"Hey! what's this?" Kennon asked curiously. "That crater looks peculiar, like a meteor had struck here -- but those stunted plants -- hmm -- there must have been some radioactivity too." He looked at the crater speculatively. "Now I wonder----"he began.
Copper had turned a sickly white. "No!" she said in a half-strangled voice--"oh, no!'
Kennon looked at her. "You know what this is?" he demanded.
"No," Copper said. But her voice was unsteady.
"But I don't know." Copper wailed. "I'm only guessing. I've never seen this place before in my life! Please! -- let's get out of here!"
"Then you know about this," Kennon demanded.
"I think it's the Pit," Copper said. 'The redes don't say where it is. But the description fits -- the Circle of Death, the Twisted Land -- it's all like the redes say."
"Redes? -- what are redes? And what is this business about circles of death? There's something here that's peculiar and I want to know what it is."
"It's nothing. Truly. Just let's go back. Let's leave this place. It's no good. It's tabu."
"Tabu? You've never used that word before."
"Who forbids it?"
"The Gods -- the Old Ones. It is not for Lani. Nor for you." Her voice was harsh. "Come away before it is too late. Before the Silent Death strikes you down."
"I'm going to have a look at this."
"You'll be killed!" Copper said. "And if you die, I die too."
"Don't be foolish. There's nothing here that can hurt me. See those trees and plants growing right up to the crater's edge. If they can take it permanently, I can stand it for a few moments. If there's any radioactivity there, it's not very much."
"But the redes say---"
"Oh, forget those redes. I know what I'm doing. Besides, I'm a Betan and can stand more radiation than most men. A brief exposure isn't going to hurt me."
"You go and I go too," Copper said desperately.
''You'll stay here where it's safe," Kennon said flatly.
"I'm going with you," Copper repeated. "I don't want to live without you."
"I tell you I won't be hurt. And one quick look isn't going to bother whatever's down there."
"That's what Roga the Foolish said when he opened Lyssa's tower. But he brought men to Flora. And your little look may bring an even greater calamity."
Kennon shrugged, and started Walking toward the crater's edge.
He turned to order her back, but the words died on his tips as he saw the terror and determination on her face. Neither commands nor pleas would move her. If he went she would follow. The only way he could stop her would be with violence, and he didn't want to manhandle her. He felt an odd mixture of pride, tenderness, and admiration for her. Were their situations reversed, he doubted whether he would have the courage she was showing. He sighed. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps he did need an antiradiation suit.
"All right," he said. "You win. I'll get some protective clothing and look at it later."
Her knees sagged, but he caught her before she fell, and held her erect until her strength returned. Belatedly he understood the emotional strain that had been gripping her. "If you come back later, sir, you'll take me with you." The words were a statement, not a question.
He nodded. "Providing you wear a radiation suit," he said.
She grimaced with distaste and he chuckled. Clothing and Copper simply didn't get along together.
"All right," she said unhappily.
"And there's one more condition."
"What's that?" she asked suspiciously.
"That you tell me about this place. You obviously know something about it, and with all your talking, you've never mentioned it to me."
"It is forbidden to talk of these things to men," Copper said -- and then, perversely, "Do you want me to tell you now?"
"No -- it can wait. We have come a long way and I am hungry. I listen poorly on an empty stomach. Let's go back to the jeep and you can tell me later."
Copper smiled. "That's good," she said. "I'd feel better away from this place."
"I was a poor learner of the redes," Copper confessed. "And I'll have to skip the Mysteries. I never even tried to learn them. Somehow I was sure I'd never be a preceptress." She settled herself more comfortably on the tawny grass and watched him as he lay on his back beside her.
"Eh?" Kennon said, "Preceptress?"
"The guardians of our traditions. They know the redes and mysteries by heart."
"And you have kept your religion alive that way all these years?"
"It isn't exactly religion," Copper said. "It's more like history, we learn it to remember that we were once a great race -- and that we may be again. Someday there will come a male, a leader to bring us out of bondage, and our race will be free of dependence on men. There will be pairings again, and freedom to live as we please." She looked thoughtfully at Kennon. "You might even be the one -- even though you are human. You're different from the others."
"You're prejudiced." Kennon smiled. "I'm no different. Well -- not very different at any rate."
"That is not my thought," Copper said. "You are very different indeed. No man has ever resisted a Lani as long as you have."
Kennon shook his head. "Let's not go into that now. What are these redes?"
"I do not remember them all," Copper apologized. "I was----"
"You've said that before. Tell me what you do know."
"I remember the beginning fairly well," she said. "It goes back to the time before Flora when everything was nothing and the Master Himself was lonely."
Without warning her voice changed to a rhythmic, cadenced chant that was almost a song. Her face became rapt and introspective as she rocked slowly from side to side. The rhythm was familiar and then he recognized it -- the unintelligible music he had often heard coming from the barracks late at night when no men were around -- the voiceless humming that the Lani sang at work.
First there was Darkness -- starless and sunless Void without form -- darker than night Then did the Master -- Lord of Creation Wave His right hand, saying, "Let there be light!"
Verse, Kennon thought. That was logical. People remember poetry better than prose. But the form was not what he'd normally expect. It was advanced, a style that was past primitive blank verse or heroic pentameter. He listened intently as Copper went on.
Light filled the heavens, bright golden glowing, Brought to the Void by His wondrous hand; Then did the Master -- Lord of Creation -- Nod His great head, saying, "Let there be land!"
Air, land, and water formed into being, Born in the sight of His all-seeing eyes; Then did the master -- Lord of Creation -- Smile as He murmured, "Let life arise!"
All of the life conceived by the Master, Varied in shape as the grasses and birds; Hunters and hunted, moveless and moving, Came into form at the sound of His words.
"That's a great deal like Genesis," Kennon said with mild astonishment. "Where could you have picked that up?"
"From the beginning of our race," Copper said. "It came to us with Ulf and Lyssa -- but what is Genesis?"
"A part of an ancient religion -- one that is still followed on some of the Central Worlds. Its followers call themselves Christians. They say it came from Earth, the mother-world of men."
"Our faith has no name. We are children of Lyssa, who was a daughter of the Master."
"It is an odd similarity," Kennon said. "But other races have had stories of the Creation. And possibly there may be another explanation. Your ancestors could have picked this up from Alexander's men. They came from Earth originally and some of them could have been Christians."
"No," Cooper said. "This rede is long before Man Alexander. It is the origin of our world, even before Ulf and Lyssa. It is the first Book -- the Book of the God-spell. Man Alexander came in the sixth Book -- the Book of Roga."
"There's no point in arguing about it," Kennon said. "Go on -- tell me the rest."
"It's going to be a long story," Copper said. "Even though I have forgotten some of it, I can chant the redes for hours."
Kennon braced his back against one of the fat tires of the jeep. "I'm a good listener," he said.
She chuckled. "You asked for this," she said -- and took up the verses where she had left off. And Kennon learned the Lani version of creation, of the first man and woman, cast out of Heaven for loving each other despite the Master's objection, of how they came to Flora and founded the race of the Lani. He learned how the Lani grew in numbers and power, how they split into two warring groups over the theological point of whether Ulf or Lyssa was the principal deity, how Roga the Foolish opened Lyssa's tower to find out whether the Ulfians or Lyssans were right, and brought the Black Years to Flora.
He heard the trial of Roga and the details of his torture by the priests of Ulf and the priests of Lyssa -- united by this greatest sacrilege. And he heard the Lani version of the landing of Alexander's ship and man's conquest of Flora.
It was a story of savagery and superstition, of blood and intolerance, of bravery and cowardice, of love and beauty. Yet through it all, even through the redes that described the Conquest, there was a curious remoteness, a lack of emotion that made the verses more terrible as they flowed in passionless rhythm from Copper's lips.
"That's enough!" Kennon said.
"I told you you wouldn't like it."
"It's horrible. How can you remember such things?"
"We begin to learn them as soon as we can talk. We know the redes almost our entire lives." Copper was silent for a moment. "There's lots more," she said, "but it's all about our lives since the Man Alexander -- the old one -- took possession of us. And most of the newer redes are pretty dull. Our life hasn't changed much since the men came. The Book of Man is boring." Copper sighed. "I have dared a great deal by telling you these things. If the others knew, they would kill both of us."
"Then why tell me?" he asked.
"I love you," she said simply. "You wanted to know -- and I can deny you nothing."
A wave of tenderness swept over him. She would give her life for him -- and what would he give? Nothing. Not even his prejudices. His face twisted. If she was only human, If she wasn't just an animal. If he wasn't a Betan. If, if, if. Resentment gorged his throat. It was unfair -- so damned unfair. He had no business coming here. He should have stayed on Beta or at least on a human world where he would never have met Copper. He loved her, but he couldn't have her. It was Tantalus and Sisyphus rolled into one unsightly package and fastened to his soul. With a muttered curse he rose to his feet, and as he did he stopped -- frozen - staring at Copper as though he had never seen her before.
"How did you say that Roga was judged responsible for Alexander coming here?" he demanded.
"He went into Lyssa's tower -- where Ulf and Lyssa tried to call Heaven -- and with his foolish meddling set the tower alight with a glow that all could see. Less than a week later the Man Alexander came."
"Where was this tower?"
"Where Alexandria now stands. Man Alexander destroyed it and built his house upon its ruins."
"And what was that place of the Pit?"
"The Shrine of Ulf -- where the God-Egg struck Flora. It is buried in the pit, but the Silent Death has protected it from blasphemy -- and besides Man Alexander never learned about it. We feared that he would destroy it as he did Lyssa's tower."
A wild hope stirred in Kennon. "We're going home," he announced.
"And we're going to get a pair of radiation suits -- and then we're coming back. We'll have a good look at that Pit, and if what's in there is what I think it is" -- his face was a mixture of grimness and eagerness -- "we'll blow this whole operation off this planet!"
Copper blanched. "It is death to meddle with the God-Egg," she said.
"Superstition!" Kennon scoffed. "If that Egg is what I think, it was made by men, and you are their descendant."
"Perhaps you're right, but I can't help thinking you are wrong," she said soberly. "Look at the trouble that came with Roga's meddling. Be careful that you do not bring us a worse fate."
"I'll be very careful. We'll take every precaution."
"You're coming, of course. I can't imagine you staying away."
"You shouldn't worry so much" Kennon teased. "You know we men live forever."
"That is true."
"And if I'm right you're just as human as I. And you're capable of living as long as I do."
"Yes, sir," Copper said. Her voice was unconvinced, her expression noncommittal.
"You females," Kennon said in quick exasperation. "You drive a man crazy. Get an idea in your head and it takes triatomate to blast it out. Now let's go."