THURLOW AWOKE AT THE FIRST CLICK OF THE ALARM clock, turned it off before it rang. He sat up in bed, fighting a deep reluctance to face this day. It'd be hellish at the hospital, he knew. Whelye was putting on the pressure and would keep it up until ... Thurlow took a deep sighing breath. When it got bad enough, he knew he'd quit
The community was helping him to this decision- crank letters, vicious phone calls. He was a pariah.
The professionals were an odd contrast --Paret and old Judge Victor Venning Grimm among them. What they did in court and what they did outside of court appeared to be held in separate, carefully insulated compartments.
"It'll blow over," Grimm had said. "Give it time."
And Paret: "Well, Andy, you win some, you lose some."
Thurlow wondered if they had any but detached emotions about Murphey's death. Paret had been invited to the execution, and the courthouse grapevine had said he debated going. Good sense had prevailed, though. His advisors had warned against his appearing vindictive.
Why did I go? Thurlow asked himself. Did I want to extract the last measure of personal pain from this?
But he knew why he'd gone, meekly accepting the condemned man's wry invitation to "Watch me die." It'd been the lure of his own personal hallucination: Would the watchers be there, too, in their hovering craft?
They ... or the illusion had been there.
Are they real? Are they real? his mind pleaded. Then: Ruth, where are you? He felt that if she could only return with a reasonable explanation for her disappearance, the hallucinations would go.
His thoughts veered back to the execution. It would take more than one long weekend to erase that memory. Recollection of the sounds bothered him -- the clang of metal against metal, the whisper-shuffling of feet as the guards came into the execution area with Murphey.
The memory of the condemned man's glazed eyes lay across Thurlow's vision. Murphey had lost some of his dumpiness. The prison suit hung slackly on him. He walked with a heavy, dragging limp. Ahead of him walked a black-robed priest chanting in a sonorous voice that concealed an underlying whine.
In his mind, Thurlow watched them pass, feeling all the spectators caught up abruptly in a spasm of silence. Every eye turned then to the executioner. He looked like a drygoods clerk, tall, bland-faced, efficient -- standing there beside the rubber-sealed door into the little green room with its eyeless portholes.
The executioner took one of Murphey's arms, helped him over the hatch sill. One guard and the priest followed. Thurlow was in a line to look directly through the hatchway and hear their conversation.
The guard passed a strap over Murphey's left arm, told him to sit farther back in the chair. "Put your hand here, Joe. A little farther this way." The guard cinched the strap. "Does that strap hurt?"
Murphey shook his head. His eyes remained glazed, a trapped animal look in them.
The executioner looked at the guard, said: "Al, why don't you stay in here and hold his hand?"
In that instant, Murphey came out of the depths to shatter Thurlow, forcing him to turn away. "You best stay with the mules and wagon," Murphey said.
It was a phrase Thurlow had heard Ruth use ... many times, one of those odd family expressions that meant something special to the inner circle of intimates. Hearing Murphey use it then had forged a link between father and daughter that nothing could break.
All else was anticlimax.
Remembering that moment, Thurlow sighed, swung his feet out of the bed onto the cold floor. He pulled on his slippers, donned a robe and crossed to the window. There, he stood staring at the view which had brought his father to buy this house twenty-five years before.
The morning light hurt his eyes and they began to water. Thurlow took up his dark glasses from the bed-stand, slipped them on, lightened the setting to just below the pain threshold.
The valley had its usual morning overcast, the redwood fog that would burn off sometime around eleven. Two ravens sat perched in the branches of a live oak below him calling to unseen companions. A drop of condensation spilled from an acacia leaf directly beneath the window.
Beyond the tree there was motion. Thurlow turned toward it, saw a cigar-shaped object about thirty feet long lift into view. It drifted across the top of the oak, scattering the ravens. They flapped away, croaking with harsh dissonance.
They see it! Thurlow told himself. It's real!
Abruptly, the thing launched itself across the sky to his left, lanced into the overcast Behind it came a covey of spheres and discs.
All were swallowed by the clouds.
Into the shocked stillness with which Thurlow enveloped himself there came a rasping voice: "You are the native, Thurlow." Thurlow whirled to see an apparition in his bedroom doorway --a squat, bowlegged figure in a green cape and leotards, square face, dark hair, silvery skin, a wide gash of mouth. The creature's eyes burned feverishly under pronounced brows.
The mouth moved, and again came that harsh, resonant voice: "I am Kelexel." The English was clear, clipped.
Thurlow stared. A dwarf? he asked himself. A lunatic? He found his mind jammed with questions.
Kelexel glanced out the window behind Thurlow. It had been faintly amusing to watch Fraffin's pack go hounding after the empty needleship. The programmed automatic course couldn't elude the pursuers forever, of course, but by the time they caught it, all would have been accomplished here. There'd be no bringing back the dead.
Fraffin would have to face that ... and his crime.
Resurgent pride firmed Kelexel's will He frowned at Thurlow, thinking: I know my duty. Ruth would waken soon, he knew, and come to their voices. When she did, she could watch a supreme triumph. She'll be proud that a Chem smiled upon her, he thought
"I have watched you, witchdoctor," Kelexel said.
A thought flickered through Thurlow's mind: Is this some weird psychotic come to kill me because of my testimony?
"How did you get into my house?" Thurlow demanded.
"For a Chem it was simplicity," Kelexel said.
Thurlow had the sudden nightmare feeling that this creature might be connected with the objects that had flown into the clouds, with the watchers who ... What is a Chem? he wondered.
"How have you watched me?" Thurlow asked.
"Your antics have been captured in ... in a ... " Kelexel waved a knob-knuckled hand in exasperation. It was so difficult to communicate with these creatures. " ... in a thing like your movies," he concluded. "It's much more, of course --a sensation transcript that works directly on the audience by empathic stimulation."
Thurlow cleared his throat. The words made only the vaguest sense, but his feelings of disquiet increased. His voice came out hoarsely: "Something new, no doubt."
"New?" Kelexel chuckled. "Older than your galaxy."
He must be a crank, Thurlow reassured himself. Why do they always pick on psychologists?
But he remembered the ravens. No blandishment of logic could erase the fact that the ravens had seen these ... things too. Again, he asked himself: What is a Chem?
"You don't believe me," Kelexel said. "You don't want to believe me." He could feel relaxation seep through his body like a warm drink. Ahh, this was amusing. He saw the fascination Fraffin's people must have known once intimidating these creatures. The anger and jealousy he had directed against Thurlow began to dissipate.
Thurlow swallowed. His reason directed him into outrageous channels of thought. "If I believed you," he said, "I'd have to infer you were ... well, some kind of ... "
"Someone from another world?"
"Yes." Kelexel laughed. "The things I could do! I could frighten you into a stupor like that!" He snapped his fingers.
It was a solidly human gesture from this inhuman looking person. Thurlow saw it and took a deep breath. He gave a closer examination to his caller's clothes: the cape, the leotards. He looked at the oddly high-positioned ears. The cape could've come front a theatrical outfitter, he thought. He looks like a dwarf Bela Lugosi. Can't be over four feet tall.
A near panic fear of his visitor shot through Thurlow then. "Why're you here?" he demanded.
Why am I here? For a moment no logical reason came to Kelexel's mind. He thought of Ruth unconscious on the tagalong in the other room. This Thurlow might've been her mate. A pang of jealousy gripped Kelexel.
"Perhaps I came to put you in your place," he said. "Perhaps I'll take you to my ship far above your silly planet and show you what an unimportant speck it is."
I must humor him, Thurlow thought. He said: "Let's grant this isn't a joke in bad taste and you're ... "
"You don't tell a Chem he has bad taste," Kelexel said.
Thurlow heard the violence in Kelexel's voice. By an effort of conscious will, he paced his breathing to an even rhythm, stared at the intruder. Could this be the reason Ruth is gone? he wondered. Is this one of the creatures who took her, who've been spying on me, who watched poor Joe Murphey die, who ...
"I've broken the most important laws of my society to come here," Kelexel said. "It astonishes me what I've done."
Thurlow took off his glasses, found a handkerchief on his dresser, polished the lenses, returned them to his nose. I must keep him talking, he thought. As long as he continues to talk, he's venting his violence.
"What is a Chem?" Thurlow asked.
"Good," Kelexel said. "You have normal curiosity." He began to explain the Chem in broad outline, their power, their immortality, their storyships.
Still no mention of Ruth. Thurlow wondered if he dared ask about her.
"Why have you come to me?" he asked. "What if I told about you?"
"Perhaps you'll not be able to tell about us," Kelexel said. "And who'd believe you if you did?"
Thurlow focused on the threat Granting that this Kelexel was who he said he was, then here was profound danger. Who could stand against such a creature. Thurlow suddenly saw himself as a Sandwich Islander facing iron cannon.
"Why're you here?" he repeated.
Annoying question! Kelexel thought. A momentary confusion overcame him. Why was the witchdoctor so persistent? But he was a witchdoctor, a primitive, and perhaps knowledgeable in mysterious ways. "You may know things helpful to me," he said.
"Helpful? If you come from such an advanced civilization that you ... "
"I will question you and dispute with you," Kelexel said. "Perhaps something will emerge."
Why is he here? Thurlow asked himself. If he's what he says he is ... why? Bits of Kelexel's phrases sorted themselves through Thurlow's awareness. Immortal. Storyships. Search for amusement. Nemesis boredom. Immortal. Immortal. Immortal ... Boredom!
Thurlow's stare began to rasp on Kelexel. "You doubt your sanity, eh?" Kelexel asked.
"Is that why you're here?" Thurlow asked. "Because you doubt your sanity?" It was the wrong thing to say and Thurlow knew it the moment the words were out of his mouth.
"How dare you?" Kelexel demanded. "My civilization monitors the sanity of all its members. The orderliness of our neural content is insured by the original setting to Tiggywaugh's web when the infant receives the gift of immortality."
"Tiggy ... Tiggywaugh's web?" Thurlow asked. "A ... a mechanical device?"
"Mechanical? Well ... yes."
Great heavens! Thurlow thought. Is he here to promote some wild psychoanalytic machine? Is this just a promotion scheme?
"The web links all Chem," Kelexel said. "We're the daoine-sithe, you understand? The many who are one. This gives us insights you couldn't imagine, poor creature. It makes the storyships possible. You have nothing like it and you're blind."
Thurlow suppressed a feeling of outrage. A mechanical device! Didn't the poor fool realize he was talking to a psychologist? Thurlow put aside anger, knowing he couldn't afford it, said: "Am I blind? Perhaps. But not so blind I'm unable to see that any mechanical psychoanalytic device is a useless crutch."
"Oh?" Kelexel found this an astonishing statement. A useless crutch? The web? "You understand people without such things, eh?" he asked.
"I've had a fair amount of success at it," Thurlow said.
Kelexel took a step into the room, another. He peered up at Thurlow. On the evidence, the native did understand his own kind. Perhaps this wasn't an idle boast. But could he also see into the Chem, understand them? "What do you see in me?" he asked.
Thurlow studied the oddly squared-off, sensitive face. There'd been pathos, a pleading in that question. The answer must be gentle. "Perhaps," he said, "you've played a part so long that you've almost become that part."
Played a part? Kelexel wondered. He searched for other meaning in the words. Nothing came to him. He said: "My mechanical device has no human failures."
"How safe that must make the future," Thurlow said. "How full of certainty. Then why are you here?"
Why am I here? Kelexel wondered. He could see now that the reasons he'd given himself were mere rationalizations. He began to regret this confrontation, felt a sense of naked exposure before Thurlow. "An immortal Chem doesn't have to give reasons," he said.
"Are you truly immortal?"
Suddenly, Thurlow believed him without reservation. There was something about this intruder, some outrageous quality of person that belied pretense and sham. As abruptly, Thurlow realized why Kelexel had come here. Knowing this, he wondered how he could tell the creature.
"Immortal," Thurlow said. "I know why you're here. You're drunk on too much living. You're like a person climbing a sheer cliff. The higher you climb, the farther it is to fall --but oh how attractive the depths seem. You came here because you fear an accident" Kelexel focused on the one word: Accident!
"There's no such thing as an accident for a Chem," he sneered. "The Chem is human and intelligent Original intelligence may've been an accident, but nothing after that is an accident. Everything that happens to a Chem from the day he's taken from his vat is what he sets out to accomplish."
"How orderly," Thurlow said.
"Such an ultimate neatness," Thurlow said. "When you do that to a garment, you take the life out of it Neatness! Do that to a person and he'll live a life like an epigram ... that's proved wrong after his death."
"But we do not die!"
Kelexel began to chuckle. This Thurlow was, after all, so transparent and easy to best in an argument Kelexel controlled his chuckling, said: "We are mature beings who ... "
"You're not mature," Thurlow said.
Kelexel glared at him, remembering that Fraffin had said this same thing. "We use your kind for our amusement," he said. "We can live your lives vicariously without a ... "
"You came here to ask about death, to play with death," Thurlow said, blurting it out "You want to die and you're afraid to die!"
Kelexel swallowed, stared at Thurlow in shock. Yes, he thought. That's why I'm here. And this witch doctor has seen through me. Almost of itself, his head executed a betraying nod.
"Your mechanical device is a closed circle, a snake with its tail in its mouth," Thurlow said.
Kelexel found the will to protest: "We live forever by its psychological truth!"
"Psychological truth!" Thurlow said. 'That's whatever you say it is."
"We're so far ahead of you primitive ... "
"Then why're you here asking help from a primitive?"
Kelexel shook his head. An oppressive sense of danger came over him. "You've never seen the web at work," he said. "How can you ... "
"I've seen you," Thurlow said. "And I know that any school based on mechanism is a closed circle of limited logic. The truth can't be enclosed in a circle. The truth's like countless lines radiating outward to take in a greater and ever greater space."
Kelexel felt himself fascinated by the movements of Thurlow's mouth. Scalding words dripped from that mouth. More than ever, Kelexel was sorry he'd come here. He could feel a shying away within himself, as though he stood before a closed door that might open any moment onto horror.
"In time, a curious thing happens to such schools," Thurlow said. "Your foundation philosophy begins to circle away from its original straight line. You're close at first. The error isn't recognized. You think you're still on course. And you swing farther and farther afield until the effort to devise new theorems to explain the preceding ones becomes more and more frantic."
"We're totally successful," Kelexel protested. "Your argument doesn't apply to us."
"Past success based on past truth isn't proof conclusive of a continuing success of continuing truth," Thurlow said. "We never actually attain a thing. We merely approach various conditions. Every word you've said about your Chem society betrays you. You think you have the ultimate answers. But you are here. You feel trapped. You know unconsciously that you're in a fixed system, unable to escape, forced to circle endlessly ... until you fall."
"We'll never fall."
"Then why have you come to me?"
"I ... I ... "
"People who follow a fixed system are like processional caterpillars," Thurlow said. "They follow the leader, always follow the leader, led on by the slime trail of the one ahead. But the leader comes on the trail of the last one in line and you're trapped. The trail grows thicker and thicker with your excrescence as you continue around and around the same path. And the excrescence is pointed out as verification that you're on the right track! You live forever! You're immortal!"
Thurlow lowered his voice, noting how Kelexel hung on every word. "And the path always appears straight," Thurlow said. "You see so little of it at a time, you don't notice when it curves back upon itself. You still see it as straight."
"Such wisdom!" Kelexel sneered. "It didn't save your precious madman, your precious Joe Murphey!"
Thurlow swallowed. Why am I arguing with this creature? he wondered. What button did he push to set me going like this?
"Did it?" Kelexel demanded, pressing his advantage.
Thurlow sighed. "Another vicious circle," he said. "We're still figuratively burning the Jews because they spread the plague. Each of us is both Cain and Abel. We throw stones at Murphey because he's the side we rejected. He was more Cain than Abel."
"You've a rudimentary sense of right and wrong," Kelexel said. "Was it wrong to ... extinguish this Murphey?"
Oh, God! Thurlow thought. Right and wrong! Nature and consequences! "It's not a question of right and wrong!" he said. "This was a reaction right out of the depths. It was like ... the tide ... or a hurricane. It's ... when it is, it is!"
Kelexel stared around the primitive room, noting the bed, the objects on the dresser --a picture of Ruth! How dare he keep a reminder of her? But who had better right? This room was a terrible, alien place suddenly. He wanted to be far away from it. But where could he go?
"You came here searching for a better psychological philosophy," Thurlow said, "not realizing that all such philosophies are blind alleys, little wormholes in an ancient structure."
"But you're ... you're ... "
"Who should know more about such wormholes than one of the worms?" Thurlow asked.
Kelexel wet his lips with his tongue. "There must be perfection somewhere," he whispered.
"Must there? What would it be? Postulate a perfect psychology and an individual brought to perfection within such a system. You'd walk around in your never ending perfect circle until one day you found to your horror that the circle wasn't perfect! It can end!"
Kelexel became extremely conscious of every clock-ticking sound in the room. "Extinction," Thurlow said. "Therein lies the end of your perfection, and fallacy in Eden. When your perfect psychology has cured your perfect subject, it still leaves him within the perfect circle ... alone." He nodded. "And afraid." He studied Kelexel, noting how the creature trembled. "You came here because you're terrified by the thing that attracts you. You hoped I had some panacea, some primitive word of advice."
"Yes," Kelexel said. "But what could you have?" He blinked. "You're ... " He gestured at the room, unable to find words to express the poverty of this native's existence.
"You've helped me reach a decision and that's a great favor for which I thank you," Thurlow said. "If I was put here on earth to enjoy myself, that's what I intend to do. If I was put here at the whim of some superbeing who wants to watch me squirm-I'm not giving him the satisfaction!"
"Is there a superbeing?" Kelexel whispered. "What is there after ... after ... "
"With such dignity as I can muster, I look forward to finding out ... for myself," Thurlow said. "That's my choice, my decision. I think it'll leave me more time for living. I don't think time gives you any rest from this decision until you've made it."
Kelexel looked at his hands, the telltale fingernails, the puckered skin. "I live," he said. "Yet I live."
"But you haven't come to grips with the fact that all life's a between stage," Thurlow chided.
Thurlow nodded. He was speaking and acting from instinct now, fighting a danger whose shape he understood only vaguely. "Life's in motion," he said, "and there's just one big gamble --the living itself. Only an idiot fails to realize that a condemned man dies but once."
"But we don't die," Kelexel said, his voice pleading. "We never ... " He shook his head from side to side like a sick animal.
"Yet there's still that cliff you're climbing," Thurlow said. "And remember the attractive abyss."
Kelexel put his hands over his eyes. In his primitive and mysterious way, the witch doctor was right --hideously, implacably right.
A lurching motion behind Kelexel brought Thurlow's head snapping up, his eyes focused in shock as Ruth appeared there, supporting herself against the doorway. She nicked a glance across Thurlow, down to Kelexel.
"Ruth," Thurlow whispered.
Her red hair was piled high, tied with a glittering rope of green stones. Her body was covered by a long green robe belted by a golden-linked strand of square-cut cr�me-de- menthe jewels. There was an exotic strangeness about her that frightened Thurlow. He saw the bulge of her abdomen then beneath the jeweled belt, realized she was pregnant
"Ruth," he said, louder this time.
She ignored him, concentrated her fury on Kelexel's back. "I wish you could die," she muttered. "Oh, how I wish you could die. Please die, Kelexel. Do it for me. Die."
Kelexel lowered his hands from his face, turned with a slow dignity. Here she was at last, completely free, seeing him without any intervention from a manipulator. This was her reaction? This was the truth? He could feel Time running at its crazy Chem speed; all of his life behind him was a single heartbeat. She wanted him dead. A bile taste came into Kelexel's mouth. He, a Chem, had smiled on this mere native and she wanted him dead. What he had planned for this moment stood frozen in his mind. It still could be done, but it wouldn't be a triumph. Not in Ruth's eyes. He raised a pleading hand to her, dropped it. What was the use? He could read the revulsion in her eyes. This was truth.
"Please die!" she hissed.
Thurlow, his face dark with anger, started across the room. "What have you done to her?" he demanded.
"You will stand where you are," Kelexel said, raising a palm toward Thurlow.
"Andy! Stop!" Ruth said.
He obeyed. There was controlled terror in her voice.
Ruth touched her abdomen. "This is what he did," she rasped. "And he killed my mother and my father and ruined you and ... "
"No violence, please," Kelexel said. "It's useless against me. I could obliterate you both so easily ... "
"He could, Andy," Ruth whispered.
Kelexel focused on Ruth's bulging abdomen. Such an odd way to produce an offspring. "You don't wish me to obliterate your native friend?" he asked.
Mutely, she shook her head from side to side. God! What was the crazy little monster up to? There was such a feeling of terrible power in his eyes.
Thurlow studied Ruth. How weirdly exotic she appeared in that green robe and those big jewels. And pregnant! By this ... this ...
"How odd it is," Kelexel said. "Fraffin believes you can be a control factor in our development, that we can aspire to a new level of being through you-perhaps even to maturity. It may be that he is more right than he knows."
Kelexel looked up as Thurlow skirted him, went to Ruth.
She pushed Thurlow's arm aside as he tried to put it around her shoulders. "What're you going to do, Kelexel?" she asked. Her voice held a thrumming quality, over-controlled.
"A thing no other immortal Chem has ever done," Kelexel said, realizing at last what had truly brought him here. And he wondered: Have I the strength to do this?
He turned his back on Ruth, crossed to Thurlow's bed, hesitated, smoothed the covers fastidiously. In that instant, the weight of all the Chem rested upon his shoulders, an ominous burden loaded with everything his kind refused to accept.
Seeing him at the bed, Ruth had the terrifying thought that Kelexel was about to impose the manipulator upon her, force Andy to watch them. Oh God! Please, no! she thought.
Kelexel turned back to them, sat on the edge of the bed. His hands rested lightly beside him. The bed felt soft, its covers warm and fuzzy. The bed gave off a stink of native perspiration which he found oddly erotic.
"What're you going to do?" Ruth whispered.
Kelexel thought: I must not answer that question! If he answered such questions, he knew his resolve might slip. He would do nothing important. He would accept the path of least resistance, the path which had lured his kind into their present stagnation.
"You will both stay where you are," Kelexel said.
He focused inward then, searched out the drumming center of his own heartbeat, thinking: It should be possible. Rejuvenation teaches us every nerve and muscle, every cell in our bodies. It should be possible.
Thus far, his actions had no name except it, and he merely tested the possibilities. He concentrated on slowing his heartbeat.
At first, there was no reaction. But presently he sensed the beat slowing, almost imperceptibly, then, as he learned control, the pace slackened with a definite downward surge. He timed the rhythm to Ruth's breathing: inhale --one beat; exhale --one beat
It skipped a beat!
Uncontrolled panic shot through Kelexel. He relaxed his grip on the heartbeat, fought to restore normality. No! he thought That isn't what I want! But another force had him now. Fear built on fear, terror on terror. Something gigantic and crushing gripped his chest. He could see the dark abyss, imagined Thurlow's cliff with himself upon its face clutching for any handhold, scrabbling to stay himself from that awful plunge.
Somewhere out in the foggy haze that had become his surroundings. Ruth's voice boomed at him: "Something's wrong with him!"
Kelexel realized he had fallen backward onto Thurlow's bed. The pain in his chest was a molten agony now. He could feel his heart laboring within that pain: beat --agony, beat -- agony; beat-agony ...
Slowly, he felt his hands relaxing their grip on the face of the cliff. The abyss yawned. He felt that there was a real wind past his ears as he plunged into the darkness, turning, twisting. Ruth's voice wailed after him to become lost in emptiness: "My God! He's dying!"
Nothingness echoed upon nothingness and he thought he heard Thurlow's words: "Delusion of grandeur."
Thurlow rushed to the bed, felt for a pulse at Kelexel's temple. Nothing. The skin felt dry, smooth as metal. Perhaps, they're not exactly like us, he thought. Maybe their pulse shows in another place. He checked the right wrist. How limp and empty the hand felt! No pulse.
"Is he really dead?" Ruth whispered.
"I think he is." Thurlow dropped the flaccid hand, looked up at her. "You told him to die and he did."
A feeling oddly like remorse shot through her then. She thought of the Chem-immortal, all that seemingly endless living come to this. Did I kill him? she wondered. And aloud: "Did we kill him?"
Thurlow looked down at the still figure. He remembered the conversation with Kelexel, the Chem pleading for some kind of mystic reassurance from the primitive "witch doctor."
I gave him nothing, Thurlow thought.
"He was crazy," Ruth whispered. "They're all crazy."
Yes, this creature had a special kind of madness and it was dangerous, Thurlow told himself. I was right to deny him. He was capable of killing us.
All crazy? Thurlow wondered. He recalled Kelexel's brief recital of Chem society. There were more of the creatures then. What would they do if they found two natives with a dead Chem?
"Should we do something?" Ruth asked.
Thurlow cleared his throat. What did she mean? Artificial respiration, perhaps? But he sensed madness in such action. What did he know about Chem metabolism? Futility in his eyes, Thurlow looked up at Ruth and was just in time to see two more Chem press past her.
Ruth stood where the two Chem pushed her, obviously unable to move. Her face mirrored terror and defeat
But the Chem acted as though they were alone in the room. They moved Kelexel's body on the bed.
Thurlow was caught by the tightly frozen looks on their faces. One, green-cloaked like Kelexel, was a bald, roundfaced female, her body solid and barrel-like. She bent over Kelexel with a gentle sureness, probing, palpitating. There was a feeling of professional sureness about her. The other, in a black cloak, had craggy features, a hooked nose. The skin of both was that weirdly metallic silver.
Not a word passed between them while the female made her examination.
Ruth stood watching as though nailed to the floor. The female was Ynvic, and Ruth remembered the sharp encounter with the shipsurgeon. The male Chem, though, was another matter, a person she'd seen only on the room screens as Kelexel talked to him -- Fraffin the Director. Even Kelexel's tone had changed when speaking of Fraffin. Ruth knew she could never forget that haughty face. Here stood the embodiment of Chem power, the one who'd killed her parents to provide a brief amusement for his people. He'd killed countless humans for no better reason. His acts transcended brutality to a point where they no longer could be called brutal. They were acts of casual expediency, less direct even than stepping on an ant.
Presently, Ynvic straightened, spoke in shiptongue: "He has done it. He has certainly done it." There was a blank emptiness in her voice.
The sound was gibberish to Thurlow, but he sensed the horror.
To Ruth, a product of storyship education imprinters, the words were as clear as English, but there were overtones of meaning which escaped her.
Ynvic turned to stare at Fraffin. The look that passed between them was filled with the poignancy of defeat. They both knew what had really happened here.
Fraffin sighed, shuddered. The blurred-off moment of Kelexel's death had come to him through Tiggywaugh's web, the Chem oneness momentarily shattered by that impossible demarcation. Feeling that death, sensing its direction, Fraffin had known the identity with terrifying sureness. Every Chem in the universe had felt it, of course, and turned in this direction, no doubt, but Fraffin knew that few had shared his certain knowledge of identity. It was as though he'd anticipated the event.
Dying, Kelexel had defeated him. Fraffin had known this even as he dashed with Ynvic for a flitter and homed on this point in space. The sky up there was full of craft from the storyship, all of the crewmen afraid to come closer. Most of them had guessed who'd died here, Fraffin realized. They knew the Primacy wouldn't rest until it identified the dead one. No Chem out there would rest until the mystery was solved.
Here was the first immortal Chem to die, the first in all that crazy endless Time. This planet would soon be aswarm with the Primacy's minions, all the storyship's secrets exposed.
Wild Chem! It'd be an emotional blast through the Chem universe. There was no telling what might be done with these creatures.
"What ... killed him?" Ruth ventured, speaking shiptongue.
Ynvic turned a glassy stare on her. The poor stupid female! What could she know of Chem ways? "He killed himself," Ynvic said, her voice soft. "It's the only way a Chem can die." "What're they saying?" Thurlow asked. He heard his voice come out overloud. "He killed himself," Ruth said. "That's the only way a Chem can die ... "
Ruth heard herself translating as though it were another person revealing this to some part of her which had been sleeping. The only way a Chem can die ...
Fraffin, hearing the exchange, felt the need to speak lest he fall into an abyss which lay within his own skull. He spoke in English to Thurlow: "It has never happened before. A Chem has never died before."
Thurlow absorbed this and thought: You're mistaken. You have to be mistaken. There would've been other Chem deaths ... long ago. Otherwise these Chem could not be what they obviously were --fugitives. They were fugitives from death. Thurlow almost spoke this thought, but he saw that Fraffin had fallen into a reverie approaching trance. The female Chem had finished examining the body on the bed and was staring at her companion.
Presently, Ynvic spoke in shiptongue: "It was the only way he could defeat us."
Fraffin nodded, hearing Ynvic as though from a distance. What a price to pay for victory. What a story it would've made for the empatheaters of the Chem universe! For a Chem to kill himself ... Fraffin looked at Ruth, beautiful, exotic creature. He felt an abrupt communication with her and with all the others like her. They have no past except the past I gave them. The thought was filled with despairing pride. He knew he had lost his world. Kelexel ... the Primacy had won. And not one among that Primacy could really know what they had won.
His nostrils were suddenly filled with the same smell of bitter salt he'd inhaled once in the sistral winds of Carthage. He felt his own life identified with Carthage.
The Primacy would exile him to lonely, Chemless foreverness, he knew. It was the only punishment they could inflict on a fellow Chem, no matter what the crime.
How long will I be able to withstand it before I take Kelexel's way out? he wondered.
Again, he inhaled the dusty, salt smell --Carthage, leafless, contaminated, stripped in the blaze-light of Cato's gloating, its survivors crouching, terrified.
"I told you it'd end this way," Ynvic said.
Fraffin closed his eyes against the sight of her. In his self-imposed darkness, he could see his own future: the eagle's eyrie come to shame, hidden in a dooryard. He could see it by the dark of the blood that fed the ravenous oracle within him. They'd fit him with every machine and device for comfort and foreverness --everything except a fellow Chem or any other living creature.
He imagined an automatic toaster erupting and himself begging life into it. His thoughts were like a skipped rock touching the surface of a lake. His memories of this planet would not let him alone. He was the skipped rock, condensing eons: A tree, a face ... the glimpse of a face, and his memory shaped out Kallima-Sin's daughter given in marriage (at a Chem's direction) to Amenophis in three thousand five hundred puny year-beats ago.
And facts: he remembered that King Cyrus had preferred archeology to the throne. The fool!
And places: a wall in a dirty village along a desert track, a place called Muqayyar. One wall and it called up mighty Ur as he had seen it last ... In his mind, Tiglath-Pileser was not gone, but marched yet before the Chem recorders, through Ishtar Gate, along Procession Street It was a timeless parade with Sennacherib, Shalmanessar, Isem-Dagan, Sinsarra- iskun, all dancing to the Chem tune.
There was a worldpulse in Fraffin's mind now, a sinepounding timewave: diastole/systole, compelling blacksnake ripples that whipped across generations.
His thoughts dipped briefly into the Babylonian Lingua-franca that had served the merchant world for two thousand years before he'd stirred the pot by giving them Jesus.
Fraffin felt then that his own mind was the sole repository for his creatures, his person the only preservation they had --a place of yearnings, full of voices and faces and entire races whose passage had left no mark except distantly outraged whispering ... and tears. And all of it played only in his own memories. That was the only empatheater left to him: the awareness within his own head. These thoughts produced a terminal flare of consciousness so that he saw then something of what Kelexel had seen in those final moments.
Again, he looked at Ruth ... at Thurlow. Their fear lay so obvious upon their features. Fraffin felt his mind spinning. This, he knew, had to be the making of maturity for himself. And after maturity ...
I'm seeing life from their point of view! he thought I've become one of my own creatures!
All the history of this planet ... his planet lay collapsed and condensed now within him.
From Sheba's time his memory handed him a vision of her camel-station metropolis, a place that withstood Aelius Callus and his legions, but now like Carthage and himself was reduced to petty walls of crumbled dust, kitchen middens, sandspume, silent stones-a place waiting for some King Cyrus with shovels to expose its empty skulls.
Aurum et ferrum, he thought. Gold and iron.
And he wondered if there'd be a wink-flare of reason before the burning darkness.
I'll have no activity in which to hide my mind, he thought, nothing at last to protect me from boredom.