A Piece of the Great World

A Piece of the Great World

by Robert Silverberg

The expedition to the ancestral cocoon would be setting out very soon now. Nortekku was still deep in the task of preparing for it, studying up on the accounts of the events of two centuries before. For weeks he had been poring over the accounts of the emergence of the People from the cocoons when the Long Winter had finally ended—out into that strange, empty world, where the debris flung up by the death-stars still hovered in the upper levels of the atmosphere and a rippling mesh of color streamed in the sky, rainbow nets of amethyst, copper, topaz, crimson, radiant green. He had read too of the famous trek across the continent to the ruins of ancient Vengiboneeza, and of the founding of the first cities of the New Springtime. By then he had become so caught up in the story that he kept pushing his research backward and ever backward across the ages, digging hungrily, compulsively.

There was so much to absorb. He wondered if he would ever master it all. The years fluttered before him, going in reverse. He moved step by step from the tale of the Time of Going Forth back to the era of the cocoons itself, the 700,000 years of life underground during the Long Winter that had preceded the Going Forth, and from there to the dire onslaught of the death-stars that had brought on the deep snows and black winds of the Long Winter. Then he went farther back yet, to the glorious civilization known as the Great World that the winter of the death-stars had destroyed, when all was in motion and great caravels circled the globe laden with merchandise of fabulous richness and splendor, and onward even into what little was known of that shadowy era, millions of years before the Great World had existed, when the vanished human race had dominated the world.

Nortekku had never cared much about all that before—he was an architect by profession, looking toward the future, not the past. But Thalarne, who was an archaeologist, did, and he cared very much about Thalarne, with whom he was about to go off on an expedition of the highest archaeological significance. So for her sake he went tunneling deep into these historical matters that he had not thought about since his schoolboy days.

He studied the way of life of the cocoon era until he began to feel like a cocoon-dweller himself. Those snug cozy burrows, insulated chambers deep in the ground, self-sufficient, sealed away from the cold, carved out by the patient labor of generations—what marvels of architecture they must have been! A maze of passageways twisting and forking like serpents, a network of intricate ventilation shafts providing fresh air, clusters of luminescent glowberries for lighting, water pumped up from streams far underground, special chambers for raising crops and livestock—

Soon he and Thalarne would be venturing into the holiest cocoon of all, the one from which Hresh and Koshmar and the rest of the great city-builders had come. When all of the planning was complete, a week or ten days from now, they would set out from Yissou in a cavalcade of motor vehicles on a journey that would take them halfway across the continent in search of the supposed site of the ancestral cocoon. Together they would uncover its buried secrets. Thalarne would be at his side, a woman like no woman he had ever known, beautiful slender Thalarne of the emerald eyes and the dark sleek fur, Thalarne of the quick, questing mind and the elegant vibrant body—Thalarne—oh, how he loved her!

But then everything fell apart.

First, practically on the eve of departure, they quarreled. It was over a trifle, an absurd trifle. And then, just as Nortekku was beginning to believe that everything had been patched up, Thalarne’s mate Hamiruld came to him unexpectedly with news that the expedition was cancelled.

“Cancelled?” Nortekku said, amazed. “But I’m almost finished with all the arrangements! How—why—?”

Hamiruld shrugged. He appeared scarcely to care. Hamiruld was marvelously indifferent to almost everything, up to and including Nortekku’s month’s-long romance with his mate. “She asked me to tell you that something else has come up, something more important. That’s all I know.”

“All because of that stupid argument we had?”

Another shrug. Hamiruld’s bland reddish-gray eyes seemed to be gazing into some other dimension. Idly he patted down a tangle in his fur. “I wouldn’t know about that. Something more important, she said.”

Nortekku felt as though he had been punched. Cancelled? Cancelled? Just like that?

“If that’s so,” he said to Hamiruld, “I’ve got to talk to her right now. Where is she? At home, or at the Institute?”

“Neither one,” Hamiruld said.

“Neither?”

“I’m afraid she’s gone,” said Hamiruld mildly.

“Gone? Where?” This was bewildering. Nortekku wanted to shake him.

“I don’t actually know,” said Hamiruld, giving Nortekku a quick, pallid little smile. “She left very quickly, last night, without telling me where she was going. I didn’t see her. All there was was this message, asking me to let you know that the expedition was off.” There seemed to be a glint of malice behind the smile. Perhaps Hamiruld isn’t quite as indifferent to things as he leads one to believe, Nortekku thought.

Cancelled. Something more important has come up.

What do I do now, he wondered?

* * *

It was his engagement to the Princess Silina of Dawinno—or, rather, an indirect consequence of his impulsive breaking off of that engagement—that had brought Nortekku into contact with Thalarne in the first place. Giving him not the slightest hint of his intentions, Nortekku’s father had arranged a marriage for his only child with the vapid but highborn Silina, whose ancestral line went back to some helmet-wearing chieftain of the Beng tribe that had played such a key part in the early days of the city-founding era.

The elder Nortekku was one of the wealthiest and most successful members of the merchant class that was coming to wield the real economic and political power in Dawinno. For him the mating would provide his family with the touch of aristocracy that was the only asset it lacked. To his son, though, it felt like an intolerable intrusion on his freedom of choice. He had never been involved with any one woman for very long, had never even considered taking any of them as his mate, had not even been thinking about such things. And he had seen enough of silly Silina over the years, in the course of the regular social round of the Dawinnan upper classes, to know that she was close to the last woman he would want as his mate, assuming he wanted one at all.

He tried to keep those feelings hidden. He did try. But then, with plans for the nuptials already far along, it all suddenly overflowed in him. Angrily Nortekku told his father that he rejected the entire arrangement and was indignant that it had been set up without consulting him. He would never marry, he said, never, never, never—not the Princess Silina, not anyone. All of which was met, just as heatedly, with a blazing glare, a snarl of fury, and a quick, explicit threat of disinheritance.

“As you wish,” Nortekku replied, without a moment’s hesitation. He had never had any interest in his father’s wealth or in the dreary commercial pursuits that had created it. He had taken up architecture as his profession instead of going into the family firm because he wanted to accomplish something in his own right, not simply become the passive beneficiary of the older man’s boundless riches. Yearning to penetrate deep secrets, he had aspired originally to be an astronomer; but although there was poetry in him there was not quite enough mathematics, and so the choice had fallen upon architecture instead. “Keep your money, father. Give it to the poor. I’m not for sale.”

“So you’ll go to her family, then, and tell them to their faces that you’re breaking off the betrothal? Just like that, sorry, it was all a mistake, goodbye, poof! What do you think Prince Vuldimin will say?”

That was a difficult one. Prince Vuldimin, the shrewd and powerful cousin of King Falid of Yissou, was Nortekku’s most important client at the moment, and Nortekku’s whole professional relationship with him was an outgrowth of the marital negotiations. Vuldimin had come to Dawinno earlier in the year in search of an architect to design a new palace for him in the countryside outside Yissou, a palace that would favor the bright, airy, swooping look of modern Dawinnan architecture rather than the crabbed and somber style typical of Yissou.

That project fell to Nortekku because Vuldimin was distantly related to Silina’s father, who was, for all his lofty ancestry, an impoverished aristocrat eager to see Silina married off to a man of wealth and importance. He saw the job of designing Vuldimin’s palace as a useful step in the building of his future son-in-law’s career, and arranged a meeting between Nortekku and the prince. It went very well: Vuldimin spelled out his ideas for the new palace, Nortekku dared to make some suggestions for bettering them, and Vuldimin showed what appeared to be unfeigned enthusiasm. And so two contracts were drawn up, one pledging the troth of Silina and Nortekku, the other engaging Nortekku as the architect of Vuldimin’s palace. The voiding of one contract now might well cause the other to be broken as well, with disastrous results for Nortekku’s career.

Well, there was no helping any of it. If his father refused to name him as his heir, if Vuldimin ...

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