Cronos, p.9
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       Cronos, p.9

           Robert Silverberg
 

  Now his family came to him: first his sister Princess Rayna, then his younger brother Prince Caiminor, and then his mother, Queen Aliralin, whom I hadn’t encountered before. (A slender, stately, very queenly woman of great beauty. She had been on the north shore of the island, it seems, in a religious retreat.)

  As they went before Prince Ram, each one knelt to him, even his mother, and with outstretched hands silently offered him a shallow cup of polished pink stone that contained a small quantity of some aromatic wine. He sipped very solemnly. One wine was ruby red, one was golden, one scarcely had any color at all. Each affected him in a slightly different way. The overall effect was not one of making him drunk—the wines of Athilan don’t seem to make anybody drunk—but nevertheless transforming his spirit, giving it a glow, a radiance, that it had not had before.

  Then his father came to him, bareheaded but clad in the most sumptuous royal robe imaginable, deep purple withgreat flaring shoulder-pieces of rich scarlet, and loomed before him like a god. He didn’t speak a word, but simply extended his hand to Ram, drew him from the chapel, walked with him out of the palace and down those myriad steps to the great plaza out front. A chariot was waiting, drawn by two of the fierce, snorting little horses that the Athilantans use.

  The entire population of the city, so it seemed, had turned out to see the royal procession go by. The route was a grand circle through the city. We went westward, first, down the Concourse of the Sky almost as far as the waterfront, then around to the north along a broad curving boulevard, paved with shining pink flagstones, called the Avenue of the Gods. There were cheering crowds everywhere, calling out to Ram.

  “Thilayl!” they yelled. “Highness!”

  And also: “Stolifar Blayl!” Which is part of his secret formal name, and means “Light of the Universe,” and apparently is only spoken aloud on the Day of Anointing.

  The purpose of the procession, which took hours, was simply to display Ram to the populace. By midday, we were back almost exactly where we had started, in the zone of temples and palaces at the center of the place. The sun was high and bright, now, glinting off the white stone facades of Athilan.

  We went around to the eastern side of the sacred district, where the land starts to slope up toward the foothills of Mount Balamoris. Here, overlooking the entire city, is the glorious Plaza of a Thousand Columns, one of the most magnificent public spaces any city ever had. Just beyond the north side of the plaza stands an unassuming, windowless little building made of big blocks of black granite. This is the House of the Anointing, where royal powers are conferred on the members of the ruling family of Athilan.

  Walking barefoot, side by side, Ram and his father went in. It was dark within except for a single shaft of noonday light that pierced a twelve-sided opening in the ceiling. The King formally touched fingertips with his son, and they embraced; and then, without a word, the King left the building.

  Ram knelt beneath that shaft of light.

  Three figures in priestly robes appeared from the darkness beyond. Smooth white masks, unbroken except for tiny eye-slits, completely hid their faces. They loomed above the kneeling Ram and lightly brushed his forehead with a thick, sweet oil. The Anointing, this was. Then they commenced a slow rhythmic chant, speaking in the ancient form of the Athilantan language which is used for epic poetry and religious scriptures, and which—like Latin in our own day— hardly anyone here really understands. Certainly Ram was able to comprehend just a few scattered phrases—all cliches, things about his high royal heritage, the grave responsibilities that were to be his, et cetera, et cetera.

  Then, just as his sister and brother and mother had done much earlier that day, each priest in turn offered Ram a shallow bowl of polished stone to drink from. The wine, if wine it was, had a light, spicy taste, and it was giving off gentle fizzy bubbles.

  The priests withdrew.

  Ram knelt, head down, waiting.

  Slowly, slowly, slowly, a dreamlike state began to take possession of his mind. A darkness, a dizziness, overtook him. The narrow golden beam from above grew dim. Swirls of color swept back and forth like waves, like billowing curtains, in the black depths of the House of Anointing.

  Visions came to him.

