Back | Next
Before midnight they received the message they had been waiting for, Zinga and Rolth had found a clan of natives camped for the night and had made sure that they were en route to the Meeting Place of the Gods. In the late afternoon of the next day the rangers abandoned their own camp and set out on the trail blazed by their unknowing guides.
On the eighth morning both Kartr and the Zacathans caught the warning of a multitude gathered not far aheadthey must be approaching their goal. And, picking a well-sheltered and secluded thicket, they made camp, sleeping uneasily by turns until nightfall when Zinga, Kartr and Rolth set out to learn the general lay of the land before them.
It was not the lights of a city which lit a glow in the northern sky to beckon them, but the rising flames of at least a hundred campfires. The three rangers moved gingerly about the rim of the wide, shallow cup which held the clan rendezvous, avoiding any near contact with the few stragglers still coming in.
"This is a space port!"
"How can you be sure?" demanded Kartr, striving to see what had made Rolth declare that with such firmness.
"The groundall over this depressionit has been blasted time and time again by take-off back-flares! But it's oldno new scars showing."
"All right. So we've located an old space port." Zinga sounded irritated, almost disappointed. "But a port isn't a ship. See any of those, bright eyes?"
"No," Rolth returned calmly. "But there is a building on the other sidethere. Seethat fire lights it just a little"
Kartr, now that his attention had been directed, sighted it, an expanse of massive blocks only barely perceptible in the poor light.
Rolth cupped his hands around his eyes to cut some of the fire glare. "Let's have the visibility lenses, Kartr." And when he used those he added with a faint trace of excitement:
"Its hugebigger than anything we saw in the city! Anddid you ever visit Central City?"
Kartr laughed bitterly. "I saw visigraphs of it. Do you think we outer barbarians ever came so close to the fount of all knowledge as to see it in reality?"
"And what has Central City got to do with this?" Zinga wanted to know. "Were you ever there yourself?"
"No. But one can get a pretty good idea of the place from the visigraphs. And that building over there is an exact duplicate of the Place of Free Planetsor I'll eat it stone by stone!"
"What!" Kartr snatched the lenses out of his companion's hands. But, although the fires and the figures of the natives moving about them leaped up to meet his eyes, the building beyond remained only a shadowy blurred shape shrouded in the night.
"But that is impossible!" Zinga cried almost triumphantly. "Even the newly hatched know that the Place of Free Planets is archaic, designed by architects who lived so far in the past we don't even know their names or home worlds. And it has never been copied!"
"Except that it hasright here," Rolth returned stubbornly. "I tell you, there is something odd about this world. Those tales you heard, Kartr, of the `gods' who took to spacethat city left waiting, ready for its owners to return, this place where the natives have a tradition that they must gather at regular intervals to await such a homecomingit all adds upif we only knew how to add"
"Yes," agreed Kartr, "there is some mystery here, a bigger one maybe than we have ever tried to solve beforein spite of our system ranging"
"Mysteries!" Zinga scoffed. "And now, my friends, we had better withdraw in a hurry unless you wish to be trampled by a select party from below"
But Kartr had received the same sense warning and was already creeping on his hands and knees back from the rim of the ancient space port.
"If we made a wide circle to the west," Rolth pointed out, "we might be able to come out behind that building and see more of it."
So the Faltharian wanted to see more of it. Kartr shared his impatience. A solitary building which resembled the sacred Place of Free Planets! He must get to the bottom of the mystery; he had to! A world not included on even the most ancient routing tapes which he had seenin a solar system so near the rim of the galaxy that it had been overlookedor forgottencenturies before he was born. Yet here beside an age-old space port stood a replica of the oldest and most revered public building ever built by human beings! He must find out whyand whoand what
During the next few hours they made the western circle Rolth had suggested, and when, just before dawn, they were joined by the other rangers and Patrolmen, they were behind the building. Kartr's eyes were grainy from lack of sleep but excitement would not let him go back to their camp. He had to see what Rolth had described.
They moved from cover to cover, at last crawling snakewise to reach a point from which they could see clearly.
