The Archives Of The Moon

Robert Gibson

"It is indeed unfortunate, Dr Royden," said Professor Sherman of the Interplanetary Survey, "that visitors are not at the moment to be allowed to travel to the advanced research base in the ruins on Farside. I can assure you that the prohibition has not been needless. The reports of plague were quite definite, unequivocably endorsed by Administrator Dawcott himself."

Royden, a hardy and determined adventurer with degrees in archaeology and selenography, turned away with a shrug. He did not believe the reports. No virulent organism - no life of any kind except for a few harmless and leathery cacti-like and lichenous forms - had yet been found anywhere on the moon; and the sprawling, enigmatic ruins on Farside, first discovered during the circumlunar expedition of 1976 and which had now been subjected to frequent and intensive study for sixteen years, had been pronounced entirely sterile.

Now he was being told that all transportation to the site had been interdicted because of plague! He suspected the existence of an alternative explanation. Here among the precincts and offices of Frontier Base on the moon's eastern limb, webs of politico-academic intrigue involving officials of the Interplanetary Survey were not unknown. Royden had previously heard rumours concerning the recent discovery of written texts in the ruins of the incommensurably ancient Selenite city on Farside; and if the rumours were true, if such texts had been found, and especially if they were on the point of decipherment, it was not inconceivable that certain men of rank, among whom Professor Sherman might well be included, had illegally decided by means of a period of concerted secrecy to obtain for themselves alone the entire credit for the elucidation of the lunar civilization.

To Royden this conspiratorial hypothesis seemed vastly more plausible than that of a sudden and unexplained pestilence. However he kept his suspicions to himself, and he took his leave of Sherman after voicing some perfunctory thanks for the interview and some expressions of regret for the danger which now faced the teams working on Farside.

It had never been Royden's habit to harbour excessive veneration for the dictates of officialdom. As soon as he was free from immediate observation he packed his belongings, which included vacuum-suit, torch, maps, and" tonanite pistol, and strolled in the direction of the outer area in which the lunar jeeps of Frontier Ease were parked.

The habitable, residential sections of the Base were situated inside a crater-bowl of exceptional depth, in which a patch of breathable air still lingered, an exiguous remainder of the atmosphere which had enveloped the moon in its aeon-distant youth. For a while Royden strolled clad merely in ordinary terrene clothing, in order to arouse the minimum of speculation as to his exploratory intentions. The efficacy of this stratagem was, however, naturally circumscribed by the increasingly acclivitous path which brought him into higher regions of thinner air, until his breathing was racked by gasps and he was forced to don his vacuum suit. Fortunately for his plans, he was able to do so in solitude, for by this time he had reached the peripheral and relatively deserted regions of the crater.

From this altitude he turned to gaze briefly back down into the pool of air, which shone with a cerulean glimmer that stirred his blood with longing. The glow was a mere hint of sky, a pocket of trapped earthlight mingled with the artificial illumination of Frontier Base. But what must it have been like on the moon, he wondered, in the days of its ancient glory?

Unseen, Royden climbed up and out onto the highlands, at the place where the jeeps were parked. With the eerie leaping stride of which terrestrials are capable under lunar conditions he hurried towards the vehicles. To steal one of these was Royden's intention; and it appeared that he now had an opportunity to do so. The Base's personnel had not deemed it necessary to provide a permanent guard for the area; the assumption on their part being that any prospective thief would be sufficiently deterred by the realization that once the loss had been reported there would be no place of human habitation to which he could drive his prize without being apprehended.

Undeterred by these considerations, he sprang to the door of the nearest jeep. It was not locked, for on a sparsely- populated world of mutually cognizant personnel such precaution was deemed unnecessary, or even antisocial - since in the hostile lunarian environment a life might unforeseeably depend upon speedy ingress to an air-tight habitation.

With practised efficiency Royden activated the controls of the vehicle, so that it surged forward over the basaltic desolation which ran to meet the inhumanly close horizon, which, within the space of a few minutes, hid the glow of Frontier Base from view.

For a while he drove by earthlight, but the friendly gleam of his terrestrial home sank behind him as he sped confidently towards Farside, that face which the moon averts eternally from mundane scrutiny. After a short time the light from the human world disappeared abruptly, leaving Royden with a sensation of utter isolation.

The silent moonscape presented an aspect of tortured magnificence, formed by the eternal cosmic night whose chaotic forces aeons ago had whipped the prodigious mountain ranges into ethereal peaks, had gouged tenebrous intervening chasms, had floored vast basins with lava and had strewn them with detritus.

There were no cairns or markers denoting the passage of previous explorers. Royden had chosen an unused route to the ruins - an easy choice to make, since most routes were unused. The chances of successful pursuit were dim, and he harboured no anxiety on that score; nor did he care what the attempted reprisals might be, for his theft of the vehicle; for he was more than willing to gamble on the security which fame would bring him after he had succeeded in uncovering the conspiracy on Farside.

He also admitted the necessity of constant vigilance to ward off non-human perils, for many were the dooms which might befall the venturer into the trackless alienation of the lunarian wilderness. Many were the vehicles known to lie wrecked in the depths of precipitate pits of shadow, or foundered in seas of dust into which careless drivers had been pulled by slow implacable suction.

Thus with never-flagging care and at moderate speed he drove for two days of earthly time, in the midst of the lengthy lunar night, lit by the stars and planets and by the diffuse illumination of the Zodiacal light and the Milky Way, and by the headlamps of the jeep.

After he had taken off his vacuum-suit there was space enough inside the vehicle for a journey of reasonable comfort, and there were plenty of provisions to be found in one of the storage- compartments. The control-cabin was furnished with adequate charts, which were accurate though not minutely detailed, and Royden assured himself that there was no danger that he would lose his way. From where he sat in front of the instrument- board he could see out of the windows fore, aft, and to the sides, and despite the fact that nowhere could he discern any familiar outline in the sable terrain through which he journeyed, yet this was to be expected, for his selenographical knowledge, though extensive, was founded upon systematic perusal of photographic plates taken from orbiting spacecraft rather than upon ground- based observation. This did not matter, for he steered by the stars, and he knew that he was travelling in the right direction; furthermore, he knew that even if he did get lost he could simply wait for day, whereupon it would become an easier matter to use the charts.

With lumbering determination the jeep's caterpillar treads continued to haul the vehicle onwards, lurching over scoriae irregularities in the scarred and pitted surface of a land of volcanoes which had been extinct for aeons of time. The view on all sides looked utterly forbidding. Jagged peaks, part-ruined, brooded in malevolent formlessness. Black cave- mouths yawned grinningly as if proclaiming with a soundless yell the final magnificent triumph of pure sterility. Royden felt increasingly as though he were an incongruous intruder, a squirming absurdity that was being mocked by inanimate stone. Observing the trend his thoughts were taking, he felt a premonitory twinge of alarm. He reminded himself of his extensive selenographical knowledge and the scientific and adventurous ardour which had prompted him to pit his wits and his skill against the perils of the way and the human obstacles which he might meet at its end. In view of all this, was it not absurd to think that he might fall victim to the psychological alienation with which lesser souls, weaker minds, had been afflicted in the remoter lunar wilds?

But on further reflection he could not help but remind himself that some good scientists, more eminent that he, had succumbed to a certain creeping suggestiveness, a malaise of anthropomorphism, which in disparate individuals had induced a number of nightmares remarkably similar in their puerile frightfulness. The researchers who had suffered in this way had at first been too ashamed to relate their experiences, but bit by bit their agreements had come to light. In each case the dreams, or daydreams, had as their principal theme the surrounding presence of a frozen awareness, a petrified sentience, straining in the stillness as if resentful of some arresting spell*

The people who began frequently to receive such impressions invariably came to find that it was impossible under such distracting mental conditions to get any serious work done of an intellectually demanding nature; and so the rate of turnover among the researchers in the advanced archaeological base was quite high. It had come to be accepted, as part of that increasing body of lore which was concerned with the impact of etheric immensities upon the human spirit, that although the Moon was the Earth's nearest celestial neighbour, yet the furthest moonscapes, separated from the home world by the entire bulk of the cold satellite, were-'in human terms as remote as any place that had yet been reached by man.

Thus Royden was not utterly astonished at his growing uneasiness. But he was annoyed. He had hoped that he would manage to finish the journey without becoming a prey to such jitterings. Of course the novelty of his route did not exactly help in this regard. But the voyage would soon be over. When he reached his destination he would, in a sense, be on familiar ground, for the Selenite ruins, however mysterious and strange, had at least known the tread of previous human explorers.

Royden became impatient to reach this goal, but at this point he encountered rougher ground. Driving became more difficult, and more slow. The danger of wrecking the vehicle increased, but Royden simply told himself that that must not happen, and he did not slacken speed to any great extent. Watching the increasingly weird rock formations which ghosted by in the glare of the headlamps, he noticed a different kind of light aheads not sharp, but smudgy. Approaching, he saw that the baleful leprous gleam emanated from the tumescent bole of a lunar cactus, about two feet high, growing close by the mouth of a cave. The plant was of vital importance to Royden as the first sign of life which he had seen so far on this journey. It probably signified that the journey was near its end. He stopped the jeep. Resting a while, he raised his eyes to the drastic skyline of a mangled ancient range, and he thought that he could perceive a dim greyness, a diffuse attenuate dome, which stood out against the blackness and the stars.

Then he knew that he was approaching the Selenite city at last. The pale distant dome of thin light and air was the unmistakable, inexplicable wonder of primordial lunarian science - the unblemished monument to the race of unknown powers whose fate was scrawled cryptically in the shining ruins below.

In order to arrive within sight of those ruins it was necessary for him to traverse the jagged region which stood silhouetted against the spectral dome. He began to drive forward once more, climbing alongside interbranching rilles and ridges towards the black volcanic serrations on the skyline, beyond which loomed the indistinct hugeness of the hemisphere of air. The way became steeper among the soaring buttresses of formations both igneous and meteoric, half-obliterated and superimposed, the cleanly sculptured wreckage of archaean catastrophe. Naturally it all spoke to Royden in the language of science, revealing many details of selenographical formation to his expert eye, but also he received impressions which were more artistic than scientific - as if the dead starlit wasteland were gesturing to him with a myriad writhing cloaks or sleeves which nevertheless never moved; and the faintly glowing hemisphere beyond the final ridge was a god enthroned over the still-life, summoning Royden to account for his intrusion....

Then he made a discovery which abated these feverish imaginations, and which again prompted him to stop the jeep, halting to make a swift examination of a peculiar-looking noctilucent plant.

