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Warlord of Kor
by Terry Gene Carr
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Transcriber's Note:

A list of repaired typographical errors will be found at the end of this e-book.



WARLORD OF KOR

by

TERRY CARR



GOD, MACHINE—OR LISTENING POST FOR OUTSIDERS?

Horng sat opposite the tiny, fragile creature who held a microphone, its wires attached to an interpreting machine. He blinked his huge eyes slowly, his stiff mouth fumblingly forming words of a language his race had not used for thirty thousand years.

"Kor was ... is ... God ... Knowledge." He had tried to convey this to the small creatures who had invaded his world, but they did not heed. Their ill-equipped brains were trying futilely to comprehend the ancient race memory of his people.

Now they would attempt further to discover the forbidden directives of Kor. Horng remembered, somewhere far back in the fossil layers of his thoughts, a warning. They must be stopped! If he had to, he would stamp out these creatures who were called "humans."



CAST OF CHARACTERS

Rynason

His mental quest led him too close to a dangerous secret.

Manning

His ideas for colonizing that world didn't include survival for its native beings.

Malhomme

This ruffian-preacher could be the one man that everyone might have to trust.

Mara

She wanted to save the aliens, but did they want to be saved?

Horng

In the recesses of his brain was the key to a dead civilization—or a live menace....

Kor

Was it a legend, a king, a thing, or a trap from another galaxy?



WARLORD OF KOR

by

TERRY CARR



Ace Books, Inc. 1120 Avenue of the Americas New York 36, N.Y. Copyright (C), 1963, by Ace Books, Inc.



ONE

Lee Rynason sat forward on the faded red-stone seat, watching the stylus of the interpreter as the massive grey being in front of him spoke, its dry, leathery mouth slowly and stumblingly forming the words of a spoken language its race had not used for over thirty thousand years. The stylus made no sound in the thin air of Hirlaj as it passed over the plasticene notepaper; the only sounds in the ancient building were those of the alien's surprisingly high and thin voice coming at intervals and Rynason's own slightly labored breathing.

He did not listen to the alien's voice—by now he had heard it often enough so that it was merely irritating in its thin dryness, like old parchments being rubbed together. He watched the stylus as it jumped along sporadically:

TEBRON MARL WAS OUR ... PRIEST KING HERO. NOT PRIEST BUT ONE WHO KNEW ... THAT IS PRIEST.

Rynason was a slender, sandy-haired man in his late twenties. A sharp scar from a knife cut left a line across his forehead over his right eyebrow. His eyes, perhaps brown, perhaps green—the light on Hirlaj was sometimes deceptive—were soft, but narrowed with an intent alertness. He raised the interpreter's mike and said, "How long ago?"

The stylus recorded the Earthman's question too, but Rynason did not watch it. He looked up at the bulk of the alien, watching for the slow closing of its eyes, so slow that it could not be called a blink, that would show it had understood the question. The interpreter could feed the question direct to the telepathic alien, but there was no guarantee that it would be understood.

The eyes, resting steadily on him, closed and opened and in a few moments came the Hirlaji's dry voice.

THE GREAT AGE WAS IN THE EIGHTEENTH GENERATION PAST ... SEVEN THOUSAND YEARS AGO.

Rynason calculated quickly. Translating that to about 8200 Earth-standard years and subtracting, that would make it about the seventeenth century. About the time of the Restoration in England, when the western hemisphere of Earth was still being colonized. Eighteen generations ago on Hirlaj. He read the date into the mike for the stylus to record, and sat back and stretched.

They were sitting amid the ruins of a vast hall, grey dust covering the stone floor all around them. Dry, hard vegetation had crept in through cracks and breaks in the walls and fallen across the dusty interior shadows of the building. Occasionally a small, quick animal would dart from a dark wall across the floor to another shadow, its feet soundless in the dust.

Above Rynason the enormous arch of the Hirlaji dome loomed darkly against the deep cerulean blue of the sky. The lines of all Hirlaji architecture were deceptively simple, but Rynason had already found that if he tried to follow the curves and angles he would soon find his head swimming. There was a quality to these ancient buildings which was not quite understandable to a Terran mind, as though the old Hirlaji had built them on geometric principles just slightly at a tangent from those of Earth. The curve of the arch drew Rynason's eyes along its silhouette almost hypnotically. He caught himself, and shook his head, and turned again to the alien before him.

The creature's name, as well as it could be rendered in a Terran script, was Horng. The head of the alien was dark and hairless, leathery, weathered; the light wires of the interpreter trailed down and across the floor from where they were clamped to the deep indentations of the temples. Massive boney ridges circled the shadowed eyes set low on the head, directly above the wide mouth which always hung open while the Hirlaji breathed in long gulps of air. Two atrophied nostrils were situated on either side and slightly below the eyes. The neck was so thick and massive that it was practically nonexistent, blending the head with the shoulders and trunk, on which the dry skin stretched so thin that Rynason could see the solid bone of the chest wall. Two squat arms hung from the shoulders, terminating in four-digited hands on which two sets of blunt fingers were opposed; Horng kept moving them constantly, in what Rynason automatically interpreted as a nervous habit. The lower body was composed of two heavily-muscled legs jointed so that they could move either forward or backward, and the feet had four stubby but powerful toes radiating from the center. The Hirlaji wore a dark garment of something which looked like wood-fibre, hanging from the head and gathered together by a cord just below the chest-wall.

Rynason, since arriving on the planet three weeks before as one of a team of fifteen archaeological workers, had been interviewing Horng almost every day, but still he often found himself remembering only with difficulty that this was an intelligent being; Horng was so slow-moving and uncommunicative most of the time that he almost seemed like a mound of leather, like a pile of hides thrown together in a corner. But he was intelligent, and in his mind he held perhaps the entire history of his race.

Rynason lifted the interpreter-mike again. "Was Tebron Marl king of all Hirlaj?"

Horng's eyes slowly closed and opened. TEBRON MARL WAS RULER LEADER IN THE REGION OF MINES. HE UNITED ALL OF HIRLAJ AND WAS PRIEST RULER.

"How did he unite the planet?"

TEBRON LIVED AT THE END OF THE BARBARIC AGE. HE CONQUERED THE PLANET BY VIOLENCE AND DROVE THE ANCIENT PRIEST CASTE FROM THE TEMPLE.

"But the reign of Tebron Marl is remembered as an era of peace."

WHEN HE WAS PRIEST KING HE HELD THE PEACE. HE ENDED THE BARBARIC AGE.

Rynason suddenly sat forward, watching the stylus record these words. "Then it was Tebron who abolished war on Hirlaj?"

YES.

Rynason felt a thrill go through him. This was what they had all been searching for—the point in the history of Hirlaj when wars had ceased, when the Hirlaji had given themselves over to completely peaceful living. He knew already that the transition had been sharp and sudden. It was the last question mark in the sketchy history of Hirlaj which the survey team had compiled since its arrival—how had the Hirlaji managed so abruptly to establish and maintain an era of peace which had lasted unbroken to the present?

It was difficult even to think of these huge, slow-moving creatures as warriors ... but warriors they had been, for thousands of their years, gradually building their culture and science until, apparently almost overnight, the wars had ceased. Since then the Hirlaji moved in their slow way through their world, growing more complacent with the passage of ancient generations, growing passive, and, eventually, decadent. Now there were only some two dozen of the race left alive.

They were telepathic, these leathery aliens, and behind those shadowed eyes they held the entire memories of their race. Experiences communicated telepathically through the centuries had formed a memory pool which each of the remaining Hirlaji shared. They could not, of course, integrate in their own minds all of that immense store of memories and understand it all clearly ... but the memories were there.

It was at the same time a boon and a trial for Rynason and the rest of the survey team. They were trained archaeologists ... as well schooled as possible on the worlds of this far-flung sector near the constantly outward-moving Edge, the limit of Terran expansion. Rynason could operate and if necessary repair the portable carbondaters of the team, he knew the fine points of excavation and restoration of artifacts and had studied so many types of alien anatomy that he could make at least an educated guess at the reconstruction of beings from fragmentary fossil-remains or incomplete skeletons ... or exoskeletons.

But the situation on Hirlaj was one which had never before been encountered; here he was not dealing with a dead race's remains, but directly with members of that race. It was not a matter of sifting fragmentary evidence of science, crafts and customs, finding out what he could and piecing together a composite picture from the remains at hand, as they had done with the artifacts of the Outsiders, those unknown beings who had left the ruins of their outposts and colonies in six galaxies already explored and settled by the Earthmen; all he had to do here was ask the right questions and he would get his answers.

Sitting there under that massive dome, with the quiet-eyed alien before him, Rynason couldn't completely suppress a feeling of ridiculousness. The problem was that the Hirlaji could not be depended upon to be able to find a particular memory-series in their minds; the race memory was such a conglomeration that all they could do was strike randomly at memories until the correct area was touched, and then follow up from there. The result was usually irrelevant and unrelated information.

But he seemed to be getting somewhere now. Having spent three weeks with Horng, gradually learning a little about the ways of his alien mind, he had at last run across what might be the important turning-point in the history of Hirlaj.

Horng spoke, and Rynason turned to watch the stylus of the interpreter as it moved across the paper. TEBRON SPENT HIS YEARS BRINGING HIRLAJ TOGETHER. FIRST BY CONQUEST THEN BY ... LEADERSHIP LAW. HE FORBADE ... SCIENCES QUESTINGS EXPLORATIONS WHICH DREW HIRLAJ APART.

"What were these sciences?"

Horng closed and opened his eyes. MANY OF THEM ARE FORGOTTEN.

Rynason looked up at the alien, who sat quietly on a rough stone benchlike seat. "But your race doesn't forget."

THE MEMORIES ARE VERY FAR BACK AND ARE HARD TO FIND. THERE HAS BEEN NO EFFORT TO RETAIN CERTAIN MEMORIES.

"But you can remember these if you try?"

Horng's head dipped to one side, a characteristic movement which Rynason had not yet managed to interpret. The shadowed, wrinkled eyes closed slowly. THE MEMORIES ARE THERE. THEY ARE THE SCIENCES OF KOR. MANY OF THEM ARE WARLIKE SCIENCES.

"You've mentioned Kor before. Who was he?"

KOR WAS IS GOD KNOWLEDGE.

