Cronos, p.6
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       Cronos, p.6

           Robert Silverberg



  Day 11, Western Wind, Great River.A big day for me.

  The first letter from you in Naz Glesim came in today, with the regular diplomatic packet! I must have read it a dozen times. It was such an incredible joy, hearing from you after all this time, these weeks and weeks of being cooped up by myself inside Prince Ram’s mind.

  I have to confess it now; I was getting a little paranoid about not hearing from you. I know, I know, it takes forever for couriers to get from one end of the empire to the other. So I couldn’t really have expected an answer from you any sooner than this. But here I was, sending off pages and pages of stuff to you and never getting even a postcard back, so to speak, and the time was passing—passing very slowly, let me tell you—and it seemed like years had gone by. I wondered if you were too busy to write. Or just didn’t want to bother. And various other unworthy thoughts. It also occurred to me that something terrible might have happenedto you. The time-travel process isn’t absolutely safe, after all.

  I kept all these worries to myself when writing to you. Or tried to, at least. But now none of it matters, because I know that you’re all right, that you still care, that you’ve been answering my letters as soon as you could. And so on and so forth. And how glad I am!

  The officials who sort through the stuff that Provincial Governor Sippurilayl sends to the capital from Naz Glesim must have been very puzzled indeed to unroll a scroll addressed to Prince Ram and discover that the whole thing was in some unknown kind of writing. But they came to the only logical conclusion—that it must be written in code, and therefore very important—and they brought it to the Prince right away.

  Now came the ticklish part. The Prince glanced at it and thought it was all just some crazy scribble, and to my absolute horror he started to toss it in the fire. I had to override him and pull him back to his desk, right in front of the officials who had brought him the scroll. He stopped short, struggled against my override for a second, almost fell down.

  God knows what they thought was happening to him— another “stroke,” maybe. Ram didn’t understand it either. But he waved them quickly out of his office, perhaps because he was embarrassed at having them see him staggering around like that and was afraid it might happen again in another minute.

  The instant they were out of the room, I put him in trance and read your letter. And re-read it and re-read it, hungrily. It was so wonderful hearing from you at last that I came close to breaking into tears. (With Prince Ram’s eyes!) Then when I knew your letter practically by heart I had the Prince roll it up and hide it away in the alcove where I keepletters waiting to go to you, and I awakened him, after trying to wipe from his memory all recollection of what had been taking place.

  If I’m lucky, he won’t recall a thing about the strange scroll with the peculiar writing on it. More likely he’ll be left with some vague, misty impression of having been looking at a document that made no sense to him. My hope is that the Prince will think that he dreamed the whole thing—the way someone can dream of picking up a book in Greek or Arabic and is able, in his sleep, at least, to read it with complete understanding, even though he can’t remember a word of it afterward.

  At any rate, you sound happy and healthy and generallyin great shape, and I’m glad for you. I’m relieved to hear that the weather isn’t as awful as I feared. Cold, yes, but that’s only to be expected in Ice Age Europe, and at least it hasn’t been snowing much. The description you give of the house where you’re living, made entirely of mammoth bones, is fascinating. The foundation of mammoth skulls, the wall of mammoth jawbones stacked crosswise like that, the huge thighbones forming an entranceway—I guess that’s what passes for a grand mansion out Naz Glesim way. Naturally the Athilantan Provincial Governor would have the best accommodations, such as they are.

  Very interesting about that ugly, shaggy-looking character with the receding chin and the sloping forehead who was seen skulking around outside the village. Do you think there’s really any likelihood that he’s a Neanderthal? My understanding of these things is that the Neanderthals have been extinct for a long time now, fifteen or twenty thousand years, at least. But I guess it’s possible that a few of them still linger on in the back woods, drifting around like sad displaced outcasts.

  (We keep finding out, don’t we, how little we actuallyknew about prehistoric man in the days before time exploration began! Of course all we had to go by was a little scattering of skeletons that had survived by flukes here and there, and an assortment of stone tools and weapons. And out of that we conjured up some kind of notion of hundreds of thousands of years of human life. It was a pretty good guess, I suppose, considering the data we had. But now that we’re actually back here seeing it for ourselves, how different it all looks. Neanderthal Man isn’t completely gone after all, if your idea is correct. And the Paleolithic Homo sapiens people have a much more elaborate culture than we ever imagined. And then, of course, there are these spectacular Athilantan folk, whose existence we never even remotely suspected, dominating everything, operating a modern technological civilization all the way back here. With electricity, no less.)

  Now that I know you are in fact getting my letters, and are able to write back, I’ll probably write more often. And I hope you will too. It was magical the way hearing from you dissolved the terrible sense of isolation I’ve been feeling, the miserable loneliness, the fidgety worrying about problems that didn’t really need to be worried about. I can hardly wait for the next one from you.

  Of course it’s risky, isn’t it? Not only because we have to take control of our host’s body to write our letters, but because having all these bizarre scrolls in an unknown language traveling back and forth is eventually likely to make someone suspect sorcery, or espionage, or something else serious. There could be an investigation, I suppose. But it’s worth it, despite the risks, don’t you think? I’m absolutely convinced of that. Getting that letter from you this morning was one of the great moments of my life. To find out that you’re okay, to hear about what you’ve been doing thesepast weeks, to read those words, “I love you.” Now I want the next letter. And the next. And the one after that.

  Got to stop now. More later.

  And now it is later—a little before dawn.Big trouble. The Prince knows I’m here.

  Although I haven’t been monitoring his mind deeply for some time now, for reasons which you already know, I can’t help but be aware of the mental vibrations he gives off. When he’s excited, I feel it. When he’s angry. When he’s tired. When he’s tense. It’s a constant broadcast that I automatically pick up.

  Today, a couple of hours after the episode of the arrival of your letter and my overriding of his attempt to throw it on the fire, I began detecting a new and troublesome mood in him. It was somewhere between anxiety and anger, and it was growing stronger moment by moment, a slow, steady buildup of tension that had to be leading to some sort of explosion.

  That was pretty scary, feeling him ticking away like a bomb. I was tempted to reach in and try to defuse him before he went off. But I didn’t know where to reach or what to defuse. So I waited uneasily, wondering what was going to happen, while he went on working himself up.

  Then at last he spoke—mentally, loud and clear—directly to me. It was like a bomb going off right in my face:

  —Who are you, demon, and why are you within me?

  Remember when I said that what we really are is demons, taking possession of the minds and bodies of our hosts? That’s the way Prince Ram sees it too.

  I was totally stunned. I didn’t know what to say or do or think.

  This was my chance, if ever there was one, to make direct contact with the Prince. As you know if my more recent letters have been getting through to you, I’ve been fighting that temptation for days. Successfully. This sudden shot in the dark from the Prince might easily have broken through my will to resist Observer Guilt Syndrome. But it didn’t. When the chips were down, I found my
self maintaining total silence after all, just as our training tells us to do. I kept myself sealed off, allowing just minimal contact with Prince Ram’s mind.

  But he kept after me.

  —I know you are there. I feel you hiding in my mind.

  I remained silent. What could I do? Tell him he was imagining things? Any contact I made would have the effect of revealing me, of confirming my presence.

  —Who are you, demon? Why do you assail me?

  He was growing more excited moment by moment. He trembled and shook. His heart was pounding and there was a throbbing like a hammerblow in his temples. He knelt and covered his face with his hands. Then he pressed his hands to the sides of his head with tremendous force, as if trying to drive me out by sheer pressure. He focused all his power of concentration on the task of expelling me from his mind.

  Of course none of this had any effect on me. But the strain on the Prince was fearful. Every muscle of his body was writhing. His eyes bulged, his breath came in wild gasps, sweat broke from all his pores. Stress hormones flooded his system. There was such internal violence going on all over him that it was scary. Could he harm himself like this? I didn’t know.

  But I had only two choices, to reveal myself or to put him into trance and calm him down. I opted for the second choice, and he slumped and lay still.

  For a time I was afraid to do anything else. Then, gradually, I began to explore the upper levels of his mind.

  What I discovered was—as I suspected—that I hadn’t done a complete enough job of editing out the memory of seeing your letter. He remembered just enough of it, and of the earlier letter of mine that he had seen that time when his steward had walked in on him aboard the ship. That led him to think about the odd stumble he had taken that afternoon, and the “stroke” he had suffered when I originally entered his mind weeks ago, and the strange sorenesses in his arm, and various other little curiosities directly related to my presence within him. And he had jumped to exactly the correct conclusion. The Prince is a highly intelligent man, you know.

  I couldn’t hope to cancel out all his justified suspicions by tinkering now with his mind. That would involve so much messing around that I’d certainly do great damage. I couldn’t leave him conked out on the floor, either. So I settled for reaching in here and there and returning his hormonal flow to make him as calm as possible. And then I brought him out of trance.

  He sat up, frowning, shaking his head. But he didn’t try to communicate with me again. Simply arose, paced around the room a few times, put his head out the window, took three very deep breaths. And called his steward, and asked for a flagon of wine. Sipped a little of it. Sat staring at nothing in particular for a while, his mind almost blank. Finally said his prayers, got into bed, dropped into a deep sleep. Now it’s almost morning. He hasn’t awakened.

  My whole mission’s in danger now. I’m going to have to be extra careful about everything I do. I know he’s stillconvinced that there’s a demon in him. And he’s right. The intensity of his reaction was truly frightening. I don’t want him driving himself into seizures of some sort—or having a mental breakdown that could affect his position as heir to the throne. Probably I can take the risk of continuing to use him to write these letters while he’s under trance, but otherwise I’ll have to lay low. If worst comes to worst I may even have to abandon the whole project and return ahead of schedule to Home Era. We’ll see. Keep your fingers crossed for me, love. More later, I hope.

  Continued, the following day.They have had a rite of exorcism to drive me out of the Prince’s mind. Obviously, it didn’t work. Even so, my position remains very precarious.