It was of a flaccid, thallophythic nature, trailing pulpy, luminiferous appendages like inert streamers which lay lank and listless outside the crevasse in which the stem was rooted. Royden gazed carefully around, and he noticed a few more similar plants which had grown somewhat tortuously among clefts and rubble. He had discovered a new species of lunar flora.

The specimens which he could see might for all he knew be the only ones in existence, feeding slowly upon some rare mineral in the volcanic escarpment or on rare gaseous exhalations from the fissures which veined the slope, and, perhaps, deriving sustenance from the attenuated nimbus of the nearby hemisphere of air, from which other lowly lunar organisms were known to derive nutriment.

The self-satisfaction arising from the discovery did much to calm Royden's unwontedly over-excited brain. Most of all, he experienced an irrational comfort in the contemplation of the puny and unprepossessing nature of the lunar organisms. They symbolized the moon's incapability of fostering advanced life-forms; this small senescent world would never harbour anything sufficiently complex to be malign - its remaining native denizens were doomed to the status of subject-matter for recondite botanical journals.

With no further halts, and with fewer misgivings than before, Royden completed the last stage of his motorised journey. He parked the jeep in the occluding shadow of a jagged outcropping a short way before the summit of the final rise. Vacuum-suited he emerged, with a tonanite pistol grasped in his right hand. He wondered what reason he would give for his possession of the weapon; in fact he wondered why he had brought it with him at all, for he did not believe that Dawcott and his teams would go-so far as to threaten his life, despite his own intention to expose their chicanery.

Setting that question aside, Royden ascended towards the summit. With each slow leap he found it easier to imagine that he was entering the fringes of a region of atmosphere, diminishing sharp pools of black, increasing umbrageous gradations, until he stood facing his twilit destination.

Even after many minutes had passed he was still standing in the same position, staring as if he had never seen the alien city before in countless photographs and films. No matter the number of representations and descriptions he had perused - the immediate presence of the reality could not but be profoundly astonishing in a subliminal fashion. It was only slowly that Royden came out of his daze and began to advance down the short slope towards the lava bay on which the ruins stood haloed by their local atmosphere, a zone of preternatural light, a dim and eerie bubble on the shores of night.

Bathed in eonian silence, scattered with pools of thin blue mist, the grounds of the city were littered with unsurmisable relics of an ultraterrene architecture. In a panorama of mysteriously interthreading styles they preserved a record of durative creation and of unguessable, partial destruction.

Titanic avenues of black-green stone ran commingled with thin crumpled causeways of light metal, which led to and from many-faceted buildings like huge black diamonds, supported by translucent spirals of a form and substance as of frozen smoke. When upright, these twirled pillars hardly touched the ground, but many had been toppled so that the polyhedral black structures which they had borne lay fallen and half-squashed. These had been gashed by gaunt tripedal cutting-engines which still towered over their helpless victims, who untold millions of years ago had felt the impact of the whirling scythes, quiescent now in a colossal, somnolent tableau. Through the gashes in the fallen black buildings, puzzling interiors could be seen, of a weirdly egg-like saffron softness in which twists of fused and tortured metal were half-submerged.

Many of these fragile-seeming wrecks bulked--incongruously against dark stone slabs of immense size, propped unevenly against unfinished concentric ramparts part-girdling the city. Silver trees of slender, incomprehensible scaffolding punctuated the massive black-green stone of the ramparts and avenues, between which occasionally reared still larger overlooming monoliths, leaning untidily on each other, forming accidental resemblances to Cyclopean ziggurats.

No plant grew on the wide flat lava clearings of this lifeless metropolis, or on its rectilinear paves, for the site and the works thereon were of such durability that not even aeons of meteoric bombardment would erode their tough surfaces into friable lunar soil. Royden's boots made a sharp but leisurely clinking sound as he loped in slow motion deeper into the city; the sound echoed and re-echoed faintly, dying away unanswered, leaving incoherent premonitions hissing their panicky warnings in the childish recesses of his brain.

He told himself that if he continued in the direction of the landing-field and the Administrator's offices he would find people in due course; the site could not have been abandoned, for the parked freighters of the Interplanetary Survey had been easily visible from the ridge over which he had previously climbed.

Minute by minute with the aid of his charts he wended his way among the towering and varied alien forms. He groped through chasmal streets fronted by vertiginous blocks; he stooped under bulging house-size polyhedra atop murky, vitreous, almost invisible spirals; he sidled past ominous tripeds, twenty feet high and motionlessly bristling with silvery knife-arms of similar length, deadly and threatening if their ferocious mechanical mien was to be believed, frozen in the fighting attitudes of their victory, the triumph after which they had been abandoned for unknown reasons by their unknown owners.

And whenever he had to pass near any of the fallen polyhedra which had gaping rents in their sides, he was moved by a supreme disquietude, and he shivered with an instinctive abhorrence fed by imponderable suspicions. The "yolk" - he could not help calling it that - in the interior of the black-faceted buildings was of a non-atomic, non-particle nature which had so far defied all analysis and had indeed driven more than one eminent physicist to despair; but be that as it may, however abstract the problems involved, the reaction which Royden felt in the vicinage of these objects of mystery was one of intense and emotive disgust, prompted by an insistent hunch which told him that those substances which were unhallowed by the physical laws of this universe must also be unhallowed and fundamentally evil in every other sense.

Royden had to make a conscious effort to suppress a resurgence of morbid thoughts. He had still met no sign of human life, but he insisted to himself that this did not yet constitute legitimatecause for anxiety. The entire area which he might have to explore before finding anyone was many miles in circumference; and its population of archaeologists had never to his knowledge numbered more than a few score; so its deserted appearance from where he stood was, statistically speaking, hardly surprising.

Thus fortified with reassurance of a sternly logical nature, 'and chiding himself for his unnatural cowardice in needing it, he continued his increasingly dreamlike gliding hops among the bright clean dead giant shapes. But it was impossible to stay logical for long, impossible to fend off the drift of fantastic ideas, running as he was, floating drenched in phantasmal light, and numbed by the contiguity of infinitude. Vista after overlapping vista surrounded him in a chill gallery of inhuman colossi, inconceivably ancient yet seemingly ageless in the disconcertingly unscarred abyss of lunar time. It was easy in reverie to imagine that the damage which had been done to the Selenite city had been inflicted only a day before, and that the sounder buildings might yet be inhabited, saved as they had been from wholesale destruction by a timely surrender to the tripedal conquerors....

Why did I come here? he asked himself suddenly. Why was I so sure that I was right and that the others were wrong?

He had stopped running; he was standing still in front of a row of human corpses.

The scene etched itself indelibly on his awareness in a few sharp seconds of curiously immaterial, abstract terror. In a quasi-fatalistic daze he took note of the details which confronted him; five dead men with their helmets off, their scalps and faces shrivelled and dessicated. They presented the baffling spectacle of wizened mummies clad from the neck downwards in ultra-modern vacuum-suits, the helmets of which lay near to hand, propped against a stone slab within easy reach.

It was a matter of record that some people had found the atmosphere at this city's centre to be thick enough for short periods of respiration, so the bare-headedness of these researchers at the time they fell was by no means unaccountable, especially if they had been carrying out a close naked-eye examination of the object over which they now were sprawled. The object was a dark stone slab which, unlike any of the others lying scattered in the vicinity, was flecked with a lurid spattering of vermillion lines and minute dots. It lay in a distinctive position at the base of a long grooved incline set in the short outer wall of a low, squat building. The slab had slid down the incline, out of the building in which it had been stored with other slabs. A lunar library, thought Royden numbly. Or a museum of some kind; and the men, just before they died, had removed one of its treasures* a written text. The vermillion lines and dots were written characters, Royden guessed; and he did not for a moment doubt that he was right, but he wished that he might be wrong. Seconds ticked by, and after the initial moments of shock his thoughts began to flow more freely, and with them like a growing cloud on the horizon grew an innominable malaise. Vehemently he tried to staunch the tremulous, soul- shaking dubitation and the palpitation of the heart which possessed him as he turned away, not wishing to see the death and the treasure of knowledge, not wishing to imagine the slightest coincidence between them.

There was nothing else which he could think of to do, so he continued along the route which he had chosen. Sorting out his fears, he lost something of the profound terror which had assailed him at the sight of the written lines on the Selenite stone. An explanation occured to him, which, with its obvious logic, smoothed over the peculiar originality of his primal and uncanny anxiety. Some kind of spore or germ, he postulated, had lain dormant for many ages in the sealed building, and had been unexpectedly extracted together with the glyphic stone. Evidently, Sherman had been telling the truth} plague had now broken out upon Farside.

Much might have happened in the last two days, and Royden guessed that he might be the only living person in this hemisphere of the Moon. This dismal possibility was fraught with discomfort and inconvenience, but not with immediate danger; such was Royden1s initial opinion as he weighed the pros and cons of his predicament. He was sealed in a vacuum-suit which was surely capable of preventing the ingress of noxious organisms; and there would be spare oxygen-bottles at the research base, which would enable him to survive until help came -

Gloomily he corrected himself: no one would come. The area had been placed under quarantine, the ban which he had broken by arriving; now he would have to stay, alone, shut up tightly in his suit until he starved, or until he preferred to open his helmet and face the shrivelling doom, the effects of whose ravages he had so recently observed.

More optimistically he then considered that his chances of survival might not after all be so bad, provided, that is, that there were facilities at this Base for the sterilization of his vacuum-suit, so that he might, without danger of infection, remove his helmet in order to eat. Otherwise, hermetically sealed starvation would be his fate, in the chafing and claustrophobic restriction in which he was already feeling trapped; unless instead he chose to uncover his head to the alien death of the plague.

This thought brought Royden to a puzzled stop once more; for it was disquietingly obvious to him that he was not fundamentally afraid of micro-organisms but of something else, something which had smitten him with a brooding, indeterminable sense of the vicinage of alien power, on the instant that he had seen the vermillion runes.

It was at this point, when the instinctive perception of some malefic abeyance had become almost overpoweringly persuasive, and the ruins around him had begun to seem not only alien but ominous and unnatural, that Royden caught sight of the incongruous and corpulent figure of Administrator Dawcott, in ordinary clothing without a vacuum-suit, standing forlorn beside another row of corpses.

Chill was Royden's reaction to the sudden discovery of this prosaic, unimaginative man with whom he had had prior dealings at various scientific conferences. A furtive revulsion delayed his response as Dawcott approached eagerly, offering his hand in greeting and bewilderedly scrutinizing Royden's visor.

"I am glad to see you!" the formerly pompous and sententious official cried tremulously. "Who are you, though?" he added in a confused tone. "I certainly am glad to see someone!" he continued. "I thought I was the last man alive here," he whispered wonderingly, as if he could not yet believe that the appearance of another live human was real.

"My name is Royden; I have come from Frontier Base to investigate the truth here," the adventurer replied. There was a macabre emptiness about the meeting, a coldness inside Royden as he pondered on the fact that Dawcott was unhelmeted and yet alive. Now that the plague theory was not to be believed any longer, Royden wondered whether Dawcott had killed all the people himself; if so, it would not be the first such case of lunacy.,..

Dawcott pleaded in pathetic bafflement at Royden's aloofness: "Can you tell me anything about this pestilence? Why am I the only survivor of my team? In the last work period all have succumbed, except I.... If only I could understand...."

But Royden ignored him and gazed down at the dead men. At -the sight of their fierce, parched faces, which oddly seemed as though they had been preternormally consumed by some excess of vision, the idea that Dawcott might have been responsible vanished easily; and the previous suspicion, even less welcome, returned. These prostrate corpses lay, like the others, near to more examples of the selenic script, in blazing vermillion, which had been extracted from a different part of the gigantic ancient library. There were several slabs fully inscribed with the varying dots and dashes; and each slab seemed somehow to possess its own distinct personality. The researchers who had attempted to study these arcana had, like Royden, also observed these manifestations of unfathomable signification, as if in some supra-seiental manner the remote linguistic bequest of perished aeons had acquired an animate liberty, so that, loosed from the bonds of its medium, the pure meaning burst into terrestrial brains.

The wizened corpses were of men who had been shrivelled by such blasts of knowledge; and their variously exaggerated expressions were of infinite ecstacy, awe, curiosity or nether horror, corresponding to the texts which they had read. Royden unwillingly noted all this as he knelt in hypnotic fascination, no longer able to deny that the script could be read. He doubted whether it could ever be deciphered; but now, too late, he realized why decipherment was not needed; he had approached to within the text's zone of comprehension; it was arrogating his whole attention to itself; and it could and would make him read it, for it possessed the resources of a language of ultimate symbols, far further beyond modern English in communicative power than English was beyond the grunts of wild things.

He would have to read one of the texts, but which was it to be? Vaguely he knew that he was crawling forward past the most atrocious visage which he had ever seen - the face of one who had been unlucky enough to have drifted into the nightmare clutches of a rampantly abominable text. Royden tried to shake himself away from the path of this text's pull of meaning, which was seeking to draw him inwards in a cataract of deepening understanding past the point of no return. Dimly he was aware that Dawcott was shouting at him, asking him what he was doing, why he was crawling on the ground, and what was going on; but Royden was no longer asking himself whether his life could be saved, only whether he might avoid the utter perdition which had entered the eye-sockets of the unfortunate being who had last read the message which was attracting him now.

With a spasm of weakening muscles he wrenched himself aside into the less fiendish lane of attraction of an adjacent slab, which then commenced to draw him forward as the other one had done. The influence of an art form too potent for the mind of man was obscuring his sense of personal identity, and over him there stole a languid mood of willing resignation to a fate which at least promised to be more interesting than any other kind of death.

He had no strength left with which to shift lanes once again, so he perforce abandoned the hope of entering the grip of the blissful and Edenic saga which was promised by the text to the left of the one which now held his mind on a contracting leash. But he was no longer terrified; he was satisfied with the enigmatic saga which now reached out to engulf him finally.

Something which to Royden seemed to be a palpable, plasmic emanation, but which was invisible to Dawcott, now issued from the inscribed slab to embrace the captive reader. Royden experienced an intoxicating semantic revelation, which had the force of a vivid, ineffable dream, as he seemed to perceive the very dots and lines starting out from the stones and flaunting their inevitable meanings as if unneedful of metaphor or ideograph; for this language of the Selenites confounded all representational hypotheses and appeared on the deepest level of suggestion as Truth itself.

Benignant and all-powerful seemed the text to its human receptacle, when the latter's struggles had ceased. Around his head the noetic reverberations hummed a deific nocturne, galvanizing his awareness beyond human ken, until the Selenite words formed vortices, which widened into a kaleidoscopic whirl of windows, which then coalesced into one vivid view.

It was a scene near the western shore of the ocean called Zpibaraz, near the Opkaz Mountains, when the moon was young.

The disembodied reader, apparently suspended in luminous air, was able to gaze in all directions at once. Every direction shone back at him with fulgurations of chromatic glory. The sky was a deep and royal blue. So was the water, which could be seen past intervening glades of saffron turf, enclosed by intricate nodose plants. These reared high their lozenge-shaped leaves and gemmiferous heads, scattering their splintered largesse of irised light; while on the other side, away from the ocean, there were uplands with wider meadows, frizzled with sparkling blades. Beyond them the heavy all-pervading sunlight smote the scintillant peaks which masked much of the curving horizon of this small world, whose native name was Yyu.

In the shade of a spacious, columnar boskage, two silver- skinned beings conversed in fluting tones. The creatures were humanoid, with a fragile and delicate beauty, strong enough, however, in their withy limbs and their subtle brains.

Vaphru, Queen of Atth, listened in perturbation to the remonstrances of a member of her swarm. The coronal fringe of tendrils fluttered in agitation on Vaphru1s royal head, as Dzhaoo, her lover, spoke:

"Do not go to Palabaraz, 0 my sovereign! Pihinxin is an ambitious king, eager to extend his power, and he would inveigle you into choosing a mate who would always be complaisant to orders from Palabaraz. But even were this not true, yet still I implore you to believe that no mate whom you could find in that great city, or in any other, could give you the love that I could give you."

And he proffered his clasped hands in supplication, in the measureless depression of hopeless love. He knew that his request was unheard-of; the monarchs of Yyu formed an exclusive social and, to some degree, biological caste, which mated always within the special royal broods, and never with the common workers of the swarms. And the swarms existed in a dreamy and pre- rational contentment, and were almost universally inferior in intelligence to their rulers.

Dzhaoo was an exception, a commoner with the awareness of a king; a freak so rare that he had caused no fear nor given any offence so far. Vaphru had merely listened in silent wonder when Dzhaoo first made his avowal; and Pihinxin, King of Palabaraz, who had taken precautions to exclude royal rivals from the wardship of Vaphru, had ignored the pursuing Dzhaoo as being of no significance, and had allowed him unmolested passage through his land. Thus had Dzhaoo, flying at top speed, overtaken Vaphru before she reached Palabaraz.

But now that he had found her, and had pleaded with her, he felt that he had exhausted his stock of contrivances. The mating of a monarch and a commoner, that which Dzhaoo had foretold as an epochal sign of the awakening of the swarms, would be left to the future, and to another pair. Thus thought the low-born Atthan in his growing dejection.

He did not know how near to victory he was. If he had lived in the latter-day era of the perfect writing, he might have had the advantage of the advanced telepathy which by then was spreading among the Yyr, the people of Yyu; but he lived in an earlier and simpler age, and he had none of this to help him; and he was beset by clouding anxiety. But the disembodied reader saw hopeful signs, in accordance with the author's intention.

Vaphru, beset by a vacillatory and perplexing gamut of emotions, commenced a nervous perambulation of the grove. Her hyaline eyes underwent rapid nictation, and her arms made saccadic, fumbling gestures. The accomplished and melodic oracy of Dzhaoo had wrought a benumbing effect on her will; and the royal ossicles on the sides of her head buzzed in the alarm of indecisiveness. She hardly knew what she was about to say, as she replied to Dzhaoo in a captious tone: "I have already heard the voice of Zdrarph, who is the choice recommendation of Pihinxin. Zdrarph is every bit as eloquent as you, 0 my forward subject, and he is more considerate of my peace of mind. Why should I believe that you would make a better King of Atth than he?"

And she glanced sidelong, and pretended to study the volutes of the flowers and the rock-scrolls, which twined their floral and mineral beauties in miscible profusion.

Now it was evident to Dzhaoo that the battle was won, for otherwise the Queen of Atth would never have abandoned her gracious aloofness: so far as to compare him provocatively with Zdrarph. As he looked, momently the palpitations of her chrominenees increased, and, with a fateful gravity, aware that her compliance was against all custom and example, she opened her arms to receive her plebeian suitor, who clasped her in tender ecstacy. Here the reader was aware of the author's purpose in selecting this scene, for it was presented tendentiously as a turning point in the evolution of all the sixteen swarms of Yyu. Awhile the ossicles of Vaphru purred in a sweet sussurus of surrender, her lover whispered: "Truly I would not be a good King of Atth as Zdrarph would have been; for together you and I must turn Yyu upside down, if we are to survive; and I know the way to do that." He said a lot of other things as well, but that was the sentence which stuck in the reader's mind.

While Dzhaoo spoke those words he looked up into the eastern sky, where a great globe hung motionless: Urom, Yyu's giant companion world. The scene became suffused by an auctorially inspired blend of presentiments and prophetic hints; and the reader gathered the idea that the fate of Dzhaoo and Vaphru would become linked in some way with the planet around which Yyu revolved. Insistently the reader's attention was pointed at Urom; and the reader's awareness, subjected to the author's controlling idea, obeyed. Now the idea intended to prompt Royden to orient himself in the vastness of time, and showed him the sign whereby he could do so. He was allowed the objectivity with which to consider Urom - Earth - in the light of his own future knowledge; and, seeing the shape and size of the land which was visible beneath its flecking of clouds, he thought to himself: That is the supercontinent of Pangaea; my mind is some two hundred and twenty five million years in my body's past; the Earth I now see in this sky is at the beginning of the Mesozoic era, or the end of the Palaeozoic.

The focus of the narrative returned to Dzhaoo and Vaphru. Fain were they to remain alone among the soothing leaves, to explore their supernal idyll of new-found mutual love; but the return to Atth was urgently necessary. There, if anywhere, they would find support against the anger of Pihinxin, which was sure to be aroused before long.

Strolling out onto the beach of amber shards which marked the sinuous shore of Zpibaraz, they observed that the wide blue sky was entirely empty of flying beings, so that there was nothing which might note their departure. Then, unfolding their transparent wings of fine gauze membrane, Dzhaoo and Vaphru leaped into flight, and, choosing speed rather than stealth, they soared high over the specular ocean.

Their return journey to Atth, which stood on the far side of Yyu, took half a Yyr day, and was to be remembered as a precarious joyance, shot through with presentiments of conflict. The voyagers held to an unpredictable northward course which, after two days of unmolested flight, brought them over the pole of Yyu. The swarm of Mngyl, the inhabitants of this boreal region, received the fugitives with hospitality, and accorded Vaphru every courtesy due to a sovereign* so much so that she was sorely tempted to confide in them; but the hints by which she assayed to test opinion did not elicit any sign of those progressive habits of thought which had become so important for her; and being dubious, not to say apprehensive, about their possible effect upon such old-fashioned company, she kept her recently acquired opinions to herself, and did not dare to risk disclosing the status which she had conferred upon her companion. The King of Ningyl, her host, assumed that he was performing the duty which courtesy required, when he arranged for Dzhaoo to be lodged by underlings while Vaphru in royal company toured the high parks with their mauve swards, among the nigrescent pinnacles and rare clouds of this remote realm.

Southwards the Atthans flew after their brief rest in Ningyl; they sped through many lands on their way home, but in none did they think it worth their while to solicit liberal endorsement of their liaison. Only in their home city might they hope for that public and peaceful complaisance which Queen Vaphru had a right to expect from her .own swarm; and glad were the travellers when at last they descried Atth from afar.

Proud and tall stood the vertiginous porphyry hive amid the surrounding marish, of which the reeds, flashing like an encircling army of quivering spears, partially hid the vermiculate herds which pastured therein, as well as the occasional outlying shepherd's dwelling. Above this suburban contado the homecoming monarch was met by a party of deferential subjects, and escorted through a lofty portico into the heart of her domain.

There, in the apical chamber atop the central newel of Atth, Queen Vaphru resumed her royal vantage at the city's hub of judgement and of communication. Surrounding attendants perched on coigns, awaiting commands, or flew to and from the throne bearing firkins and salvers of choice fruits and liquids; and other busy servants flitted among the seeing-tubes around the throne, adjusting them so that the monarch might observe scenes otherwise hidden by the waxen walls. Thus Vaphru could study the crowd which swarmed among all the cotes and .esplanades on all the levels of Atth. And when she wanted to she could make them study her.

The order went out that all humble members of the swarm should gather at the lower outlets of the seeing-tubes. Her subjects, thus assembled, gazed at Vaphru; and they heard her, also, by a supplementary telaudition: "Know that I have chosen Dzhaoo as King." All the Atthans bowed obediently to him who stood beside their Queen. No whisper of protest or even surprise was heard from the plebeian multitude, and a yet more remarkable testimony of loyalty was furnished by the similar acquiescence of the elite royal brood, the siblings of Vaphru who had congregated in the throne room.

But this all-inclusive quiet was interrupted by the strange captive being known as the vrell, whose distended bulk, resting upon a wicker pedestal, occupied much of the space near the wall opposite the throne.

The vrell was a filmy, hydrous globe about seven yards in diameter, with octuple cancroid antlers or limbs growing from its summit. It was so heavy that it could not move itself, and it looked as vulnerable as a bloated dew-drop, but it possessed a toughness unequalled by any of the native denizens of Yyu or Urom. It, with its brethren, had originated on some far clump of asteroids; and over the ages the vrells had scattered across space, until some had fallen upon Yyu, and some upon Urom, and some, doubtless, upon other worlds. The vrells were few in number, and did not reproduce; the lifetime of an individual vrell was coterminate with the lifetime of the species.

Their minds, if they had minds, were inaccessible to the Yyr, but something extremely useful had nevertheless been discovered about them: they could be used for long-distance communication. Each vrell existed in some sort of telepathic contact, or perhaps merely a kind of synchronous subetheric resonance, with at least one other vrell, and for some reason the way in which this force worked was such as to provide the owners of these creatures with something of a telephone service.

In the throne-room of Atth the vrell's argentiferous skin became tinted with the pink flush of auditory ignition; and the strong and portentous voice of Pihinxin, King of Palabaraz, spoke from across the breadth of Yyu: "Have you returned home, 0 Vaphru? I require you to answer." And Vaphru answered, and her words entered the vrell, and issued forth from the other vrell thousands of miles away in the palace of Pihinxin: "Yes, 0 Pihinxin, I am here." And Pihinxin questioned her further, in puzzlement: "Why did you turn back, why have you not come to Palabaraz, why have you thus disturbed the arrangements which I have made for your nuptials with Zdrarph?"

And the young Queen of Atth was silent at the voice of her guardian and overlord, for never before had she defied his sagacity and power, for which he had been awarded suzerainty over Atth during her minority.

Before Vaphru could formulate an answer, Dzhaoo, the new King, deemed that this was as good a time as any at which to assert his own authority. Speaking at the vrell, he declared: "The nuptials of Vaphru are completed, and she has come of age. We invite you, 0 Pihinxin, to visit our city as soon as you like, to celebrate this felicitous occasion."

"Who is that speaking?" demanded the voice from the vrell. "Dzhaoo, King of Atth."

There was silence for some moments, during which Dzhaoo could well imagine that the King of Palabaraz was in a state of temporary dumbfoundment. The face that the Queen of Atth had acted independently was bad enough; but to hear the King of Atth speak with a recognizable commoner's voice made things positively outrageous.

Finally, Pihinxin demanded: "Is this true, 0 Vaphru?" "It is," she replied.

