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       Cronos, p.5

           Robert Silverberg
 

  What will it be like for me, I wonder, when Prince Ram experiences the Rite of Union? What will it feel like when all those additional mental impulses come flooding into his mind? Pretty chaotic, I imagine. I suspect it’ll be something like sitting up in the top of a tall tree while a hurricane is going on all around you.

  But of course I might not even be here by the time hedoes the Rite of Union. We’ve only got a six-month assignment here, after all. As I say, I have no way of telling how soon Ram is due for the fourth rite, but my guess is that it’s going to be more than six months down the line.

  Some real mixed feelings here. On the other hand I’m uneasy about the impact of the Rite of Union on me if I’m still inside Ram’s mind when it happens. On the other hand I suddenly realize that I’m hoping Home Era will let me stick around long enough to observe it, regardless of the dangers. The rite would probably give me answers to a lot of the questions I’m starting to ask myself about Athilan. I don’t want to be yanked back to our own time until I’m good and ready to go. Until I’ve soaked up everything I can possibly learn about this place.

  But of course I’ve got no control over that. When the time’s up, back to Home Era I go, whether or not I want to. I return to “reality.” I return to you. But I give up Atlantis. Don’t misunderstand me, Lora. I’d give anything to be with you again after this separation. And yet, and yet—to be here for the Rite of Union—to have a ringside seat when all the accumulated memories of all the kings of Athilan go pouring into Prince Ram’s mind—

  Well, we’ll see. It’s entirely out of my hands. I don’t care for that very much. There are times when I feel like a puppet on a string. Which I know is a dumb attitude. It was understood from the start that we were here only for a specific length of time and then we’d be brought back to Home Era. That was the deal, and no use complaining about it now. All the same, I have a funny feeling that I’m going to resent it when they yank me back, because it’s going to come just as something tremendously important is about to happen.

  Why am I worrying so much? All this fidgeting and dithering about things?

  Just lonely, I guess. Thinking of you. Missing you.Maybe sending “emotionally connected pairs” on these trips into the past isn’t such a great idea after all.

  The Prince is an active and vigorous young man, and his days are full ones.He’s up at dawn. Prayers, first. (These Athilantans are very devout. They seem to have a couple of dozen gods, who are, however, all regarded as aspects of the One God.) Then, before breakfast, he swims in the marble-lined pool in the courtyard of the palace’s rear wing. Fifty laps. ( Everything here seems to be made out of marble. There’s a big stonequarry somewhere on the far side of Mount Balamoris, but also they bring finer grades of marble in by ship from Greece and Italy.)

  Breakfast, then. Fruits, most of them strange tropical ones that I can’t identify, followed by roast lamb. And a rich, sweet red wine. Wine for breakfast—well, that isn’t anything I’d care to do. But the Prince is strong as an ox and it doesn’t even make him a little bit tipsy. And these Athilantans, like all the Mediterranean peoples who I believe are descended from them, love their wine. There are vineyards all over the island. (All their wines are sweet. I know that real wine connoisseurs claim that the best wines are dry ones, but the Athilantans probably wouldn’t care. They like it the way they like it. I suppose a Frenchman wouldn’t approve, if there were any Frenchmen in existence. But there aren’t any yet. Nor are there any vineyards right now, over there in the icebound land that will someday be France. And there aren’t going to be for thousands of years.)

  After breakfast Ram meets with the King. They go over all sorts of official documents and reports.

  Most of what they deal with concerns the flow of raw materials that Athilantan ships bring in from Africa andsouthern Europe. These Athilantans are the world’s first imperialists. They’ve colonized every part of the world within reach, importing things they need—minerals, mostly, but certain foodstuffs also—and giving not very much in return. Of course there isn’t much that they could give, considering how primitive all the other humans of this era are. Your typical modern-era colonial power imports raw materials from backward countries and exports manufactured goods, but semi-nomadic Stone Age hunters don’t have a lot of need for light bulbs, fancy plumbing fixtures, or rubber tires.

