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58. Epilogue: Kalidasa's Triumph

In the last days of that last brief summer, before the jaws of ice clenched shut around the equator, one of the Starholme envoys came to Yakkagala.

A Master of the Swarms, It had recently conjugated Itself into human form. Apart from one minor detail, the likeness was excellent; but the dozen children who had accompanied the Holmer in the autocopter were in a constant state of mild hysteria the younger ones frequently dissolving into giggles.

What's so funny? It had asked in Its perfect Solar. Or is this a private joke?

But they would not explain to the Starholmer, whose normal colour vision lay entirely in the infra-red, that the human skin was not a random mosaic of greens and reds and blues. Even when It had threatened to turn into a Tyrannosaurus Rex and eat them all up, they still refused to satisfy Its curiosity. Indeed, they quickly pointed out to an entity that had crossed scores of light-years and collected knowledge for thirty centuries that a mass of only a hundred kilogrammes would scarcely make an impressive dinosaur.

The Holmer did not mind; It was patient, and the children of Earth were endlessly fascinating, in both their biology and their psychology. So were the young of all creatures all, of course, that did have young. Having studied nine such species, the Holmer could now almost imagine what it must be like to grow up, mature, and die. . . almost, but not quite.

Spread out before the dozen humans and one non-human lay the empty land, its once luxuriant fields and forests blasted by the cold breaths from north and south. The graceful coconut palms had long since vanished, and even the gloomy pines that had succeeded them were naked skeletons, their roots destroyed by the spreading permafrost. No life was left upon the surface of the Earth; only in the oceanic abyss, where the planet's internal heat kept the ice at bay, did a few blind, starveling creatures crawl and swim and devour each other.

Yet to a being whose home had circled a faint red star, the sun that blazed down from the cloudless sky still seemed intolerably bright. Though all its warmth had gone, drained away by the sickness that had attacked its core a thousand years ago, its fierce, cold light revealed every detail of the stricken land, and flashed in splendour from the approaching glaciers.

For the children, still revelling in the powers of their awakening minds, the sub-zero temperatures were an exciting challenge. As they danced naked through the snowdrifts, bare feet kicking up clouds of powder-dry, shining crystals, their symbiotes often had to warn them: Don't over-ride your frost-bite signals! For they were not yet old enough to replicate new limbs without the help of their elders.

The oldest of the boys was showing off; he had launched a deliberate assault on the cold, announcing proudly that he was a fire-elemental. (The Starholmer noted the term for future research, which would later cause It much perplexity.) All that could be seen of the small exhibitionist was a column of flame and steam, dancing to and fro along the ancient brickwork; the other children pointedly ignored this rather crude display.

To the Starholmer, however, it presented an interesting paradox. Just why had these people retreated to the inner planets, when they could have fought back the cold with the powers that they now possessed as, indeed, their cousins were doing on Mars? That was a question to which It had still not received a satisfactory answer. It considered again the enigmatic reply It had been given by ARISTOTLE, the entity with which It most easily communicated.

For everything there is a season, the global brain had replied. There is a time to battle against Nature, and a time to obey her. True wisdom lies in making the right choice. When the long winter is over, Man will return to an Earth renewed and refreshed.

And so, during the past few centuries, the whole terrestrial population had streamed up the equatorial Towers and flowed sunwards towards the young oceans of Venus, the fertile plains of Mercury's Temperate Zone. Five hundred years hence, when the sun had recovered, the exiles would return. Mercury would be abandoned, except for the polar regions; but Venus would be a permanent second home. The quenching of the sun had given the incentive, and the opportunity, for the taming of that hellish world.

Important though they were, these matters concerned the Starholmer only indirectly; Its interest was focused upon more subtle aspects of human culture and society. Every species was unique, with its own surprises, its own idiosyncrasies. This one had introduced the Starholmer to the baffling concept of Negative Information or, in the local terminology, Humour, Fantasy, Myth.

As it grappled with these strange phenomena, the Starholmer had sometimes said despairingly to Itselves: We shall never understand human beings. On occasion It had been so frustrated that It had feared an involuntary conjugation, with all the risks that entailed. But now It had made real progress; It could still remember Its satisfaction the first time It had made a joke and the children had all laughed.

Working with children had been the clue, again provided by ARISTOTLE. There is an old saying; the child is father of the man. Although the biological concept of 'father' is equally alien to us both, in this context the word has a double meaning -

So here It was, hoping that the children would enable It to understand the adults into which they eventually metamorphosed. Sometimes they told the truth; but even when they were being playful (another difficult concept) and dispensed negative information, the Starholmer could now recognise the signs.

Yet there were times when neither the children, nor the adults, nor even ARISTOTLE knew the truth. There seemed to be a continuous spectrum between absolute fantasy and hard historical facts, with every possible graduation in between. At the one end were such figures as Columbus and Leonardo and Einstein and Lenin and Newton and Washington, whose very voices and images had often been preserved. At the other extreme were Zeus and Alice and King Kong and Gulliver and Siegfried and Merlin, who could not possibly have existed in the real world. But what was one to make of Robin Hood or Tarzan or Christ or Sherlock Holmes or Odysseus or Frankenstein? Allowing for a certain amount of exaggeration, they might well have been actual historic personages.

The Elephant Throne had changed little in three thousand years, but never before had it supported the weight of so alien a visitor. As the Starholmer stared into the south, It compared the half-kilometre-wide column soaring from the mountain peak with the feats of engineering It had seen on other worlds. For such a young race, this was indeed impressive. Though it seemed always on the point of toppling from the sky, it had stood now for fifteen centuries.

Not, of course, in its present form. The first hundred kilometres was now a vertical city-still occupied at some of its widely-spaced levels through which the sixteen sets of tracks had often carried a million passengers a day. Only two of those tracks were operating now; in a few hours the Starholmer and Its escorts would be racing up that huge, fluted column, on the way back to the Ring City that encircled the globe.

The Holmer everted Its eyes to give telescopic vision, and slowly scanned the zenith. Yes, there it was hard to see by day, but easy by night when the sunlight streaming past the shadow of Earth still blazed upon it. The thin, shining band that split the sky into two hemispheres was a whole world in itself, where half-a-billion humans had opted for permanent zero-gravity life.

And up there beside Ring City was the starship that had carried the envoy and all the other Companions of the Hive across the interstellar gulfs. Even now it was being readied for departure not with any sense of urgency, but several years ahead of schedule, in preparation for the next six-hundred-year lap of its journey. That would represent no time at all to the Starholmer, of course, for It would not reconjugate until the end of the voyage, but then It might well face the greatest challenge of Its long career. For the first time a Starprobe had been destroyed or at least silenced soon after it had entered a solar system. Perhaps it had at last made contact with the mysterious Hunters of the Dawn, who had left their marks upon so many worlds, so inexplicably close to the Beginning itself. If the Starholmer had been capable of awe, or of fear, It would have known both, as It contemplated its future, six hundred years hence.

But now It was on the snow-dusted summit of Yakkagala, facing mankind's pathway to the stars. It summoned the children to Its side (they always understood when It really wished to be obeyed) and pointed to the mountain in the south.

You know perfectly well, It said, with an exasperation that was only partly feigned, that Earthport One was built two thousand years later than this ruined palace. The children all nodded in solemn agreement. Then why, asked the Starholmer, tracing the line from the zenith down to the summit of the mountain, why do you call that column the Tower of Kalidasa?

57. The Last Dawn | The Fountains of Paradise | SOURCES AND ACKOWLEDGMENTS