On a planet besieged with cosmic dust, where meteors of all sizes frequently hit, wiping out entire civilizations, a strange alien species struggles against extinction over the course of millennia. As their star grows hotter, melting ice caps and causing more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, higher levels of radiation lead to higher rates of mutation. Plants that had been edible become poisonous or die off altogether. Watching their dire situation only get worse, the planet’s scientists finally acknowledge that to survive long-term, the inhabitants will have to abandon their fraught home world and become a space-faring species.
In a story that spans millennia, Hugo Award–winning author and British science fiction master John Brunner introduces us to an alien race that takes control of their own evolution and builds the technological society that will be their way into space.
“One of the most important science fiction authors. Brunner held a mirror up to reflect our foibles because he wanted to save us from ourselves.” —SF Site
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
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The Crucible Of Time
By John Brunner
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Brunner Fact & Fiction Limited
All rights reserved.
Now the sun was down, the barq was growing tired. The current opposing her was swift, and there was a real risk she might be driven against the rocks that beset the channel and puncture her gas-bladders. After countless attempts to sting her into more vigorous activity, the steersman laid by his goad and grumpily tipped into her maw the last barrelful of the fermented fish and seaweed which served to nourish boat, crew and passengers alike. Waiting for the belch that would signal its digestion, he noticed Jing watching from her saddle of lashed planks, as anxious as though his weather-sense were predicting storms, and laughed.
"You won't be a-dream before we get where we're bound!" he promised in the coarse northern speech which the foreigner had scarcely yet attuned his hearing to.
It was hard to realize there was anywhere worth traveling to in this barren landscape. Most of the time the shore was veiled with rags of fog, because the water was so much warmer than the air. What a place to choose for studying the sky! Even though, with the sun setting so much earlier every day, it was possible to believe in the legend which had lured him hither: a night that lasted almost half a year. Not that there could ever be total darkness; here, as everywhere, the Bridge of Heaven—what these northerners called the Maker's Sling—curved in its gleaming arc across the welkin. And, near the horizon, less familiar and altogether awe-inspiring, the New Star was framed in its irregular square of utter black like a jewel on a pad of swart-fur.
But neither that celestial mystery, nor the prospect of going hungry, was what preyed most on the mind of Ayi-Huat Jing, court astrologer and envoy plenipotentiary of His Most Puissant Majesty Waw-Yint, Lord of the Five-Score Islands of Ntah. Compelled by his sworn oath, a whole miserable year ago he had set forth in state, riding the finest mount in his master's herd and accompanied by forty prongsmen and ten banners inscribed with his rank and status. His mission was to seek out wise folk beyond the mountains that ringed the Lake of Ntah and inquire of them the meaning of the New Star. His countrymen had long imagined that they understood the reason why the heavens changed—for change they definitely did. He carried with him a fat roll of parchment sheets on which had been copied star-maps depicting the sky on the accession-dates of the last score rulers of Ntah, and on the date of every eclipse during their reigns. Sixteen stars were shown on the most recent which in olden times had not been there, and marks recorded others which had appeared and faded in a matter of days. But there had never been one so brilliant, or so long-lasting, or in so black a patch of sky. According to the philosophers of Ntah, right action was reflected in heaven, and sufficient of it earned a diminution of the darkness. Eventually, they promised, the time would come when the heavens would be as bright by night as by day.
And it had happened, and it had ceased, and everyone was grievously disturbed, for blight and plague had followed what should have been a sign of unprecedented good fortune ...
Jing's journey had been fruitless so far, but it was not yet doomed to failure. His store of pearlseeds from the Lake was less than half-exhausted, for they grew stranger and more precious as he traveled, exchangeable for more food and longer lodging, and he had clung to his roll of maps even though in all the lands and cities he had visited he had met only one person who appeared to grasp their significance. He had expected students of heaven-lore as dedicated as himself, libraries too—albeit in alien script on unfamiliar materials—because tradition told of merchants from Geys and Yown and Elgwim who had brought amazing horns, hides, seeds and spices along with boastful tales about the riches of their homelands. What he had actually found ...
Half-starved mud-scrabblers incapable of distinguishing dream from reality, ascribing crop-failure, blight and murrain to supernatural beings, imagining they could protect themselves by sacrificing most of what remained to them—whereupon, of course, weakness and fatigue allowed dreams to invade their minds ever further. Madness, madness! Why did not everybody know that the heavens bodied forth an impersonal record of the world below, neither more nor less? How could anybody, in these modern times, credit a god prepared to launch missiles at random with a view to killing people? The welkin shed messages, not murder!
His whole course since leaving Ntah had been a succession of horrid shocks. Geys, one of the first cities he had planned to visit, stood abandoned and overgrown, for—so he was told—a flaming prong from the sky had struck a nearby hill and everyone had fled in panic. Moreover, of the escorts and banners who had set out with him (any other of the court officers would have had concubines as well, but Jing was obliged by his calling to accept celibacy) most had deserted on finding how squalid was the world beyond the mountains, while not a few had succumbed, as had his mount, to bad food or foul water.
One alone had survived to accompany him into the branchways of the great city Forb, where first he had encountered learned men as he regarded learning. Yet they were parasites, Jing felt, upon their city's past, disdainful of sky-shown truths, able only to expound concerning inscriptions and petty relics which they claimed to be older than anything elsewhere. Jing was reticently doubtful, but it was impolitic to speak his mind, partly because he was unfluent in the speech of that region, partly because its masters exercised very real power which he had no wish to see turned against Ntah, and chiefly because of the nature of that power.
His tallness, and the fact that his companion was taller yet, made him remarkable. The nobility bade him to banquets and festivities as a curiosity. It was a time of dearth, as he had discovered on his way; nonetheless, the fare at such events was lavish. It followed that the lords of Forb must control vast domains—not, however, vast enough to satisfy them, as was apparent from the way they spent all their time maneuvering for advantage over one another, and instructed their interpreters to ply Jing with questions concerning weaponry. They were prepared to descend as far as spreading disease among a rival's crops, than which only the use of wildfire could be baser. Were such monsters to be let loose in the peaceful region of Ntah ...!
Shuddering, yet determined to pursue his quest, Jing eventually discovered the secret of their dominance. It lay not in their armies, nor their treasuries. It consisted in the deliberate and systematic exploitation of the dreams of those less well-to-do than themselves, a possibility which had never occurred to him, and which the language barrier prevented him from comprehending until a lord-ling he had disappointed in his hope of brand-new armaments set sacerdotes upon him at his lodgings.
He had frequently seen their like bringing up the tail-end of a noble's retinue, always gaunt in a manner that contrasted greatly with the glistening plumpness of their masters, and initially he had assumed them to be nothing more than servants: scribes, perhaps, or accountants, though it was hard to conceive how such dream-prone starvelings could be relied on.
Acting, however, more like persons of authority than underlings, these visitors interrogated him concerning Ntah. Pleased to meet anyone prepared to discuss what he thought of as serious subjects, Jing answered honestly, hoping to show that the relationship between Ntah and its satrapies, being sustained by trade in information concerning what the heavens portended, was more civilized than rule by force.
Did he not—they responded in shocked tones—acknowledge the example of the Maker of All, who daily surveyed the world with His all-seeing eye, the sun, and nightly dispatched fiery bolts by way of warning that His way must be adhered to on pain of uttermost destruction? Was he not aware that the arc in the sky was the Maker's sling, that the Maker's mantle was what lighted the heavens with the glimmer of marvelous draped colors? Then he was in peril of imminent disaster, and were he still to be in Forb when it overtook him, scores-of-scores of innocent people would be caught up in the catastrophe! He must leave the city at once, or they would execute the Maker's will upon him themselves!
Jing's lifelong faith in the beneficence of the universe had been shaken, but he was not about to enter someone else's fever-dream. He did his best to scorn the warning—until the day when his sole surviving escort, Drakh, was set on by an unknown gang and attacked with weapons such as would never have been permitted in Ntah: prongs steeped in the ichor from a rotting carcass, warranted to poison the slightest cut even though it was not deep enough to let out life.
Now Drakh lay delirious beside him, as for days past, shivering less at the bitter air than the racking of his sickness. He would have been dead but that Jing's treelord—a Shreeban, well accustomed to being shunned by his Forbish neighbors and mocked by their children when he went abroad—had called a doctor, said to breed the best cleanlickers in the city.
And the doctor had saved not only Drakh's life (so far, Jing amended wryly, for the licker was weakening and the sorbers it passed repeatedly over his wound were turning yellow) but also the mission they had been sent on. Forgetful of his other clients, he had sat for days greedily studying Jing's star-maps, mentioning now and then that such-and-such a one of his forebears had claimed to be older than this or that star: heretical information in Forb where the Creation was supposed to have been perfect from the Beginning.
How could such dream-spawned nonsense survive the appearance of the New Star, which for a score of nights had outshone the Bridge of Heaven, and still after four years loomed brighter than anything except the sun and moon?
It might well not, explained the doctor. As people became more prosperous and better fed, so they naturally grew more capable of telling dream from fact. This led them to mock the sacerdotes, whose power had been decreasing from generation to generation despite their deliberate self-privation. Now they were reduced to claiming that the New Star was a delusion due to the forces of evil, which—they said—dwelt in that bleak zone from which the Maker had banned all stars as a reminder of the lightless eternity to which He could condemn transgressors. But there were those who maintained that one supremely righteous person was to be born—now: must have been—who could hold up a lamp where the Maker had decreed darkness, and lead folk out of mental enslavement.
Looking at the glowplants that draped the walls of his rented home, Jing prompted him to more revelations. Were there none here in the north who studied star-lore?
The chief of them, the doctor said, had taken refuge with the Count of Thorn. Branded by the sacerdotes as victim of a divine curse, that lord had retreated to an arctic fastness where hot springs bubbled out of frozen ground—clear proof, said the sacerdotes, of his commitment to evil, for in the absence of sunlight water could be heated only by fire, the prerogative of the Maker: hence those who usurped it must be on His adversary's side. Where Thorn had gone, besides, report held that a night might last for half a year, and evil dwelt in darkness, did it not? Yet it was also rumored that those who had followed him were prosperous while everywhere else epidemics were tramping in the pad-marks of famine ...
"There has been some kind of change," the doctor whispered. "My best remedies have ceased to work, and many babies bud off dead or twisted. Also there is a taint in this year's nuts, and it seems to drive folk mad. If I had more courage I too would go where Thorn has gone ... Pay me nothing for the care of your man. Promise only to send news of what they have found out in that ice-bound country. It is a place of ancient wisdom which the sacerdotes interdicted, saying it was dreamstuff. I think they were in error in that also."
Now Jing, so weary he too was having trouble telling dream from fact, was come to Castle Thorn at the head of the warm channel. The fog parted. The moon was rising, gibbous in its third quarter, and as usual its dark part sparkled.CHAPTER 2
If Forb was old, then Castle Thorn was antique. Guarding the entrance to a bowl-shaped valley, it loomed as large as a city in its own right—not that its whole bulk could be seen from the outcrop of rock serving it as a wharf, despite the glowplants which outlined it at a distance, for its defenses were elaborate and far-reaching. On either bank bomas trembled ready to collapse their spiky branches, while masses of clingweed parted only in response to blasting on a high-pitched whistle. Prongsmen came to hitch the barq's mooring-tentacles, accompanied by enormous canifangs.
Just before docking Jing had realized that a range of hills on the horizon was gleaming pure white in the moonshine. He had said, "Snow already?"
And the steersman had grunted, "Always."
So there truly was a place where ice might defy summer. For the first time Jing felt in his inmost tubules how far he was from home.
But there was no time for reflection. A voice was calling to him in city-Forbish: "Hail to the foreigner! I'm told your prongsman is sick. As soon as he's ashore I'll see what I can do for him. I'm Scholar Twig, by the way."
Who was a person of advanced years, his tubby shortness—characteristic of these northerners—aggravated by loss of pressure in his bracing tubules, but his expression alert and manner brisk. Grateful, for Twig was the name the doctor had told him to ask for, Jing returned the greeting.
"How you know I coming?" he demanded.
"Oh, you've made news over half the continent," was the prompt reply. "Sorry we don't have anyone around who speaks Ntahish, but until you showed up most people thought your homeland was just a legend, you know? Say, is it true you have star-maps going back to the Beginning? How soon can I look at them?"
Groping his way through the rush of words, Jing recalled the protocol which attended ambassadors to Ntah.
"Not I must at once pay respect the lord?"
"He's dining in the great hall. You'll meet him in a little. First let me present my colleagues. This is Hedge, this is Bush, this is—"
It was impossible to register so many strangers when he was so fatigued. "But my man-at-arms ...?" he ventured.
"Ah, what am I thinking of? Of course, we must get him and you to quarters right away!"
Detailing some junior aides to carry Drakh, Twig led the way at half a trot.
Jing could have wished to move more slowly, because nothing had prepared him for the luxury he discerned all about him. The very stones were warm underpad. The gnarled trunks of the castle were thicker than any he had ever seen, and even at this season they were garlanded with scores of useful secondary plants. Steaming ponds rippled to the presence of fish, while fruit he had not tasted the like of since leaving home dangled from overhanging boughs, and everywhere trailed luminescent vines. Through gaps between the boles, as he ascended branchways in Twig's wake, he caught glimpses of a landscape which reminded him achingly of parts of Ntah. He had thought in terms of a mere clawhold on survival, but the valley must support a considerable population. He saw three villages, each with a score of homes, surrounded by barns and clamps large enough to store food for a year—and that was only on one side of the castle. Amazing! His spirits rose.
And further still when Drakh was laid in a comfortable crotch and a maid brought warm drink. Passing him a huskful, Twig said dryly, "In case you're superstitious about fire, it's untouched by flame. We keep the bags in a hot spring."
Jing's people cared little about fire one way or the other, so he forbore to reply. Whatever its nature, the drink effectively drove away dreams. Meanwhile Twig was inspecting Drakh's licker and saying in disgust, "This should have been changed days ago! Here!"—to the maid—"take it away and bring one of my own at once. They're of the same stock," he added to Jing, "though here we have fewer outlandish poisons they can learn to cope with. Faugh! They do stink, though, don't they, at that stage?"
Excerpted from The Crucible Of Time by John Brunner. Copyright © 1983 Brunner Fact & Fiction Limited. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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