Cronos, p.8
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       Cronos, p.8

           Robert Silverberg
 

  Will you go on writing to me, knowing what you know now?

  I hope you will. I’ll be devastated if you don’t, Lora.

  Please don’t worry that by corresponding with me you’ll be making yourself some kind of accomplice in my breach of the rules. I’m going to let it be known loud and clear, when we’ve returned to Home Era, that I chose to make my presence known to Ram entirely on my own, without consulting you and certainly without any suggestion from you that I do it.

  As you know, I never intended to blow my cover this way. It was just something that happened. To do it was wrong, and I’m prepared to take the consequences, whatever they may be, when the time comes. I have to say, though, that I don’t really see what harm it does, this far in the past, to let one clever prince know that we of the twenty-first century are capable of roving through time. His knowing that can’t possibly change any aspect of history, can it?

  Or can it?

  Well, so be it, What I’ve done can’t be undone. Ram kept himself up half the night talking with me, asking a million and one questions, the way you would with a new college roommate. All about my family, the place where I was born, my training as a “wizard,” et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, until he was goofy with fatigue and I had to ease him to sleep without his knowing it, for his own sake.

  Roommates is what we are, all right.

  How strange this all is, Lora! How totally strange.

  —Roy

  9.

  Day 22, Western Wind, Great River.News. Big news. A flabbergasting, mind-blowing discovery, in fact. A completely unexpected discovery that makes everything that was impossible to explain about the Athilantan empire fall suddenly into place.

  Now that I no longer need to conceal my presence from Ram, I can move about freely in his mind. That doesn’t seem to bother him. He doesn’t see it as an invasion of his privacy; he doesn’t seem to understand the concept of privacy at all. Or care about it, if he does.

  One thing I wanted to know about was the rite of Romany Star.

  Remember that mysterious ceremony that Ram and his father performed one night last month? The Prince and the King staring at the sky, chanting solemn prayers to one particular star, shredding and burning their garments, destroying the coronets that they wore? Obviously an important rite. But what was its significance?

  I slipped down into the depths of Ram’s consciousnessto see what I could learn about it. And got a lot more than I was expecting.

  As I hardly need to tell you, you can’t do research in a human mind, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, the way you would in a public library. Minds have no indexes and you can’t run a computer scan to find the particular data you want. Everything is arranged systematically inside the mind, I suppose, but the genius has not yet been born who is capable of figuring out what that system is. So the best you can do is poke around randomly and try to make the connections you need.

  I touched here and there within Ram’s mind, looking for the memories of the night of the Romany Star rite. I came up with all sorts of other things—the time in the Labyrinth, and a stroll along a spectacular beach, all white sands and sparkling water, and a wild horseback ride down some forest glade, and so on and so on—and then there it was, Ram and the King on the palace roof chanting their prayer.

  That entry in Ram’s memory file had a special feel to it, a distinct resonance, a tone all its own. It was like one of those haunting melodies that you couldn’t possibly sing yourself, but which you’d recognize whenever you heard it. I can’t describe it to you, but I know what it was like. And, now that I had experienced it, I had a reference point. I went darting off down this mental avenue and that one, hoping to pick that special tone up again somewhere else, another point of association with Romany Star.

  And I found it. It came rising up toward me out of a part of his brain where history and myth lay sleeping.

  Intermingled with it was a strange bleak image: charred debris, bits of burned rope, twisted fragments of what looked like hammocks, rising out of a sea of ashes. I looked closer. I felt dry hot winds. I saw a great swollen red sun in the sky.

  Closer. Deeper. The ashes rose and became an eerie citymade of woven reeds. Buildings, streets, bridges—everything light, delicate, insubstantial. Somber-faced people walked in silence through its narrow, interlacing lanes. Sometimes it was night, and a string of shining moons was hung across the sky. Then came day, and that gigantic menacing sun.

  The people had the look of the people of Athilan: dark hair and eyes, dark complexions, stocky bodies, broad shoulders. I thought I saw Ram in those streets, and his father.

  The sun grew larger. The air grew hotter. There was terror-in the eyes of the people who walked in the streets. Their world was coming to an end. Soon fire would sweep through the sky; soon this delicate city of woven reeds would become the sea of ashes that I had been shown before.

  I saw ships lifting off into space. Maybe a dozen or more of them, carrying the lucky few, chosen by lot, who would escape the explosion of the red sun.

  And the rest—the rest—oh, Lora, I knew what would happen-to them, and my heart ached for them! A whole world destroyed. Romany Star sending spears of flame across the gulf of space, and everything perishing, everything except what was aboard those twelve or sixteen starships.

  The moment of devastation came. Terrible light, like the fury of a thousand nuclear bombs at once, burst overhead. But the starships were on their way, up and out, heading into the vast darkness that lay beyond the blazing sky.

  Do you understand what I’m saying, Lora?

  Lora, these Athilantans are aliens. Humanoid aliens, so much like humans that it’s just about impossible to tell the difference. They came here aboard those starships, refugees from some other world lightyears away that died when its sun went nova.

