Terran readers, in this your forty-second century, please keep in mind
that the rise and sway of Dempelath took place two dozen lifetimes ago, and that therefore the story we're telling you is not what you would call recent. Its events occurred
long before the men of your planet had begun to communicate with ours.
In itself, such antiquity is nothing special. Indeed most of the tales which we transmit to you took place in periods far more ancient still. Compared, say, to the epics of Restiprak Zentonan or of Taldis Norkoten, which vastly pre-date the rise of civilization on Earth, our present narrative is relatively modern.
But what makes the Dempelath saga unique is that it features one of you: the tyrant's great opponent was a man possessed of a Terran consciousness, the only Earthling ever to gain direct experience of Ooranye before our present era.
apologizing, here, for our inability to resist the temptation of
hindsight: something which is bound to affect our current narrative. What we didn't know about you in those days, we know
now. Looking back across that minor gulf - a couple of Terran millennia is a much more impressive stretch of time for you than it is for us - we find, as historytellers, our imaginations suddenly ablaze with compassion, as we are shocked by the pitiful discovery that, in the culture of Earth, "fiction" and "history" are different things.
Here it is not so. Here, none of us had ever entertained the idea of "pure fiction" before radio-contact with your world brought it to our notice, and to this day we don't "make up" any of the narratives with which our literature is adorned. Though we have learned to enjoy your inventions, we ourselves have no need to write in your "creative" mode because on our world the currents of fate are inherently creative: real-life events on Ooranye naturally fall into an artistic pattern and so our tales are all true; artistically told, to be sure, but true. Uranian story-telling and Uranian history are one and the same.
A far cry from the situation on Earth. Forgive this blunt statement: your histories are often plotted so ineptly, that a dismal gulf sags open between their accuracy and their narrative trim. Zoom in, if you will, on your year 1471.
The scene: England during the Wars of the Roses. Intrigue, betrayal, dynastic conflict. The over-mighty earl of Warwick, the "Kingmaker", had changed sides from York to Lancaster the year before, restoring Henry the Sixth to the throne. During the months since then, however, the ousted Yorkist King Edward the Fourth has returned to the country and is gathering his forces. Warwick's former enemy Margaret of Anjou, with her son (Henry's heir), ought to pitch in to help stave off Edward's comeback, but she delays out of mistrust of the Kingmaker. Profiting from their disunity, their common enemy advances and, in a great battle at Barnet, Warwick is defeated and killed...
Now spare a thought for Bulwer-Lytton, author of The Last of the Barons. It's a great book, but, through no fault of the author, it suffers from history's poor plotting. A much more satisfying climax to the tale could have been achieved by placing the defeat and fall of the Kingmaker as the last act in the drama, with Edward of York closing in on him after having defeated the tardy and mistrustful Margaret at the Battle of Tewkesbury. Unfortunately, history made a mess of the sequence: Tewkesbury occurred after Barnet. You see what we mean about the shape being wrong? Anti-climacterically, the final defeat of the House of Lancaster occurred after the Kingmaker was already slain.
Your World War Two is similarly skewed. Axis tail-enders Japan continued to fight for three months after the Third Reich had met its doom. No writer, given the choice, would opt to structure an epic so lopsidedly; but the option of a properly streamlined fate is often unavailable on your planet.
The challenge is to explain the reason for the difference between the third planet and the seventh. Why is your history so artistically inept?
Let us resort to analogy. We will offer you one which illuminates, both what we have in common and wherein we differ:
Brute cause-and-effect chains, we both have; the strong links, like the ionic bonds that bind atoms to form molecules - they exist with us as they exist with you. Here on Ooranye, though, life-stories must also submit to a higher steering. This is a force which does not bind short-range, but can be likened more to the diffuse, elastic, inter-molecular attractions that give surface tension to a liquid. Call it destiny if you wish; or call it reality's plot; in terms of fate-trajectory it's a morphic current inclined to shape the flow of events into those aesthetic proportions to which a Terran fiction-writer will make his story adhere, if he can.
If he can! Bulwer-Lytton remained faithful to recorded history, and paid the artistic price. While we sympathise with his constraint, we may also hear the whisper of our own doubt: is it possible that conditions on our world also bring their own restrictions? Be that as it may, we ask you to remember the gulf across which you gaze, when you read of the destiny of Neville Yeadon alias Nyav Yuhlm.
Ooranye is a world without "time-zones". Kindled planet-wide, the globally simultaneous morning bioluminescence, as if in response to the gradual twirl of a dial, began gently to brighten the air all around our globe, the microscopic throom's light-curve tracing its diurnal sine-wave of intensification on Day 10,538,685 of the Actinium Era.
In the city of Olhoav the strengthening airlight seeped impartially through the crystalline windows of globular palaces and the canvassy skins of humble bafracts, to play upon foregrounder and backgrounder alike. Compensating for the scarcity of lamp-fuel under Dempelath's regime, fuzzy lobes of natural illumination reached round every corner to reveal the most obscure crannies in the city.
In one of these undistinguished architectural folds, a youngster named Lanok Ryr opened his eyes to greet the new day.
As ordinary as the morningshine itself, he lay having slept fully dressed, as we Uranians frequently do, and blanketed by the coarse fibre of a snoobagog woven from the leaves of a giant-grass forest.
Before he made any move to rise, he listened. His home, in one of the numerous bafracts around Flexion Five on the Choot Skimway in the district of Occoz, was normally pervaded with a buzzing murmur of traffic. Now it was quieter than usual.
His first thought was, that to judge from the coldness and dimness of the air, it could not yet be the third hour. That would explain the quietness. But, as a result of having worked late last night, he had expected to sleep longer. He wondered what had woken him. A bad dream - the type he'd had to wrench himself out of - yes, he'd had one of those, and that could have been it.
