[For the story so far, see episode one: Dynoom.]
The dwellings of Olhoav are scattered over a gently curved rise, the so-called Hill of the City. From afar it does have the appearance of a natural hill. A low one, it seems, with an outline that appears on closer inspection to be notched and serrated. In fact the main curve is none other than the mounded substructure of the city itself: a massive aerated wodge of rock and metal cells, patchily overlaid with a few stone blocks and slabs but not enough to look heavy (it has been calculated that if the impossible were to happen, and the planet Ooranye’s ice-crust were to melt into an ocean, Olhoav would float).
However, the above remarks do not prepare you for the urban silhouette when you see it for the first time.
On your approach, as your eye measures the city’s rise over the giant world’s distant horizon, your sight is smitten by three giant soaring half-ellipses, flimsy hoops of metal a-glint with shiny grey studs, arching over the upturned-saucer shape of the Hill. These lobate structures, the Meegn, reach a mile into the sky. They trace what would be the surface of a semi-ovoid force-field, a shield in the form of a half egg standing upright on its long axis. In truth, however, there is no force field. Olhoav does not have the power.
Yet long experience has taught the citizens that the Meegn silhouette is a deterrent to the gneh-ou, the predatory clouds.
As for why the gneh-ou avoid the Meegn: the right answer, on this baffling planet, is to shrug. The people of some ancient era must have stumbled upon their workable defence after much trial and error, and though a search through the city records could probably uncover a history of that episode, such an account would be descriptive only; the mysteries of Ooranye grow into thickets too dense to be penetrated by the human mind. But do not worry your heads about this, Earthlings. You who have been nurtured by a far smaller, easier world, where your problem-solving habits make good enough sense, can rest easy while we, in our greater arena, wrestle the Fates in the style that works for us –
Hyala Movoum gazed upon a sliver of the Meegn through the skylight of her lounge. (Lounge? she mused – it’s more like an interview room, today.) Her thoughts wandered in Uranian fashion, the way we smoothly skirt the blank spaces in our understanding, to bring intuitive reward. And even more than most of us, she was able to answer questions in this fashion. Why had so many people flocked to her, during the hours since this morning? (What a day it had been! nor was it over yet.) She was placidly aware of her own great beauty – marvellous even by the standards of our world – and of her unusual gifts; still the question remained, why this degree of popularity? Reply came in a blend of sight – the silver Meegn’s slash across the sky – and memory – of the day’s civic celebrations. Life in a far outpost, the better it gets, gets closer to its melancholy knock against a cultural ceiling. Expectations, aroused by the partial success of our good-enough existence, try to soar, but shove in vain against the Unanswerable. We’re stuck, plain stuck, on the dim side of the world. Starside can never equal Sunward civilization.
Doubtless that was the underlying cause of the unrest in the bashful young man seated opposite her right now –
The fellow did not say so, of course. He’d never be able to articulate such a motive for his visit. But his discontent was obvious as he shifted in his chair. Twining and untwining his fingers, with that restlessness which he expected her to cure, he – like so many others that day – was counting on some magic of her reputed wisdom, to chase away the pesky spirit of unease which tended to buzz around occasions of festivity.
Around two-thirds of these spiritual sufferers were men (for some reason, women tended more to accept reality as it was). Yet no breath of scandal had arisen from the male visitors who, one by one, quite openly entered Hyala’s house at this late hour. We might borrow your Terran word “saint” – for which we have no equivalent – to describe Hyala Movoum.
“Now then, Karph,” she leaned forward, unwittingly igniting adoration in the youth by a mere twitch of her lip, a kindly impulse to reassure. “You’re not alone – many of us, at times like this, feel jangly. It’s natural to become dissatisfied with our lot when we’ve been stabbed by those moments of regret we all know – futile, useless regret at having been born out here on Starside. But as a matter of fact, I should not say ‘we’: for I personally do not share this feeling. I can know it empathetically but – ” she paused – “it’s not home-grown in my heart.”
“Please tell me why,” breathed Karph, rapt in the hope that his edgy unease might be on the brink of de-mystification to a blessed plainness.
