Cronos, p.7
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       Cronos, p.7

           Robert Silverberg
 

  For one crazy instant I actually thought it was going to work—that I would be scraped from his mind and hurled into some unthinkable limbo. It was terrifying. Whirlwinds swooped and roared about me. The walls of the chamber seemed to be closing in on me. The mountain was pressing down.

  Ram seemed completely in charge, Ram and his gods. I could feel him searching around for me, trying to get a grip on me and pry me loose.

  I had to fight like a—well, like a demon. I pushed himaway from me, set up defense blocks around myself, fled down the corridors of his mind. There were moments when I felt him seizing me, prying me free, thrusting me out.

  I suppose there must have been some way for me to take control of his mind and keep him at bay, but just then that didn’t seem possible. I was on the run. For one long scary moment down there in that sweltering room in the belly of the mountain, he had the upper hand and I was helpless. I hunkered down tight and tried to make myself very small within him, invisible, unfindable.

  And the moment passed. I reached out and linked myself to his mind again, and found the levers of control. I felt the pressure ease. I was the rider again, and he was the vehicle. I was safe.

  The whirlwinds died away. Everything that had been crowding close upon me now retreated. After a time Ram rose from his crouch.

  He was very calm—relaxed, even. Did he think he had succeeded in expelling me? Perhaps. Perhaps. Or maybe he was simply content to have come so close to victory over me. He swung his arms cheerfully, he stretched his legs, he filled his lungs, like an athlete who has just completed a grueling match and is beginning to unwind.

  And started back up the winding passageway, feeling his way quickly, carving by carving, until in a surprisingly short time he had reached the mouth of the cavern.

  As he stepped out into the bright afternoon sunlight he said—inwardly, speaking directly to me—

  —So even the Labyrinth is of no avail.

  His words hit me like blows.

  You have not fooled me, demon! I know you are still there. But I will not let you rule me. I will not let you be my master.

  There was a strange new strength flowing from him. Hewas determined now to fight me to the finish, and I knew it.

  Can he possibly do it?

  He’s strong and tough. But I know how to operate his mind, and he doesn’t know how to operate mine. Not really. He was close, back there in the Labyrinth, but not close enough.

  Still, I could feel him resisting me when I put him in trance to write this last section of this very long letter. I was able to win out, of course. But the next time it could be a lot harder. I have a real tiger on my hands.

  The situation looks messy. I’ll try to keep you posted. That may not be so easy, though.

  —Roy

  8.

  Day 18, Western Wind, Great River.Where I left things in the last letter, it all seemed pretty dire. But actually I’ve had a few days of respite. Much to my surprise, Prince Ram has been behaving as though the exorcism in the Labyrinth really did work and the evil spirit has been cast forth from his soul. At least, that’s what he told Counsellor Teneristis when he returned to the palace later that day. And he hasn’t tried to aim any more direct communications my way.

  I have these four explanations for the way he’s acting:

  1) He really has convinced himself that the exorcism must have worked, despite what he said to me as we were coming out of the cavern.

  2) He’s trying to fake me out, so that he can blindside me when he thinks my guard is down.

  3) He’s afraid that Teneristis, upon hearing that the Labyrinth didn’t do the job, will send him off on some even more dangerous and strenuous pilgrimage that he really doesn’t want to undertake.

  4) With the Rite of Anointing coming up very shortly— the grand ceremony by which Prince Ram becomes virtual co-monarch with his father—he simply doesn’t want to have to deal with the distraction of thinking about the demon that may or may not be possessing him.

  Any or all of these four may be correct. Or none.

  If Ram really thinks I’m gone, why did he tell me that he knows I’m still here? Doesn’t make sense. Nor can I easily believe that he’s afraid of Teneristis, or of any new penitence that Teneristis might saddle him with. The Prince didn’t seem at all hesitant about going into the Labyrinth. What could possibly be worse than that?

  The theory about the Rite of Anointing has a little more substance. It’s the biggest event of his life so far. What if it’s dangerous in some way, or blasphemous, to try to undergo the rite while you’re possessed by a demon? Maybe Ram’s so eager for the Anointing that he doesn’t want the rite postponed, which might happen if he let Teneristis know that he’s still carrying that stubborn demon around in his head. On the other hand, Ram is honorable, above all else. Can he honorably conceal the fact that the exorcism didn’t work, and let himself go through with this immensely significant ceremony while he’s in a ritually impure state?

  That leaves #2, which unfortunately seems all too plausible. Ram has been trained to be a king, and that involves being crafty. If there’s a pesky enemy bothering you who won’t go away, one way to handle him would be to lay low and clobber him when he’s not expecting it.

  There’s also the possibility that Ram’s worried that this whole demonic possession business could lead to his being disqualified to become king at all, that he might be passed over in favor of his younger brother, unless he sweeps the entire thing under the carpet as fast as he can.

  Whatever the reason, the Prince is keeping quiet these days. And so am I.

  Three hours later. And everything is completely different now. Just for starters, let me tell you that the Prince is not in a trance as I write this. He’s completely conscious, aware of what’s going on, though of course he has no idea of the meaning of the words that his hand is shaping under my control.I may be making the worst mistake of my life. And the last mistake of my life, too. But somehow I think everything is going to be all right. Let me tell you what happened.