Or, far worse, could it be that the "wrench" was part of the dream and that the dream was not yet over? His mind a groggy cave, in which a trickle of unease fed the fungus of suspicion, he went for harshness - made a fist and hit himself hard on the ear. Pain, sharp, immediate, was proof enough. He was awake. So then - had he perhaps been roused by a real clash of arms or an explosion? Violence followed by the silence of death?
Occoz was a normally humdrum, orderly district. It had submitted in practice to the Weigher, while remaining loyal in sentiment to the Noad. On the lines of this compromise, the peace was usually kept. However, no part of the city could be immune to civil unrest, given the revolutionary disturbances of the past two hundred days.
He rose and peered around the partitions of his dwelling. A few quick glances confirmed that he was alone. His mother had risen already and left for her work. His father had been killed 1800 days ago on a Wayfaring trip; he had nobody else.
Ah, well, now that he was up - Wait, though; what was this stuff on the floor?
They were fragments of an ornament: the ceramic twigs of a phial-stand, one of his mother's scant collection, now fallen from its shelf and smashed. That could not have happened by itself.
He thought back to his dream. Though the details were dissolved away, there lingered the remembered sense of some motion with a bad "flavour" to it; a billowing of his home's flimsy walls...
Deciding that he had better have a look outside, he stepped through the main flap, onto the platform edge, and looked around and down.
Residents of the Skimway's upper environs must necessarily have good heads for heights. It therefore bothered Lanok not at all that his lines of sight shot down through a quarter-mile of latticed swirls and threaded palaces towards the city floor. At half that distance, though, an odd spatter of motionless forms did cause him some unease. They had to be bodies, strewn on the Tnoff Skimway, the next big ribbon down from the Choot.
From an entirely different direction - to one side and slightly above - his attention was diverted by a loud scraping creak. He gazed about and spotted a goods-pipe that had just begun to collapse. Aghast he watched it sag and slither down the side of its adjacent tower. Something has shaken and weakened this part of the city.
In several other directions crawled dots that were human figures moving with wary slowness. Some of Lanok's neighbours could be seen gesticulating on platforms in the middle distance. Then he noticed a cloaked climber below, who at that moment looked up at him. The man raised an arm in a gesture that certainly meant, stay there, I am coming to see you.
Recognition of this person's face - it was none other than the City Surveyor, Nuth Geven, who was ascending towards him - altered the outlook for Lanok Ryr, putting other options for consultation out of his mind. The helmeted Surveyor, pulling himself upwards with elbows spread, was suggestive of a burly bead sliding along a purposeful wire.
With a final spring the Surveyor reached the startled youngster's own platform and said, "Will you accompany me to the Menestegon? I require a witness for my report to the Weigher."
"I was asleep - " began Lanok, not wishing to mislead his boss.
"I don't mean a witness to the quake; I mean a witness to the truth I'm going to tell him. You'll do, I reckon."
"If no one else..."
"I'd rather not spend time looking for anyone else. Ready?"
"Then follow me," commanded the Surveyor and set off along a walkway in the direction of Jihom District.
Obediently trotting after the foregrounder, Lanok inquired: "Sponndar N-G, you said 'quake'. Is it over?"
"I fear not. What we have experienced is the prologue, the harbinger. Olhoav has trembled but has not split. Worse is likely to ensue, culminating in... let's call it the Cracker."
While they made their way downwards along the reticulations of the walkway network Lanok eyed the various junctions where stores and tools were kept and which, on a normal day, he would visit in turn to check them over. His glances flicked at one indicator-board after another, out of habit alone; a mental legacy from the old work-trance which used to characterise all regular employment. Though his activities as a city-maintenance operative were nowadays undertaken fully awake, task-selection remained largely instinctive, so that he never hesitated as to priorities... on a normal day. But this morning he was being required to do something quite beyond his routine. Well, it was not for him to decide; he need only obey orders; and that being the case, he need not hesitate today, either.
A comforting conclusion. Lanok Ryr, despite his two names, basked in the unambitious glow of acceptance of his lot in life. This humility remained unaffected by his mother's effort - influenced by the prevailing fashion - to push his claims to a forg-style second name. She had spread the story that the squall he had uttered after his first word "Lanok" actually was that second name, and indeed it was likely enough that he had squalled "Ryyyr", but this did not alter the way he felt about himself. Therefore, like a good single-name backgrounder, he simply followed his boss and asked no more questions -
Not even the rather good question, why Nuth Geven's impending encounter with Dempelath should require a witness.
That thought did, admittedly, cause Lanok a certain tingle in the psychic nerve-endings, as though he had arrived at a point of inflexion in his life's graph, were about to don protagonist's status and get pushed onto the lit sage of story; however this was but one murmur at the back of his mind, out-murmured by other thought-streams in the ampler flood of lowliness.
Meanwhile they reached a major utilities junction, and here the pedestrian part of their journey came to an end. Nuth Geven stabbed twice at the console and two doors cycled open. Out slid a couple of skimmers with hulls of Maintenance red. Thence, with no more need to walk and no excuse for delay, the two men were able to race along the ribbon which spiraled down towards the city-floor. They dismounted on a platform atop the last ramp down, about a hundred yards from their destination.
Nuth Geven gripped the railing and gave a hiss of disgust as he gazed down at the throng that crowded the frontage of the dome-topped building.
Turning wearily to his companion he remarked, "Suppliants! Look at them, Lanok Ryr. Subjects - abjects, more like - craving an audience as they shuffle in front of the ruler's palace. A guard at the door. What is this, some kind of arelk Vanadium-era dynastic despotism?"
Startled by this outburst, Lanok did his best to look with fresh eyes at the gathering below.
We advise the Terran reader to picture the Menestegon as a fifty per cent enlargement of the Royal Albert Hall, stylistically blended with an upside-down Guggenheim Museum, and surmounted with a spiky halo of access tubes and walkways. Its traditional role was as a library and centre for historical studies, before the Weigher occupied it, chose it for his favourite residence and pervaded it with his power.
"Just look at them," the Surveyor repeated. "Can you imagine Barlayn Lamiroth ever allowing folks to bunch up like that? But perhaps you don't remember how things used to be, Lanok Ryr. So let me tell you: our rightful leader could ride the same event-currents as his people, and converge naturally at the right place and time to see you if you needed to see him, without this crude mass-processing of audiences."
"Sponndar," the youngster assured the elder, "I am 5044 days old: enough to remember, and to get your meaning about the decline of renl."
"Good, good; glad to hear it... Meanwhile, however, I suppose this may not be quite the right moment to spend lamenting days gone by. Rather, the next thing is for me to become a suppliant myself. Might as well join the fashion." Nuth Geven backed from the rail and began to stride down the ramp, and then stopped. "One point to clear up first. Tell me, lad: are you a first-lifer?"
Surprised by the question, Lanok nevertheless had no doubt of the answer. A boy might be unsure whether he had lived a previous incarnation, but a man forty-four days past his majority must certainly realize, from the chalky consistency of certain memories drawn apart from the rest, that he had lived before - if such were the case. And he, Lanok Ryr, had no such double memory-tissue. This was definitely his first life. Consequently, he still had one to spare. "Yes, sponndar."
"Glad to hear it," mused the Surveyor. "I feel justified, then, in dragging you into this. If the worst comes to the worst..."
Lanok stood all the straighter for the other's hint of mortal danger. "First life or second, I'm not about to turn yellow," he said.
Nuth Geven laughed at the use of the alien idiom. "That turn of phrase is... cute, I believe," he remarked, showing that he, too, could absorb interplanetary lingo. (It was a widespread amusement in those days, a kind of zestful release, to use or misuse the vocabulary recorded from the night-babble of the Daon.) Going even further to demonstrate fashionable proficiency in the Terran tongue, he added, "So let's go and 'beard' the Weigher in his 'den'."
They started off down the ramp, towards the pentagonal promenade which fronted the Menestegon.
Approaching the edge of the "suppliant" crowd, Nuth Geven gazed over their heads. A guard stood, laser drawn, at the top of the steps in front of the building's main entrance.
"Aha, we're condensing into hierarchies here," the Surveyor muttered scornfully. "Notice that flunnd's arm-band."
Lanok Ryr said, "I see it." A white grey-bordered heptagon, insigne of the Glomb, marked out the guard as an extension of his master. Lanok added thoughtfully, "But you, Surveyor N-G, are an official, too..."
"That's just the point I'm going to make," replied Nuth Geven, and with set jaw he began to push his way through the throng.
Those who pushed back at him did so too feebly and confusedly to match his grim assurance; others, at the sight of his helmet, helped him forward, urging the rest to stand back, for was it not a good sign on this quakey morning that the Surveyor had arrived to confer with the Glomb?
Lanok Ryr, trying his own best to look confrontationally keen, managed to shove along in the wake of his boss.
Nuth Geven emerged from the crowd's further side and made his way up the front steps of the Menestegon. The guard brandished his laser and cried, "Stand back."
"Listen, fellow," said Nuth Geven, "you know who I am and," he tapped his helmet, "you can see that I am on patrol, which means, in view of what's happened this morning, that Glomb Dempelath will wish to see me; and in order for that to happen, you must allow me through the door."
"Dempelath's orders - "
" - Won't save you, if what I have said is true."
Nuth Geven had not slackened his pace and by the time he had uttered the word "true" he was level with the guard. That unfortunate man stood paralysed at the focus of all eyes in the watching crowd, and disabled from action by his own inner agreement with what the Surveyor had said. Lanok Ryr meanwhile, mounting the last step, guessed that Nuth would not be stopped but was not certain at first whether he, too, would be able to pass. The next fraction of a second brought the answer in the form of being pulled along in the slipstream of Duty as a line of force, a giant fast-hurled spear transfixing one's free will and hurtling past the guard, through the entrance, into the lobby - where was space for a moment of reflection.
Lanok realized that he would, in any case, have committed himself to this course, out of an almost filial loyalty to Nuth Geven. More than half of the youngster's fear was, in fact, concern for the elder. He'll get chewed up and spat out for this. We haven't waited our turn. We're about to "barge in" on one of Dempelath's colloquies -
Yet when they trod the carpet inside the huge, dimly circular auditorium, these fears were replaced by others.
A whine like that of an insect droned past Lanok's ear. At the same instant he glimpsed a pink-gold spark of fuzz streak across his field of view, close to his head. Suppressing his shudders, he focused upon the middle distance. He knew, and could partly see, that in the dark hall's centre was a dais. On it must stand the podium and on that a narrow chair, from which the director of a historical epic would, in normal times, conduct the holographic presentation by "playing the wires", the web of controls barely visible as a silver network radiating upwards from the chair.
Faintly, some further whining, humming, or could it be a sort of chanting from that central direction, registered on Lanok's ears. Clustered where the podium ought to be, a pale blob of the pink-gold light seethed and dimly sparkled while gradually, from within that undulating glimmer, took shape the outline of a seated human form.
A mellow voice issued from the uncertain shape. "You have come to report, Surveyor N-G," it hummed. The words echoed around the hall for three or four revolutions, then lingered as a dying whisper.
Well, at any rate this did not sound like a rebuke. Lanok rummaged in his mind for the relief which logic suggested he should feel. Dempelath hadn't accused them of interruption. There had in fact been no interruption; the Weigher had been waiting for them, evidently. Might all yet be well?
From a sudden upward stretch of the podium lights, it appeared that the ruler of Olhoav was rising to greet them, while at the same time some of his cmem glow-particles detached themselves from the main body. These flakes of scrappy illumination began to orbit outward, like a host's arms stretching to greet his guests.
"Yes," replied Surveyor Nuth Geven, "I have come to report on the recent tremor."
"Report, then. Tell me what you have learned."
"It's the harbinger of structural calamity for Olhoav. Within days at most, we're in for a foundation-splitter of a crackup."
"And therefore? Advise me. Put forth a recommendation."
"Glomb Dempelath, I have come to confirm that you will have to lead a temporary evacuation of the city. This is a must. Otherwise, many people will die."
The airy lights of the cmem danced closer to Nuth Geven and his awed youthful companion.
He asked me to be a witness, remembered Lanok Ryr. How appropriate: a witness to history in the Menestegon hall. Has there ever been an evacuation of Olhoav before? Never heard of one.
"People will die," echoed the Glomb. "People who are not suited to this epoch; yes, they will die."
"What's this about? What do you mean?" cried Nuth Geven in a tone of outrage.
The ruler's gentle reply was borne on a mellifluous breeze, as the outlying glow-flakes fluttered close enough to affect the hearers' brains with the sweet reasonableness of Dempelath.
"I only mean the obvious, that those people who will die in the city, will have refused to leave it because they fear they might never get back in afterwards. In a mirror of this argument I and my followers, likewise, were we to evacuate, might have to fight our way back in when the emergency is over."
"Excuses for doing nothing!"
"No, it is the plain truth. While the struggle for the soul of Olhoav continues, neither side will risk abandoning its body."
So luminously reasonable, sliding so persuasively into the brain! In a reaction of desperate fury the Surveyor managed to gasp, "It's the plain truth that you care more about your power than about the lives of your people! Anyway this is all your fault! Diversion of resources, neglect of the city foundations - "
"Ahhh," hissed the swirling cmem, "blame it all on the Revolution, eh? Not on what made the Revolution necessary?" Swirl, swirl, the unanswerable answers -
Reaching a terrible decision, the Surveyor sought to draw his laser.
The weapon at first seemed stuck in its holster. Then it came out with so sudden a release that Nuth Geven almost dropped it. He strove to raise it, to aim it at the tyrant who was looming and apparently swelling in the middle of the hall. Instead of which aim, a disobedient arm and fist began to twist the weapon's muzzle towards the Surveyor's own head.
Out of the corner of his mouth he muttered, "Get out of here, Lanok. I'm a dead man and you're my witness. Move!"
Lanok Ryr, however, stood rooted in horrified indecision. He found it nigh impossible to believe that the Surveyor really would be compelled to fire at himself. Surely, the Glomb merely intended a demonstration of power? A scary lesson followed by a show of merciful forbearance: such would be the statesmanlike course. Such would befit a rightful ruler.
It takes a lot to make a Uranian sweat... Nuth Geven's beaded face was what finally convinced Lanok Ryr that the battle, which the Surveyor's muscles were on the way to losing, was for real.
Worse still were the sly nudges towards acceptance, even approval, of the sick thoughts infoltrating his mind. It's Nuth Geven's own fault, came the verdict at the very moment when the Surveyor's finger squeezed the laser-stud. He ought to have known better, was the pronouncement as the Surveyor's head-burned body collapsed. It is foolish to defy a ruler whose duty it is to preserve his own authority intact. For the good of the state, the Power in charge cannot afford to let insolence pass.
Immediately after the killing, the light-flakes began to retreat, but a pesky-plausible remnant of the cmem's influence still nested inside Lanok's head and scuttled around setting up claims for credence, no matter how much his better self sought to stamp them out. In particular it was not possible to force lungs and throat to form a protest against the loathsome moral inversion, whereby the victim, Nuth Geven, was blamed for what had happened. Nor was Lanok able to assert himself even by means of energetic flight, for, despite the Surveyor's last entreaty, there was no need to flee; nothing threatened Lanok Ryr, a boy beneath notice, not worth the slightest fraction of the tyrant's attention. The devastated youngster could only stagger weakly away, to slink off home.
Hardly more than blindly aware of his route back towards Flexion Five along the Choot Skimway in the district of Occoz, he had one remaining desire: for oblivion. It did not occur to him to report what he had seen to anyone, and no notion of getting any normal work done today could survive the morning's catastrophic start. When he reached his home bafract, he collapsed on his bed in a murky stupor.
It deepened into a timeless coma. When he emerged from it he did not know the hour or even the day.
The face of his mother, Sajur Alsom, gazed down at him, wearing a look of harrassed calculation.
"Son, do you need to tell me anything?"
Not, what have you been doing, or what has happened to you. She knew without being told, that some questions were best left unasked. City maintenance, nowadays, could involve stuff that was easy to notice and risky to discuss.
Sitting up, he said: "I need to take a message to the Noad. That could take a while."
In the old days, it did not "take a while" if you had good reason to see the Noad: you found him quickly because renl gave him "findability". Sajur, however, quite understood her son's oblique reference to current conditions, and she nodded without comment, perhaps grateful that nothing more explicit was said.
But then she struck a wrong note:
"Are you going to the Palace, then?" Ah, she could have kicked herself after uttering those words. He saw her bite her lip.
"Oh, certainly," replied Lanok sarcastically. "Out of respect for the way things used to be, I'll look for the Noad in the Palace of the Noad. And then, after I've failed to find him there, I'll look for him in the house of his wife, where he now mostly lives, like a private citizen with no cares. And if he's not there either..."
He paused, taken aback by the open irony which was not his usual style. His usual bubble of caution had burst. And if he's not there either... How to finish the sentence?
Fortunately he cut off the flow of words at that point, and instead he merely shrugged, in a manner which expressed all that needed to be said to reassure his mother that he would if necessary swishalong, that is to say, hop onto a cause-effect vector-current of the sort that gets you somewhere.
The countless obscure, lowly lives lived by the masses who form the carpet under history, whose resilient weave supports the tread of the notable few, and who are known to us as backgrounders, contain two great compensations.
First, as a backgrounder, you browse the basic nutriment of reality: you are. No imagey fame or protagonistic achievement can beat the perpetual wonder of that.
Second, even as a bit-player, as one of a supporting cast, you may find yourself stepping (albeit briefly) into the spotlight, at the crux of a tale.
On that same Tremor-Day (as people began to call it), Gevuldree, wife of the Noad, skimmed as fast as she dared through the angled ways of the urban jungle. She would have made even better speed had her vehicle not borne an extra burden: its pulled-out side-deck supported the blanketed body of her husband.
Wrenching the steering lever this way and that, she tore into Jihom District, her one idea being to reach the house of one who was reputedly still a favourite of the almost retired, almost reclusive city-brain. Her frantic mind had lit upon this plan as the only imaginable hope for Barlayn Lamiroth.
Gevuldree reached her destination, dismounted, palm-pressed the door-bell, and was relieved to hear the sound of footsteps from inside. Hyala Movoum must fortunately be at home...
Yes, the door opened to reveal the tall, stately presence of the beautiful healer. Odd thoughts were apt to surface at the craziest moments. "Backgrounders," Hyala had said, when filling the ceremonial role of Staunch Woman at Gevuldree's wedding to Barlayn, "don't need fame to make them great in the records of eternity... It is better to be obscure and decent, than to be famous for the wrong things." Patronising words, in the opinion of the revolution; but the Noad's young wife had taken them at face value, and now, to the foregrounder who had spoken them, she cried for succour.
Hyala did not disappoint. In one glance saw that this was no moment in which to ask questions, but rather to slide the hovering skimmer to her receptor rail, and to help dismount the unconscious man. Between them they carried him into the house and laid him on a couch. The healer then listened to the distraught woman's story - what there was of it. "So little to say!" wailed Gevuldree. "He was down in the basement of the Pnurrm. Must have gone down there just after the tremor, to check out the scene, I suppose - "
"To look for structural damage," put in Hyala. "And you thought he might be in danger from further subsidence?"
"I suppose that was why I went after him, yes. But as it turned out," and Gevuldree looked towards Barlayn's blotched countenance and sightless stare... and did not finish her sentence. Instead she desolately shrugged.
"Had he been threatened recently?" asked Hyala.
"Not that I know of," came the miserable reply. Gevuldree's blonde tresses hung limp around a bowed face gaunt with grief. "Not much notice was being taken of him at all. Sponndar H-M, please can you tell me, what has happened to him?"
Instead of replying, Hyala relayed the question, calling out in a changed tone, "DYNOOM!"
Gevuldree's lips parted slightly: in her thirst for hope, she had been right to come here.
The disembodied voice of the city brain filled the air around them with a murmured, "You have my attention. I can tell you what has afflicted the Noad. It is the noppt oartuc, the Sixty-Day Disease."
With a wild stare the Noad's wife gasped, "The what?"
Hyala said, "I've heard of it. It means... what it says..."
"I regret to confirm," resumed the voice of Dynoom, "that the affliction is accurately named. Though he will recover consciousness in a day or two, he will not live beyond sixty days from now."
Gevuldree took three deep breaths and mastered herself. She did not ask any futile questions about how it could have happened. The basement of the Pnurrm was crowded with objects brought in from the wilderness; on rare occasion one of them might release a rhoufah, an unwelcomeness. Uranians simply accept that life is like that. The point was, how best to respond. "Shortly, then, Barlayn will wake and be able to decide what to do with the remainder of his life. But will that be too late to allow him any room?" A sharpness had taken over her face: sign of a keen, bitter determination to counteract, so far as was possible, what had been done.
"Go on..." prompted Hyala. "You can be clear about it, in my house."
"I mean that whoever did this, and we don't need to name names, will have done it as part of a political plan... and the plan, Hyala, will involve your misty-minded guest, the Daon."
"Who, it now appears, will become Noad in sixty days."
"Exactly. Should we hide him? We may have no time to lose, in which case we'll have to decide this ourselves."
Brows lifted in admiration at the girl's new clarity of thought and speech, Hyala nevertheless demurred: "Even assuming you're right, that the Noad's infection was no accident... concealing his successor may play into the enemy's hands..."
"Not doing so will leave him more literally in the enemy's hands!"
Hyala persisted in doubt: "I still don't know... DYNOOM! Can you advise us?"
The city-brain replied in a calm, detached tone:
"The way ahead for the Daon forks into two main routes. I shall call them Route One and Route Two. Along the first of these, you hide him, you take him away, out of reach of Dempelath's power. He then becomes a leader of peripheral survivors who have abandoned the city and subsist in freedom on the edge of the wilderness and beyond. Route Two, by contrast, is an event-line that keeps him in Olhoav, where he may possibly become a focus of hope, working to subvert the tyrant's schemes from within. It is impossible for me to say which of those two options would have been favoured by Barlayn."
"But which route is better?" asked Hyala.
"Please, don't ask me," said the Brain - and its voice cut off, with a finality that caused the mind's ear to supply the snick of a closed switch.
Hyala sighed, "He's getting more like that these days..."
The other girl clenched her fists. "Well," she said desperately, "let's decide, you and I, alone. Or if you won't, I will."
"Do you have the certainty, Gevuldree?"
"Yes! I say we should hide the Daon. I say, don't let the Glomb get both Noad and Daon into his clutches at once, while they're both weak and sick. What say you?"
"You're not sure, though, are you?" evaded Hyala. "I wanted a second opinion which isn't mine..."
"But the big Brain has let you down! So you'll have to say it yourself, if you think that we should not hide the Daon; that we should not seek a refuge in the wilderness..."
Hyala nodded. "That is my instinct, yes. You, naturally, understandably, might wish to hold Nyav out of reach as a sort of insurance for the last part of Barlayn's life..."
"I'm more concerned with safeguarding what's left of his life's work!" The two standing women glared at each other, on the uncertain edge of a quarrel.
At that moment the door-chime sounded.
"Ah," murmured Gevuldree, "it's too late."
"Don't say that," whispered Hyala. "I'll see if I can deal with whomever it is."
Gevuldree did not reply, but went to sit beside the inert Noad, while Hyala went out into the hallway.
A minute passed, and then another. To the sorrowful and anxious backgrounder, seated beside her doomed husband, the current of great events had become more than ever a nauseous swirl, a pressure which she would gladly escape along with life itself, so that she might start anew in another, future existence, perhaps loving someone less loftily ranked, less likely to attract the scythe-blade of destiny -
She looked up. Hyala had come back in. With her was a young man, hardly out of boyhood. The youngster's face wore a look of stunned endurance; a fellow-loser, thought Gevuldree; not an enemy after all.
"This is Lanok Ryr," said Hyala in a neutral tone. "I've just told him about the Sixty Days, because he has come to report to the Noad, and loyal people had better be informed... Lanok, you want the Noad; look, here he is..."
It was a peculiar moment, as the newcomer stared in utter dismay at the disease-painted skin of the unconscious man on the couch.
Gevuldree murmured to Hyala, "Report on what? Did the lad say?"
Hyala murmured back, "Advice from the Surveyor - and news of the Surveyor's death."
Gevuldree sighed irritably. "Important, no doubt, but meanwhile we are delaying making up our minds what to do with the Daon! That's the vital thing and it may not wait! We've got to sort out..."
"No," whispered Hyala. "You and I, we weren't getting anywhere. But now," and she nodded towards the appalled Lanok Ryr, "we can..."
"Get him to help?" asked Gevuldree, blank-faced. Her tone had begun bewildered, yet lost its incredulity in this room that stank of impending decision.
Nodding, the other woman confirmed, "Give this youngster a casting vote."
Unfamiliar though that Terran term was to Gevuldree, she was swept along by the engulfing, invisible swirl of the idea that Lanok Ryr could indeed be the one to decide whether they should flee with Nyav and abandon the city, or whether they should stand their ground and try to turn Dempelath's game their way.
Terran readers, it is not your fault if you can't likewise swallow the procedure - you who live on a world whose atmosphere is composed of mere gases! How could you possibly understand why a pivotal decision should be left to a boyish messenger who happened to be on the spot at the crucial moment? Here, on the other hand, where our air is alive with Fate's electric fingers tracing the lines of destiny's flow-charts, you would have wordlessly sensed those invisible lines reaching round Lanok Ryr and encasing him in a decision-box at which converged all the wires of influence from the other agents in the narrative - from Dempelath and the late Nuth Geven, from Hyala and Gevuldree, from the inert Barlayn and from Nyav Yuhlm who waited unsuspecting in another room.
Aside to Hyala, Gevuldree conceded in a whisper, "You tell him what we want. I trust you to put the choice fairly."
Hyala stepped closer to Lanok and gently began, "You were right to come here, even though, as you can see, he can't hear you."
The youngster blurted, "You mean, I must simply wait? Wait for him to wake up?"
"I mean that your errand hasn't failed; its trajectory was not wrong... You're here to tell us - now that the Noad is doomed - which option to take with Daon Nyav Yuhlm."
Lanok stared back at her. He sensed the impingement of his own doom, which was that he, a mere bit-player, must nevertheless face the spotlight at this juncture.
"The options being...?"
"We either hide the Daon, flee with him, smuggle him out of reach of the tyrant - or, alternatively, we take no action and we just hope that Nyav Yuhlm with his new Earthmind can perhaps mitigate and undermine Dempelath's regime from within."
Stooping for a moment, Lanok frowned, then shook his head and abandoned calculation. Looking up brightly he said, "Let's ask him."
For a moment the sublime simplicity of that notion stunned the two women. They glanced at each other... and began to smile. Ask the Daon himself! Lanok saw their positive reaction, and took heart from it, imbibing a deep sense that he had given the right nudge to the current of events; that he had propelled its vector's arrowhead further towards its target. Ask the Daon... This could be the day on which such a move might be made. Hyala swayed, put a hand on Gevuldree's shoulder, and said with swimming eyes, "A delightful idea - maybe a solution!"
Gevuldree also evinced some sparkle of hope, but she said doubtfully, "Nyav still doesn't speak much... he's still mostly a nebulee..."
"But he's coming out of it, gradually to be sure, but enough, nowadays, to speak entire sentences on occasion... We'll try it! We can but try."
The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:
"...And thus, because you are now our acting Noad, our ruler de iure..."
Skies above, these Uranians have even learned from me how to mouth phrases in Latin -
"...and because time is short and the arguments finely balanced..."
Rarely have I seen Hyala look so keyed up. She and the other two, the three of them in a solemn row in front of my armchaired self, stand like pupils in a viva examination, ready to accept the worst. I suddenly cough - which halts her speech. I open my mouth and the three of them stare at me as if determined to hang on to my every syllable.
I finish her sentence for her:
"...you wish me to tip the scales."
Those last three words I utter in English. And they open their eyes wide in comprehension and in excitement at the commencement of dialogue.
Understanding from Hyala's summary that they need a quick choice from "Go or Stay", and with nothing but gut instinct by which to determine the issue, I spend no more than a second or two on my review of the two options. The attractively adventurous, open-ended prospect of leading a group of exiles in the penumbra of the settled land around Olhoav, and exploring the grass forests beyond, appeals to me. Yet as regards adventure, I must be on to a good thing wherever I am on this stupendous planet... and I dislike the idea of fleeing, especially from an enemy whom I have never seen and whom I do not properly understand. Finally, this city of Olhoav now counts as my home.
"My answer is," I said, "I'll stay."
The words exhaust me. Overcome by a wave of weakness I slump back in the armchair. I am still so far from well, that the images of my three questioners undulate before my eyes... but I succeed in catching from them an impression of resigned relief, of gratitude that fate, through me, has given its verdict.
I suspect, now that I have said it, that all along they wanted for me to stay.
After another tremor during the night, I look out of the front window and see some evidence of damage in the street: mostly a litter of shreds of material shaken down from higher terraces and layers of the urban fabric, scattered across the floor of Otett Avenue; also some fallen metal struts, which I hope don't mean that a walkway or skimway is about to collapse onto our roofs or heads -
I totter back to bed...
Another couple of days pass. Hyala and Gevuldree have taken to putting me on show. Don't know what else to call it: they invite group after group of visitors, citizens who gawp at me and exchange grins of delight whenever I manage a phrase or two in reply to their questions.
The questions themselves aren't too hard. How do I like it here, how am I feeling compared to fifty days ago, is it uncomfortable to have Terran memories occupying a corner of my brain... These good folk must have been told, or perhaps they instinctively know, to steer clear of delicate political subjects. Truth to tell, I get the feeling that it doesn't so much matter what I say; they simply love to hear my voice, to confirm the miracle that the nebulee can actually speak... I hope H. and G. know what they are doing. From what I understand, it's decidedly unsafe to compete in popularity with the real ruler of this place. Still, maybe it's not safe to lack a following, either. To spread the knowledge widely, that I'm substantially conscious, is a kind of insurance... provided that I'm still too weak in body and mind to offer a real threat to Dempelath. This is treading a fine line. So delicate is the balance, that I can well guess why the Noad - who's awake now - isn't coming to see me. It would be too risky to be seen concerting strategy with him, though I do wish I could get his advice during his last days.
I meanwhile try to comport myself with kindness during the public's question-time, though sometimes it takes an effort to keep my sardonic thoughts to myself.
A rather over-smart young woman says, "Daon N-Y, are you comfortable as you look to your future role?"
"Shush, Bizzid!" grated some of the others.
Here's where I slip. I raise a negligent hand, to indicate that no fuss need be made, that the question, though regrettable, is one which I am prepared to answer. "Comfortable," I confirm, "yes I am comfortable insofar as one can be who is living on borrowed time."
It is the first time they have heard that phrase - translated from English - and their linguistic excitement vies with a certain glumness as they ponder its meaning.
To steer towards the fun side of things I add, "It's a matter of waiting for the chickens to come home to roost..."
"Chickens?" asks one member of the audience.
"A type of little bird," I explain.
"Come to think of it, I really don't know." My thoughtful bafflement gets a laugh.
Meanwhile, strategies notwithstanding, I become ever more frustrated by my flaccid body, which is drained further of strength by the strain of all these hours of being put on show. And my woozy head... Ha! All those books of heroic interplanetary adventure I used to read! A pity I can't put on a better performance.
Fact is, though, that at this stage it's up to Hyala, who's doing her best to ensure that when the confrontation comes, the enemy won't be able to conceal me utterly or pretend I don't count. And although I'm on edge, I know it's up to me simply to wait for that enemy to make his move.
Perhaps he's waiting, too.
This must be it - the big crack-up. I am roused from a doze by being thrown across the floor. Luckily none of the furniture lands on me, and I'm merely bruised. I stagger up amid the strewn stuff and look around the rooms. Hyala is nowhere to be seen; she must have gone out. The house itself must have been constructed of immensely strong, detachable units; the quake has separated some of these components, allowing me to see out through regular fissures. Clashing waves of cowardice and rashness pour through my half-stunned mind. In a childish reaction I lurch back to my room, with a stupid impulse to tidy the mess and get back to sleep; then I reproach myself, overhaul my attitude and decide to go out and see if there's anything helpful that I can do.
Leaning on a stick, I cross the now tilted threshold and emerge into an altered scene. Above me I notice a slump in the skimways where some of their support-towers have bent and sagged towards each other; contrastingly, in the adjacent section, their elements have come apart. Hastily glancing back at the house, to reassure myself that nothing has fallen on top of it, I perceive that it has been dragged askew by one of its upper connections. I see more damage and distortion as I look around. Most appalling is the fissure that now gapes about a hundred and fifty yards to my left, across the avenue. Fissure? Chasm, more like. Even from where I stand I can tell it is maybe fifty yards wide. I glimpse perhaps two dozen people running about in the middle distance; a few others are picking themselves up off the city floor. They don't look so bad - I probably need more help than they do - but I don't care to think about any folk who may have been in the region of that big crack...
A loud blare makes me jump. "CITIZENS", cries a loudspeaker - and everybody in the scene, myself included, looks around wildly and unsuccessfully to spot the source of that voice, that dreaded, well-known voice. "REMAIN IN OR AT YOUR HOMES. THE GOHIK UGRAON [Reconstruction Corps] WILL DISTRIBUTE AID AND ASSIGN YOU YOUR TASKS. CITIZENS, REMAIN IN OR AT YOUR HOMES - "
Everyone, it seems, obeys. After fifteen or so repetitions of the "in or at" command, the scene has emptied of people and I likewise turn and go back inside. I mount the stairs to an upper window in order to keep watch. Dempelath has not missed a trick. The speech must have been long-prepared.
After half an hour I see, rounding the corner of a side-street, a mass of people appear in front of my view of the chasm. In unison they turn about and proceed along the avenue in my direction. They are in chevron formation: a waon like the one I first saw in the park, like the others I've occasionally seen. This time, though, they make no howling noise, no noise at all except the ever-louder tramp of boots as they approach the house.
And this time I see a peculiarity about them which did not exist before. Squares of whiteness, held in their right hands. Whatever it means, I don't at all like the look of that crinkly, fluttery whiteness. I would prefer the fellows to be brandishing lasers, though I will not formulate a reason why. Will they go on past? Most of them do, but a detachment of about sixteen splits off and heads for my front door. They are coming for me. Among them I recognize Lanok Ryr. A changed Lanok Ryr.
I compose myself in my chair. Nothing for it but to wait for them to barge in and take charge.
It's smoothly done. Four of them, including Lanok, line up facing me, holding their white sheets of paper.
Lanok, very formal, as though he has aged hundreds of days since I saw him last, says, "We are of the Gohik Ugraon. We have come to move you to a safe place, Daon N-Y."
"That sounds ominous," I smile.
"It is the truth. You will be well protected." Lanok is now a hollow-cheeked, humourless automaton, but I nevertheless sense in him a remnant of unease at what he is about to do. Whatever has been done to him has suppressed but not erased his personality.
I parry with, "Should the Daon not share the risks of his people?"
He replies with a shrug and a phrase that brings me a truly unwelcome reminder of Earth:
"I did not make the rules, Daon N-Y."
They take a step closer.
Rising from my chair, I heave a sigh. "I see there is no help for it. Show me your warrants, then, and I'll come quietly." I'm at any rate thankful for Hyala's absence. She, thank the skies, hasn't been caught up in this trawl.
"Warrants?" says Lanok in a puzzled tone.
"That," and I point to the paper he's holding. But it's no good, I can't pretend; the sheet is empty on both sides, a fact which the lad reveals as he turns it around with a bewilderment equal to mine, and the other three men do the same. I experience a prickling of almost superstitious fear and revulsion which I can't even remotely define or explain. The blankness of these sheets of paper is almost as scary as a row of human faces without features.
I crave support, yet I suppose it's just as well that I'm not dragging any of my friends with me into this pull towards dread...
But when I'm brought out through the front doorway, with my escort around me, and the other twelve guards waiting on either side, I am further dismayed to see on the pathway the hurried figure of Dittri, my little carer, the plucky-fluffy girl who comes every two or three days to look after me. Culpable fool that I am, not to have put an end to that arrangement! Dittri trots into the trap: the rest of the men close around her.
"Oh, dear," she says, in English, as she and I are marched together onto the avenue. I form words to apologise but, beating me to it, she commiserates with me: "You were getting better, Daon Nyav, and now this has to happen... I hope it doesn't set you back too much."
What can I do but put an arm around her and shake my head and give a helpless laugh? Then, to Lanok: "Is this girl arrested too? If so, why?"
"I didn't make the rules," the youth repeats. That puts me off asking any more questions.
Dreading to see us headed for some downward ramp, or other means of descent into the vaults, I concentrate my attention on the city floor. We approach the gigantic chasm that has wrenched the northern from the southern length of Otett Avenue. Then we do a left turn into one of the side-streets leading inwards from the border towards the centre of Jihom District.
Some of the people we pass recognize me, and I fleetingly wonder about the chances of appealing for help. But as usual I don't know enough to size up the situation. Their blank or indecisive glances, their perfunctory hails which are suggestive of acceptance, indicate to me that they believe I'm being escorted by some guard of honour. Doubtless they know I'm not a completely free agent. Nowadays who is? If they could expect help from me, no doubt it would be another story; they'd then make a move to rescue me, perhaps. As it is, they're probably used to the idea of me being shifted about. I'm like a mobile symbolic standard, fairly important as part of their heritage - but today they have more urgent matters on their minds. The only thing that might rouse them to try to effect a rescue, would be if they knew that I was being threatened. And since I myself don't know that for sure, why should they? Round and round churn my thoughts, leading to no conclusion. I tell myself that I'll find out soon enough what awaits me...
We make a right turn. We march onto a pentagonal plaza, before which rises an imposing stone pile: casemented walls wrapped in exterior spiral ramps, surmounted by a huge oval dome, topped by a hemispherical summit. My heart sinks even as I admire my close view of the edifice. All along, I have feared that my destination would turn out to be this, the Menestegon, nowadays effectively Dempelath's Palace.
It looks undamaged. Only the "hair" of upper connections seems a trifle mussed by the quake, which has sheared through several of the cables and access tubes that had linked the main dome to the higher and slenderer terraces of Olhoav. I shrug, momentarily out of love with Uranian lattices, and I moodily reflect that a Terran architect might judge the after-quake picture to be no more untidy than what had appeared before. A yearning for Earth pierces my heart. What in the name of all the skies am I doing here? On a mystery-stuffed planet like this an infinity of accidents can be made to happen to one who stands in a tyrant's path. One weakness I share with my childhood hero John Carter is a dread of lightless dungeons. As we approach the portico I make one more desperate attempt to communicate with Lanok Ryr.
"Let me guess: I'm being put away. Down in the vaults somewhere, beneath the Weigher's Palace...?"
Lanok turns his head in surprise. "Not down," he says, cryptically. "My orders, Daon N-Y, are to take you up, right to the top."
We enter. We tramp through the lobby, and then with echoing stride around the edge of the dim and empty main hall, till we reach an elevator cage at the back. Dittri and I are ushered in, and with us enter four of my escort including Lanok, whom I don't question further lest I be reminded again that he "did not make the rules". The cage begins to ascend. My spirits rise too, with the demise of the irrational fear of being buried out of hand, so that I get over my panicky wish to be back on Earth. Here the cards may be stacked against me, but the game still fascinates me.
TO BE CONTINUED IN
Uranian Throne Episode 13: