There are many marvelous tales, untold, unwritten, never to be recorded or remembered, lost beyond all divining and all imagining, that sleep in the double silence of far-recessive time and space. The chronicles of Saturn, the archives of the moon in its prime, the legends of Antillia and Moaria - these are full of an unsurmised or forgotten wonder...
CLARK ASHTON SMITH, "A Voyage to Sfanomoë"
“It is indeed unfortunate, Dr Royden,” said Professor Sherman of the Interplanetary Survey, “that visitors are not at the moment to be permitted access to the advanced research base in the ruins of Farside. I can assure you that the prohibition has not been needless. The reports of plague were quite definite, unequivocably endorsed by Administrator Dawcott himself.”
Royden, a hardy and determined adventurer with degrees in archaeology and selenography, turned away with a shrug. He did not believe the reports. No virulent organism – no life of any kind except for a few harmless and leathery cacti-like and lichenous forms – had yet been found anywhere on the moon; and the sprawling, enigmatic ruins on Farside, first discovered during the circumlunar expedition of 1976 and subjected to frequent and intensive study for the subsequent sixteen years, had been pronounced entirely sterile.
Now he was being told that all transportation to the site had been interdicted because of plague! He suspected the existence of an alternative explanation. Here among the precincts of Frontier Base on the moon’s eastern limb, webs of intrigue involving officials of the Interplanetary Survey were not unknown. Royden had heard rumours concerning the recent discovery of written texts in the ruins of the incommensurably ancient Selenite city on Farside; and if the rumours were true, if such texts had been found, and especially if they were on the point of decipherment, it was not inconceivable that certain men of rank, among whom this Professor Sherman might well be included, had illegally decided by means of a period of concerted secrecy to obtain for themselves alone the entire credit for the elucidation of the lunar civilization.
To Royden this conspiratorial hypothesis appeared vastly more plausible than that of a sudden and unexplained pestilence. However, he kept his suspicions to himself. He took his leave of Sherman after voicing some perfunctory thanks for the interview and some expressions of regret for the danger which now faced the teams working on Farside.
It had never been Royden’s habit to harbour excessive veneration for the dictates of officialdom. As soon as he was free from immediate observation he packed his belongings, which included a foldable vacuum-suit, torch, maps, and tonanite pistol, and strolled in the direction of the outer area in which the lunar jeeps of Frontier Base were parked.
The habitable, residential sections of the Base were situated inside a crater-bowl of exceptional depth, in which a patch of breathable air still lingered, an exiguous remainder of the atmosphere which had enveloped the moon in its aeon-distant youth. For a while, carrying his gear in a case, Royden strolled clad merely in ordinary terrene clothing, in order to arouse the minimum of speculation as to his exploratory intentions. The efficacy of this stratagem was, however, naturally circumscribed by the increasingly acclivitous path which soon brought him into higher regions of thinner air. His breathing wracked by gasps, he was eventually forced to unfold and don his vacuum suit. Fortunately for his plans, he was able to do this in solitude, for by this time he had reached the peripheral and mostly deserted regions of the crater.
From his present altitude he turned to gaze briefly back down into the pool of air, which shone with a cerulean glimmer that stirred his blood with sudden longing. The glow was a mere hint of blue, a pocket of trapped earthlight mingled with the artificial illumination of Frontier Base. But what must it have been like on the moon, in the days of its ancient glory?
Royden sighed and continued his climb, up and out onto the highland, to the place where the jeeps were parked. With the eerie leaping stride of which terrestrials are capable under lunar conditions, he hurried towards the vehicles. To steal one of these was Royden’s intention; and it appeared that he now had an opportunity to do so. The Base’s personnel had not deemed it necessary to provide a permanent guard for the area; the assumption on their part being that any prospective thief would be sufficiently deterred by the realization that once the loss had been reported there would be no place of human habitation to which he could drive his prize without being apprehended.
Undeterred by these considerations, he sprang to the door of the nearest jeep. It was not locked, for on a sparsely-populated world of mutually congizant personnel such precaution was deemed unnecessary, or even antisocial – since in the hostile lunarian environment a life might unforeseeably depend upon speedy ingress to an air-tight habitation.
With practised efficiency Royden activated the controls of the vehicle, so that it surged forward over the basaltic desolation that ran to meet the inhumanly close horizon, which, within the space of a few minutes, hid the glow of Frontier Base from view.
It was night on the moon, but at first he was able to drive by earthlight. Steadily, though, the friendly gleam of his terrestrial home sank behind him as he sped confidently towards Farside, that face which the moon averts eternally from mundane scrutiny. After a short while the light from the human world disappeared abruptly, leaving Royden with a sensation of utter isolation.
He told himself that he was only travelling from one base to another, but in his heart of hearts he knew that this was a journey into the dark potentiality of the unknown.
The silent moonscape presented an aspect of tortured magnificence, formed by the eternal cosmic night whose chaotic forces aeons ago had whipped the prodigious mountain ranges into ethereal peaks, had gouged tenebrous intervening chasms, had floored vast basins with lava and had strewn them with detritus.
There were no cairns or markers denoting the passage of previous explorers. Royden had chosen an unused route to the ruins – an easy choice to make, since most routes were unused. The chances of successful pursuit were dim, and he harboured no anxiety on that score; nor did he care what the attempted reprisals might be, for his theft of the vehicle; for he was more than willing to gamble on the security which fame would bring him after he had succeeded in uncovering the conspiracy on Farside.
He also admitted the necessity of constant vigilance to ward off non-human perils, for many were the dooms which might befall the venturer into the trackless alienation of the lunarian wilderness. Many were the vehicles which were known to lie wrecked in the depths of precipitate pits of shadow, or foundered in seas of dust into which careless pioneers had been pulled by slow implacable suction.
Thus with never-flagging care and at moderate speed he drove for two days of earthly time, in the midst of the lengthy lunar night, lit by the stars and planets and by the diffuse illumination of the Zodiacal Light and the Milky Way, and by the headlamps of the jeep.
After he had taken off his vacuum-suit there was space enough inside the vehicle for a journey of reasonable comfort, and there were copious provisions to be found in one of the storage-compartments. The control cabin was furnished with adequate charts, which were accurate though not minutely detailed, and Royden assured himself, with inadequate logic, that there was no danger that he might lose his way. From where he sat in front of the instrument-board he could see out of the windows fore, aft and to the sides. Nowhere could he discern any cartographically identifiable landmark in the sable moonscape, but he told himself that this was to be expected: his selenographical knowledge, though extensive, derived from systematic perusal of photographs taken by orbiting spacecraft rather than from ground-based observation. Since he could steer by the stars, he knew he must be travelling in the right direction. Even if he did get lost he could simply wait for the day, whereupon it would become an easier matter to use the charts.
