uranian throne - episode seven

the claw extends

by
robert gibson

[For the story so far, see: 1: Dynoom; 2: Hyala; 3: the nebulee; 4: Exception;  5: the lever of power; 6: the infrastructure throbs]


With one hand Hyala Movoun drew her cloak more closely about her.  With the other, she kept a tight grasp on two full bags of groceries.  The evening air had cooled, and the lamp-lights waned, during her trudge through a maze of little streets. 

In the old days, she'd have done her heavy shopping by skimmer.  Nowadays, reluctant to zoom around too openly, she carried her loads on foot.  It would be unwise to draw attention by skimming in style like the "forg" she was.  Besides, in this murk it was easier to walk than to drive.

In the old days, the corner lamps would have remained bright.  Not too bright (for out of respect for Nature's decrees, artificial lighting had always fallen far short of any crass attempt to turn night into day) - yet, traditionally, some beacons used to shine at this hour, in reasonable compensation for the dimming of the air.  Nowadays, however, Night was allowed to dominate.  Blackness pervaded the city, except when interrupted by the banners and the floodlights of the regime.

The old days... mused Hyala with an ache of recall.  And at that very moment, the contrast between "then" and "now" was displayed by a flicker seen out of the corner of her eye.  She quickly turned her back.  Some combat must have sparked, a hundred yards or so away, in some nook of Arar District's tortuous lattice of helical towers and branched walkways.  Probably a group of dissident "forgs" had been cornered by the authorities, or else, perhaps, the rebels-against-the-rebels had arranged an ambush of their own.  Unrest was endemic even in this supposedly settled district, largely fallen under the Weigher's control.  Doubtless the same was true of those few districts still mostly loyal to the Noad.  Hyala sought to hasten her step.

Almost home, now.  Shifting her grip on the bags, which seemed heavier at the end of a tiring day than when she'd purchased their contents during her lunch hour, she reached the kerb of the radial avenue (named Otett) which separates Arar from Jihom District. 

Now she must peer into the gloom and decide where best to cross.  Where exactly was her house?  She would have spotted her front door immediately, in the old days...

The old days, the old days!  Furiously she reminded herself that today's date, 10,538,527 Ac, was scarcely more than a 50-day-lag since that evening when Dempelath himself had visited her, along with his young cousin Nyav.  And that had been before the murders of the Daons, before all the troublous social and literal darkening of Olhoav.  All those transformative events had been squashed inside those mere fifty days, that were like a jump to a different era.

Of course, given sufficient cunning and power, it need not take longer than a single morning or afternoon to transform the appearance of a city.  The ruthless energy-starvation of some urban functions, and the over-feeding of others, could perform wonders of distortion.  The darker evenings were one result.  Shifts in traffic patterns, in maintenance schedules, in the allocation of resources, could all be made to work like the tricks of disguise employed by some cunning make-up artist to alter the face of an ancient community.

Yet that was not the main story.  A more basic change had dug down, beneath all physical measures, to reach an emotional layer, whence the real revolution had erupted.

At tired moments like this, the true situation leaped to her mind.  She could answer her own plaintive questions as she halted, stooping, on the Otett curb.  Why were her arms aching, her shoulders straining, as she sought the best place to cross?  In other words, why was she struggling here at all, at this hour, with these heavy shopping-bags?  Answer: because she was aware of the task.  In the good old days she would have known nothing about it.  Such routine errands would then have been covered, effortlessly, by the Trance. 

All regular forms of employment and domestic economy used to be achievable without awareness and hence without strain, leaving one's consciousness free, either to sleep or to range among constructive daydreams, during those hours which, nowadays, had to be spent on drudgery. 

We're not supposed to call it drudgery, of course.  Good backgrounders were meant to be glad that they could now live as perpetually awake as any prestigious, trouble-shooting chirr

Nevertheless, it was hard to pretend enthusiasm for the destruction of the Trance, hard to suppress the memories of lost ease, hard to deny that the new requirement to concentrate upon basic routines had lengthened the hours of toil.  Wakeful slog was hard.  How could it not be?  Deliberate work was bound to be less efficient than the smooth mode by which, formerly, one zipped through one's tasks with an instinct evolved through scores of millions of days.