"Rolth was right!" Dalgre's voice rose to a squeak in his amazement as he looked down at the white mass. "My father was stationed at Headquarters one yearwe lived in Central City. I tell you that's the Place of Free Planets down there!"
Kartr's hand pushed him flat. "All right, we'll take your word for it. But keep your voice and your head down. Those men below are trained huntersthey could easily spot you."
"But how did it get here?" Dalgre turned an honestly bewildered face to the sergeant.
"Maybe"Kartr brought out the thought which had been born in him during the night"this came first"
"Came first!" Smitt wriggled up and screwed the lenses tight to his eyes. "Came firstbut how?"
"You mean it could be that old?" breathed Rolth.
"You've the lenses, Smitt. Take a good look at the edge of the roof and the steps leading up to the portico"
"Yes," the com-techneer agreed a moment later. "Erosionthat place is very old."
"Older than the city even" he added. "Unless being set out alone in the open had hastened decay. I'd like to have a closer look"
"Wouldn't we all?" Zinga interrupted him. "How long do you suppose our friends down there are going to sit around?"
"Some days at least. We'll just have to button up our curiosity until they do leave," Kartr answered. "It'll probably keep us busy to just elude parties coming in and going out. We had better stay some distance away from now on."
Smitt uttered a slight groan of protest and Kartr could sympathize with him. To be so near and yet have to refrain from covering that last quarter mile which kept them from the mystery was enough to irritate anyone. But they did withdraw and there was no argument over the wisdom of keeping aloof from the natives.
Their account of the building intrigued Zicti and the next morning he calmly appropriated the services of Zinga, saying:
"Since I am unfortunately not acquainted with the proper methods of lurking, crawling, and dodging, I shall require the aid of an expert to teach this old one new tricks. Alas, even when removed, perhaps permanently, from my lecture halls, I cannot suppress my desire to collect knowledge. The customs of these natives are certainly of great interest and with your permission, Sergeant, we shall lurk and crawl to watch them"
Kartr grinned. "With my permission, or without it, sir. Who am I to interfere with the gathering of knowledge? Though"
"Though"Zicti caught his thought smoothly"it may be the first time in many years that one of my rank has gathered source material personally in the field? Well, perhaps that is one of the ills of our civilization. A little personal attention can often stop leaking seams, and a fact learned from a fragment of one culture can be applied to salve the ills of another."
Kartr ran his hands through his hair. "They are a good peopleprimitivebut we could help them. I wish"
"If we only had the medical skill and learning we could mingle with them in safety. Or you could. Whether they would ever accept a Bemmy"Zicti stabbed a talon at his own arched breast"is another question. Among primitives, what is the general attitude toward the unknown? They fear it."
"Yesthat poor boy thought that Zinga was a demon," Kartr replied reluctantly. "But in timewhen they learned that we meant them no harm"
Zicti shook his head regretfully. "What a pity that we do not have a medico among us. That is one of the few limitations of our present situation which bothers me."
"You are ready to march, Haga Zicti?" Zinga came up to them, bowing his head and addressing the elder Zacathan with one of the Four Titles of Respect, which confirmed Kartr's suspicions that the hist-techneer was a noble on his own world.
"Coming, my boy, coming. There is one thing which I and my household may thank the First Mother for," he added, "and that is that we have such companions in misfortune!"
Kartr, warm with pleasure, watched the two Zacathans out of sight. He realized that Zicti, much as he withheld from giving any opinion until asked, or from intruding upon the ranger councils, was a leader. Even Smitt and Dalgre, for all their inborn suspicion not only of unhumans but also of sensitives, had fallen under the spell of the urbane charm and serene good nature of the hist-techneer and his family. The Patrolmen fetched and carried cheerfully and readily for Zacita and Zora, and preserved a lordly, big-brother-plagued-by-small-tag-along attitude toward Zor. Just as the difference between ranger and crewman had vanished, so had that between human and Bemmy.
"And what are you thinking of when you stand there smiling at nothing at all?" Fylh dropped a bundle of firewood and stretched. "You should come and haul in some of these logsif you have nothing better to do."
"I was thinking that there have been a lot of changes," began the sergeant.
But for once he found Fylh as intuitive as Zinga. "No more Bemmys, no more crew and rangers, you mean? It just happenedsomehow." He sat down on the woodpile. "It may be that when we got out of the city they"he jerked his head in the direction Smitt and Dalgre had taken a few minutes previously"had to make a choice, once and for all. They made it, and they aren't looking back. Now they don't think about differencesany more than you and Rolth ever did"
"We were almost Bemmy ourselves, Rolth with his night sight, and I a sensitive. And I was a barbarian into the bargain. Those two are both inner-system men, more conventional in their conditioning. We must give them credit for conquering some heavy prejudices."
"They just started to use their brains." Fylh's crest lifted. He raised his face to the sky and poured out a liquid run of notes, so pure and heart tearing a melody that Kartr held his breath in wonder. Was this Fylh's form of happy release from emotion?
Then came the birds, wheeling and fluttering. Kartr stiffened into statue stillness, afraid to break the spell. As Fylh's carol rose, died, and rose again, more and more of the flyers gathered, with flashes of red feathers, blue, yellow, white, green. They hopped before the Trystian's feet, perched on his shoulders, his arms, circled about his head.
Kartr had seen Fylh entice winged things to him before but never just this way. It appeared to his bewildered eyes that the whole campsite was a maze of fluttering wings and rainbow feathers.
The trills of song died away and the birds arose, a flock of color. Three times they circled Fylh, hiding his head and shoulders from sight with the tapestry of tints they wove in flight. Then they were goneup into the morning. Kartr could not yet move, his eyes remained fixed on Fylh. For the Trystian was on his feet, his arms outstretched, straining upward as if he would have followed the others up and out. And for the first time, dimly, the sergeant sensed what longings must be born in Fylh's people since they had lost their wings. Had that loss been goodshould they have traded wings for intelligence? Did Fylh wonder about that?
Someone beside him sighed and he glanced around. The three ZacathansZacita, Zora, and Zorstood there. Then the boy stooped to pick up a brilliant red feather and the spell was broken. Fylh dropped his arms, his feather crest folded neatly down upon his head. He was again a ranger of the Patrol and not a purveyor of winged magic.
"So many different kinds" That was Zacita, with her usual tact. "I would not have dreamed that these trees give harborage to so many. Yes, Zor, that is indeed an unusual color for a sky creature. But every world has its own wonders."
Fylh joined the Zacathan boy who was smoothing the scarlet feather delicately between two talons. "If you wish," he said with a friendliness he had not often displayed before, "I can also show you those who fly by night"
Zor's yellow lips stretched in a wide smile. "Tonight, please! And can you bring them here in the same way?"
"If you remain quiet and do not alarm them. They are more timid than those who live by the sun. There is a giant white one who skims through the dark like a Corrob mist ghost"
Zor gave an exaggerated shiver. "This," he announced loudly, "is the best holiday we have ever had. I hope that it is never going to endnever!"
The eyes of the four adults met above his head. And Kartr knew they shared the same thought. This exile would probably never end for them. Butdid any of them care? Kartr wanted to askbut he couldn'tnot just yet.
The rangers spent the day overhauling their equipment and making minor repairs. Clothing was a problemunless they followed the example of the natives and took animal skins to cover them. Kartr speculated about the coming cold season. Should they tramp south to escape its rigor? For the sake of the Zacathans perhaps they should. He knew that exposure to extremes of cold rendered the reptile people torpid until they lapsed into complete hibernation.
They spied upon the natives, going out in pairs to do so, turning in all information to Zicti who compiled it as if he fully intended to give a documented lecture on the subject.
"There are several different physical types among them," he commented one evening when Fylh and Smitt, who had drawn that day's watch, had given their report. "Your yellow-haired, white-skinned people, Kartr, are only one. Now Fylh has seen this clan of very dark-skinned, black-haired men"
"By their light clothing and strange equipment they are from a warmer country," added the Trystian.
"Odd. Such dissimilar races on the same world. But that is a humanoid characteristic, I believe," continued the hist-techneer. "I should have had more grounding in humanoid physiology."
