’t follow at all.

  But it was obvious to the King that Ram wasn’t able to keep his eyes open, and after a little while he bade his son goodnight and left. The Prince ran through the usual set of end-of-day prayers in one almighty hurry and dropped down on his bed like a dead man.

  I let him rest for half the night. But there was too much that I wanted to tell you. So I took control of him and we went looking for writing materials, and found them, and for the last two hours I’ve had him setting all this down on long strips of vellum. His mind is still asleep, so he’s getting the rest he needs. But he’s going to have an awfully sore hand tomorrow from this much scribbling. I think I’d better stop now, though. It’s close to dawn. Out where you are, thousands of miles to the east, the sun is already up. I hope you’re okay. And that you get a chance to see this fantastic place for yourself some day.

  Signing off—

  —Roy

  5.

  Day 36, New Light, Great River.One more letter, sent off into the unknown. Will it reach you? Will you ever write back to me? Who knows?

  I might as well admit it: I haven’t really been doing too well lately. Now and then I get spells when I begin to feel lost and gloomy here, cut off, out of contact with anything real. All too aware that what I am is a floating ghost implanted in another man’s body while my own lies sleeping in a laboratory at the other end of time.And then I remind myself of what a privilege it is to be here—to have been allowed to conduct part of this amazing exploration of times lost and, so we all once believed, forever irrecoverable. To be experiencing the sights and sounds and wonders of this incredible era, an era of whose very existence we once had only the most pathetic distorted notions. How remarkable that is—how much I am to be envied—!

  I suppose I don’t really need to be saying things like this to you. You’re in the same boat I am. Forgive me for being dull or obvious. These matters weigh on my mind.

  Sometimes I wish we’d never volunteered for any of this, Lora, that we were back in our own real time right this minute, you and I walking hand in hand in the park, or running along the beach, or just sitting quietly together having a pizza. Ordinary trivial things that everybody takes for granted. Home Era is starting to seem unreal to me. I have to stop and remind myself what an ice cream sundae tastes like, or what kind of sound a guitar makes, or even—God help me—what color your eyes are. And then everything starts to cut pretty close.

  Well, the moods come and go. They can’t be helped.

  But I know we’ll get home eventually, if everything goes right. There’ll be plenty of time for pizza and ice cream then, and all the rest. Meanwhile the basic thing to remember is that we’re in the middle of the most fantastic adventure anybody could imagine. There you are in Stone Age Europe with mammoths walking around on the tundra—and here I am waking up every morning to the golden sunlight of fabulous Atlantis—

  How could anybody dare to feel gloomy even for a moment, doing what we’re doing? The idea’s practically obscene.

  Busy days here. Lots of new information.This is what I’ve learned about the Athilantan system of government in the past few days:

  The King is an absolute monarch, and I mean absolute. Whatever he says, goes. There’s no council of nobles, no senate, nothing that remotely challenges the King’s authority. He’s got courtiers and bureaucrats, sure, but the wholeempire is essentially his own private property, to rule as he pleases.

  It sounds like a recipe for disaster. Certainly such an arrangement always has been, in historical times. No empire can hope to have an unbroken string of capable rulers. This king or that one might be all right, and maybe as much as a century can go along without any troublemakers reaching the throne. But sooner or later some madman is bound to come along, a Nero or a Caligula or a Hitler, somebody who won’t be able to handle absolute power, who runs amok and causes terrible chaos.

  Why hasn’t it happened here? How has the Athilantan empire managed to survive for so many hundreds of years without producing a power-crazed tyrant who brings everything crashing down?

  The clue, it seems, is in the title that they give the King. Grand Darionis literally means The One King, and by that they mean that he is the only king that Athilan has ever had. The present ruler is considered to be the reincarnation of everyone who has ever held the throne, all the way back to the time of the first Harinamur who founded the kingdom back in legendary times. When each king dies, all his memories pass into the soul of his successor, so that he embodies the accumulated wisdom of the entire dynasty. Or so they say. I don’t yet know if that’s literally true, or just a picturesque way of asserting the strength of tradition here. I can tell you that the look in King Harinamur’s eyes is not a look I have ever seen in anyone else’s. He seems almost superhuman.

  I think this One King business is at least in part responsible for the unusual degree of closeness that exists between the King and Prince Ram.

  After all, Ram is the heir to the throne. If I understandthese things correctly, when it is his time to become Grand Darionis he will in effect become identical with his father. The King may already regard Ram as nothing more than a literal continuation of his own identity. And Ram may already have come to see himself as the actual reincarnation of the King, the older man in a new body.

  I don’t really know how this works, yet. Do they have a way of transplanting the entire memory files of the King into his son? (Or daughter. As in England, the throne usually goes to the oldest child, male or female.) If so, it has to be done while the King is still alive, right? Unless they do it in the moment of death.

  Or possibly, there’s no literal transfer of memory at all, and the whole concept is just a kind of convention, a political fiction, like calling the Emperor of China the “Son of Heaven.” If that’s so, all the kings may have the same name, and they may be very closely imprinted with the beliefs and values of their predecessors, but they can’t actually be regarded as identical to all the kings who have gone before them.

  So far, I’ve probed Ram very cautiously about this whole matter. It may be a really sensitive area for him, in which case he might become aware of me as I go poking around in his mind. That’s the last thin
g I need.

  What I’ve learned, though, seems to indicate that they really do have some way of merging minds, personalities, stored memories, and such. And it’s done in stages, each one marked with a big ceremony.

  First comes the Rite of Designation, in which the young child is named as heir apparent. This is done at the age of ten.

  Then there’s the Rite of Joining, at thirteen. I don’t quite understand what this is, but it involves creating some kind of deep bond between the ruler and his heir. My guess isthat it’s the opening of a sort of mental conduit through which psychic impulses flow from the older one to the younger—the beginning of the transfer.

  The third step is the Rite of Anointing. That happens when the heir apparent is eighteen, which means the Anointing of Ram ought to be due to take place very soon now. In this, the Prince enters full adulthood and heavy responsibility. He receives certain mystic powers, which are so secret that not even Ram himself seems to know what they are yet. He gets to live in a palace of his own. And he becomes a kind of viceroy of the realm, a junior king, with areas of authority and obligation far beyond anything he’s had to undertake before. Once this rite is performed, he is permitted to marry. Is expected to marry, as a matter of fact.

  (As far as I can tell, Prince Ram, with the Rite of Anointing just around the corner, has no particular woman in mind to become his Princess. Perhaps she’ll be chosen for him by his father and her identity won’t be made known to him until the official moment. Brrr!)

  The fourth and final rite is the Rite of Union. This, I assume, is the ultimate transfer of identity from king to prince, as the time gets close for the handing over of the throne to the chosen heir. When this takes place, or how, I don’t know. All details concerning this rite are buried so deeply in Prince Ram’s consciousness that I’d need to do major excavation to get to them. Obviously it’s something he doesn’t want to think about, or isn’t allowed to.

 
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