That was not all.  Additional burdens came in the revolution's wake.  While loss of the trance increased the effort of regular work, further energies bled off in the violence necessary to advance and protect the people's "gains", and still more was drained by brilliant projects to impress the citizens with Dempelath's rightness and glory, to obscure the pleasant life that had been lost.

Small wonder that Olhoav was more than physically bedimmed, with ever denser clots of moral darkness, some of which, paradoxically, were all too well-lit...

Ah, right there - that grey box shape - that was her house.  She could make it out because its front was illuminated by a smudgy reflection from the corner of the next block, where the Rishchulk, the new play-area, and the Justice-Tree beyond it, shone proudly amid the gloom. 

She began to cross the avenue obliquely, angling towards her destination. 

As she approached the other side she noted that some figures could be seen still running about or loafing in the Rishchulk, although it was supper-time.  Well, the newly expanded and refurbished playground was a temptingly bright place in which to linger, for some parents as well as for their offspring.  This lavishly funded, popular success was one of the bright spots, figuratively and literally, of Dempelath's regime.  Back in the "old days", such areas had been smaller and not so widely used.  With the newly extended working hours the Rishchulk and similar arrangements had become a necessity.  The regime had seen to it that the job was done well.  Hearing the children's shrieks as she passed close to their mini-volcanoes and bouncy quake-grounds, Hyala wished them well of their innocent excitement.  Let the little ones enjoy not knowing the price that would be paid for their fun.

The most she could hope for them right now - she reflected as she mounted the pavement on the Jihom side - was that their impressionable young eyes would not focus upon what loomed beyond the playground's further fence.

Embodiment of horror, the metal trunk and bladed foliage of the "Justice Tree" soared a vertical seventy yards from the adjacent traffic-island. 

The metal colossus - to give it its official name, the "Parity Tree" or Zedmaiol Vorratch - was that strange structure which on the day of the assassinations had sprouted within minutes to its present towering height.  And daily since then, though more slowly, the vertical claw extended outward.  By now, from the taloned points of its crescent leaves bobbed the dangling fruit of many an execution.

Some of the victims were reduced to mere heads, having had their torsos shot off in bouts of grisly target practice by the Weigher's henchmen.  Other corpses remained complete, limbs swaying in the prevailing breeze.  All were floodlit from below, in a white glare that glorified the object-lesson for all who might harbour doubts about the Revolution.

The sad thing was, the few children who did glance in that direction seemed not to be markedly afraid.  More so than ever before, the word vorratch held connotations not only of "parity" and "justice" but of "settling the score", and that, guessed Hyala, chimed with some natural severity in young minds; alas for human nature.  She was dismayed at herself when her sigh became a sob.  A pang, a craving for peace and security, had at that moment almost convulsed her.  She straightened.  This would not do.  After all, she had relocated to Jihom District so as help the people around here.  An instinct had led her to occupy a dwelling deliberately close to the nightmarish metal Tree.  She'd had the notion that she might offer an alternative focus for the local population... and the more she reflected on that aim of hers, the madder it seemed: utterly, insanely foolhardy to issue any implicit challenge to the power that now oppressed Olhoav.  Yet what else could she do, being who she was? 

But it's not just who I am, it's how I am, and I'm tired, tired...

Well, she could hope that she was beneath the Weigher's notice.  Now, a few steps more, and she would be home. 

Lured by the relief which she expected to feel at being at peace for a few hours in her own private space - alone except for her harmless charge, Nyav the Nebulee - Hyala approached the porch of her house, only to perceive that a muffled figure awaited her by the door.

Her nerves tightened.  Her imagination played a sequence of catastrophic scenarios.  

"It's only me," said a soft female voice.  "Zhavad.  Come to help with Nyav."