Rynason frowned. The interpreter automatically translated terms which had no reliable parallel in Terran by giving two or three related words, and usually the concept was fairly clear. Not quite so with this sentence.

"God and knowledge are two different words in our language," he said. "Can you explain your term more fully?"

Horng shifted heavily on his seat, his blunt fingers tapping each other. KOR WAS IS EXISTENCE WHICH WE WORSHIP OBEY ADMIRE FOLLOW. ALSO ESSENCE CONCEPT OF KNOWLEDGE SCIENCE QUESTING.

Rynason, watching the stylus, pursed his lips. "Mm," he said softly, and shrugged his shoulders. Kor was apparently some sort of god, but the interpreter didn't seem capable of translating the term precisely.

"What were the sciences of Kor?"

There was a silence as the stylus finished moving across the paper, and Rynason looked up at Horng. The alien's eyes were closed and he had stopped the constant motion of his leathery grey fingers; he sat immobile, like a giant statue, almost a part of the complex of the hall and the crumbling domed building. Rynason waited.

The silence remained for a long time in the dry air of the empty hall. Rynason saw from the corner of his eye one of the dark little scavengers darting out of a gaping window. He could almost hear, it seemed, the noise of the brawling, makeshift town the Earthmen had established a little less than a mile away from the Hirlaji ruins, where already the nomads and adventurers and drifters had erected a cluster of prefab metal buildings and were settling in.

"What were the sciences of Kor?" Rynason asked again, not wanting to think of the cheapness and dirt of the Earth outpost which huddled so near to the Hirlaji domes.

He felt Horng's quiet gaze, heavy with centuries, resting on him. THEY WERE ARE THOSE SCIENCES QUESTINGS WHICH KOR PROCLAIMED INFORMED WERE SACRED PART OF THE ESSENCE.

"Part of Kor?"

Horng's head dipped to one side. APPROXIMATELY.

"How is this known? Tebron broke the power of the priesthood, didn't he?"

TEBRON REPLACED THE PRIESTS. THE KNOWLEDGE WAS GIVEN TO TEBRON.

"Including the information that these sciences were prohibited?"

Horng shifted forward, like a massive block of stone wavering. His fingers moved briefly and then rested. THE MEMORIES ARE BURIED DEEPLY. TEBRON PROCLAIMED THIS PROHIBITION AFTER COMMUNICATING WITH KOR.

Rynason's head jerked up from the interpreter. "Tebron spoke with Kor?"

After a pause, Horng's dry voice came. APPROXIMATELY. THERE WAS ... COMMUNICATION RAPPORT. TEBRON WAS KING PRIEST.

"Then Tebron made this prohibition in the name of Kor. When did this occur?"

THE KNOWLEDGE PROHIBITION WAS COMMUNICATED TO HIRLAJ WHEN TEBRON ASSUMED POWER RIGHT.

"The same day?"

THE DAY AFTER. TEBRON COMMUNICATED WITH KOR IMMEDIATELY AFTER OUSTING REPLACING THE PRIESTS.

Rynason watched Horng's replies as they were recorded by the interpreter; he was frowning. So this dawn-era king was supposed to have spoken, perhaps telepathically, with the god of the Hirlaji. Could he have simply claimed to have done so in an effort to stabilize his own power? But the fact that this race was telepathic threw some doubt on that supposition.

"Are there memories of Tebron's conversation with Kor?" he asked.

Horng's eyes closed and opened in acknowledgement, and then abruptly the alien rose to his feet. He moved slowly past Rynason to the base of a long, sweeping flight of stairs which led upward toward the empty dome, trailing the wires of the interpreter. Rynason moved to unplug the wires, but Horng stopped at the base of the stairs, looking up along the curving ramp to where it ended in a blunt, weathered break two-thirds of the way up. Rubble lay below the break.

Rynason watched the grey being staring silently up those broken steps, and asked softly, "What are you doing?"

Horng, still gazing upward, dipped his head to one side. THERE IS NO PURPOSE. He turned and came slowly back to his stone seat.

Rynason grinned wryly. He was beginning to get used to such things from Horng, whose mind often seemed to run in non sequiturs. It was as though the alien's perceptions of the present were as jumbled as the welter of memories he held. Crazy old mound of leather.

But he was not crazy, of course; his mind simply ran in a way that was alien to the Earthmen. Rynason was beginning to learn to respect that alien way, if not to understand it.

"Are there memories of Tebron's conversation with Kor?" Rynason asked again.

TEBRON COMMUNICATED WITH KOR IMMEDIATELY AFTER OUSTING THE PRIESTS. IT OCCURRED IN THE TEMPLE.

"Are there memories of what was said?"

Horng sat silently, perhaps in thought. His reply didn't come for several minutes.

THE MEMORIES ARE BURIED DEEPLY.

"Can you remember the actual communication?"

Horng's head tilted to one side in a peculiarly strained fashion; Rynason could see a muscle jumping where the alien's neck blended with his torso. THE MEMORIES ARE BURIED SO DEEPLY. I CANNOT REACH THEM.

Rynason gazed pensively at the interpreter as these words were recorded. What could have happened during that conversation that would have caused its memory to be so deeply buried?

"Can you find among any of the rest of Tebron's memories any thoughts about Kor?"

YES. TEBRON HAD MEMORIES THAT HE HAD COMMUNICATED WITH KOR, BUT THESE ARE FLEETING. THERE IS NOTHING CLEAR.

The Hirlaji was shaking, his entire body trembling with some sort of tension which even communicated itself through the interpreter, causing the stylus to quaver and jump forward, dragging a jagged line across the paper. Rynason stared up at the alien, feeling a chill down his back which seemed to penetrate through to his chest and lungs. This massive creature was shaking like the rumbling warnings of an earthquake, his eyes cast downward from the deep shadows of their sockets; Rynason could almost feel the weight of their gaze like a heavy, dark blanket. He lifted the interpreter's mike slowly.

"Your race does not forget," he said softly. "Why can't you remember this conversation?"

Horng's four-digited hands clasped tightly and the powerful tendons stood out starkly on the heavy wrists as Horng drew in long breaths of air, the sound of his breathing loud in the great space under the dome.

THERE IS NOTHING CLEAR. THERE IS NOTHING CLEAR.



TWO

The Earthman called the town Hirlaj too, because the spaceport was there. It was a new town, only a few months old, but the gleaming alloys of the buildings were already coated with dirt and pitted by the frequent dust storms that swept through. Garbage littered the alleys; its odor was strange but still foul in the alien atmosphere. The small, darting creatures were here too, foraging in the alleys and the outskirts of the town, where the streets ended in garbage heaps and new cemeteries or faded into the trackless flat where the spacers touched down.

The Earthmen filled the streets ... drinking, fighting, laughing and cursing, arguing over money or power or, sometimes, women. The women here were hard and self-sufficient, following the path of Terran expansion in the stars and taking what they felt was due them as women or what they could get as men. Supply houses did a thriving business, their prices high between shipments on the spacers from the inner worlds; bars and gambling houses stayed open all night; rooming houses and restaurants and laundries displayed crude handlettered signs along the streets.

Rynason pushed his way through a jostling crowd outside the door of a bar. He was supposed to meet the head of his Survey team here—Rice Manning, who had been pushing the survey as hard as he could since the day they'd set foot on Hirlaj. Manning was hard and ambitious—a leader of men, Rynason thought sardonically as he surveyed the tables in the dim interior. The floor of the bar was a dirty plastic-metal alloy, already scuffed and in places bloodstained. The tables were of the cheap, light metals so common on the spacer-supplied worlds of the Edge, and they wobbled.

The low-ceilinged room was crowded with men. Rynason didn't know many of them by name, but he recognized a lot of the faces. The men of the Edge, though they lacked money, education, often brains and usually ethics, at least had the quality of distinctiveness: they didn't fit the half-dozen convenient molds which the highly developed culture of the inner worlds fitted over the more civilized citizens of the Terran Federation. These men were too self-interested to follow the group-thoughts which controlled the centers of empire, and the seams and wrinkles of their faces stamped a rough kind of individuality even more visually upon them.

Of them all, the man who was instantly recognizable in any crowd like this was Rene Malhomme; Rynason immediately saw the man in one corner of the room. He stood six and a half feet tall, heavily muscled and a bit wild-eyed; his greying hair fell in disorder over his dirty forehead and sprayed out over his ears. He was surrounded by laughing and shouting men; Rynason couldn't tell from this distance whether he was engaged in one of his usual heated arguments on religion or in his other avocation of recounting stories of the women he had "converted". He waved a black-lettered sign saying REPENT! over his head—but then, he always did.

Rynason found Manning in the back, sitting under a cheap print of a Picasso nude with cold light trained on it in typically bad taste. He had a woman with him. Rynason recognized her—Mara Stephens, in charge of communications and supplies for the survey team. She was a strange girl, aloof but not hard, and she carried herself with a quiet dignity. What was she doing with Manning?

He passed a waiter on his way to the table and ordered a drink. Malhomme saw him as he passed: "Lee Rynason! Come and join me in repentance! Give your soul to God and your money to the barman, for as the prophet sayeth, lo, I am dry! Join us!"

Rynason grinned and shook his head, walking past. He grabbed one of the light-metal chairs and sat down next to Mara.

"You wanted to see me," he said to Manning.

Manning looked up at him to apparent surprise. "Lee! Yes, yes—sit down. Wait, we'll get you a drink."

So he was in that kind of a mood. "I've got one coming," Rynason said. "What's our problem today?"

Manning smiled broadly. "No problem, Lee; no problem at all. Not unless you want to make one." He chuckled goodnaturedly, a tacit statement that he was expecting no such thing. "I've got good news today, by god. You tell him, Mara."

Rynason turned to the girl, who smiled briefly. "It just came over the telecom," she said. "Manning has a good chance for the governorship here. The Council is supposed to announce its decision in two weeks."

Rynason looked over at Manning, his face expressionless. "Congratulations. How did this happen?"

"I've got an inside track; friend of mine knows several of the big guys. Throws parties, things like that. He's been putting in a word for me, here and there."

"Isn't this a bit out of your line?" Rynason said.

Manning sat back, a large man with close-cropped dark hair and heavy features. His beard was trimmed to a thin line along the ridge of his jaw—a style that was popular on the inner worlds, but rarely seen here on the Edge. "This is my line," he said. "God, this is what I was after when I took this damned job. Survey teams are a dime a dozen out here, Lee; it's no job for a man."

"We've got sort of a special case here," Rynason said evenly, glancing at Mara. She smiled at him. "We haven't run into any alien races before that were intelligent."

Manning laughed, and took a long swallow of his drink. "Twenty-six lousy horsefaces—now there's an important discovery for you. No, Lee, this is peanuts. For that matter, they may be running into intelligent aliens all over the Edge by now—communication isn't so reliable out here that we'd necessarily know about it. What we've found here isn't any more important than all the rubble and trash the Outsiders left behind."

"Still, it is unique so far," Mara said.

"I'll tell you exactly how unique it is," Manning said, leaning forward and setting down his glass with a bang. "It's just unique enough that I can make it sound important in my report to the Council. I can make myself sound a little impressive. That's how important it is; no more than that."

Rynason pursed his lips, but didn't say anything. The waiter arrived with his drink; he threw a green coin onto the table which was scooped up before it had finished ringing to a stop, and sat back with the glass in his hand.

"Is that your pitch to the Council?" he asked. "You're telling them that Hirlaj is an important archaeological area and that's why you should get the governorship?"

"Something like that," Manning nodded. "That, and my friend at Seventeenth Cluster headquarters. Incidentally, he's an idiot and a slob—turns on quadsense telemuse instead of working, drinks hopsbrau from his own sector. I can't stand him. But I did him a few favors, just in case, and they're paying off."

"I think it's marvelous the way our frontier policy caters to the colonists," Mara said quietly. She was still smiling, but it was an ironic smile which suddenly struck Rynason as characteristic of her.

He knew exactly what she meant. Manning's little push for power was nothing new or shocking in Terran frontier politics. With the rapid expansion of the Edge through the centuries, the frontier policy of the Confederation had had to adapt itself to comparatively slipshod methods of setting up governments in the newly-opened areas. Back in the early days they'd tried sending out trained men from each Cluster headquarters, but that had been foredoomed to failure: travel between the stars was slow, and too often the governors had arrived after local officialdoms had already been established, and there had been clashes. The colonists had almost always backed the local governments, and there were a few full-scale revolts when the system had been backed too militantly by Cluster headquarters.

So the Local Autonomy System had been sanctioned. The colonists would always support their own men, who at least knew conditions in the areas they were to govern. But since this necessarily limited the choice of Edge governorships to the roustabouts and drifters who wandered the outworlds, the resulting administrations were probably even more corrupt than they had been under the old system of what had amounted to centralized graft. The Cluster Councils retained the power of appointing the local governors, but aside from that the newly-opened worlds of the Edge were completely under their own rule. Some of the more vocal critics of the Local Autonomy System had dubbed it instead the Indigenous Corruption System; it was by now a fairly standard nickname in the outworlds.

The system made for a wide-open frontier—bustling, wild, hectic, and rich. For the worlds of the Edge were untamed worlds, raw and forbidding, and the policy of the Councils was calculated to attract the kind of men who not only could but would open these frontiers. The roustabouts, the low drifters of the spaceways ... men who were hard and strong from repeated knocks, who were looking for a way to work or fight their way up. The lean and hungry of the outworlds.

Rynason glanced across the table at Manning. He was neither lean nor hungry, but he had that look in his eyes. Rynason had been around the Edge for years—his father had travelled the spacers in the commercial lines—and he had seen that look on many men, in the fields and mines, in the spaceports, in the quickly-tarnished prefab towns that sprang up almost overnight when a planetfall was made. He could recognize it on Manning despite the man's casual, self-satisfied expression.

"You don't have to worry about the colonists here," Manning was saying to the girl. "I'll treat 'em decently. There'll be money to be made here, and I can make it without stepping on too many toes."

Mara seemed amused. "And what would happen if you had to step on them to make your money? What if Hirlaj doesn't turn out to have any natural resources worth exploiting—a whole civilization has been here for thousands of years? What if the colony here starts to falter, and the men move on?"

Manning frowned at her for a moment, then gave a grunting laugh. "No chance of that. It's like Lee was just saying—this planet is an important discovery—we've got tame aliens here, intelligent horsefaces that you can lead around with a rope on their necks. That alone will draw tourists. Maybe well set up an official Restricted Ground, a sort of reservation."

"A zoo, you mean," Rynason interrupted.

Manning raised an amused eyebrow at him. "A reservation, I said. You know what reservations are like, Lee."

Rynason glared at the heavier man, then subsided. There was no point in getting into a fight over if's and maybe's; in the outworlds you learned quickly to confine your clashes to tangibles. "Why did you want to see me?" he said.

"I want your preliminary report completed," Manning said. "I've got to have my complete report collated and transmitted within the week, if it's to have any effect on the Council. Most of the boys have got them in already; Breune and Larsborg have promised theirs within four days. But you're still holding me up."

Rynason took a long swallow of his drink and put it down empty. The noise and smell of the bar seemed to grow around him, washing over him. It might have been the effects of the tarpaq in the drink, but he felt his stomach tighten and turn slightly when he thought of how Earth's culture presented itself, warped itself, here on the frontier Edge. Was this land of mercenary, slipshod rush really what had carried Earthmen to the stars?

"I don't know if I'll have much to report for at least a week," he said shortly.

"Then give me a report on what you've got!" Manning snapped. "If nothing else, turn in your transcripts and I'll do the report myself; I can handle it. What the hell do you mean, you won't have much to report?"

"Larsborg said the same thing," Mara interjected.

"Larsborg said he'd have his report ready in a couple of days anyway!"

"I'll give you what I've got as soon as I can," Rynason said. "But things are just beginning to break for me—did you see my note this afternoon?"

"Yes, of course. The part about this Tedron or whatever his name was?"

"Tebron Marl. He's the link between their barbaric and civilized periods. I've only begun to get into it."

Manning was waving for more drinks; he caught a waiter's eye and then turned back to Rynason. "What's this nonsense about some damned block you ran into? Have you got a crazy horse on your hands?"

"There's something strange there," Rynason said. "He tells me this Tebron was actually supposed to have communicated with their god, or whatever he was. It sounds crazy, all right. But there's more to it than that, I'm sure of it. I wanted time to go into it further before I made my report."

"I think you've got a nut alien there, boy. Don't let him foul you up; you're one of my best men."

Rynason almost sneered, but he managed to bring it out as a grin. The role of protective father did not sit well on Manning's shoulders. "We're dealing here with a remarkably sane race," he pointed out. "The very fact that they have total recall argues against any insanity in them. There've been experiments on the inner worlds for over a century now, trying to bring out total recall in us, and not much luck so far. We're a sick, hung-up race."

Manning slapped his hand down on the table. "What the hell are you trying to do, Lee? Are you trying to measure these aliens by our standards? I thought you had better sense. Total recall doesn't necessarily mean a damn thing in them—but when they start telling you straightforward and cold that they've talked with some god, and then they throw what sounds like an anxiety fit right in front of you.... Well, what does it sound like to you?"

Rynason accepted one of the drinks that the waiter banged down on the table and took a sip. He felt lightheaded. "It would have been an anxiety fit if Horng had been human," he said. "But you're right, I do know better than to judge him by our standards. No, it was something else."

"What, then?"

He shook his head. "I don't know. That's the point—I can't give you a decent report until I find out."

"Then, dammit, give me an indecent report! Fill it out with some very learned speculations, you know the type...." Manning stopped, and grinned. "Speaking of indecent reports, what have we turned up on their sex lives?"

"Marc Stoworth covered that in his report yesterday," Mara said. "They're unisexual, and their sex life is singularly boring, if you'll pardon the expression. At least, Stoworth says so. If it weren't I'm sure he'd tell us all about it."

Manning chuckled. "Yes, I imagine you're right; Marc is a good boy. Well look, Lee, I've told you the position I'm in. Now I'm counting on you to get me out of this spot. I've got to transmit my report to Council within a week. I don't want to pressure you, but you know I'm in a position to do it if I have to. Dammit, give me a report."

"I'll turn something in in a few days," Rynason said vaguely. His brain was definitely fuzzy now from the tarpaq.

Manning stood up. "All right, don't forget it. Trick it out with some high-sounding guesses if you have to, like I said. Right now I've got to see a man about a woman." He paused, glancing at Mara. "You're busy?"

"I'm busy, yes." Her face was studiedly expressionless.

He shrugged briefly and went out, pushing and weaving his way through the hubbub that filled the bar. It was dark outside; Rynason caught a glimpse of the dark street as Manning went through the door. Night fell quickly on Hirlaj, with the suddenness of age.

Rynason turned back to the table, and Mara. He looked at her curiously.

"What were you doing with him, anyway? You usually keep to yourself."

The girl smiled wryly. She had deep black hair which fell to her shoulders in soft waves. Most of the women here grew their hair down to their waists, in exaggerated imitation of inner-world styles, but Mara had more taste than that. Her eyes were a clear brown, and they met his directly. "He was in a sharp mood, so I came along as peacemaker. You don't seem to have needed me."

"You helped, at that; thanks. Was that true about the governorship?"

"Of course. Manning seldom brags, you should know that. He's a very capable man, in some ways."

Rynason frowned. "He could be a lot more useful on this survey if he'd use his talents on tightening up the survey itself. He's forcing a premature report, and it isn't going to be worth much."

"Is that what's really bothering you?" she asked.

He tried to focus on her through the haze of the noisy bar. "Of course it is. That, and his whole attitude toward these people."

"The Hirlaji? Are they people to you?"

He shrugged. "What are people? Humans? Or reasoning beings you can talk to, communicate with?"

"I should think people would be reasoning beings you could relate to," she said softly. "Not just intellectually, but emotionally too. You have to be able to understand them to communicate that way—that's what makes people."

Rynason was silent, trying to integrate that into the fog in his head. The raucous noise of the bar had faded into an underwater murmur around him, lost somewhere where he could not see.

Finally, he said, "That's the trouble with them, the Hirlaji. I can't really understand them. It's like there's really no contact, not even through the interpreter." He stared into his drink. "I wish to hell we had some straight telepathers here; they might work with the Hirlaji, since they're telepathic anyway. I'd like to make a direct link myself."

After a moment he felt Mara's hand on his arm, and realized that he had almost fallen asleep on the table.