  There’s a tremendous cultural gulf between the Athilantans and the rest of the Stone Age world. It’s incredible. They are so far beyond everybody else here in all ways that I can’t even begin to explain it. A mutant race of supergeniuses that mysteriously arose out of nowhere during the late Paleolithic Era? That sounds too hokey to be believed. But what other explanation can there be?

  The King and the Prince also discuss local matters at their morning conference. They decide which government officials deserve promotions and which need to be reprimanded for slacking off. They talk about street repair and new building construction. They make plans for upcoming religious festivals. None of this is very romantic. It’s just their job—ruling the Athilantan Empire. And it’s a lot of work, which never eases off.

  Lunch is light: some grapes, some cheese, and the strange bread, hard as rock, that they make out of the wheat that grows here. Wheat is still in its early evolutionary stages and such wheat as they have isn’t very different from grass seed. But even that is amazing, considering how far in the past we are. Still, it doesn’t make remarkably good bread. The Prince drinks a light white wine with lunch, as sweet as perfume. Ugh.

  Then a nap. And then he goes off for afternoon exercise: horseback riding, javelin throwing, another swim, and the like. He’s a terrific athlete. You’d have to be, to ride the horses they have in this era—mean little guys, short legs, long manes, angry dispositions. They’re wild animals and they don’t pretend otherwise. The Athilantans understand the principle of the saddle but they don’t know anything about bridles and bits, and their technique for controlling their horses is basically to grab them around the necks and wrestle them into submission.

  After exercise, there’s usually some ritual to perform. This is a very religious country, in its way. The place swarms with priests and priestesses of the various gods. All these gods constantly demand worship. The various rituals invariably involve the King and the Prince, because the King of Athilan is not only the monarch but also the high priest, and the Prince is his right-hand man. So they have to put in an hour or so in this temple or that one almost every day, presiding over these godly matters. The chants and prayers they utter are highly stylized and I don’t have a clear idea of what they mean. A lot of animal sacrifice goes on, too. I still don’t find that very easy to take.

  In late afternoon the whole royal family gets together for a kind of relaxation hour, warm and affectionate, everybody funny and loving. Then they have dinner together, a terrific feast. The servants are mainlanders. (Slaves, I suppose. I have to keep reminding myself not to expect the Athilantans to abide by all our nice modern democratic institutions, like freedom. Like the Romans, like the Greeks, like a lot of advanced civilizations of antiquity, the Athilantans don’t seem to see anything wrong with enslaving people. It’s always a surprise, isn’t it, when people who seem generally enlightened, like the Athilantans, turn out to practice something as cruel and wrong as slavery. But the past isthe past, and things are different there, and no use expecting it to be otherwise. At least they seem to treat their slaves pretty well, for what that’s worth.)

  There’s food galore at these royal feasts, a simply incredible amount of food, usually with a roasted ox as the main event, and amazing quantities of wine. (But everybody seems to stay sober. Is the wine very weak, or do these people have unusual tolerance for alcohol?)

  Minstrels come in and sing when dinner is over. The favorite is a long historical epic, something like the Iliad and the Odyssey rolled into one. It sounds very stirring, but it also happens to be snug in some ancient version of the Athilantan language, and it’s as hard
for Prince Ram to understand as Chaucer’s English would be for us. I can get only the vaguest drift of it, something about exile and wandering and the eventual building of this great city on the island of Athilan.

  Listening to the minstrels gives me a wonderful feeling of what it must have been like to sit around the banquet hall in ancient Greece, listening to Homer strumming on his lyre and chanting the first editions of his poems. But then I have to tell myself that Greece isn’t ancient yet—that it won’t even exist as a concept for another 17,000 years and some— and that Homer, Achilles, Agamemnon, and the rest of that legendary crowd are unknown figures of the unimaginably misty future, so far as the Athilantans are concerned.

  It gets dark early here. The Prince goes to sleep when the minstrels are finished, and sleeps like a marble statue until the first rays of dawn.