"So it is," muttered Hyala, breathing once more, as she recognized the volunteer carer.  Zhavad was a dumpy young woman, whose mien bespoke the typical backgrounder, the sort who will never aim for protagonist status, never try to edge out of her life's lane.  It was hard to picture any harm in such a person.  Yet, nowadays one never knew.  Backgrounders, after all, could be instruments...  Hyala continued, "You're a bit early, but - never mind.  You gave me a bit of a start, that's all.  My fault...  I must have a bad conscience."  Careful with that irony, she admonished herself.  She unlocked the door, ushered the girl in, followed to lock the door behind her, and flicked the light switch. 

The ceiling orbs poured out their radiance, to reveal nothing wrong.  No apparent anomaly anywhere in the scene. 

Zhavad, meanwhile, turned to face her employer and said, "Ey-ey, you look exhausted, sponndar H-M.  Let me take those bags."

Glad to surrender the groceries, Hyala nonetheless found she had swapped them for a burden of analysis.  One visit I'm "Hyala" and the next I'm "sponndar H-M".  What must I read into that?  Only that my relationship with the people of this district is precarious.  It quivers on a cusp. 

Then again, wasn't that likewise true about her relationship with... herself?  Suppose that a certain little trickly tap in her mind were turned full on, to spout that she was the reincarnation of Sunnoad Hyala Movoun 1 -

Whuuuump, that would blow everything. 

It would, for a start, shatter the reserve compartment which allowed her to live her own life as her modern self.  She clung to that reserve.  It was all that saved her from the dreadful comparison, of her present modest achievements against the epic deeds of her previous appearance on the world's stage. 

Besides, celebration of that identity would bring about an immediate head-on clash with the Weigher's regime.  Ancient loyalty versus the present power of the Great Backgrounder Revolution...  Traditional sentiment pitted against those denials and fears which Dempelath could summon on his side... 

Distant worth versus proximate power.  In that show-down, Hyala's only advantage - truth - must surely be trampled. 

After all, how could she expect or demand that others be easy with the fact of who she really was, if even she, herself, could hardly face it?  Child's play, then, for Dempelath to lead the charge against her, in a gallop of scepticism, rejection, obliteration, the moment that her challenge were declared.

So, let it not be declared.  Let the truth wink and shimmer and dodge.  Ordinary folk such as Zhavad must continue to mix their inconsistent thoughts.  Let them pour it all together as best they could: the fantastic whispers of rumour, alongside the bogglement that denied the same, the entire contradictory mess of reverence and doubt stirred till the bubbling concoction whistles, quavering, "she is / she can't be / she is / can't be /is/ can't..."

(Not markedly different - Hyala was wryly aware - from how she felt, herself.)

She heard a small thump.  Zhavad had paused with the bags; had let them down to the floor.

"S - s - sponndar Hyala," the girl stuttered, "I wanted to warn you."

"Oh?  So that's why you came early?  What's wrong?"

"I saw them start this morning.  The workmen, I mean..."

"Go on," Hyala smiled, encouragingly.  "You have my full attention.  What workmen?"

"Putting up the guidon poles!  Beyond the Vorratch!"

"Oh...  I hadn't noticed."  The doings around the Justice Tree were not, after all, the kind of thing one wished to notice.  "Well, then, it would seem that we bystanders of Jihom District are about to be treated to another open-air trial."

"Yes, sponndar H-M, yes!  And it matters, doesn't it, that's that's what we are... I mean, it's vital, isn't it, that you and Nyav are no more than... bystanders,"  Zhavad gulped.

"Speak plainly," Hyala demanded.

"I saw them," Zhavad continued to struggle to get the words out, "saw the workmen throw glances in the direction of this house.  Lots of glances."

"Which suggests they may soon be coming for us.  Is that what you're trying to say?"

Her eyes widening, Zhavad took a step back and said, "Oh no, I only meant... let's not only be, let's also look like, good backgrounders and not trancy forgs, hm?"

"I'm all for staying out of trouble," replied Hyala, caustic now, "but how exactly do you suggest we gain the necessary points in our favour?"

"Try and get Nyav to walk around more, look more awake... so that they don't begin to say..."

"So that they don't start to accuse him of 'trancing'?"  Eyes raised to the ceiling, Hyala burst out, "Great skies above!  Everyone in the city knows Nyav is a nebulee.  Nobody needs it explained that it's that, that makes him half-dazed.  Certainly not any work-trance."

In the moment's silence that followed, she regretted that she had used the hammer of logic to pulverize the backgrounder's stupid anxiety.  Zhavad's concern about 'trancing' could be code for something else.  Some real cause for worry.  "Sorry," Hyala added, to take the sting from her previous words, "please go on."  She might miss some important bit of information if her manner caused the girl to dry up. 

"I'm scared they may say," suggested Zhavad timidly, "that anyone who looks lazy and dopey is a bad influence, tempting people to work less hard."

"We wouldn't need to work so hard if the trance were still allowed," retorted Hyala, but again she knew she must rein in her tone.  Rather than give vent to her frustration at having to live under the current regime, she ought to respond to what Zhavad really meant - to the words the girl could not say, could not clearly think...

Dangerous, nowadays, to be special.

Nebulees' imbecile simplicity of mind, their luminous idiocy, embodied the beautiful glow of a more original, pristine life.  This was a magnet for the devotion of humble backgrounders.  That was why volunteers such as Zhavad came to help care for Nyav.  But the girl wouldn't dare voice this reason - wouldn't dare risk expressing the idea that that anyone could in any sense be a rival of Dempelath's for the people's attention - 

"The work-trance was a con," the girl replied, retreating into slogan-recital mode.  "It was a scheme by forgs to relegate the rest of us to semi-consciousness for hours each day."

This time Hyala did not bother to contradict the official line.  She might have pointed out that "forgs" in the old days tranced just as much as "wirrips" did, but to say so would be a waste of breath.  No use citing the fact that virtually everyone, back then, spent their allotted hours in the work-trance, and that everyone benefited.

"Ah well," said Hyala, "we'd better make sure that Nyav is as... umm... as sprightly as we can manage."

"Yes!" cried the girl with a nervous foot-tap.  "Yes, yes!" she repeated as though the affirmative were a fixative. 

"So since we're agreed on that point, Zhavad, how about if you go see to him now, eh? - while I put the stuff away."

Shunting the bags towards the kitchen door, the carer slipped off eagerly in the direction of the guest room. 

Hyala let out a tired, amused breath.  It was the same with all these volunteer carers.  They were seeing to their own needs as well as Nyav's.  These days, in the spiritual dry season which parched Olhoavan society, backgrounders who did not get soul-satisfaction from the Weigher's bleak triumphs on their behalf were apt to creep to Hyala's house, where by gazing upon the pristine, agrash features of the nebulee they sought to slake their yearning for the values of the good old days.

Still, such quiet love did not, unfortunately, amount to an armed faction of potential supporters.  While putting away the groceries, Hyala fretted over Zhavad's admonition.  The girl was basically right; in fact, she hadn't said the half of it.  The regime under which they lived was likely, sooner or later, to turn its baleful gaze upon anyone who might even theoretically harbour a rival source of power - which meant that Hyala herself was in as much danger as Nyav, and for the same sort of reason.  Most unwise to emit any aura of hope or solace amid the great spill of darkness!  Best not to attract the attention of the ruler of the night. 

Fortunately, nobody yet proclaimed who "sponndar H-M" really was.  But nobody denied it either.  The truth about Hyala shimmered dangerously on the threshold of public knowledge, as day by day her house became more whisperingly renowned.

One day some visitor would come out with too open a paean of praise for the peace and consolation that could be found in the joint presence of the agrash nebulee and of the reincarnated First Sunnoad. 

Woe to them both when that hour struck.

As if the thought sparked the event, a thump on the front door, followed by further blows, sent fires of panic through Hyala's veins.  This wasn't the future, this was now. 

Frozen, she heard Zhavad pounding back into the room.  The girl made for the bay window.

"They're here!" she cried.  "What do we do?"

Repeated thumps and this time a voice outside:  "OPEN IMMEDIATELY IN THE WEIGHER'S NAME."

That phrase roused Hyala's spirit.  "We won't let them walk all over us," she remarked to the trembling Zhavad.

"But you must open," the girl wailed, "you have no choice."

"True.  Otherwise they'll just break in."  But she smiled as she said it, with a kind of gentle irony in her expression, which alarmed her companion further.

"Careful, oh...!" implored Zhavad as the thudding blows resumed. 

Hyala went to the door, unfastened it and swung it aside, to reveal three hulking men outlined against a spiky row of shrouded, glowing poles amidst a muttering crowd.  More of the poles were going up as she looked.  None had been there a few minutes ago.  She glanced to the left and saw that there was now a long line of them leading all the way past the Rischulk to the area of the Justice-Tree...

She addressed the men, "'In the Weigher's Name, you say..."

"To say it once is enough."  The centre man, fist still upraised from knocking, put a boot across the threshold. 

Forced to retreat a step, Hyala sweetly asked: "Tell me, sponndars - is 'Weigher' a new term for 'Noad'?"

The foremost man shoved past Hyala as he tramped into the house, followed by his two companions.  In the light of the lounge his gloating eyes narrowed but his mouth widened.  "'Noad' now means," and his lips curled, joying in a bad word:  "frush."

"I wonder that you dare say so," said Hyala coldly.  Yet in her heart of hearts she feared the fellow might be right.  For over ten days she had not heard from Barlayn.  The authority of her rightful ruler indeed appeared to have collapsed like a deflated balloon-fruit, a frush gone stale and useless.

Still, to hear that contemptuous term applied by these oafs to Noad Barlayn Lamiroth was enough to arouse acid indignation in Hyala.  "I wonder if Weigher Dempelath would really be pleased to hear you talk like that," she went on, incautiously clever.  "He believes he ought to be the Noad's heir.  Does that not imply respect for - "

"Don't waste our time, sponndar.  Go get Nyav Yuhlm.  We've come for him.  And for you."

"And," said one of the other men, in horrid exultation, "you may as well forget about the Noad - he hasn't dared show his face in Jihom for quite a while." 

It was so dreadfully true. 

Hyala remembered.  The last occasion she had seen Barlayn, the Noad had kindly given her a beautiful, silly, inappropriate gift for her new home, and that was all.  Now she glanced frustratedly at the ornamental deep-blue bowl, the dwallidee, glinting with nacreous highlights, which stood on top of a corner cupboard in the lounge.  When she'd needed hope, he had handed her that costly bauble.

It belonged to a genre of expensive gifts which Noads might traditionally bestow as a mark of special esteem to any deserving member of the public.  In theory they had a practical use.  They were one-off distress-signals: if you smashed the bowl, the Noad, wherever he was, perceived an alert and (in theory) would come straight away to your aid.  In practice, however, the bowls were such beautiful works of art that no one would wish to smash them except on the rarest and most desperate of occasions.  That was the idea.  It was a neat system by which a Noad could advertise his willingness to come when called, while ensuring that he wasn't likely to be bothered...

Thus it was an appropriate sort of gift for a stalwart but not very lremd backgrounder... certainly not apt for Hyala Movoun!  To her, it was more of an insult than an honour.  At any rate, strict logic would say so.  She had managed to look upon it as a well-meant gesture by a Noad in steep decline, who had sunk into confused despair.

"Go on," said the chief oaf.  He gave a push at Zhavad and at Hyala herself.  "Show us where he is."  Seeing hesitation, he grabbed Hyala's shoulder.

She had never been manhandled before.  Even now she could not conceive of it happening.  We trust that Terran readers will understand, perhaps more than we do, when we refer to Hyala's "school-mistressy" side.  It meant that her emanation of quiet scorn managed to annihilate the presumption of Dempelath's henchman, on this occasion.  After one stiff glare from her appalled eyes, the man took his hands off her.  Yet he and his companions still crowded her close.

For a moment or two, she wondered whether she could implement her sudden idea - her possible idea -

Get to the bowl and smash it? 

No, what was the use?  Summon the Noad, and then what?  Barlayn Lamiroth in terms of power and authority was a mere shadow of his former self.  He would not stand much of a chance in Jihom District tonight.  No, she would not call on him even if she could.  Better to sway the crowd herself, if she could.

"We'll do the fetching," she said to the arresters.  "You won't need to force Nyav.  He is not well and you surely do not wish - "

"Do not you tell us what we wish," said the leader.  However, he signalled for the others to stay put.

It was another tiny moral victory for Hyala.  She and Zhavad were permitted to lead the way to Nyav.

Slumped in an armchair, the nebulee vaguely lifted his head as they entered his bedroom.  The women hastened to his side, each took an arm and with suppressed urgency murmured at him.  The arresters watched in impatient silence as Nyav was part coaxed, part heaved to his feet, while Hyala's glance flicked to and fro as she tried to gauge influences: might the flinty stance of henchmen be mollified by the pools of dreamy radiance in the eyes of a nebulee?  It did not look like it.  The arresters' faces remained cold and hard. 

Guiding the nebulee between them, the women walked through the house.  On their way to the front door, they staggered a bit, this way and that, and in doing so, Hyala edged towards the dwallidee.  Her mind was not yet made up. 

Could she, after all, make a grab, smash the ornament and activate its distress signal?  It seemed highly likely that she and Nyav Yuhlm were being led out to execution.  Sufficient emergency, therefore!  Yet would not a summons for help merely bring disaster upon the city's rightful ruler who, moreover, was her personal friend?  Pointless, surely, to call the powerless Noad to a scene where he, too, would be snuffed out. 

Then she made a mistake: she glanced at the chief arrester.  It was a betrayal of her thoughts.  He could see the dwallidee, he saw her sidle towards it - and he grinned!

"It's up to you," he said.

Those terrible words sank her heart.  They meant that Barlayn was of so little account, it hardly mattered whether he came along to be extinguished now, or was left till later.  Probably the only reason the oaf did not seize and smash the dwallidee himself, was that he did not dare exceed the letter of his instructions.  Meanwhile nothing remained for Hyala to do, but to walk on past...

Except that her sunken heart rebounded at that point.  Inspiration flashed upon her.  She saw how she might use (as you Terrans would say) the cards in her hand.

She took that action - with profound effect upon future history.

*

We storytellers, from our vantage a score of lifetimes after the event, give ourselves permission to point out, whenever it seems convenient to us, the occasional Terran historical parallel - even though, back when Hyala grabbed the dwallidee, she would not even have known that any life existed on Earth.

The following analogy is of limited use and we do not intend you to press it further than suits our purpose.  You are to take it as we wish you to take it, and not otherwise.

Long ago, one of your nations had a tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, who rose to power in the context of a great Revolution.  He claimed to be the embodiment of that Revolution but also, as time went on, he sought to combine this with older political traditions (for example he aimed for extra legitimacy by marrying the daughter of a neighbouring emperor) and became, as one of your historians neatly puts it, "increasingly indistinguishable from the kings and emperors he was fighting".

In other words, Napoleon aimed to have it both ways.  He saw himself - or wanted to be seen - both as revolutionary and as source of a new stability.  Doubtless he reasoned that logic could be stretched for a dynasty's Founder.  One who starts a great enough line of rulers may earn from History a post-dated charter of might-is-right.  "Je suis un ancêtre."

The tyranny of Dempelath likewise sought to commandeer old forms with which to ride new forces.  We have already noted how the Weigher aimed to succeed "constitutionally" by being appointed Daon.  He much preferred to rise that way, rather than by merely destroying the Noad so as to supplant him by force alone.  In short, Dempelath wanted to look good.  This was probably not necessary: his power had grown such, that he could have ignored tradition.  Nevertheless, caution, or vanity, or logic, inhibited him from smashing the culture which he wished to rule.  We cannot even pretend to guess how to see into his mind; the dread consciousness of a human-Ghepion hybrid is beyond our narrative reach - but it's not hard to figure that the most satisfying way for any tyrant to seize power, is to seize it whole. 

This was the insight which Hyala, in a flash of genius, applied to her momentary chance. 

She suddenly understood that she had three options, not two. 

The obvious two: reach out and grab and smash the Dwallidee as she went by, or pass up the chance and let it be.  Neither choice would disturb the enemy.  The regime had an answer for both.  They did not care which she took. 

But the third -

To stretch the uncertainty.  To multiply it into an indefinite number of moments - yes, that might put a strain on their wits!  That might give her one minuscule edge over her enemies.

Her left hand reached out, grabbed and held the precious bowl.  Rather than smash it, she carried it, with a firm clutch by the rim.  Wherever she was taken, she would take it with her.  Thus she would keep them guessing, uncertain, distracted, teased...

It wouldn't work if they simply snatched it from her and forced her back on the first two options.  But she guessed that her right to use the gift as she saw fit might be tolerated as a reflection of one of those traditions which the regime preferred to allow.

Indeed, noting her action, the chief arrester merely gave a wordless grunt, as the group continued the slow walk to the front door. 

Eerie curiosity enwrapped Hyala.  Despite her tiny point-scoring she remained aware of the strong possibility that death was close, which meant (since most people lived no more than two lives, and this was her second) that she might be minutes away from finding out the answer to the great question of all questions: what comes after one's two worldly lives? 

"Don't slow down," said the arrester. 

They were at the front porch.  The door was wide open to the expectant night.  The arresters allowed no hesitation; by steady pressure of their own movements they forced the women, without pause, to proceed with their docile charge leftwards along the pavement, towards the sickle-leaved colossus that loomed a block away.

The chief oaf's satisfied official voice said, "Look up there."

She raised her eyes to the Justice Tree.  At the same time the murmur of the crowd ahead surged in pitch, into a confused kind of yelping.

Hyala's eyesight was more acute in this bright-lit area, where the line of glowing poles curved around the back of the throng to form a crescent part-circling the giant bladed metal Tree, which moreover was flood-lit from below.

The light enabled her to see that the crowd numbered in the thousands, most of whom were craning their necks at a motion in the Tree. 

Up there was a sight with a plain enough meaning.  As she watched, a mechanical arm - actually, she saw, a branch of the Tree - was at first hoisting a flailing victim, next was lowering him slightly, after which the point of a crescent leaf entered by the nape of the condemned man's neck -

Aaargh, sighed the crowd.  And at the same moment Hyala released her own pent breath.  She had of course been brought here to see and to be, what she did not wish to see or be. 

Next a group of a dozen guards, stationed around the Tree, in what must have been pre-arranged unison drew their lasers and began to shoot bolts which ablated the dangling corpse for about thirty seconds of intensive fire.  Fragments of limb and then of torso were sliced away, till the upward hail had reduced its target to a head, stuck like a fruit on the end of its branch.

doom on the Vorratch

One of the shooters then spoke into a loud-hailer: "In the name of Glomb Dempelath: justice has been done upon Smevedem, murderer of Daon Sunwa Nerren!"

"Glomb!  Glomb!  Glomb!" now roared from the multitude... 

Hyala reflected in despair, My question is answered.  The people are changed.  Small hope counting on them.  And now I must go forward, and Nyav too... before we're pushed.

Dignity was the best policy just then, a kind of humble pride, the glue to fasten the overlapping awareness of two lives with a shared soul, as circumstances called forth that side of Hyala Movoun which in ancient times had ensured her triumph as First Sunnoad.  This included a secret personality trait which now took her in charge - a ruthless gambling instinct

Far from shrinking, Hyala would stride forward to meet what was coming to her.

This included not only the dread Tree but also a quite different shape, further away but getting closer: an odd billowing red glow that hovered behind the backs of the gathering.  Approximately the size of a house at the moment she noticed it, the thing appeared to her to be stretching or distending as it approached.  She found it hard to decide which she liked the look of less: the Tree of death, or that roiling redness, at the nature of which her numbed mind could make no guess.  Whatever it might be, she would have been willing to bet who was behind it, or rather, inside it.

Sure enough, as she gazed, the expanding smudge of light revealed that it swathed a Face now intermittently visible through shifting gaps in the uneasy crowd - the tyrant Dempelath himself, come to attend his triumph.

IN THE DECEMBER ISSUE OF TALES TO ASTOUND:

Uranian Throne Episode 8:   

The Brain-Mist Writhes