The talented side of him welcomed the challenge. Dismal though the outlook seemed, it brought a prospect of action, and this he clasped with the mindful intensity required by his office. Necessarily adept at statesmanship, a Noad must take joy in nudging, braiding, stitching life's currents. You may remark that this amounts to a definition of statesmanship anywhere in the cosmos, not just for a city on Ooranye, and we will not argue that point except to remark that a Uranian Noad, when faced with the failure of nen's own actions, is exposed naked to the judgement of history, unable to spread the blame by pleading entanglement or obstruction by written laws, of which we have none.
Barlayn Lamiroth had an inkling that failure might lie ahead. The ominous placards, the disquieting rumours of the past few days, were suggestive of a social cancer against which he knew of no defence; the moral darkness spreading through Olhoav was of a type unfamiliar not only to himself, but also to the scholars, historians and planetographers whom he had hastened to consult. All they knew was the bare fact, that some manipulator of emotions had ignited and was stoking backgrounder resentment, for the purpose of fomenting revolution.
No history or folklore gave any hint of how to deal with this. The problem could hardly even be discussed, so strong was the taboo against using the words "backgrounder" and "foregrounder" in polite discourse. Except, that is, with Dynoom; it was acceptable to talk about such things with the city brain; but, it seemed, that would do no good, for he had just learned that he could not expect the decisive measures he wanted from Dynoom.
Barlayn concluded that he himself would probably have to kill the rebel leader, the mysterious "Weigher".
As the city's rightful Noad he would be within his rights to take a life for reasons of State. Never before, in his six-thousand-day reign, had he needed to exercise such dire responsibility, and his heart was heavy at the thought, but he cultivated his own morale by 'planting', in one mental 'pot', a snarly attitude towards the Weigher.
Better still - if he could manage it - would be to plant a sprig of contempt, to aver that this Dempelath person was nothing special, a mere nuisance, just a pest whom it might not even be necessary to kill...
That would be so good: if only backgrounders could recover their common sense and see they were being deluded; if only everyone could calm down and allow him to rule a sane city. Noad Barlayn Lamiroth frowned as he tramped the steel floor of Olhoav. Right now he felt a strong need to stay in physical touch with the urban fabric and its people. He himself would keep his boots on firm metal, even if few others did...
Close to where a helical tower's up-slanting walkway began, he spotted a placard.
WORDS ARE USELESS
THE FORGS WON'T LISTEN
SHOVE THEM ASIDE
About a dozen other walkers were closer to the sign than he was. Two of them - only two! - were in the work-trance; the others were fully awake. The wakeful ones had seen the notice. Some of them also saw him, the Noad, whereupon they gave him duly respectful nods and saluting gestures.
Then, however, they hastened their steps away. It was as though they were anxious to avoid an exchange of words with their Noad. Strong whiffs, these reluctances; whiffs that there was something wrong... Grimly lengthening his own stride, Barlayn Lamiroth rounded a kidney-shaped plaza. Under an overhanging thicket of walkways and globular mansions, he almost bumped into another placard:
SEIZE THE SPOTLIGHT
FROM THE FORGS!
IT'S YOUR STORY!
He took a back-step and glanced around. This was a busier area. Here, as many as twenty pedestrian workers were within hailing distance; fifteen of them were carrying boxes under their arms. The number of these carriers, in itself, was not surprising, since this precinct was the economic umbra of Olhoav's major phial-factory, the Eneglor. Yet only three of those burdened backgrounders strode in the smooth gait of the work-trance. The other twelve were far looser, less firm in their step - they were rambling, indecisive, awake... and they outnumbered the trancers four to one! What was this epidemic of wakefulness? Perhaps better not use the term "epidemic", thought the Noad. Nevertheless this was a disturbing wake/trance ratio for the Eneglor area. And then he noted that the "wakies", when they stopped to read the placard, gave a hook-armed, clench-fisted salute... after which, with a few guilty looks in the Noad's direction, they hurried on.
Bafflement would have been far preferable here, but these manifestations were sadly comprehensible to Barlayn Lamiroth. Out of them he was able to sift his own dire progress report, or rather "regress report", on Olhoav.
