by Patricia Bow
I was surveying the equatorial lands six thousand kilometres south of our base when the message came from Glenner.
"Can't it wait?" I asked. "There's still a couple of hours of daylight left, and I'm nowhere near finished."
"Screw that! Dubrovic, this is important. Get back here!"
The return flight took half an hour, galactic time. The northern sunlight had lifted to the tops of the trees by the time I reached home. You can apply the word "home" to a Compact Early Survey Unit when it's the only human habitation on the planet. I set the craft down in the meadow and climbed out, filmcase in hand.
As always, the base area was quiet. Few birds flew near, and sunset had hushed the eternal soughing of wind through the vast Mirvanian forest. The air had a damp-leaf fragrance. Despite having been yanked back with my assignment not quite completed, I was in a peaceful mood. Totally unprepared for what was waiting for me inside the hut.
Glenner stood with his broad back toward me. On the lab table in front of him stood a large cage, and inside the cage huddled a living creature.
I pride myself on my composure, but the sight of a caged animal is one of the few things that can turn me speechless with anger. I knew we would have to temporarily confine some specimens for observation sooner or later -- that was what the cages were for -- but I'd been hoping it would be later.
Now, Glenner grew up on Riga IV, where, I'm told, there are still many dangerous wild animals that have to be confined, sometimes even killed, when they stray into areas of human settlement. Or so the Rigans say. As a Terran, I was raised with a different notion of how we should treat our fellow creatures. There are not so many non-human sentients left on Earth that we can afford to harm any.
I jostled Glenner aside for a closer look at the captive. It somewhat resembled a Terran ape, though its legs were longer, its torso shorter, and its skull larger. The bewildered expression in the moist brown eyes ignited a red rage inside me. Still speechless, I spun around and threw myself at Glenner. He, being a third again my size, had me pinned to the floor in ten seconds.
"Jake!" he shouted. "Jake, listen to me! You're being used! Since when are you a scrapper?" It's true: I'm not one to pick a fight. I stopped struggling and listened. "That thing is amplifying your emotions." Glenner's big, red face was redder than ever with excitement. "It's an empath, Jake. An active empath!"
"That?" Still flat on my back, I looked up at the cage. The great eyes beseeched me. Sudden tears trickled from my own.
Glenner shook me by the shoulders. "Get hold of yourself!"
I had heard of active empaths, of what they can do to susceptible minds, but I hadn't thought I'd be among the susceptible. This was my first personal encounter with the phenomenon, and it took a minute or so for me to recall and apply the measures of mental discipline I'd acquired years ago, as a young recruit.
"All right," I said at last. "Let me up. I'm fine."
After a hesitation, he stood up and let me climb to my feet. I brushed dust from my uniform and looked again at the cage. "Any idea what sort of creature that is?"
"It's a Mirvanian."
"I know, but -- " I gave him a sharp look. "You can't mean..." He nodded. He kept switching his gaze, nervously, between me and the cage. Even then I thought it odd. Glenner was normally as nervous as a Centauran mud-ox.
Incredulously, I peered at the captive. The rags of grass about the thin, dark-haired body, which I'd taken to be wisps from the bedding of the cage, were now obviously a sort of woven fibre skirt. I looked at its -- his -- face again, and saw silvery markings gleaming on his temples, half hidden under a coarse thatch of hair. Tattoos, I thought.
"You damn fool." I was careful to keep my tone cool.
He shrugged. "Well, it's done. I found it -- all right, him -- peeking in one of the windows. I'd just come round from the greenhouse out back and there he was, our first sentient specimen. So I grabbed him."
I groaned. So typical of Glenner to act first and reflect later! Already he was sounding more cheerful. "Don't worry, I was gentle. I hustled him inside and popped him into a cage before I had a chance to notice that he wasn't exactly an animal. And then all hell broke loose." He tapped his head. "In here. Guilt, pity, self-hatred! It was so extreme I knew it had to be engineered."
A genuine empath. "But to keep him in the cage! You ass! Don't you know what you've done? Our very first encounter with the natives of this planet -- the members of a reportedly extinct race -- and you had to put him in a cage!"
"Well, it was a mistake!"
"It was at first. Let him out, Dan, and let's hope it's not too late. God knows what they'll have to say at headquarters."
"Calm down. Control yourself!"
"I am controlled!"