  Everything was turbulent and unclear at first. Then his mind became a screen, and he saw, and I saw with him, thenight sky, the vastness of space, meteors rushing past, stars and galaxies, great surging comets.

  The focus changed. Now his mind drifted down to the surface of the old world of Romany Star, as it had been before its destruction. The wickerwork houses, the streets of woven reeds, everything supple and pliant, shifting in the slightest breezes. And the people of Romany Star quietly going about their tasks, living busily, happily—

  Until the sun began to swell, until that great red eye came to fill the heavens—

  Motionless, impassive, Prince Ram and I watched once again the destruction of his people’s original world. The prayers, the outcries, the dry wind, the scorching heat, the first pale puff of flame, the smoldering houses, and then the holocaust, a world afire, everything transformed into ashes in a moment, while the sixteen gleaming starships rose desperately into the heavens with their little load of lucky escapees—

  The migration, then, we watched. The years of wandering-through space, searching for a habitable planet. The first wondrous glimpse of Earth, blue and shining in the black bowl of night. The survey party landing, going forth across the bleak chilly continents to find a place where the Athilantans might live. The discovery of the warm lovely isle lapped by a kindly ocean. The sixteen ships plunging downward, bringing the wanderers at last to their new home.

  Prince Ram and I were eye-witnesses, within a span of just moments, to the entire history of his race. The wine, the drug, whatever it was that had been in those shallow stone bowls, had cut him free from the bonds of the time-line, and he drifted untethered through the ages, roaming the whole past without restraint, without boundary.

  We saw the city being built. Harinamur the One King, the original one, amidst his people, laying out the avenuesand boulevards, selecting the sites for the temples, the palaces, the parks, the marketplaces. Workers using cunning devices swiftly carving slabs of marble from the hillsides. This city would be nothing like the old lost home on Romany Star. There, everything had been lithe, delicate, yielding. Here they would build of stone.

  The city arose. And the people of Athilan went forth from it into the frosty hinterlands beyond, and made themselves known to the savage people who dwelled there, and built an empire linked by the first roads and the first ships this world had ever seen.

  We watched the city grow. We watched it flourish. Brilliant sunlight glinting off the palaces of white stone. Magnificent villas climbing the green slopes of Mount Balamoris. The harbor crowded with ships, bearing goods from every quarter of this splendid untouched planet.

  And then—then everything changed. In a moment. In the twinkling of an eye.

  First came a darkening of the sky. Then a strand of black smoke rising from the summit of the mountain. A sudden tremor underfoot. I was caught without warning by the shift in the tone of the vision. Ram, deep in his dreams of the past, had no idea at all of what was coming. But, after a moment, I did.

  I saw now that in the Anointing he was able to wander both forward and backward in time. He had had a vision of this great city’s founding. And now he was going to be shown its doom.

  Oh, Lora, if I could have spared him the sight! If I could have covered his eyes and kept him from seeing the death of Athilan, I tell you I would have done it! But I had no power. I was only an insignificant passenger crammed into a corner of his dreaming mind.

  And so we watched it together.

  The flames bursting from the mountain. The smoke staining the pure clear sky a dirty dingy gray. The sudden rainfall of small light pumice stones clattering down everywhere. Then the thick clouds of ash bursting forth. The mighty tremors running through the ground. Huge sla
bs of marble dropping from the facades of buildings. The columns of the Plaza of the Thousand Columns moving crazily from side to side, then tumbling as if struck by the side of a giant’s hand.

  The earth shaking—heaving—splitting open—streets cracking, houses falling, pavements vanishing into newly created abysses—

  The sky turning black—

  The sea rising—

  A great terrifying groaning sound filling the air, coming not from the throats of the populace but from the earth itself. Flames everywhere. The roar of the water as it rushes forward onto the land. Lava spilling down the sides of the mountain and pouring into the city. Earthquake, flood, volcanic eruption, everything at once. Destruction on all sides. Doom. Doom. Doom.