"Then," said Pihinxin, "you and your city are forfeit to me. What is done cannot be nullified; no terms will be offered; my swarm and those of my allies will force Atth to unconditional surrender."

As these words of doom echoed in the cavernous throne-room, the vrell lost its roseate sheen and returned to quiescence.

The threat of destruction - for such it was, since the Atthans1 civic consciousness preferred anihilation to surrender - was transmitted all over the city, and spread a wave of shock which was followed by a fatalistic sentiment of obedient fortitude on the part of the common people. The swarm comprehended the situation clearly enough, to the limited extent required by beings of their status. Their nerves suffered melancholy twinges of sorrowful dread, but they waited for orders from their rulers, who felt keener emotions: the barbs of conscience, of acuter awareness.

Dzhaoo took upon himself all the agonizing responsibility for what had occurred; and Yaphru seemed in a way to concur in this condemnation, by entrusting him with the defence of the realm. "I have risked all for you," she told him; "I will trust you to the last." News soon came that the swarms led by Pihinxin were on the wing; that virtually an entire hemisphere of Yyu had gathered in enmity to Atth. Dzhaoo hardened his heart against the lancinating pangs of remorse, and reminded himself sharply that he had known what would happen, and that he was in the right. He sent messengers to neutral swarms, warning them of the global designs of Pihinxin, and entreating the as-yet-uncommitted rulers to band together with Atth to preserve their liberty before it was too late. All these emissaries were unsuccessful.

Time was running short, the attack was closing in, and Dzhaoo was finally impelled to take the step which he had anticipated with hesitancy and dread. He took sole possession of the throne-room, dismissing his attendants, while Vaphru was occupied elsewhere with the inspection of the exterior fortifications of Atth. As soon as he was alone he faced the vrell, and sprayed it with a concoction of light which served to ignite the creature's telephonic resonance with a vrell upon the surface of Urom.

At this point, from the reader's point of view, the narrative lost its smoothness and became agitated. Not only were the passions of Dzhaoo germane - the anxiety, the fear, the determined and unparalleled further flouting of all Yyr laws, which drove him to this alone - but also the blurring obtrusion of the author sifted the scene. It was as if the writer of this narrative, embodied in the visualizing words of the ultimate language, was too impatient, now that the critical point was reached, to continue to let the story speak for itself; the author was under pressure from his forceful feelings to do more than this, so that Royden the reader, not knowing the ins and outs of the matter as yet, not even having a clue as to what Dzhaoo was about to do, let alone what the result of his action would be, nevertheless felt flooded with a loathing of Dzhaoo and a yearning to brand him as a traitor. Royden's emotions were dominated by auctorial hindsight which promised him that he was witnessing the end of Yyu's Golden Age. Hatred of the upstart Atthan King almost overmastered the reader, though he was still allowed to view the scene with a certain objectivity.

"Liugk!" cried Dzhaoo, summoning a Uromian priest-king by name. And the word instantaneously traversed the void between the two worlds, and issued forth from the vrell in the great temple at Xaxepp, the Uromian city which worshipped Atth.

"Liugk, prepare to receive the word of Atth, the Many-Voiced One. Liugk, Liugk, thy time of reward draws near. I, Atth, summon thee, that thou mayest hear my latest great command."

Audible over the ether, the continual clangour in the temple at Xaxepp hinted at the throbbings of a power-house, the din of mighty engineries chanting what Dzhaoo surmised to be the cumbrous and mechanical rites of the gross-minded Uromians. Listening at the vrell in Atth, he could imagine the hirsute and gigantic primitives of Urom in bizzarre attendance around their own vrell, which they had placed amidst their lurid industrial shrine, a hideous sanctum of metallic props and torrid fumes.

But the din became muted after the supposed god had spoken. Dzhaoo could now imagine that the Uromians who had heard his voice were prostrating themselves in reverence. There was a short delay before he heard the harsh-voiced but awed reply of Liugk, priest-king of Xaxepp:. "0 Atth, what is thy will?"

The Uromian had replied in the language of Yyu, which he had taken pains to learn during his novitiate, though he could not learn to do more than mouth and mangle the liquid vocables.

Meanwhile Royden, the reader, was trying to rebel against the spell of the story by asking himself: "How can there be human beings on Earth before the age of the dinosaurs?" But the narrative answered him implicitly in the way in which it named and described the Uromians. They were humanoid, but not homo sapiens, and they were an evolutionary dead end, doomed to extinction in the era which followed. Their civilization would leave almost no trace, and absolutely no descendants. This was a good thing, the narrative explained. These early Uromians were spiritually deficient; they lacked some vital spark in their souls. They represented a false start in Urom's evolution.

Dzhaoo announced: "The time has come for you to be given precedence among all the other cities in your world; that is the promised reward. It remains for you to understand its implementation, and to hear the great command which will follow."

"0 great god Atth!" chanted Liugk hoarsely, "we are thine! Hast thou truly promised to bring us to victory over the evil city of Klapatt and its cruel god Palabaraz?"

And Dzhaoo tried to remember to keep up with the customary thee-ing and thou-ing, as he composed his reply. It was hard to remember to be a god at a time like this.

It had amused the rulers of the swarms of Yyu, long ago, to contact the brutish realms of Urom via the telephonic vrells, and to choose prot

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