"But they are all very primitive. That is what I can't understand." Smitt wore a puzzled frown as he spooned up the last of his stew. "That city was builtand left all ready to run againby men who were at a high state of technological advancement. Yet all the natives we have discovered so far live in tents made of animal hide, wear skins on their backs, and are afraid of the city. And I'll swear that that pottery I saw them trading today was made out of rough clay by hand!"
"We don't understand that any better than you do, my boy," answered Zicti. "We never shall unless we can penetrate the fog of their history. Some powerful memoryor threathas kept them out of the city. If they ever possessed any technical skill they forgot it long agomaybe by deliberately suppressing such knowledge because it was sacred to the `gods,' perhaps because of a general drop in a certain type of intelligencethere could be many explanations."
"Could they be the remains of a slave population, left behind when their masters emigrated?" ventured Rolth.
"That, too, would be an answer. But slavery does not usually accompany a highly mechanized civilization. The slaves would be machine tendersand the city people had robots which would serve them better in that capacity."
"It seems to me," began Fylh, "that on this world there was once a decision to be made. And some men made it one way, and some another. Some went out"his claws indicated the sky"while others chose to remainto live close to the earth and allow little to come between them and the wilds"
Kartr straightened. Thatthat seemed right! Men choosing between the stars and the earth! Yes, it could have happened just like that. Maybe because he, himself, was a barbarian born on a frontier world where man had not long taken to space, he could see the truth in that. And perhaps because Fylh's people had made just such a choice long ago and sometimes regretted it, the Trystian had been the first to sense the answer to the riddle here.
"Decadencedegeneracy" broke in Smitt.
But Zacita shook her head. "If one lives by machines, by the quest for power, for movement, yes. But perhaps to these it was only a moving on to what they thought a better way of life."
A moving on! Kartr's mind fastened on that eagerly. Maybe the time had come for his own people to make a choice which would either guide them utterly away from old pathsor would set them falling back
Time continued to drag for the watchers until the last of the natives departed. They even waited another five hours after the last small clan left, making sure that there would be no chance of being sighted by lingerers. And then, in the middle of an afternoon, they came down the slope at last, picking their way through the debris of the campsite and around still smoldering fires.
At the foot of the stairs which led to the portico of the building they left their packs and bundles. There were twelve broad steps, scored and pitted by winds of time, with the tracks of hide sandals outlined in dried mud where the natives had wandered in and out. Up these steps they climbed and passed through lines of towering pillars into the interior.
It would have been dark inside but the builders had roofed the center section with a transparent material so that they could almost believe they still stood in the open.
Slowly, still in a compact group, they came down an aisle into the very middle of the huge hall. Around them on three sides were sections of seats, divided by narrow aisles, each ending at the floor level in one massive chair on the back of which was carved, in such high relief that time had not worn it away, a symbol. On the fourth side of the chamber was a dais supporting three more of the high-backed chairs of state, the center one raised another step above the other two.
"Some type of legislative building, do you think?" asked Zicti. "The presiding officer would sit there." He pointed to the dais.
But Kartr's torch beam fastened on the sign carved on the nearest of the side chairs. As he read it he stood incredulous. Then he flashed the light to illuminate the marking on the next seat and the next. He began to run, reading the symbols he knewknew so well!"
"Deneb, Sirius, Rigel, Capella, Procyon." He did not realize it, but his voice was rising to a shout as if he were calling a rollcalling such a roll as had not sounded in that chamber for four thousand years or more. "Betelgeuse, Aldebaran, Pollux"
"Regulus." Smitt was answering him from the other side of the hall, the same wild excitement in his voice. "Spica, Vega, Arcturus, Altair, Antares"
Now Rolth and Dalgre began to understand in turn.
"Fomalhaut, Alphard, Castor, Algol"
They added star to star, system to system, in that roll call. In the end they met before the dais. And they fell silent while Kartr, with a reverence and awe he had never known before, raised his torch to give more light to the last of those symbols. That bright one which should gleam in this place was there!
"Terra of Sol." He read it aloud and the three words seemed to echo more loudly down the hall than any of the shouted names of the kindred stars. "Terra of Solman's beginning!"
Back | Next