  A few ships putting out from the harbor, struggling against the fantastic heaving of the waves. A pitiful band of refugees, once again setting forth to save themselves as Athilan is brought down into ruin, just as Romany Star once had been.

  The surface of the land subsides. It just drops downward into itself, as if everything that had been supporting it had gone up in the eruption. The sea comes pouring in, and nothing can hold it back. There’s a different sound now, a strange taut high-pitched one, like the thrumming of some immense insect, growing louder, louder, louder, until it fills every space and there can be room for nothing elseanywhere in the world. It’s the sound of the city dying. And then it stops, with awful abruptness, with a crack of silence followed by a great stillness.

  The stillness goes on and on.

  The sky is clear again, blue with a golden sun, and the hugeness of the sea spreads before us.

  Of the island of Athilan there is not the slightest sign. It has been devoured; it has been swallowed up; it has vanished beneath the surface of the water as though it had never existed.

  The vision ended. Ram didn’t move. He knelt there as though he’d been clubbed. Through his numbed mind there ran, again and again, ghastly scenes out of the last hour of Athilan.Then the door of the House of Anointing opened, and the three masked priests returned. With them was the King. He wore no mask; and his face was stark and stern as he knelt over his son and drew him gently to his feet. From his look, I realized that the King knew what Ram had seen. He had seen it himself, years before, on the day of his own Anointing.

  So this is the mystery that the princes of this empire are shown as they enter into full manhood. They are pulled loose from the framework of time—how, I can’t even guess— and allowed to float freely, backward and then forward. And they are shown the fate that awaits this greatest of all cities.

  What a shattering thing to learn! To discover that all striving is in vain, that discipline and ambition, hard work and planning, prayers and rituals, lead only to fiery doom and watery destruction! Why, then, bother to take on the burdens of being a king? Everything is pointless. Nothingyou achieve can possibly withstand the coming fury. Your homeland will sink beneath the sea and be forgotten. What a devastating lesson that is!

  No wonder Ram had crouched there in a stupor of shock and defeat.

  When he left the House of Anointing with his father and the three priests he walked as a prince must walk, straightbacked, square-shouldered. But his eyes were bleak and his mind still lay locked in gloom and torment and cold despair. And that’s how he has been, these three days past. A cloud of seemingly unbreakable depression hangs over him. He won’t speak to anyone, he doesn’t eat at all, he remains in his room.

  I can’t say I feel a lot better myself. The waves of sorrow-and amazement and horror that come from Ram’s mind have seeped into my own, and my mood is gray and chilly. There’s no use trying to kid myself with cheery little uplifting cliches. I’ve been forced right up against the underlying truth of things. What a dark and cruel place the world is, for all its beauty, for all its wonder! We have miracles around us on every side—a spiderweb is a miracle, Lora!—but also we have violence, insanity, terrible disease, sudden death. The same Nature that brings us the mountains and the rivers and the green glistening meadows brings us the hurricane, the earthquake, the flood of redhot lava rolling toward the city.

  That Atlantis was one day to be destroyed was hardly any secret to me when I came here. But even so, it was a truly miserable experience to be forced to watch at close range as the news of the city’s inevitable doom was brought to someone who has spent his entire life preparing to be its king.

  I wish I could do something for him. But he doesn’t want to talk even with me. My few attempts at makingmental contact have been hurled back with furious snarls. He needs to work this thing through by himself, entirely by himself.

  I suppose the Athilantans see the Anointing as a necessary part of the education of a future Grand Darionis. But to me, right now, it seems terribly cruel, a needless disillusionment. It utterly pulls the rug out from under you.

  Everyone wants some way of seeing into the future, of course; but these people actually have one, and look at the damage it does. If I were going to become Grand Darionis of Athilan in a few years I’d just as soon be spared the knowledge that the whole place is fated eventually to go down the tubes regardless of anything anyone do.

  I did, by the way, get your last letter just before all this happened.I’m glad to hear you backing me up on the theory that the Athilantans came here from another world. Somebody else might just have shrugged and said that poor Roy has gone completely nuts. Instead you went and peered into Governor Sippurilayl’s memories of his boyhood history lessons and found that he’d been taught the same story Ram had. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s true; but I think it is, and apparently so do you. Thanks for your support. A good guy, you are. I don’t need to tell you, do I, how much you mean to me, how deeply I miss you, how eager I am to see you again?

  And thanks also for the revised calendar information. Using the data you sent, I was able to sit down finally and plot everything out the way I should have done a long while back. I see now that my stint in Atlantis is just about over. Six days more, maybe seven, and they’ll be yanking us back to our sleeping bodies up there in Home Year. So we’ll actually be together again soon. I feel good aboutthat, you can bet. But I hate the idea of leaving Atlantis at a time like this.

  My God, these have been an awful few days.

  With much much love—

  —Roy

  12.

  Day 42, Golden Days, Great River.This is my last letter. We’ll be home soon. In fact you won’t even get to read this, because it can’t possibly reach you out there in Naz Glesim before we leave. But I need to set all this down on paper anyway, just to get everything clear in my own mind. Let’s pretend that you’ll get it next week, although you won’t, not here. But you’ll be hearing it from me next week in person, up in Home Era.

  The basic situation is this: I’ve been breaking rules again. In a big way. I’m beginning to think I’m suffering from some kind of compulsion to go against everything we were trained to do when we became time observers.

  What happened was that I decided that since I’ve got very little time left to spend in Atlantis, I would save the city from the doom that’s bearing down on it before I have to leave. That’s right. All by myself I would spare this great civilization from destruction.

  I don’t mean that I came up with some way to defuse that volcano or to keep the earthquake from happening. All I did was go to work on Prince Ram, trying to convince him to order an evacuation to some safer place while there was still time.

  I should tell you that Ram had come up out of his state of deep gloom by this point. On the fifth morning after the Rite of Anointing he awakened in a perfectly calm, cheerful mood. He prayed, he swam about eighty laps in the palace pool, he ate an enormous breakfast, he met with his father and tackled a colossal stack of official reports that needed to be scanned and approved. It was as thought the Rite of Anointing had never taken place. He was absolutely his old self again. No trace remained of the dark, bitter, agonized frame of mind that had gripped him since
the day of that terrible revelation.

  This is evidently a familiar pattern for the Prince. Remember how upset he was when he first found out that a “demon” was hiding in his mind? Trembling, shaking, pressing his hands violently against his head to drive me out? But then he calmed down completely. In the Labyrinth, again, he got pretty excited while he was trying to work that exorcism on me; but once he realized that he had failed to expel me, he became so cheerful and tranquil that I wasn’t sure he knew I was still there. He’s extremely tough and well balanced. Something strange can really get to him and shake him; but in his steady, determined way he works on it, gets control of it, regains his poise. And then everything’s all right for him again.

  He said to me,—You’ve been very quiet lately, wizard.

  —I didn’t think you needed to hear from me. You’ve had enough to handle.

  —You saw what I saw? The destruction of the city?

  —Yes.

  —And what do you think, wizard? You know all that is to come. Was it a true vision? Or only a bad dream, a nightmare designed to test me?

  I could have given him false consolation then, I suppose. I could have lied, and said that what he had seen was a fever dream, a fantasy, that Athilan would endure forever and a day. But I’m not much good at lying. And I knew that he wasn’t looking for lies from me, or consolations, or anything else that might make him feel good for a moment at the expense of the truth.

  So I said,—The city will be destroyed, Prince.

  —Truly.

  —Truly, yes. In my era nothing will be remembered of it except that it once existed. And many people will think that even that is only a foolish tale.

  —Destroyed and forgotten.

  —Yes, Prince Ram.

  He was silent for a while. But I was monitoring the flow of his moods, and there was no return to the bleakness that had gripped him in the days just after the Rite of Anointing. He was calm. He was steady.

 
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