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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Asimov Isaac, Силверберг Роберт

«The Ugly Little Boy», Isaac Asimov и др.

And, alone in the dim emptiness of the sleeping forecasde he appeared bigger,

colossal, very old; old as Father time himself, who should have come there

into this place as quiet as a sepulchre to contemplate with patient eyes the

short victory of sleep, the consoler. Yet he was only a child of time, a

lonely relic of a devoured and forgotten generation…

— JOSEPH CONRAD, The Nigger of the Narcissus


Prologue. Silver Cloud

SNOW HAD COME IN during the night, a fine dusting of it, thin as mist, traveling on the western wind. It was snow that must have come a great distance. The scent of the sea was still on it, rising now from the bleak broad tundra as die warmth of die early morning sun began to go to work on it.

Silver Cloud had seen the sea once, a long time ago, when he was a boy and the People still hunted in the western lands. The sea was huge and dark and resdess, and when die sunlight struck it in a certain way it gleamed like strange liquid fire. To enter it was death, but to look upon it was wonderful. He would never see it again; that much he knew. The lands bordering the sea were held by the Other Ones now, and the People were in retreat, steadily moving closer and closer each year to the place where die sun is born. And even if the Other Ones were to disappear as suddenly as they had come, Silver Cloud understood diat he would have no hope of returning to die coastal territory. He was too old, too lame, too close to his end. It would take half a lifetime for the tribe to retrace its eastward path, perhaps more. Silver Cloud did not have half a lifetime left. Two or three years, if he was lucky: mat was more like it.

But that was all right. He had seen the sea once, which was more than anyone else in the tribe could say. He would never forget the scent of it, or its great surging strength. Now he stood on the high ground overlooking the encampment, staring out at the unexpectedly snowy plains-opening his nostrils wide, breathing deeply, letting the musky odor of the sea rise to him from below on the fiimes from the melting snow. For just a moment he felt young again.

For just a moment.

A voice behind him said, "You mentioned nothing about snow last night when we made camp, Silver Cloud."

It was the voice of She Who Knows. Why had she followed him up here? He had come up here to be alone in the quiet time of the dawn. And she was the last person he wanted to be bothered by in this private moment.

Slowly Silver Cloud swung round to face her.

"Is snow so unusual that I need to give warning every time it's on the way?"

"This is the fifth week of summer, Silver Cloud."

He shrugged. "It can snow in the summertime as well, woman."

"In the fifth week?"

"In any week," said Silver Cloud. "I remember summers when the snow never stopped, when it came day after day after day. You could see the bright summer sun shining through it, and still the snow fell. And that was in the western lands, where the summers are warmer than they are here."

"That was a very long time ago, before I was born. The summers are getting better everywhere, so they all say, and it seems to be true. -You should have let us know that snow was coming, Silver Cloud."

"Is that so very much snow? It's only a light little dusting, She Who Knows."

"We could have put out the sleeping-rugs."

"For such a little dusting? Such a trifle of snow?"

"Yes. Who likes awakening with snow in the face? You ought to have told us."

"It didn't seem important," said Silver Cloud irritably.

"You should have told us anyway. Unless you didn't know it was coming, of course."

She Who Knows gave him a long hostile look, full of malice. She was becoming a very annoying woman as age bit deeper into her, Silver Cloud thought. He could remember a time when she had been the beautiful slender girl Falling River, with cascades of thick dark hair and breasts like summer melons. Everyone in the tribe had desired her then: he too, he would not deny that. But now she had passed her thirtieth winter and her hair had turned to white strings and her breasts were empty and men no longer looked at her with desire, and she had changed her name to She Who Knows, and was putting on lofty airs of wisdom as though the Goddess had entered into her soul.

He glared at her.

"I knew that the snow was coming. But I knew also that it wouldn't be worth mentioning. I felt the snow in my thigh, where the old wound is, where I always feel the oncoming snow."

"I wonder if you really did."

"Am I a liar? Is that it?"

"You would have told us, if you knew snow was coming. You would have liked having a sleeping-rug over you as much as anyone else. Even more so, I think."

"So kill me," Silver Cloud said. "I admit everything. I failed to feel the snow on the way. Therefore I failed to give the warning and you woke up with snow on your face. It's a terrible sin. Call the Killing Society, and have them take me behind the hill and hit me twelve times with the ivory club. Do you think I'd care, She Who Knows? I've seen forty winters and a few more. I'm very old and very tired. If you'd like to run the tribe for a while, She Who Knows, I'd be happy to step aside and-"

"Please, Silver Cloud."

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