  No wonder they’re head and shoulders above the realnatives of the Paleolithic world. Maybe a thousand years before the era that you and I are visiting now, maybe three thousand, they dropped down suddenly out of space, bringing to a world that didn’t yet know the use of metals a culture that could build spaceships capable of traveling between the stars. That is, a culture that’s advanced even beyond our own.

  To the Cro-Magnons and their contemporaries, they must have seemed like gods. In a way they were gods. And they built a mighty city in the midst of Earth’s frostbound Stone Age darkness.

  Their descendants here in Athilan still look back in sorrow-and anguish to their old lost home, which they call Romany Star. On a certain night each year they turn their eyes to the stars, and they chant the prayer for the dead, in remembrance of all that had been theirs before the red sun swelled in the sky, before their unstable home star flared up and destroyed their world.

  Now I understand why the people of Athilan gave thanks for Ram’s return to the human realm when he came back to the city from the mainland, and why they refer to the mainlanders as the Dirt People.

  I suppose they could have found some more complimentary term for them than that, but the fact remains that the Athilantans see themselves as the only true humans, and the mainlanders, the natives of Earth, as some sort of inferior alien beings. It isn’t really the sort of racism that used to be so common in our modern world. That involved one branch of the human species telling itself that it was superior to the other branches of the human race. There wasn’t any justification for those feelings of superiority. All the different races of modern Earth are just minor variations of the same species, Homo sapiens. But these people really are superior. And they aren’t simply a special branch of Homosapiens. They aren’t Homo sapiens at all, even though they look just like us, or nearly so. They’re a different species entirely. I’m not saying it’s admirable or pretty in any way for them to have such contempt for the mainlanders. But at least I can understand why they feel that way. And also I think that when we translate their words into ours the terms they use may come out sounding a little more contemptuous than the Athilant
ans actually intend.

  Doesn’t it all sound completely crazy? Refugees from the stars, traveling here on spaceborne arks, founding a glorious city on this balmy isle in the eastern Atlantic, and setting up a far-flung Paleolithic empire? But it’s true. I’ve located Ram’s memories of the historical chronicles that he studied when he was a boy. You can probably find the same stuff in Sippurilayl’s mind if you look for it.

  And now we know why these people are so improbably far ahead of everyone else who existed on Earth in prehistoric times. They had a tremendous head start.

  The present-day Athilantan civilization isn’t nearly as advanced as the one that died with Romany Star. They’ve lost a lot of their old technological knowledge over the centuries, perhaps through neglect, or maybe simply because they weren’t able to reconstruct it on this new world. But they’re still inconceivably superior in abilities and attainments to the primitive hunting folk over whom they rule.

  It does sound too fantastic to be true. A myth, a legend, a poem, anything but the actual truth.

  Well, it is the actual truth. I absolutely believe that. I’ve discussed it with Ram and he vehemently insists that it isn’t any myth—that it all really happened, the solar flare that destroyed their world, the migration to Earth, the building of Athilan on an uninhabited island in the warmest part of the planet. They have detailed and reliable chronicles describing the whole thing. Every child studies the historyof the calamity the way we study Christopher Columbus and George Washington.

  Go check out Provincial Governor Sippurilayl’s memoriesof his childhood history lessons. You’ll find it all there. I know that you will.

  And what a tremendous story it is, isn’t it?

  —Roy

  10.

  Day 4, Month of Golden Days, Year of Great River.I hope you haven’t been worried about me during my long silence. Everything’s fine here. I just haven’t felt much like writing letters.

  The truth is I’ve been a little embarrassed about my last two letters, the one in which I confess that I’ve revealed my presence to Ram, and the one in which I tell you about my discovery of the extraterrestrial origin of the Athilantans. (Have you received that second one yet? You’ll be awfully confused by what I’ve just said if you haven’t.) I was afraid that one or the other of those letters would convince you that I’d gone loony—that you’d write back to me full of fury about my breaking of the time-travel rules, or that you’d tell me that the business about the Athilantans coming from a different solar system was the craziest nonsense you had ever heard. So I couldn’t bring myself to send you any more letters until I saw what your reaction to those two was.

  Well, now your reply to my I’ve-told-Ram-everything letter has come in. I’m immensely relieved that you aren’tangry with me, Lora. It makes me realize all over again what a wonderful person you are. And why I love you so much.

  No question, as you say, that I’m going to be in very hot water when I get back to Home Era. But you do recognize, as I hoped you would, that letting Ram know the truth was my only honorable course. I simply couldn’t let the heir to the throne go on thinking he was possessed by a demon, and calling in all sorts of witch-doctors to exorcise him.

  You don’t comment on the other and bigger revelation, from which I conclude that you haven’t seen my second letter yet, though you’ll be able to figure out something of what it’s about from what I’ve said here. In any case I can tell you that I’ve done a lot of further research—Ram has taken me through the royal archives, which contain extremely elaborate records of every event in Athilantan history—and I have no doubt at all that the interstellarmigration story is accurate. Ram and his people really do come from another world.

