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The ego-track of Neville Yeadon (continued):
Our ascent slows... ceases. The elevator door begins to open and I brace myself. Whatever may be beyond that threshold, I expect to meet richness and enthroned power, and as an orange glow widens before me I make haste to draw upon all the visceral courage that I can haul up from the depths of my native self. (And if that's not enough? Then let me call upon my sneakier Terran nature too.)
Lanok Ryr is saying, "Come, Daon N-Y: step into your quarters."
My quarters? My quarters? I take a couple of strides forward and then, in wonderment, I stop - and simply gawp, awestruck by the lens-shaped penthouse interior.
Mustn't let myself be childishly impressed or fooled by what seems fantastic. I am the Daon, after all. Heir to this city. Such being my rank, I ought not to be overwhelmed by magnificence, splendour, profusion -
Yet the glowing furniture and winking lights prompt me to imagine I'm in some de luxe flying saucer which, flattening the crown of the Menestegon's dome, has settled here.
From where I stand, I can see all the way around the roomy dazzle of this opulent dwelling, except where the central shaft (out of which I have just stepped) blocks the view. My eyes follow the row of windows. Below them I see the banks of switches and vidscreens, and the holocube-laden recesses below those. It's a ring of wonders encircling 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, just waiting for me here. And that's not all of it. In case I don't feel in the mood for work, 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, all plushly strewn with furniture and fittings adapted for every human need: living-quarters for the fortunate proprietor, which is to say, me. If, that is, I can believe it.
If, if. Be careful now. Think before you get intoxicated. Why get so excited by a room?
Yes, why the extra wonder? Both as a Uranian and a Terran, you know sumptuous refinement when you see it. Shouldn't you be on the look-out, instead, for the catch?
Ah but, I reply to my admonitory self, I sense, here, a real trove, not a con but a true opportunity. Here it might be possible for me, by grasping wider wonders, to learn properly about the planet which has become my home world.
Still, don't show your eagerness. Stay cool, dryly pessimistic. For nothing comes without a price; you must expect to pay.
I turn to eye my companions - the two who have entered with me (while the armed escort have remained in the cage in the central shaft).
The girl, Dittri, is wide-eyed, her expression doubtless akin to mine. Not so Lanok Ryr. He's obviously familiar with this scene. 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. "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.
In truth, I don't feel imprisoned. Of course that doesn't alter my zero trust in the situation. Nevertheless, like an inquisitive cat, I feel an urge to sniff around and paw things. In particular I am drawn to those coloured glowing cubes in the recesses... and to 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 so I am treated to vistas of Olhoav's typical filigree of polyhedral buildings suspended among glimmering lines and curves, while at the same time, as I proceed along, my left hand brushes the sloping consoles below the windows, till a finger-touch prompts me to shift my attention, to look down from the upper to the lower parallel sequence of views. These vidscreens will show me - so I guess from this first one - sections of the city which are out of sight of the windows. Yes, this one overlooks an edge of the park called Ruvur, 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 facing into a mirror. Then I realize that, in reality and image alike, it is 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 the screens alternate: if one screen monitors outward, the next one monitors inward, and vice versa. Fair's fair, you could say: I can watch but equally I am 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. Lanok says that I can leave at any time. That claim is testable... might it be best, if it's true, to get out now, rather than wait till I have discovered more? The 'more' might be 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, perhaps 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 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, "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 animates his eyes.
If it is hope, 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; hence 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 knowledge welling up from my 'under-mind' randomly informs me that such tubes are made useful when "cleared", like throats, by maintenance reflexes which sweep at intervals through Olhoav's structures... Well, there'll be time enough to look into 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 nose for what to try.
Have to start somewhere. I "sniff the colour" (can't put it any other way) of one particular recess. Fingers clutching in anticipation, I move towards the stacks. Four inches on a side, the cubes 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 nevertheless inflict that spiritual pang, that aching thrill, with which summer blueness beguiles the soul on Earth.
Hungering as I reach for one lying 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, peering closely as one facet after another draws my eyes.