“Geography is not Fate,” Hyala crisply began. “Suppose that you, Karph, had been born and bred on Sunside. Suppose that you had been raised in the very thick of Ooranye’s highest civilization, in the most advanced area of Syoom. You assume, don’t you, that everything then would be different, but I tell you no, it would not be significantly different at all; on the contrary, you would feel pretty much the same! Now, do you think I’m exaggerating?”
Karph, desperate not to miss a single illuminating syllable, parted his lips to shape the plea, go on.
“Ask yourself,” Hyala continued, “what does it matter, whether the ceiling of our capability is a hundred or a thousand times higher than our everyday reach? If you lived on Sunside you would still be aware, just as much as you are now, of the dark context which hems in all human life on this giant planet: the sheer size of Ooranye, the immensity of its challenges, the stark truth that most of it must always be unsuitable for Man… all of this must create for you your own personal frontier, wherever you happen to live. Therefore what is the point of envying the Syoomeans? None at all; you might as well remain content as an Olhoavan.”
Blunt, obvious stuff, yet for him it was like listening to a song.
“Thank you, Hya – er – sponndar H-M,” he murmured, almost addressing her familiarly. Barely in time did he remember to use the honorific-plus-initials format, so wonderful was her speech. Self-evident, too – he might have saved himself a visit by thinking the answer up himself and reciting it all to himself; only, if he had said it, it would have sounded trite, not strong, whereas from the lips of Hyala Movoun it became a resplendent truth, an infinite comfort compared with what those same words would have been in anyone else’s mouth…
That was her magic.
As for how she managed to add such value to simple statements – well, Karph simply accepted, as he rose to go, that ‘she was she’. With hurried thanks and awkward bow, he retreated to the door. He was aglow with one idea: to get out. He must retreat from the overwhelming presence of the beautiful sage in order to digest what he had gained from her. Get out, get out! All the more urgently he repeated this to himself, as with one last blink in her direction he was shocked to recognize lines of weariness in her face. Normally she has no lines; she’s no older than I.
At the door, he raised a hand in farewell. “I will tell my family and friends what you said.”
The faintest of smiles from the seated woman: “More a case of reminding them, Karph.”
She added to herself, as the door closed behind him: if only people could remind themselves, I’d get to bed earlier tonight.
Nevertheless, on a day of unsettled souls, with herself the only one able to give them what they needed, it was not reasonable to expect folk like Karph to restrain themselves from spreading the news; they always went ahead and told their family and friends, and she must accept her widening renown. One thing might have hurt her –
What she dreaded was a jeer, a particular taunt. It hadn’t happened yet. She prayed to the World Ghost that it never would. But well she knew, her reputation was vulnerable to one species of opprobrium. It was a thought that made her spirit cringe… uniquely defenceless in the face of a threatened shaming, to which her clients and beneficiaries were quite immune – it being a species of mud that could never stick on simple folk like Karph.
Hyala was wide open to it because of her name –
Her two names, rather.
The majority of the population consisted of unsophisticated “wirrips” (“one-namers”), or (more cruelly) “backgrounders” – in other words, the ordinary folk of the planet. They each had one name not two, because their first utterance, as new-born babes, was the single word which, recorded by witnesses at the birth, counted thenceforth as the person’s identity.
The minority of foregrounders, on the other hand – those people who were likely to achieve personal distinction of one sort or another – uttered in their primal breath two words, clearly separated by a pause.
They thus grew up with two names. Like – “Hyala Movoum”. And that was inescapably that. Such double appellations were entered into the city’s records. Which need not pose any problem, except –
The tradition of record-keeping, whereby track was kept of the ‘two-namer’ or ‘foregrounder’ minority, meant that their previous lives were historically traceable. Those who had lived an earlier incarnation could be publicly identified with their earlier selves.
And that could cause embarrassment, if –
Hyala flinched from the thought-train. Coincidentally, at that moment, she heard the door’s buzzer. Relieved at the interruption, she pressed a stud on a lampstand, which activated the “enter” signal.
The grey-cloaked figure of Noad Barlayn Lamiroth took a step into the lounge. He swirled to a stop while one hand still rested on the doorknob.
Being a Noad, he was a supreme exemplar of that life-steering quality called renl, letting you always know, by body-language, how things stood. In the present case the message was, “I have allotted you a minute or two.”
This, then, was a “flying visit” – though with Noad B-L the minutes could turn out to be dense-packed in the extreme.
“I hear reports,” he said, “that you’ve spent today putting heart into people. I came to thank you, Hyala, and to offer you something in return.”
She sensed what was imminent. The offer, which was about to be spoken, would only be spoken once. That made it easier for her. The Noad was giving her a moment to collect herself and that was good, too. She gave him his cue: “Say on, Noad B-L.”
So there it was. The opportunity to become the Daon, the Noad’s heir.
For a split second she toyed with the breath-taking prospect. Daon Hyala Movoum of Olhoav. But no matter how she revolved it in her imagination, the title betokened no more than an unreal splendour.
“Heartfelt thanks for the honour, Noad B-L, but it’s not for me. My inner compass is steering me on a different route.”
“In that case,” said Barlayn Lamiroth with a slow nod, “you do right to refuse – as I did right to ask.” His tone was equable, his mien untroubled, as he turned to leave. “Until we speak again – skimmjard, sponndar.”
“Skimmjard, Noad B-L,” Hyala called after him, and murmured, as he disappeared, “lremd, lremd, balanced, balanced! I must balance as finely as he.” She unclenched a fist and passed a hand over her face. (It is not often that she, or any Uranian, actually utters the word lremd, the adjective from renl, the knack of steering oneself through life. One isn’t even meant to mutter such basic things. Terrans, you will do well to remember, if you ever set foot on our world, that many of our words are for thinking, not saying.)
I made the correct decision, Hyala thought, for I’m right not to regard myself as Daon material.
Yes indeed, she had no doubt that she had responded wisely to the great offer. But the episode had happened so quickly, she felt some palpitations; which, however, died down as she reflected upon the efficiency of the Noad. Doubtless he had guessed what her answer would be, although he had felt bound to ask. Now it was over and they both knew where they stood. Now he could seek someone else to be his heir. She meanwhile could concentrate on her next case…
…Which, to her surprise, consisted of two visitors at once.
One was a thin-limbed youth, similar to Karph in age and build, but whereas Karph had been merely diffident, this next young fellow with his long, over-dreamy face, seemed quite vapid. The other visitor, broader of feature and about three thousand days older, showed some family resemblance to his companion.
In manner, though, the contrast between the two men was stark.
“I am Dempelath,” the older man announced, transfixing Hyala with eyes that blazed unaccountable fury. She hardly managed to repress a shudder at the transformation of the tone of the evening; it was as though a sudden negation of reason, a mad hostility, had caused the physical temperature of the room to drop. She would have asked him to leave – but she had no excuse to do that: he was formally correct; he tossed a generous handful of glowing phials into the donations basket by the door; he bowed and waited for permission to sit. Therefore she felt compelled to accord the normal courtesies.
“…And this lad is my ward, Nyav Yuhlm.”
“Brothers? Cousins?” asked Hyala, pumping effort into calmness, into refusing to flinch at the controlled combustion of the other’s rage. It was better not to look at those eyes, and just listen to the voice, which was more ordinary.
“First cousins, though I am a one-name and he is a two.” Dempelath now put on a ruthless smirk as if to say, See how little I mind, that I’m a mere backgrounder while he has full-blown two-named foregrounder swank. I a mere one, he a two – and I don’t care a rag.
At this point the younger man opened his mouth and croaked, “But… I may not be a two.”
“I’m getting round to that,” his guardian responded with a finger-flick that clearly said let me handle this. To the woman he continued, “I’ve brought him to you, because he is in the grip of fear.”
With an inward sigh, Hyala understood.
“Fear,” she summarised, “that he may be not Nyav Yuhlm but mere ‘Nyavyuhlm’?”
“Precisely. You guessed it.” Eyes now glinting his satisfaction, that the conversation was proceeding exactly as he wished, Dempelath continued: “You must know, sponndar H-M, that our traditional ways of doing things, in our namings of people, leave room for error…”
The very topic Hyala least wished to hear. The issue touched her own inner fears about her own name. While the voice hammered on, it was as much as she could manage to cope with the emotional pressure, yet she continued to listen with precision and with outward calm to every word – whilst wishing that she could have had a more easy-going visitor, this late in the evening.
“…Who knows how frequently a baby’s first utterance may be inaccurately recorded? Taken to be two words when it is actually just a slurred and protracted single name? And when and if that happens, the family, of course, will be motivated by wishful thinking. Being human, they will hear what they wish to hear and believe what they wish to believe. They’ll be moved by their desire to conclude that their new arrival is no mere one-name wirrip like me, but on the contrary a high-status two-namer like, for instance, you, Hyala Movoum.”
His voice had sunk to a wavering drone while his young cousin gazed at him with a sunken expression. Then, at the point when the long sentence was brought to a close, with the utterance of Hyala’s name, the speaker’s eyes blazed anew. The crackle of such sudden resentful force made the room itself seem to quiver, while the youngster, whether Nyav Yuhlm or “Nyavyuhlm”, looked sick.
“So you’re concerned,” prompted Hyala.
She spoke with a dash of irony. Surely she must be addressing some sort of maniac, though perhaps in order to be more positive about it one might say: here’s a challenge for a soother of minds…
Dempelath nodded, “Concerned enough. I have conducted some experiments, in an attempt – forgive my bluntness, sponndar H-M – to some shed rational light upon this whole foregrounder/backgrounder business.”
The tension in the room went up a further notch. But even at the sound of those words which are dirty when spoken out loud, Hyala kept her composure. She merely sharpened her manner – now grimly certain that she faced someone who did not feel bound by the social decencies. “What exactly did you do?” she demanded.
“Oh,” replied Dempelath more airily, “so far, I have merely outlined some hypothetical stories, to Nyav and some other volunteers – reciting situations involving various degrees of adventure, peril, fame and achievement – and observed their responses. That’s to say I noted their blood pressure, speed of reaction, pupil-dilation… with doubtful results in Nyav’s case. He was rather traumatised, I regret to say, to learn that his readings match those of the typical one-namer, rather than those of the two-namer whom he is supposed to be (really, Nyav, you know it is best not to obsess over these matters)… whereupon, having heard that you’ve been helping many confused people today, sponndar H-M, I brought him here.”
You actually tried to make a test out of it, you cold-blooded – Hyala hunted for a seldom-used word, a word “on the tip of her tongue” that she badly needed. Not “maniac”, no. That – she now saw – wouldn’t do. Something else, the most apt of descriptors, to be applied to Dempelath and help her envisage how to deal with him – if only she could remember it! It wasn’t long and technical; it was short, though rarely used. She was certain that it would fit him perfectly and in summing him up it would also illuminate the attitude one should take to him – but what was it? Maddening that she could not nail a term just one or two syllables in length! Her mind rummaged in a blur of speed as she riffled in vain through her store of knowledge for the verbal match to Dempelath’s gimlet-eyed stare, that commanding glint that made it seem as if the man’s will were seated at vehicular controls behind his eyes, ready to manipulate expression and tone and through them the emotions of others… experimenting on his cousin and who knows how many other people… besides recklessly breaking silence on the foregrounder/backgrounder distinction, the taboo that must never be lifted lest civilization be torn apart by the awakened envy which bit-part “extras” would then feel for the spot-lit fortunate few. Oh skies above, WHAT WAS THAT WORD? She shook her head in utter frustration.
Meanwhile, lest young Nyav conclude that she was denying him assistance, she had better give one of her reassuring mini-lectures, like she’d done with Karph, to shrink the youngster’s anxiety to a mere dot in the wider picture.
“Nyav Yuhlm,” her voice rang with comforting authority, “remember that all this name business is mere custom. No rule has been set in stone. Human society is not officially ordered in compliance with any one-name/two-name distinction. Nor does one need to obsess about one’s status, using those words which are not considered polite,” she added with a look of prim reproof at Dempelath. “Our individual names, it is true, are the precious identity-tags of our souls – the first words we utter in the moments after we are born – but this has been true since our species began, ever since the first Nenn emerged from the Lake of Dmara, in other words long, long before there was all this fuss of a division between – ” (she coughed in distaste but took the plunge) “foregrounders and backgrounders: a division which only began to be felt in Era 59, during the bedimmed time of poverty after the depredations of the Foam. It was in that unfortunate age of dearth, when the remaining spoils of destiny seem to be reserved for the fortunate ‘spot-lit’ famous few, at the expense of the obscure multitude, that the gulf between those two classes of plot-line got tangled with the one-name two-name divide, and our assumptions have run in the consequent groove ever since.”
She was performing her trick of telling people things they already knew, but telling them afresh, in a tone of warmth and serenity, which somehow convinced them that they were being gifted with the proper truth for the first time. In doing this, she herself had to break the taboo, but excusably, temporarily, with a spiritual doctor’s authority to examine the soul’s private parts.
It seemed to work, just as it always did. It was easy. Almost too easy. The boy mumbled his gratitude. As for Dempelath – he gave no trouble. He nodded courteously and rose from his chair, steering his younger companion towards the door. “We won’t need to take up more of your time this evening, sponndar H-M. Thank you for the solace which I now see in my cousin’s face.” In response, she smiled; she was, for the moment, fooled. She sighed: Thank the skies that’s over!
It was then – as the door closed behind them – that the technical term, for which she had been rummaging, finally came to her.
The word was “evil”. But now that it had come, she was doubtful whether she needed to use it.
For really she had no hard evidence that Dempelath deserved to be called evil. Perhaps what she had just seen were merely the stress-signals of a conscientious man, intelligent and ambitious despite his single name, discharging himself of a difficult responsibility. Well… actually, no, let’s face it, he’s worse than that. Arrogant, envious, offensive –
That had better be all. Such cheap, uncouth or common badnesses, she could cope with. The occasional bouts of self-indulgence, selfishness, general moral weakness… she could help people to balance their stances against those. But as for evil – which can’t be dismantled into such components – evil the force – the mystery – definable only by the rejection one must hurl at it –
Hmm, that might be too much, especially as she had her own worries. Anyhow, the pair were gone. Phew! Were they the last of the day’s lot? It is getting wearisomely late. I know the Noad expects me to give of my all, but I could do with some sleep, truly I could…
That (it turned out) was not yet to be. A few breaths were all she was allowed to take before…
The final visit of that evening was announced by a gentle flicker in the apices of her lounge’s hexagonal ceiling.
“Skimmjard, Hyala,” a voice murmured through the room, coaxing itself into her ears from all directions at once.
It was a sound unmistakably familiar to any citizen of Olhoav.
“Skimmjard, Dynoom,” she responded in mild surprise.
Like all citizens, she had had occasional visits from the urban Voice, visits which usually weren’t ascribable to any known cause. Olhoavans were accustomed to such apparently random encounters, and it was quite standard to remain ignorant of their motive and purpose. Whether such voice-overs sprang from a statistical motive in the depths of the great Brain, or from simple loneliness (the Ghepion equivalent of “dropping in for a chat”) nobody really knew.
It did not occur to Hyala that the machine was on her list of suppliants.
Nor did it tell her this straightaway. It began by asking politely how she was.
Hyala was tempted to seize the opportunity to ask for help with her own problem. For here, maybe, was a stroke of luck, nicely timed after the fraught dialogue about names. Yes! Just what she needed – the attention of the one Being to whom she could confess her dread concerning her own name – if only it could understand –
“I don’t suppose, Dynoom, that you know what ‘embarrassment’ means…”
“Not from personal experience. I have observed its effects, though. Red face. Hesitant speech.”
“Well, now you can listen to my hesitant speech.”
“And empathize, if you can… with what creeps into my mind, when I reflect…”
“Reflect on what, Hyala?”
“Ah, what’s the use…”
“Come now,” said Dynoom, unexpectedly warm. “You have started to tell me. Finish it.”
“…That my second name is just one small phoneme away from that of the First Sunnoad.”
There, she’d said it out loud. She felt her cheeks burn. No human was within earshot, and she’d anyway done nothing wrong, and yet it was as if she had been caught thieving, or unmasked as an impostor.
Dynoom’s voice murmured around her, “Hyala Movoummm – shall I voice your creeping thought? Here it comes: ‘is it not possible that my parents, and the other witnesses at my birth, misheard, or could not believe, that my infant lips actually mouthed the “n” and not the “m”, so that they failed to see or admit the stupendous truth, that I am, truly, the reborn Sunnoad Hyala Movounnnnnn?’”
“That’s truly how to rub it in,” she said, bitterly.
“I have had a long age,” commented the Brain, “in which to learn human psychology.”
“By observation, I dare say,” Hyala snapped. “But can you possibly understand the real force of the shame I could so easily be condemned to feel? The heroine of all history, Sunnoad Hyala Movoun 1, the First to wear the golden cloak, the pivot of humanity’s destiny on this planet – her achievements and defeats, her triumphs and sorrows, even her faults, have been reverenced, Dynoom, since long before even you came into being; all the peoples of both hemispheres of Ooranye have remembered Hyala Movoun 1 for all their days. To live with the possibility that I might be accused of impersonating that person – ! Pretending I’m the return of her! It’s a burden, Dynoom, that almost crushes my every move; it’s a self-consciousness I can’t get rid of; it makes me snigger at myself whenever I try to achieve anything, whenever I try to do anything good! And that’s because I can’t help but anticipate the sniggers of other folk; I flinch in advance from the moment that they’ll start to say, just look at our Hyala’s efforts to please… you know what she’s trying to make us think – ”
“All in your mind,” said Dynoom. “Your exterior self is genuinely good – doing nothing but good.”
“That’s what racks my nerves!” cried Hyala. “It fulfils me to help people – but what am I doing, what am I really doing? Is it the fraud in me?” Her voice shot up in a despairing race between sob and laugh.
“Fear no ridicule,” soothed the circumambient Ghepion. “Forget the past greatness of Hyala Movoun. You can look to your own great path.”
“Great path,” she echoed.
“This very evening,” explained Dynoom, “you can do something which she could never have done.”
“…because there were no Ghepions in her day.”
“You can help me.”
Hyala pressed a hand to her forehead. “Is this a joke? Sorry…”
“I tell you, human, you can help me – I, Dynoom, ask it of you.” Its sensors watched the seated woman quiver; watched her regain control of herself; and concluded: this person is suitable.
Its voice edged caressingly closer to the woman as it went on: “You will understand, I hope, that although my physical self and my general attention are more or less everywhere in the city at once, my particular attention hovers.”
“I understand,” gulped Hyala. “So… this is private, between you and me. What do you need me to do?”
“Let’s say,” the answer came, “that I am about to put forth a fingertip of my mind, to touch something singular, possibly dangerous. While attempting this, I want the moral support of a moral Being. Yourself.”
“You mean – you want me to hold your hand!” laughed Hyala, dizzy with sudden merriment. “You’re full of surprises this evening, I have to say.”
“That’s because it has been a day of surprise. Successful renovation of the Pnurrm has been carried out – without me. I am thus proved to be purposeless.”
“What? No! That can’t be true.”
“It’s not going to be true. Hold still, Hyala. Think of me, and be ready to talk again to me, whilst I reach over the distance that is no distance, during moments of no-time.” The voice of Dynoom became gravelly as it petered out...
Hyala sat petrified. Think, just think and be ready – was that all? She felt all of a sudden as though some cold cloud had taken position above her head. She would have been happier if it had literally been a real cloud, one of the baneful sky-creatures occasionally known to ooze through a ventilator shaft. Unfortunately the situation allowed of no such swapping of unknown for known. Dumbly, yet certainly, she was aware that what hovered over her was the invisible bulge of an Event, something large, too large, for her. She could but hope that it would relate wholly to Dynoom and not at all to herself – nor to the other folk of the city. Let the Ghepion fight its lonely battles. Let inhuman destinies sort themselves. She wished Dynoom well, but its friendship was an over-strenuous thing for a human mind. More moments ticked by and she partially unfroze, shifting in her chair. How long, she wondered, was the ‘no-time’ going to last?
Without warning the answer came. “Thank you for sitting with me,” the ambient voice said. It had become flatter somehow, a grey, appalled voice. Hyala gained the impression that the dangerous thing it had just attempted, whatever it was, perhaps hadn’t turned out too well.
“Anything else I can do for you?” she asked in an over-sweet tone.
“That will be all for now.”
Grumpily exhausted, while sensing that Dynoom must have discovered something it did not wish to talk about, Hyala muttered: Right, now at last I can get some sleep.
Continued in Uranian Throne Episode 3: