They crested the hill, and there was the Radiant city ahead of them.
It was like nothing Malone had ever seen before. It didn’t seem to have any enclosed spaces, no rooms or buildings. Instead it seemed to consist of a tangled mass of cobwebs within which the Radiants swam like fish in a coral reef. The whole thing had a faintly luminous glow, like the Radiants themselves, although not as bright, and it hung in the air, hundreds of feet above the ground, some of the outermost parts moving slightly in the breeze. It was tethered in place by thick strands of the same material that were anchored to large white blocks half sunk in the ground.
It was huge. Miles across at least, and parts of it towered high into the sky like thunderheads of stormy clouds. If it had been a human city, there would have been smaller communities all about, towns and villages and the like, but Malone and the Brigadier had seen nothing before this. It seemed that all the Radiants in this part of the world lived in this one place.
Several Radiants hovered above them, seemingly curious about the two humans who had invaded their territory, but neither he nor the Brigadier sensed any hostility from them. Their dangling tentacles would occasionally brush against their clothes and faces, exploring them by feel, and when they did Malone felt a cold dampness like that of a wet strand of seaweed. Occasionally one or two would drift back towards the city, having seen enough, to be replaced by new arrivals come to see what all the fuss was about.
“They don’t seem to have their own personal spaces,” mused the Brigadier. “Nothing that's theirs alone, that they can personalise according to their own wishes and preferences and where they keep their personal possessions. The entire city seems to be one huge public space.”
“Do they have factories, farms, things like that?” asked Malone. “The land around the city is just wilderness. Where do they grow their food? What do they eat anyway?”
“The same kinds of domesticated farm animals we do,” replied the Brigadier. “They have farms, and they grow crops, but their farms aren't like ours. They don’t have fields with fences around them, the livestock just stays where they’re supposed to be of their own accord. The Radiants are able to control their behaviour somehow. They don’t eat crops and vegetables, but they grow them to feed to their livestock. I've seen their crop fields. They don’t need fences to keep pests out. Rabbits and insects just leave the plants alone.”
“Can they control us?” asked Malone, suddenly worried,
“No. If they could, no-one would ever try to fight them off when they tried to adopt them. People have tried to trap them, tried to kill them. Without success, but if they could control us no-one would even try. It seems they can only control lower life forms. As for factories, I don’t think they ever make anything. Not that I've ever seen, anyway. That luminous material they make their cities from is extruded from their own bodies, I think. Like spider silk.”
“So they don’t have machines to do their work for them? Pumps, mills, things like that?”
“Not that I've ever seen. They work their farms by hand, by tentacle I should say. They float above their fields, harvesting the crops by hand and placing it in large baskets made of the same Radiant silk, or whatever it is. They don’t plough their fields, or drain marshland or irrigate. They just use the land as it is.”
“Don't they realise they could increase their crop yield by ploughing, irrigating, and so on?”
“Maybe they’re able to grow all the crops they need without doing those things. You only need to farm intensively if you're trying to feed a large population on limited land. They may deliberately keep their population low so that the land can support them without having to go to all the effort that we have to. Maybe that, more than anything else, is the greatest evidence of their higher intelligence.”
They continued to guide their horses towards the city at a slow walk. “How close do you think they’ll let us get?” asked Malone.
“It’s not too late for you to leave,” replied the Brigadier. “Catch up with the men...”
“My place is with you. Beside, you said there’s no danger. They don’t adopt people against their will, and I’m not fully human anyway...”
He fell silent as he saw the Brigadier stiffen, and followed his gaze to see what he’d seen. A human, coming from the direction of the city, walking towards them. “Our reception committee,” he said as they dismounted, waiting for him to reach them. His body was faintly luminous, they saw. A sign that he was partially transformed to Radiant. A recent adoptee, then. Taken not more than a couple of years ago. As he got closer, though, they saw that he was older than they’d expected, with grey hair and a slight stoop. Radiants never adopted people that old. The Brigadier’s brow furrowed with puzzlement.
“Greetings,” the man said when they were close enough. His clothes were made of the same material as the city, they saw. What the Brigadier had called Radiant silk, but dyed a light blue. His shoes appeared to be leather, but they had the same soft radiance so they guessed that it was also silk, but compressed into a thicker, denser material. “My name is Daniel. Please don’t approach the city any further. I’m afraid there’s no chance of either of you being adopted...”
“My name is Brigadier Weyland James of Helberion,” replied the Brigadier, “and this is my batman Malone. We're not looking to be adopted. We’re looking for information.”
The man frowned. “What kind of information? My masters have no interest in human society, I very much doubt you’ll find anything here of concern to you.”
“Our concern is with the past. Before the Radiants came.”
Daniel stared at them, and paused a moment as if listening to something only he could hear. “You’d better come with me,” he said at last. “There are human dwellings just over there, for the humans who inhabit this place. We can talk more comfortably there.”
“We weren’t expecting to find humans here,” said Malone. “Not actually living here.”
“There aren’t many of us. We help the adoptees adjust during the early stages of their metamorphosis. Calm their fears, tell them what to expect. Radiants can’t communicate with humans directly, but close contact with them has caused up to change a little, enough to join their telepathic commune, and it allows us to act as intermediaries.”
“Then you’re the people we want...” began the Brigadier, but then he paused, looking confused. “Say something else,” he said.
Malone looked at his superior, wondering what was bothering him. “What would you like me to say?” asked Daniel.
“What language are you speaking?” asked the Brigadier.
“Ah, of course, I should have explained. I'm speaking Madrobi, the principal language of the human lands round about, the lands I used to be a citizen of, but my telepathic abilities allow you to hear it in your own language. It's quite a useful ability to have in situations like this.”
“Indeed,” said the Brigadier. “Can you read our minds?”
“No. Only two people with telepathic abilities can do that to each other. I can sense what you're feeling, but that's all. I can sense your fear, which tells me you have secrets you don’t want us to know. You'll be glad to know that human secrets are of almost no interest to us, though. You have nothing to worry about.”
“That is a relief. Lead on, then.”
The village of the adoptees was just a little way ahead. They would have seen it earlier if their attentions hadn't been fully fixed on the Radiant city. It looked like any normal human town, except that Radiants were clustered in the air above it, one or two above each of the small brick houses. The houses had no rooves, they saw. They were open to the sky to allow the Radiants to reach in with their tentacles to touch and caress the people inside. Malone wondered what they did when it rained, but then he saw that the ground around the village was dry and parched. Some people said that the Radiants could control the weather, but he had never believed it until now.
Most of the inhabitants of the village were luminous to a greater or lesser extent, but only one or two were beginning to change their physical form, their heads larger than normal with reduced facial features and with shrunken arms and legs. Malone supposed that anyone whose transformation had progressed further than that was taken to live in the Radiant city. About half the inhabitants had one or a pair of Radiants floating above them, their tentacles dangling around them and twining around their limbs and bodies. The close proximity that allowed the parent bond to form and that allowed the physical form of the parent to impress itself on the adoptee.
Many of the humans were working. Some were cutting and sewing sheets of Radiant silk to make clothes, others were preparing food from grain, root crops and animal carcasses. All outdoors, under the sun. “Why have houses if they never go into them?” wondered Malone.
“It gives them something familiar to relate to during the early stages of their transformation,” replied Daniel. “Even though they’ve all consented or volunteered to be adopted, it can still be rather traumatic to be suddenly thrust into a completely new environment. Having houses to sleep in at night and decorate with a few personal possessions, giving them work to do, gives them a sense of familiarity and security.”
“Don't Radiants work, then?” asked the Brigadier.
“Apart from harvesting their crops and adding new webbing to their city? No. Hardly ever. They've eliminated almost all need for manual labour from their society. The work they do is almost all mental. They think, they calculate, they study philosophy, they study the universe and strive to unlock its mysteries.”
“Would they be willing to share these insights with us, do you think?”
“I believe that most of what they study these days is beyond the comprehension of the human brain,” said Daniel apologetically. “It would be like trying to explain thermodynamics to a cat.”
“Yes, of course,” said the Brigadier drily.
“If you want to learn about the days before the Radiants, then you want the museum,” said Daniel.
“The museum of the Hetin folk. The Radiants are fascinated by the civilisation that preceded our own, and so they built a museum, built in the style of Hetin buildings and containing Hetin artefacts. It's looked after by Alfornus, one of the oldest of us. If you're interested in those days, he's the one you want to talk to. Shall I take you to him?”
“Yes, if you would.” Daniel nodded and took them past the village, towards a rather stranger looking building that lay beyond it.
They had to climb a ladder to reach it. It was about the size of a nobleman's mansion, with two wings on either side of a large central hall, but it was suspended a hundred feet above the ground on strong pillars of grey stone. It had no ceiling, and the floor had large holes in the middle, leaving only six foot wide strips around the walls, allowing the Radiants to float with their tentacles dangling below. The walls had the look of a human building, though, with benches and tables holding a variety of artefacts from before the crash. The Brigadier looked warily at the hundred foot drop to the parched ground below, without a railing to prevent a careless visitor from falling through, then turned to the nearest bench. He picked up what appeared to be a musical instrument. It was tubular and made of brass, looping around and around with keys and levers along its length. Beside it was what looked like a flute, although more elaborate than anything he’d seen before.
Daniel went off somewhere, and came back a few minutes later with a man even older looking than himself. There was no hair remaining on his head, and his skin was taking on a transparent, gelatinous look that allowed the bones and muscles beneath to be partially visible. His body was partially luminous, like everyone else they'd seen here, but the Brigadier doubted that he'd survive long enough for the transformation to progress much further. Very soon now, his flesh would start to break away in small globules the size of a grain of rice as his body reverted to the form from which it had originally come. Globs. Millions of them, until all that was left was the bare skeleton, crumbling into white powder as it dried out. Maybe, one day, some of those globs would be human again.
“This is Alfornus,” said Daniel. “Curator of the museum. If anyone can find the answers you're looking for, it'll be him.”
“Welcome,” said Alfornus, reaching out a thin, bony hand that the Brigadier took and shook. “It’s very rare for us to have visitors. It’s a rare treat for me to be able to show off my collection.”
“It's good of you to take this time for us,” replied the Brigadier. “We appreciate it. King Leothan of Helberion suddenly developed an interest in the Hetin folk and has gathered together all the experts he could find on the subject. Unfortunately, even the greatest experts know very little, and so he sent us here, to see if the Radiants could tell us anything more about them.” Malone stared at him in puzzlement but said nothing. “We never dared hope to find something like this!” He waved a hand around at the vast collection of artefacts.
“The Radiants have been collecting these for centuries,” replied Alfornus. “There are several Hetin cities in their territories. In human lands, they have been scavenged and pillaged, torn down to make new buildings or destroyed by war, but here they’ve been left alone, except by the elements. Those buildings that have been buried by silt, or that were underground to begin with, are in almost pristine condition.”
“The King will be delighted! When he finds out about this, he'll probably want to send a fully equipped expedition to study it!”
“Please use whatever influence you have with him to dissuade him from doing that,” replied the curator, though. “We welcome the occasional visitor such as yourselves, but the Radiants would prefer not to be invaded by large numbers of outsiders. If the King wishes, I'm sure it would be possible to...” He paused for a moment, his head cocked as if listening. “Yes. The Radiants would be delighted to send a selection of Hetin artefacts to Helberion for your people to study.”
“That would be wonderful! I'm sure the King would be very grateful if that could be done.” He looked around at the room they were in. “These are clearly some kind of trumpet. These levers along here, they alter the tone of the note?”
“Exactly. One of the adoptees learned to play them a few years back, before his body changed too much. He was able to play quite a tune on it.”
“We play tunes on trumpets,” pointed out Malone irritably. “We use bugles to convey orders on the battlefield, and trumpets play a fanfare go announce the arrival of the King.”
“Not like the tunes these instruments can play! It’s impossible to describe, and no living person can play them like Osmo could, so you’ll just have to take my word for it. Perhaps your King will revive the practice when he sees them. Bring trumpet music back to the world.” He led the way across the room to where another instrument stood. It looked vaguely similar to a lyre, except that the four strings were closely spaced together and ran from the broad, waisted body along a narrow neck to the tuning keys. “This one, I can sort of play, after a fashion. Enough to give you an idea.”
He picked up another object, a long wooden shaft along which a ribbon of material was strung. He wound a screw at the end to tighten the material. “It's played by drawing this bow across the strings, like this.” He did so, and the two rangers were astonished by the clear, pure note it produced, a sound unlike any other they'd ever heard. He moved the bow back and forth, and by varying its position, and by pressing his fingers against the strings, he was able to play a simple, basic tune.
“That's probably nothing compared to what a master of the instrument could have produced,” he said apologetically, putting the instrument down again.
“It was beautiful!” said the Brigadier sincerely. “You taught yourself?”
“Yes. I started just a couple of years ago, or I'd be better. It was stored down in the basement amongst all the miscellaneous items that no-one could make head or tail of. The moment I saw it though, it was as though it called out to me. I knew exactly what it was, and understood the basics of how to play it. Unfortunately, I have no time to learn to play it better. I'll be going back into the ground soon, probably before the year is out, but maybe someone else will unlock its secrets one day and play it the way it deserves to be played.”
“Are all these objects musical instruments?” asked Malone, looking around in puzzlement. Some of them were very large, but then so was the pipe organ in the palace throne room.
“Not all. This room is devoted to entertainment, and many of those objects are thought to be used for sports and games, although we can only guess what the rules were or how they were played.” He moved to another table. “We believe that these objects were used to hit a ball. From their design, you can see that the balls used in various sports varied in size and hardness.“
“Crikey!” said Malone, staring in astonishment at the variety of sticks, rackets and clubs. At least a dozen of them. “They must have liked their sports a lot!”
“Yes, or perhaps they just couldn't agree among themselves which sport they liked best. Today, kickball, parfive and overnet are played pretty much throughout the human world, with only minor variations among different cultures. Just three sports. They, apparently, had dozens.”
“Do you have a collection of weapons?” asked the Brigadier.
“Oh yes, although we suspect that they represent only a small selection of what they fought wars with. If you’ll come this way...”
He led them through a door into the next room, which contained gardening and farming implements, and the through one containing utterly strange and unfamiliar objects that Alfornus said were communications devices. “They found a way to send messages through the air, without the need for wires,” he explained.
“Could you include a few of these in the objects you lend us?” asked the Brigadier.
Alfornus cocked his head to one side again, as if listening. “I'm afraid not,” he said. “The Radiants fear that, if you learned their secrets, it would affect the balance of power in the human world and lead to even more war than there is now. They don’t want to be responsible for that many human deaths.” The Brigadier nodded. It was the answer he'd expected.
“Here we are,” he said a moment later as they entered a room at the extreme end of the museum. “Weapons. These here, as you can see, are firearms, little different from those you use today, and we know they also had cannons, mortars, howitzers, all basically larger versions of hand guns. We think that the shells they fired were filled with explosives, though, and that they exploded when they hit their target.”
The Brigadier nodded. The Helberion military was experimenting with the same thing, but hadn't yet found a design that could exit the gun barrel before exploding. Most of his attention was taken by the Radiant that floated in the middle of the room, though. It was the closest he'd ever been to one, and he and Malone stared at details of its body that they'd never noticed before, squinting their eyes against the brightness of the light that emanated from it. It had a beak on the underside of its body, they saw, in the middle of the cluster of tentacles that surrounded it, some fat and strong, others as fine as hairs. Above, a ring of small, primitive looking eyes were dotted throughout the less luminous stripe that circled its bulging gas bag. Its outer skin was partially transparent, allowing them to see hints of movement beneath as tubes and organs performed their various bodily functions.
It was holding a pointed white cylinder in one of the smaller tentacles that hung between the larger ones, and was holding it up in front of the eyes on that side of its body. The eyes facing the cylinder, which they assumed was a weapon of some kind, widened and the pupils narrowed as they focused on it, and the Brigadier was amused to see that the eyes facing him and Malone were doing the same thing. It was apparently studying them as well, and he wondered whether it was capable of following two trains of thought at the same time.
“Please don’t be alarmed,” said Alfornus. “Radiants often come here to see the collection. It's just curious about you.”
“I had no idea they were so big!” breathed Malone, backing away until he was up against the wall. He breathed a sigh of relief as the eyes facing him lost their focus and it returned all its attention to the object it was holding,
“Amazing that a human can physically change into something like that,” said the Brigadier, voicing a thought that had crossed his mind many times. “The creatures we adopt as children are much more similar, whether they be horses, dogs, goats or whatever. They have four limbs, a head with two eyes and a mouth... That, though...”
Alfornus nodded. “It does seem like quite a leap,” he admitted. “That's probably why the change from human to Radiant takes so much longer than any other change. Up to ten years in most cases.”
“Yes, but such a dramatic change in basic body shape... If you'd never seen a Radiant and had to guess what the next organism up the rungs of life would look like, you'd probably guess that it would be basically man shaped, but bigger and with a larger brain...”
“They do have larger brains,” pointed out Alfornus. “Dramatically larger.”
The Brigadier saw that it would be pointless to pursue the point. “Do you have books?” he asked.
“No, the Radiants translated them into a form they could read, which is unfortunately not readable by us. The originals decayed centuries ago.”
“But there are...” began Malone, but the Brigadier put a hand on his shoulder to cut him off. “Perhaps they could translate for us,” he suggested. “If we told them the subject we’re interested in.”
“What subject would that be?” asked the curator.
“We have a theory that humans and other animals procreated in a different manner in ages past, in the era from which these artefacts come. We were wondering whether the Radiants had any texts on the...”
His voice broke off as he became aware that the Radiant was once again looking at him. It had put down the object it had been studying, had almost dropped it, in fact, and the eyes pointing in his direction were wide and staring. Its tentacles froze on place, their eternal writhing and coiling stilled for the first time since they'd seen it, and the Brigadier sensed that they now had its total, undivided attention. He realised that his heart was pounding and that his mouth was suddenly dry. He had to overcome a powerful impulse to move his hand closer to his pistol. It grew brighter, and he looked up to see another Radiant hovering above the museum, its longest tentacles hanging just a few feet above his head.
Alfornus listened to their telepathic voices for a few moments. “I’m afraid there’s little they can tell you about that era,” he said, “since they didn’t exist at the time.” The Brigadier relaxed in relief. “They say that you are correct, though. It came about because of an experiment that went disastrously wrong.” He paused again, listening more. “The Hetin folk made great scientific advances, accomplished things that would astonish us, but their greatest achievement was the discovery of a way to modify their bodies, to increase their intelligence. They had to completely change their body design to do this, since the basic humanoid form cannot support a brain much larger than the one we have. The only body shape that would work was one used by certain sea creatures, those with radial symmetry. Starfish, sea urchins and the like, which is ironic since those creatures have almost no brain beside a primitive network of nerve cells.”
“They look nothing like starfish!” pointed out Malone. “They don't have beaks, or tentacles...”
Alfornus nodded. “They started with the basic starfish shape, then changed it into the form that suited their desires best. They used something called a virus to do this. Apparently, It’s a kind of germ, it normally causes diseases, but they created one that would rewrite the... The...” He paused as he searched for an explanation they could understand. “When you build a building, you start with a set of blueprints. The same when you build a ship or a carriage. You understand?” They nodded. “It's the same with our bodies. They also have blueprints, of a sort, or at least that’s what the Radiants claim. Blueprints that tell our bodies how tall we should be, what colour our eyes should be, and so on. Blueprints that determine the very shape of our bodies. Well, this virus had the ability to rewrite the blueprints, so that their bodies grew differently.
“It worked. They became the first Radiants, but the process had a terrible and unexpected side effect. The virus mutated, changed, that is. It changed, all by itself, into a form that caused a new disease. The Hetin scientists who created it had intended that only they, the elite of their civilisation, would become Radiants, but the mutated form swept the world, infecting everyone. It made them lose the ability to procreate themselves in the way they always had done. Not only themselves but all animal life forms. Their population crashed, their civilisation fell. They almost became extinct before the few remaining humans discovered that their animals and pets, that had also been infected, were becoming human, like them. The same process that created the first Radiants was creating new humans, and it was happening to all animals as well. Predators like cats and eagles would occasionally choose not to eat their prey but nurture it instead until it became like them.”
“Do you know where this nurturing instinct came from?” asked the Brigadier. “Did predators nurture prey animals before the experiment?”
“Nobody knows,” replied Alfornus. “Just a lucky by-product of the experiment perhaps. That’s all the Radiants can tell us, I’m afraid. As I said, they didn’t exist at the time so all they have to go on is relics like this.” He waved a hand around the museum.
“You’ve told us far more than we dared to expect,” said the Brigadier. ‘We are deeply grateful to you for your help.”
The Radiant was still studying him intently, and the Brigadier was suddenly certain that it was reading his emotions, trying to determine whether he believed the story he'd just been told. Which meant it must all have been a lie! They’re hiding the truth about their origins! He was suddenly so certain of this that he suspected that their telepathic reading of his emotions was somehow allowing him to read theirs. Like a door that, once opened, can be passed through in either direction. They're lying, and what will they do to us if we don’t believe the lie?
He forced down the surge of fear. As emissaries of a King, they’ll want to avoid killing us unless there's no choice, he told himself. Our deaths would attract too much attention. They'll let us leave safely if they think they've fooled us. He concentrated on making himself feel calm and relaxed, therefore. Yes, I do believe it! he told himself. There is no doubt in my mind. I have no reservations about what he just told me. He looked at Malone, wondering whether the batman was feeling doubts and whether Alfornus and the Radiants could sense it in his mind. He smiled reassuringly at him, trying to ease his fears, and Malone smiled nervously back. Maybe they'll read his fear as nothing more than the perfectly natural anxiety of being so close to a Radiant...
The light dimmed as the second Radiant, the one that had been hovering above the museum, moved on, and a few moments later the first Radiant left as well, rising up through the hole where the ceiling should have been. The Brigadier watched it go with a sense of heartfelt relief. It worked! They think we believe the story! We're safe, for the time being at least.
Alfornus showed them the rest of the museum. The Brigadier tried to appear as interested as he had been before, to fight down the impulse to flee as fast as he could before the Radiants realised how they’d been fooled, but when they reached the room containing works of art the two Helberians found themselves genuinely fascinated. One wall was covered with paintings, their colours badly faded and some of the detail missing where the canvas had been torn and repaired. The Brigadier was disappointed to see that they were all either landscape scenes, showing farmers tending fields of crops in much the same way as they did today, or portraits of important looking people, their heads and faces almost identical to those of humans today. There were no city scenes, and no scenes depicting the Hetin folk using their advanced machinery. Any of these paintings might have been the product of their present civilisation.
The Rest of the room contained statues, though, and many of them were nudes. The Helberians were fascinated to see that the males had strange tubular organs dangling between their legs, while the females had the mounds of flesh on their chests that they'd seen on the statue Parcellius had discovered. Penises and breasts, Alfornus called them. Organs used in procreation before the fall of the Hetin civilisation. Some of the statues were of small humans, half the height of normal people, which the curator called children. “I wonder what it must have been like,” mused Malone, “to never have been another kind of animal. To always have been human.”
They spent almost the whole day exploring the museum. Other rooms contained timepieces and barometers, electric candles and table lamps, items of furniture, pieces of jewellery and badly decayed items of clothing. Lastly, the curator showed them a large cabinet, each drawer of which contained coins in a bewildering variety of designs. “This tells us that there were many human nations back then, just as there are today,” Alfornus told them. “They weren't so different from us.”
He took them across to the other side of the room where a globe, roughly a foot across, was mounted on a stand by an axle that ran, at an angle, from top to bottom so that the globe could revolve on it. The globe was clearly ancient, but it had been freshly painted in a variety of colours, mainly blue and green, with patches of white at top and bottom. “Can you guess what this is?” he asked, grinning with expectation. The Brigadier frowned. Clearly the curator thought that some great revelation was coming that would leave them stunned and astonished, and that annoyed him. He didn't like guessing games. Nevertheless, he bent forward to examine the globe more closely.
“I’m guessing that this is what the globe looked like when it was new, and that someone has tried to restore it,” he said. “I assume it's more than just an abstract work of art.”
“Quite considerably more,” replied Alfornus. “The Radiants had to tell us, though. It languished amongst the miscellaneous oddities for years because none of us had the slightest idea what it was. The colours had faded almost completely away. We can’t be absolutely sure we've restored it accurately, there was quite a lot of guesswork involved in some places, but the Radiants tell us we've got it more or less right.”
“That bit there looks like the Sea of Ghosts,” chuckled Malone, but the laugh died in his throat as he looked at neighbouring features and realised that they matched the maps he'd seen back in Marboll. His face turned white as the truth dawned on him.
The Brigadier struggled to keep a straight face. He wasn't going to lose his composure in front of this stranger, but inside he was awestruck. A map of the world! Something that was nothing more than pure fantasy to the humans of today. He looked at the other continents, far beyond the knowledge of even the intrepid explorers of the Empire, who had travelled as far as they could in all directions until running across an impassable obstacle of one kind or another. Either mountains or oceans or Radiant territories. “Are there humans on those other continents?” he asked.
The curator looked crestfallen that they'd guessed the globe's secret so quickly. “I don't know,” he replied. “but I would expect so. I know there are Radiants everywhere, all over the world, and humans are the only creatures they can adopt, so there must be. Other nations, with people of different cultures speaking different languages.”
“I can see where the restorer has made a mistake,” the Brigadier continued. “The Sea of Ghosts is the wrong shape. Far too small, too, if this brown patch is the Uttermost Range.”
Alfornus brightened. It seemed he had revelations to deliver after all. “I'm almost certain that that part of the globe is accurate,” he said. “That's how this part of the world looked back in the time of the Hetin Folk. Sea levels have risen by over three hundred feet since then, though. You see these white patches at top and bottom?” The two rangers nodded. “Ice,” the curator continued. “Vast sheets of ice over a mile thick in places, thousands of miles across. So much ice that, as the world warmed and it melted, the level of the sea rose by over three hundred feet.”
Despite himself, the Brigadier stared in astonishment. “What made the world warm up?” he asked.
“The Radiants. They prefer a warmer world, so they warmed it up. And a good thing too. Back in the time of the Hetin Folk, your part of the world, where Helberion is now, was frozen. It was uninhabited wasteland, except for the occasional small village of tough frontiersmen, I expect. All the coastal regions were flooded, which is where they lived, for the most part, but huge areas were made habitable as the ice retreated and the land thawed out. The result was about twice as much habitable land as there was before.”
Malone looked at the land south of the Uttermost Range, remembering the other members of his squad contemplating what might be found there. Now he could see. A triangular area of land surrounded by ocean. “What's that land called?” He asked.
“I've got no idea,” the curator admitted. “All the names from that time have been lost. I do know that that mountain range contains the highest mountains in the world, though. According to the Radiants, anyway.”
They spent a long time examining the globe, lost in fascination, until they moved on, suddenly concerned that they might be missing something even more astonishing. The museum did contain many other wonders and marvels, including what Alfornus said were banners, flags and symbols depicting different countries, political groups, religions or who knows what. The Brigadier found a gold ornament in the shape of a miserable looking man apparently nailed to a wooden cross. “What's this?” he asked, holding it with the very tips of his fingers as if afraid that it might contaminate him. “Some kind of symbol of justice and punishment?”
“Possibly,” replied Alfornus. “We've found several of those, it must have represented something very important at one time, but what it was we’ll probably never know. Some of them are designed to be hung around the neck, like ornaments.”
“It's horrible!” said Malone. “Who'd wear something like that?”
“Members of some kind of death cult, possibly,” said the Brigadier, dropping the object back into the box where he'd found it.
Finally, as the sun was setting, there was nothing else to see, and the curator took them back to the village of the adoptees, where Daniel offered them an evening meal and a room in which to spend the night. “Please let us know when and where you would like the specimens delivered,” he told them the next morning as they were getting ready to leave. “We would like them returned to us after a year or two, though. The Radiants are very fond of their collection and don’t want it lost or damaged.”
“We will confer with the King the moment we get back,” the Brigadier told him, “And I'd like to thank you once again for agreeing to this.”
A short while later they were on their horses again and on their way out of Radiant territory, although they couldn't help looking behind themselves, as if the Radiants might still change their minds and try to kill them, or curse them back to their animal forms. “There’s not going to be a loan of museum artefacts, is there?” said Malone. “They lied to us. Parcellius had Hetin books, they survived perfectly well!”
The Brigadier nodded. “The fact that we pretended to believe their lies on the reason we’re still alive. Their ability to read emotions was the biggest danger. I can discipline my mind to a certain extent, though, prevent myself from feeling disbelief, and apparently your mind is still animal enough that they can't read it at all. It's lucky we came alone. If the others had come with us...” He shook his head sadly. “If they lied about the books, chances are that it was all a lie. The whole story about how they came to be.”
“But why would they lie? What are they afraid of?”
“I don’t know, but whatever it is, we should be afraid of it as well. The thing about lies is that, sooner or later, the truth gets out, and when it does, there’s no telling what they'll do. That's why we have to find the truth first.”
“Wouldn’t it be safer to just continue to pretend to believe the lies and leave it at that? I mean, the Radiants are harmless. They visit our cities to find people to adopt and go away peacefully if we shoot at them. If we just leave things alone...”
“Sooner or later someone will discover the truth. Someone like Parcellius. No I’m afraid that leaving things alone is not an option. We have to find the truth first, so we can make an educated guess about how they'll react. We'll be able to prepare ourselves, perhaps prevent others from learning the truth and broadcasting it to the whole world.”
“If they don’t want us to see their books, that’s probably where the truth will be found.” Parcellius had plenty of Hetin books. A whole library, he said.”
”Yes, “ agreed the Brigadier. “We have to return to Tollbine.”