Three of the six sides 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 main languages of this planet, and it comes to me that I myself, like most Uranians, am trilingual: I can read all three. Nevertheless, regional distrubution of day-to-day usage must ensure local predominance of one tongue, like that of Lrisj in Olhoav - whereas the cubes' equal juxtaposition of tongues would indicate that they are designed more for world-wide access and distribution. This thought awes me, fills me with a sensation of actual contact with civilization's beating heart tens of thousands of miles distant from where I live in isolated Olhoav. My mind fizzes with eagerness to plunge into these texts, to explore that mighty, distant, historic realm of Syoom: that 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 of it and look again at the squirming design...
...Some minutes have passed. I have gulped enough of these impressions, that I can begin to figure the scope of the treasure which I heft in my palm.
I can stroke the texts up or down to scroll them forward or backward. By doing this, what I find is a tale of a stricken skyship.
It is an extremely old tale. Whichever narrative I read on faces one to three, the date-display on Face Four adjusts to match that stage of the story. 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 skyship shown close-up reveals a crater-like wound in the hull. That is evidence of an impact which has gouged away many tons of the structure's rocky foam. The good ship Jolharr has suffered a grievous blow.
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, which also notifies me when the illustration changes.
I don't gaze so often at the 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 spooky fluctuations, pulling me into a suggestive pictogram-mode which speaks to my emotions with subliminal force, fairly dripping with a context-awareness more potent and more explicit than mood music, equivalent to a symbolic "voice-over" that feeds me a premonition of the Jolharr's coming doom. It's all a bit much, especially as the account pelts me with a hail of hints that the skyship's fate is part of a far huger tragedy, forcing my sympathies to stretch over and embrace the remnants of a mighty fleet scattered by disaster across the wilderness of Starside.
Scroll, scroll, scroll... "page" after "page". I read of the skyship'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. They survey the environs, they probe the forests, and they come to terms with their plight.
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, or perhaps from another cycle of eras. Simple hunter-gatherers now, the natives 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, despite the fact that 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 ores accessible in the ice crust. From these resources the ex-crew construct the basis and focus of a new loyalty. Gradually, while the carcass of the skyship is used up, until the residue subsides into a mound, over and around it proliferate the structures of a new city, till the day comes when Captain Armuz Teegolon is acclaimed the first Noad of Olhoav.
End of one section of the narrative.
So intoxicated have I become by the vividness and immediacy of the ancient tale, that I haven't thought to sit down until this chapter break. Now exhaustion claims me, I close my eyes and stagger to a chair...
A voice cries, "Daon Nyav!"
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.
Ushering me to a table, she beams, "This place is perfect!"
"I see it has potential," I grin, eyeing the meal she has spread. Uranians eat more rarely than Terrans, but when they do, they know how. Sitting opposite the girl, I enjoy the food, 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 demurely remarks.
I smile as I appreciate how happy she must be in order for her to be able to make conversation in this way with a man who so far outranks her. 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. I guess her personality has sufficient ballast not to be capsized in a joyous flood.
"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 deprecatingly 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; could she also, I wonder, help me against the enemy? No, better not think along those lines. Let her shine as she is, a bonny backgrounder; it's not fair to expect her to act as look-out for the sticky bait which I suspect lies in wait for me... Generalship in the political battle of wits is my job.
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 twenty-six windows and their consoles and bays.
Now wait, this is more complicated than I thought. Twenty-six windows; twenty-six storage bays; but their numbers don't go from 1 to 26. Their numbers are in sequence but they range from 1 to 92, which means many numbers are omitted. Except - no - the missing numbers are visible, but written much smaller, scattered somewhat irregularly along the sequence.
So for example they start ONE two THREE four five six seven eight nine ten eleven twelve thirteen fourteen FIFTEEN sixteen seventeen EIGHTEEN nineteen twenty twenty-one twenty-two TWENTY-THREE... ah, my under-mind is feeding me the understanding - it's one GREAT ERA per window, and the small eras, the short eras, squeeze in as marginalia to the main narratives in those 26 bays.
...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, all totalling 92, and that the Uranium Era shall be the last of all.