  Or, at least, would sleep like a marble statue if I didn’t insist on hauling him out of bed somewhere during the night so that he could write the letters for me. Of course he’s completely unaware of that. I keep the letters hidden in a leather case underneath a stack of old togas that he doesn’tseem to wear any more. Whenever I hear that a courier is about to set out for Naz Glesim, I put the Prince into trance and have him get the current letter and pack it up for shipment. I wonder, of course, if any of my letters will ever get to you. The distances are so great, the situation so tricky. But I have to keep on writing them. I need this contact with you so very much—even one-sided as it’s been up till now.

  I wish I had some way of dictating my impressions of this world into a recorder that I could take back to Home Era with me. The big trouble with being a disembodied web of electrical impulses, I keep thinking, is that you can’t carry anything across time with you except the contents of your own mind. Better than nothing, but pretty frustrating all the same. I’d like to come home with bulging notebooks describing everything I’ve seen here, and maybe a suitcase or two of Athilantan artifacts. No way, though. No way at all.

  Time to go. Ram’s writing hand is cramping badly. He needs to rest. And, I think, so do I.

  —Roy

  6.

  Day 5, Month of Western Wind, Year of Great River.Almost a week since my last letter. I haven’t wanted to write. Strange things have been going on in my mind and I didn’t particularly care to talk about them, hoping they’d vanish of their own accord. But they haven’t.

  What’s happening—not to be mysterious about it any longer—is that I’ve been feeling a powerful urge to let Prince Ram know I’m here.

  I realize that this is a classic malady of time-travelers. The compulsion to stand up and shout, “Look at me! Look at me! I’m sitting right here inside your head!” There’s even a name for it, isn’t there? Observer Guilt Syndrome, I think. But knowing that I’m not the first one to experience this doesn’t make it any easier for me.

  The thing is that I have now spent several weeks observing-Prince Ram at the closest possible range. I feel closer to him than any friend or wife could ever be. I know which side of his mouth he prefers to chew his food on, which god’s name he takes in vain when he stubs his toe, and thedetails of the really nasty trick he pulled on his kid brother when he was nine years old. (And which he still feels guilty about, although Prince Caiminor was only four at the time and probably doesn’t remember a thing.)

  All this is producing the predictable Observer Guilt reactions in me. Maybe you’re feeling a little of it yourself. I talked about this a few letters back—when I compared being an observer to being a spy, and said that it felt a little ugly. But it’s starting to seem like something a lot worse than spying, now. It feels like being a Peeping Tom. A spy, at least, is serving his country. Peeping Toms are simply slimy.

  I know, Lora, I know, I know. I’m serving the cause of knowledge by doing what I’m doing. And my training is supposed to help me get past these expectable feelings of guilt and shame.

  But the longer I stay in Prince Ram’s mind, the better I get to know him and the more I admire him. He is a strong, capable, intelligent, determined, disciplined, princely fellow. He has his flaws—who doesn’t?—but he’s basically a very good person who is going to be a great king some day. And the more I get to like him, the less I like myself for skulking here, invisible and imperceptible, inside his head. I’m coming to hate the sneakiness of it: eavesdropping on his conversations and even his most private thoughts, and putting him into trances that he doesn’t in any way suspect so that I can use him to write these letters for me.

  I want to let him know that I’m here—a visitor from the remote future who has come to study the great and glorious Athilantan empire in its heyday. I want to ask his permission, I guess, for continuing to occupy my hidden perch within his mind.

  Don’t worry. I haven’t given him even the slightest hint so far. But in the past week I’ve come close, a couple oftimes, to making actual conscious-level contact with him. And the temptation isn’t going away. If anything, it’s getting stronger.

  For the time being, I’m being very cautious about the degree of mind-entry I’m allowing myself with the Prince. Mostly I limit myself to low-level passive observation, simply monitoring minute-by-minute sensory information: what he sees, what he hears, and so forth.

  I’m not trying to do any digging into the deeper stored data of his mind. That’s the easiest way, of course, to make your host suspicious that something peculiar is going on in his head. And what I’m afraid of is that if he expresses any sort of suspicion that he has been possessed or inhabited or somehow taken over by an alien spirit, I’m going to blurt out the whole truth to him in a wild rush of confessional zeal. I don’t dare risk that.

  This is creating some serious disadvantages for me.

  For example, without taking a deeper look into his mind, I have no way of understanding the significance of the unusual and apparently very important ritual that the Prince and his father performed last night.

  In late afternoon a messenger came to the Prince and said, “It is the night of Romany Star.”

  I’m sure that’s what he said: Romany Star.

  The Prince, who had been relaxing after a strenuous workout on horseback, immediately called for his slaves, who bathed him, sprinkled him with some kind of aromatic oil, and clothed him in a shining scarlet robe (which looked very much like silk. Is the silkworm native to Athilan, or do their ships travel as far as China?) and a little silver coronet. Then he went to the uppermost floor of the palace, where there is a staircase leading to a roof-top garden.

  King Harinamur was waiting for him up there in the garden, wearing a silken robe even showier than thePrince’s, and a beautifully worked golden coronet. There was nobody else present, no priests, no slaves.

  Darkness began to fall. Father and son, working quickly, took long slender twigs and branches of some delicately colored aromatic wood from a storage chest against the wall, and arranged them on a little altar of green stone (jade?). Then they waited, standing stock still, staring rigidly at the sky. They were both looking at the same sector, almost directly overhead. I could feel Prince Ram slipping into a kind of trance of his own accord. His pulse rate rose, his eyes were dilated, his skin temperature dropped.

  The stars were appearing, now. The unfamiliar constellations of the Paleolithic sky blazed above us. Ram’s head was thrown back, his eyes were fixed. He scarcely even blinked.

  “I see it,” he said after a time, in a strange throaty voice, like a man talking in his sleep.

  “Do you, so soon?” said the King. “Yes, young eyes would.”

  “Above the Great Whale. To the left of the Spear.”

  “Yes. Yes. I see it too. Hail, Romany Star!”

  “Hail,” murmured the Prince. “Romany Star!”

  And then they began to chant, slowly, solemnly, in the ancient priestly language.

  I was too awed—frightened, even—to try to penetrate Ram’s mind and seek the meaning. They were like two statues, motionless but for their lips, staring u
p at that star and uttering their prayer to it. I think I know which star they were looking at: a brilliant one, a giant. It seemed to be of a reddish color. I’m no astronomer and I couldn’t even begin to guess which star it was, and in any case the sky over Athilan is nothing like the sky we see back in Home Era.

  Ram dropped deeper and deeper into trance. He seemed scarcely conscious now, and his father the same. The prayer went on and on, slow, somber, profoundly moving eventhough I couldn’t comprehend a syllable of it. It was like some long, intricate poem. No: it was more like a prayer for the dead. Tears were quietly rolling down Ram’s cheeks as he spoke.

  Now they knelt and lit the twigs they had placed on the stone altar, and curling wisps of fragrant smoke rose above them. Calmly Ram began to rip his splendid silken gown to shreds; and calmly the King did likewise. They tore those gowns to ribbons, and cast the ribbons into the flame, so that they stood naked by the altar, wearing nothing but their coronets of gold and silver. And then they removed the coronets too, and crushed them in their bare hands, and tossed them on the fire.

  The rite, whatever it was, was over.

  Naked, still entranced, the King and the Prince turned and slowly made their way back into the palace. No one dared look at them. They parted, without a word, in the grand hallway, each going to his own suite. Ram went to his bedroom, lay down without bothering with the usual evening prayers, and fell instantly asleep. And that was the rite of Romany Star.

  I don’t have any idea what it was all about. But it was obviously more important than any of the other religious rites the Prince has taken part in since I’ve been here. He treated all the other ones simply as mere tasks, part of the job of being a prince. This one moved him deeply. This one shook him to his depths. I need to know why. If I were in better shape myself, I’d scout around in his mind until I found out. But right now I don’t dare make any sort of contact with him at that level. I simply don’t dare.

 
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