uranian throne - episode three

the nebulee

by
robert gibson

[For the story so far, see: episode one: Dynoom; episode two: Hyala.]

Repeatedly, when we transmit one of our major stories, we have to explain to you Terrans the meaning of apparng.

Apparng is what you would call context-awareness, if you had it, but since you don’t, your clever-clever commentators are apt to say stupid things, such as:

“Those boastful Uranians go on about how impressed they are by the giant dimensions of their world, but how can it be ‘giant’ to them?  Their manner of saying it makes it obvious that they’re not just making a comparison for our sakes; rather, it’s their own awe-struck awareness they’re describing.  Yet since they are native to that planet, and accustomed to it, for them it must be a natural size for a world.”

Or:

“They go on about how beautiful their women are, how handsome their men, how routinely tall their people all are… as though you’d notice wealth when everyone is rich.  Since universal excellence is a contradiction in terms, this Uranian bragging is nonsensical.”

To which we reply: apparng.  Context-awareness.  We have it and you do not – the ability for constantly fresh appreciation of what we've always had; the ability not to take our given aspects of life for granted. 

Granted, you could not manage it.  Your minds are not big enough.  We, however, are able to swim awarely in our ocean of excellence, savouring every moment of its flow through our spiritual gills…

All of which needs to be stressed here, otherwise you will fail to appreciate the evil genius of Dempelath, the odds he overcame in his rise to power; for in seeking to exploit backgrounder discontent, he had to face the almost insuperable obstacle of apparng… and the extent and duration of his triumph amazed our world.

Admittedly, his plans were favoured by certain conditions in Olhoav, one of the few places on Ooranye where such a coup stood any chance at all…

*

Because he remained every bit as physically alive, after the recent terrible blow to his self-image, as he had been before it, Nyav was by no means immobilised.  His sullen thoughts did not weaken his firm plod, left boot, right boot, left boot, right boot, onward along the thoroughfare towards the Pnurrm.  In fact the glower of depression intensified the thump of his soles upon the city floor.  All right, so I’m only a backgrounder, but just because I’m only a backgrounder doesn’t mean I can’t have aims.

Unbeknownst to himself, Nyav had begun the long climb out of that nadir of demoralisation into which Dempelath’s psychological games had plunged him.  The interview with Hyala, the previous evening, had helped to restore a healthy perspective.  However, there remained the brute fact: if, in adult life, you abruptly lose belief in your foregrounder status, the effect has to be traumatic.  You cannot blithely adopt that tranquil acceptance of backgrounder status which comes naturally to those who have been nurtured from childhood in its humble mode.  Nyav thus felt and looked dazed as one who droops, slack-shouldered, under the weight of some stunning loss.  No longer was he able to hope that his life-story would contribute some colourful chip to the epic mosaic that formed the history of his world; henceforth he could only aspire to be one mere molecule of the supportive cement underlying that mosaic – one among other untold millions of similarly worthy but undifferentiated particles.  And yet, with every step he took, he took some heart from those millions.  His glances dribbled courage back into him from the rich variety of his surroundings.  Unconsciously he browsed the evidences of a mighty community, the towers and pipes, the crowded walkways and the swishing skimways, the shifting traceries of the built environment which heaped up the heritage of foregrounder and backgrounder alike –

There, that’s a good thought, he caught the idea consciously at last.  My adjustment, it seems, is underway. My entire lot, from now on, must consist of the noble specialness of everyday things.  And though I used to think life promised more than this, I’m surely better off without that wrong assumption.  After all, why bewail the loss of overblown dreams?  Yet though his common sense kept telling him, “Don’t bewail”, he still heard the wail.

In order to smother that moaning echo of lost hopes, he must do more than accept his fate.  He must embrace it.  Nothing less than a wholeheartedly good job, was what he must make of his role as backgrounder.

With that aim in view he raised his eyes to the gleaming stone pile with curved white wall which now bulked ahead, clearly visible beyond the reticular outlines of lesser structures.  The Pnurrm.  There he’d hit upon his next step.  Make life up as you go along – that’s good enough policy for a backgrounder. 

Inside the Pnurm he intended to visit the cartographic headquarters of Olhoav, from which so many famous adventurers had issued their challenges to fate…

If that kind of tale were all, it would not be for me.  Not now, not ever... given what I’ve learned. 

But the famous challenges are not the whole story.

Nyav straightened his cloak, hitched his belt and, with the trace of a wry smile on his lips, climbed the steps and entered by the gleaming portico of the refurbished Pnurrm.

Unnoticed among scores of visitors, he descended the main ramp towards the colossal basement area.

The view opened out beneath him, until he paused against the railing of the gallery which surrounded the concourse.  Leaning forward and gazing down, he surveyed the fifty or so head-banded men and women currently wandering over the engraved floor; he watched them as they assessed and altered the arrangements of coloured blocks upon that immense walk-on map.  Of greater interest to him were the less numerous folk down there who weren’t wearing the official cartographers’ head-bands: perhaps a half-dozen on average at any one time, these others came and went without staying long.  They sauntered into the centre space carrying new blocks, deposited them, and turned to leave.  Nyav looked upon these free-mannered folk, the Wayfarers, with a longing respect.   

A word he had long loved to pronounce in thought, “Wayfarer” resounded in his mind to the hum of adventure… 

And now? 

He was here without the knowledge of Dempelath, the guardian who had robbed him of his former self-belief...  and who therefore, in a sense, has destroyed me.  Ah, but who also, in so destroying, had bestowed a kind of melancholy freedom, the uprootedness of having naught else to lose.

Well, then… What’s to stop me from my next step?  Nothing, only –

Only, he’d better not self-congratulate, better not pretend that this was a great turning of tables, better not claim any triumphant self-assertion, better not hope for any come-back against Dempelath.  The very idea of opposing that unstoppable personality caused fumes of dread to billow in Nyav’s thoughts.  He, Nyav, could not rank as an “opponent” in any way imaginable.  Conflict would be too one-sided.  Besides, there was no need to envisage it.  Having completed his experiments, Dempelath would have no further use for his ward, and indeed would not care what any of his batch of victims did henceforth.

Some great foregrounder will stop him some day, thought Nyav.  As for me, I have my own life to live, a life unremembered by history, yet of infinite worth to me.

With a lighter step he went down the ramp onto the floor of the Hall. 

A margin of blank pavement four yards in width ran around the Hall’s edge, so that at first he was not yet “on the map”.  Dreamily aware of taking part in a great tradition, he opened his arms wide to take a pair of blocks from a stack by the wall.  His arms full, he then turned to face that great circular engraved floor.  Now, where to place his blocks?  Easy!  Despite the immensity of the walk-on map, which represented the environs of Olhoav out to a distance of about fifteen hundred miles, his subconscious mind had already – while he had still been up on the balcony – assessed the positions and the meanings of all the other markers.  Therefore, he automatically knew where he could optimally place his own pair: the one for direction, the other for destination.  His lack of hesitation was part of the wonder of it all, part of the dreamlike grip of Wayfarers’ Trance which enabled him now confidently to walk “onto the map” and, within a couple of minutes, to place one block aimed across the Basin of Vnor, and the other at a point beyond that terrain.  At no stage did he put conscious effort into what he did.  A mere youth though he was, he was a Uranian of Era 89, an acculturated heir to millions of days of suave cartographic competence amounting to instinct, such as you Terrans will never know.

He left without exchanging a single word with anyone else.  He retraced his steps, back up onto the balcony, and briefly looked down again, to view the addition he had made to the scene, and to confirm the end points of his chosen journey. 

Then he headed for the skimmer-bank.

Its lockers are on the Pnurrm's ground floor.  From one of these he drew out a green cloth bandolier.  With that over his shoulder, anyone who glanced at him would know he ought not to be interrupted (without very good reason) until his Wayfaring was done.   Next he slid a skimmer from its cubicle.  He pushed it along the corridor and out through a side door.  Here he bestrode the vehicle, pulled down the starting lever and set off, steering towards the edge of Olhoav.

Whether or not he lived to report the wilderness trip, it would not be wasted.  That is the beauty of our culture of patrols: survival and non-survival of a chosen transect are both data of equal value.  So-and-so arrives and returns; so-and-so does not; from a sufficient number of such Wayfarings, the cartographers plot the sfy, the safety-contours of their maps.  A procedure wasteful of human life, you might think.  Yet the alternative route, the path of understanding, is fraught with greater peril – for understanding can lead all too easily to involvement with non-human Uranian powers who are greater than we Nenns.  Far better for our human identity to rely upon the fluctuating lines of our sfy.  From copious and well-plotted safety-contours, statistical silhouettes emerge, impressionistic shadows which commonly suffice as a system of alerts to the dangers lying in wait on the plains of Ooranye. 

Those wavy contoured masks of peril, which our strong city-states can reduce but never eradicate, ensure that Wayfaring is the route to an inexhaustible supply of adventure for foregrounders and backgrounders alike.  Foregrounders, of course, are taken further towards the climax of a completed story-line.  But a backgrounder can quite well help it along.  Backgrounders can set off on their voyages with the satisfaction that “doing one’s statistical bit”, risking one’s life to gain a datum, is meaningful and honourable.  

This may be goodbye, thought Nyav, prompted by a quick side-glimpse of his own little dwelling, which became visible to him during one protracted moment among the shifting views on his way to the city boundary.  Dempelath had assigned him the most humble of nooks, as befitted a backgrounder: a home staked out in the curve of a city pipe at the point where it veered round a tower.  Nothing but a bafract skin – a translucent kind of tarpaulin much used by the poorer elements in the city – enclosed its bit of space, standing out like a slightly swollen elbow-joint in the great pipe.  Yes, a typical backgrounder’s home – and yet, the thought flashed through Nyav’s mind, it could equally have been the home of a foregrounder starting in obscurity.  For that was the manner of countless epics which head out from dimness to final glory.  Could have been.

Shortly after his home had disappeared from view he skimmed past the line of watch-towers which marked Olhoav’s boundary, and into the farm-zone which surrounds the city with a halo of glowing vheic-fields.  Those wealth-giving plants toss their orange lamps in the moderate breezes that swirl around Olhoav, to form a sparkling cultivated belt called the flaon-scrorr, which, while certainly not the wilderness, yet announces to a Wayfarer’s mind the vastness and dimness which lies beyond the few bright miles of farmland.  The double word evokes gradation towards the unknown: first, the relatively familiar, settled flaon – the area of continuous cultivation; then the scrorr – the land of outliers.  Habitations become ever rarer as you traverse the scrorr, till they peter out into the boundless gralm, the granular loam that covers Ooranye’s solid ice-ocean. 

Because this voyage was Nyav’s first proper Wayfaring, he was all the more aware of those trade-offs – for example, desirable altitude versus undesirable conspicuousness – which become second nature to the more experienced.  A skimmer’s ceiling is six yards, but in the exposure of the wilderness he felt more comfortable flying at three.  So, when the last farmstead had fallen behind him, he nosed down closer to the gralm.  Hence its blotches streaked beneath his keel with more flickery variation between the dominant liver-colour and those interrupting patches of green, purple, brown and black which give skimmer-pilots their sense of perspective and awareness of speed.  The ground's flashing closeness put more stress on pilotage, and he was now unable to see so far off, but equally, he hoped, he could not from so far off be seen.

After altitude, the next compromise concerned choice of speed.  A skimmer’s maximum velocity in windless air is two hundred miles per hour.  This of course needs to be reduced over complex terrain.  Nyav hoped to accomplish his Wayfaring mission as fast as possible, but when, after some hours of flight, he saw a line of dark, broad silhouettes in echelon formation ahead of him, he realized, with regret, that “this was it” – the complication had arrived.  Fate was telling him he must slow.  He decelerated to one hundred miles per hour.  Then to fifty…

He was aware that by this time he must be in the Basin of Vnor.  A vaguely definable low-lying area, so shallow and immense that it is not distinguishable as a feature to the naked eye, the Basin was thought to attract life in concentrations higher than average for the plains.  What he saw in front of him confirmed that reputation dramatically enough.  

With care he approached the oblique ranks of hlannad – bivalve boulders, up to twice man-high.  Their presence on his route must count as news.  Always, their arrival in any particular area was unforeseen.  The boulders’ migrations had never been witnessed; it was assumed that they rolled under storm-cover, while the air’s opacity rendered them invisible.  

It should be easy enough to pass between them, Nyav assumed; the things were spaced at intervals of at least ten yards.  Nevertheless he must submit to yet another reduction of speed.  Inexperienced though he was, he knew that he dared not overlook a single quiver of movement from any hlann while he darted by.  He knew this from travellers’ tales, but also from the icy tremor which now hunched his shoulders (Terran readers note: we Uranians don’t go in for explanations in as big a way as you do, but our instincts are sounder).  Thus although he hated to do it, he duly slowed down to thirty miles per hour, hoping for the best, and trying to glance all ways at once as he came abreast of the hulking shapes.

Thus he passed through the line, only to find himself skimming across a land littered with further myriads of the boulders.  There was no end to them in sight.  A disquieting scene, it became ominous when he noted first one and then several of the boulders begin to tilt their upper halves.

Unpleasantly suggestive, like trunk-lids opening of their own accord, the sight was somehow worsened through a change in the texture of the boulders.  As they proceeded to gape, their stony surfaces wrinkled, and the outer few inches became translucent.  It would be far better, shouted the voice of instinct, not to be here.

Yet it was also far too late to alter course.  Surrounded as he was by the hlannad, for him to swerve from his committed route would be as dangerous, now, as to keep to it.  So he pressed on, even as he witnessed more and more of the great bivalves tilt their hinged tops, to reveal, through mouths increasingly agape, red interior glows, a-throb with their characteristic threat to clamp nightmare upon a mind that allows them to take that terror-hold.  Some defence lay in knowledge of names: Nyav’s skimpy education had provided him with labels to attach to ominous sights, so as to tame fears with words.   Thus, he quickly drew on terminology to brandish at what he next expected to see – the millipedal woochna that ought shortly to emerge from the hlannad mouths, with “symbiosis” the label he could slap onto that arrangement.    

Reality, as so often happens, spoiled the game.  Something did come out, in the next few seconds, from a hlann close by – but the thing that emerged from the red maw was not a wooch.  The out-squirming appearance had no legs and appeared to consist of a sinuous bubble-cluster, whose status as a solid body was uncertain to Nyav’s shocked gaze.  No traveller's tale had prepared him for this!  He watched the vagabond tongue lurch completely out of the bivalve and flop down onto the ground, where it began to hump forward so as to cross the skimmer’s path – forcing him urgently to swerve, for he recoiled from the idea of flying directly over it.  In other directions, from the other opened boulders, similar bubbly worms emerged, their sphere-composed sides continually swelling and popping as they pulsed peristaltically across the surface in increasing numbers, at first shining bright red to match the hue of the mouths from which they had fallen, then within half a minute turning milky white, whereupon Nyav realized what he was seeing: none other than the ground-clouds known as vuocna, never before associated with the hlannad.  So, snap one link to education. 

But after all, they weren't doing anything to harm him - were they?  And a Wayfarer should expect the unexpected.  And, if not too many further surprises lay in wait, he might complete his transect, and return with a creditable haul of news.

On the other hand the news might already have been transmitted to Olhoav.  Not too many scores of miles ahead (if his navigation was not at fault), there stood a televisual mast which transmitted views from a point deep in the Basin of Vnor.  Provided that the events he’d just witnessed had also taken place within range of the observation mast, someone in the city should already have viewed pictures of them.

If not – if the action had not extended far enough to be caught on that camera – then the priority of discovery might go to him.  And that wouldn't be at all bad!  Within minutes, he would know.  It was a comfort to look forward in this way, whilst being forced to weave and dodge to avoid the vuocna infestation; it was helpful to care, or to pretend to care, about social matters, credit for personal achievement… although a backgrounder, by definition, stood no chance of being long remembered. 

At this point he realized that no longer cared one jot whether he were remembered.  What now stole upon him was a wish to be home, as his human nature, risen in revolt, took up with a rising scream the desperate urge to get back among his own kind.  A youngster’s first Wayfaring tends to be a tough experience. Nyav’s recent identity-trauma, in addition, had further weakened his mental fibre, intensifying the challenge he faced.  So his one remaining reason to gaze forward in hungry anticipation of seeing the surveillance-mast, was the desire to feast his eyes on something manufactured by human beings.  Gone was most of his natural Uranian zest for adventure.  Not quite lost, it was numbed by his sudden thirst for familiarity. And it was precisely then, while he longed for the human norm, that the scene clicked up a further notch of strangeness. 

He had reached a region where the hlannad were all closed, hinged shut.  Their associated vuocna were nowhere to be seen.   Perhaps they had flowed back inside their host-boulders; perhaps they had gone somewhere else.  Now, incredible though it seemed, the hlannad began to move.  In broad daylight, without storm cover, the bivalve boulders rolled.  Such a sight was not known previously to have been witnessed by any human traveller.  All in one direction, across Nyav’s path from his right to his left, the stony-skinned hulks had resumed their migration.  He was forced to pay extra attention to his steering while he strove to master his astonishment.

They must know he was here, they must know that he was seeing it all happen and that he would report it.  So was one of them going to silence him?  Or was their old, old custom broken?  Had they abandoned their secretive concern not to be seen in motion?

Terran readers may demand to know, at this point, why Nyav did not try the radio.  He had two transceivers: the one on his left wrist, and the one set into the narrow dashboard of his skimmer.  Neither of them could have pushed a signal all the way back to Olhoav, which by this time was over a thousand miles away.  However he might, with luck, have made contact with another Wayfarer or patroller if any had chanced to be within the device’s approximately hundred-mile range.  If a voice had answered, he could at least have shared the information he had gained.  So, what stopped him from making the attempt?

For two habitual, cultural reasons, he did not give the option a try.  Experiences over the aeons have inhibited us from using our radios when alone in the wilderness, for the anecdotal evidence piles up to the conclusion, that radio messages are more likely to attract enemies than to summon help from friends.  Caution in the use of transceivers, therefore, has become an instinct with us all.  The second reason for not trying it applies specifically to Wayfarers.  If you commit yourself to a Wayfaring transect, you are undertaking a lone experiment, to ascertain whether you, by yourself, can survive that journey.  Involvement with others, while permissible, and in some situations imperative, is always likely to mean the abandonment of the experiment – and this was Nyav’s very first Wayfaring mission, in which he had set his heart to succeed.

The time came when he reached the end of the crowd or herd of rolling hlannad.  The open plain now stretched before him empty, except – he now saw, freed as he was from the need to concentrate to avoid collisions – the televisual mast, up ahead, just become visible as a vertical needle on the skyline.  With a surge of relief Nyav opened the throttle wide and accelerated the skimmer to top speed in the mast’s direction.  It was on his chosen route, and he was heartened to think that its camera would record his passage as a useful datum.  He was doing all right!  He had got this far, he had escaped the boulders – not that they had tried to kill him; perhaps they did not like to kill; that was a possibility; countless were the speculations, fading into the usual grey mist of the unknowable, while he, Nyav, clung to the more immediate belief, that he might well finish his transect and get home. 

Closer, however, he saw something that looked wrong: a fuzziness, just below the top of the twenty-yard mast.  The blurry thing was a moving white blob, slowly descending the mast like a man inching his way down a pole.  But the blob was too fat to be human.

Closer, and he saw that the thing was a vuoc.  The sphere-composed fuzz reached the ground as he watched, and began rippling away.  Nyav, who had slowed his skimmer out of unwillingness to meet the thing, now slowed further as a practical point occurred to him.  Could this cloudy straggler have remained behind the main herd in order to enwrap the camera on the mast - thus blinding it?  But then why allow me, a naked-eye witness, to escape?  Or maybe the aim had been to wreck the apparatus permanently for some reason.  Anyhow, he judged that he had better climb the mast himself, to check for damage. 

So he arrived at the fateful decision, to stop his vehicle, despite all the Wayfaring lore which says that to stop, during a mission, and to proceed anywhere on foot, brings a weight of disadvantages, more apparent to veterans than to a beginner.

He walked to the mast, grasped the rungs and began to climb.

Half way up he paused and gazed around the horizon, a skyline now partly hidden in mist.  Perhaps the hlannad horde had disappeared into that mist.  Or perhaps they would, in any case, by this time have vanished over the curve of the planet.  We human Uranians are normally very good at judging distances.  The fact that he wasn’t sure, in this case, was a sign which boded ill, but he failed to note it.  

He continued to the top and peered into the transparent concavity of the televisual apparatus.  It was like looking in a window.  He could see the surveillance room in the monitoring centre at Olhoav: the desks, the chairs, the screens, the officials about their tasks.  He gazed fondly, his mind’s ear supplying the absent sound – the shuffle of boots, the murmured remarks, the rustle of papers.  Any moment someone might come to his mast’s screen – but on the other hand it might be hours before anyone did so.  He sighed, and turned to descend.  Of one thing he was sure: the apparatus was undamaged.  The vuoc had done no worse than temporarily to smother the camera eye, to blank out the movements of the horde. 

So the creatures were still determined to conceal their motion from human eyes.

Why, then, was he still alive?  He who had witnessed the truth…

He thought about it all the way down, and by the time he reached the ground it was impossible for him to avoid the answer.

The vuoc, and/or the hlannad, did not need to silence him.  They somehow knew that no such action of theirs was necessary.  They knew, in other words, that he would never survive to tell the tale.  But why should he not get back safely? 

Ah, but put it the other way: why should he?

He leaned against the base of the mast, stared about him at the limitless plain and the far-off mist, and helplessly allowed his mind and soul to be flooded with the blankness of immensity.  Not just realizing, but really realizing, Nyav at that moment embodied the virtue of apparng, context-awareness, but alas it was apparng swollen to a fatally exaggerated degree.

It was an elementary error, a young man’s error, to have thought too much about possible explanations, to have engaged with the giant world to that extent, and to have thus invited its riposte.  The fencing skills of human reason are bound to be outmatched by the mysteries of Ooranye.  The time had arrived for him to pay the penalty for his misfortunes and mistakes; a penalty which consisted of being answered – in fact of being given the ultimate answer, which is ALL; which is too much.

This is the fate we call nebulation.  As it took hold, he staggered away from the mast.  Reaching his grounded skimmer, he absently put out a hand and ran it over the vehicle, then dropped his hand to his side and walked on, without looking back until, after some fifty yards, he stopped again, drew his laser, gazed at it with a puzzled frown, dropped it onto the gralm and began to rotate, while his arms dangled and he gazed unfocusedly about the horizon.  Then with frequent stops he wandered in a circle, as if in imitation of the curve of the world.  At last he went back to his skimmer and leaned against it, gazing across it at that mist-patched horizon which was tugging his soul from his body.  He had entered the game which no one can win.

This ought to have been the end of Nyavyuhlm, backgrounder.  According to all precedent, there should have been no reason for his tale to continue.  Once you have become a nebulee, that’s that.  No cure for the condition is known to exist.  Your mind is blown and you might as well be dead.

 

Continued in

Uranian Throne Episode 4:   

Exception