With lumbering determination the jeep’s caterpillar treads continued to haul the stranger, the interloper from Earth, onwards across the bare rock, lurching over scoriac irregularities in the scarred and pitted surface of a land of volcanoes which had been extinct for aeons of time. The dim starlit view on all sides looked so utterly forbidding, that Royden began to sense the place’s lifelessness as a positive force – an “anti-life”, as it were. Jagged peaks brooded in malevolent formlessness. Cave-mouths yawned in grinning blackness, as if proclaiming with a soundless yell the final triumph of pure sterility.
More and more strongly there crept upon him that sense of being an incongruous intruder, a squirming absurdity who was being mocked by inanimate stone. Observing the trend his thoughts were taking, he felt a premonitory twinge of alarm. He reminded himself that he was a scientist. His selenographical knowledge was nigh top in his field. Surely it was appropriate that he, if anyone could, should pit his wits and skill against the perils of the way and the human obstacles which he might meet at its end. In view of all this, was it not absurd to think that he might fall victim to the psychological alienation with which lesser souls, weaker minds, had been afflicted in the remoter lunar wilds?
But on further reflection he could not but help remind himself that some good savants, perhaps almost as eminent as himself, had succumbed to a certain creeping suggestiveness, a malaise of anthropomorphism, which in disparate individuals had induced certain of nightmares remarkably similar in their puerile frightfulness. The researchers who had suffered in this way had at first been too ashamed to relate their experiences. Only bit by bit had their agreements come to light. In each case the dreams, or daydreams, had as their principal theme the surrounding presence of a frozen awareness, a petrified sentience, straining in the stillness as if resentful of some arresting spell.
The people who received such impressions invariably came to find that it was impossible under such distracting conditions to get any serious work done; and so the rate of turnover among the researchers in the Farside archaeological base was high. It had come to be accepted, as part of the increasing body of lore concerned with the impact of etheric immensities upon the human spirit, that although the Moon was Earth’s closest celestial neighbour, yet the furthest moonscapes, separated from the home world by the entire bulk of the cold satellite, were in human terms as remote as any place in the Solar System.
Thus Royden was not astonished at his growing uneasiness; but he was annoyed – he had hoped that he would manage to finish the voyage without such jitterings. Of course the novelty of his route did not help; nevertheless, it would soon be over, and when he reached his destination he would be on familiar ground, for the Selenite ruins, however mysterious and strange, had at least known the tread of human explorers. Royden became impatient to reach this goal.
At this point he encountered rougher ground, and driving became more difficult. The danger of wrecking the vehicle increased. He simply told himself that this must not happen, and he did not slacken speed to any great extent. Luck was with him, and he did not pay the penalty of his rashness. Watching the weird rock formations which ghosted by in the limited glare of the headlamps, he began to notice a different kind of light ahead: not sharp, but smudgy. The leprous gleam emanated from the tumescent bole of a lunar cactus, about two feet high, growing close by the mouth of a cave. The plant was the first sign of life he had seen on this journey. It must live on driblets of air. It signified that the journey must be near its end. He stopped the jeep.
Resting a while, he raised his eyes to the drastic skyline of a mangled ancient range, and he thought that he could perceive a dim greyness, a diffuse attenuate dome, which stood out against the blackness and the stars.
Then he knew that he had approached almost to within sight of the Selenite city. The pale dome, the hemisphere of thin light and air, was the unmistakable, inexplicable marvel of primordial lunarian science. It was the unblemished monument to the race of unknown powers whose fate was scrawled cryptically in the shining ruins cupped by the glow.
In order to arrive within sight of those ruins, he first must traverse the jagged region silhouetted against the spectral dome of glowing air.
He began to drive forward once more, climbing alongside interbranching rilles towards the black volcanic serrations on the skyline, beyond which loomed the indistinct hugeness of the hemispheric blue.
The way became steeper among soaring buttresses both igneous and meteoric, the half-obliterated or superimposed wreckage of archaean catastrophe. Naturally it all spoke to Royden in the language of science, suggesting mechanisms of formation to his expert eye, but he also received different impressions, unaccountably purposeful, as if the dead starlit wasteland were gesturing at him with a myriad writhing cloaks or sleeves which nevertheless never moved; and the glowing hemisphere beyond the final ridge was a god enthroned over the still-life, summoning Royden to account for his intrusion...
Determined to abate these feverish imaginations, he halted the jeep to make an examination of another noctilucent plant - one of the growths which took advantage of the dribblets of air close to the ruins.
It was of a flaccid, thallophytic nature, trailing lank, pulpy appendages like lucent streamers, which lay over the sides of a crevice in which the thing must be rooted. Royden gazed carefully around. Now he could see a few more plants of similar shape, twisted among the clefts and rubble. He had discovered a new species of lunar flora. And these speciments might well be the only ones in existence, feeding slowly on some rare mineral in the volcanic escarpment or the rare gaseous exhalations from the fissures which veined the slope as well as the attenuated nimbus of the nearby hemisphere of air. This was what he needed - the self-satisfaction which came from a straight discovery...
Most of all, he derived irrational comfort from the puny, un-prepossessing nature of these lunar organisms. They symbolised the moon's incapacity to produce advanced life-forms. This senescent little world would never again harbour anything sufficiently complex to be malign, no matter what it may have produced in its youth... yes, its remaining denizens were doomed to the status of subject-matter for recondite botanical journals. It was amazing how cheered Royden felt by this.
With no further halts or misgivings, he completed the last stage of his motorised journey. He parked the jeep close to a jagged outcrop close to the summit of the final rise, and emerged in space-suit, tonanite pistol gripped in his right hand.
He did not believe that Dawcott and his teams would go so far as to threaten his life, whatever chicanery they might be engaged in; so why had he brought the weapon? Setting that question aside, Royden hopped and scrambled the last stretch to the ridge-summit. With each slow leap he found it easier to realize that he was entering the fringes of a realm of genuine atmosphere, with its diminishing pools of black, its increasing umbrageous gradations, and the approaching twilight of his destination.
Even after many minutes had passed he still stood in the same position, staring as if he had never seen the lunarian city before in countless photographs and films. No matter the quantity of representations and descriptions he had perused, the presence of the reality shook him in some profound subliminal fashion.
It was only slowly that he came out of his daze and began to advance down the short slope towards the lava bay on which the ruins stood haloed, a zone of preternatural light, a dim bubble on the shores of night.
No signs of human life could he see; not a trace of Dawcott's team. Bathed in eonian silence, the grounds of the city were littered with unsurmisable relics of an ultra-terrene architecture. In a panorama of mysterious styles they preserved a record not only of durative creation but also of unguessable, partial destruction...
Titanic avenues of black-green stone ran commingled with thin crumpled causeways of light metal, which led to and from many-faceted buildings like huge black diamonds, supported by translucent spirals of a form and texture weirdly reminiscent of frozen smoke. When upright, these twirled pillars hardly touched the ground, but many had been toppled so that the polyhedral black structures which they had borne aloft now lay fallen and gashed – apparently by the hostile agency of gaunt, tripedal cutting-engines which still towered over their hapless victims. Millions of years ago, the battle must have ended with the fall of the smoky towers under the impact of those whirling tripedal scythes, quiescent now in a colossal, somnolent tableau.
Royden loped forward, spellbound, to pass among the fallen black buildings and their equally moribund conquerors. His eyes widened as his brain attempted to absorb wonder after wonder.
Through the gashes, the fatal wounds in the black polyhedral structures, puzzling interiors were visible, of an egg-like saffron softness, in which twists of fused and tortured metal were half-submerged. The wrecks meanwhile bulked incongruously against other, different shapes: dark stone slabs of almost cathedral size, propped unevenly against unfinished ramparts part-girdling the city. And these in turn were punctuated by “trees” of silver scaffolding, which reared incomprehensibly before still larger monoliths leaning untidily upon each other as if in haste to resemble Cyclopean ziggurats...
No plant grew on the wide flat lava clearings of this lifeless metropolis, or on its rectilinear paves, or the flanks of its sloping structures. The site was of such durability that not even aeons of meteoric bombardment could erode their tough surfaces into friable lunar soil. Royden’s boots made a clinking sound as he moon-walked in slow motion deeper into the city. The sound he made echoed and re-echoed faintly in the thin hemisphere of air, dying unanswered, to leave incoherent premonitions hissing their warnings in the childish recesses of his brain.
He must, he told himself, find people in due course, if he continued in this direction, for it would bring him through the alien city to the landing-field and the Administrator’s offices on its other side, where the first explorers had found a convenient flat area on which to build a base. The base could not have been abandoned, for – he now reminded himself – the parked freighters of the Interplanetary Survey had been visible from the ridge over which he had previously climbed. So that was all right, he repeated as he wended his way among the towering Selenite constructions.
Onward he persevered, through chasmal streets fronted by vertiginous blocks; he stooped under house-sized polyhedra which bulged under leaning vitreous spirals; he sidled past the ominous tripeds, twenty feet high and bristling with their silvery knife-arms of similar length, their ferocious mechanical mien frozen in the attitudes of their victory – the triumph after which they had been abandoned for unknown reasons by their now-nameless owners.
Whenever he had to pass close to any of the fallen polyhedral which had gaping rents in their sides, he was moved by a supreme disquietude, fed by imponderable suspicions. The “yolk” – he could not help thinking of it thus – in the interior of the faceted black buildings was of a non-particulate nature which had so far defied all analysis and had indeed driven more than one eminent physicist to despair; but however abstract the problems involved, the reaction felt by Royden in the vicinage of these objects of mystery was one of emotive disgust, prompted by an insistent hunch which told him that those objects which were unhallowed by the physical laws of this universe must also be unhallowed in every other sense. However, as a scientist, he made a conscious and dutiful effort to repress this surge of morbid thoughts.
Thus sternly logical, he continued his gliding hops among the bright clean dead giant shapes. But it was impossible to stay logical for long, impossible to stave off the drift of fantastic ideas, drifting as he was, floating drenched in phantasmal light, and numbed by the continuity of infinitude. Vista after overlapping vista surrounded him in a chill gallery of inhuman colossi, seemingly ageless in the disconcertingly unweathered abyss of lunar time. It was easy in reverie to imagine that the damage done to this Selenite city had been inflicted only a day before, and that the sounder buildings might yet be inhabited, saved from destruction by a timely surrender to the tripedal conquerors...
Why did I come here? he asked himself suddenly. Why was I so sure that I was right and Professor Sherman was lying?
He had halted and was standing still in front of a row of human corpses.
The scene etched itself on his awareness in a few sharp seconds of indelible but curiously abstract terror. It was in a fatalistic daze that Royden took note of the details which confronted him: five dead men flopped over a stone slab, with their helmets off. They ought to have gasped out their lives in the inadequate air, but there must have been more to the cause of death than that. Their scalps and faces were curiously shrivelled and dessicated. Wizened mummies, clad from the neck downwards in modern vacuum-suits, the helmets of which lay within easy reach, the corpses presented a baffling spectacle.
Well, it was a matter of record that some people had found the atmosphere in the centre of this lunarian city to be thick enough for short periods of respiration, so perhaps the bare-headedness of these researchers at the time they fell was not unaccountable, especially if they had been carrying out a close naked-eye examination of the object over which they now were sprawled...
The stone slab was peculiarly flecked with a lurid spattering of vermillion lines and dots. It lay at the base of a long grooved incline which jutted from the outer wall of a low, squat building. The slab had apparently slid down the incline, out from where it had been stored – stored among other slabs, in a lunar library, realized Royden as he stood numb with awe. And these men had died trying to read –
Stick to what I know, he told himself sharply. Yes, the men, just before they died, had removed one of the library’s treasures: a written text on this heavy slab. The vermillion lines and dots were what they seemed to be: a text. What harm could a text do, and why did he sense some innominable malaise like an impossible cloud upon the airless horizon?
He tried to shake off the soul-shaking dubitation which possessed him as he turned away, not wishing to imagine the slightest connection between the deaths he had seen and the treasure of knowledge.
What to do now? Continue through the city on the route he had envisaged – there was no other plan he could think of. Find the base and alert the authorities, if they didn’t know already.
Sorting out his fears, he lost something of the inexplicable terror which had assailed him at the sight of the written lines on the Selenite stone. An explanation occurred to him, a piece of logic which smoothed over his primal anxiety. Some kind of spore or germ, he postulated, which had lain dormant for ages in the building, had been extracted together with the glyphic stone. Thus, Sherman had been telling the truth; plague had broken out upon Farside.
In which case, Royden might now be the only only living person in this hemisphere of the Moon. This dismal possibility was fraught with discomfort and inconvenience, but not with immediate danger: he was sealed in a vacuum suit which was surely capable of preventing the ingress of noxious organisms, and there must be spare oxygen bottles at the research base, enough for him to survive until help came –
Glumly he corrected himself: no one would come. The area had been placed under quarantine, the ban which he had broken by arriving. Now he would have to stay, alone, shut up in his suit till he starved. Or he could open his helmet and risk the shrivelling doom which he had observed upon those other men...
On the other hand the Base might contain facilities for the sterilization of his suit. There had better be! – otherwise, hermetically sealed starvation would be his fate, unless he dared to uncover his head to the alien death of the plague.
This last thought brought Royden to a puzzled stop once more. For to his more honest self it was disquietingly obvious that in this situation he was not really afraid of micro-organisms at all. It was something else which had smitten him with a brooding sense of the vicinage of alien power.
Hesitant and bewildered, he turned to retrace his steps, to look once more at the dead men. And it was at this point, when his sense of some malefic abeyance in the ruins around him became so overpoweringly persuasive as to force his mind to ditch its lesser worries, that he saw he was not alone. The incongruous, corpulent figure of Administrator Dawcott, in ordinary clothing without a vacuum suit, doddered forth as Royden watched. Could this be? It was no hallucination. From some alley in the ruins, the Administrator had emerged to stand forlornly beside the corpses of his team.
Chill was the reaction of Royden to the sight of the living among the dead, though he did not know why – he ought to have felt relief, even at the sight of that prosaic, unimaginative man with whom he had had prior dealings at various scientific conferences and whom he had (if truth be told) somewhat despised.
A furtive revulsion delayed Royden’s response as Dawcott approached to offer his hand in greeting. The suspicion appeared to be mutual as the half-dazed Administrator scrutinised Royden’s visor.
“I am glad to see you,” the official spoke tremulously, his voice thin and squeaky in the rarefied atmosphere of the Selenite city. “Yes,” he continued, “I am certainly glad to see someone. Who actually are you, though? I thought I was the last man alive here,” he added, wonderingly.
“You don’t remember me? We’ve met before. My name is Royden. I have just come from Frontier Base, to investigate the truth here.”
There was a macabre emptiness about the meeting. A coldness grew inside Royden as he wondered how long Dawcott could have remained unhelmeted and alive. If the plague theory was no longer to be believed, then perhaps Dawcott had committed the killings himself? If so, it would not be the first such case of lunacy...
However, Dawcott’s next words constituted a reciprocal plea for knowledge. “Can you tell me anything about this pestilence? Why am I the sole survivor of my team? In the last work period all have succumbed... all except I myself... if only I could understand...”
Royden did not, could not answer. He stared down at the row of dead men. At the sight of their fierce, parched faces, which looked to have been consumed by some unfathomed power, the idea that old Dawcott could have been responsible became absurd.
The prostrate corpses lay sprawled upon the examples of Selenic script, which the men must have extracted from the primordial library. Royden began to feel that he understood – in vague, immense outline – where the stupendous truth must lie.
Each lunarian slab, inscribed with the varying dots and dashes in blazing vermillion, seemed somehow to possess its own distinct personality. That was easy to say in a superficial artistic sense, but for Royden the meaning ran deeper. He quickly reached the fantastic and unwelcome conclusion, that the researchers who now lay dead in front of him, in their attempt to study these arcana, had suffered from some deadly signification. They could hardly have deciphered the script by their own efforts; yet by unknown super-sciental means the linguistic bequest of remote aeons had acquired an animate liberty, had loosed from the bonds of its medium and –
What am I saying? wondered Royden, indignant and frightened at the direction his thoughts had taken.
He faced it: somehow his intuition was telling him that the pure meaning of those Selenite records had burst into terrestrial brains, had blasted and shrivelled the men who received it.
Terror gripped Royden as he wondered: does this intuition of mine mean that the process has started upon me, too?
The wizened corpses wore variously exaggerated expressions of infinite ecstacy, curiosity, or nether horror. Corresponding no doubt to the texts which they have read, he thought numbly.
Royden knelt in hypnotic fascination, no longer capable of the slightest doubt that the script could be read. Not deciphered – read. Directly. In its own terms. It carried its meaning within it... the patterns were the meaning.
For he had approached within the zone of comprehension; it was arrogating his whole attention to itself; and it could and would make him read, read the ultimate symbols which were as far beyond English in communicative power as English was beyond the grunts of wild things.
So he was in for it, he would have to read one of the texts; but which was it to be? Currently, he was aware that on hands and knees he was crawling close to the most atrocious visage among the corpses – the face of one who had been unlucky enough to drift into the clutches of a rampantly nightmare message. Royden strove to shake himself away from this particular pull of meaning. A threat of understanding seemed about to draw him past a point of no return; dimly he was simultaneously aware that Dawcott was shouting at him, demanding to know why he was crawling over the slabs.
Royden was no longer free to answer, and in any case could not have spared the attention to do so. He had but one idea: to avoid sharing the perdition that had entered via the eye-sockets of the reader of the message which now had him, too, in its “signifying” pull.
A spasm of weakened muscles wrenched Royden aside, into the less fiendish lane of attraction of an adjacent slab. It then proceeded to draw him forward as the other had done –
The influence of a script too potent for the mind of man was obscuring his sense of personal identity, so that over him there now stole a mood of languid resignation, to a fate which promised to be more interesting than any other kind of death.
He had no strength left to shift lanes once again. Perforce he abandoned the hope that he might enter the blissful and Edenic saga promised by the text to the left of the one which now held his mind on a contracting leash. Well, he’d have to be satisfied with the enigmatic one that held him. As it reached to engulf him finally, at least he was no longer terrified.
What seemed to Royden to be a palpable, plasmic emanation – but which was invisible to Dawcott who stood watching in uncomprehending dismay – now issued from the inscribed slab to embrace the captive reader utterly.
Royden experienced an intoxicating revelation, which had the force of an ineffable dream, as he seemed to perceive the very dots and lines starting out from the stones and flaunting their meanings with inevitable certainty, for this language of the Selenites had gone beyond the representational, had bypassed all need of metaphor or ideograph, and appeared on the deepest level of suggestion as stark Truth.
Benignant and all-powerful seemed the text to its human receptacle, when the latter’s struggles had ceased. Around his head the noetic reverberations hummed a deific nocturne, galvanizing his awareness beyond human ken, until the super-words formed vortices, which widened into a kaleidoscopic whirl to coalesce ultimately into one vivid view.
It was a scene near the western shore of the ocean called Zpibaraz, near the Opkaz Mountains, when the moon was young.
The disembodied reader, Dr Simon D. Royden, F.R.S., apparently suspended in luminous air, was able to gaze in all directions at once. And from all directions the scene shone back at him, in fulgurations of chromatic glory.
The sky was a deep and royal blue. So was the water, visible past intervening glades of saffron turf, each glade bordered by intricate nodose grasses.
The grasses reared high their lozenge-shaped blades and gemmiferous heads, scattering a splintered largesse of irised light; while in the opposite direction, away from the ocean, stretched uplands with wider meadows, frizzled more densely with similar varieties of sparkling blades.
Beyond the meadows, the heavy all-drenching sunlight smote upon scintillant peaks which masked that portion of the curving horizon of this small world, whose native name was Yyu.
In the shade of a columnar boscage,
not far from the shore, stood a conical lodge. It was surrounded by a
small patio adorned with flowers and rock-scrolls, where two
silver-skinned beings conversed in fluting tones. The creatures were
humanoid, with a frail, delicate beauty, strong enough, however, in
their withy limbs and their subtle brains.
Vaphru, Queen of Atth, listened in perturbation to the remonstrances of her lover Dzhaoo, a headstrong member of her swarm. The coronal fringe of tendrils upon Vaphru’s head fluttered in agitation as Dzhaoo reiterated his passionate warning:
“Do not go to Palabaraz, O my (sovereign/sustainer/centre of universe – the connotations blended in Royden’s mind). Pihinxin is an ambitious (king/swarm-leader/hive-dominator), eager to extend his power, and he would inveigle you into choosing a mate who would always be complaisant to orders from the Palabarazan throne. But even if this were not true, I implore you to believe that no mate whom you could find in that great city, or in any other, could give you the (love/one-ness/fulfilment) that I could give you.”
And he proffered his clasped hands in
supplication, knowing full well that his boldness of speech was
unheard-of; the monarchs of Yyu formed an exclusive social and
biological caste, which mated always with the special royal broods, and
never with the common members of the swarms, who existed in dreamy
contentment, almost always inferior in intelligence to their rulers.
Dzhaoo was an exception, a commoner with the awareness of a king; a freak so rare that he had given no offence so far. Vaphru had merely listened to him in silent wonder when he first made his avowal; while Pihinxin, King of Palabaraz, who had taken the precaution of excluding royal rivals from the wardship of Vaphru, had ignored Dzhaoo as being of no significance, and had allowed him unmolested passage through his land. Thus had Dzhaoo, flying at top speed, overtaken Vaphru before she reached Palabaraz.
But now that he had found her, and had pleaded with her, he felt that he had exhausted his stock of contrivances. She did not appear to be listening to him with favour. Evidently, the mating of a monarch and a commoner, which Dzhaoo had foretold would be an epochal sign of a mass-awakening of the swarms, would be left to the future, to a different pair, if it ever happened at all.
Thus thought Dzhaoo, unaware how close to victory he was. If he had lived in the latter-day era of the perfect script, he might have had the advantage of the telepathy which by then would have spread among the Yyr, the people of Yyu. But he lived in an earlier and simpler age. He therefore lacked the mind-reading skill to discern the positive response of Vaphru’s heart, hidden by her impassive royal mien. His own spirits collapsed in dejection, made worse by a clouding anxiety for the future of their swarm.
Royden the disembodied reader, however,
was able to see the hopeful signs. In accordance with the author’s
intention, he received from the narration an omniscient insight into the
thoughts and emotions of every character in the story. Being human, he
adapted the interpretation somewhat to fit with human categories; the
result was an amalgam of themes, in which the tale of Vaphroo and Dzhaoo
was seen through a lens of human romance – yet still preserving most of
its Selenite authenticity.
Queen Vaphru of Atth, beset by a vacillatory and perplexing gamut of emotions, left the cultivated area and commenced a nervous perambulation of the nearby grove. Her hyaline eyes underwent rapid nictation; her arms performed saccadic gestures; the ossicles on the sides of her head buzzed indecisively. Dzhaoo’s accomplished oracy had worked a profound effect upon her will, so that she no longer felt sure what to say – an unusual condition for a sovereign.
She replied in captious tone as the commoner strode to keep up with her, “I have already heard the voice of Zdrarph, the choice of Pihinxin. Zdrarph is every bit as eloquent as you, O my forward subject. And he is far more considerate of my peace of mind than you are. Why should I believe that you would make a better King of Atth than he?”
Having spoken, she glanced sidelong, and pretended to study the volutes of the flowers and the rock-scrolls which twined their floral and mineral beauties in miscible profusion.
Now it was evident to Dzhaoo that his battle was won.
As he watched, the palpitations of her chrominences increased, as she became aware that she had, by her own tone – and by abandoning her gracious aloofness so far as to compare him, Dzhaoo, provocatively with Zdrarph – answered her own question.
With a fateful gravity, aware that her compliance was against all custom and example, she opened her arms to receive her plebeian suitor, who clasped her in tender ecstacy while Royden the reader simultaneously became thoroughly aware of the author’s tendentious purpose in selecting this scene for his narrative. For it was a turning point in the evolution of all the sixteen swarms of Yyu.
Dzhaoo spoke many amorous words, but they were slurred in the shadow of the sentence which was emphasized most in the script:
“Together, you and I must accomplish a revolution if we are to survive.”
The very words themselves were revolutionary. While Dzhaoo spoke them, he looked up into the eastern sky. There, a great globe hung motionless: Urom, the giant companion-world around which Yyu revolved.
Heavily suffused by authorial hints, the scene injected into Royden, the reader of this tale, the idea that the fate of Dzhaoo and Vaphru would become linked in some way with that planet bulging in the sky.
Royden’s own knowledge combined with the Selenite narrative enabled him to identify “Urom” with the Earth of the Permian period, and this helped him to orient himself in the vastness of time while he watched the ancient story unfold, so that, discerning the shape and size of the land beneath the flecking of Urom’s clouds, he thought to himself: that is the supercontinent of Pangaea; my mind is some two hundred and fifty million years in my body’s past; the Earth I see is close to the end of its Palaeozoic era.
Then as a movie cuts from one scene to another the focus of the narrative returned to Dzhaoo and Vaphru. Fain were they to remain alone along the soothing groves, to explore their supernal idyll of new-found mutual love, but the return to Vaphru’s home city was urgently necessary. In Atth, if anywhere, they would find support against the fury of Pihinxin which must shortly be aroused.
Strolling onto the beach of amber shards which marked the sinuous shore of Zpibaraz, they observed that the wide blue sky was fortunately empty of flying beings, so that none might note their departure. Then, unfolding their transparent vanes of fine gauze, Dzhaoo and Vaphroo leaped into flight, choosing speed rather than stealth as they soared over the specular ocean.
The return journey to Atth took half a Yyr day. Later they looked back upon this time as a precarious joyance, shot through with presentiments of tragic conflict. The fugitive pair held to a northward course which, after two days of unmolested flight, brought them over the pole of Yyu. The swarm of Ningyl, which inhabited this boreal region, received them with hospitality, and accorded Vaphru the courtesies due to a sovereign. She felt tempted to confide in them, but the hints by which she essayed to test opinion did not, after all, elicit any sign of those progressive habits of thought which had recently become vital to her. So she kept her newly acquired opinions to herself, and did not dare to risk the disclosure of that status which she had conferred upon her companion. Consequently her host the King of Ningyl knew no better than to arrange for Dzhaoo to be lodged among underlings while Vaphru was left in lonely state to tour the high parks with their mauve swards, among the nigrescent pinnacles and rare clouds of this remote realm; but she was comforted by the thought that Dzhaoo remained within sight among her attendants.
Southward the two Atthans flew after their brief rest in Ningyl; southward into the other hemisphere of Yyu. They sped through many lands on their way home, but in none did they think it worth while to solicit liberal endorsement of their liaison. The attempt having failed in Ningyl, it would surely fail in other foreign lands. Only in their home city might they hope for that public complaisance which Queen Vaphru had a right to expect from her own swarm; and glad were the travellers when at last they descried the vertiginous porphyry hive of Atth from afar.
Proud and tall it stood amid the surrounding marish, of which the reeds, flashing like an encircling army of quivering spears, partially hid the vermiculate hordes which pastured therein. Above this contado the homecoming monarch was met by a party of deferential subjects, who escorted her and her companion through a lofty portico into the heart of her domain.
In the apical chamber atop the central newel of Atth, Queen Vaphru resumed her royal vantage at the city’s hub of communication.
Her attendants perched on coigns, awaiting commands, or flew to and from the throne bearing firkins and salvers of choice viands and liquids; other servants flitted to adjust the seeing-tubes about the throne, to enable the monarch to supervise scenes beyond the waxen walls. Vaphru was thus able to survey the entire population which swarmed among all the cotes and esplanades on all the levels of Atth.
The order went out that all members of the swarm – except the outermost guards – should gather at the lower outlets of the seeing-tubes. Thus assembled, her subjects gazed at Vaphru, and heard her also, by a supplementary telaudition, announce to them that she had chosen Dzhaoo as her consort.
No whisper of protest or even surprise was heard from the plebeian multitude. A yet more remarkable testimony of loyalty was furnished by the similar acquiescence of the royal brood, the siblings of Vaphru who had congregated in her presence. Every one of them obediently bowed to him who stood beside their Queen, and submissively awaited dismissal or else a further expression of will from the throne.
However, the silence was broken from a different direction –
All eyes turned to a space near the wall opposite the throne, where a strange captive creature rested its distended bulk upon a massive wicker pedestal.
The vrell was a filmy, hydrous globe about seven yards in diameter, with octuple cancroid antlers or limbs growing from its summit. In appearance it seemed as vulnerable as a bloated dew-drop, and indeed it was so heavy that it could not move itself even under the light gravity of Yyu; nevertheless it possessed a toughness unequalled by any of the native denizens of either Yyu or of Urom. With its brethren it had originated on some far clump of asteroids, and over the ages the vrells had scattered across space, some falling upon Yyu, some upon Urom and some, doubtless, upon other worlds.
Vrells were few in number, and did not reproduce; the lifetime of an individual was coterminate with the lifetime of the species. Their rarity and uniqueness extended to the quality of their mental life: their minds, if they had minds, were inaccessible to the Yyr. And yet, by accident, something extremely useful had been discovered about them: they could be used for long-distance communication. Each vrell existed in some kind of telepathic contact, or perhaps merely a synchronous subetheric resonance, with at least one other vrell. And the way in which this force worked was such as to provide the owners of these creatures with something of a telephone service.
Now in the throne-room of Atth the vrell’s argentiferous skin became tinted with a pink flush of auditory ignition, and the voice of Pihinxin, King of Palabaraz, spoke from across the breadth of Yyu:
“Have you returned home, O Vaphru? I require you to answer.”
Vaphru spoke back, briefly and simply. And her words entered the vrell and issued forth from the other vrell almost three thousand miles away in the palace of Pihinxin: “Yes, I am here.”
Pihinxin questioned her further:
“Why did you turn back, why did you not complete your journey to Palabaraz, why have you thus disturbed the arrangements which I have made for your nuptials with Zdrarph?”
The young Queen of Atth was silent at the words of her guardian and overlord, for never before had she defied his sagacity and power – the prestige by which he had gained influence over Atth during her minority.
Before she could formulate an answer, Dzhaoo, her consort, deemed this as good a moment as any to assert his own status. Speaking at the vrell, he declared:
“The nuptials of Vaphru are completed, and she has become of age. We invite you, O Pihinxin, to visit us, to celebrate this felicitous occasion.”
“Whose voice is that?” demanded the portentous voice from the vrell.
“Dzhaoo, King-Consort of Atth.”
The silence of dumbfoundment reigned for some moments over the ether-link from city to city.
The fact that the Queen of Atth had acted independently was outrageous enough; but to hear her Consort speak with a recognizable commoner’s voice put the matter beyond the pale of what was endurable...
Pihinxin finally demanded: “Is this true, O Vaphru?”
“Then,” said the Palabarazan, “you and your city are forfeit to me. What is done cannot be nullified; no terms will be offered; my swarm and those of my allies will compel Atth to unconditional surrender.”
The words of doom echoed in the cavernous central chamber of Atth. The vrell lost its roseate sheen and returned to quiescence.
The threat of destruction – for such it was, since the Atthans’ collective civic consciousness preferred annihilation to surrender – was transmitted all over the city, spreading a wave of shock which was followed by a fatalistic sentiment of obedient fortitude on the part of the common people. Those lowly beings comprehended the situation to the limited extent required of their status; their nerves suffered twinges of sorrowful dread as they awaited orders from their rulers, who felt keener emotions: the barbs of conscience, of acuter awareness. Dzhaoo in particular too upon himself the agonizing responsibility for what had occurred.
Vaphru in a sense concurred with this condemnation, by entrusting him with the defence of the realm. “I have risked all for you,” she told him; “I will therefore trust you to the last.”
News soon came that the swarms led by Pihinxin were on the wing. Virtually an entire hemisphere had gathered in enmity to Atth. Dzhaoo, hardening his heart against the lancinating pangs of remorse, reminded himself that he had known what would happen, and that he was in the right. He sent messages to neutral swarms, warning them of the global designs of Pihinxin, and entreating the as-yet-uncommitted rulers to band together with Atth to preserve their liberty before it was too late. All these emissaries were unsuccessful.
Time was running out, the attack was closing in, and Dzhaoo was finally impelled to take a step which he had anticipated with hesitancy and dread.
He took sole possession of the throne-room, dismissing all the courtiers and attendants, while Vaphru was elsewhere occupied with the inspection of the city’s fortifications.
As soon as he was quite alone except for the vrell, he faced that globular being, and sprayed it with a special concoction which served to ignite the creature’s resonance with a vrell upon the surface of Urom.
At this point, the narrative lost its smoothness and became agitated in style. Royden sensed the change immediately, assuming at first that it was an appropriate, if dramatic, match of style and content as the plot became tenser.
Yet it soon turned out to be more than this. Not only were the passions of Dzhaoo germane – the anxiety, the fear, the determination which must accompany the unparalleled flouting of all Yyr laws – but also the turbid obtrusion of the author had begun to stir the scene.
It was as if the unnamed writer of this document had become too impatient – now that the critical point was reached – to continue contently to let the tale speak for itself; under pressure from his own forceful opinions the Selenite author began to use the subliminal nuancing powers of the ultimate language to colour the story’s scenes with the extra coating of his passions.
Hence although as yet the reader as yet still had no idea as to what the protagonist meant to do, let alone what the result of his action would be, Royden nevertheless felt flooded with a loathing of that upstart, a yearning to brand Dhzaoo a traitor to Yyu.
Auctorial hindsight thus dominated Royden’s reading experience henceforth, overmastering him with the premonition that he was about to witness the end of Yyu’s Golden Age...
“Liucgk!” cried Dzhaoo, summoning a Uromian by name.
The word instantaneously traversed the quarter-million-mile void between the worlds.
It issued forth from the vrell in the great temple at Xaxepp, one of many centres where, at this epoch in the history of the Solar System, a primitive Uromian humanoid race viewed the Yyr as gods.
“Liucgk!” repeated Dzhaoo, again summoning Xaxepp’s priest-king. “Prepare to receive the word of Atth the Many-Voiced One. Liucgk, Liucgk, the time of thy reward draws nigh. I, Atth, call thee that thou mayst hear my latest great command.”
Having issued his summons, Dzhaoo paused to listen over the connection. He liked what he heard. Audible across the etheric void, the clangour in the temple at Xaxepp hinted at the throbbing of a power-house. It was the din of mighty engineries, chanting the cumbrous, mechanical rites of the gross-minded Uromians. He could imagine those hirsute, gigantic-boned primitives capering in bizarre attendance around their vrell, that was placed amidst their lurid industrial shrine, a hideous sanctum of metallic props and torrid fumes. Altogether unpleasant - but with the promise of a power to tip the scales of fortune...
The din lessened slightly; presumably the words of the supposed god had caused the devotees to switch off some of their machines and prostrate themselves. There was then a delay of a couple of minutes, before Dzhaoo heard the harsh-voiced though awed reply of the priest-king of Xaxepp:
“O Atth, it is I, Liucgk, ready to hear thy will.”
The Uromian had replied in the language of Yyu, which he had taken pains to learn during his novitiate, though he could do no more than mangle the liquid vocables.
(Royden the reader, meanwhile, tried to rebel against the gathering spell of the story by asking himself: “How can there have been human beings on Earth before the age of the dinosaurs?” But the narrative answered him implicity. In the way it named and described the Uromians, it was obvious that although they were humanoid, they were not homo sapiens, nor connected by ancestry with that future species. The early Uromians were, in fact, an evolutionary dead end, doomed to extinction in the era which followed; their civilization would leave no trace. This was a good thing, hinted the narrative. They were spiritually deficient, lacking some spark in their souls; a false start in the evolution of their world...
But a force to be reckoned with in their own time.)
Dzhaoo announced: “Xaxepp’s hour is at hand. The moment has come for you to be given precedence among all the other cities of your world. That is the promised reward. It remains for you to ensure you get it.”
“O great god Atth! We are thine!” chanted Liucgk hoarsely. “Hast thou truly promised to bring us to victory over the evil city of Klapatt and its cruel god Palabaraz?”
“More than that,” cried Dzhaoo – and for Royden the narrative seemed to quiver and the sentences to contort as a signal that the protagonist was about to pass a point of no return.
For long ages it had amused the rulers of the swarms of Yyu to contact the brutish realms of Uruom via the telephonic vrells, and to choose protégés there, and to incite them against one another in a struggle for power which the Yyr rulers directed from their own world. Thus a heartless game of vicarious war continued and developed as a matter of prestige for the Yyr swarms.
Occasionally a moral voice protested; but no great incentive existed to end the abuse. With no actual travel between the worlds, the fortunes of war on Urom were of merely sporting interest to the rulers of Yyu, and could do no material harm to any of them.
Dzhaoo repeated: “More than that!” And now came the moment at which he ceased to play the game.
“Liugk, and people of Xaxepp, listen to me. I will give you the formula which – if you are worthy of the chance – will give you victory over Klapatt and all the other powers of Urom.
“In return for this favour, you will cross the void to Yyu as speedily as possible, to earn your reward – namely, participation in my victory over the other gods!
“The formula for the super-fuel, for which your industrialists have sought in vain, is – XONOHCAHAH – ” shouted Dzhaoo, and the gibberish was doom-laden, a word of fateful meaning for the chemists of Xaxepp. (Royden’s vision undulated as if warped by heat-rippled air, under pressure of the contempt embodied in the narrative: the plodding, stinking, meddlesome, utilitarian chemists of Xaxepp... the accompanying emotion distorted the tale as ink runs under floods of tears.)
The formula that would make space-travel possible had long been known to the Yyr, but had not been widely used by them. If neighbouring destination had had light enough gravity for beings of Selenite build, they might have essayed the great adventure, but Fate had not been kind in this respect; the closest suitable worlds were the asteroids, too many millions of miles away. So they lacked a stepping-stone to tempt them across the great gulf.
By contrast, the Uromians were under no such restraint! If they had the means, they might easily come to Yyu. They were ready, they had the rockets and the confidence – they had only lacked a safe and effective fuel.
Presently, while Atth awaited invasion from Palabaraz, there came a spate of reports from the observatories of all Yyr nations which maintained a watch upon Urom.
Skipping from one impression to another, the narrative showed Royden the puffs of flame emanating from the larger world; notes taken by anxious observatory staff; then, with brutal rapidity, the arrival of the Uromian rocketships upon Yyu, causing terror in witnesses who flew to the nearest cities bearing garbled accounts of swart behemoths, prodigious colossi with caterpillar treads, and tentacle towers of metal which emerged from the prone transports.
The reader was unsure of the time-scale of these happenings. The narrative had become disjointed chronologically. Snippets of vision were pressed into service to create an irresistible picture of events succeeding one another with dire inevitability, illustrating the judgement being passed by the author: the nemesis of ambition which overtook Dzhaoo, and Vaphru, and the whole of Atth, as well as the invading Uromians. Direr still was the verdict of history awarded to Yyu as a whole, as a consequence of its long interference with Uromian life.
The city of Atth was invested and overthrown by Pihinxin’s forces before its space-faring devotees could arrive to save it. The waxen walls were broken, the tall cone levelled and much of the swarm annihilated. In the long days which followed, Dhzaoo, Vaphru and their surviving followers hid in the forests of their former domain. They heard, in eagerness not unmingled with horror, of the vengeance wrought by their allies from Xaxepp upon one of the swarms which had followed Pihinxin – namely, the city of Tchoorm, ally of Palabaraz.
Tchoorm stood in the path of the Uromian invaders, who, after discovering that they were too late to save Atth, marched across Yyu towards Palabaraz in the belief that they were bound to avenge their god.
The Tchoormis sighted their foes – in the form of moving ramparts and fortalices, ramified with metal limbs and occasionally revealing, behind the lucite windows which were the litten eyes of these jointed monsters, the shaggy forms of their Uromian controllers. Some of the Yyr flew bravely at them, and immolated themselves uselessly in the fire which spurted from lethal heat-tubes, or were knocked out of the sky by metal tentacles. Other members of the Tchoormi swarm remained immured in their city during the brief siege, and perished in the conflagrant ruin of its overthrow. The beetling invaders, having hurled fire and rock at the doomed city, clambered over its final wrack, stepping among the cumuli of toppled remnants interstewn with oleaginous pools.
The scene of this calamity blazed in the reader’s vision with an unspeakable abstract anguish, so that Royden the reader suffered almost as if he personally had been a victim of the sack of Tchoorm. But the narrative of this war could not continue for much longer before its subsequent confusions somewhat undermined the author’s emotional certainties.
No sooner had the vanquishers of Tchoorm surmounted the debris of their victim, than an unlooked-for menace appeared on the horizon. Uromians were about to fight Uromians. The approaching colossi were not reinforcements from Xaxepp: they formed a contingent from Klapatt, Xaxepp’s rival, come to defend Palabaraz.
Bewildering and prolonged was the conflict which ensued, especially for the reader who had no control over the narrative’s jerkiness. The various Uromian contingents lashed out at one another, in battle at Tchoorm and elsewhere, not fully aware of their own strength as they spread havoc over the face of Yyu, and still fighting for their supposed gods rather than for themselves. A naive people, who for all their mechanical skill possessed limited imagination, the shaggy giants did not fully understand or release the typhonic forces which could have made them masters of their world’s satellite. Instead, they remained subordinate to their various Yyr rulers who, after a long period of unpleasant chaos, managed to discipline and control the clanking cohorts at last.
After a historical age had passed the Uromians upon Yyu died away, leaving no successors; and no reinforcements arrived from their home world. The reasons for this decline in importance were unclear to Royden. The narrative vistas had become somehow slurred, as if soon after the destruction of Tchoorm the author had lost interest in the tale, or had become too disheartened to continue it in the same detail as before.
At length it became apparent to the reader that the civilization of Yyu had evolved through change to attain a new stability, under a different and perhaps better set of conditions; while the pessimistic assumptions with which the author had imbued the narrative were now seen to be unwarranted. Dzhaoo was remembered after his lifetime not as a traitor but as an ambiguous villain/hero, a channel for historical forces.
The author’s disapproval could not alter this fact: that the legacy of Dzhaoo was a culture in which the Yyr swarms had (in the long term) absorbed strength from the Uromian influx. The science, history and sociology of Yyu after the invasions reveal ed an unarguable enhancement of vigour.
From the horned crags of either pole to the equatorial lands ran the fibrous threads of the half-vegetable, half-mineral growths developed by Yyr savants as part of a great compromise between animate and inanimate strengths; a project inspired by the wartime mixture of Yyr and Uromian skills. Webs of electromagnetic force enclosed the globe and thrummed new life into dormant cities, while semi-organic mechanical servants were designed to repair damage and improve upon the buildings of former times, often using materials which the Uromians had left behind. The swarms meanwhile awakened into that democratic awareness which Dzhaoo had foretold; an awareness hastened by the war he had caused. Colour and vitality burgeoned everywhere; gorgeous and sumptuous were the artistic achievements; ethereally subtle the social harmonies of the Yyr, blending the old wisdom of the swarms with the new individuality. Even space-travel was eventually achieved, when new propulsive forces were developed which could drive Yyr ships as far as the asteroids and the outer planets’ moons. The inhabitants of Zdakash (Mars), Nuzhryven (Venus) and Valeddom (Mercury), as well as those of Urom, acknowledged the paramountcy of the Yyr, whose savants orbited their worlds, and for a while there was an Empire of Yyr which embraced most of the Solar System in a voluntary and prosperous union.
And yet the reactionary author, who at this point in the tale revealed himself to be Nurphazz of Tchoorm, maintained a constant aversion to the acts of Dzhaoo – the revolutionist who, long dead, was now venerated and respected by almost all the Yyr.
The narrative now reached Nurphazz’s own time, about eighteen thousand years after the Uromian invasions. The authorial frown returned to the words of the story, as a sudden cloud casts a shadow over a sunlit scene.
The moment had come for Nurphazz to append his own experiences – in an attempt to show that beneath the brilliant surface of vitality and felicity, a bane lurked in readiness for the destruction of the Yyr.
In the aureate glow of Yyu’s System-wide Empire, rivalries between the ancient swarms had never wholly died out. Feuds still marred the imperial peace upon Yyu itself, and since the cities still possessed a great degree of autonomy, actual outbreaks of limited war were not unknown.
These disturbances had never worried Nurphazz the author as he contemplated the contemporary scene; on the contrary, he preferred, for atavistic reasons, to live amid rivalries rather than in the bland unity of a super-state. But when, on a diplomatic mission from Tchoorm to Palabaraz, he encountered an army of automata in training, his soul revolted at this form of war-mongering.
To send an army of robots, armed with flailing scythes, to demolish the city of an enemy – ! Such a policy smacked of degeneracy.
Pondering the state of civilization, Nurphazz became a roving observer. He wandered through efflorescent realms from city to city, until a strange promise and a threat drew him to Atth, where the unbalancing of civilization had first begun, long ages before.
Atth’s modern morphology was as a teeming array of lattices, combining stone, metal and wax steeped in blazing colours, giving a loud lie to Nurphazz’s vague fears as he swerved on the wing and circled downwards towards his goal. Weaving his course among the towers of Atth, he steered by a landmark which bulged atop a pillar of frozen smoke: the jet-black polyhedron where he was due to meet a savant naned Banuun.
Nurphazz alighted on the
reception-terrace. Here he waited, while below the fluctuating crowds
had partially coagulated into a definitely curious throng of spectators.
At length he was approached by a wobbling, globular-headed, wingless Ganymedean, wearing the garb of a wealthy scientist-pilgrim on a visit to Yyu. This entity informed him that Banuun would no more be seen.
“But he agreed to meet me here,” said Nurphazz.
“I call it a discourtesy if he does not appear.”
“I might say the same,” replied the Ganymedean; “I came from further away than you did, to hear his wisdom. But an artificial servitor informed me a short while ago, that the promise will not be kept.”
Then one of the facets of the polyhedron began to open like a sphincter, and shrill cries of alarm and horror arose from the crowd of standing and hovering Yyr when they saw what lay within the parting shell – the saffron interior into which Banuun had crawled.
The savant himself could hardly be seen, so far had he sunk into the atom-less yolk. An intellectual sybarite, he had made his final choice, to soak in an essence closer than ordinary graniferous matter to the well-springs of quiddity.
Banuun had extracted the stuff, by arcanic means, through some inter-dimensional portal from a previous cycle of the cosmos. Not only that, but the source of this “yolk” in that previous cosmos was none other than Yyu: in some fashion the world (or a version of it) had existed then.
Banuun now waved a feeble hand in apology and farewell, and the shell closed again around him...
“It’s true, then,” breathed Nurphazz. “The last plague is upon us.”
“Plague?” said the Ganymedean. “You are putting it fancifully.”
“No,” said Nurphazz. “Nostalgia for the ultimate origin of being – that is a plague on the future.”
He had been uneasy for some time concerning the “back to the egg of existence” movement, and the fate of Banuun was the last straw which converted the formerly reactionary Nurphazz to ally with the progressive philosophers of Atth, inventors of the perfect writing.
So the narrative underwent another change of mood, with the author, Nurphazz, resolved to range himself alongside those who would look to the future...
But the reader, Royden, never reached the end of Nurphazz’s history. The body of Royden, lying amid the desolate ruins of Atth over two hundred and fifty million years after the Tchoorman author’s death, died from the naturally deleterious effects of a few seconds’ reading in which were compressed the consuming vividness of thousands of years.
Administrator Dawcott peered at the shrivelled corpse, and wondered in the stillness: “Why am I still alive? If the others caught the alien plague, why don’t I?”
Nothing in the scene could answer him; the meaning of the vermillion runes was closed to him, and that – had he but known it – was his exemption from the peril.
There are some minds which are immune to the archives of Yyu.