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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 momentscame 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?"
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.