It's unquestioned! Absolutely believed! Up till now my Earth-consciousness has not been aware how natural and ingrained is the awareness of the periodic table of the elements in the Uranian mind. No Mendeleev has ever been needed on this world, to point out the sequence that extends from 1 to 92, from Hydrogen to Uranium, and apparently for them (and now also for me) it is but a short step from a chemical to a historical sequence.
What brings it all home to me, with increasing disturbance in my guts, is the last storage bay. It's empty. Empty necessarily, as we are currently only in era 89, and the last bay is for the last era, number 92. And that number is expressed by a special pictogram that means "finality".
I stare at it while I imbibe the truth of what my people - the Nenns now being my people - firmly believe. It spooks and intoxicates me so that I hardly know whether to be excited or appalled.
Apparently, that final era shall be the longest of all, by far. In fact the folks on this world specifically assume, without question, that the Uranium Era is going to last six times as long as all the other 91 put together, adding such an immense stretch to the span of the Nenns' history that its entirety will cover 100,000 Uranian years, equivalent to 8,400,000 Earth years, six-sevenths of which is still to come. But that generous helping of Future, though huge, will be the Uranians' lot; they'll get no more, for at that exact though distant time, neither earlier nor later, the door of history will close for Nennkind.
I shiver at such prescience of finality. There's something Aztec about it, though on a vaster scale. Even though I very much doubt that the Terran human race will last anything like as long as 8 million years, the fact that we Earthlings don't know how long we've got allows us to enjoy an open-ended view of our species' lifetime which these Nenns can hardly know. However, nobody seems to mind...
...Further hours have passed. To recover from the distant sight of that ultimate closed door, I have veered round and soared back to hover like some kind of omniscient eagle over a geological time-span of mighty events. Flowing and counter-flowing cultural waves, troughs and peaks, clashes and mergers recount the careering themes of a tapestry of sagas many orders of magnitude richer than anything my dazzled mind has ever tried to encompass. Earth history is enthralling enough but it's nothing like this.
Far 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 -
Is the reader really intended to believe all these splendidly structured stories? Or - have I only been browsing in a fiction library?
And if not, then the question is stark: how do we know all this stuff is true?
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! It's too much. Nobody could invent such a world. An explanation must exist, of the means by which so much information was able to get here.
An explanation which I am hungry to find. Though exhausted, I can't rest now; I must plunge again into the store of sagas...
...Ah, 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, it has turned out to be the right approach, enabling me to find 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 history-cube takes the narrative of Syoom during this present era no further than 3,150,546 Ac. Roughly seven-point-four million days ago. That's the clue I need. That's approximately when the haul of holocubes must have reached Olhoav.
The next step - to clinch the matter - is to pin-point how they got here.
...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 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 by in the night during a transect of Fyaym early in the current era.
Yr, apparently, really was or is a dirigible city, a fantastic, unique structure able to float in the sky, by some means widely regarded as accursed. This object of superstition traded with Olhoav during that momentous close approach seven-million-and-something days ago. A skyship-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 for more recent events and conditions in Syoom, obtainable, apparently, by probing certain "vibro-receptive clouds", from which the city's experts are able to extract images and sometimes sounds that yield information about those parts of Syoom over which the clouds had drifted...
This technological trick, I imagine, 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...
Literally gasping, my lungs force me to halt. It's not just the length of the global saga that has daunted me. Equivalent to a million-plus Earth years, what's so overwhelming is that this span of time is continuously inhabited, recorded, remembered with no let-up in the story, with no blurry retreat into sleepy murk, no uncharted fuzz of dark ages. (Darknesses of another kind - nothing to do with gaps in the record - have marked the career of Syoom; so whispers my under-mind. But that's another matter.)
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 globe of Earth. Such a deep-pile carpet of incident-packed vividness, enduring so long, is a supreme tempter, offering to reduce me forever to an armchair explorer whose eyes are fixed for life on hand-held cubes...
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) have heaved me onto this couch.
"It was inevitable," says the voice of Lanok Ryr.
Dittri cries, "What - the Daon a snoffbongar?"