Clearly he understood, that the work-trance must dissolve as backgrounders became more status-conscious. The more wakefully their minds brooded upon the category to which they belonged, the less willing they would be to relax into their daily few hours of easy, unconscious co-operation. Alertness could only prevail at the expense of the smoothly traditional, harmoniously productive instinctive mode, which had evolved over aeons with incalculable benefit to all. And so that mode would die. And then everyone would have to work harder and longer, and suffer more boredom, being forced into conscious attention to tasks which were formerly accomplished in a state of effortless dream. The prospect was one to make any foregrounder sick at heart. Backgrounders, too, would eventually loathe the waking drudgery - but not at first. Their egos incited by Dempelath, for a while they would be sustained by the false promise of plot-stardom for all. The deluded fools! As though there was room for every citizen to be a Noad, a Daon, an omzyr or a vigilee...
A metallic sound, the faint grind of heavy steel, interrupted Barlayn's reflections. He turned - and beheld a sight which lifted his mood.
The old secure pride, in which he was accustomed to stroll the streets among his people on a normal day, was revived by what trundled into view, at walking speed, around the curve of the steel alley.
It was a six-wheeled cylindrical tanker, painted in glowing blue. It had a silver roof-rack extending fore and aft. A banner was slung down its length. "Welcome the New Daon", the flapping cloth proclaimed. In short, this leisurely juggernaut was the traditional float by which the populace signalled their rejoicing at a new appointment to the dayonnad.
A most welcome sign of healthy political survival. Barlayn wondered if Daon Sunwa Nerren had yet seen it. Probably not. It was proceeding in her direction, rather than coming from there, so she had yet to encounter it. Well, when she did, she'd be most touched...
A dozen figures were standing upon the roof-rack and waving to the spectators, who - including the Noad - waved back.
One person on the float did not wave. Seated up front, forearms on the prow-rail, was a thick-set man whose boots dangled and clunked against the metal nose of the vehicle as it lurched onward.
Barlayn recognized the fellow: a senior factory hand, who could be termed an upper-grade backgrounder, which is to say, someone risen sufficiently above the faceless category of the general population, to earn an individual mention in some tale. A stalwart class of character, who - thought the Noad - would most likely remain content with his lot, and therefore resistant to the blandishments of the Weigher.
As the float came alongside him, the Noad greeted this person by name. "Smevedem!"
Smevedem grinned widely, and lifted one finger. While the Noad inwardly shrugged over this puzzling gesture, there came a more dramatic surprise. As if in ebullient heightening of spirits, the float itself suddenly tilted from side to side as though battered by waves. Barlayn bent his gaze to see how it was done: the wheels, first on one side and then the other, were pushed up for an instant as though jacks had been placed under them, whereas in actual fact it was the floor of the alley itself that had jerked like a twitch of irritated skin. This happened three or four times in rapid succession, like an infant's bobbing in gleeful excess of energy.
The effect betokened a startling control of city infrastructure, not to mention an expenditure of power at which the Noad dubiously shook his head; still, perhaps, on a day like this, high spirits were worth paying for...
He stood and watched the float pass him at walking speed. Then he decided to follow it, not for any clear reason but because, just then, he could not resist the urge to stay close to it.
Indeed the fulfilment of this little custom helped stoke the cheerful thought, that the Weigher was not having things all his own way. It appeared that the institutions of Olhoav, small and great, including the dayonnad itself, were sufficiently robust and deep-rooted, that Dempelath could not bypass or dispense with them. Not yet, anyhow.
The view widened as the float swung out of the alley. Now it entered a section of Rullud Avenue. Hereabouts that avenue formed a local boundary, so that the Noad, as he followed the float, had the district of Occoz on his left and that of Jihom on his right. A sprinkling of the populace of each area had turned out to line the sidewalks. A few others kept step along with their ruler. If only these celebrants had been greater in number, and less subdued, he might have been able to trust, completely, that this scene showed how things ought to be...
Don't trust, the Noad advised himself. Don't be optimistic. But at the same time, you might as well grab what good there is.
As it turned out, alertness did not help him. He was not warned by any preliminary sound, when of a sudden the air on one side of him was sliced by a windy hiss. A fifty-yard-long glassite pane thrust up alongside him. The pane rose within seconds to its full fifty-yard height. Thenceforth it towered squarely, drastically severing its length of way from the structures of Jihom beyond.
During the same moments an identical barrier shot up on the avenue's other side, to block off the structures of Occoz. And with dwindling staccato lisps more distant panes shot into place, transforming Rullud Avenue in its entirety into a closed canyon lined by glassite walls.
If this had happened at a more normal time, the Noad would have assumed that it was a drill. After all, calm weather had been reported for several days, with no gneh-ou within three hundred miles. During such a lull, the defence against that species of malevolent cloud - the internal barriers which channelled their fury so that they roared harmlessly through Olhoav - need only be activated for practice drills.
As things were, the Noad was unsure how far to trust the physical functions of the city. Still, in any case he ought to do what the other people who'd been caught out in the open stretch were doing - that is, use the low, scarcely visible doors in the panes, to get off the Avenue. But, hmm, what was this? Folk were tugging in vain at the exit notches on the Jihom side. The faint hand-grips in the glassite barrier, which should swing out into apertures for escape, appeared to be sealed, every one of them. "They aren't opening!" cried a woman close to him; "Noad B-L, what do we do?" Glaring wildly, she answered her own question, "Try the other side!"
Barlayn turned and saw, with infinite relief, that the pedestrians on the Occoz side were doing just that, and were having better luck. Those exit-doors were not fastened; they were being wrenched open by the people who had already been strolling on that side and also by those who now surged across in rebound from the Jihom barrier. So, the root source of the disturbance - the malevolence, maybe - was not on all sides; it was only in the Jihom direction.
One of the last pedestrians to exit through the Occoz panes turned and saw that the Noad, apparently lost in brooding thought, had made no move. As if unaware of any risk, Barlayn Lamiroth still stood and gazed across the newly bared vista of metal surface. "Get out of the open, Noad B-L!" the citizen shouted at the grey-cloaked figure.
"In a moment," Barlayn Lamiroth shouted back. While sizing up a situation he was apt to set a high value on not being hurried. Now he noted that Smevedem's "Welcome the New Daon" float, strangely unaffected by the panic and commotion, had not ceased to trundle on its steady way, and that after Rullud Avenue had emptied around it the tubby vehicle was continuing to recede, as though nothing unusual had happened. This tranquility was a wrongness: Barlayn knew it, as surely as renl ever demanded that he listen to the message of a scene. But he was unable to guess the event's meaning.
Next, his cautious deliberation was rewarded (if reward is the right word) by a more freakish anomaly.
Slyly it introduced itself behind a fifth-floor bay window, which obtruded some hundred yards further down the avenue, on the Jihom side. For a moment or so the thing amounted to mere ripples of coloured light. Then came a suggestive shape to the light. It blurred into the form of a human head, swollen almost - but not quite - too large to believe.
Barlayn's instinct was to investigate the uncanny glow without delay, for he expected confrontation and this might well be it - the battle of wits which he must not shirk. Since all vehicular and pedestrian access had been blocked off on this side of Jihom District, he must go a long way round if he wanted to meet the thing... but he could do something else first: if he climbed to some equally high-placed window on the Occoz size, he could "face the Face" across the avenue. He could stare at the starer and see who blinked first...
Of course his instinct might be wrong and he might be heading into some kind of trap. The thought failed to deter him. Uranian rulers - the Noads or "foci" of their cities - are confident people. They are generally aware of their own ability to steer lremdly through a crisis.
Admittedly, their public smoothness often looks dubious and grainy to their private selves, since they see it (as it were) under magnification, shot through with bright and dark flecks, every winning streak crashing sooner or later into some up-ended block of capsized fortune. But this, if you're a Noad, only makes you more opportunistic; more keen, while the going is good, to push it for all it's worth.
Barlayn could tell that he had gained credit with his people by his visibly calm response to the glass barriers. And fate had now handed him a target to investigate. Notwithstanding a horrid sense - it was like something out of a bad dream - that that glowing face was waiting for him, he must head that way. And, because he was waging a war of allegiance, he would recruit some bystanders to accompany him.
He strode to the Occoz avenue-edge. Someone hurriedly held the nearest glass door open for him. He nodded thanks, went through and found himself amongst a knot of backgrounders, whom he aimed to rouse with a simple speech. To a score of respectful stares, he announced: "What's happened looks like a gneh-ou defence drill, but I'm sure it is not. It is action by the rebel, Dempelath. Our enemy appears to be fortifying himself beyond a barrier. That shows he's nervous of us! He knows he's not strong enough to take over our entire city, so he plumps for a part of it only. An admission that he's a loser! However, we aren't simply going to wait for his movement to collapse."
He got the positive murmurs he wanted from this. Next step: make committed companions out of this cluster of folk. He recognized two of them by name - not a bad score, for even the best Noad cannot be expected to know everyone in his city.
The one who had held the glass door open for him was an eyabon ["restaurateur", you Terrans might say] named Gstatt. An elderly man, a bit portly in Uranian terms (though be sure he would have cut a fine enough figure on Earth), he was a likely asset to any group: like Smevedem the float-chief, Gstatt stalwartly belonged to that class of high-grade backgrounder which has been termed the backbone of the body politic.
On the other hand Barlayn Lamiroth was less pleased to note the presence of the lone foregrounder in the bunch: Bizzid Folomm. A smart young woman, she nevertheless was a character whom the Noad, in his present reckoning, could well have done without.
Here, to our regret, we translators are compelled to be unfair. It's a recurrent problem for us: the persistent necessity, in our interplanetary story-telling, to "bad down" our portrayal of Uranian characters so as to shrink their mental and moral stature by a scale factor which renders them comprehensible to a Terran audience. With apologies to Bizzid, then, we have to record that the Noad viewed her as a silly woman. The youngish brassy-blonde alapatea [untranslatable: think "anecdotalist-cum-socialite-poet-cum-reporter"?] was, by Barlayn's standards, an airhead. Ordinarily he would have shrugged this off with equanimity. He shrugged it off now, but without the equanimity. Every bit of human worth might count as vital in the imminent confrontation.
His companions had seen the glowing head. Gstatt's glance winced away from the sight as he spoke tentatively, "Noad, that thing, that face up there..."
"We're going to see it up close," nodded Barlayn. "We're going to make the unknown known. Our foe," he continued dryly, "calls himself - as you may have heard - the Weigher." Saying this with quirked lip, the Noad hoped for some flippant snickers in response. He did get some; however, most of his audience stayed too quiet for his liking. This was his first suspicion that their loyalty could not be taken totally for granted. No use pursuing that thought... "It's time," he shrugged, "that we did some 'Weighing' for ourselves. Those who are free of other tasks: come with me, please, to the fifth floor of..." he looked up to judge which of the buildings on this side was exactly opposite the Face on the Jihom side... "the Oxpeihon. Ready, all of you? Then let's take Fate by surprise - let's run."
He turned to lead the way at a hastening trot, before they could have second thoughts. Upon reaching the Oxpeihon he hurtled through its lobby and began to mount its stairs, his followers clattering up behind him, drawn (he hoped) by the most powerful of vectors, the deep-seated loyalty of citizens to their Noad. Aware, however, that Fate had given him support of average quality, from which he had better not expect miracles of devotion, especially in these days of suspicion, the Noad at each bend of the staircase glanced back to assure himself that he still led the group of men and women who - because they chanced to be swirled in his wake - had been appointed, whether they liked it or not, participants in his own fate... And supposing Dempelath's propaganda had made some inroads among them? Well, if they're discontented backgrounders, the Noad thought sardonically, they ought to welcome such sudden prominence, as I'm giving them now.
Actually he had doubts, at moments like this, about the whole "back-and-fore" idea... For example, Gstatt was regarded as a backgrounder, Bizzid a foregrounder, but their relative importance suggested how misleading those categories were...
Such reflections flashed their brief way and faded like meteor-streaks before the greater dazzle of a far more urgent thought: would the Glowing Face still be visible when they reached their vantage? Or would this whole move turn out to be a fool's errand?
No, it was a safe bet that the Face would want to stay put, long enough to stare defiance. Safe bet? More than that. The summation of a million mini-bursts of insight shouted how 'safe' it was. Anti-climax would definitely not be on offer. Their target would, unquestionably, be waiting for them.
Ascending the last steps to the fifth level, he saw how right he was.
The fifth floor was wide, and its furniture scant. Open-plan spaces were the rule at this level. Barlayn started forward: his intention being to lead his little crowd towards the view provided by the out-thrust bay window.
Each step, however, became a drag against a weight of reluctance. The motions of his body were inhibited by the Face that shone through that window - shone now directly at them - from across the way.
He could sense the others behind him shuffling. The voice of Gstatt, in a growl that quavered into a cough, declared, "We'll out-stare him, Noad B-L." Creditable, that. Yet no one else said anything, and Gstatt himself had almost gasped with dismay as he spoke.
Barlayn realized his ghastly mistake in bringing so many witnesses with him. They simply weren't up to seeing that Thing out there. He noted with disappointment, as he glanced over his shoulder, the truth in their darting eyes. They weren't going to take it -
To take the best example: Gstatt, as the Noad well knew, had in his younger days accumulated a solidly creditable record as Wayfarer, a record such as none but the brave can earn; if even such as he were so edgy now, the Noad had made a bad error of judgement. For now he was locked into a staring match with Dempelath - and one that was likely to end badly. For the Weigher could take them all in a flank attack while they were thus immobilised. Why, though, was the sight of that Face with its crawling lights so awful?
Barlayn forced himself to stare analytically at the thing, to reduce its effect by reason.
The apparent distension of that luminous head - it must, no doubt, be an optical illusion caused by the coloured glows which swam across it - or was that too glib? Barlayn had sudden doubts about his own quick wit and excuse-grabbing intelligence. Maybe it wouldn't do. Maybe the Face was too unsettling, capable of reaching below any rational defence.
The appalled Noad needed plenty
of spunk to get him through the next quarter of a minute. His inner
barriers against terror kept slipping down. He had to prop them up, repeatedly. Fortunately they did not all collapse simultaneously...
Come, this was ridiculous! This game - with eyes locked with the Face and neither person being able to afford to be the first to look aside - this was the wrong game to play! We'll out-stare him, Gstatt had just said, but it stood to reason that Dempelath must even now be arranging for some flanking movement or other. That was what the Noad himself would have done, by giving instructions to Dynoom, only he couldn't, for he saw that this room lacked any line of communication with the city-brain. Dynoon could project nenself anywhere in the city if nen wished to call, but Barlayn could not contact nen on his own initiative from here. Flunnd! What blaping luck.
One of the crowd behind him dared to interrupt his thoughts, pleading, "Perhaps we ought to... er... postpone all this, Noad B-L."
Still only a few seconds had passed! Time had slowed almost to a stop as Barlayn replied, while struggling for breath, "You mustn't miss this great moment. Behold the shining form of the great Weigher. I know it is he, because, of course, Dempelath would not permit such dominance of his patch to anyone else. Postpone, did someone say? No. Sorry. Can't postpone the clash. But postpone the understanding, yes, by all means! Let's make sure we beat him first, and then, if you're still keen on understanding what's wrong with his skin..."
He intended to say, "Well then, when the trouble's over, anyone who wants to go into it all and find an explanation for his swimming glow-patches, anyone that dedicated to knowledge, can spend time and attention on it for all I care. I'll probably have better things to do."
Too much clarity was a fang-like rock which must be steered past; and for a moment he thought he was succeeding...
To his exasperation, he was interrupted. That woman, Bizzid Folomm, had to put in her phial's worth.
"If we're going to beat him," she said, "shouldn't we find out what's wrong with him?"
"Why?" asked the Noad, hoping one flat syllable would discourage her.
"I mean, normal people don't look like that... and normal people don't raise rebellions."
Barlayn briefly hung his head. The woman had defeated him. He allowed his opinion to swing round. Steering... a Noad must above all else know how to steer. Make decisions from insufficient data, then abandon those decisions in the face of more insufficient data... on and on, weaving around the waves.
But he'd have to be quick now. It was needful to tackle this subject without further delay. It had to be brought into the realm of the bearable, the explicable, instantly.
The shining lobate patches of glowing colour which swam over the skin of Dempelath in eerie uneven motions, demanded an acceptable explanation, to avert a shriek of the mind... he realized that now. The woman was, after all, right to that extent. Barlayn dug further into his own intuition. Urgent - explain, describe and yet belittle his power. Dig deep and hope -
As he continued to stare, praying to the World Spirit for guidance, he saw a tremendous sight: a long way beyond the Face, a spiky shape of gleaming metal was outrageously sprouting.
It may be wise, at this point, for us to correct an impression we have made on the minds of our Terran readers.
When we use the word "avenue" you probably picture a wide street lined by block-like buildings.
Indeed, parts of Rullud Avenue are like that. Any radial road in a Uranian city is apt to attract quite a few square-fronted edifices since that design will maximize their use of available space. However, if you look higher than their third or fifth storey, your view changes. The rectangular roof-tops are over-bulged by our more typical, far more irregular urban lattice. This metalloid jungle, of weblike walkways, globular palaces and helical towers, looms and sometimes arches right over the avenue.
Therefore, the vista from the fifth floor of the Oxpeihon was much more complex than a mere line of rooftops. What the Noad saw in that eerie moment was a spiky tower, huge and distant, visibly pushing up beyond the far boundary of Jihom District, beyond even the landmark dome called the Menestegon which lay in the same line of sight. Pushing up by the second!
Barlayn could almost imagine he was watching a time-lapse film of the growth of a spindly plant. The new tower resembled a giant step bearing sickle-shaped leaves.
And while it thus grew, Barlayn's eyes suddenly snapped back to focus upon a closer event - for a change was coming over Dempelath's face. Several of the crawling lights on the Weigher's skin coalesced into a yellow dagger-pattern which flowed from chin to forehead. Once only, this happened. Then the pattern dissolved, back went the appearance of the skin, into the previous medley of colours and forms... but the Noad had seen enough. Here was the answer for which he had prayed.
"...He's a hybrid monster, part-man, part-Ghepion. He displays on his skin - I dare say, the poor fellow can't help it - his resonances with the physical networks of the city."
Tremendous was the relief which the Noad then felt, for having provided the necessary answer, an answer not only neat but probably true: for those swirling glows on the Weigher's face most likely did signify direct power-connections between the would-be tyrant and the infrastructure of Olhoav.
The implications, doubtless, were frightful. Whatever that spiky tower might be, the expenditure of energy to produce it must have devoured a chunk of the reserves of Olhoav, in a ruthless spatter of power.
Yet meanwhile the Noad had at least loosened his own tongue, had found words to speak, to show some degree of understanding, worthy of a leader.
After this he felt a certain spring in his spirit.
Someone else in his group whispered, "But why is he just standing there, staring at us?"
"Trying to out-stare," replied the Noad with a knowing shrug. "Rebels are necessarily all alike," he continued fluently. "They must compensate for their lack of legitimacy. Look at him gloating at us from behind his wall: 'Today, Jihom; tomorrow, the city entire' - that's the point he's trying to make. And, while he's thus assuming that Time is on his side," Barlayn went on, glancing around at his audience, his tone preparing them for a sardonic comment, "Time is, in actual fact, a public utility..."
Hesitant chuckles mingled with doubtful looks...
He again directed his gaze at the baleful glow of the visage across the avenue. It would be easier, now, to get out of the staring contest. Honour in a way was satisfied, now that the Noad had spoken wisdom to his people...
"You wanted," a rasp like wind-blown tin fragments whispered in his ear, "news about Dempelath."
No mistaking that confidential voice-projection.
"I found him myself, Dynoom," the Noad murmured back. "Like you predicted I would."
"Nevertheless, may I show you my own, less direct finding?"
"Go ahead," said Barlayn grimly, adding with calculated recklessness, "and since I'm out on this limb, you may as well make it public."
More loudly he addressed the company: "Stand back, we need some floor-space here. We're about to see a holo-report from Dynoom."
A pale mound of light, like the top of a ghostly sphere rising out of the floor, acquired definition.
It became a cinematic rendering of a city scene. Not a distant one; perhaps a few hundreds of yards away -
For the image revealed the blue float, with its celebratory banner welcoming the new Daon, still moving along at walking speed, down the deserted avenue.
...Or, the not-quite-deserted avenue.
Some barrier doors on the Jihom side were now being opened from within. A few folk who had been shut away inside that district were now venturing back...
Gaining confidence, others followed. Increasing numbers streamed onto the avenue floor. They were surging out to welcome the float, or, at any rate, to surround it, causing it to roll to a stop. No, actually - thought the Noad as he watched - it wasn't so much the float that interested them. It was enwrapped by the crowd but it wasn't what they were focussed upon. Rather, what attracted them was another, convergent arrival.
It was the Daon herself, it was Sunwa Nerren, strolling into view out of an alley on the Occoz side, and causing all eyes to switch to her.
With gracious gestures she hailed them all - the folk who had surged around the blue vehicle, and the riders upon it. Vivaciously she opened wide her arms as if to accept anything that they might ask of her, any pleas, questions or demands.
The watching Noad had his own plea: let what seems to be true, be true, that she's enjoying the job I pushed her into; let me be reliably glad. Away with the tussle between the way things ought to go and the way things are, let there be no reason why this shouldn't turn out to be a fine, normal, meet-the-Daon public session, as is traditional in sane times, leading to no harm.
And why not? The crowd seemed suitably eager. Folk at the back were straining on tip-toe to glimpse the Daon. Yet a certain restraint was evident. Heads turned from the Daon back to the float - to the man seated on the prow.
That individual's gaze, in turn, fixed itself upon the blue-cloaked woman as her steps took her closer to his vantage on the vehicle. "Skimmjard, Daon N-S!" he called at her.
No one else spoke. With each second that ticked by it became more evident that he, Smevedem, was the questioner with priority.
"Tell us, Daon N-S: all those times when you were stuck in your Wayfaring routine, did you not dream of this day? Back then, did you not already hope for more?"
She chuckled, "You mean, is this the fulfilment of my dreams?"
"Ah! Vital, isn't it, to have dreams! Didn't you always feel," Smevedem continued with rising intensity, " - didn't you always trust that you would amount in the end to more than mere fodder for the cartographers' stats? Was it not essential for you to believe that you would not remain in obscurity for the rest of your life, but would become the lucky, privileged super-forg you now are?"
The words roared more harshly as the speaker reached his insolent peroration, and the Noad's heart sank as he listened, for he could not fail to identify the backgrounder resentment which had just been starkly, albeit tortuously expressed.
Surely the Daon must have caught the hostility. Yet her face showed no sign of strain as she simply agreed, "I most certainly did always hope for more."
That sweet reply appeared to win hearts in the crowd; admiring eyes turned back to her. She took a deep breath.
"And my hope was granted daily," she continued in a voice that rang with lyric purity. All those who heard her straightaway sensed, with profound finality, that they were privileged to hear a shining conclusion, a lapidary epitaph. All froze, mid-breath -
"For my old profession of Wayfaring," she went on, "like every calling, is always more than itself. Every one of us - be nen the most obscure of wirrips or the most famous of Sunnoads - equally feed the cosmic statistics. That grand summation, over the history of the universe, will welcome every life. No act wasted, no life lived in vain. Wirrips or forgs - fodder indeed we all are."
The crowd were captivated by a certain quiet, stealthy foreboding conveyed by the speech's aura of perfection. Too perfect for real life - though they hoped not; they would have gone on listening for hours, as would Barlayn and his group who were watching Dynoom's holograph of the event on the floor of their high room in the Oxpeihon.
However, the spell was broken by a bizarre distraction: the float began to shake. Because the vehicle was tightly surrounded by people who had temporarily forgotten it, the sudden movement shocked them, and caused some to stagger and a few to fall.
We do not relish this part of our tale. It is one of those rare occasions when we almost envy the Terran simplicity of soul. We have to admit that we Uranians have, in our distant past, sinned in ways which are beyond the capacity of more backward folk.
If we look back towards the early morning of Ooranye's history we are reminded that the wealth and power of our Phosphorus Era, transmitted to a large extent intact down the ages, was gained at a terrible moral price. You men of Earth may lament the environmental damage caused by your predecessors, but you don't have to feel guilty about the plunder of an entire universe. When we sucked the energy of Chelth for our own use, we committed a crime for which there is no atonement. That door is now closed and ever since then we have had to live with what we have done.
Usually we manage to cope with our consciences. After all, the plunder of Chelth happened scores of eras, thousands of lifetimes ago.
It is when, on occasions since then, we have been presented with manifestations of the murkier laws of physics, that we are apt to get queasy.
Then, an unwelcome phenomenon may remind us of what our ancestors did, in that long-gone era.
The people in the vicinity of the float could not understand, but they ran. The vehicle had shaken like a fever-maddened living creature and it had hit several people at chest level. Small wonder that the crowd scattered away from the incomprehensible thing. Noad Barlayn Lamiroth nodded to himself grimly as he watched. Those folk could not be expected to understand anything at all about what had hit them - but he, though he had no evidence, found that his integrative faculty swiftly linked what he saw to the other appalling transformative event of the past few minutes: the growth-spurt of the distant tower.
That impression was strengthened when the retreat of the crowd from the float revealed the portion of city-floor beneath the vehicle.
That section of the metal avenue was quivering. As the Noad watched, it rose in a sort of viscous spiral, slithering all the way round the float, and up to obscure it, completely to cover it as if with a new coat of armour. Then there was a tearing sound. The new covering, with the vehicle enwrapped, detached itself from the avenue floor.
The float had become an armoured vehicle.
The sheer strangeness, the nightmare incongruity, was what made the crowd flee further, causing many of them to shriek as they looked back. Perhaps none of them had the melancholy comfort possessed by the Noad. He, from his store of city-lore, had identified the local acceleration of time he was witnessing: the sort used on a few occasions in history, to squash a multi-hundred-day feat of engineering into a few seconds. Not the kind of thing that need be feared often - it was too fantastically expensive. But he wished it had never, ever been done. It annihilated the trust which one normally felt for one's urban environment. It mocked one's intellect with the crazy idea that there could be shifty, dishonest physics. Still, rational explanations can blur at their boundaries into something more akin to black magic, when Ghepion science is at work. Run, Sunwa, the Noad prayed.
Useless - she would not run. Not after she'd made that wonderful concluding speech.
Then came the hurled spear of light. Smevedem and the other riders on the float were now hidden beneath the vehicle's armour, so it was impossible to say from which individual the shot came. All that could be seen was the sudden hole in the prow and the beam that lanced forth from it, to cut the Daon down.
Then the wails of the crowd, the crunch of the retreating wheels, and the despairing thump of the Noad's own heart was all that remained for the ruler to hear.
No one behind him spoke. Were they waiting for him to pronounce some plan?
No, probably not at this moment; they, like he, were stunned.
The loss was so dreadful that the Noad had scant need to ponder its consequences. It was starkly obvious to his political judgement, that the balance of power had shifted decisively away from the civilization he knew. Two successive Daons murdered within hours of one another: the message was as clear as could be, that the appointment of another would merely set up a third victim. That step, futile and morally unthinkable, he would not take. Therefore he must henceforth be without an heir. His own single life was now the only constitutional obstacle which remained to stand in the way of the coming dark age.
Even that was probably too cheerful a description of how things stood. Whether he lived or died, time was on the side of the Weigher. In fact, that title was, Barlayn now saw, more appropriate than he had previously realized: a title which, eventually, would inevitably outweigh that of 'Noad'.
He saw, across the way, the face of Dempelath shift at last. It revolved; it appeared now in profile, the garish coloured lights continuing to crawl across cheek and jaw. Then the hybrid being began to walk away. Out of the room in which he had remained to stare at the Noad for many minutes, Dempelath disappeared from view, now that his proxy deed was done.
I get the point, Weigher, muttered Barlayn. You could not have killed Sunwa, for I was watching you all the time. The shot came from the float and not from you. Perhaps you did not kill Dari either. You don't have to do all your own dirty work, after all. You have an effective following now: a murderous army of backgrounders ready to do your bidding.
Yet within himself, without plan or rational hope, Barlayn Lamiroth yet discovered as fact what he had hoped in theory:
He was simply not capable of giving up.
IN THE NOVEMBER ISSUE OF TALES TO ASTOUND:
Uranian Throne Episode 7:
The Claw Extends