But the Outsiders were still here, alive in that huge alien brain ... the science, the knowledge, the strange arts of a race which had conquered the stars while men still wondered about the magic of lightning and fire. A science was encapsuled here which could speak of war and curiosity as discontent, but could say nothing definite of contentment. An incomplete science? A merely alien science? Rynason didn't know.
And the Hirlaji.... Twenty-six of their race remained, dreaming under heavy domes through which the stars shone at night and silhouetted the worn edges of broken stone. Twenty-six grey, hopeless beings who had not even been waiting. And the Earthmen had come.
For a moment Rynason wondered if the Hirlaji did not perhaps carry a message for the Earthmen too: that decadence was the price of peace, death the inevitable end of contentment. The Hirlaji had stilled themselves, back in the grey past ... had taken their measure of quiet and contentment for thousands of years, the searching drives of their race dying within them. And this was their end.
THERE IS NO PURPOSE.
Rynason shook himself, and felt the cold wind cut through his clothing; it reawakened him. Stooping, he gathered up several of the disintegrators and brought them with him to the head of the massive stairs up which the attackers must come. He crouched beside those stairs, watching for movement below. But he couldn't see anything.
Something about the Hirlaji still bothered him; kneeling in the gathering darkness he finally isolated it in his mind. It was their hopelessness, the numbness that had crept over them through the centuries. No purpose? But they had lived in peace for thousands of years. No, their death was not merely one of decadence ... it was suffocation.
They had not chosen peace; it had been thrust upon them. The Hirlaji had been at the height of their power, their growth still gathering momentum ... and they had to stifle it. The end in view didn't really matter: it had not been what they would have chosen. And, having had peace forced upon them before they had been ready for it, they had been unable to enjoy it; and the stifling of scientific curiosity that had been necessary to complete the suppression of the war-instinct had left the Hirlaji with nothing.
But it had all been so unnecessary, Rynason thought. The ancient Outsiders brain, computing from insufficient evidence probably gathered during a brief touchdown on Earth, had undoubtedly been able to give only a tentative appraisal of the situation. But the proto-Hirlaji language was not constructed to accommodate if's and maybe's, and the judgments of the brain were taken as law by the Hirlaji.
Now the Earthmen for whom this race had deadened itself into near-extinction would complete the job ... because the Hirlaji had learned their mistake far too late.
Rynason shook his head; there was a sickness in his stomach, a gnawing anger at the ways of history. It was capricious, cruel, senseless. It played jokes spanning millennia.
Suddenly there were sounds on the stairs below him. Rynason's head jerked up and he saw five of the Earthmen climbing the stairs, moving as quickly as they could from level to level, crouching momentarily at each beneath the cover of the steps. He raised one of the disintegrators, feeling the rage building up within him.
There was a humming sound by his ear; the beam of one of the stunners passed by him, touching the rock wall. The wall vibrated at the touch, but the range was too great for the beam to have done it any damage. They were close enough, though to stun Rynason if they hit him.
He dropped flat, looking for the man who had fired. In a moment he found him: a small, lean man slipped almost silently over the edge of one of the step-levels and rolled quickly to cover beneath the next. He had got further than Rynason had realized; only three levels separated them now. He could see, from this distance in the near-dark, the cruel lines of the man's face. It was a harsh, dirty face, with wrinkles like seams; the man's eyes were harsh slits. Rynason had seen too many faces like that here on the Edge; this was a man with a bitter hatred, looking for the chance to unleash it upon anyone who got in his way. And the enjoyment which Rynason saw gleaming in the man's eyes chilled him momentarily.
In that moment the man leaped to the next level, sending off a beam which struck the wall two feet from Rynason; he felt the stinging vibration against his body as he lay flat. Slowly he sighted the disintegrator at the top of the level under which the man had crouched for cover, and waited for his next leap. Within him he felt only a bitter cold which matched the wind whipping above him.
Again the man moved-but he had crept to the side of the stairs before he leaped, and Rynason's shot bit into the stone beside him as he rolled to safety. Now only one level separated them.
Further down the stairs, Rynason saw the others moving up behind the smaller man. Still more were moving out from the other buildings and darting to the stairs. But he had no time to hold them back.
There was silence, except for the wind.
And the man leaped, firing once, twice. The second beam took Rynason in the left wrist and spun him off-balance for a moment. But he was already firing in return, rolling to one side. His third shot took the man's right shoulder off, and bit into his neck. The man staggered forward two steps, trying to raise his stunner again, but suddenly it clattered to the floor and he crumpled on top of it. A pool of blood spread around him.
Rynason moved back to the cover of the side wall, and watched for the other men. The first one had got too near; Rynason hadn't realized how easily they could approach in this near-darkness. He felt the numbness of the stunnerbeam spreading nearly to his shoulder; his left arm was useless. Cursing, he trained the disintegrator along the line of the steps and fired.
The disintegrator cut through the stone as though it were putty, for a range of twenty feet. Rynason played the beam back and forth along the steps, cutting them down to a smooth ramp which the attackers would have to climb before they could get to him.
One of them tried to leap the last few levels before Rynason could cut them, but he sliced the man in two through the chest. The separate parts of the man's body fell and rolled back to the untouched levels below. He had not had time to utter even a cry of pain.
For a time, now, there was complete silence in the wind. Rynason could see the inert legs of the last attacker projecting out over the edge of the third level down, and undoubtedly the others saw them too. They were hesitating now, unsure of themselves. Rynason stayed pressed to the stone floor, waiting. The wind whipped in a rising moan through the upper reaches of the building.
Another of the men slipped over the edge of the massive stairs, hugging the deeper darkness at the side of the stair-wall, and slowly inched his way up the newly-flattened ramp. Rynason watched him coldly, through a grey haze of fury which was yet tinged with despair. What use was all this, the killing, the blood and sweat and pain? It disgusted him-yet by its perverse senselessness it angered him too.
He cut a swathe through the crawling man, through head and neck and back. A gory shell-like hulk slid back to the foot of the ramp.
And abruptly the remaining men broke and ran. One of them rose and stumbled down the steep levels of the stairs, heedless of his exposure; with a shock, Rynason saw that it was Rene Malhomme. Another followed ... and another. There were almost a dozen of them on the stairs; they all broke and ran. Rynason sent one beam after them, biting a depression into the rock wall beside them. Then they were gone.
Rynason moved back from the head of the stairs and leaned wearily against the stone. His left arm was beginning to tingle with returning circulation now; he rubbed it absently with his good hand and wondered if they would try the sheer walls on the other side of the Temple. He had scaled one of these ancient walls, but would they try it? Certainly they stood little chance coming up the stairs, unless they gathered for a concerted rush. And who would lead such a suicidal attack? These men were vicious, but they valued their lives too.
Yet he couldn't watch the black walls. Leaving the stairway unguarded would be the most dangerous course of all.
In a few minutes the hand-radio, forgotten on the stone floor behind him, flashed an intermittent light which caught his eye in the dusk. That would be Manning.
Rynason slid the radio over to the head of the stairs and switched on there, keeping an eye on the stairway.
"Lee, do you hear me?"
"I hear you." His voice was low and bitter.
"I'm coming in to talk. Hold your God damned fire."
"Why should I?" said Rynason, "Because I'm bringing Mara with me. It's too bad you don't trust me, Lee, but if that's the way you want it I won't trust you either."
"That's a good idea," he said, and switched off.
Almost immediately he saw them come out from behind the cover of a fallen wall across the dusty street. Mara walked in front of Manning; her head was high, her face almost expressionless. The cold wind threw dust against their legs as they crossed the open space to the base of the steps.
Rynason stood motionless, watching them come up. Manning still had his two stunners, but they were in their holsters. He kept behind the girl all the way, pausing before pushing her up the open ramp at the top, then moving even more closely behind her. Rynason stood with the disintegrator hanging loosely in one hand at his side.
On the colonnade Manning gripped the girl by her undamaged arm. He nodded to one of the doorways into the temple, and Rynason preceded him inside.
As they entered Manning lit a handlight and set it on the floor. The room was thrown into stark relief, the shadows of the motionless aliens striking the walls and ceiling with an almost physical harshness. Manning paused a moment to look at the Hirlaji, and at the altar across the room.
"We can hear each other in here," he said at last.
"What do you want?" said Rynason. There was cool hatred in his voice, and the knife-scar on his forehead was a dark snake-line in the hard glare of the handlight.
Manning shrugged, a bit too quickly. He was nervous. "I want you out of here, Lee, and I'm not accepting any argument this time."
Rynason looked at Mara, standing helplessly in the older man's grip. He glanced down at the disintegrator in his hand.
Manning drew one of his stunners quickly, and trained it at Rynason's face. "I said no arguments. Put the weapon down, Lee."
Rynason couldn't risk a shot at the man, with Mara in front of him. He carefully laid the disintegrator on the floor.
"Slide it over here."
Rynason kicked it across the floor. Manning bent and picked it up, returned the stunner to its holster and held the disintegrator on him.
"That's better. Now we can avoid arguments-right, Lee? You've always like peaceful settlements, haven't you?"
Rynason glared at him, but didn't say anything. He walked slowly into the center of the room, among the Hirlaji. They paid no attention.
"Lee, he's going to kill them!" Mara burst out.
Rynason was standing now next to the interpreter. The handlight which Manning had set on the floor across the room was trained upwards, and the interpreter was still in the darkness. He lowered his head as if in thought and switched on the machine with his foot.
"Is that true, Manning? Are you going to kill them?" His voice was loud and it echoed from the walls.
"I can't trust them," Manning said, his voice automatically growing louder in response to Rynason's own. He stepped forward, pushing Mara in front of him. "They're not human, Lee-you keep forgetting that, for some reason. Think of it as clearing the area of hostile native animal life-that comes under the duties of a governor, now doesn't it?"
"And what about the men outside? Did you put it that way to them?"
"They do what I say!" Manning snapped. "They don't give a damn who they kill. There's going to be fighting here whether it's against the Hirlaji or between the townsmen. As governor, I'd rather they took it all out on the horses here. Domestic tranquillity, shall we say?" He was smiling now; he had everything in control.
"So that's your purpose?" Rynason said. There was anger in his voice, feigned or real-perhaps both. But his voice rose still higher. "Is butchery your only goal in life, Manning?"
Manning stepped toward him again, his eyes narrowing. "Butchery? It's better than no purpose at all, Lee! It'll get me off of these damned outworlds eventually, if I'm a good enough butcher. And I mean to be, Lee ... I mean to be."
Rynason turned his back on the man in contempt, and walked past Horng to the base of the ancient altar. He looked up at the Eye of Kor, dim now when not in use. He turned.
"Is it better, Manning?" he shouted. "Does it give you a right to live, while you slaughter the Hirlaji?"
Manning cursed under his breath, and took a quick step toward Rynason; his hard, black shadow leaped up the wall.
"Yes! It gives me any right I can take!"
It happened quickly. Manning was now beside the massive figure of the alien, Horng; in his anger he had loosened his grip on Mara. He raised the disintegrator toward Rynason.
And Horng's huge fist smashed it from his hand.
Manning never knew what hit him. Before he had even realized that the disintegrator was gone Horng had him. One heavy hand circled his throat; the other gripped his shoulder. The alien lifted him viciously and broke him like a stick; Rynason could almost hear the man's neck break, so final was that twist of the alien's hands.
Horng lifted the lifeless body above his head and hurled it to the floor with such force that the man's head was stoved in and his body lay twisted and motionless where it fell.
Afterwards there was silence in the room, save for the distant sound of the wind against the building outside. Horng stood looking down at the broken body at his feet, his expression as unfathomable as it had ever been. Mara stared in shocked silence at the alien.
Rynason walked slowly to the mike lying beside the interpreter. He raised it.
"You can move quickly, old leather, when there's a reason for it," he said.
Horng turned his head to him and silently dipped it to one side.
Rynason lifted the broken form of Manning's body and carried it out to the top of the steps leading down from the temple. Mara went with him, carrying the handlight; it fell harshly on Manning's crushed features as Rynason waited atop the huge, steep stairway. The wind tore at his hair, whipping it wildly around his head ... but Manning's head was caked with blood. In a moment, the men from the town came out from cover; they stood at the base of the steps, indecisive.
They too were waiting for something.
Rynason hefted the body up over one shoulder and drew a disintegrator with the hand he had freed. Slowly, then, he descended the steps.
When he had neared the bottom the circle of men fell back. They were uneasy and sullen ... but they had seen the power of the disintegrator, and now they saw Manning's crushed body.
Rynason bent and dropped the body to the ground. He looked up coldly at the ring of faces and said, "One of the Hirlaji did that with his hands. That's all-just his hands."
For a moment everyone was still ... and then one of the men broke from the crowd, snarling, with a heavy knife in his hand. He stopped just outside the white circle of the handlight, the knife extended before him. Rynason raised the disintegrator and trained it on him, his face frozen into a cold mask.
The man stood in indecision.
And from the crowd behind him another figure stepped forward. It was Malhomme, and his lips were drawn back in disgust. He struck with an open hand, the side of his palm catching the man's neck beneath his ear. The man fell sprawling to the ground, and lay still.
Malhomme looked at him for a moment, then he turned to the men behind him. "That's enough!" he shouted. "Enough!" Angrily, he looked down at the crumpled form of Manning's body. "Bury him!" he said.
There was still no movement from the men; Malhomme grabbed two of them roughly and shoved them out of the crowd. They hesitated, looking quickly from Malhomme to the disintegrator in Rynason's hand, then bent to pick up the body.
"It's a measure of man's eternal mercy," said Malhomme acidly, "that at least we bury each other." He stared at the men in the mob, and the fury in his eyes broke them at last. Muttering, shrugging, shaking their heads, they dispersed, going off in two and threes to take cover from the wind-driven sand.
Malhomme turned to Rynason and Mara, his face relaxing at last. The hard lines around his mouth softened into a rueful smile as he put his arm around Rynason's shoulder. "We can all take shelter in the buildings here for the night. You could use some rest, Lee Rynason-you look like hell. And maybe I can put a temporary splint on your arm, woman."
They found a nearby building where the roof had long ago fallen in, but the walls were still standing. While Malhomme ministered to Mara he did not stop talking for a moment; Rynason couldn't tell whether he was trying to keep the girl's mind off the pain or whether he was simply unwinding his emotions.
"You know, I've preached at these men for so many years I've got callouses in my throat. And one of these days maybe they'll know what I'm talking about, so that I won't have to shout." He shrugged. "Well, it would be a dull world, where I didn't have a good excuse to shout. Sometimes you might ask your alien friends up there, Lee ... what did they get out of choosing peace?"
"They didn't choose it," said Rynason.
Malhomme grimaced. "I wonder if anybody, anywhere, ever will. Maybe the Outsiders did, but they're not around to tell us about it. It's an intriguing question to think about, if you don't have anything to drink ... what do you do, when there's nothing more to fight against, or even for?"
He straightened up; the splint on Mara's arm was set now. He settled her back in a drift of sand as comfortably as possible.
"I've got another question," Rynason said. "What were you doing among those men who came at me on the steps earlier?"
Malhomme's face broke into a wide grin. "That was a suicidal rush on you, Lee. A damned stupid tactic ... a rush like that is only as strong as the weakest coward in it. All it takes is one man to break and run, and everybody else will run too. So it was easy for me to break it up."
Rynason couldn't help chuckling at that; and once he had started, the tension that had gripped him for the past several hours found release in a full, stomach-shaking laugh.
"Rene Malhomme," he gasped, "that's the kind of leadership this planet needs!"
Mara smiled up from where she lay. "You know," she said, "now that Manning is dead they'll have to find someone else to be governor...."
"Don't be ridiculous," said Malhomme.
By Alfred Coppel
We humans are a strange breed, unique in the Universe. Of all the races met among the stars, only homo sapiens thrives on deliberate self-delusion. Perhaps this is the secret of our greatness, for we are great. In power, if not in supernal wisdom.
Legends, I think, are our strength. If one day a man stands on the rim of the Galaxy and looks out across the gulfs toward the seetee suns of Andromeda, it will be legends that drove him there.