  The Athilantans have been on Earth for 1143 years. Harinamur—the first one—was the captain of the space fleet that brought them here. The migration took them only thirty-one years, which means they must have traveled at the speed of light, or something pretty close to it. That implies a technology way beyond ours, at least so far as space travel goes, since we haven’t managed yet to reach speeds anything like that and we’re still limited to our own Solar System. For the time being, anyway.

  Sixteen starships altogether made the trip. They don’t exist any more—they were dismantled and totally recycled into other things during the early years of the colony, when metals were scarce. When they landed here, they knew they were here to stay: they weren’t going to be journeying between the stars ever again.

  It ought to be possible for the people up front to checkall this out by running an astronomical survey. There can’t be many red stars within a 31-lightyear radius that have a history of instability, and maybe they can figure out which one of them went nova about 20,000B.C.And then we’d know where Romany Star was. When we become capable of building spaceships fast enough to travel to other stars, which I guess is still another hundred years or so ahead for us, we can send an expedition out to look for the charred ruins of the civilization that once lived there, and confirm that whole thing.

  On to other matters.

  The Prince and I are getting along very well. He’s completely comfortable with the idea that we share the same body. As he goes through his day’s princely chores he keeps a running commentary going, explaining everything that he’s doing. I’ve learned vast amounts about the trade routes of the Athilantan empire, about its history, about its religion. I hope I can keep it all straight in my head until I get back to Home Era. (Damn not having any way to take notes back with us! But at least they did a good job of training us to use our memories.)

  The Prince questions me, too, about Home Era. Our time is like a fantasy to him—a time when billions of people occupy the Earth and all sorts of different cultures exist— and his appetite for details about it is tremendous. He wants to know about city planning, about our arts and religions, about sports, about automobiles and airplanes, about almost anything. I think he suspects that I’m making up some or even all of what I tell him. There are moments it almost feels like that to me: Home Era seems terribly far away, terribly unreal. After these months here I sometimes think that only Athilan is real and everything else is a fairy tale. Having no body of your own will do that to you, I’ve heard.

  A big event lies just ahead: the Rite of Anointing. Preparations are already in full swing and the whole city is involved in them.

  You will recall that this is the third of the four major rites that a prince must undergo, following the Rite of Designation and the Rite of Joining, before he is ready to become Grand Darionis of Athilan. Apparently in this one the heir to the throne receives certain great revelations that every king must know. What these revelations might be, Ram has no idea. But the prospect of finally finding out has him terrifically excited.

  Me too, I have to say.

  It’s another few weeks, now. We’re both going to have a tough time waiting for the days to pass.

  The one thing I’m afraid of now is that the folks back at Home Year are going to give me the hook just before the rite. That really upsets me; knowing that the clock is ticking all the time. And then I’ll never find out what the mysteries were.

  How much more time here do I really have? That’s the big question. I don’t know. You remember in one of my first letters I told you that I had lost track of the count of Home Era days. The information you sent helped a little, but not enough. I may be as much as a week off in my count. On top of that, it’s unclear to me what the exact day when they’re supposed to pull me back is. “Six months,” they said, but do they mean that right down to the day, or is it just a rough figure? So I might have another two weeks here, a month, maybe even six weeks. I can’t tell. And I want to stay here as long as I can, Lora. For obvious reasons I’m not looking forward to going back there and facing the music. But aside from that I simply don’t want to leave. Not yet. Not until I’ve learned everything I can possibly learn about this place.And I have a feeling that the Rite of Anointing is going to tell me plenty.

/>   Hope to hear from you soon.

  With all my love—

  —Roy

  11.

  Day 36, Golden Days, Great River.Another long silence from me, I know. I was holding off, so I could describe the Rite of Anointing to you. Well, the Rite of Anointing has now taken place—it was three days ago. The mysteries have been revealed. It was a tremendous event—and also tremendously upsetting. A fantastic experience. Completely overwhelming, the kind of thing that takes absolute possession of you and won’t let go. Both Prince Ram and I were pretty badly shaken up by it all. And so I’ve needed a few days just to think about what happened, to come to terms with it, to understand my own reactions and feelings. I’m not sure I really have a handle on it even now.

  Let me see—where should I start?

  At the beginning, I guess. The morning of the day of the Rite of Anointing. It was one of those magnificent springlike Athilantan days, warm golden sunlight, clear crisp blue sky, that make the fact that we are actually living in the Ice Age seem like such a joke. (Every day is springtime inAthilan. Something like the best days California can do, but even lovelier.)

  The Prince had fasted all the previous day, and had stayed awake all through the night, praying and chanting. We had no contact with each other. I took care to keep myself well below the threshold of his consciousness. Obviously he didn’t want to be disturbed, and I didn’t want to disturb him.

  At dawn, his personal slaves led him to the great marble bath chamber of the palace, and bathed and anointed him with perfumes and oils. They dressed him then, in a magnificent robe of pure white cotton bordered in purple richly brocaded and trimmed with cloth of gold. From the bath chamber he went to a small, very austere chapel on the ground floor, where for a time he prayed in front of column of shining black stone.

 
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