"No, you're not. Come away from there." As I signalled apology to the abused Mirvanian, Glenner grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into my sleep cubicle. He forced me to sit down on my bunk and listen to him: I had no choice. I noticed that my sense of outrage cooled somewhat when that steel door closed on us. My opinion of his behavior didn't change, though.
"Now, look," he said. "Don't you remember any of that stuff from the briefing? This planet, Jake, was once inhabited by a highly developed race that..."
"Of course I remember!" My memory was always better than his. I could have cited to him word for word, how this arm of the galaxy still teems with stories about the Mirvanians and their powers -- magical or psychobiological, depending on who tells the tale -- and how the rulers of other star systems went on pilgrimage to Mirva to hear the seers forecast the future. But all that was so long ago that only the stories were left. "There's never been any hard evidence," I said.
"Until now." His eyes were bright.
"Not even now."
"But he -- " Glenner pointed at the door.
"Dan, the original race is obviously gone. They declined, they withdrew from galactic contact. They abandoned their cities. Not two hours ago I filmed ruins that would make Metropolitan California look like a backwoods village. Presumably, they died out."
"But they didn't die out, dammit, because there one is!"
"In a cage, thanks to you."
He muttered again about a mistake. I let it pass.
"Anyway," I added, "he doesn't look like a member of a high culture to me. I mean -- grass skirt, tattoos?"
"Then he's a debased descendant. They've gone back to the trees. But, Jake, he's the real thing. He's a seer, I'm almost certain of it. And I'm going to hold onto him until I can prove it!"
I knew all about Glenner's passion for the psychic sciences, the sideline to his major work in biology. I tolerated the interest though I didn't share it, because on the whole I liked the man. Dan Glenner possessed the generous good nature of the physically self-confident. He had the faults too, yet I'd judged him more sensitive and humane than is the norm among colonials. I was swiftly changing my opinion.
"We must inform headquarters," I said. "This news will change all plans for development of the planet."
"Yes, yes, we'll tell them. In a while. All I need is a few days, maybe a week..." His mind was half elsewhere.
He gazed at me, heavily serious. "This is our chance to put all those legends on a scientific footing. A seer, Jake! Think of it!"
"One." I ticked off the objections on my fingers. "It has never been proven that anyone can see the future. Two. Even if the civilized Mirvanians had the ability, what makes you think this savage has it? Three. Experimenting on an unwilling subject possessing human intelligence or the equivalent is a first-level offense. You'll go to jail."
He looked stubborn. "Computers can forecast."
"But they don't foresee. They only project the best probabilities, based an a huge array of facts and observed trends. Anyway, the organic brain can't equal the electronic brain's resources."
"No? I have a theory. Suppose the ancient Mirvanians operated the way computers do now? As a network, I mean. They collected data, pooled it, organized it and projected it. To win their reputation for accuracy, they must have had some pretty damn special ability. Or else a system that nobody else has managed to develop even after all these centuries."
He was set on it. I could hardly get a word in, let alone make him see reason. I threw my hands in the air and stopped arguing. However, I resolved to free the native as soon as possible, and to inform headquarters of the situation the first chance I got.
Unfortunately, Glenner -- who was sometimes brighter than he looked -- anticipated me. The first thing he did on returning to the main room was to remove the power prong from the ommunicator and put it in the small-equipment chest. He locked the chest and pocketed the keycard.
"That wasn't necessary."
"Wasn't it?" He grinned at me in an infuriating way.
I turned my back on him and walked over to the cage, where the native still huddled in that abject posture. His big eyes flicked to my face, and he licked his lips as though they were dry. I cursed aloud and went to the water tank to fill a cup, which I carried to the cage.
Glenner was there ahead of me. He was staring at his captive. "Just a minute." Absently, he waved me away. I trembled with anger. It took enormous self-discipline to make me set the cup down quietly on the lab table. "I wonder what made them regress like that?" he murmured.
"We did not regress. We went forward." Sharp words died on my tongue as that voice entered my brain. It was the oddest experience of my life, and nearly the most unpleasant. I can only describe it, incompletely, as a wave of cold fire washing across my mind. Cold, bright electric shapes carried on a rushing sound, like leaves blown on the forest wind. The light, the shapes and the sound together conveyed meanings which my brain, I guess, translated into Terran words.
The person in the cage did not appear to have spoken, but his eyes were knowing. The corners of his mouth curled up in an uncannily human way. He no longer looked abject and miserable: far from it.
"So," Glenner said triumphantly. "You're a telepath as well."
A wave of positive meaning washed across my brain.
"What is your name?" I asked. The reply was an incomprehensible jumble of fire and wind.
Glenner stooped above the cage and put on a reassuring smile. "We mean you no harm. You'll soon be free to go. All we want is the answers to a few questions."
"Truly?" A zigzag of skepticism.
"For starters, what did you mean when you said your race had gone forward? Your cities are in ruins. What happened? Was there a war? A pandemic?"
"Nothing like that. We simply chose to leave the cities. We no longer needed them. Besides, they hindered us."
"You mean, their organization, their physical structure... "
"Was no longer compatible with ourselves as we were becoming."
"I see." Glenner looked totally lost, and I felt the same way.
"We returned to the forest, the place of beginning, there to make a new beginning. We had foreseen the -- "
"Then you are a seer!"
"We had foreseen," repeated the native, "the coming change in the universe, and were in the process of adapting to it."
"Change?" Glenner echoed, and straightened up. "You mean the Terran expansion?"
"Nothing so sudden. The change is not yet apparent."
Glenner whistled, and turned a glowing face on me. "You see!"
"All this talk proves nothing. Can he tell us what's going to happen five minutes from now?"
"The moon will rise," said the Mirvanian, and a cool silver light flooded my mind.
"That's not foresight, that's common knowledge." A laugh rippled the fabric of my thoughts. I was finding the sensation more and more unpleasant.
Glenner darted into his cubicle, but before I could do more than put a hand to the cage he was back again, recorder in hand. "I've dozens of questions to ask him!" He set himself in front of the cage, feet apart, like a barrister interrogating a witness in court. "Now. When will the population of Procyon V hit the one billion mark?"
"In 1.7 years. My time."
"That's..." Glenner squinted as he worked it out, then his eyebrows shot up. "Aha!"
"That's long been in planning," I objected. "It's already documented."
"Sure, but how would he know that?"
The Mirvanian smiled.
"Next question. Will I make senior rank next season?"
"Damn! Well, when will I make senior?"
"Because you will be dead."
Glenner's ruddy face went sickly pale. Then he forced a smile, muttered something about scientific objectivity, and squared his shoulders. "When will the human race cross to the next galaxy?"
"The human race will go back, not forward."
"Back? Technologically, you mean?"
"Back to their home planet."
"Impossible," I put in, glad of a chance to puncture this charade. "Colonials of Terran origin have multiplied many times past what Terra could hold. That certainly won't happen."
"It will happen. Like all the dispersed peoples, they will diminish and retreat. There will be a shrinking of numbers, a silencing of speech between the stars, a berthing of ships. An end to journeys. A closing of frightened ranks against the blackness of the interstellar night..."
I rubbed hands up and down my arms, unaccountably cold.
"When?" asked Glenner, weakly.
"It has begun."
He dragged a chair forward and slumped into it. His appearance startled me. Sweat rolled down his white face. "Stop this." I gripped his shoulder. "I'll bet you haven't eaten since morning."
He twitched my hand off and bent forward. "Are you talking about that change your ancestors foresaw?"
"The universe is on the wane. Energy ebbs. All matter, all life, will stagnate. Then decline, decay, die..."
Slow, dim, green shapes coiled in my brain. They roiled a moment as if struggling for existence, then sank towards a bottomless darkness. I shivered.
"The life of the body wanes. Only spirit survives. Only those prepared in spirit. Only we..."
Darkness. The stars smoulder feebly, red, cold. On the planets, no light. Only frost, fear, death. The dying devour the dead. And then an end.
An end to all things.
When I came to myself, the world was lost in darkness. It took a moment, during which panic crept very near, until I realized there was something wrong with the lights. That was all.
I groped across the room, found the wall, and nearly sobbed with relief when my fingers touched the square shape of the maintenance panel. A moment, and I found the distortion, the blown connection. I had to walk to the window and fill my eyes with the brightness of the half-moon and the stars -- very bright, in this unsullied atmosphere -- before I could trust my voice.
"We'll need a new tag from the chest. Dan, the key?" No answer.