"What else," dryly comments her companion, "does one become on a snoffobong?"
The words have an unwelcome ring to them; a trickle of understanding, while I continue recumbent, worsens their effect. Derived from zenova - knowledge - the vulgarisation snoffa, hence snoffobong, "knowledge-binge", leads to the even more vulgar snoffbongar, "knowledge-junkie". So that's what I am.
The sad truth is, it makes sense. To allow a nerdy Terran permission to browse at will in Uranian history could be as risky as, in the old Western cliché, selling whiskey to Injuns. Yes, the holocubes were my "fire-water" and I suppose that Dittri, seeing what was happening, 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, and we must accept him as he is. Once a nebulee, always a nebulee."
"But he was getting so much better!" wails Dittri.
"Yes, till his languor was renewed by the snoffobong."
The girl sighs miserably; she has no retort.
"One way or another," continues Lanok, "he must always relapse. It's silly to hope for anything better."
"Then - " sullenly now - "there's nothing we can do."
"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. However, something has changed. There has 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, their arms by their sides, heads bowed. What have they retreated from? With an effort, skin prickling, I twist to see. I have just heard the hiss of the central shaft's opening door.
Out of it wafts and swells a... wave-front, invisible yet sensible, a self-proclaiming thing about which I immediately know more than I wish to know. I've had such encounters in dreams but this, unfortunately, is no dream. It's an advancing zone of acceptance wrapped around the being who steps forth from the elevator -
My couch, on which lies my flaccid helpless self, is directly in the thing's way. The man-shaped Frork looks down at me and I look up at him - or it. It's a sort of man, I decide. By the look of him, he's no more than a gaunt old man hung about with shabby folds of cloth; but through his almost motionless lips emerges a gravelly croak which sounds too deep for humanity. "I see that you have made yourself at home, Daon N-Y."
I mentally grip, as hard as I can, the literal impression registered by my eyes, because the alternative, the perception that threatens to over-write that image, is far worse. Knowledge is swirling into me, of the enemy's multiplication of identities, and thus I breathe it in, that the Frork - or Impeller - and the Glomb - or Weigher - are two guises of an 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, the Frork, is a small, dense concentration of wiry toxicity: the teacher-that-quells-the-class-with-a-look; the inspirer of fear by a mere croak or clack or hiss. Against this picture I try to set up another, that of a harmlessly crusty old teacher I once knew, who suffered from a smoker's cough. But the device does not work, for the power of raw personality is not trivial. It arrests my mind so that I can't even open my mouth.
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".
The odd title is laden with a dreamy catch-all sense of we-ought-to-know-whatever-it-is-without-being-told. I feel forced to go along with it all, as, tilting his face back down at me, the Frork remarks: "You and I must work together. Our fortunes are now linked: they swell or shrink together."
I nod! I feel I have to!
He goes on: "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. I meanwhile amazedly come to terms with having summoned, by some process or other, a modicum of guts. Skies! My goose must now be cooked...
Yet some mirth seems detectable in the half-growl clearing Dempelath's throat: his dominance largely unbroken, he can afford to view with amusement my cheeky "due consideration".
"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, without real power, 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 call it an ivory tower but I'm not exactly isolated. Several dozen citizens - ordinary backgrounder folk - have been in to see me, though 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; I must take the initiative. But how? My cheeky little verbal defiance was a one-off; I have not been able to follow it up with anything, and I can't think how I could.
My "power-base" doesn't seem much of a base for action. It's all very well, passively and symbolically, for me as Daon to embody a venerable cultural tradition, but, really, with what call could I rally the people of Olhoav? What banner could I unfurl? How can I outmatch Dempelath's "liberation" of the backgrounders? The people remain attached to the Heir as to an heirloom only; I am, as Daon, the bearer of a title and nothing else.
In this, alas, I am playing Dempelath's game; my existence gives him constitutional cover and shores up his position, in return for which he keeps me comfortable, materially and to some extent mentally - this penthouse-cum-ivory-tower, the Zveggh-Yerrand, suits my selfish side perfectly -
I can't live with my conscience on such terms. I must make a move. Test the claim that I'm free to leave. Get out and do things. Push at barriers.
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."
Watching her chew her lip, I hope her reaction is that of someone who has been asked a reasonable question which requires a bit of thought - rather than a serious embarrassment.
"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, which maybe is Orriv Chall's place..."
"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 to live in the wilderness?"
"He and quite a few others - yes, that's what they're doing," Dittri affirms. "Most days one hears of some more 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.
"The irreconcilables," I nod. "A minority, or at most a moiety."
And for all the rest, the more pliable ones, I'll bet that Dempelath will by hook or crook ensure that they don't leave. Rather than submit to a loss at the numbers game he'll get round to building some kind of Berlin Wall to keep most of his people in, while having allowed his more stubborn opponents to skedaddle will mean that more of what's left can be shared out amongst himself and his adherents. Big matters, these, but right now for me 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 the ride as I recline on a sort of palanquin borne by volunteers who jostled for the honour.
The streets are dim, but not too dim to show occasional colours wherever the branching towers and their festooning skimways are lit by globes of radiance. Thus the urban jungle is part-revealed, in a manner that recalls astro-photos of nebulae tinged with glows from embedded stars; but here the "nebulae" flicker in real time as crowds of folk stop and look and cheer and wave when they see who I am.
Well, looks like the population density, while doubtless less than it was, certainly still suffices to produce a lively scene! If only I could spring up and do something for them in return for my privileged status on this wonderful world! Talk of being "born with a silver spoon in one's mouth": such unearned distinction, unearned love... how can I be so lost to shame as to enjoy this coddling ride?
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 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, and so it must be that 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 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. They rejoice if I show any capacity for intelligent speech at all, but they accept my relapses without surprise. That's 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". I had been starting to wake into effective life but now I have drained my strength dry. I almost wish the bearers would stumble and tip me out. Here would be a good place, 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 likewise are staring at the damage sustained by the fabric of Olhoav.
As my bearers take me past 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 are what 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? I'm beginning to feel rather less guilty about the times I've slipped into a daze.
And no sooner does the thought strike me than I notice 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. Cosiness awaits me. So I'm promised by my inner native self. I anticipate the glow of bejeh, the conviviality which will be my first experience of the almost holy status which this planet's culture accords a communal restaurant meal.
I recognize that the word bejeh signals a tradition as strong and fine as Arab hospitality on Earth. But whereas the Arab custom is bred from physically harsh conditions which are well-known and understood, and which imply that there is something terrible about denying a welcome to a stranger amid the desert, here on Ooranye the source is different. Here 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 fifty or so round tables, each seating up to eight, fill the dining hall. A hubbub 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. Most, though, still eye me 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. (Lanok meanwhile finds a place with another group not too far off.)
My seven table-companions 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.
I thank Omzyr Thergerer, and he says:
"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."
Smiling back at the massive old buffer, I reply: "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 that same currently fashionable alien tongue. "Don't look at me - I'm not here to wield authority. And who cares how many names one has? A man's a man for a' that."
"Terran poets!" titters Bizzid. "So full of aplomb!"
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 a warm feeling from my linkage to all previous arrangements of the atoms in my body. 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.
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 - but quietly.
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. A tall trolley is being wheeled into view from out of one of the kitchen doors. One look at it reassures me; it's only a vidscreen of the same design as others which I have seen on Ooranye. Let them use a Terran word if they like. Only, with an uneasy sense of guilt, I wonder, are they doing - have they done - more than just the pasting of a word? Could my nightly utterings have taught them the idea of broadcast television? I wince from the dread absurdity of adventurous Uranians turned into couch potatoes... With derision I dismiss that idea and yet, as the diners on every table swivel to look when the screen lights up, I experience an eerie Terran moment.
The moving image is of a beautiful young woman in a close-fitting golden dress, "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 translation of a traditional Uranian lyric about lost opportunities, a different picture flashes on to occupy half the screen: a fountain of skimmers disappearing over the fields beyond the edge of the city...
Is this a hint about the refugees, that they're missing the opportunity to stay in Olhoav and experience the enlightened rule of Dempelath? Or is the hint subversive, the singer, Vissi Sereri, arousing thoughts of envy in those who have chosen to remain rather than head for the horizon...?
I'm not sure, but at any rate the majority of diners are resuming their conversations. "Turn it down!" some few shout. The management complies; the "TV"'s sound abates, the song continuing at a lower volume.
"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, the recently nebulated half-dopey Daon who has asked a real political question.
I go on, "Noad Barlayn Lamiroth has fifty-something days to live. A lot can be done in fifty days."
The tension suddenly reeks like ozone. These people
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"... I must, I must, whatever it is!
Thergerer coughs, and crackles out the words, "Days which are numbered, are hard to use."
I hear an opinion from Vemmev Stinb: "I'd say, the Noad is making the best use of his numbered days."
No - it's more than an opinion - it's meant as an observation. 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 true and rightful leader of Olhoav, the Focus of the city, is visible in profile gazing at the muted TV.
I scrape my chair back. Who or what can stop me from approaching to confer with Barlayn Lamiroth? I am his chosen Heir.
First, though, as I stand up I respond to Vemmev: "'Best use' of his remaing days, you reckon? If I were he, my 'best use' would be to find out who gave me the Sixty Day Disease."
"Understandable, your rough words, Daon N-Y," nods Thergerer, "but it would be a complete waste of time to investigate the countless ways in which it might have been done."
A disembodied voice hums above my head, "We hardly ever find answers to things." I jerk my head up and stare at the light-fittings from which issued the remark, a kind of interruption which (so I've learned) one gets accustomed to in Olhoav.
"Dynoom's burped out some words!" giggles Bizzid. "Now isn't that a turn-up for the books."
Reproving her, but with equal disrespect, Tind Warepp says, "No it isn't; it's just another judder from the old machine. No way does it beat his previous platitude."
I try to step away, but that darned invisible elastic is holding me back. The conversation around me resumes its normal sway and nobody regards Dynoom's intervention as of any significance. Neither does anyone seem to think it worth my while when I say, "I wish to 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.
This time I breast the 'elastic', I make some progress. But now proprietor Orriv Chall is bustling up from my left.
"Is all satisfactory, Daon N-Y?"
"Help me over to the Noad's table," I say. Orriv hesitates, and I add, 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, et cetera, et cetera, but nevertheless - take me over there."
I have the thin satisfaction of seeing the fellow's face twitch slightly, and then my counter-spell 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 gives a smiling shake of the head; with one raised finger he traces a path across the throat-clasp of his cloak, telling me (I intuit) that we'll 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, "if I'm to fill your boots..."
He silences me with a finger-flick. "Haven't you heard," he husks, "that we're all backgrounders now?"
"That's a lot of flaggabost - " the words slip out before I know what I'm saying. I suppose I was needled by my very respect for him, but I feel bad now.
Barlayn, however, throws back his head with a generous laugh. Those around him also chuckle. I sense their sophisticated tolerance of my vulgar idiom. But then wasn't it likewise crude of him to use the word backgrounder in public? I didn't notice a single frown at that. Remarkable, how the approved limits of language have changed... I, too, give a short laugh, a watchful one. We're all looking friendly. Nobody, however, moves to bring an extra chair, or to create a space for me at the Noad's table. Well, this provides me with an excuse to retreat before that "snapping of the elastic" which would mean I'd pushed things too far. 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?"
"You know, or should know, of the Husnuth Physics Centre in Fraonj."
"A district I've not yet visited," I reply.
"It shall become better-known in due course."
"Why?" The change of subject has halted me, has made me want clarity before I resume my move to retreat.
"Previously," the Noad explains, "the place stagnated as the... er... Cinderella of science-centres in Olhoav."
"And now it's about to get into the news?"
"Its turn has come," nods Barlayn. "The others have had theirs. 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 - for now the Glomb is cultivating it."
"Oh?" say I in a neutral tone.
"Yes. Clever fellow, the Glomb" (said in English.) "You'd think, wouldn't you, that he'd be busy enough organizing repairs after the great quake. But no; he'll soon offer stupefyingly so much more. Stasis facilities. Freezing people. Offering escape into the future."
Dempelath making an offer like that? Why in the name of all the skies would he do such a thing?
I keep a poker face. "It's all too clever for me."
"Same for all of us," the Noad agrees, "but my view is that, unfathomable though it may be, it is the kind of thing people ought to be interested in, rather than sterile guff about who's a wirrip and who's a forg. But anyhow, friend Nyav, I shan't keep you from enjoying the rest of your meal."
Back home (for so I call the Zveggh-Yerrand penthouse now) I reflect, not upon my puzzling and unsatisfactory talk with the Noad, but upon the blaze of Digestion Two. Glow of togetherness! Inexpressive, heightened consciousness flowing in my guts! Though not what it could have been - I could sense that the experience was somewhat bedimmed by the regime in this saddened city - nevertheless it gave me real, albeit muted, bejeh, and I look forward to repetitions of that...
...And yes it does recur in my more private meals with Dittri.
My metabolic Uranian heritage is a blessing which I am learning to trust...
I feel mentally and morally stronger, and hence readier to defy Dempelath when the time comes.
Only physically am I still weak. And even that, I expect, is due merely to some wishy-washy psychological reason. If only the rallying cry could occur to me; if only the banner to wave, the longed-for Cause were within my grasp...
Noad Barlayn's last words to me, which I suppose were intended as advice or warning, have been followed by some uneventful days. The conveyor-belt of Time brings me its snippets of news, together with some moderate social contacts, so that I enjoy an unexacting life...
Peacefully exciting, the visits I get from ordinary folk. In some moods I find nothing more awesome than the vast unknowable company of private lives, the human complex that surrounds me. This was as true back on Earth as it is here. Other people's domesticity, other people's untold stories, are infinitely wonderful. And therefore I increasingly admire the backgrounders of Olhoav. Stronger than ever becomes my urge to take their side, 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. It is provided with a system of wheeled ladders which allow the public to access any part of the surface, to write on it. Stamped at the top in large glowing characters is a phrase which, I fear, 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!
...Sitting on a couch opposide mine are Stirue and Wamapa, an obviously decent couple who have come here 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."
Stirue says innocently, "You get to wonder, what will he be called next?"
I almost say, What's in a name? - but I feel in my bones the importance in which such matters are held on Ooranye, so, instead, I issue a blunt warning:
"Don't put your doubts in writing on that board. You'll regret it if you do."
They gaze at me in astonishment. I am astonished at myself, at the plain way I have said what I thought. I add: "You desire reassurance? Learn to do without."
Stirue says, "Daon N-Y, you speak boldly."
"I have reason to, for I have heard several people say they intend to write on that board, and 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. Wearing uncertain expressions, they make for the elevator.
Whether the enemy is listening at this moment, 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 either knows, or shortly will know, that I have crossed him.
I 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... There! You're connected, Daon N-Y."
Well, doggone it, I'll be a forgy snoffbongar; it sure is great when folks get the point.
I thank him, wait some seconds, and then say, "Dynoom."
"I hear my name," says the thin voice out of whatever tiny fraction of the city-brain has deigned to pay attention to me.
"Dynoom," says I with labouring breath, "I may have 'burned my boats' - if you get my meaning. Listen... can you hear me? You sound awfully faint... Dynoom, do you hear me, this is Daon Nyav Yuhlm speaking, alias Neville Yeadon, whom you summoned from Earth; the disappointing Daon, but whose story is not over yet - "
""Neville / Nyav," said the thin voice. "The half-Terran Daon. I can hear you, yes."
I tune "You have seen that big board?" "The invitation to comment. The 'Hundred Flowers...'""Yes, that's it, Dynoom; now do listen, please. I have defied Dempelath over this Hundred Flowers business: I've warned people against it. So, can you do anything to help me?"
"Observations of the Snaddy-Galomm," ruminates the city-brain, "suggest that contemporary pairs don't get reincarnated as a couple... Nevertheless one cannot rule out a higher dimensional analogue whereby..."
I tune out this creepy waffle as I start to get the feeling that Dynoom is not actually talking to me but is rather talking to itself, and that I have merely triggered the narcoleptic soliloquies of the Ghepion'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 have no banner to wave as I go down."
"I," the big brain muses, "have mislaid the empathetic feeling which I used to have, which is a pity since I realize that Dempelath is a threat not only to Olhoav but to the world."
"Stop droning then, Dynoom. You're a Brain full of resourcefulness and power. Transcend your limitations and wake up."
"...Naught for me but to trickle along the wires..."
"Look," I say, "I accept a lot of weird stuff without question, which goes to show what a good Uranian I've become... but nevertheless I do have a practical need to kick you out of your dreamy self-absorption. But, how does one kick a Ghepion?"
"...Investigate... my sensors indicate preparations are being made... a stronger Chamber... not just a toy this time..."
Hullo, 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 away, 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 so that it's restfully dim now. Still, the bright contrails of recent events are leaving their smear across my mental retina: especially that ghostlike interview with Dynoom.
I'm beginning to sense my currents of fate, almost as clearly as I saw those pictograms on Face Six of the history-cubes. I kind of hear their "Voice-Over" as a subsidiary stream of consciousness, an accompanying commentary on my course through life, an insistent, though 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.
Something has caused a buzz in this scholarly sanctum, and I'm reluctant to look down and face what could have done so. Whatever it is, is in the room; I've never known outside sounds to be picked up in here.
Ah, my refuge has been invaded. I gaze at scores, maybe a couple of hundred people, standing watchfully, with their backs to the great circle of windows, and their attention resting on the centre - on me.
In dreamlike fashion I fancy that the great lenticular room is swaying and revolving about me, but the reality is, this must be how the Uranian fate-currents operate: they press and twirl as they screw you down.
I grimace as I heave myself onto one elbow. Immediately the crowd notice that I am awake. A hush falls.
So many people! They must have arrived by many elevator-loads, none of which roused me; how was my sleep so profound? Time decelerates; the space between one heartbeat and the next is long enough for a new and terrible understanding. Though the room no longer seems to revolve, my fate-current speaks in my brain. Look, it affirms, 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. He wants you placed in that condition which is not quite death and not quite life. Ffrom the tyrant's point of view, that will be the perfect solution.
And these folk here don't look appalled. Rather, they seem bright-eyed with a sort of subdued hope. As if they like what's in store for me! 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: not I but the Noad, not I but the Noad... I had it completely wrong, I chant to myself, humiliated and relieved in equal measure. 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 though Dempelath didn't want to raise our hopes earlier, now, 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, although 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. It's evident they're in expectation of a big announcement. 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. It's the starting-hum of the elevator cage.
I wasn't so wrong after all, to assume that my doom is upon me, for in these currents of fate, though I'm a beginner at this
game, I may get the message of the Voice-Over wrong but not the crucial vocabulary, 'stasis' and '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. When this new title - whatever it is - is awarded, I'll then indeed be frozen, not in stasis but in infamy, unless first I can find my banner and make a stand.
The shaft door opens. Out of the cage steps a group of nine citizens and, behind them, the 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 my acquaintance General Thergerer. The omzyr comes to a halt and unwinds a scroll.
Doubtless on cue, the screens under each window in the place light up more brilliantly than ever. I feel sure that all of us in this room right now 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, is sadly, unbearably, to be instituted here on Ooranye -
Now the Frork is standing to one side, as he fixes me with his darkly satisfied gaze, and I note 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.
He has misjudged me.
Mmm, how he has misjudged me. Innumerable psychic hooks inside me now zip up to fasten and merge the two halves of my soul, whereupon at last I discern and can grasp my banner, can 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."
Signing legislature, forsooth! As if Uranians could aim no higher than that! One might laugh, but, rather than laugh, I rise from the couch, I stand, I reach, I grasp the long, swaying paper sheet, and as I do so I 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 serum, the Terran inoculation against the Terran disease. As though I were ruler 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."
Uranian Throne Episode 14: