uranian throne - episode eight

the brain-mist writhes

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;  7: the claw extends]

The vermilion gas neared at walking speed.  Hyala scolded herself for wasting moments: this was no time to stare dumbly while the blob spread across her field of view.  Although the fat, billowing luminosity was a thing with no explanation, no counterpart in her knowledge, the main point was not what or how or why but who it was: and the mist-wrapped Being at its core could be none other than that power from whom she could expect no mercy.

Quietly bur firmly, she instructed the carer, who was propping Nyav's left side: "You can let go of him now, Zhavad.  Go back. Wait at the house."

The girl fell back, as ordered.  A new timbre in her employer's voice made disobedience unthinkable.  Besides, it would be crazy to stay. 

Meanwhile the arresters, smugly aware that they had done their job, were likewise keen not to walk any further with Hyala.  No need to give a further push to a victim already going in the desired direction!  And they, too, were glad to “bow out”.  Tough though they were, it was a relief to them that they were not called upon to get any tougher with their odd prisoner, the young woman who was somehow robed with glory as she conducted the sacred imbecile on her arm.

Many in the rest of the crowd glanced with furtive admiration at Hyala, as she and Nyav advanced to meet what was advancing upon them.  Potent all of a sudden was the blast of subliminal splendour flaring from her whose name was almost identical to that of the First Sunnoad, and who might even (so whispered the elusive thrill) actually be that person.  The magical secret whisper of that possibility tapped into the fund of love and admiration which the healer had accumulated from far and wide among the common people of Olhoav.

Nevertheless – as she herself could tell - they certainly weren’t going to rush to her support right now. 

Instead, in resigned recognition of what must be, they began to shuffle aside.  A gap thus opened in the throng, to admit the billowing redness.  More and more people, flinching from the impending collision of powers, scrambled to make way, found new places to stand, and held their breath. 

The grandeur of this showdown vastly irritated Hyala.  She hated to accord any recognition to a tyrant’s set-piece drama.  Throw away the script!  A tyrant deserves no respect!  Thus she tried to scoff at the choreography of the scene -

Now the crowd's edgy shuffling had opened for Hyala a clear view, first of the base of the Tree, cleanly mortised into the metal avenue floor, and then of the tall figure of the Glomb himself, his outline increasingly defined as the core of the advancing mist.  The hybrid Being steadily sauntered towards her, his flickering visage turning this way and that, causing one group after another to back further away under the pressure of the part-human, part-Ghepion glance, while downcast mutterings of "igrul chozzuk", like attempts to propitiate a prowling god, rustled fitfully from dry throats.  Over and around Dempelath the red cloud billowed in a variety of local densities, and the density-variations, Hyala guessed, were clues to something important, yet she gave attention only to her defiance of what she dubbed "the script": this whole concerted business, the glowing pillars, the red cloud, the throng of spectators, the execution of Smevedem, all obviously set up for the Face's Big Moment.  Why don't I pull a face at the Face?  Why indeed was she co-operating in this showy elimination of the Glomb's potential rivals?  Why was she walking towards her doom?  Why didn’t she make them drag her?  All very well to preserve her own dignity, but not at the price of affording him his!  Wasn't she playing the game that would end at any moment when she and Nyav were hoisted to join poor Smevedem?  Smevedem, who had murdered for the Weigher's sake and on the Weigher's orders, and who, for his reward, was now reduced to a head on a spike. 

Surely it was time to shout at the citizens, to wake them to their senses.

She halted, making Nyav halt likewise.  She was in a clear space, about ten or fifteen paces from the bole of the Tree; the crowd had backed off from her as well as from Dempelath; and Dempelath had stopped too.

Before she could frame her words, though, her enemy's hybrid mouth pursed, and the power in the Glomb's throat, which required no mechanical loud-hailer, projected a voice like an avalanche of ice-boulders that roared and echoed over the throng of many thousands. 

"SMEVEDEM WAS S-W-I-R-L-Y!  HE WISHED TO FLAUNT A BANNER.  HE WISHED TO BE A FORG!

The thousands responded with a vast muttered ahahahah...

He's beaten me to it, Hyala understood.  Too late, now, for me to nail him for his hypocrisy. 

"NO PLACE FOR SWIRLIES IN OLHOAV..."

(ahahahahah, nonono)

And that was that, game over, game won.  Dempelath had laid out the catch-all line: yes, Smevedem had killed on his orders, but for the wrong reasons.  And the people were swallowing the disastrous bait.  Henceforth, anyone who did anything might be denounced.  Show any initiative and you risked being classed as a "swirly" banner-fluttering fame-seeking Foregrounder...

Wait a second, hey, this was too much.  Surely, thought Hyala, he can't get away with this contradiction?  What was the point of the Revolution, if not to allow wirrips the privileges of forgs?  Instead of "no swirly banners", shouldn't it be "banners for all"?  In fact it was surely supposed to be wrong for people to go on with their supine old backgroundish ways, now that the great hour of liberation had struck... 

Quick!  Yell to the people, that they're being had both ways -

She might have time to get the words out.  It was still the case that no one was within immediate reach to lay hands upon her.  Her enemy stood about an equal distance away from the Tree on its other side.  If ever there was a moment for an appeal to conscience and reason, this was it.

Only - her skin felt something - what was that tingle? 

Although the Glomb had halted his advance, the luminous cloud around him had not ceased to creep forward, to bulge across the remaining yards, until its fringe, more tenuous but still slightly palpable, now curled about Hyala.  The airy redness encircled her, and – one mental whiff was enough. 

When the cmem gets to you, you are not permitted to avoid the knowledge of what it is.  The permeation of your skull has begun.

The millions of free-flying convincells, forming part of the half-human substance of Dempelath, issuing from his brain in uncountable sparks of conviction, the microscopic neuronic components directed from their headquarters inside the Weigher's own skull, announce themselves.

The cloud you're in belongs to, and is indeed an enlargement of, Dempelath's brain. 

Inside this Zone of Redefinition, this ideological distortion field, your opinions are no longer safely your own.  Dire mental prickings informed Hyala of the snapping of old thought-patterns and their re-set at different angles.  Come to think of it, Dempelath did have a point.  Trace it backwards: Smevedem was executed, so Smevedem must have deserved it.  And one could hope that he died happy.  In fact, he must have done.  The knowledge that, both by assassinating the last Daon, and then by suffering for that crime, he had contributed to the great new order which would bring peace and justice to Olhoav, had surely brightened his last moments -

Do I believe this rubbish?  Not yet.  Rally, my old thoughts!  Throw yourselves at the foul invader -

Sensing her resistance, the cloud locally densified around Hyala.  It grew redder as it pressed in upon her.  The enemy's assumptions squeezed harder upon her thoughts.  She held out for some seconds, by clinging to the insight that insofar as the stuff densified around her it must rarify elsewhere, because there was only so much of it available.  Dempelath could not employ more than he had, which was much, but could not be limitless -

Then - advised the next ripple - why not co-operate, why not help him?  Look up, see the remains of the man who fired the shot that killed Daon Sunwa; the murderer's head adorns the Justice Tree; what better justice could you desire?  Ripple, ripple, get the multitude to eat out of your hand, give them their show, any show.  Smevedem killed Sunwa for the wrong reason, that's to say out of a swirly grab for the limelight, which shows he thought himself better than the common people, and so we can all agree he deserved to die; or else, Smevedem killed Sunwa for the right reason, which is that the Glomb ordered him to do it and then to pay the penalty, so that he is privileged to die.  Pick either route: what matters is the conclusion.

It was all so right and proper, Hyala was almost ready to accept a metallic pinch at her armpit, and to be hoisted, there and then.

She must wait, though, while Dempelath made sure of doing a really thorough, skilful job of satisfying as many people as possible.  Yes, she must understand, and be patient.  In this affair of state, quite a performance was required.  More red mist around Hyala meant less for the crowd, and that meant some parts of it grew less convinced, grew restive... areas which could be given more of the red convincells, but only at the cost of lessening the hold upon other areas, and upon Hyala herself.  Of course, she could be executed by force in any case, but it was the Glomb's preference to win all the way, publicly convincing all his victims that all was for the best.  That was total power - far better than merely to terrorise a crowd, or drag noisy, struggling martyrs to their doom. 

A number of the faces she glimpsed through the mist now looked perturbed, as though people were waking up to some danger to their idol - to her, that is - which meant that more redness, thicker cmem, was needed over that way.  But then, there'd be less to keep herself in line -  

She sympathized with the Glomb's dilemma. 

Then, around her, the mist did thin, in a re-deployment to soothe those worried faces.  Recovering a degree of control over her own will, Hyala immediately marched Nyav to the bole of the Vorratch.  She parked him there, murmured at him to stay put, and retraced her steps.  Now she and the nebulee were yards apart, two distinct poles of attention for the crowd to watch; with luck this separately positioned variable might add to Dempelath's burden of calculation.  But, could aught worry him?  Through the mist she peered, to catch his next move.

Dempelath took some oblique steps forward and towards Hyala's left.  She responded by sidling to her right.  He and she began to manoeuvre around each other.  In a complex, deadly dance, depending upon the moods of the masses around them, the Glomb had to vary his output of convincells, vary how densely he wheezed them out, and in what direction, while Hyala had to keep as far as possible in the mist's thinner areas, where she could still think her own thoughts.

Like chess-players - we can put it this way to Terran readers - the adversaries  sought their positional advantage.  Weaving their ways through the translucent red mist, each knew that one momentarily-ideal configuration could decide an issue of life and death.  The crowd shuffled vaguely in response, trusting that the great ones knew what they were doing. Some, not all, of their shifting was controlled by Dempelath, who by means of the cmem could draw masses of people around him like a cloak, or alternatively could disperse them to open a way.  His position was becoming stronger; time was on his side.

Thanks to the unavoidable knowledge which came to her through the mist, Hyala could understand every move from her opponent's point of view.  The knowledge did her no practical good, though she had the comfort of seeing his problems.  Because his dominance was not total (the red mist could not be at full strength everywhere at once), the Glomb had to wheeze out stronger cmem over the fluctuating 'loyalist' concentrations which might otherwise have grown into knots of protest...  Yet, whatever happened, and granted that some ways to win were faster and better than others, Dempelath could not actually lose this game.  Public opinion was on a knife-edge, but only insofar as it might decide the important alternatives of style: violence, or smoothness. 

These firm and confident views, soaked in from the mist, sweeping Hyala towards despair, chanted, chanted, chanted her three woes: first the pressure-threat of enemy opinion poised to become her own opinion; second the share in the enemy's solid expectation of his own imminent victory; third the awareness that her own despair was likewise being read like an open book.  Frustration intensified, to the level of torture -

To her astonishment, there then came a reverse wave.  A spurt of ire not from her but at her - a frustration surging from Dempelath.

*

We have no direct insight into Dempelath's mind.  His own private thoughts, as distinct from those weaponised thoughts which he imposed upon others, must remain forever a mystery.  We think it likely that his human ego ruled the man-Ghepion combination, usually with ruthless calm, and an awareness that he could afford to play safe.  At the worst, if he miscalculated, ordering the execution to proceed and then finding the crowd hostile to the idea, he might need to "back-pedal", re-define his command, pretend it was only meant as a test, or such-like excuse.  It would mean a minor reverse, with compensation soon to follow.  At best, however, everything might go right for him and he could "sweep the board".  In no case would he need to "lose his cool".  So why did he? 

Our guess is, that something about that crowd ignited a sudden exasperation in Dempelath.  He just couldn't get the right mix of control.  If he held Hyala, he had to let something else slip, and vice versa; besides which, there was his anger at the slowness, the obtuseness of the crowd, whom he must dose with concentrations of cmem in order to suppress their out-of-date reverence for nebulees and healers -

The tyrant succumbed to impatience!

Hyala was immediately informed.  Her immersion in the brain-mist gave her advance notice.  Thus aware of the rebuke which the Glomb was about to boom at his laggard supporters, she barely choked back a laugh.  No more condemnation of uppity folk, oh no!  Rather, the opposite complaint: a smack at the docile backgrounders whose passivity let down the Revolution.  Sure enough -

"YOU CONTENTED LONK-PLAEN," boomed the organic loud-lailer formed from the Weigher's mouth.  "IT'S TIME YOU GREW UP!  ARE YOU AFRAID, THAT IF YOU GROW UP, YOU'LL BECOME SWIRLY, AND END UP SWINGING ON THE VORRATCH?  BE AFRAID OF NARCOLEPTIC BACKWARDNESS INSTEAD!  I WANT INTELLIGENT FOLLOWERS, NOT SLEEPWALKERS!"

Hyala was forced to admit, as the speech went on, that Dempelath's political mastery had not deserted him, for all his fury.  He provided something for everyone.  The sneering use of lonk-plaen was both a reassurance - for those who had been uneasy at the authoritarian aspects of the Revolution - and a goad, for the ones he wished to galvanize now.  Be properly yourselves, make sure you aren't fooled by - and don't join - the pitiful lonk-plaen clods, void of initiative, duped by over-contentment into deference and dependency and all that old-style exaggerated respect for nebulees and famous healers and such-like... Shake it all off with a rousing count-of-four hail -  

READY?  ONE - PERCEIVE;
TWO - ADMIT;
THREE - RESOLVE;~
LAST - DOOOOOOOOOOOOO

the dwallidee let go

And at that "last - DO" the Weigher himself flung up both his arms, and in a communal frenzy everyone in the crowd did likewise; Hyala, too, found that her arms had shot up with fingers distended.  The forgotten object which she had been holding in her right hand was thus released.  The dwallidee went spinning high.  In a bright, beautiful arc it shone.  Attracting all eyes, it suspended all thought; no one moved to catch it, nor realized what it was.  Only when it fell, and smashed, and shot out its etheric signal, did Dempelath understand in what way the stakes had been raised.  In seconds, that understanding spread through the cmem, to be shared, in varying degrees, by all the folk around.  A hush fell.  Pervading through the cmem came the message of truce: wait. 

Hyala took deep breaths, glad of the respite, though sick at the thought of what Noad Barlayn Lamiroth was about to plunge into, if he came.  Would he come?  Would tradition be observed?  At whatever time of day or night nen received a dwallidee's call, a Noad was honour bound to respond.  Straightaway, therefore, Barlayn ought to rush to the scene; but as for whether he really would - she could have bet either way.  If he did come, he'd be here within minutes. 

What she ever afterwards remembered of those frozen minutes, was their eerie compound of nocturnal dazzle: the tense faces of the waiting crowd, garish under the flood-lights and redly smeared by ripple effects from the writhing cmem; Nyav leaning against the gleaming bole of the Vorratch, while over his head the bladed boughs dangled their corpse-loads of the condemned; and a few other lit features of the mostly-dark city, such as the nearby dome of the Menestegon, and the thin arch of a Meegn glinting in the black sky overhead.

Steadily, the faces opposite her grew tenser still, while eyes widened.  Then, sound was added to sight as the dreamlike scene woke to a voice - a raucous command from the Glomb to the guards.

"KEEP YOUR LASERS TRAINED ON HIM, BUT DO NOT FORCE HIM TO DISMOUNT."

About five yards to her left, Hyala saw the Noad, upright astride a skimmer.  She picture how he must have openly bulleted up Otett Avenue.  Having made his clearly visible approach, he spoke no word; his presence was message enough.  

Dempelath thereupon wheezed out a thick waft of the red mist, which advanced upon the Noad. 

The grey figure simply sat, waiting for the cmem to envelop him.  Do not force him to dismount, the Glomb had ordered - so to allow him the most convenient chance to flee; but the Noad remained motionless, his face giving nothing away.

Meanwhile the mist, re-aimed at the Noad, consequently thinned around Hyala; but still she unavoidably kept in touch - via the mentally porous cmem - with a common share in the flow of the enticing new promises and justifications now directed at Barlayn.  You must admit Dempelath has a great aim, he's going to make Olhoav great, he's going to give it a place in the sunshine of Syoom, he's going to make it the centre of the world.  You have misjudged the Revolution, if you think it's just about wanting to rule Olhoav.

Hyala could not bear this.  "But why kill poor Nyav?" she burst out, aloud.  "I am your enemy, true - but he is nobody's enemy.  Why do you seek his life, Dempelath?" 

The reply penetrated gently, wisely, through the mist.

"It's only his first life after all, Hyala."

"It's his first life but it's still his life!  Why should you kill him, anyway?"

But she well knew why.  Nyav by his very existence was some kind of threat to the Weigher's hegemony.  A nebulee's agrash soul was inherently subversive, simply because, being a traditional mystery, it was a channel to many another tradition, many another superior strand of the former culture.  There was no answer to this. 

Dempelath said quietly, "Death, in some circumstances, can achieve more than life."  His face, swimming visibly with its coloured blotches, hovered very close now in the stained air, which, reddening around Hyala once more, sparkled so encouragingly that again her thoughts veered towards acceptance of his point of view. She tried to call upon the power and integrity of Sunnoad Hyala Movoun 1, but it was like walking on a treadmill, she had no purchase on her own mind; she could no longer sufficiently trust herself.

Meanwhile the mist, thickening around Hyala, necessarily thinned around Barlayn, who now broke his silence. 

"He's not going to kill any of us," the Noad said dryly.

Hyala darted an amazed glance at her friend and ruler.  The words he'd just spoken were so flat and sure, they ought, if true, to be triumphant also.  But they seemed not to be.  Not at all.  Some counter-weight groaned at the end of the happy thought; doubtless some item worse than death that the Glomb had in store.  She turned her gaze back to the moving colours on Dempelath's kaleidoscopic face, on which a smile was spreading.

"You will make a good backgrounder, Barlaynlamiroth," said the tyrant, making the name into one word.

"As you will a foregrounder - Dem Pelath?"

Why didn't I think of saying that? wondered Hyala.  Dem Pelath a Two-Names, a Forg himself - what a hit, and doubtless true!  The one-word "Dempelath" was surely a fabrication, a put-on, a bit of revolutionary blah.  Really the Weigher must have been a forg all along, for necessarily, obviously, by definition, a leader was a foregrounder!

A great, superb hit!  So why wasn't she elated?  Why did no joyful expectation accompany these thoughts? 

"Feeble," was the airy retort from the Face of Power.  "I play a bit with your name, and you childishly run the joke ragged.  You have yet to learn that the one-name two-name thing is all over and done with; that the new society I am building will take no note of how many names a person has; though really you should have figured it by now, for it needs no word-count to tell, that I am on the way up, Barlayn Lamiroth, and you are on the way down.  Here our paths crossed: this one time, this sole opportunity for parley, which you have wasted with your point-scoring.  Now I leave you, futile man, and I take my people with me."

The luminous lips pursed once more into organic loud-hailer form.  This time, a message of strange victory screeched over the crowd. 

THE WEIGH-TREE
SLAY-TREE
SUMMON-TO-BLUR... 

The meaning was not immediately clear, but its flavour, conveyed through the cmem, was that of an untimely dirge.  Barlayn steered over to Hyala, and dismounted.  He put an arm about her, in quiet congratulation that she was still alive.  And so was he.  Defeated but alive.  In melancholy relief they watched the crowd cloaking itself around the Glomb.  Next, the entire mass - the Noad's own people, but lost to him - began drawing away along the avenue, continuing their victory chant in diminuendo:

THE WEIGH-TREE / SLAY-TREE / SUMMON-TO-BLUR...

THE WEIGH-TREE / SLAY-TREE / SUMMON-TO-BLUR...

The walking river of people, percolating into side-streets, slowly drained from view, their ever-lessening chant leaving its sinister echo in the mind. 

THE WEIGH-TREE / SLAY-TREE / SUMMON-TO-BLUR...

Seeping in the wake of its tone, the dirge's actual meaning arrived, hastened by the speed and insight and honesty with which Barlayn Lamiroth grasped his own defeat.  As was right and proper for the Focus of a free people, the Noad did not possess the hypnotic powers of his great adversary, yet his intellect was no whit inferior.  Somehow he knew why the verb was in the plural: "summon" not "summons".  In a lightning-flash of intuition he pictured the Justice Tree as it were "pluralised".  Splintered into its many aspects and roles, it could inscribe itself severally into the brains of countless citizens, becoming, in each, a totemic indoor plant... its poisonous perfume blurring old definitions, its sap dissolving old loyalties into a mess out of which a new allegiance was bound to coagulate during Olhoav's impending Dark Age.  All this, being what he was, the Noad glimpsed in a half-conscious flash.

THE WEIGH-TREE / SLAY-TREE / SUMMON-TO-BLUR...

Meanwhile, as the chant faded below audibility, solitude remained around the literal Justice-Tree with its floodlit dangled corpses.  Hyala, having escaped death herself, was struck with pity for so many individual stories which had ended hooked on the sickle blades.  So must all, whether in death or in life, render up their flow, blurring into the great river of Dempelath's triumph.  It is a law of nature, she mused, that tributary streams end in a greater torrent.  But as a healer she was also alert to how misuse of "the Oneness thing", the seductive pull to unity, can oppress.  

She tried to shake off the desolate mood, lest she seem ungrateful for her own unexpected survival.  "You tipped the balance, Noad B-L," she said.  It was her way of praising him for saving her life.  "But for you, Nyav and I would be swinging up there."

Barlayn nodded sombrely.  "The thought of what might have happened, puts a better light on this... this... variant blur of our escape."  He looked at Hyala.

She, peering into her rescuer's face, sharply comprehended:

"You don't like the way Dempelath also seems to prefer this outcome."

"Indeed not."  Disengaging from her, he growled, "I see a linkpoint over there - will you wait with Nyav, please, while I go and give Dynoom a piece of my mind."  He mounted his skimmer and floated to a nearby wall at the avenue side, where a button quietly glowed alongside a voice-grid.  He jabbed at it.

"I hear and see you, Noad Barlayn," came the smooth words.

Caustically, the Noad asked, "How closely have you been following events, Brain of Olhoav?  Does your supervisory vision extend to the 'Justice Tree'?  To its recent crop of fruit?"

"My eyesight does extend that far," agreed the unruffled voice of the city-wide computer.  "Your next question may be, Why did I not try to prevent those executions..."

"My next question," grated the Noad, "is when are you going to make some effort to overthrow Dempelath?"

"I am not able to touch the Glomb," said Dynoom.  "The most I might do, is seek to undermine his power by attempting to eliminate all his henchmen and chief supporters.  But - you and I have had this conversation before - if I were to go on that sort of killing spree, you would eventually find yourself ruled by such a monster that you would sigh for the good old days of Dempelath."

"Aagh... you're immoveable," Barlayn sputtered.  "Look, while you're being so scrupulous, think what may happen - what almost did happen - to Hyala."

"Hyala?"  The brain's voice took on a new, shocked edge.  "What do you know about her?"

It was Barlayn's turn to be surprised.  "What is there to know," he asked, "apart from what everybody in the city knows - that she's one of our best people?  If someone like that can get dragged to the Tree..."

"But she is safe now?"

"For the moment.  But only because Dempelath was unable to coat everyone with a like thickness of propaganda, and I think the setback has caused him to change his plans.  A short while ago he certainly did intend to have her killed."

A scraping noise, a sound of strange agony, issued from the orifice of the great machine.  "That, I did not know."  Another scraping.  "I  am not omniscient.  My receptors do not pervade  all the space in Olhoav!  I cannot hear every word spoken!  Furthermore, my powers have decreased..."

"What's this?  What do you mean, 'decreased'?"

"Generally, nowadays, less juice is left for me.  For example, I find I can no longer project warning images as efficiently as I used to.  I now probably could not even frighten the henchmen of the Glomb.  Listen, Noad B-L.  You humans must, must work out your own salvation."

Barlayn said in gloomy disgust, "I guessed it would be something like that."

"Wipe the sneer off your face," advised Dynoom, "and consider, in comparison with my limited scope, how advantageous is the position of you humans.  You can walk, move, congregate; you can live, even under the sway of Dempelath."

"If you can call it living - at the whim of a gloating, power-mad half-human."

"Let him gloat his fill.  That gives him reason to spare you!  And your diminished lives will still be far better than no life at all.  Try it out... Appreciate what you've got.  Forget your rank.  Forget the past glories of Olhoavan history and culture.  Forget civic pride.  Walk; eat; love..."

"I'll start with the first of those," said Barlayn drily, and strode away from the wall.

A trace of a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth, since, jarred by the urban brain's advice, he had lit upon an idea.

IN THE JANUARY ISSUE OF TALES TO ASTOUND:

Uranian Throne Episode 9:   

The Last Card