The ego-track of Neville Yeadon (continued):
Our ascent slows... ceases. The elevator door begins to open and as an orangy glow widens before me, I brace myself. Whatever may be beyond that threshold, I expect to meet richness and enthroned power.
All the visceral courage I can draw upon, I make haste to haul up from the depths of my native self. And if that's not enough? Then, better also pin some hope on my sneakier Terran nature -
"Come, Daon N-Y," says Lanok Ryr. "Step into your quarters."
My quarters? My quarters? I take a couple of strides forward.
In wonderment I then stop, and simply gawp. I am awestruck by the fantastic lens-shaped interior.
Mustn't let myself be fooled; mustn't allow myself to be childishly impressed. I am the Daon, after all, the Heir to this city. Such being my rank, I ought not to be overwhelmed by magnificence, splendour, profusion -
Yet something about this opulent penthouse gets to me. Its glowing furniture and winking lights prompt me to imagine I'm in some de luxe flying saucer which has settled here to flatten the crown of the Menestegon's dome.
From where I stand I can see all the way around the roomy dazzle, except where the central shaft (out of which I have just stepped) blocks the view. My eyes follow the row of windows, and below them the banks of switches and vidscreens, and the holocube-laden recesses below those. The ring of wonders encircles the entire periphery.
All my quarters, did he say? What an enticement. Vast scope for study and research; perhaps the answers to a myriad questions are waiting for me here. And that's not all of it. The central portion where I stand is a hub of softness where comfort alone reigns. Here, low, four-foot velvety walls broken by U-shaped gaps form an open-plan lounge area, plushly strewn with furniture and fittings adapted for every human need: living-quarters for the fortunate proprietor, which is to say, me, if I can believe it.
If, if! Be careful now. And think. Before you get intoxicated. Why get so excited by a room? Both as a Uranian and a Terran, you know sumptuous refinement when you see it. Why the extra wonder? Shouldn't you be on the look-out, instead, for the catch?
Ah but, I reply to my admonitory self, I already sense, here, a real trove. Not a con, but a huge opportunity, to grasp wider wonders and learn properly about the planet which has become my home world.
Still, don't show your eagerness. Stay cool, sardonic, dryly pessimistic. For you must expect to pay a price.
I turn to eye my companions - the two who have entered with me (not the armed escort, who, so I note, have remained in the cage in the central shaft). The girl, Dittri, is wearing an expression doubtless akin to mine: wide-eyed with admiration of the scene. Not so Lanok Ryr. He's obviously familiar with it. He's the one I'll bait. I remark to him, "This is a fine-looking prison, I have to admit."
The youngster shakes his head. "Not at all, Daon N-Y; the Zveggh-Yerrand is no prison."
"You literally mean that?"
"Yes - you may stay or go as you will."
I insist upon clarity: "Is that official?"
"It is - the Frork told me himself."
"The... 'Frork'...?" The impeller?
"He will announce himself when he comes to see how you are."
"What else has he said to you?"
"Only to let you know that this place is yours, to live in or just to visit; either way, before you decide, feel free to look around and take your time, both in the living-hub and in the research-ring..." Lanok concludes, "You are the Daon; you must decide."
He looks serious. He sounds serious. I'm up in what he calls the Zveggh-Yerrand and he says it's all mine. Or rather, the Frork says it's all mine.
Doubtless that "Frork" will turn out to be the catch. Meanwhile, drawn by the countless attractions of this place, I walk forward. Out of the relaxation hub, I step into the wide periphery which Lanok calls the research-ring.
Just now I referred to all this as "a fine prison" but the truth is that I don't feel imprisoned at all. Anything but. Of course that doesn't alter my zero trust in the situation; nevertheless I'm like an inquisitive cat in my enjoyable urge to sniff around and paw things; in particular those coloured glowing cubes in the recesses... and those so-numerous vidscreens in the two dozen or so windowed sections spaced all around the rim of what I'm tempted to consider a playground of my very own.
Perhaps, before the thing turns sour, I shall be able to take my fill of what I want, and then when the fates present their bill I shall have profited enough to be able to pay.
I begin to circumambulate the periphery, clockwise.
Glancing leftwards through one window after another, I can see out into the upper terraces of the city, and am treated to vistas of Olhoav's typical filigree of polyhedral buildings suspended among glimmering lines and curves; my left hand meanwhile idly brushes the sloping consoles below the windows, till a finger-touch prompts me to look down, to shift my attention from the upper to the lower parallel sequence of views. The vidscreens will show me - so I guess from the first one - sections of the city which are out of sight of the windows. Yes, this screen-view overloooks an edge of the park called Ruvur, away in Swaduryl District. Ah, but the next screen shows an image of me, right here, walking by the window. A bit put out, I stop and look more closely. At first it seems I'm looking into a mirror. Then I realize that, in reality and image alike, it's my left hand that is resting on the bank of switches. Somewhat spooked, I withdraw my hand. I raise my eyes from screen back to window. I peer out - and immediately the screen below that window shows me peering -
Hmm... A tele-camera on some exterior strut, no doubt. I get the message: I am being watched. I walk round a bit further and note that if one screen monitors outward, the next one monitors inward, and vice versa. Thus they alternate. Yes, you could say, fair's fair: I can watch but at the same time I am being watched. Oh well, at least the surveillance is not surreptitious. The power that holds me here is being quite open about it. And besides, I'm not being 'held'. Not, that is, if I can believe what I've been told: for Lanok says that I can leave at any time. If that's true, ought I not to seize the opportunity? Might it not be better to get out now, rather than wait till I have discovered more flies in the ointment?
Come on, don't waste time with thoughts like that, I reprove myself: you know perfectly well you can't pass up this chance for knowledge. All right, you don't know what the enemy is up to, but then he isn't able to size you up, either. He's a powerful hybrid but then perhaps so are you, Neville/Nyav with your native Uranian guts and your sneaky Terran cowardice. Who knows, you could be a winning combination. So go for it, take what's offered, don't run away from this place. Master it.
Truth is, I'm light-headed. And then from the middle distance my ear catches a satisfied murmur which suggests I'm not the only one who likes the feel of things here. A glance tells me Dittri is being shown around the central living quarters by Lanok Ryr. The girl's voice is distinguishable though her words aren't. Her tone sounds as though she's pleased by what she sees and hears, and therefore I feel irrationally confirmed in my desire to stay, as though Dittri were the canary in the mine-shaft, singing that conditions are safe. I drift into a golden reverie, picturing peaceful days ahead, an ensemble of her and me, happy backgrounders both, cosily forgetting politics...
"May we leave you now, Daon N-Y?" asks Lanok in a quiet, respectful tone, while his armed escort, still in the elevator cage, wait at attention.
I give a start; I had not noticed Lanok's quiet glide to my side. "What..." I begin.
He adds understandingly, "Dittri will stay to maintain the living quarters for you. If you want further help, I am on call: just press that green button" (he points at one of the consoles); "it clears the speaking-tube."
"Oh," I say, puzzled by the minor incongruity of a speaking-tube amid so much electronics. I shrug that off and instead ask, with a sceptical smile, "Are you under my command, then?"
"You are the Daon," he says.
"So indeed I am, but that's not really an answer." I am watching him closely. So much has recently happened that I have doubtless failed to give due attention to many significant things. Like the fact that Lanok Ryr seems to have recovered some of humanity; to be less robotic. I moreover suspect he likes my tone: a gleam suggestive of hope briefly animates his eyes.
If so, he doesn't dare voice it. "Remember the tube," he reiterates. "If you need us, you - or Dittri - can call. I've taught her the control."
"I'll remember. You may go, for the time being."
He bows his head and turns away.
I sense, with a "walking on eggs" feeling, that I have kept my options open as well as I can. In this monitored area, it would be crazy to speak freely, and so it would have made no sense to press Lanok further out loud. Or so I tell myself, scotching the idea that I may have missed an opportunity to collect some support. I suppose that I ought to be more worried than I am, that the enemy has so many means of surveillance while my own contact with outside is restricted to... a speaking-tube.
Some native background knowledge welling up from my 'under-mind' reassures me that such tubes are made useful when "cleared", like throats. Mintenance reflexes regularly sweep through Olhoav's sophisticated structures... Well, there'll be time enough to look into on that kind of detail if I so wish.
Meanwhile let me get at those stacks of cubes!
Which, though? Which, out of so many holographic jewels of knowledge, should I grab? My curiosity prances like a steed. A steed, let's hope, with a bit of a nose for what to try! I "sniff the colour" (can't put it any other way) of one particular recess. Have to start somewhere. Fingers clutching, I move.
Stacks of the cubes! Four inches on a side, they glimmer iridescently. Yet despite the rainbow effect they also (when massed together) put me in mind of the simpler deeps of a summer sky on Earth. Not literally blue, they yet do inflict that spiritual pang, that aching thrill, with which our summer blueness beguiles the soul...
Hungering as I reach for one that's on the top of the pile, I note with surprise that it's not as heavy as I thought it would be: it can't be solid glass. I turn it in my hands. One facet after another draws my eyes, so that I peer closely.
Three of them shimmer with dense text. My native knowledge-base whispers that one face displays an account written in Nouuan, another in Jommdan, and the third in Lrisj. Those are the three main languages of this planet, I realize, and it comes to me that, like most Uranians, I'm trilingual. Nevertheless, regional distrubution of day-to-day usage must ensure local predominance of one of the three, like that of Jommdan in Olhoav - whereas the cubes' juxtaposition of tongues would indicate that the record-cubes are designed more for world-wide access and distribution. This thought awes me. It fills me with a sensation of actual contact with civilization's beating heart tens of thousands of miles distant from isolated Olhoav. My mind fizzes with eagerness to plunge into the text, to explore that mighty realm of Syoom: that historic core of Nennkind on the dayside of the planet. And what of the cube's other faces - four, five and six?
The fourth face displays date-indicators. I'll look into that presently. The fifth -
The fifth is a motion picture! I almost drop the object as I glimpse a grey ovoid drifting against a backdrop of dark blue. I'm trembling now. And the sixth?
This final face also shows something that moves, but in a different manner. It's an abstract pictogram that writhes. Again, the sudden visual encounter almost makes me drop the object on the floor... but I keep hold and look again at the squirming design...
...Some minutes have passed. I have gulped enough impressions to begin with. I can to some extent figure the extent, the scope of the treasure which I heft in my palm.
I can stroke text up or down to scroll it forward or backward, and what I find is an old tale of a stricken airship.
An extremely old tale. Whichever passage I read in the Lrisj language on Face Three, the date-display on Face Four adjusts to match that stage of the narrative. So for instance at this particular moment I'm informed that it's treating of events on Day 257 of the Argon Era.
Simultaneously it ties in with the picture displayed on Face Five: the airship shown close-up, to reveal a crater-like wound in the hull. That is evidence of an impact which has gouged away many tons of the rocky foam used to construct the good ship Jolharr.
Actually, the pictorial tie-ins can be accessed straight from the text-face. Stroke the text to the right, and the words become fainter and the picture appears; stroke left, the text stands out again while the picture fades. With practice I gain an adjustment that suits me. I end up with a sufficiently clear text, but one which notifies me when the illustration changes.
I don't gaze so often at that squirming design on Face Six. It is, I now realize, a sort of map. A fairly ordinary map, during some moments, but then the view dissolves into the spookily suggestive fluctuations of pictogram-mode. Then it speaks to my emotions with subliminal force, dripping with a context-awareness more potent and explicit than mood music; a symbolic "voice-over" which feeds me premonition of the Jolharr's coming doom.
(From this perspective I gather that the Jolharr's fate is part of a far huger tragedy, the remnants of a great fleet scattered by disaster in the wilderness of Starside.)
Scroll, scroll, scroll... "page" after "page"... I read of the airship's loss of altitude; its reduced capacity to steer; the limited choice of landing site available to Captain Armuz Teegolon; his decision to overfly a boulder-strewn basin; beyond it the ship's final collapse onto a stretch of liverish-hued plain, adjacent to some giant grass forests...
The landing, the last gasp of the Jolharr, is achieved without loss of life. Marooned tens of thousands of miles from the nearest city, the crew emerge from the crumpled ship to survey the environs and probe the forests.
The land in which these men find themselves is of course profoundly Fyaym - the antithesis of the civilized region Syoom - but by Day 263 it has become apparent that one stroke of good fortune has been granted the ship's two thousand survivors: the forests are not devoid of human life. They turn out to be thinly inhabited by tribalized descendants of wanderers of another era, perhaps from another cycle of eras; simple hunter-gatherers now, who in profound amazement accept the newcomers and allow intermarriage. Thus, as settlers, the stranded crew have a future. Three-quarters of them decide that this is good enough.
Five hundred dissenters, however, refuse to settle. They cannot bring themselves to renounce all hope of return to Syoom. This minority, led by one Forlandag Orst, insist upon attempting the trek on foot back to civilization, even though the forces which destroyed the fleet, as well as the perpetual dangers of Fyaym, bar the way. Forlandag's five hundred therefore say their farewells and depart. They are never seen again. Dismal thrum of the pictograms on Face Six -
Meanwhile the settlers build. Determined to make the best use of what they have, they rummage and create, adapting material from the wrecked Jolharr, together with the tougher varieties of forest stem, plus locally accessible ores suspended in the ice crust, to construct the basis and focus of a new loyalty. Gradually, while the carcass of the airship is used up until the residue subsides into a mound, over and around it proliferate structures, till the day comes when Captain Armuz Teegolon is acclaimed the first Noad of the new city of Olhoav.
I close my eyes and stagger to a chair. So intoxicated have I become by the vividness and immediacy of the ancient tale, that I did not think to sit down until the first big chapter-break. Now exhaustion claims me.
A voice cries, "Daon Nyav! Meal break!" I open my eyes and see Dittri in the lounge-and-dining area direction. Winsome as ever in her white frock, she is waving a serving-spoon. The happy sweetness of this call simplifies my mood. I lurch up from the chair; some energy has returned to me.
Ushering me to a table, she beams, "This place is perfect!"
"I see it has potential," I grin, eyeing the spread she has prepared. Uranians eat more rarely than Terrans, but when they do, they know how. Sitting opposite the girl, I enjoy the meal, the company, the anticipation of further discoveries -
Dittri holds out a fresh napkin to me. "Your eyes are swimming."
"Eh?" I say. "Oh, so they are," I add, dabbing at the moisture.
"Strain from the cubes," she remarks, demurely.
I smile at her as I recall my long-gone days as a shy teenager on Earth: how anxious I was not to talk too much. How pleased I used to be, whenever I managed to express myself in a few reasonably well-judged words that did not make me squirm in retrospect! It used to be specially hard for me when things went well, because then there was suddenly so much more to lose. Happiness, however, has not overbalanced Dittri in its flood. I guess her personality has more ballast.
"A bit of eye-strain," I nod in agreement. "Small price to pay, for a holiday from relevance."
"Holiday...?" she murmurs.
"If you don't quite get my meaning, don't worry - I don't always understand myself." She stays quiet, while I reflect that my "holiday" is packed with such strenuous thrills that the numbers in the reckoning almost crack my skull. I'm living in Era 89; I've just run through a tale of Era 18; that's looking back over a gap of more than three hundred million days, according to the cube's Long Count. Uranian days being twenty-five per cent longer than those of Earth, such a span is equivalent to over a million Terran years.
After the meal I sit back and dally with the thought of another plunge into the mind-boggling wonders of the holocube-library.
"Daon Nyav, may I clear up now?"
"By all means, Dittri, you do that. You be boss in your domain. As for me... I must try to figure out why I deserve such service."
"You are the Daon," she shrugs.
"So people keep telling me."
"Because it's true; and so you deserve the best," she explains, clearing stuff away around me as she speaks, and turning me one sparkly look.
I laugh delightedly and watch her a bit longer as she opens a panel, reaches in and takes out something that looks superficially like a steam-iron. Her hand fits into it and she begins to run the gadget over the furniture; it emits a low hum while variously cleaning, sweeping and polishing, and as I watch her wield this flimb (the term floats up out of my vocabulary store) I feel glad that fate has won for her this jackpot of status as the Daon's carer in a palatial suite; but though she's bonny, she's only a backgrounder; it's not fair to expect her to act as look-out for sticky bait... Generalship in the battle of wits is my job...
I dismiss the line of thought for the time being. I'm hungry again for the history-cubes.
This time, instead of letting my native under-mind prompt me to approach one of the bays where the cubes are piled, I first walk aroud the entire penthouse periphery, counting the windows and their consoles and bays. I count twenty-six of them altogether, and then I notice something which disturbs me.
Below the console in the last of the bays, which is marked "Era 92", the storage area is quite empty...
...I've gone back and forth and ascertained, without a doubt, that these amazing Uranians are aware that their total history shall comprise twenty-six Great Eras, plus many small or tiny ones or still-born ones, and that the last, the Uranium Era, is still to come. I shiver at their prescience.
...Further hours have passed and when I come to myself I almost feel as though I were some kind of eternal omniscient eagle soaring and swooping over a geological time-span of mighty events. Their flowing and counter-flowing cultural waves, their troughs and peaks, clashes and mergers recount the thematic careers of multitudinous eras in a total saga many orders of magnitude beyond what my dazzled mind can encompass. Earth history is enthralling enough - but it's nothing like this!
In fact this is too much. More than mere "reading", my experience has been close to living through what I read, and if I don't take another rest right now, I will end as a drained husk.
But wait, a basic question pulls me up short - fool that I am not to have asked it sooner - a question which puts the entire experience of these cubes in doubt! It is imperative that I quench my thirst for an answer -
Have I only been browsing in a fiction library?
The question is stark: how do we know all this stuff?
Olhoav is an isolated city. It is deep in the wilds of Starside. The boundaries of Syoom have never reached this far. Cut off from the rest of civilization since back in Era 18, whence did the Olhoavans obtain a collection of holocubes that claim to bring the story up to Era 89?
Must not such "history" be bogus?
No, no! Surely no one could make all that up! An explanation must exist, of the means by which genuine information was able to get to this place.
An explanation which I cannot wait to find! Though exhausted, I can't rest now; I must plunge again into the store of sagas...
...Aha!! Here's a significant discovery! I thought it might be a good idea to start at the end and work backwards, and lo and behold, I've found the significant cut-off: the point where the records cease. It was around seven million days ago. Let me see... Today is Day 10,538,688 of the Actinium Era. The latest cube takes the history of Syoom during this present era no further than 3,150,546 Ac. That's the clue I need. That's roughly the date at which the haul of holocubes must have reached Olhoav... The next step - to clinch the matter - is to pin-point how.
...More hours have passed. Skies above, I never meant to stay at it so long. Only to take a "quick look"! And what was I looking for? Oh yes, the arrival at Olhoav of this actual library-collection.
Well, now I have the story:
The acquisition of this unique trove is thanks to an amazing one-off trading opportunity with a floating outlaw metropolis, Yr, City of Mists, which "passed in the night" during a transect of Fyaym early in the current era. Yr, apparently, really is a dirigible city, a fantastic, unique structure which floats in the sky, by some means which (so I glean) is widely regarded as accursed. Be that as it may, Yr traded with Olhoav during that momentous close approach. An airship-load of precious holocubes, a haul of tens of thousands, comprising the one and only windfall of its kind to turn up in Olhoav's lonely history, was freighted across from hovering Yr, and stored here in the Menestegon.
...I ought to have stopped after that discovery. Ought to have taken the rest I need, but I couldn't, it was too late, I next had to look further and further still, tempted to investigate whether anything has been done to fill in the gap in knowledge of the time subsequent to the haul from Yr.
The answer to that, I now know is yes. The Olhoavs also possess a sprinkling of other evidence, including some for more recent for events and conditions in Syoom, obtainable by a process I (vaguely) understand: apparently it involves the probing of certain "vibro-receptive clouds", from which the city's experts are able to extract images and sometimes sounds, yielding information about those parts of Syoom over which the clouds had drifted... The technological trick, perhaps, is akin to the way Terran radio hams bounce waves off the ionosphere; at any rate, that analogy helps my brain to accept it. It certainly must be a vital source of knowedge for isolated cities in Fyaym. And though these "cloud-reflected" info-scraps are minor sources of knowledge compared to the magnificent abundance furnished by the encounter with Yr, yet the scrappy fragments and the richer records complement each other. And oh skies above I'm hooked, exhausted, floundering in these ages...
Gasping lungs force me to halt, to catch up on my breathing. I must face the toughest challenge now. It's not just the length of the global saga that daunts me. Equivalent to a million-plus Earth years, what's so overwhelming is that they are continuously inhabited, recorded, remembered years, with no let-up in the story; nowhere do I find any blurry retreat into sleepy murk, into any uncharted fuzz of dark ages, although it's true that darknesses of another kind - nothing to do with gaps in the record - have (so whispers my under-mind) marked the career of Syoom.
To add to the hugeness of it all, Syoom is a civilization which, though covering only a fifth of the giant planet's surface, nevertheless comprises an extent of land twice the area of the entire globe of Earth... Such a deep-pile carpet of incident-packed vividness, enduring so long, is a supreme tempter to reduce me forever to an armchair explorer, eyes fixed for life on a hand-held cube...
I'm not sitting; I'm lying on my back. It seems another chunk of time has passed. Keeping my eyes closed, I listen to the voices coming from the pair who (I suppose) heaved me onto this couch.
"It was inevitable," says the voice of Lanok Ryr.
"But," wails Dittri, "the Daon a snoffbongar?"
"Don't blame him. What else," dryly comments her companion, "does one become on a snoffobong?"
Too gutted to sit up, I continue recumbent, while a trickle of understanding oozes from my under-mind. From zenova - knowledge - comes the vulgarisation snoffa, hence snoffobong, "knowledge-binge", and, one may vulgarly say, snoffbongar, "knowledge-junkie".
The sad truth is, it makes sense. To allow a nerdy Terran sudden permission to browse at will in Uranian history... must be like... selling whiskey to innocent Injuns. I suppose Dittri saw what was happening; I suppose she summoned Lanok via the speaking-tube.
Lanok continues, "For a while I did daydream, like you did, that he might surge into full recovery, and lead us to freedom; but it was a fond dream, no more. We must accept him as he is. Once a nebulee, always a nebulee."
"But he was getting so much better!"
"Yes, till his languor was renewed by the snoffobong. One way or another he must always relapse. It's silly to hope for anything better."
"Then there's nothing we can do." The girl sounds almost sullen.
"Except care as best we can for what fate has granted us. At least our city does have a Daon who may live out his life-span. Leave it at that, Dittri."
How long have I been out? Can't tell, but I've surfaced again with the same sense of melancholy inadequacy as before. In a different mode, however, something has changed: there's been movement, retreat... even with my eyes shut I can tell that my companions are no longer by me.
Next, with half-opened lids, I discern that Lanok and Dittri have backed off to the periphery, their arms by their sides, heads bowed. What have they retreated from? Skin prickling, I twist to see. For in the opposite direction, I have just heard the hiss of the central shaft's opening door.
Out of it wafts and swells a... wave-front, invisible but sensible. A self-proclaiming thing: I immediately know more about it than I wish to know. I've had such encounters in dreams. This, unfortunately, is no dream.
It's the advancing zone of acceptance wrapped round the being who steps forth from the elevator -
The couch occupied by my flaccid helpless self is directly in the thing's way. The man-shaped Frork looks down at me; I look up at him - or it. It's a sort of man, I decide, unhelpfully.
"I see," he croaks in a gravelly voice, "that you have made yourself at home, Daon N-Y."
My eyes now see a gaunt old man hung about with shabby folds of cloth, and I mentally grip this literal impression as hard as I can, for the alternative, the perception that threatens to over-write that harmless image, is far worse. Knowledge of the enemy's multiplication of identities swirls into me. I breathe it in, that the Frork - or Impeller - and the Glomb - or Weigher - are two guises of the same identity, far more powerful in combination than they would have been as separate persons. The reputation of Dempelath as the Glomb has a certain tyrannous grandeur, whereas this thing here needs no grandeur. Rather, the Frork is a small, dense concentration of wiry toxicity. The ultimate teacher-that-quells-the-class-with-a-look. To inspire fear, his voice needs only its hiss, like that of a slicing blade. Against this picture I try to set up another: that of a basically harmless crusty old teacher I once knew, who suffered from a smoker's cough; but the device of that trivial comparison does not work, for the power of raw personality, at whatever level, is not trivial. It freezes all questions and arrests my mind. I can't open my mouth, even.
He continues, "Well, tell me, Nyav! I'm treating you well, am I not?"
I still can't answer, and I bet he knows it; I bet he can tell how paralyzed my throat feels.
Now he raises his voice and throws it past me:
"You back there, tell me, is the Daon happy here?"
I hear Lanok say, submissively, "Yes, daykalan," which I am able to translate as "Yes, Your Variation" - laden with that dreamy catch-all sense of we-ought-to-know-whatever-it-is-without-being-told.
Tilting his face back down at me, the Frork remarks: "You and I must work together, for our fortunes are now linked: we swell or shrink together. I have given you a good vantage here. You will use it, not abuse it, eh, Daon Nyav? And if you discover that any fellow-citizens are prone to misunderstanding, you will communicate to me the identities of those citizens, will you not?"
This is it, the point at which my soul is lost or saved. He's asking me to rat, if necessary. To my own surprise I hear myself say, "I solemnly undertake to give all due consideration to Your Variation's request."
He's looking at me now with a cold smile that teeters on the edge of being a snarl, while I amazedly come to terms with having summoned, by some process or other, a modicum of guts. Skies! My goose must now be cooked... yet I seem to detect some mirth in the half-growl clearing Dempelath's throat: his dominance largely unbroken, he can afford to view my cheeky "due consideration" with amusement.
"I trust to your word," he says, and turns to go.
At the elevator doorway he glares briefly back, then the door swishes shut, he is gone, and I slump.
I hear Lanok and Dittri come forward. Dittri timidly touches me; Lanok places a hand on my shoulder.
They don't speak, and instinct keeps me silent too. I could seize the moment and said, "Lanok, tell me, if it comes to a fight, whose side will you be on?" But what's the use? Without credibility, what can I do?
Today is the third day since my establishment in these palatial conditions.
No pressure yet. No crisis has followed from the Frork's visit. Here in my "ivory tower", two pleasant days have passed.
I'm not exactly isolated. Several dozen citizens - ordinary backgrounder folk - have been in to see me, but that's all they do: see me. They get reassurance from the sight of their Daon. Usually when they come in I am reading the cubes, and they don't like to interrupt. So far, nobody has said anything subversive. No urgings to "please lead us against Dempelath", so that even if I wished to rat on them I have no tales to tell the tyrant.
But the crisis must come, sooner or later. When it does, I must either resist, or compromise my honour and reputation by some irrevocable identification with the regime.
I don't intend to wait for the blow to fall. It's hopeless to be forever reacting to the tyrant's moves. But how can I take the initiative? My cheeky little verbal defiance was a one-off; I haven't been able to follow it up with anything.
Trouble is, my "power-base" doesn't seem like much of a base for action. It's all very well, passively and symbolically, for me as Daon to embody a venerable cultural tradition. That doesn't cover my lack of any real positive cause to promote. With what call could I rally the people of Olhoav? What banner could I unfurl? How can I find a cause to outmatch Dempelath's "liberation" of the backgrounders?
I am the Daon - the Heir - the bearer of a title and nothing else. Consequently, the people are attached to the Heir as to an heirloom only.
And in this, alas, I am playing Dempelath's game. My existence gives him constitutional cover and shores up his position. I'm convenient for him, so he keeps me comfortable, materially and to some extent mentally - this penthouse-cum-ivory-tower, the Zveggh-Yerrand, suits my selfish side perfectly - but I can't live with my conscience on such terms. I must make a move. Test the claim that I'm free to leave this dwelling. Get out and do things. Push at barriers.
I decide to make an announcement.
"Dittri," I suddenly say, "tomorrow, I think, we will dine out." While her eyes and mouth widen with what I hope is enthusiasm, I casually go on to ask, "Know anywhere particularly good? I mean, popular. Sociable. Where one can, er, see folks and be seen by them."
She chews her lip. Obviously it sounds to her like a reasonable question, though one that needs a bit of thought. "Gstatt's Zoalsh would have been the place, I suppose, Daon Nyav, but I think it's closed now - I've heard that Gstatt has fled to the forests. Which means that you want the next likeliest choice. Orriv Chall, maybe..."
"What's that you just said, about Gstatt having 'fled to the forests'?"
"The grass forests," she nods. "About ten days ago, I think."
"You mean, he's left the city, he's - gone? Gone to live in the wilderness?"
"Gstatt and others - yes, that's what they're doing," Dittri affirms. "Most days one hears of some who have gone."
"Sounds like the population of Olhoav must be leaking away."
"Only those who feel they must," she says in a lowered tone, as if scared at the turn this conversation has taken.
"The irreconcilables," I nod. "A minority, or at most a moiety." And for the rest, the more pliable ones, those who might incline either way, I can guess that Dempelath will by hook or crook ensure that they don't leave. He will not submit to a loss at the numbers game. He may get round to building some kind of Berlin Wall to keep most of his people in, while on the other hand perhaps he wants his more stubborn opponents to skedaddle: allowing more of what's left to be shared out amongst himself and his adherents. Big questions, these, the answers unpredictable by me. But in my case what's urgent is to discover whether I really shall be allowed, in practice, to leave this room.
"Can you spread the word, Dittri, that I shall be at Orriv Chall's at the third hour of ayshine tomorrow, in case anyone wishes to see me?"
"Yes, Daon Nyav."
"Excellent! I shall look forward to it." (And it chimes in with the schedule of my Uranian metabolism, which will probably demand some nourishment in thirty hours or so...)
This is ridiculous, embarrassing fun - enjoying a ride as I recline on a sort of palanquin borne by volunteers who jostled for the honour.
The streets are dim, but not always too dim to show colours: the branching towers and their festooning skimways are lit by occasional globes of radiance. Thus the urban jungle is part-revealed, like interstellar nebulae are tinged with glows from embedded stars; but these "nebulae" wink with life, for although Olhoav's population is thinner than before, it still appears reasonably crowded with folk who stop and look and cheer and wave when they see who I am.
Glory be... talk about being "born with a silver spoon in one's mouth"! How's this for unearned distinction! Unearned love...
If only I could spring up and do something for them in return for my privileged status on this wonderful world; how can I be so lost to shame as to enjoy this coddling ride? But on the other hand, why not? After all, is it my fault that I'm too weak to walk? Well, maybe it is; maybe I am to blame for that. For if I had not binged on the knowledge-cubes, I might well have continued my modest progress towards fitness. In which case, I have truly let these people down. And yet I don't notice any signs of disappointment in the faces of the crowd. Impossible though it is to be certain what lies behind the salutes and the cheers, they're obviously not forced or faked; even in this dim light I can tell that much.
Of course it is not me as a person whom they cheer, but my blue cloak and its symbolic gleam of the dayonnad, the office of Daon or Heir, shining second only to the Noad in their hearts, whereas mere Nyav Yuhlm the man is an object of low expectations - "once a nebulee, always a nebulee"... although it's true that my partial recovery did excite them, and they rejoice if I show any capacity for intelligent speech at all... but they accept my relapses without surprise, which goes to show how little they expect of me as a potential leader... I can count on their love and respect, but without the addition of hope and belief, what is such devotion worth? I surely did let them down when I went on that "history-bender", draining my strength dry. I almost wish the bearers would stumble and tip me out, here as we approach a bridge over a dark chasm... a disaster area caused by the recent quake.
I glimpse a sheen below: the crustal ice, showing through the city's cracked foundation. Others are gazing at it too: folk who aren't too busy to stare at the damage sustained by the fabric of Olhoav. Passing over this spot, I wonder why I do not see one single grumbly face, hear no discontented mutters against the regime. It's no secret that Dempelath's revolution is responsible for the disaster; that his splurges of greed led to neglect of the essential maintenance routines whereby the city's foundations had hitherto been lubricated against the frictional pressures from the ice-churn below... Everybody knows, yet I hear no murmur of blame. Are they really so hoodwinked? It's looking to me as though they are. I'm beginning to feel rather less guilty about the times I've slipped into a daze. These folk, in their own way, may have fallen as short as I.
And no sooner does the thought strike me than harder evidence impinges on my field of vision. I watch a cluster of figures, one of the more innocent, loosely-organized groups of communal strollers, of the sort called kzels, now straightening, forming a grid of marchers. Before my very eyes that kzel is congealing into a waon... I guess that's the downward trend.
...A wide space here; we must be crossing Thenopt Avenue and entering the district of Flettrim. Not so far now to Orriv's Zoalsh.
I only need to listen to my inner native self to hear the glowing promise of bejeh, the convivial cosiness that awaits me. I'm really looking forward to this, my first experience of the almost holy status which this planet's culture accords a communal restaurant meal. Bejeh signals a tradition as strong and fine as Arab hospitality on Earth. But whereas the Arab custom was bred from physically harsh conditions which are well-known and understood - everyday proof that there is something terrible about denying a welcome to a stranger amid the desert - here on Ooranye the motive (as I understand it) is the need for solidarity against the dark unknown. The giant planet's ever-present ocean of mystery laps forever all around; against that overwhelm, a well-attended restaurant meal is the ideal refuge...
...I've been decanted from the palanquin. Lanok Ryr helps me through the swing door of the zoalsh. A creamy-white forest of twenty-foot pillars, and maybe fifty round tables, each seating up to eight, fill the dining hall. Quite a hubbub echoes around, but it abates at the sight of me, and then there's a sound of scraping as everyone gets up to greet me. One moment they stand, then they sit once more and carry on with their meals and their conversations, many still eyeing me welcomingly as they smile amid their chatter.
I am met by a dignified youngish man who bows and introduces himself as Orriv Chall, "At your service, Daon N-Y. You are respectfully invited by omzyr Thergerer to sit at his table." The proprietor points as he speaks; I see a rugged-looking elderly fellow has risen from one of the central tables. I thank Orriv, and I'm then helped to the indicated chair, while Lanok finds a place with another group not too far off.
My seven table-companions behave with perfect aplomb. They obviously are out to ensure that I remain at ease. The omzyr - the "General"; an omzyr commands 14,464 men, I believe - hands me the pronged spoon with which to spear-and-shovel the viands from the central bowl onto the plate in front of me. "Here the one rule is to relax, Daon Nyav. Say what you like, or say nothing at all; either way, we are honoured that you sit with us."
I smile back at the massive old buffer. "The honour is mine, Omzyr-T. As you must know, my rank is a political accident. But then, does anyone deserve nen's fate?"
Thergerer's face lights up. "Something to think about, Daon N-Y." The others, too, look immensely pleased. It's as if, just by stringing a few adult sentences together, I've electrified everyone at this table.
A large, matronly woman remarks, "It's all a bit confused nowadays. I mean to say, am I really Vemmev Stinb, or should I be known as Vemmevstinb?"
"So much hangs on it!" says a younger woman ironically. Her arms clink with metal rings; her eyes twinkle archly. "Well, s'pose I'd better settle for being called Bizzid Folomm, until I'm told different by someone in authority."
With a double-take I realize that she prattled that last sentence in English. She gazes at me as if challening me to follow suit.
In order to keep in the fashion I reply in the same alien lingo, "Don't look at me - I'm not here to wield authority. And who cares how many names one has? As a Terran poet said, 'a man's a man for a' that.'"
"Terran poets!" titters Bizzid.
I ignore her because I have just swallowed a bite of rangazd, which tastes like gingery roast lamb, and something immensely important, I immediately realize, has happened to me.
I must stay still and quiet while I come to terms with the new pleasure coursing through my innards. It is (a confidential inner whisper assures me) a further milestone in the integration of my Terran and Uranian selves. A point must come, at which one gets it. This zoalsh happens to be it. Not by any means the first time I've eaten on Ooranye; but there's realizing and there's really realizing.
Nobody talks about it, of course. Intimately, privately, Digestion One triggers Digestion Two in the double metabolism of a Nenn.
I swallow again, and Digestion Two grants me again an afterglow of my linkage to all previous arrangements of the atoms of which my body is composed. Beyond it soughs a gentle, wordless syllable breathed by the World Spirit in which we Uranians intermittently believe. It is as if the planet is whispering "cheer", bejeh.
Be self-possessed, I tell myself, for more stuff is about to happen to me; I hope that I can offer an inscrutable Terran face to those who are watching me, while I briefly consider, and shudder at, a plan that has just sprouted in some rotten niche of my Terran brain.
Like the swordsmanship of John Carter, whom I would have liked to emulate, my inventiveness is weaving a web, only in my case it's a web not of steel, but, regrettably, of fraud.
Get it over with: cough up the idea. Then spew it out. Quietly, though.
That woman sitting across from me, Vemmev Stinb, is, I now realize from my knowledge-store, a tnef: one of those unfortunate metabolic inverts for whom Digestion One and Digestion Two are back to front. I can tell all this by a certain listlessness in her chewing, and I'm sure the rest of her fellow-diners are likewise aware of the sad truth, but nobody says anything because the decent thing to do is to support one who is going through the motions which conform to what should be, though she cannot enjoy them. I'm sure that neither she nor they would consider for a moment a certain disgusting other way round the problem... combining the intake of food with another of the body's functions which ought to remain separate... the portcullis of decency slams down to block that path.
I, too, block the obscenity; I neither visualize nor verbalize it; yet being a Terran, I play with fire from the sparks which issue as I stamp on the horror...
I could do it, I suddenly realize. I could rival Dempelath at his own grievance-mongering game. I could rally the tnefs as he rallied the backgrounders, and with the same specious logic. Use the weaknesses and misfortunes of others as a lever of power for me.
One problem: I'd thereby be damned through all eternity.
Ditching the idea, I nevertheless thrill to what I have gained: a new confidence, a hope that I may outwit or at any rate disturb the tyrant.
After all, that old city-computer Dynoom brought me here for a reason, a reason which must be concerned with my Terran nature. Something this world lacks. Earthy trickery, maybe? Justifiable, perhaps? Be ye wise as serpents, as the Good Book says somewhere. If that entails using the supply of cultural poison I've brought with me from sordid Planet Earth, then, so long as I don't overdo the dose, I may be the right man for this job of Daon after all.
I take stock while sipping a tall glass of frothy, creamy, bubbly frimzaf.
The bright chatter flowing around me varies, as is now fashionable, between Lrisj and English. Now and then people smile at me in appreciation of the fact that I am evidently listening. But they don't press me to join in the conversation; they don't expect too much. Oh to be more than a figurehead Daon... I long to discover my "cause", my rightful lever against Dempelath.
"Look," says a young man called Tind Warepp, "they're bringing in the TV."
TV? Aghast, yet disbelieving, I turn in my seat and see a tall trolley being wheeled into view from out of one of the kitchen doors. One look at it reassures me; it's a vidscreen of the same design as others I have seen on Ooranye. Let them use a Terran word if they like. Only, with an uneasy sense of guilt, I wonder, is it something more than the pasting of a word? Have they truly received the idea of broadcast television from my nightly utterings? Will the adventurous Uranians ever turn into couch potatoes? With derision I dismiss the thought; yet as all the diners on every table swivel to look when the screen lights up to show a beautiful young woman in a close-fitting golden dress, I experience an eerie Terran moment. "Vissi Sereri!" cry several voices. The sound-volume is turned up and we hear her singing, in English:
"Why don't you ever see / That it's not half as good as living really / Really, like I / Would like to have but didn't..."
Accompanying this - which I gather is a translation of a traditional Uranian lyric about lost opportunities - another, different picture takes form, showing a fountain of skimmers disappearing over the fields beyond the edge of the city...
There's more, but the majority of diners are resuming their conversations. "Turn it down!" some few shout, and the management evidently complies, for the "TV"'s sound-volume abates.
"General," I meanwhile say to Thergerer, using the English rough equivalent of his title, "do you reckon you may find yourself ordered to take action against those refugees?"
"Stop the quitters, you mean?" muses the big man while all other talk at the table stops. "Now that," he hedges, "is not an option I need to consider."
I glance around. Eyes are riveted on me. I, the recently nebulated half-dopey Daon, asking a real political question? They want, and yet do not want, my influence. I can go so far before the elastic snaps. When and if that happens, I must be ready with my inspiring "cause"... but I haven't found it yet! I must, I must!
I say, "Noad Barlayn Lamiroth has fifty-something days to live. A lot can be done in fifty days."
Thergerer, with a look of compassion, shakes his head, while tension suddenly reeks like ozone. He coughs, crackles out the words, "Days which are numbered, are hard to use."
I hear Vemmev Stinb remark, "I'd say, it looks like the Noad is making the best use of his numbered days."
A lane opens in my sight and I see across four or five tables to where Barlayn Lamiroth, in person, is seated, grey cloak and all: the Noad, the Focus of the city, the true and rightful leader of Olhoav, gazing calmly in profile at the muted TV.
I scrape my chair back and stand. Who or what can stop me from approaching to confer with Barlayn Lamiroth? I am his chosen Heir.
First, though, I respond to Vemmev: "'Best use'? If I were he, my 'best use' of remaining time would be to find out who gave me the Sixty Day Disease."
"Understandably rough words, Daon N-Y," nods Thergerer, "but it would be a complete waste of time, now, to investigate the countless ways in which it might have been done."
A disembodied voice unexpectedly hums down from one of the light-fittings above our heads, "We hardly ever find answers to things."
"Dynoom!" giggles Bizzid. "Dynoom just burped out some words! Now isn't that a turn-up for the books." And reproving her, Tind Warepp says, "No it isn't. Just another judder from the old machine. It no way beats the last platitude we heard from him."
I try again to step forward, but that darned invisible elastic is holding me back. The conversation around me is resuming its normal sway. No one appears to consider Dynoom's intervention of any significance. Neither does anybody seem to think it worth my while to approach and confer with the Noad. Even though in less than sixty days the man will die, leaving me in his place, I must stand indecisively and watch and listen while topics are picked up and put down for trivial reasons and with mangled English idiom! "The waiters look tired," observes one woman. "Yeah, but this difficult patch will blow over," says her male companion. "Dempelath," adds Tind Warepp, "will doubtless re-evolve the work-trance when he has full control."
For a third time I try to step forward. I breast the 'elastic', I make some progress; whereupon proprietor Orriv Chall bustles up from my left. "Is all satisfactory, Daon N-Y?"
"Help me over to the Noad's table," I say. Orriv hesitates. I say sarcastically, "I know you didn't make the rules, sponndar O-C. And that it would be more than your job's worth to use too much discretion, etc, etc. Nevertheless - take me over there."
I have the thin satisfaction of seeing the fellow's face twitch slightly, and then my counter-spell, if that's what it is, seems to work, and he supports me as I hobble over to Barlayn Lamiroth's table.
I look down on the seated Noad.
Barlayn looks up at me and smilingly gives a shake of the head. With one raised finger he traces a little path across the throath-clasp of his cloak. I guess he is telling me that we offer a more difficult target to the enemy if we stay apart.
Even so, I can't go away without a word.
"Noad B-L," I venture hesitantly, "if I'm to fill your boots..."
He silences me with a finger-flick. "Haven't you heard," he gently drawls, "that we're all backgrounders now?"
I retort, "That's a lot of flaggabost if you ask me." The words slipped out before I knew what I was saying. I was needled by my very respect for him. I feel bad now.
Barlayn, however, throws back his head with a generous laugh, and those around him also chuckle with sophisticated tolerance of my vulgar idiom. But then wasn't it likewise crude of him to use the word backgrounder in public? I see not a single frown. Remarkable, how the approved limits of language have changed...
They laugh; they look friendly; but nobody moves to bring an extra chair, or to create a space for me at the Noad's table, and this provides me with an excuse to retreat before that "snapping of the elastic" which I fear may occur if I push things too far. I take a step back; I bow, and begin to turn away, saying, "Well then, I'll fade into the background..."
Whereupon with another finger-flick of the utmost casualness the Noad troubles to say, "What do you think, Nyav, of the new work at the Husnuth?"
"'Husnuth', Noad B-L?" This complete change of subject halts me.
"You know, or should know, of the Husnuth Physics Centre in Fraonj."
"A district I've not yet visited."
"It shall become better-known, I foretell. Previously its main feature stagnated somewhat as the... er... Cinderella of science-centres in Olhoav."
"And now you are telling me that the place has got into the news." I'm glad to listen, whatever this may lead to.
"Its turn has come," nods Barlayn. "While we've refurbished the Pnurrm for planetography, and the Menestegon is as ready as ever for history, when it comes to physics research the Husnuth has lagged behind - until now. Now the Glomb is... cultivating it. You'd think, wouldn't you, that he'd be busy enough organizing repairs after the great quake; but no, he'll soon offer so much more, it's stupefying. Stasis facilities. Freezing people. Offering an escape into the future."
Dempelath making that offer? It doesn't make sense. Why in the name of all the skies would he do that?
I keep a poker face and say, "It's all too clever for me."
"Same for all of us," the Noad agrees, "but isn't it the kind of thing people ought to be interested in, rather than sterile guff about who's a wirrip and who's a forg? Anyhow, friend Nyav, I won't keep you from enjoying the rest of your meal."
Back home (for so I call the Zveggh-Yerrand penthouse now) I prefer to reflect, not upon my brief talk with the Noad which seemed not to lead to anything good for me, but upon the brief blaze of heightened consciousness which flowed from my guts during the onset of Digestion Two. I look forward to repetitions of that...
...And yes it does recur in my more private meals with Dittri, so that that I learn to take my Uranian metabolic heritage for granted, with the result that I feel mentally and morally stronger, and hence readier to defy Dempelath when the time comes. Heartening!
Only physically am I still weak, for reasons which I suspect are largely psychological - a wishy-washy statement by the sound of it. If only the longed-for Cause were within my grasp... The banner to wave, the rallying cry...
Noad Barlayn's last words to me were surely intended as advice or warning, but they are followed by some fairly uneventful days, during which the conveyor-belt of Time brings me its snippets of news and moderate social contacts, while I enjoy an unexacting life...
Peacefully exciting, though, are the visits I get from ordinary folk. In some moods I find nothing more awesome than the vast unknowable company of private lives that surrounds me. This was as true back on Earth as it is here. Other people's domesticity, other people's untold stories... infinitely wonderful. And therefore I increasingly admire the backgrounders of Olhoav, and stronger than ever becomes my urge to defend them from their own self-proclaimed champion.
...Out through my windows I can see the wires and cables, strung at intervals with mirrors reflecting the scenes below: scenes which otherwise would be hidden from me by the curve of the main dome. These views are relayed onto six of the screens in my great circular dwelling.
With dismay I watch officials set up a huge display-board, twenty feet high, with a system of wheeled ladders which allow the public to access and to write upon any part of the surface. The aspect I like least is the invitation written at the top in large glowing characters; titled by a phrase which must have been dug up from my own knowledge of Terran history:
LET A HUNDRED FLOWERS BLOOM
Citizens! If there is anything that is puzzling you,
if you have any doubts which need to be allayed,
if you have any thoughts which you fear may be disloyal,
YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY FREE TO EXPRESS THEM HERE!
...Stirue and Wamapa, an obviously decent couple, sit on a couch opposite mine, hoping for advice and encouragement from their Daon. "We need to believe," says Stirue, holding her man by the arm.
"Believe in the Glomb, that is," amplifies Wamapa. "It does confuse us, when he's called sometimes the Glomb, sometimes the Frork. You get to wonder, what will he be called next?"
I don't dismiss their point by saying, What's in a name? I feel in my bones the importance in which such matters are held on Ooranye.
But it is time to issue a blunt warning. I urge them, "Don't put your doubts in writing on that board. You'll regret it if you do. You desire reassurance? Learn to do without."
They gaze at me in astonishment. I am astonished at myself, at the plain way I have said what I thought.
Stirue says, "Daon N-Y, you speak boldly."
I say grimly, "I've seen several people tell me they intended to write stuff on that board. None of them, so far, have I seen since. Good day to you both, sponndarou. I hope I have maximised your chances of survival."
They back off, and with uncertain expressions make for the elevator.
Whether the enemy listens continuously, I know not. But the advice I've given to this pair, and less forcefully to a few others, will surely reach him soon, if it has not already done so. He therefore knows, or shortly will know, that I have crossed him.
I wearily shuffle over to the speaking-tube.
"Hello," I say, "who's that on duty? Lanok...? Oh, Lunstak. Right, now then, Lunstak, no need to come up here, I want you to take your end of this tube and connect it, strap or tie it or whatever, to one of the light fittings where you are. Got that? It's a whim, Lunstak... Thank you... What did you say?"
The guard's voice comes through, "I can guess what you want, Daon Nyav. It may just mean asking... Wait, please, while I ask."
Well, doggone it, I'll be a forgy snoffbongar; it sure is great when folks get the point.
"Connected, Daon N-Y."
I thank him, wait some seconds, and then say, "Dynoom."
"I hear my name," says the thin voice from whatever tiny fraction of the city-brain has deigned to pay attention to me.
"Dynoom," says I while my breath labours, "I may have burned my boats - if you get my meaning. Listen... you sound awfully faint... you have seen that big board?"
"Big board. Hundred Flowers..."
"Yes, that's it, Dynoom; now do listen please: I've defied Dempelath over this thing. I've warned people against it. So, can you do anything to help me? Dynoom, do you hear me, this is Daon Nyav Yuhlm speaking, alias Neville Yeadon, whom you summoned from Earth."
"Neville / Nyav," said the thin voice. "The half-Terran Daon."
"Yes, yes, it is I, the disappointing Daon, but my story is not over yet - "
"Observations of the Snaddy-Galomm," ruminates the city-brain, "suggest that contemporary pairs of dual-lifers don't get reincarnated. They have their extra bite at the cherry simultaneously, so when they die, that is the end of them..."
Listening to this creepy waffle, I begin to get the feeling that Dynoom is not actually talking to me; rather, it's talking to itself, while I am merely jogging the narcoleptic soliloquies of a sleeper's mind.
"Never mind all that," I cry. "Descend from the clouds, will you? I've told you I'm aware that I've 'burned my boats'. I'm in a state of readiness to die if necessary - except..." my voice goes small, "I admit, I have no banner to wave."
"I," the big brain muses, "have mislaid the empathetic feeling which I used to have... which is a pity as I have realized that Dempelath is a threat not only to Olhoav but to the world."
"Stop droning, Dynoom. You're a Ghepion full of resourcefulness and power. Transcend your limitations and wake up."
"...Naught for me but to trickle along the wires..."
"Look," I say, "it goes to show what a good Uranian I've become, not launching into any Terran-style investigations into weird stuff, just accepting it and moving on... but nevertheless I do have a practical need to kick you out of your dreamy self-absorption. But, how does one kick a Ghepion? I suppose I must simply give up on you..."
"...Investigate... the Chamber... my sensors indicate preparations are being made... a stronger Chamber... not just a toy this time..."
Hullo, what was that? Didn't sound like the previous monologue. The great brain's tone has changed. Still faint, but crisper.
"...Must concentrate... must watch this... a successful, man-sized stasis chamber perfecting itself..."
The voice trickles into silence, like a stream disappeared underground, gone.
I don't like the sound of this silence at all.
It's the third hour of yyne, the darkest time of night. I've muted the lights in this area around my couch, and it's restfully dim now, but I still see in my mind's eye the bright contrails of the events that passed recently by, especially that ghostlike chat with Dynoom, which has left its glowing smear across my mental retina. I'm beginning to sense my currents of fate almost as clearly as I saw the pictograms on Face Six of the history-cubes. I sense them as a Voice-Over. A subsidiary stream of consciousness, an accompanying commentary on my course through life, an insistent, fading arrow...
I open my eyes and first of all see, from the light on the ceiling, that it must be morning. I hear a low, inexplicable hubbub of murmurs, which makes me reluctant to look down and face what could possibly have caused such a buzz in this scholarly sanctum. I've never known outside sounds to be picked up in here. Ah, no, it's not outside sounds. My refuge has been invaded. I gaze at scores, maybe a couple of hundred people; with their backs to the great circle of windows, they stand patiently, watchfully, their attention resting on me at the centre, while with the realism of dream I fancy that the great lenticular room is swaying and revolving about me. The message is immediate: this must be how the Uranian fate-currents operate: they press, they screw you down, they force you to sleep deep before the last spurt...
I grimace as I heave myself onto one elbow, while a hush falls as the crowd notice that I am awake. I try to force myself to think in practical terms. All these people - they must have arrived by many elevator-loads, none of which roused me; how was my sleep so profound? Time decelerates and the space between one heartbeat and the next is long enough for a new and terrible understanding. The room no longer seems to revolve, but my fate-current still speaks in my brain. Look,
the current seems to affirm, you're going to get it today, the stasis treatment: it is for you that the "Chamber" has been prepared. Dempelath wants neither the symbolic
setback of killing you, nor the inconvenience of keeping you alive, but rather that you be placed in that condition which is not quite death and not quite life, and which is, from the tyrant's point of view, the perfect solution.
And these folk here don't look appalled. Rather, they seem bright-eyed with a sort of subdued hope. I feel especially disappointed in those whom I considered to be my friends, Lanok Ryr and Dittri.
I crook a finger at Lanok. He steps forward.
I say to him, "What is all this?"
He says, "Dempelath has placed the Noad in stasis..."
The news wallops my brain. I've got it completely wrong, I chant to myself, humiliated and relieved in equal measure, while, keeping my turmoil to myself, I ask: "Is this certain? Has a formal announcement been made?"
"Yes, it's official. This is what we've been told: that Dempelath didn't want to raise our hopes earlier, but that thanks to the facilities at the Husnuth, research has proceded to the point at which it has proved possible to freeze Barlayn Lamiroth in stasis till such time as a cure for the Sixty-Day Disease may be found. So he won't die, after all, when his sixty days are gone!"
I smile, "Which means, I need not worry about becoming Noad of Olhoav at any foreseeable time. But that, though great news, doesn't explain this gathering. You all look like there's some different good news on the way."
"Dempelath," says Lanok, "feels that you ought to be given a new title, to compensate you for the decreased likelihood that you will ever become Noad."
I say, "Help me up." He does so. "All right," I say, "I can manage now." I totter over to the nearest window, the people there making way for me. I look out of the window and at the vidscreen under it. They both show large numbers of people shuffling about in the streets, in evident expectation of a big announcement; and I also note, here and there among them, a crawl of waons in formation, marching hither and thither like social insects restlessly awaiting the establishment of their hive. And then I hear a sound within the building: the starting hum of the elevator cage.
I wasn't so wrong after all, to assume that my doom is upon me. It's
those currents, those mis-read currents of fate: I'm a beginner at this
game, and got the message wrong, but not the shape. Or to put it another way, I got the grammar of the Voice-Over wrong, but not the vocabulary. The keywords remain crucial: I - stasis - doom. The stasis, not of me but of the Noad, is my doom.
I make my way back to the couch, sit and await what's coming.
Since the Noad is neither dead nor effectively alive, I likewise am suspended in a status of perpetual Heir which is tantamount to being no Heir at all but rather a blank slate on which the Glomb can write a new title and a new role. I'll then indeed be frozen, not in stasis but in infamy. Unless, that is, I can find my banner and make a stand. That's what I have continuously hoped; but my time is about to run out.
The shaft door opens. Out of the cage steps a group of nine citizens, and behind them, the silent, shady form of Dempelath in his guise of the Frork.
In co-ordinated step the deputation approaches my couch. The fellow in the middle of the front three, his face now overspread with official solemnity, I recognize as - General Thergerer. The omzyr comes to a halt and unwinds a scroll.
Doubtless on cue, the screens under each window in the place light light up more brilliantly than ever, and I feel sure that I and everyone here are on display throughout the city.
"This is the day," the omzyr begins to read, "when we the people of Olhoav begin a new chapter of justice and freedom in the history of our world. For the first time on Ooranye we are about to institute a government of laws and not of men..."
I listen as he drones on and my heart sinks. It's all there, all the stuff these poor people have lifted from my Earthmind during my noctural maunderings. The written constitution, the legalism, the bureaucratic box-ticking, the substitution of rules for responsibility, of procedures for renl... all the stuff that's so necessary on Earth, where people simply aren't good enough for anything else, and so unbearably sad here on Ooranye where sights can be set higher.
Now the Frork is standing to one side, as he fixes me with his darkly satisfied gaze, and a part of my attention registers that the hem of his cloak looks semi-transparent: thus I comprehend that the figure I see is a mere emanation; he's so sure of me that he deems it unnecessary to be actually present at this inaugural ceremony. Doubtless he is at this moment swirling about the city, working the crowds, ballyhooing the latest lever by which he aims to control their lives.
But he has misjudged me.
Mmm, how he has misjudged me! Innumerable psychic hooks inside me now move to zip up with their opposite numbers and fasten and merge the two halves of my soul, whereupon at last I discern and can grasp my banner, and hold to my Cause.
"...And so," declaims Thergerer, "Daon Nyav Yuhlm, you are hereby appointed Validator of the laws of this State of Olhoav. Any new legislation must be signed by you, and upon your signature it shall acquire force of law... beginning with this founding document which I hold out to you, Validator N-Y."
I rise from the couch. I stand, and reach, and take the long, swaying paper sheet. I hold it high and flex the muscles in my arms. An invalid no longer, I feel the strength that pours into me like a draught of some wine of the gods, though all it really amounts to is the sheer relief that I am no longer letting my people down. It is for this that you were born, Neville Yeadon: to be the Terran serum that inoculates Ooranye against the Terran disease. As though I were ruler of the world I proclaim with all the power in my lungs - while I rip the document in two and crumple it and fling it aside - "I WILL HAVE NO PAPER-PUSHING ON OORANYE."
TO BE CONTINUED IN
Uranian Throne Episode 14:
The Heartland Beckons