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Книга The Jewels of Aptor. Содержание - Chapter XII

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“You all right?” Urson asked. “You sure you’re all right?”

Geo nodded, rubbing the stump of his arm with his good hand. “I’m all right,” he said. The trees had almost completely given out. Geo suddenly saw the whole swamp sinking in front of him. He splashed a step backwards, but Urson caught his shoulder. The swamp wasn’t sinking, though. But ripples had begun to appear over the water, spreading, crossing, webbing the whole surface with a net of tiny waves.

Then they began to rise up. Green backs broke the surface, wet and slippery. They were standing now, torrents cascading their green faces, green chests. Three of them, now a fourth. Four more, and then more, and then many more. They stood, now, these naked, green, mottled bodies.

Geo felt a sudden tugging in his head, at his mind. Looking around he saw that the others felt it too.

“Them…” Urson started.

“They’re the ones who carried us…” Geo began. The tug came again, and they stepped forward.

Iimmi put his hand on his head. “They want us to go with them…” And suddenly they were going forward, slipping into the familiar state of half-consciousness which had come when they had crossed the river, to the City of New Hope, or when they had first fallen into the sea.

Wet hands fell on their bodies as they were guided through the swamp. They were being carried through deeper water. Now they were walking over dry land where the vegetation was thicker, and slimy boulders caught shards of sunset on their wet flanks, blood leaking on the gray, the wet gray, and the green.

Through a rip in the arras of vegetation, they saw the moon push through the clouds, staining them silver. A rock rose in silhouette against the moon. On the rock a naked man stood, staring at the white disk. White highlighted one side of his body. As they passed, he howled (or anyway, opened his mouth and threw his head back. But their ears were full of night and could not hear.) and dropped to all fours. A breeze blew momentarily in the sudden plume of his tail, in the scraggly hair of the under-belly, and light lay white on the points of his ears, his lengthened muzzle, his thinned hind legs. The animal turned its head once, and then scampered down the rock and into the darkness as a curtain of trees swung across the opened sky.

Eyes of flame whipped ahead of them as water swirled their knees once more. Then the water went down and sand washed back under the soles of their feet on the dark beach. The beating of the sea, the rush of the river, and the odor of the wet leaves that fingered their cheeks, prodded their shins, and slapped against their bellies as they moved forward, all this fell away. Red eyes wavered into flaming tongues, and the tongues showed themselves housed in the mouths of a dozen caves.

Light flickered on the wet rocks and they entered the largest one. Their eyes suddenly focused once more. Foam washed back and forth over the sand floor, and black chains of weeds, caught in crevices on the rock, lengthened over the sand with the inrush of water. Webbed hands released them.

Brown rocks rose around in the firelight. They raised their eyes to where the Old One sat. The long spines were strung with shrunken membrane. His eyes, gray and indistinct, were close to the surface of his broad nostriled face. A film of water trickled over the rock where he sat. Others stood about him, on various levels of the rock.

The tugging left them, and they glanced at one another now. Outside the cave it was raining hard. Geo saw that Argo’s hair had wet to dark auburn and hugged her head now, making little streaks down her neck.

Suddenly a voice boomed at them, like an echo, more than the reverberation that the cave would give. “Carriers of the jewels,” it began, and suddenly Geo realized that it was the same hollowness that accompanied Snake’s soundless messages. “We have brought you here to give a warning. We are the oldest forms of intelligence on this planet,” continued the Old One from the throne. “We have watched from the delta of the Nile the rise of the pyramids; we have seen the murder of Caesar from the banks of the Tiber. We watched the Spanish Armada destroyed by English, and we followed Man’s great metal fish through the ocean before the Great Fire. We have never aligned ourselves with either Argo or Hama, but rise in the sexless swell of the ocean. We can warn you, as we have warned man before. As before, some will listen, some will not. Your minds are your own, now. That I pledge you. Now, I warn you; cast the jewels into the sea.

“Nothing is ever lost in the sea, and when the evil has been washed from them with time and brine, they will be returned to man. For then time and brine will have washed away his imperfections also.

“No living intelligence is free from their infection, nothing with the double impulse of life. But we are old, and can hold them for a million years before we will be so infected as you are. Your young race is too condensed in its living to tolerate such power at its fingers now. Again I say: cast these into the sea.

“The knowledge which man needs to alleviate hunger and pain from the world of men is contained in two monasteries on this island. Both have the science to put the jewels to use, to the good use which is possible with them. Both have been infected. In Leptar, however, where you carry these jewels, there is no way at all to utilize them for anything but evil. There will only be the temptation to destroy.”

“What about me?” Argo suddenly piped up. “I can teach them all sorts of things in Leptar.” She took one of Snake’s hands. “We used one for our motor.”

“You will find something else to make your motor turn,” came the voice. “You still have to see something that you have not yet seen?”

“At the beach?” demanded Iimmi.

“Yes,” nodded the Old One, with something like a sigh, “at the beach. We have a science that allows us to do things which to you seem impossibilities, as when we carried you in the sea for weeks without your body decaying. We can enter your mind as Snake does. And we can do much else. We have a wisdom which far surpasses even Argo’s and Hama’s on Aptor. Will you then cast the jewels into the sea and trust them with us?”

Here Urson interrupted. “How can we give you the jewels?” he said. “How can we be sure you’re not going to use them against Argo and Hama once you get them. You say nobody is impervious to them. And we’ve only got your say so on how long it would take you to fall victim. You can already influence minds. That’s how you got us here. And according to Hama, that’s what corrupts. And you’ve already done it.”

“Besides,” Geo said. “There’s something else. We’ve nearly messed this thing up a dozen times trying to figure out motives and counter motives. And it always comes back to the same thing: we’ve got a job to do, and we ought to do it. We’re suppose to return Argo and the jewels to the ship, and that’s what we’re doing.”

“He’s right,” said Iimmi. “It’s the general rule again. Act on the simplest theory that holds all the information.”

The Old One sighed again. “Once, fifteen hundred years ago, a man who was to maneuver one of the metal birds walked and pondered by the sea. He had been given a job to do. We tried to warn him, as we tried to warn you. But he jammed his hands into the pockets of his khaki uniform, and uttered to the waves the words you just uttered, and the warning was shut out of his mind. He scrambled up over the dunes on the beach, never taking his hands out of his pockets. The next morning, at five o’clock, when the sun slanted red across the air field, he climbed into his metal bird, took off, flew for some time over the sea, looking down on the water like crinkled foil under the heightening sun, until he reached land again. Then he did his job: he pressed a button which released two shards of fire metal in a housing of cobalt. The land flamed. The sea boiled in the harbors. And two weeks later he was also dead. That which burned your arm away, poet, burned away his whole face, boiled his lungs in his chest and his brain in his skull.”

There was a pause. And then, “Yes, we can control minds. We could have relieved the tiredness, immobilized the fear, the terror, immobilized all his unconscious reasons for doing what he did, just as man can now do with the jewels. But had we, we would have also immobilized the—the honor which he clung to. Yes, we can control minds, but we do not.” Now the voice swelled. “But never, since that day on the shore before the Great Fire, has the temptation to do so been as great as now.” Again the voice returned to normal. “Perhaps,” and there was almost humor in it now, “the temptation is too great, even for us. Perhaps we have reached the place where the jewels would push us just across the line where we have never before gone, make us do those things that we have never done. You have heard our warning now. The choice, I swear to you, is yours.”

They stood silent in the high cave, the fire on their faces weaving brightness and shadow. Geo turned to look at the rain-blurred darkness outside the cave’s entrance.

“Out there is the sea,” said the voice again. “Your decision quickly. The tide is coming in…”

It was snatched from their minds before they could articulate it. Two children saw a bright motor turning in the shadow. Geo and Iimmi saw the temples of Argo in Leptar. Then there was something darker. And for a moment, they all saw all the pictures at once.

A wave splashed across the floor, like twisted glass before the rock on which the fire stood. Then it flopped wetly across the burning driftwood which hissed into darkness. Charred sticks turned, glowing in the water, and were extinguished.

Rain was buffeting them; hands held them once more, pulling them into the warm sea, the darkness, and then nothing…

Snake was thinking again, and this time through the captain’s eyes.

The cabin door burst open in the rain. Wind whipped her wet veils about her in the door as lightning made them transparent, blackening her body’s outline. Jordde rose from his seat. She closed the door on thunder.

“I have received the signal from the sea,” she said. “Tomorrow you pilot the ship into the estuary.”

The captain’s voice: “But Priestess Argo, I cannot take the ship into Aptor. We already have lost ten men; I cannot sacrifice…”

“And the storm,” smiled Jordde. “If it is like this tomorrow, how can I take her through the rocks?”

Her nostrils flared as her lips compressed to a chalky line. She was regarding Jordde.

The captain’s thoughts: What is between them, this confused tension. It upsets me deeply, and I am tired.

“You will pilot the boat to shore tomorrow,” Argo nearly hissed. “They have returned, with the jewels!”

The captain’s thoughts: They speak to each other in a code I don’t understand. I am so tired, now. I have to protect my ship, my men, that is my job, my responsibility.

But Argo turned to the captain. “I hired you to obey me. I order you to pilot this ship to Aptor’s shore tomorrow morning.”

The captain’s thoughts; Yes, yes. The fatigue and the unknowing. But I must fulfill, must complete. “Jordde,” he began.

“Yes, captain,” answered the mate, anticipating. “If the weather is permitting, sir, I will take the ship as close as I can get.” He smiled now, a thin curve over his face, and turned toward Argo.

Chapter XII

Roughness of sand beneath one of his sides, and the flare of the sun on the other. His eyes were hot and his lids were orange over them. He turned over, and reached out to dig his fingers into the sand. Only one hand closed; then he remembered. Opening his eyes, he rolled to his knees. The sand grated under his knee caps. Looking out toward the water, he saw that the sun hung only seeming inches above the horizon. Then he saw the ship.

From its course, he gathered it was heading toward the estuary of the river down the beach. He began to run toward where the rocks and vegetation cut off the end of the beach. The sand under his feet was cool.

A moment later he saw Iimmi’s dark figure come from the jungle. He was heading for the same place. Geo hailed him, and panting, they joined each other. Then, together they continued toward the rocks.

As they broke through the first sheet of foliage, they bumped into the red-haired girl who stood, knuckling her eyes in the shadow of the broad palm fronds. When she recognized them, she joined them silently. Finally they reached the outcropping of rock a few hundred feet up the river bank.

The rain had swelled the river’s mouth to tremendous violence. It vomited surges of brown water into the ocean, frothed against rocks, and boiled opaquely below them. It was nearly half again as wide as Geo remembered it.

Although the sky was clear, beyond the brown bile of the river, the sea snarled viciously and bared white teeth in the sun. It took another fifteen minutes for the boat to maneuver through the granite spikes toward the rocky embankment a hundred yards away.

Glancing down into the turbulence, Argo breathed, “Gee.” But that was the only human sound against the water’s roaring.

The boat’s prow doffed in the swell, and then at last her plank swung out and bumped unsteadily on the rocky bank. Figures were gathering on deck.

“Hey,” Argo said, pointing toward one. “That’s Sis!”

“Where the hell are Snake and Urson?” Iimmi asked.

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