I felt my way back to where I'd left him, still sitting in the chair. His bulk was barely visible even now that my eyes had adjusted to the dark. He didn't move when I shook him by the shoulder. He whispered something. Was it "my breath" or "my death"? The dark shape in the cage whispered back at him.
And then Glenner cried out and crashed to the floor. His loud breath struggled in and out. His pulse, when I found it, was ragged and slow.
If the lights had not been out, I might have saved him. But it took at least thirty seconds to turn him over, find the keycard and stumble across to the small-equipment chest. Another minute to unlock the chest, find by touch the replacement tag, and grope back to the wall. Another ten seconds to snap off the old tag and snap on the new. All in the dark. I stress this because, even if I could have found the drug kit and the respirator in time, I would not have dared administer a drug sight unseen.
But when I knelt at Glenner's side, injector in hand, I guessed it was already too late. Nevertheless I went ahead with the full treatment, as was proper. He did not respond.
"He's dead." I stood up, none too steadily. "You knew he was going to die."
"I did foretell it," the person in the cage said serenely.
"Then everything else you said... "
"The decline of mankind, the waning of the universe, the coming of the darkness..." whispered the seer.
Icy terror shook me. Then a laugh erupted in my mind, a great echoing guffaw. "You people are so simple! So easy to manage!"
"What -- what do you mean?"
"I like you, Terran." The laugh subsided to the mental equivalent of a chuckle, small warm nudges of mirth.
"I did not like that other one. He promised to let me go -- you heard him -- but he never meant to keep his end of the bargain. That much I could easily read. He was obsessive, credulous, stupid! His own stupidity was what killed him."
"But you foretold -- "
"When I said he would die, that was not a prediction. It was a promise." Aeons of conscious power lay behind that smug smile. "He thought he was proof against empathic projection, and so he was: until he began to believe in my powers of foresight."
I said nothing. I did not like the idea that was coming to me. He looked back at me calmly. "I only had to paint a picture and amplify his reaction. When I told him he was dying, he was ripe for it. Terror stopped his heart. And so he caused his own death."
"How did you sabotage the lights?"
"I did not. That was coincidence." His smile widened. "But a wise man seizes every chance."
"And how do you plan to kill me?" I asked quietly.
"Not at all! I said I liked you. You're an intelligent and compassionate being. When you saw me imprisoned, your anger was an honest emotion. I only had to amplify it a little. That is why I've taken the trouble to ease your mind. You needn't worry about the fate of the cosmos, not just yet!"
"Yes, I'd already guessed that. So, you don't have all the answers?"
"I'm no god," the Mirvanian said contemptuously.
"How did you know about the population of Procyon V?"
He shrugged, as it seems all humanoids do. "Because, when we abandoned our cities, we did not leave behind our... you might say, our computer."
Again I noticed the silvery tattoo half-hidden on his temples. And I recalled the ease with which he had killed Glenner: as easily as a gang of thugs beats up an unarmed man. Ironically, Glenner'd had the right idea, or an inkling of it, almost from the start.
"How many of you are there?"
He never even blinked. "Fourteen, in my local group. Some two million of us in all." Then his tone hardened. "Ask me no more questions. I have answered enough."
We studied each other over the plastic-shrouded body of my partner. It came clearly across to me that the seer had shown me uncommon kindness, and that it was now time for me to do my part by restoring his freedom.
I knew it was past time for me to report to headquarters. The Mirvanian's gaze was heavy on the back of my head as I retrieved the power prong, slid it into the com and sent out my signal. On establishing contact, I reported the discovery of intelligent life on the planet Mirva. Estimated population: two million. Estimated level of development: high post-technological. I also reported the death of Daniel Glenner. Probable cause: coronary thrombosis. I requested the presence of an official of sufficient rank to take into custody a native on the charge of murder.
Treachery, breathed a cold fire in my brain.
Seconds later I was informed that a medical officer, two justice officers and a planetary inspector, no less, were on their way and could be looked for within a few hours. End of exchange.
I toggled off and knelt beside Glenner's body, where from the curled fingers of his right hand I took the recorder. It was still running. I left it on and put it in my pocket. Only then did I stand up and look at the caged Mirvanian.
"You committed a crime."
"Crime? I was fighting for my freedom!"
"You would have had your freedom, if you had cooperated. If you had restrained yourself."
"Cooperated? With invading aliens? You have no right to be here! I should have killed you both!" The cold fire turned an ominous green.
