Out of the Silent Planet Chapter XVI

RANSOM AWOKE next morning with the vague feeling that a great weight had been taken off his mind. Then he remembered that he was the guest of a sorn and that the creature he had been avoiding ever since he landed had turned out to be as amicable as the hrossa, though he was far from feeling the same affection for it. Nothing then remained to be afraid of in Malacandra except Oyarsa. 'The last fence,' thought Ransom.

Augray gave him food and drink.

"And now," said Ransom, "how shall I find my way to Oyarsa ?"

"I will carry you," said the sorn. "You are too small a one to make the journey yourself and I will gladly go to Meldilorn. The hrossa should not have sent you this way. They do not seem to know from looking at an animal what sort of lungs it has and what it can do. It is just like a hross. If you died on the harandra they would have made a poem about the gallant hman and how the sky grew black and the cold stars shone and he journeyed on and journeyed on; and they would have put in a fine speech for you to say as you were dying ... and all this would seem to them just as good as if they had used a little forethought and saved your life by sending you the easier way round."

"I like the hrossa," said Ransom a little stiffly. "And I think the way they talk about death is the right way."

"They are right not to fear it, Ren-soom, but they do not seem to look at it reasonably as part of the very nature of our bodies - and therefore often avoidable at times when they would never see how to avoid it. For example, this has saved the life of many a hross, but a hross would not have thought of it."

He showed Ransom a flask with a tube attached to it, and, at the end of the tube, a cup, obviously an apparatus for administering oxygen to oneself.

"Smell on it as you have need, Small One," said the sorn. "And close it up when you do not."

Augray fastened the thing on his back and gave the tube over his shoulder into his hand.  Ransom could not restrain a shudder at the touch of the sorn's hands upon his body; they were fan-shaped, seven-fingered, mere skin over bone like a bird's leg, and quite cold. To divert his mind from such reactions he asked where the apparatus was made, for he had as yet seen nothing remotely like a factory or a laboratory.

"We thought it," said the sorn, "and the pfifltriggi made it."

"Why do they make them?" said Ransom. He was trying once more, with his insufficient vocabulary, to find out the political and economic framework of Malacandrian life.

"They like making things," said Augray. "It is true they like best the making of things that are only good to look at and of no use. But sometimes when they are tired of that they will make things for us, things we have thought, provided they are difficult enough. They have not patience to make easy things however useful they would be. But let us begin our journey. You shall sit on my shoulder."

The proposal was unexpected and alarming, but seeing that the sorn had already crouched down, Ransom felt obliged to climb on to the plume-like surface of its shoulder, to seat himself beside the long, pale face, casting his right arm as far as it would go round the huge neck, and to compose himself as well as he could for this precarious mode of travel. The giant rose cautiously to a standing position and he found himself looking down on the landscape from a height of about eighteen feet.

"Is all well, Small One?" it asked.

"Very well," Ransom answered, and the journey began.

Its gait was perhaps the least human thing about it. It lifted its feet very high and set them down very gently. Ransom was reminded alternately of a cat stalking, a strutting barn-door fowl, and a high-stepping carriage horse; but the movement was not really like that of any terrestrial animal. For the passenger it was surprisingly comfortable. In a few minutes he had lost all sense of what was dizzying or unnatural in his position. Instead, ludicrous and even tender associations came crowding into his mind. It was like riding an elephant at the zoo in boyhood - like riding on his father's back at a still earlier age. It was fun. They seemed to be doing between six and seven miles an hour. The cold, though severe, was endurable; and thanks to the oxygen he had little difficulty with his breathing.

The landscape which he saw from his high, swaying post of observation was a solemn one.  The handramit was nowhere to be seen. On each side of the shallow gully in which they were walking, a world of naked, faintly greenish rock, interrupted with wide patches of red, extended to the horizon. The heaven, darkest blue where the rock met it, was almost black at the zenith, and looking in any direction where sunlight did not blind him, he could see the stars. He learned from the sorn that he was right in thinking they were near the limits of the breathable.  Already on the mountain fringe that borders the harandra and walls the handramit, or in the narrow depression along which their road led them, the air is of Himalayan rarity, ill breathing for a hross, and a few hundred feet higher, on the harandra proper, the true surface of the planet, it admits no life. Hence the brightness through which they walked was almost that of heaven - celestial light hardly at all tempered with an atmospheric veil.

The shadow of the sorn, with Ransom's shadow on its shoulder, moved over the uneven rock unnaturally distinct like the shadow of a tree before the headlights of a car; and the rock beyond the shadow hurt his eyes. The remote horizon seemed but an arm's length away. The fissures and moulding of distant slopes were clear as the background of a primitive picture made before men learned perspective. He was on the very frontier of that heaven he had known in the space-ship, and rays that the air-enveloped words cannot taste were once more at work upon his body.  He felt the old lift of the heart, the soaring solemnity, the sense, at once sober and ecstatic, of life and power offered in unasked and unmeasured abundance. If there had been air enough in hs lungs he would have laughed aloud. And now, even in the immediate landscape, beauty was drawing near. Over the edge of the valley, as if it had frothed down from the true harandra, came great curves of the rose-tinted, cumular stuff which he had seen so often from a distance.

Now on a nearer view they appeared hard as stone in substance, but puffed above and stalked beneath like vegetation. His original simile of giant cauliflower turned out to be surprisingly correct - stone cauliflowers the size of cathedrals and the colour of pale rose. He asked the sorn what it was.

"It is the old forests of Malacandra," said Augray. "Once there was air on the harandra and it was warm. To this day, if you could get up there and live, you would see it all covered with the bones of ancient creatures; it was once full of life and noise. It was then these forests grew, and in and out among their stalks went a people that have vanished from the world these many thousand years. They were covered not with fur but with a coat like mine. They did not go in the water swimming or on the ground walking; they glided in the air on broad flat limbs which kept them up. It is said they were great singers, and in those days the red forests echoed with their music. Now the forests have become stone and only eldila can go among them."

"We still have such creatures in our world," said Ransom. "We call them birds. Where was Oyarsa when all this happened to the harandra?"

"Where he is now."

"And he could not prevent it?"

"I do not know. But a world is not made to last for ever, much less a race; that is not Maleldil's way."

As they proceeded the petrified forests grew more numerous, and often for half an hour at a time the whole horizon of the lifeless, almost airless, waste blushed like an English garden in summer. They passed many caves where, as Augray told him, sorns lived; sometimes a high cliff would be perforated with countless holes to the very top and unidentifiable noises came hollowly from within. 'Work' was in progress, said the sorn, but of what kind it could not make him understand. Its vocabulary was very different from that of the hrossa. Nowhere did he see anything like a village or city of sorns, who were apparently solitary not social creatures. Once or twice a long pallid face would show from a cavern mouth and exchange a horn-like greeting with the travellers, but for the most part the long valley, the rock-street of the silent people, was still and empty as the harandra itself.

Only towards afternoon, as they were about to descend into a dip of the road, they met three sorns together coming towards them down the opposite slope. They seemed to Ransom to be rather skating than walking. The lightness of their world and the perfect poise of their bodies allowed them to lean forward at right angles to the slope, and they came swiftly down like full-rigged ships before a fair wind. The grace of their movement, their lofty stature, and the softened glancing of the sunfight on their feathery sides, effected a final transformation in Ransom's feelings towards their race. 'Ogres' he had called them when they first met his eyes as he struggled in the grip of Weston and Devine; 'Titans' or 'Angels' he now thought would have been a better word. Even the faces, it seemed to him, he had not then seen aright. He had thought them spectral when they were only august, and his first human reaction to their lengthened severity of line and profound stillness of expression now appeared to him not so much cowardly as vulgar. So might Parmenides or Confucius look to the eyes of a Cockney schoolboy! The great white creatures sailed towards Ransom and Augray and dipped like trees and passed.

In spite of the cold - which made him often dismount and take a spell on foot - he did not wish for the end of the journey; but Augray had his own plans and halted for the night long before sundown at the home of an older sorn. Ransom saw well enough that he was brought there to be shown to a great scientist. The cave, or, to speak more correctly, the system of excavations, was large and many-chambered, and contained a multitude of things that he did not understand. He was specially interested in a collection of rolls, seemingly of skin, covered with characters, which were clearly books; but he gathered that books were few in Malacandra.

"It is better to remember," said the sorns.

When Ransom asked if valuable secrets might not thus be lost, they replied that Oyarsa always remembered them and would bring them to light if he thought fit.

"The hrossa used to have many books of poetry," they added. "But now they have fewer.

They say that the writing of books destroys poetry."

Their host in these caverns was attended by a number of other sorns who seemed to be in some way subordinate to him; Ransom thought at first that they were servants but decided later that they were pupils or assistants.

The evening's conversation was not such as would interest a terrestrial reader, for the sorns had determined that Ransom should not ask, but answer, questions. Their questioning was very different from the rambling, imaginative inquiries of the hrossa. They worked systematically from the geology of Earth to its present geography, and thence in turn to flora, fauna, human history, languages, politics and arts. When they found that Ransom could tell them no more on a given subject - and this happened pretty soon in most of their inquiries - they dropped it at once and went on to the next. Often they drew out of him indirectly much more knowledge than he consciously possessed, apparently working from a wide background of general science.  A casual remark about trees when Ransom was trying to explain the manufacture of paper would fill up for them a gap in his sketchy answers to their botanical questions; his account of terrestrial navigation might illuminate mineralogy; and his description of the steam engine gave them a better knowledge of terrestrial air and water than Ransom had ever had. He had decided from the outset that he would be quite frank, for he now felt that it would be not hnau, and also that it would be unavailing, to do otherwise. They were astonished at what he had to tell them of human history - of war, slavery and prostitution.

"It is because they have no Oyarsa," said one of the pupils.

"It is because every one of them wants to be a little Oyarsa himself," said Augray.

"They cannot help it," said the old sorn. "There must be rule, yet how can creatures rule themselves? Beasts must be ruled by hnau and hnau by eldila and eldila by Maleldil. These creatures have no eldila. They are like one trying to lift himself by his own hair - or one trying to see over a whole country when he is on a level with it - like a female trying to beget young on herself."

Two things about our world particularly stuck in their minds. One was the extraordinary degree to which problems of lifting and carrying things absorbed our energy. The other was the fact that we had only one kind of hnau: they thought this must have far-reaching effects in the narrowing of sympathies and even of thought.

"Your thought must be at the mercy of your blood," said the old sorn. "For you cannot compare it with thought that floats on a different blood."

It was a tiring and very disagreeable conversation for Ransom. But when at last he lay down to sleep it was not of the human nakedness nor of his own ignorance that he was thinking. He thought only of the old forests of Malacandra and of what it might mean to grow up seeing always so few miles away a land of colour that could never be reached and had once been inhabited.

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