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
"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
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?"
"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
"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
"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.
"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
"But they didn't die
out, dammit, because there one is!"
"In a cage, thanks to
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
"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
"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
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!"
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
"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.
"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
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
"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
"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!"
foreseen," repeated the native, "the coming change in the universe,
and were in the process of adapting to it."
Glenner echoed, and straightened up. "You mean the Terran
"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
"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
"In 1.7 years. My
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
The Mirvanian smiled.
"Next question. Will I
make senior rank next season?"
"Damn! Well, when will I
"Because you will be
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 to their home
"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
"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.
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
"The universe is on the
wane. Energy ebbs. All matter, all life, will stagnate. Then decline, decay,
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
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
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
"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
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
"How did you sabotage
"I did not. That
was coincidence." His smile widened. "But a wise man seizes every
"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
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
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
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
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? I was fighting
for my freedom!"
"You would have had your
freedom, if you had cooperated. If you had restrained yourself."
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
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
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
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,
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
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.