In my most peaceable tone I said, "There's no invasion. Now that we know the planet is inhabited, we'll withdraw. But you'll go with us. You did, after all, kill another intelligent being."
He looked down at Glenner's body, and a slow sneer crawled from his mouth to his eyes. That stung so much, I forgot protocol. "Yes, you killed a man! Never mind that he was my teammate and a human like me. You murdered him in cold blood. And without due cause. You know," and I almost laughed, for the first time that evening. "For a member of a high culture, you were amazingly stupid. You misjudged the extent of your danger. You overreacted. And now you must submit to human justice."
I turned away from the sight of his face, but I couldn't shut out his voice. "I was wrong about you. You're a petty bureaucrat, a slave! I was a fool to feel pity for you. You -- you nothing!" His words in my mind were a series of explosions. "I lied when I said I was no seer. All I foretold -- it's all true. All true!"
The explosions ran together in a river of fire. Uselessly, I squeezed my eyes shut and covered my ears. Behind my eyelids, mountains split from foot to crag, disgorging liquid rock. On a ruined world, fire and ice warred together. Above that horrifying landscape hung a huge crimson disk in a black sky, an ugly, sullen thing. Somehow I knew it was Sol. And I was alive and alone on my dying world, my body flinching from blasts of steam and sleet, my lungs laboring to draw oxygen from the choking atmosphere. Laboring, gasping...
The last independent corner of my brain screamed at me to do something. I fell against the lab table, clutched at the cage, raised it above my head and hurled it. The cage struck the wall near a window and simultaneously my mind and eyes cleared. The latch broke open and the Mirvanian crawled out. He stood and stretched, apparently unhurt. I made no move toward him.
"And you," he said silently, "will also die." There was no heat in his words. They sounded like a statement of plain fact. He leaped up on the window ledge. Then he looked back at me. "You will die in exactly three hours, twenty minutes -- " I threw the first thing that came to hand: the metal cup I'd filled to quench his thirst. It missed him and hit the wall beside him. "And nine seconds." Then he sprang out into the night.
Naturally, I glanced at my watch. My death is scheduled for 26:58 hours, or just before midnight.
If the Mirvanian expects to kill me the way he killed Glenner, he'll be disappointed. I've already survived one such attack; I won't be done in by a second. In fact, it amuses me to picture the fourteen hairy little men sitting down together and earnestly sending dark, despairing thoughts in my direction.
Ordering myself, then, into a mood of confidence, I went about my duties. The cup and the cage are both damaged, but can be repaired. The same cannot be said of Daniel Glenner. I have left him as he is, under the respirator, until the arrival of the medical officer. I'm sorry I can't give him the sort of exuberant send-off the Rigans are notorious for. It's what he would have wished. I came close to hating him today, but now that I'm the only human left alive on the globe, I miss him. But that's not part of this report.
After consideration, my evaluation of Glenner's actions today is that he committed an offence, not through any impulse toward cruelty or lack of respect for the law, but through an excess of professional enthusiasm. In any case, he can't be punished now, can he?
I devoted an hour to checking the weather instruments and tending the greenhouse, then another hour filing the data collected in Glenner's last botanical survey, futile as that now seems. Since then I have been recording this report. This is Jacob Dubrovic. End of recording.
No, it's not the end, not yet. A few minutes ago I was called to the com: a message from the ship, informing me of the expected landing time.
I'll admit it shook me. It's odd, very odd, how the Mirvanian managed to hit on the exact hour and minute of the ship's arrival, when he announced my coming death. He could not have plucked that knowledge from my mind, or any mind: even the ship's crew didn't have the precise figure at that time. Even if he could have reached so far, which I doubt.
In spite of my resolve to remain detached, I keep thinking about faulty drives, and crash landings, and such. They do happen. This hut is a flimsy thing...
I have considered taking up the survey craft and hovering at a discreet distance, but the craft is just due for its regular overhaul, and I can't be sure...
If I were really spooked, I'd run away into the forest until the ship had landed and the critical time was past. But there are poisonous plants and insects in the woods. And no doubt other dangers, things I couldn't easily see in the dark. So there's no point in running, is there?
In a moment I will place the recorder in the small-equipment chest, since that is the strongest container we have. His words keep running through my head. A berthing of ships... an end to journeys... and then the dark...
Of course I'm not spooked! But it is 26:52 hours. And all I can do is wait.