  The thing that kicked it off was the arrival of the diplomatic pouch from Naz Glesim. It contained the second of your letters, the one in which you talk about the mammoth hunt. (I think they have to be nuts to go out hunting gigantic beasts like that in the middle of a driving snowstorm. Even if they do believe that warm weather will never come unless they do it.) As before, the scroll was packed as if it had come from Provincial Governor Sippurilayl and was addressed to Prince Ram, so the bureaucrats downstairs brought it straight to the Prince in his study.

  This time the Prince waited until they were gone before opening it. I waited, too, figuring I’d pounce on him and put him in trance just as he started to unroll it, so that he wouldn’t even have a phantom memory of once again having glimpsed something written in English. But he was way ahead of me.

  Without unrolling it, he said, aiming the thought right at me, sharp and fierce as a lightning-bolt:

  —Does this contain more of your demon-writing?

  So he knew I was still there. I remained silent and tried to seem inconspicuous. Didn’t help.

  —Tell me. What is this all about? Is there a demon inside Provincial Governor Sippurilayl also? What do you two demons say to each other in your letters?

  Then he opened the scroll and stared at it. —

  Yes,he said.As I thought. More demon-marks. Very well, demon. I am unable to expel you; therefore, I must attempt to know you. Tell me who and what you are, demon. I command you to reply. By all the gods do I command you!

  I was at a crossroads. I could have knocked him out then and there, and tried once more to edit from his mind all recollection of this latest scroll. Or I could admit the truth—despite everything that our training says—and see what would happen next.

  Lora, I didn’t hesitate more than a fraction of a second. —

  I am not a demon, I said.I am a visitor from a land that lies far away at the other end of time.

  I said it. I
actually said it. I gave away the whole show.

  I didn’t feel that I had any other option, Lora. Probably we never should have started sending these letters back and forth; but we did—I take the blame for that—and so the Prince and most likely Provincial Governor Sippurilayl also have been exposed to the sight of documents written in English. And the Prince, at least, has managed to figure out that something peculiar is going on.

  I suppose I could, even at this point, have gone into Prince Ram’s mind and tried to carve out every bit of data having to do with my presence there and with the scrolls he had seen. But I hadn’t done such a great job of editing his mind in my previous attempts, apparently, and there was so much now to remove that I didn’t for a moment think I could do it without seriously damaging him.

  I wasn’t going to risk that.

  Better to break all the rules, and tell him the full truth, and take the consequences, both here and in Home Era, for what I had done.

  And what was the Prince’s reaction, do you think? Bewilderment? Shock? Horror? Or a simple snort of anger and derision at the thought that the demon who was infesting him was a crazy demon, thus making a bad situation worse?

  None of the above. He wasn’t annoyed or upset. He was very calm, matter-of-fact, almost casual. I suppose that is one of the differences between ordinary mortals and princes who have been trained all their lives to be rulers of a great realm. Your basic prince needs to know how to stay cool and collected in the face of any sort of crisis, no matter how weird.

  He said,So you come from the time when the gods walked the earth? That golden time long ago?

  —No. I come from a time yet unborn.

  —A future time, you mean?

  —The future, yes. More than twenty thousand years from now.

  —Ah. How very strange. And are you of our people?

  I hesitated.—I don’t think so. No.

  He thought about that.—Of the Dirt People, then?

  —Perhaps. I can’t be certain.

  —Because you come from such a distant time?

  —Yes,I said. In twenty thousand years many things change.

  His mental voice was silent a long while. I felt him pondering the information I had given him, examining it, mulling it, digesting it.

  At last he said,If you come from so far away, then you must be a great wizard.

  —Not really. But great wizards sent me here.

  —You are no wizard? You are only a demon?

  —Neither a demon nor a wizard, Prince Ram.

  He said, after considering that a moment,I think you are a wizard all the same. What is your name, wizard?

  —Roy Colton.

  —That is a name only a wizard would have.

  —It’s a very ordinary name, I assure you.

  —It is a wizard’s name,the Prince replied firmly.I have no doubt of that.He was still completely calm.And why have you entered my mind, wizard? What is it you seek there?

  The tone of his mental voice was casual, conversational. It unsettled me a little, the ease with which he seemed to be accepting my presence within him now. Knowing about it had upset him at first, sure, but he didn’t appear to have any problem with it now. He seemed to find it pretty interesting. He was curious about the whys and wherefores.

  Was he setting a trap for me?

  It didn’t look that way. I took a readout on his endocrine systems and saw that beneath his pose of calmness lay nothing but more calmness. You or I, discovering that some inexplicable phantom has taken residence in our heads, would never have been so calm. We’d have figured we were going psycho and checked ourselves into the nearest ward for a complete workover. But that’s the value, I guess, of living in a world where the gods are still real and vivid and where you expect to run into the occasional demon or wizard now and then. It didn’t occur to Prince Ram that he might have lost his sanity when he started hearing voices in his head. My being inside him was simply a challenge that had to be dealt with, a problem that had to be solved.

  His openness and straightforwardness were tremendously appealing. He simply wanted to know who I was and what my being here was all about.

  So I told him everything. I broke every rule in the book.

  I told him how in the distant future land where I lived, we had developed the power to send our minds backward in time. I described the way time research had begun, the first experiments, the failures and the successes, the early shorthop attempts at going back a few hours, a few days, a few weeks. I went on to talk about how, as we mastered the technique, we’d begun to send volunteers back across the centuries in the form of disembodied consciousnesses— jumping a hundred years, five hundred, a thousand.

  Whether he really understood very much of this is anybody’s guess. But from the fluctuations of his hormone levels I could tell that he was spellbound, utterly fascinated, when I spoke of the way time explorers, reporting on their experiences, are able to recapture the past and make it seem to live again.

  And then I spoke of Athilan—“Atlantis, as we call it,” I said. I described how, as we pushed our research back and back and back, we began picking up sketchy details of the existence of Athilan, and I told him that of all the nations of the ancient world, the empire of Athilan was the greatest, and therefore was the one that we yearned most to know about.

  I held my breath, afraid that I’d given away too much. I didn’t want to have to tell him of the coming destruction of his land, the obliteration of all but the most hazy memory of the great empire that was Athilan. But I had tossed him a big hint, of course. If Athilan was all but forgotten in my time, what was I saying, if not that it had been destroyed somewhere along the way? But he was so interested in the idea of consciousnesses wandering back in time that we went right by that obvious point.

  —Are you the first wizard of your people to visit Athilan?he asked.

  —The third,I said. And I told him of Fletcher’s pioneering-trip, and Iversen’s, and how the information they brought back was useful in its way but too limited, because Fletcher had landed in the mind of a slave, and Iversen in that of a not very bright shopkeeper, and neither one was capable of providing much insight into the details of Athilantan life. So a deliberate attempt was made, I said, to see to it that the next explorer who went back to Athilan entered the mind of a member of the ruling family.

  —And here you are,Prince Ram said.

  —And here I am.

  We talked half the afternoon, through what would normally have been his exercise period. He overflowed with questions about the world I came from.

  I described telephones for him, and television, and supersonic transports, and space satellites. I told him that we had mining camps on the Moon and three little scientific outposts on Mars, and were talking about sending a crew out for a close look at the moons of Jupiter. I made a stab at explaining what our system of government is like, and what it’s like to live in a world that has several great nations instead of only one, and how we managed to survive the ferocious conflicts that almost finished us all off in the horrendous twentieth century.

  He wasn’t skeptical in the slightest. I guess he had no trouble believing that wizards capable of sending a man’s mind back twenty thousand years could also make machines that could fly from Thibarak to Naz Glesim in a couple of hours, or send pictures halfway around the world in a moment.

  The only thing he absolutely couldn’t swallow was the notion of democratic elections. He wanted to know the name of our king, and how long he and his family had ruled.

  —It doesn’t work that way any more,I said.In our land we choose a new ruler every four years. If he or she rules wisely, they are often given four years more. And then we choose someone else.

  That made no sense to him, no matter how many different-ways I explained it.

  The people choose the king? A stranger is allowed to replace an established ruler?

  He was baffled. His body grew tense, his head began to throb. Only when I told him t
hat there were other countries where the rulers held power for a great many years, sometimes for their whole lives, did he ease back a little.

  But even the concept of dictatorship seemed bizarre and troublesome to him. To grab power and proclaim yourself the boss, and then to rule until the people grow tired of you and overthrow you, whereupon somebody else stands up and says he’s boss—no, no, Prince Ram couldn’t swallow that. It seemed like insanity to him. Our scientific wonders, our television and time travel and voyages to Mars, those he could accept without a quiver of doubt. But not our politics.

  Wrapping it up, the next day.Where it stands now is that Ram and I have become pals. The best of friends. He completely accepts my presence within him, is not at all spooked by it, thinks it’s just terrific. A wizard from the far future living behind his forehead who can tell him all sorts of marvelous things. Doesn’t intend to let anyone know about it, naturally. His little secret, to cherish and enjoy.

  I realize that this violates all our training, for me to have let him in on the truth of the situation. It goes against everything that we’re taught in the way of procedural tactics. My neck’s going to be on the block for sure when I return to Home Era. So all this has big implications not justfor my future, but for yours and mine together. Don’t think I haven’t been troubled by that. But I couldn’t help doing what I’ve done. It was the only honorable choice. Either admit the truth, or risk destroying Prince Ram’s sanity. Well, I made my choice, and now I have to stick with it, even though it certainly means the ruination of my career.

  He knows that you’re occupying the mind of Provincial Governor Sippurilayl. He knows that we communicate by means of these letters, and he will continue to oblige me by serving as my scribe. Whether you want to reveal yourself to Sippurilayl is entirely up to you. Personally I don’t think you should. You have nothing to gain from it and everything to lose once you’re back in Home Era. After all, you still have a career in time research to think about, regardless of the mess I’ve made of mine.

 
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