"You'd better go on back to your quarters," she said.

He sat up, shaking his head to clear it. "No, but really—what do you think of that idea? What if I had a telepather, and I could link minds with Horng? Straight linkage, no interpreter in the middle. I could get right at that race memory myself!"

"I think you need some sleep," she said. She seemed worried. "You're getting too wrapped up in this thing. And forget about the telepathers."

Rynason looked at her and grinned. "Why?" he said quietly. "There's no harm in wishing."

"Because," she said, "we've got three telepathers coming in the day after tomorrow."



THREE

Rynason continued to smile at her for several seconds, until her words penetrated. Then he abruptly sat up and steadied himself with one hand against the edge of the table.

"Can you get one for me?"

She gave a reluctant shrug. "If you insist, and if Manning okays it. But is it a good idea? Direct contact with a mind so alien?"

As a matter of fact, now that he was faced with the actual possibility of it, he wasn't so sure. But he said, "We'll only know once we've tried it."

Mara dropped her eyes and swirled her drink, watching the tiny red spots form inside the glass and rise to the surface. There was a brief silence between them.

"Repent, Lee Rynason!" The words burst upon his ears over the waves of sound that filled the room. He turned, half-rising, to find Rene Malhomme hovering over him, his wide grin showing a tooth missing in the bottom row.

Rynason settled back into his chair. "Don't shout. I'm going to have a headache soon enough."

Malhomme took the chair which Manning had vacated and sat in it heavily. He set his hand-lettered placard against the edge of the table and leaned forward, waving a thick finger.

"You consort with men who would enslave the pure in heart!" he rumbled, but Rynason didn't miss the laughter in his eye.

"Manning?" he nodded. "He'd enslave every pure heart on this planet, if he could find one. As a matter of fact, I think he's already working on Mara here."

Malhomme turned to her and sat back, appraising her boldly. Mara met his gaze calmly, raising her eyebrows slightly as she waited for his verdict.

Malhomme shook his head. "If she's pure, then it's a sin," he said. "A thrice-damned sin, Lee. Have I ever expostulated to you upon the Janus-coin that is good and evil?"

"Often," Rynason said.

Malhomme shrugged and turned again to the girl. "Nevertheless," he said, "I greet you with pleasure."

"Mara, this is Rene Malhomme," Rynason said wearily. "He imagines that we're friends, and I'm afraid he's right."

Malhomme dipped his shaggy head. "The name is from the Old French of Earth—badman. I have a long and dishonorable family history, but the earliest of my ancestors whom I've been able to trace had the same name. Apparently there were too many Smiths, Carpenters, Bakers and Priests on that world—the time was ripe for a Malhomme. My first name would have been pronounced Reh-nay before the language reform dropped all accent marks from Earth tongues."

"Considering your background," Mara smiled, "you're in good company out here."

"Good company!" Malhomme cried. "I'm not looking for good company! My work, my mission calls me to where men's hearts are the blackest, where repentance and redemption are needed—and so I come to the Edge."

"You're religious?" she asked.

"Who is religious in these days?" Malhomme asked, shrugging. "Religion is of the past; it is dead. It is nearly forgotten, and one hears God's name spoken now in anger. God damn you, cry the masses! That is our modern religion!"

"Rene wanders around shouting about sin," Rynason explained, "so that he can take up collections to buy himself more to drink."

Malhomme chuckled. "Ah, Lee, you're shortsighted. I'm an unbeliever, and a black rogue, but at least I have a mission. Our scientific advance has destroyed religion; we've penetrated to the heavens, and found no God. But science has not disproved Him, either, and people forget that. I speak with the voice of the forgotten; I remind people of God, to even the scales." He stopped talking long enough to grab the arm of a passing waiter and order a drink. Then he turned back to them. "Nothing says I have to believe in religion. If that were necessary, no one would preach it."

"Have you been preaching to the Hirlaji?" Rynason asked.

"An admirable idea!" Malhomme said. "Do they have souls?"

"They have a god, at least. Or used to, anyway. Fellow named Kor, who was god, essence, knowledge, and several other things all rolled into one."

"Return to Kor!" Malhomme said. "Perhaps it will be my next mission."

"What's your mission now?" Mara asked, smiling in spite of herself. "Besides your apparently lifelong study and participation in sin, I mean."

Malhomme sighed and sat back as his drink arrived. He dug into the pouch strung from his waist and flipped a coin to the waiter. "Believe it or not, I have one," he said, and his voice was now low and serious. "I'm not just a lounger, a drifter."

"What are you?"

"I am a spy," he said, and raised his glass to drain half of it with one swallow.

Mara smiled again, but he didn't return it. He sat forward and turned to Rynason. "Manning has been busily wrapping up the appointment for the governorship here," he said. "You probably know that."

Rynason nodded. The headache he had been expecting was already starting.

"Did you also know that he's been buying men here to stand with him in case someone else is appointed?" He glanced at Mara. "I go among the men every day, talking, and I hear a lot. Manning will end up in control here, one way or another, unless he's stopped."

"Buying men is nothing new," Rynason said. "In any case, is there a better man on the planet?"

Malhomme shook his head. "I don't know; sometimes I give up on the human race. Manning at least has a little culture in him—but he's more vicious than he seems, nevertheless. If he gets control here...."

"It will be no worse than any of the other planets out here," Rynason concluded for him.

"Except for one thing, perhaps—the Hirlaji. I don't have much against men killing each other ... that's their own business. But unless we get somebody better than Manning governing here, the Hirlaji will be wiped out. The men here are already talking ... they're afraid of them."

"Why? The Hirlaji are harmless."

"Because of their size, and because we don't know anything about them. Because they're intelligent—any uneducated man is afraid of intelligence, and when it's an alien...." He shook his head. "Manning isn't helping the situation."

"What do you mean by that?" Mara asked.

Malhomme's frown deepened, creasing the dark lines of his forehead into furrows. "He's using the Hirlaji as bogey-men. Says he's the only man on the planet who knows how to deal with them safely. Oh, you should hear him when he moves among his people.... I envy his ability to control them with words. A little backslapping, a joke or two—most of them I was telling last year—and he talks to them man to man, very friendly." He shook his head again. "Manning is so friendly with this scum that his attitude is nothing short of patronizing."

Rynason smiled wearily at Malhomme; for all the man's wildness, he couldn't help liking him. It had been like this every time he had run into him, on a dozen of the Edge-worlds. Malhomme, dirty and cynical, moved among the dregs of the stars preaching religion and fighting the corporations, the opportunists, the phony rebels who wanted nothing for anyone but themselves. He had been known to break heads together with his huge fists, and he had no qualms about stealing or even killing when his anger was aroused. Yet there was a peculiar honesty about him.

"You always have to have a cause, don't you, Rene?"

The greying giant shrugged. "It makes life interesting, and it makes me feel good sometimes. But I don't overestimate myself: I'm scum, like the rest of them. The only difference is that I know it; I'm just one man, with no more rights than anyone else, except those I can take." He held up his large knuckled hands and turned them in front of his face. "I've got broken bones in both of them. I wonder if the Buddha or the Christ ever hit a man. The books on religion that are left in the repositories don't say."

"Would it make any difference if they hadn't?" Rynason asked.

"Hell, no! I'm just curious." Malhomme stood up, hefting his repentance sign in the crook of one big arm. His face again took on its arched look as he said, "My duty calls me elsewhere. But I leave you with a message from the scriptures, and it has been my guiding light. 'Resist not evil,' my children. Resist not evil."

"Who said that?" Rynason asked.

Malhomme shook his head. "Damned if I know," he muttered, and went away.

After a moment Rynason turned back to the girl; she was still watching Malhomme thread his way through the men on his way to the door.

"So now you've met my spiritual father," he said.

Her deep brown eyes flickered back to his. "I wish I could use a telepather on him. I'd like to know how he really thinks."

"He thinks exactly as he speaks," Rynason said. "At least, at the moment he says something, he believes in it."

She smiled. "I suppose that's the only possible explanation for him." She was silent for a moment, her face thoughtful. Then she said, "He didn't finish his drink."

* * * * *

"You're all hooked up," the girl said. "Nod or something when you're ready." She was bent over the telepather, double checking the connectives and the blinking meters. Rynason and Horng sat opposite each other, the huge dark mound of the alien looming silently over the Earthman.

He never seemed upset, Rynason thought, looking up at him. Except for that one time when they'd run into the stone wall of the block on Tebron, Horng had displayed a completely even temperament—unruffled, calm, almost disinterested. But of course if the aliens had been completely uninterested in the Earthmen's probings at their history they would never have cooperated so readily; the Hirlaji were not animals to be ordered about by the Earthmen. Probably the codification of their history would prove useful to the aliens too; they had never arranged the race memory into a very coherent order themselves.

Not that that was surprising, Rynason decided. The Hirlaji had no written language—their telepathic abilities had made that unnecessary—and organization of material into neatly outlined form was a characteristic as much of the Earth languages as of Terran mentality. Such organization was not a Hirlaji trait apparently, at least not now in the twilight of their civilization. The huge aliens lived dimly through these centuries, dreaming in their own way of the past ... and their way was not the Earthmen's.

So if they cooperated with the survey team on codifying and recording their history, who was the servant?

Well, with the direct linkage of minds the work should go faster. Rynason looked up at Mara and nodded, and she flicked the connection on the telepather.

Suddenly, like being overwhelmed by a breaking wave of seawater, Rynason felt Horng's mind envelope him. A torrent of thoughts, memories, pictures and concepts poured over him in a jumble; the sensory sensations of the alien came to him sharply, and memories that were strange, ideas that were incomprehensible, all in a sudden rush upon his mind. He fought down the fear that had leapt in him, gritted his teeth and waited for the wave to subside.

It did not subside; it settled. As the two minds, Earthman and Hirlaji, met in direct linkage they became almost one. Gradually Rynason could begin to see some pattern to the impressions of the alien. The picture of himself came first: he was small and angular, sitting several feet below Horng's—or his own—eyes; but more than that, he was not merely light, but pallid, not merely small, but fragile. The alien's view of reality, even through his direct sensations, was not merely visual or tactile but interpreted automatically in his own terms.

The odor of the hall in which they sat was different, the very temperature warmer. Rynason could see himself reeling on the stone bench where he sat, and Mara, strangely distorted, put out a hand to steady him. At the same time he was seeing through his own eyes, feeling her hand on his shoulder. But the alien sensations were stronger; their very strangeness commanded the attention of his mind.

He righted himself, physically and mentally, and began to probe tentatively in this new part of his mind. He could feel Horng too reaching slowly for contact; his presence was comfortable, mild, confused but unworried. As his thoughts blended with Horng's the present faded perceptibly; this confusion was merely a moment in centuries, and soon too it would pass. Rynason could feel himself relaxing.

Now he could reach out and touch the strange areas of this mind: the concepts and attitudes of an alien race and culture and experience. Everything became dim and dream-like: the Earthmen possibly didn't exist, the dry wastes of Hirlaj had always been here or perhaps once they had been green but through four generations the Large Hall had stood thus and the animals changed by the day too fast to distinguish them even under Kor if he should be reached ... why? there was no reason. There was no purpose, no goal, no necessity, no wishing, questing, hoping ... no curiosity. All would pass. All was passing even now; perhaps already it was gone.

Rynason shifted where he sat, reaching for the feeling of the stone bench beneath him for equilibrium, pulling out of Horng's thoughts and going back in almost immediately.

A chaos of mind enveloped him, but he was beginning to familiarize himself with it now. He probed slowly for the memories, down through Horng's own personal memories of three centuries, dry feet on the dust and low winds, down to the racial pool. And he found it.

Even knowing the outlines of the race's history did not help Rynason to place and correlate those impressions which came to him one on top of another, overlapping, merging, blending. He saw buildings which towered over him, masses of his people moving quietly around him, and thoughts came to him from their minds. He was Norhib, artisan, working slowly day by ... he was Rashanah, approaching the Gate of the Wall and looking ... he was Lohreen discussing the site where ... he was digging the ground, pushing the heavy cart, lying on the pelt of animals, demolishing the building which would soon fall, instructing a child in balance.

A dirt-caked street stretched before him by night, the stones individually cut and smooth with the passage of heavy feet. "Tomorrow we will set out for the Region of Chalk while there is still time." A mind-voice from a Hirlaji hundreds, perhaps thousands of years old, dead but alive in the race-memory. Rynason could feel the whole personality there, in the memories, but he passed on.

"Murba has said that the priests will take him."

"There is no need for planting this year ... the soil is dry. There is no purpose."

"The child's mind is ready for war."

He felt Horng himself watching him, beside him or behind him ... nearby, anyway. The alien heard and saw with him, and stayed with him like a protector. Rynason felt his presence warmly: the calm of the alien continued to relax him. Old leather mother-hen, he thought, and Horng beside him seemed almost amused.

Suddenly he was Tebron.

Tebron Marl, prince in the Region of Mines, young and strong and ambitious. Rynason caught and held those impressions; he felt the muscles ripple strangely through his body as Tebron stretched, felt the cold wind of the flat cut through his loose garment. It was night, and he stood on the parapet of a heavy stone structure looking down across the immense stretch of the Flat, spotted here and there by lights. He controlled all this land, and would control more....

He was Tebron again, marching across the Flat at the head of an army. Metal weapons hung at the sides of his men, crudely fashioned bludgeons and jagged-edged swords, all quickly forged in the workshops of the Region of Mines. The babble of mind voices swelled around him, fear and anger and boredom, dull resentment, and other emotions Rynason could not identify. They were marching on the City of the Temple....

He slipped sideways in Tebron's mind, and suddenly he was in the middle of the battle. There was dust all around, kicked up by the scuffling feet of the huge warriors, and his breath came in gasps. Mind-voices shouted and screamed but he paid no attention; he swung his bludgeon over his head with a ferocity that made it whistle with a low sound in the wind. One of the defenders broke through the line around him, and he brought the bludgeon smashing down at him before he could thrust with his sword; the warrior fell to one side at the last moment and took the blow along one arm. He could feel the pain in his own mind, but he ignored it. Before the warrior could bring up his sword again Tebron crushed his head with the bludgeon, and the scream of pain in his own head disappeared. He heard the grunting and gasps of his own warriors and the clash of bodies and weapons around him....

The Hirlaji could not really be moving so quickly, Rynason thought; it must be that to Tebron it seemed so. They were quiet, slow-moving creatures. Or had they degenerated physically through the centuries? Still smelling the sweat of battle, he found Tebron's mind again.

There was still fighting in the city, but it was far away now; he heard it with the back of his mind as he mounted the steps of the Temple. Those were mop-up operations, clearing the streets of the last of the priest-king forces; he was not needed there. He had, to all intents, controlled the city since the night before, and had slept in the palace itself. Now it was time for the Temple.

He mounted the heavy, steep steps slowly, three guards at his back and three in front of him. The priests would be gone from the Temple, but there might be one or two last-ditch defenders remaining, and they would be armed with the Weapons of Kor ... hand-weapons which shot dark beams that could disintegrate anything in their path. They would be dangerous. Well, there would be no temple-guards in the inner court; his own men could remain outside to take care of them while he went in.

He stopped halfway up the steps and lifted his head to gaze up at the Temple walls rising above him. They were solid stone, built in the fashion of the Old Ones ... smooth-faced except for the carvings above the entrance itself. They too were in the traditional style, copied exactly from the older buildings which had been built thousands of years ago, before the Hirlaji had even developed telepathy. The symbols of Kor ... so now at last he saw them.

Tomorrow he would effect a mass-linkage of minds and broadcast his orders for reconstruction. That would mean staying up all night preparing the communication, for it was impossible to maintain complete planet-wide linkage for too long and Tebron had many plans. Perhaps it would be possible to find a way to extend the duration of mass-linkages if the science quest could be pushed forward fast enough.

But that was tomorrow's problem—today, right now, it was right that he enter the Temple. It was not only symbolic of his assumption of power, but necessary religiously: every new ruler leader within the memory of the race had received sanction from Kor first.

A momentary echo-whisper of another mind touched his, and he whirled to his right to see one of the temple-guards in the shadows; he had been unable to successfully shield his thoughts. Tebron dropped to the ground and sent a quick, cool order to his own guards: "Kill him." The heavy, dark warriors stepped forward as the guard tried to shrink back further into the shadows. He was trapped.

But not unarmed. As he dropped to the steps and rolled quickly to one side Tebron heard the low vibration of a disintegrator beam pass over his shoulder and the crack of the wall behind him as it struck. And then the guards were on the warrior in the shadows.

They had brought down several of the temple-guards the night before, and commandeered their weapons. In a matter of moments this one fell too, his head and most of his trunk gone. One of the warriors shoved the half-carcass down the stairs, and bent forward at the knees to pick up his fallen weapon.

So now they had all fourteen of them; if any more of the temple-guards remained they could be dealt with easily. Tebron rose from the steps and wished momentarily that those weapons could be duplicated; if his whole army could be equipped with them.... But after today that would probably be unnecessary; the entire planet was his now.

He walked up the last few steps and stepped into the shadows of the Temple of Kor....

The walls melted around him and Rynason felt his mind wrenched painfully. There was a screaming all through him, thin and high, blotting out the contact he had held with Tebron's mind. It was Horng's scream, beside him, overpowering. Terror washed over him; he tried to fight it but he couldn't. The shadows of the walls twisted and faded, Tebron's thoughts disappeared, and all that remained was the screaming and the fear, like a mouth open wide against his ear and hot breath shouting into him. He felt his stomach turn and nausea and vertigo threw him panting out of Tebron's mind.

Yet Horng was still beside him in the darkness, and as the echoes faded he felt him there ... alien, but calm. There had been fear in this huge alien mind, but it had disappeared almost immediately with the breaking of the connection with Tebron. All that remained in Horng's mind now was a dull quietness.

Rynason felt a rueful grin on his face, and he said, perhaps aloud and perhaps not, "You haven't forgotten what happened here, old leather. The memories are there, all right."

From Horng's mind came a slow rebuilding of the fear that he had just experienced, but it subsided. And as it did Rynason probed again into his mind, searching quickly for that contact he had just lost. He could almost feel Tebron's mind, began to see the darkness forming the wall-shadows, when again there was a blast of the terror and he felt his mind reeling back from those memories. The screaming filled his mind and body and this time he felt Horng himself blocking him, pushing him back.

But there was no need for that; the fear was not Horng's alone. Rynason felt it too, and he retreated before its onslaught with an overpowering need to preserve his own sanity.

When the darkness subsided Rynason became aware of himself still sitting on the stone bench, sweat drenching his body. Horng sat before him in the same position he had been in when they had started; it was as if nothing had happened at all. Rynason wearily raised one hand and motioned to Mara to break the linkage.

She switched off the telepather and gingerly removed the wires from his head, frowning worriedly at him. But she waited for him to speak.

He grinned at her after a moment and said, "It was a bit rough in there. We couldn't break through."

She was removing the wires from Horng, who sat unmoving, staring dully over Rynason's shoulder at the wall behind him. "You should have seen yourself when you were under," she said. "I wanted to break the connection before, but I wasn't sure...."

Rynason sat forward and flexed the muscles of his shoulders and back. They ached as though they had been tense for an hour, and his stomach was still knotted tight.

"There's a real block there," he said. "It's like a thousand screaming birds flapping in your face. When you get that far into his mind, you feel it too." He sat staring down at his feet, exhausted mentally and physically.

She sat on the bench and looked closely at him. "Anything else?"

"Yes—Horng. At the end, the second time I went in, I could feel him, not only fighting me, but ... hating me." He looked up at her. "Can you imagine actually feeling him, right next to you in your mind like you were one person, hating you?"

Across from them, the huge figure of the alien slowly stood up and looked at them for several long seconds, then turned and left the building.



FOUR

Manning's quarters were larger than most of the prefab structures in the new Earth town; the building was out near the end of one of the streets, a single-storied plastic-and-metal box on a quick-concrete slab base. Well, it was as well constructed as any of the buildings in the Edge planetfalls, Rynason reflected as he knocked on the door. And there was room for all of the survey team workers.

Manning himself let him in, grabbing his hand in a firm grip that nevertheless lacked the man's usual heavy joviality. "Come on in; the others are already here," Manning said, and walked ahead of him into the larger of the two rooms inside. His step was brisk as always, but there was a touch of real hurry in it which Rynason noticed immediately. Manning was worried about something.

"All right; we're all set," Manning said, leaning against a wall at the front of the room. Rynason found a seat on the arm of a chair next to Mara and Marc Stoworth, a slightly heavy, blond-haired man in his thirties who wore his hair cut short on the sides but long in back. He looked like every one of the young corporation executives Rynason had seen in the outworlds, and probably would have gone into that kind of position if he'd had the connections. He certainly seemed out of place even among the varied assortment of types who worked the archaeological and geological surveys ... but these surveys were conducted by the big corporations who were interested in developing the outworlds; probably Stoworth hoped eventually to move up into the lower management offices when the corporations moved in.

"Gentlemen, there's something very wrong about these dumb horses we've been dealing with," Manning said. "I'm going to throw out a few facts at you and see if you don't come to the same conclusions that Larsborg and I did."

Rynason leaned over to Mara and murmured, "What's his problem today?"

But she was frowning. "He's got a real one. Listen."

Manning had picked up a sheaf of typescript from the table next to him and was flipping through it, his lips pursed grimly. "This is the report I got yesterday from Larsborg here—architecture and various other artifacts. It's very interesting. Herb, throw that first photo onto the screen."

The lights went off and the screen in the wall beside Manning lit up with a reproduction of one of the Hirlaji structures out on the Flat. It stood in the shadow of an overhanging rock-cliff, protected from the planet's heavy winds on three sides. Larsborg had apparently set up lights for a clearer picture; the whole building stood out sharply against the shadows of the background.

"This look familiar to any of you?" Manning said quietly.

For a moment Rynason continued to stare uncomprehending at the picture. He had seen a lot of the Hirlaji buildings since they'd landed; this one was better preserved but not essentially different in design. Larsborg had cleared away most of the dirt and sand which had been packed up against its sides, exposing the full height of the structure, and he'd apparently sand-blasted the carved designs over the entrance, but....

Then he realized what he was seeing. The angle of the photo was a bit different than that from which he'd seen the other structure back on Tentar XI, but the similarity was unmistakable. This was a reproduction in stone of that same building, the one they'd reconstructed two years before.

He heard a wave of voices growing around the room, and Manning's voice cut-through it with: "That's right, gentlemen: it's an Outsiders building. It's not in that crazy, damned metal or alloy or whatever it was that they used, but it's the same design. Take a good long look at it before we go on to the next photo."

Rynason looked ... closely. Yes, it was the same design a bit cruder, and the carvings weren't the same, but the lines of the doorway and the cornice....

The next picture flashed onto the screen. It was a closeup of the designs over the entrance, shot in sharp relief so that they stood out starkly. The room was so quiet that Rynason could hear the hum behind the screen in the wall.

"That's Outsiders stuff too," said Breune. "It's not quite the same, though ... distorted."

"It's carved in stone, not stamped in metal," Manning said. "It's the same thing, all right. Anybody disagree?"

No one did.

"All right, then; let's have the lights back up again."

The lights came on and once more there was a murmur of talking around the room. Rynason shifted his position on the seat and tried to catch the thought that had slipped through his mind just before the screen had faded. There was another similarity.... Well, he'd seen a lot of the Outsider buildings in the past few years; it wasn't necessary to trace all the evidences right now.

"What I want to know is, why didn't any of the rest of you see this?" said Manning angrily. "Have you all got plastic for brains? Over a dozen men spend weeks researching these damn horsefaces, and only one of you has the sense to see the evidence of his own eyes!"

"Maybe we should turn in our spades," said Stoworth.

Manning glared at him. "Maybe you should, if you think this isn't serious. Let's get this clear: these old horsefaces that so many of you think are just as quaint as can be have been building in exactly the same style as the Outsiders. Quaint, are they? Harmless too, I suppose!"

He stood with his hands on his hips, dropped his head and took a long, deep breath. When he looked up again his forehead was furrowed into an intense frown. "Gentlemen ... as I call you from force of habit ... we've been finding dead cities of the Outsiders for centuries. They were all over God knows how many galaxies before your ancestors or mine had stopped playing with their tails; as far as we can tell they had a civilization as tightly-knit as our own, and probably stronger. And sometime about forty thousand years ago they started pulling out. They left absolutely nothing behind but empty buildings and a few crumbling bits of machinery. And we've been following those remains ever since we got out of our own star-system.

"Well, we just may have found them at last. Right here, on Hirlaj. Now what do you think of that?"

No one said anything for a minute. Rynason looked down at Mara, caught her smile, and stood up.

"I don't think the Hirlaji are the Outsiders," he said calmly.

Manning shot a sharp glance at him. "You saw the photos."

"Yes, I saw them. That's Outsiders work, all right, or something a lot like it. But it doesn't necessarily prove that these ... how many of them are there? Twenty-five? I don't think these creatures are the Outsiders. We've traced their history back practically to the point of complete barbarism. Their culture was never once high enough to get them off this planet, let alone to let them spread all over among the stars."

Manning waited for him to finish, then he turned back to the rest of the men in the room and spread his hands. "Now that, gentlemen, just shows how much we've found out so far." He looked over at Rynason again. "Has it occurred to you, Lee, that if these horses are the Outsiders, that maybe they know a little more than we do? I suppose you're going to say you had a telepathic hookup with one of them and you didn't see a thing to make you suspicious ... but just remember that they've been using telepathy for several thousand years and that you hardly know what you're doing when you try it.

"Look, I don't trust them—if they're the Outsiders they've got maybe a hundred thousand years head-start on us scientifically. There may be only a couple dozen of them, but we don't know how strong they are."

"That's if they're really the Outsiders," said Rynason.

Manning nodded his head impatiently. "Yes, that's what I'm saying. If they're the Outsiders, which looks like a sensible conclusion. Or do you have a better one?"

"Well, I don't know if it's better," said Rynason. "It may not even be as attractive, for that matter. But have you considered that maybe when the Outsiders pulled out of our area they simply moved on elsewhere? We're so used to seeing dead cities that we think automatically that the Outsiders must be dead too, which I suppose is what's bothering you about finding the Hirlaji here alive. But it might be worse. That whole empire could simply have moved on to this area; we could be on the edge of it right now, ready to run head-on into a hundred star systems just crowded with the Outsiders."

Manning stared at him, and the expression on his face was not quite anger. Something like it, but not anger.

"The ruins we've found here were built by the Hirlaji," Rynason said. "I saw them building when I was linked with Horng, and these are the same structures. But the design was copied from older buildings, and I don't know how far back I'd have to search the memories before I found where they originally got that kind of approach to design. Maybe back before they developed telepathy. But this race simply isn't as old as the Outsiders; they came out of barbarism thousands of years after the Outsiders had left those dead cities we've been finding. The chances are that if the Hirlaji were influenced by the Outsiders it was sometime around thirty thousand years ago ... which means the Outsiders came this way when they left those cities. That would mean that we're following them ... and we might catch up at any time."

He stopped for a moment, then said, "We're moving faster than they were, and we have no idea where they may have settled again. One more starfall further beyond the Edge, and we may run into one of their present outposts. But this isn't it. Not yet."

Manning was still staring at Rynason, but it was a curious stare. "You're pretty sure that what you've been getting out of that horseface's head is real?" he asked levelly. "You trust them?"

Rynason nodded. "Horng was really afraid; that was real. I felt it myself. And the rest of it was real, too—I could see the whole racial memory there, and nobody could have been making that up. If you'd experienced that..."

"Well, I didn't," Manning said shortly. "And I don't think I trust them." He paused, and after a moment frowned. "But this direct linkage business does seem to be the best way we have of checking on them. I want you to get busy, Lee, and go after that horse's thoughts for us. Don't let him drive you out again; if he's hiding something, get in there and see what it is. Above all, don't trust him.

"If these things are the Outsiders, they could be bluffing us."

Manning stopped talking, and thought a minute. He looked up under raised eyebrows at Rynason. "And be careful, Lee. I'm counting on you."

Rynason ignored his paternal gaze, and turned instead to Mara. "We'll try it again tomorrow," he said. "Get in a requisition for a telepather this afternoon; make sure we'll have one ready to go first thing in the morning. I'll check back with you about an hour after we leave here today."

She looked up at him, surprised. "Check back? Why?"

"I put in a requisition myself, yesterday. Wine from Cluster II, vintage '86. I was hoping for some company."

She smiled. "All right."

Manning was ending the session. "...Carl, be sure to get those studies of the Outsiders artifacts together for me by tonight. And I'm going to hand back your reports to each of the rest of you; go through them and watch for those inconsistencies you skipped over the first time. We may be able to turn up something else that doesn't check out. Go over them carefully—all the reports were sloppy jobs. You're all trying to work too fast."

Rynason rose with the rest of them, grinning as he remembered how Manning had rushed those reports. Well, that was one of the privileges of authority: delegating fault. He started for the door.

"Lee! Hold it a minute; I want to talk to you, alone."

Rynason sat, and when all the others had gone Manning came back and sat down opposite him. He slowly took out a cigaret and lit it.

"My last pack till the next spacer makes touchdown," he said. "Sorry I can't offer you one, but I'm a fiend for the things. I know they're supposed to be non-habit-forming these days, but I'm a man of many vices."

Rynason shrugged, waiting for him to come to the point.

"I guess it makes me a bit more open-minded about what the members of my staff do," Manning went on. "You know—why should I crack down on drinking or smoking, for instance, when I do it myself?"

"I'm glad you see it that way," Rynason said drily. "Why did you want me to stay?"

Manning exhaled a long plume of smoke slowly, watching it through narrowed eyes. "Well, even though I'm pretty easy going about things, I do try to keep an eye on you. When you come right down to it, I'm responsible for every man who's with me out here." He stopped, and laughed shortly. "Not that I'm as altruistic as that sounds, of course—you know me, Lee. But when you're in a position of authority you have to face the responsibilities. You understand me?"

"You have to protect your own reputation back at Cluster headquarters," Rynason said.

"Well, yes. Of course, you get into a pattern of thinking eventually ... sort of a fatherly feeling, I suppose, though I've never even been on the parentage rolls back on the in-worlds. But I mean it—it happens, I get that feeling. And I'm getting a bit worried about you, Lee."

Rynason could see what was coming now. He sat further back into the chair and said, "Why?"

Manning frowned with concern. "I've been noticing you with Mara lately. You seem pretty interested in her."

"Is she one of those vices you were telling me about, Manning?" said Rynason quietly. "You want to warn me to stay away from her?"

Manning shook his head, a quick gesture dismissing the idea. "No, Lee, not at all. She's not that kind of a woman. And that's my point. I can see how you look at her, and you're on the wrong track. When you're out here on the Edge, you don't want a wife."

"What I need is some good healthy vice, is that what you mean?"

Manning sat forward. "That puts it pretty clearly. Yeah, that's about it. Lee, you're building up some strong tensions on this job, and don't think I'm not aware of it. Telepathing with that horseface is getting rough, judging from what you've told me. I think you should go get good and drunk and kick up hell tonight. And take one of the town women; they're always available. Do you good, I mean it."

Rynason stood up. "Maybe tomorrow night," he said. "Tonight I'm busy. With Mara." He turned and walked toward the door.

"I'd suggest you get busy with someone else," Manning said quietly behind him. "I'm really telling you this for your own good, believe it or not."

Rynason turned at the door and regarded the man coldly. "She's not interested in you, Manning," he said. He went out and shut the door calmly behind him.

Manning could be irritating with his conceited posing, but his veiled threats didn't bother Rynason. In any case, he had something else on his mind just now. He had finally remembered what it had been about the carvings over the Hirlaji building in the photo that had touched a memory within him: there was a strong similarity to the carvings that he had seen, through Tebron's eyes, outside the Temple of Kor. The symbols of Kor, Tebron had called them ... copied from the works of the Old Ones.

The Outsiders?



FIVE

They had some trouble getting cooperation from Horng on any further mind-probing. The Hirlaji lived among some of the ruins out on the Flat, where the winds threw dust and sand against the weathered stone walls, leaving them worn smooth and rounded. The aliens kept these buildings in some state of repair, and there was a communal garden of the planet's dark, fungoid plant life. As Rynason and Mara strode between the massive buildings they passed several of the huge creatures; one or two of them turned and regarded the couple with dull eyes, and went on slowly through the grey shadows.

They found Horng sitting motionlessly at the edge of the cluster of buildings, gazing out over the Flat toward the low hills which stood black against the deep blue of the horizon sky. Rynason lowered the telepather from his shoulder and approached him.

The alien made no motion of protest when Rynason hooked up the interpreter, but when the Earthman raised the mike to speak, Horng's dry voice spoke in the silence of the thin air and the machine's stylus traced out, THERE IS NO PURPOSE.

Rynason paused a moment, then said, "We're almost finished with our reports. We should finish today."

THERE IS NO PURPOSE MEANING QUEST.

"No purpose to the report?" Rynason said after a moment. "It's important to us, and we're almost finished. There would be even less purpose in stopping now, when so much has been done."

Horng's large, leathery head turned toward him and Rynason felt the ancient creature's heavy gaze on him like a shadow.

WE ARE ACCUSTOMED TO THAT.

"We don't think alike," Rynason said to him. "To me there is a purpose. Will you help me once more?"

There was no answer from the alien, only a slow nodding of his head to one side, which Rynason took for assent. He motioned Mara to set up the telepather.

After their last experience Rynason could understand the creature's reluctance to continue. Perhaps even his statement that there was no purpose to the Earthmen's researches made sense—for could the codification of the history of a dying race mean much to its last members? Probably they didn't care; they walked slowly through the ruins of their world and felt all around them fading, and the jumbled past in their minds must be only one more thing that was to disappear.

And Rynason had not forgotten the terrified waves of hatred which had blasted at him in Horng's mind—nor had Horng, he was sure.

Mara connected the leads of the telepather while the alien sat motionlessly, his dark eyes only occasionally watching either of them. When she was finished Rynason nodded for her to activate the linkage.

Then there was the rush of Horng's mind upon his, the dim thought-streams growing closer, the greyed images becoming sharper and washing over him, and in a moment he felt his own thoughts merge with them, felt the totality of his own consciousness blend with that of Horng. They were together; they were almost one mind.

And in Horng he heard the whisper of distrust, of fear, and the echoes of that hatred which had struck at him once before. But they were in the background; all around him here on the surface was a pervading feeling of ... uselessness, resignation, almost of unreality. The calm which he had noted before in Horng had been shaken and turned, and in its place was this fog of hopelessness.

Tentatively, Rynason reached for the racial memories in that grey mind, feeling Horng's own consciousness heavy beside him. He found them, layers of thoughts of unknown aliens still alive here, the pictures and sounds of thousands of years past. He probed among them, looking again for the memories of Tebron ... and found what he was searching for.

He was Tebron, marching across that vast Flat which he had seen before, the winds alive around him among the shuffling feet of his army. He felt the muscles of his massive legs tight with weariness, and tasted the dryness of the air as he drew in long gasps. He was still hours from the City, but they would rest before dawn....

Rynason turned among those memories, moving forward in them, and was aware of Horng watching him. There was still the wariness in his mind, and a stir of anxiety, but it was blanketed by the tired hopelessness he had seen. He reached further in the memories, and....

The temple-guard fell in the shadows, and one of his own warriors stepped forward to retrieve his weapon. The remains of the guard's body rolled down three, four, five of the steps of the Temple, and stopped. His eyes lingered on that body for only a moment, and then he turned and went up to the entrance.

There was a moaning of pain, or of fright, rising somewhere in his head; he was only partly aware of it. He walked into the shadows of the doorway and paused. But only for a moment: there was no movement inside, and he stepped forward, down one step into the interior.

Screams echoed through the halls and corridors of the Temple—high and piercing, growing in volume as they echoed, buffeting him almost into unconsciousness. He knew they were from Horng, but he fought them, watching his own steps across the dark inner room. He was Tebron Marl, king priest ruler of all Hirlaj, in the Temple of Kor, and he could feel the stone solid beneath his feet. Sweat broke out on his back—his own, or Tebron's? But he was Tebron, and he fought the blast of fear in his mind as though it were a battle for his very identity. He was Tebron.

The screaming faded, and he stood in silence before the Altar of Kor.

So this is the source, he thought. For how many days had he fought toward this? It was useless to remember; the muscles of his body were remembrance enough, and the scar-tissue that hindered the movement of one shoulder. If he remembered those battles he would again hear the fading echoes of enemy minds dying within his, and he had had enough of that. This was the goal, and it was his; perhaps there need be no more such killing.

He opened his mouth and spoke the words which he had learned so many years before, during his apprenticeship in the Region of Mines. The rituals of the Temple were always conducted in the ancient spoken language; Kor demanded it, and only the priest-caste knew these words, for they were so old that their form had changed almost completely even by the time his people had developed telepathy and discarded speech; they were not communicated to the rest of the people.

"I am Tebron Marl, king priest leader of all Hirlaj. I await your orders guidance."

He knelt, according to ritual, and gazed up at the altar. The Eye of Kor blinked there, a small circle of light in the dark room. The altar was simple but massive; its heavy columns, built upon the traditional lines, supported the weight of the Eye. He watched its slow waxing and waning, and waited; within him, Rynason's mind stirred.

And Kor spoke.

Remain motionless. Do not go forward.

He felt a child as a wave of sensitivity spread through all of his skin and his organs sped for a moment. Then it was true: in the Temple of Kor, the god leader really did speak.

"I await further words."

The Eye held his gaze almost hypnotically in the dimness. The voice sounded in the huge arched room. The sciences quests of your race lead you to extinction. The knowledge words offered to me by your priests make it clear that within a hundred years your race will leave its planet. You must not go forward, for that way lies the extermination of all your race.

His mind swam; this was not what he had expected. The god leader Kor had always aided his people in their sciences; in the knowledge word offerings they reported to the Eye the results of their studies, and often, if asked properly, the god leader would clarify uncertainties which they faced. But now he ordered an ending to research quests. This was unthinkable! Knowledge was godhood; godhood was knowledge, of the essence; the essence was knowing understanding. To him, to his people, it was a unity—and now that unity repudiated itself. Faintly in the darkness somewhere he again heard screaming.

"Are we to abandon all progress? Are the stars so dangerous?"

The concept wish of progress must die within your people. There must be no purpose in any field of knowledge. You must remain motionless, consolidate what you have, and live in peace. The Eye in the dimness seemed larger and brighter the longer he looked at it; all else in the echoing room was darkness. The stars are not dangerous, but there is a race which rises with you, and it rises more rapidly. Should you expand into the stars you will only meet that race sooner, and they will be stronger. They are more warlike than your people; already you are capable of peace, and that must be your aim. Remain on your world; consolidate; cultivate the fruits of your civilization as it is, but do not go forward. In that way, you will have five thousand years before that race finds you, and if you are no threat to them they will not destroy you.

He felt a rising anger in him as the god leader's words came to him in the dark room, and a fear that lay deeper. He was a warrior, and a quester ... how could he give up all such pursuits, and how could he be expected to force all his people to do the same? There would be no hope wish of advance, no curiosity ... no purpose.

"Is this other race so much more advanced than we are?" he asked.

He heard a low humming from the altar and the Eye grew brighter again. They are not so much ahead of you now ... but they are more warlike, and will therefore develop more quickly. In both your races, war is a quest which you use as a release for what is in you. Your sciences questings and your wars are the same thing ... you must suppress both. They are discontentment, and you will find that only in peace, if at all.

He dipped his head to one side, a gesture of acquiescence or agreement. He couldn't argue with the god leader Kor, and he had been wrong even to think of it.

"How am I to suppress the race? Is it possible to convince each of them of the necessity for abandoning forgetting all questing?"

The Eye hummed, and grew brighter against the darkness of the carved wall behind it, but it was some time before Kor spoke again. It would be impossible to convince every one. The reasons must be kept from them, and kept from the shared memories; you must not communicate my knowledge words in any way. Consolidate your power, force peace upon them and lead them into acceptance. The knowledge questing can be made to die within them. Remember that there will be no purpose ... in that they must find contentment.

The king priest leader of all Hirlaj waited a moment, and was ready to rise and leave when the Eye spoke again.

You must abolish the priesthood. The knowledge which I have given to you must die when you die.

He waited for a long time in the dim, suddenly cold hall for the god leader to speak again, then slowly rose and walked to the door, the image of the Eye of Kor still bright in his vision. He stopped outside the doorway, hearing the soft wind of the city flowing slowly past the stone archway above him. One of his guards reached out and touched his mind tentatively, but he blocked his thoughts and strode heavily down the steps past them.

The sound of the wind above him rose to a screaming, and suddenly it was as though he were tumbling down the entire length of the stairway, fragments of sky and stone and faces flashing past in a kaleidoscope, and the screaming all around him. He almost reached for his bludgeon, but then he realized that he was not Tebron Marl ... he was Lee Rynason, and the screaming was Horng and he was being driven out of those thoughts, tumbling through a thousand memories so fast he could not grasp any one of them.

He withdrew from Horng's mind as though from a nightmare; he became aware of his own body, lying in the dust of Hirlaj, and he opened his eyes and motioned weakly to Mara to break the connection.

When she had done so he slowly sat up and shook his head, waiting for it to clear. For awhile he had been an ancient king of Hirlaj, and it took some time to return to the present, to his own consciousness. He was dimly aware of Mara kneeling beside him, but he couldn't make out her words at first.

"Are you all right? Are you sure? Look up at me, Lee, please."

He found himself nodding to reassure her, and then he saw the expression on her face and felt the last wisps of alien fog clearing from his mind. There were tears in her eyes, and he touched the side of her face with his hand and said, "I'm all right. But why don't you kiss me or something?"

She did, but before Rynason could really immerse himself in it she broke away and said, "You must have had a bad time with him! It was as though you were dead."

He grinned a trifle sheepishly and said, "Well, it was engrossing. You'd better unhook the beast; he had a bad time of it too."

Mara rose and removed the wires from Horng gingerly. Rynason remained sitting; some of the meaning of what he had just experienced was coming to him now. It certainly explained why the Hirlaji had suddenly passed from their war era into lasting peace, and why the memories had been blocked. But could he credit those memories of a voice of an alien god?

And sitting in the dust at the edge of the vast Hirlaj plain the full realization came to him, as it could not when he had been Tebron. Not only the Temple, but the Altar of Kor itself had been unmistakably the workmanship of the Outsiders.



SIX

They left Horng sitting dully at the edge of the Flat and retraced their steps through the Hirlaji ruins, still drawing no notice from the aliens. Rynason had been in some of the small planetfall towns where settlements had been established only to be abandoned by the main flow of interstellar traffic ... those backwater areas where contact with the parent civilization was so slight that an entirely local culture had developed, almost as different from that of the mainstream Terran colonies as was this last vestige of the Hirlaji civilization. And in some of those areas interest in Earth was so slight that the offworlders were ignored, as the Earthmen were here ... but he had never felt the total lack of attention that was here. It was not as though the Hirlaji had seen the Earthmen and grown used to them; Rynason had the feeling that to the Hirlaji the Earthmen were no more important than the winds or the dust beneath their feet.

As they passed through the settled portion of the ruins Rynason had to step around a Hirlaji who crossed his path. He walked silently past, his eyes not even flickering toward the Earthlings. Crazy grey hidepiles, Rynason thought, and he and Mara hurried out across the Flat toward the nearby Earth town.

On the outskirts of the town, where the packed-dirt streets faded into loose dust and garbage was already piled several feet high, they were met by Rene Malhomme. He sat long-legged with his back leaning against a weathered stone outcropping. He seemed old already, though he was not yet fifty; his windblown hair was almost the color of the surrounding grey dust and rock—perhaps because it was filled with that dust, Rynason thought. He stopped and looked down at the worn, tired man whose eyes belied that weariness.

"And have you communicated with God, Lee Rynason?" Malhomme asked with his rumbling, sardonic voice.

Rynason met his gaze, wondering what he wanted. He lowered the telepather pack from his shoulder and set it in the dust. Mara sat on a low rock beside him.

"Will an alien god do?" Rynason said.

Malhomme's eyes rested on the telepather for a moment. "You spoke with Kor?" he asked.

Rynason nodded slowly. "I made a linkage with one of the Hirlaji, and tapped the race-memory. I suppose you could say I spoke with Kor."

"You have touched the alien godhead," Malhomme mused. "Then it's real? Their god is real?"

"No," said Rynason. "Kor is a machine."

Malhomme's head jerked up. "A machine? Deus ex machina, to quote an ancient curse. We make our own machines, and make gods of them." The tired lines of his face relaxed. "Well, that's a bit better. The gods remain a myth, and it's better that way."

Rynason stood over him on the windy Flat, still puzzled by his manner. He glanced at Mara, but she too was watching Malhomme, waiting for him to speak again.

Suddenly, Malhomme laughed, a dry laugh which almost rasped in his throat. "Lee Rynason, I have called men to God for so long that I almost began to believe it myself. And when the men started talking about the god of these aliens...." He shook his head, the spent laughter still drawing his mouth back into a grin. "Well, I'm glad it isn't true. Religion wouldn't be worth a damn if it were true."

"How did the men find out about Kor?" Rynason asked.

Malhomme spread his hands. "Manning has been talking, as usual. He ridicules the Hirlaji, and their god. And at the same time he says they are a menace."

"Why? Is he still trying to work the townsmen up against them?"

"Of course. Manning wants all the power he can get. If it means sacrificing the Hirlaji, he'll do it." Malhomme stood up, stretching himself. "He says they may be the Outsiders, and he's stirring up all the fear he can. He'll grab any excuse, no matter how impossible."

"It's not so impossible," Rynason said. "Kor is an Outsiders machine."

Malhomme stared at him. "You're sure of that?"

He nodded. "There's no doubt of it—I saw it from three feet away." He told Malhomme of his linkage with Horng, the contact with the memories, the mind, Tebron, and of the interview with the machine that was Kor. Malhomme listened with fascination, his shaggy head tilted to one side, occasionally throwing in a comment or a question.

As he finished, Rynason said, "That race that Kor warned them about sounds remarkably like us. A warlike race that would crush them if they left the planet. We haven't found any other intelligent life ... just the Hirlaji, and us."

"And the Outsiders," said Malhomme.

"No. This was a race which was still growing from barbarism, at about the same level as the Hirlaji themselves. Remember, the Outsiders had already spread through a thousand star-systems long before this. No, we're the race they were warned against."

"What about the weapons?" Malhomme said. "Disintegrators. We haven't got anything that powerful that a man can carry in his hand. And yet the Hirlaji had them thousands of years ago."

"Yes, but for some reason they couldn't duplicate them. It doesn't make sense: those weapons were apparently beyond the technological level of the Hirlaji, but they had them."

"Perhaps your aliens were the Outsiders," Malhomme said. "Perhaps we see around us the remnants of a great race fallen."

Rynason shook his head.

"But they must have had some contact with the Outsiders," Mara said. "Sometime even before Tebron's lifetime. The Outsiders could have left the disintegrators, and the machine that they thought was a god...."

"That's just speculation," Rynason said. "Tebron himself didn't really know where they'd come from; they'd been passed down through the priesthood for a long time, and within the priesthood they did have some secrets. I suppose if I could search the race-memory long enough I might find another nice big block there hiding that secret. But it's difficult."

"And you may not have time," Malhomme said. "When Manning hears that the Altar of Kor was an Outsiders machine, there'll be no way left to stop him from slaughtering the Hirlaji."

"I'm not sure there'll be any real trouble," Rynason said.

Malhomme's lips drew back into the deep lines of his face. "There is always trouble. Always. Whoever or whatever spoke through the machine knew that much about us. The only way you could stop it, Lee, would be to hold back this information from Manning. And to do that, you would have to be sure, yourself, that there is no danger from the Hirlaji. You're in the key position, right now."

Rynason frowned. He knew Malhomme was right—it would be difficult to stop Manning if what he'd said about the man's push for power was true. But could he be sure that the Hirlaji were as harmless as they seemed? He remembered the reassuring touch of Horng's mind upon his own, the calmness he found in it, and the resignation ... but he also remembered the fear, and the screaming, and the hot rush of anger that had touched him.

In the silence on the edge of the Flat, Mara spoke. "Lee, I think you should report it all to Manning."

"Why?"

Her face was clouded. "I'm not sure. But ... when I disconnected the wires of the telepather, Horng looked at me.... Have you ever looked into his eyes, up close? It's frightening: it makes you remember how old they are, and how strong. Lee, that creature has muscles in his face as strong as most men's arms!"

"He just looked at you?" said Rynason. "Nothing else?"

"That's all. But those eyes ... they were so deep, and so full. You don't usually notice them, because they're set so deeply in the shadows of his face, but his eyes are large." She stopped, and shook her head in confusion. "I can't really explain it. When I moved around him to the other side, I could see his eyes following me. He didn't move, otherwise—it was as though only his eyes were alive. But they frightened me. There was much more in them than just ... not seeing, or not caring. His eyes were alive."

"That's not much evidence to make you think the Hirlaji are dangerous."

"Oh, I don't know if they could be dangerous. But they're not just ... passive. They're not vegetables. Not with those eyes."

"All right," Rynason said. "I'll give Manning a full report, and we'll put it in his hands."

He picked up the telepather pack and slung it over his shoulder. Mara stood up, shaking away the dust which had blown against her feet.

"What will you do," Malhomme asked, "if Manning decides that's enough cause to kill the Hirlaji?"

"I'll stop him," Rynason said. "He's not in control here, yet."

Malhomme flashed his sardonic smile again. "Perhaps not ... but if you need help, call to God. The books say nothing about alien races, but surely these must be God's creatures too. And I'm always ready to break a few heads, if it will help." He turned and spat into the dust. "Or even just for the hell of it," he said.

* * * * *

Rynason found Manning that same afternoon, going over reports in his quarters. As soon as he began his description of the orders given to Tebron he found that Malhomme's warnings had been correct.

"What did this machine say about us?" Manning asked sharply. "Why were the Hirlaji supposed to stay away from us?"

"Because we're a warlike race. The idea was that if the Hirlaji stayed out of space they'd have about five thousand years before we found them."

"How long ago was all this? I had your report here...."

"At least eight thousand years," Rynason said. "They overestimated us."

Manning stood up, scowling. There were heavy lines around his eyes and he hadn't trimmed his thin beard. Whatever he was working on, Rynason thought, he was putting a lot of effort into it.

"This doesn't make sense, Lee. Damn it, since when do machines make guesses? Wrong ones, at that?"

Rynason shrugged. "Well, you've got to remember that this was an alien machine; maybe that's the way they built them."

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