  The first thing Ram did upon awakening was to summon the Counsellor Teneristis, who is a vizier of the realm and has been the Prince’s special mentor for many years. Teneristis is a very short, brusque old man, businesslike and tough, with two thick tufts of wiry white hair that stick out comically from the sides of his head like horns. There’s nothing in the least comic about him, though.

  The Prince said, “There is a demon in me. It turns my mind dark and makes me see and do things I do not understand.”

  “You will go to the Labyrinth, then,” Teneristis replied instantly. “You have sinned, or no demon could have entered you. And in the Labyrinth you will be purged of your sin.”

  The Labyrinth! Shades of Theseus and the Minotaur! But this isn’t Crete and the myth of Theseus won’t be invented for more thousands of years than I want to think about. The Labyrinth of Athilan isn’t a prison for a monster, it’s a holy sanctuary, located in a maze of dark musty caverns halfwayup the flank of Mount Balamoris. My guess is that the caverns are natural ones, most likely part of the intricate geological plumbing that lies beneath most volcanos—all those tubes and vents and conduits and whatnot that a volcano creates as it rises. This volcano has been dormant for a long time and the Athilantans have honeycombed these warrens along its slopes with a network of sacred shrines.

  It’s a beautiful mountain. So peaceful, so lovely, that you tend to forget that one morning in the very near future it’s going to come roaring back to life and destroy this whole fantastic civilization.

  Alone, the Prince rode out in the early mists of morning through the white and glittering streets of Athilan, past temples and palaces, past villas and parks, up the glorious green slopes of the foothills of Mount Balamoris. And tethered his horse, and knelt, and prayed. And walked without hesitation toward the narrow mouth of the Labyrinth.

  It was a bare slit, unmarked, unadorned, fairly high up the mountain. He stepped through it into an eight-sided chamber lined with white-and-blue tiles that led to a paved passageway heading inward and downward. The chamber was lit by three electrical lamps that gave off a rich golden glow. The passageway wasn’t lit at all beyond the first twenty paces. Dimness engulfed him, and then even the dimness gave way to the complete absence of light. For what seemed like hours he spiraled down and down and down, far beyond the reach of the deepest beam of light, into a realm of terrifying darkness.

  In that utter blackness your only guide is the sequence of smooth high-relief carvings on the walls. You grope your way, feeling for the age-old holy images, “reading” the walls with your hands. There is a logical pattern to the order of the images that makes sense to an Athilantan, though not to me, and so long as you can summon up the properpassages from the religious teachings you have studied, you’ll be able to find your way. If you become confused even in the slightest detail, you get lost immediately and the chances of your being able to get out again are extremely small. So Teneristis was taking a considerable risk with the heir to the throne by sending him to the Labyrinth.

  The Prince didn’t seem worried. He moved along briskly, passing his hands over this carving and that one. He appeared to know what to expect as he went, and he always found it. There was only one moment—a bad one—when he paused after stroking one of the carvings and a jolt of uncertainty went through him like a spear, leaving a trail of jitter-hormones in his veins. But he halted, took a few deep breaths, forced himself to a state of icy calm, touched the carving again.

  This time he found the clue that he had missed before, a double zigzag of lines to the left of the main image.

  Breathing more easily, he went onward.

  And on and on, down and down.

  The walls of the passageway were narrower here, and lower. He had to stoop and shuffle. The air grew warmer. He was wearing nothing but a loincloth, but even so, he became slippery with sweat. Though his mind was at ease— cool, confident—there was the awareness of danger not very far from the center of his soul. All he needed to do was take one wrong turn and he would lose himself beyond all hope. A terrible death, alone down there in the sweltering darkness, crying out for food, for water, for light.

  Then I felt his heart thump with joy and he came suddenly around a sharp bend of the corridor into a place where he could actually see.

  This was the end of the line, the core of the Labyr
inth, the penitential chamber.

  It was a circular room, dome-roofed, with an opening inthe floor at its very center. Light came up through that opening—red, flickering light, the flaming heart of the world glowing up through the bowels of the volcano. Peering over the edge, Ram could see, and I saw with him, rosy pools of fiery lava far below, sluggishly tossing and stirring. Gusts of hot wind rose from them. And, staring down into that distant churning furnace, I saw the death of Atlantis waiting to burst loose.

  Here he crouched, head pressed against his knees. Here he prayed to be liberated from the spirit that had invaded him.

  He named the names of gods. He named the names of kings—the secret names, the names they had worn as princes, before they became the newest Harinamur. He called upon all the forces of the universe to free him from—


  The words came pouring out of him in a wild, keening howl, weird and strange-sounding. “I have strayed from the path of my fathers,” he cried, sobbing. “I know not how, but I have sinned, and I have been punished for my sin, and now I am accursed. Tell me my penitence, O gods! Tell me how I can set myself free!”

  And knelt there, shivering in the volcanic heat, waiting for the grace of his gods to descend upon him.

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