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Back on land that evening, Icebowl Base decided it was time to relax and party. Nobody talked about the work at Vrent or theories about the Ancients. In the communal mess area at the center of the score-or-so timber huts and dugouts, surrounded by a litter of equipment and supplies, a fowl-and-venison dinner was organized in honor of the Star Mother, with liberal dispensation of Leorican wine, thoughtfully brought up by Vaysi on the flyer for the occasion. Afterward, Eltry juggled and performed balancing acts, Spak entertained with stories from the year that had gone by, the Azureans sang songs and clapped to their traditional instruments, and Archaeologist Claws joined clumpingly in the dancing.

Taya stayed through most of the evening, playing her part and showing appreciation. But although all her formative years had been spent in the confines of Merkon, after the closeness of the tunnels she needed air. As the time drew closer to midnight with no sign of any abatement or slackening of the pace, pleading a long day that had commenced with a flight from far away across Azure, she bade everyone to enjoy the rest of the party and took her leave to return to the quarters that she was sharing with Vaysi and Nyelise in an adjacent hut. Nyelise, who had left earlier, was asleep when Taya got there. Vaysi was still going strong, stamping and whirling through Azurean dances. Taya still needed space and solitude for a while before being shut up again. She hung up her cloak, put on a set of furs that Spak had given her to try, and went back outside.

The sun had dipped below the horizon for the two-hour night, but to the south the moon stood full and white in a sky that had cleared during the day. Beyond the huts and their surrounding litter of vehicles, containers, equipment, and supply dumps, slopes of churned snow rose to a line of rocky bluffs in the inland direction, and more gently to a white ridge on the seaward side. Thrusting her hands deep into the pouches in the front of the fur jacket, Taya turned in the direction of the ridge and made her way through the outer parts of the base to the bottom of the snowfield. The snow beyond was firm, and she found she could move over it fairly easily. She stopped to breathe in the night and experience its intoxication. Then, setting a diagonal course across and up the slope, she resumed walking at a slow, easy pace toward the ridgeline. As she walked, she went through the day's events again, fitting the new pieces in with things known and conjectured previously concerning the strange story that was coming together of Azure's past.

It had been suspected for a long time, but now there could be no doubt: Azure had been the home of the race that built Merkon. The Azureans who existed today were descended from them. And yet, thrown back to condition of primitiveness and divided into their tribes and nations as they might be, there were those among them who had known. They had known that children from those far-off aeons would one day return accompanied by silver beings from the stars. Scientist couldn't explain it. Skeptic couldn't deny it. How could it be?

It could mean only one thing. In the final, Golden Age that must have represented the culmination of their achievements, before that final calamity, the Ancients had discovered, or had cultivated, or there had somehow arisen, a power of insight that even now none of the intelligences of Merkon could explain, that had been lost. But through traditions passed down through the few like Serephelio, some of the things disclosured in such insights had been preserved. And now Taya, and to a lesser degree several younger ones of her kind, were experiencing these moments of detached perception that seemed to manifest themselves as strange affinities toward that same, mysterious epoch in the past. Was it possible that in a way nobody understood, the circumstances of their origins had recreated in the Star Children a germ of what had once existed, which the cataclysm that befell the home world had extinguished along with all else?

Taya hadn't really registered arriving at the top of the ridge. She became aware of the slope easing off, and then there was nowhere higher to go. The top was wide and rounded. She moved forward until she was looking down the reverse side, falling in a shallow slope toward the line marking the top of the ice cliffs. Beyond lay the sea, rippling silver in the moonlight. A dark finger of land to one side marked the edge of the bay. In the center of the bay, directly ahead as she looked, were the lights of the Rig. The tunnel below it would run back to very near where she stood. She pictured again the city whose remains she had barely caught a glimpse of. How much more of it, even now as she stood there, lay waiting to be discovered, directly beneath her feet?

She felt her mind slipping. . . . All at once it was as if the ice and the rock were not there, and she were looking down over the immensity of Vrent as it had existed. She saw that everything uncovered in a year of labor was as nothing--the twig confused with the forest; a pebble mistaken for a mountain. For just an instant, in some inversion that kaleidoscoped time and space, she saw the glass canyons of color and light, arches and towers, vehicles streaming on level upon level beneath the teeming terraces and soaring pinnacles . . . And then a sudden intrusion upon her senses from without swept it away as if a light had been turned off.

A mecroid running on sausage-shaped rollers was drawing to a halt behind her in the snow. She turned fully and saw Kort sitting in one of the four plastic seats ahead of the flatbed rear section. "I wondered if your legs were getting stiff in the cold while you were standing up here looking at the sea," he said. "Thought you might appreciate a ride back."

"How did you know I was looking at the sea?" Taya asked.

"I know everything," Kort said.

It was a private joke between them, echoed from long ago. Taya smiled tiredly. "Yes, I would--thanks. But not just yet. It's so quiet and peaceful after all that drilling and banging today. And then the party. How does Vaysi keep going like that? I wonder if growing up on a planet has anything to do with it."

Kort got down from the truck and came around to stand beside her. He was wearing a stretch cap and coverall of dark oilskin. Taya chuckled. "What's funny?" the robot asked.

"The Azureans used to think you were silver gods. You look more like a fisherman who's lost his boat."

"Hm. And I could say that you look like a seal hunter with a cold nose." He meant it literally. Kort could see in the infra-red.

A series of sharp cracks sounded from somewhere along the cliff line below, followed by muffled crashes of ice falling into the ocean. "The Rig looks like Cyron's old palace at night," Taya said. "I wonder if the Ancients had ships like that--all lit up like floating cities. . . . Hasn't all kinds of wreckage been found that Engineer says could have been from huge seagoing vessels?"

"Some of it was a long way from any oceans," Kort reminded her. "Wouldn't it be simpler to assume some specialized kind of land structures that we don't know anything about? Or even crashed flying vehicles."

"The floods could have carried them there," Taya said.

"But some of them were found high up in the mountains. You'd need tidal waves miles high."

"We'll, things like whales and tropical trees were found high up in mountains too. How did they get there?"

Kort looked up unconsciously at the sky, which often meant he was communicating with Merkon. "Skeptic says he'll believe it when you show him a mechanism capable of producing waves that are miles high," he said.

Taya had no response to that, and fell silent for a while. When she spoke again, her voice was distant and reflective, as if she were half talking to herself. "I started to see it, just before you came--Vrent, the way it used to be. It was . . . I don't know how you'd describe it. Imagine Merkon opened out and stretched toward the sky. There were bridges and towers, a traffic of people and machines flowing in rivers. . . . Glass mountains of light."

"How can you know it was the way Vrent used to be?" Kort asked.

"I just . . . know."

A few seconds passed--enough to convey that Kort had considered the proposition and not seem impolite. "Subjective

impressions of biominds are noted for their inventiveness," he pointed out. Taya couldn't suppress a smile. At times the machines' concessions to delicacy could be touching. "The Azurean proclivity for deliberately inducing chemically assisted hallucinations is well know."

"Kort, I haven't been drinking or smoking any of their awful pipes."

"Long, stressful day. Powerful emotional stimuli. Extended period deprived of sleep. . . . All notorious enhancers of autosuggestion," Kort pointed out.

Taya sighed and stared up at the moon. "What about the old prophecies that seers like Serephelio kept alive? Were they autosuggestion? Skeptic has been through the records like a cat picking apart a dead fish, and even he can't deny them. Mystic has just about accepted all the Azurean gods."

"Yes, and we all know Mystic," Kort said. He looked at her and shook his head. "That the Ancients could know things in ways that we don't understand appears to be fact. You and some of the others have occasional experiences that you believe might be related. But that is entirely conjecture. You say you saw the city that was. Well, maybe so, but there's no way it can be verified. It could be pure invention--unconscious and unintentional, maybe, but an invention nevertheless. Now, if any of you could do what the Ancients did and tell us something that will be . . ." Kort stopped, seeing that Taya was giving him a reproachful look. "What?"

"Is that you talking, Kort, or Skeptic?" she asked.

"Oh, well, yes, I suppose it was. But he's got a point, you know."

Taya could see that this wasn't going anywhere. "We need to talk with Serephelio again," she declared. "I want to learn more about what he knows. . . . And in the meantime, you're right. It's starting to get cold. Let's get back." Kort nodded. They turned back toward the truck. Taya paused and looked across at him as she was about to climb up. "Don't machine minds ever feel anything like that?" she asked him. "Not even the most tiny, fleeting glimmer?"

"No, never," Kort replied.

 
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