The ego-track of Neville Yeadon (continued):
My velocity is such, it is a marvel that I can sit upright. My thoughts lengthen out and stream and blend in the runnel of sensation as I face forward into the steady blast that whistles me into the role of a human wind-tunnel, as if the air were tearing through me as well as past me, bearable because of my graduation from weedy Terran to tough Uranian, but also I suspect - though I know nought of the workings of this vehicle I'm riding - that although the machine has no material cowl it must generate a protective force-bubble of some kind, by no means impermeable, merely an invisible retarding screen which slides into operation at high speeds, partially muffling the force of the wind which would otherwise smite me from my seat as I cleave the air at two hundred miles per hour -
Whatever the technicalities, the intoxicating result is that with eyes wide open I can watch the dimly dazzling blur of the plain's coloured patches race past six yards below the skimmer's keel; or eye the more distant passing "islands" that jut up through the gralm in the form of hills, crags or lonely trees; or glance lovingly through the perspex of the forward compartment, at the little rack of phials, each glimmering container a fuel-cartridge which promises me power for a 6,000-mile stretch, and being equipped with seven of these I can imagine that I, a tiny dot of mobility in a vast unknown, might, if I survived, circumnavigate the whole giant world, although my aim, my duty (how wonderful when the pull of duty and the pull of freedom coincide!) is not to perform any such random feat but rather to attain the land of Syoom -
Must take care not to miss the precious few minutes when it is possible to steer by the stars. The brief intervals during which the Uranian atmosphere is totally transparent, namely the three minutes of pmetn when the night begins, and fifteen hours later the three minutes of refelc when it ends, are therefore occasions to use as well as to admire the firmament. During pmetn I observe the position of Betelgeuse, to correct for any deviations from my course which have accumulated during the day, and I then descend to the ground to score a mark in the gralm, which later enables me to correct for any gusts which may twirl my skimmer about during the night and drag at its anchor (for I usually sleep at anchor, hovering above ground); at the night's end I descend again to check the mark, and with a last glimpse of Betelgeuse as a double-check during refelc, I adjust the oriention of my skimmer before setting off in the brightening air of morningshine for the next day's voyaging.
Rudimentary navigation, no doubt, but better than nothing, and it's not as though my destination were a small target. Giant planet though this is, my objective covers as much as a fifth of it, a patch amounting to twice the surface area of Earth. Hard to miss, surely. I'll get there if I can stay alive. Yes, my chances are good - if I can get past Zyperan -
Notwithstanding that name of dread, a fate-wave bears me on. Such a wave, while it surges and has not yet broken, is a force so positive, that its flow impels my thoughts around the obstacle ahead, so that right now I don't think about Zyperan but instead, looking further, I think about how much easier and more accurate navigation will be when I reach the border of Syoom. For then at last a certain display-needle will light up on my dashboard, and I shall be able to use my never-used compass!
What a moment that will be, as my skimmer comes in range of the Aoan lode, or whichever of the twenty-five Syoomean disk-on-stem cities I happen first to approach within the compass' 2,662-mile range. Then the imperishable Phosphorus Era gadget will kindle to the purpose it has never been able to fulfil during its dormant aeons in isolated Olhoav. For thousands of lifetimes the compass has languished uselessly far from its work-area, just as the people of Olhoav have been cut off from Syoom...
Ah, but is wise so to dwell upon the gulfs of distance and of time? Hope dwindles in that mood: whenever I realistically try to picture my attainment of the Sunside realm with its fabled cities, which no Olhoavan has ever seen for around a million of my years... the picture shows itself tenuous.
I therefore steer back to self-confidence, self-congratulation even, by reminding myself that I've already got a whole lot further than other Olhoavan Wayfarers, whose range doesn't extend much beyond a fifteen-hundred-mile radius from the city. I've now considerably surpassed that performance by travelling for three days in a fairly straight line at - I compute - almost a thousand miles each day.
Indeed it's likely that the landscapes at this moment flowing under me and past me have never before been seen by man. Innumerable lairs and possible redoubts are scattered like flotsam over the continuous ocean of gralm-covered ice, and this particular stretch of the endless plain with its various interruptions and hidden possibilities - its county-sized ranges of hills and mountains, its forests of giant grasses or trees, its icy boulder-strewn craters in which a town might be lost - is itself lost in the immensity which surrounds it, till the endless panorama makes me impatient to defeat its overwhelm by skimming faster - for I could in theory make better speed - oh yes, no doubt about it, at continuous full throttle in one single day I could cover three thousand miles instead of one thousand, and thus, tearing along at maximum velocity during the fifteen-hour interval between refelc and pmetn, get the voyage over sooner; so why don't I?
An answering hunch tells me, that it would be unwise.
Difficult to trap that thought, but I suppose what it means is, that a too-energetic whoosh across the plains might bring me to the attention of something bad, or, at any rate, something which might prove bad news for me; or then again, it might be that I myself, with velocity thinning out my alertness, might fail to be observant at some moment when awareness is most vital. Whatever the truth, I obey the hunch because its inner voice is loud.
Thus while the plain is smooth, I may travel at top speed for a couple of hours, but afterwards for a change - or as soon as the landscape shows complications - I slow, sometimes to half, that is to a "mere" hundred miles per hour. Of course if I were actually attacked I'd scoot away at two hundred, given the option.
Option restricted up ahead!
The forward horizon, no longer flat, has heaved up lazily into a frozen ripple of large, gentle waves.
I definitely shan't risk a dash at blinding speed among those undulations. I shall therefore have to weave my way through the oncoming range at the more careful rate demanded by full alert. Oh well, this fourth day has been good so far.
And it's going to go dark soon, which will mean that I'll have to stop anyway - can't go blundering through the Uranian night! - so my average mileage will be more or less unaffected.
Over the first crests I go. Here's a valley running in the direction I want, tempting me to continue while the going is good, though the air is dimming in the last hour of evenshine. Bit of luck, the orientation of the valley, but, what I don't like so much, snaking on either side of me now, parallel ranges hem me in. They're maybe Chiltern-height, their shape and size an incongruous reminder of southern England, though their pointed tops and knolly crests are quite un-English. Every few miles I see, silhouetted to my left and right, spiked cairns that look artificially regular. I suppose they could be natural growths, which is what I'd prefer them to be.
Here's one closer than the rest, coming past me on my right: a central spike plus others around it like spines of a cactus; most likely some sort of plant, I suppose, but maybe I shouldn't suppose, in this doubtful area. Rival arguments contend within me, the usual voice of caution telling me not to go so fast that the mysteries turn blurry; while a contrasting inner voice bids me accelerate at full throttle out of this ambience.
Yet next thing I know, the hills are flattening on both sides, the plains smoothing as they flow by, and my unease likewise diminishes, in tame conformity, calming like an ocean after a squall.
Not the first time I've oscillated in and out of a near-panic, and a recurrent thought pushes to the fore: is this somewhat jittery Terran persona of mine, this Neville Yeadon, Londoner, the best pilot for such a voyage? Would it not be wiser for me to lift the lid on my native self, allowing the more knowledgeable native Nyav Yuhlm to take full control? "He", or rather the Uranian "I", must surely know this place better than any Terran can -
No, no. Useless reasoning. Every time I refute it the same way:
Nyav Yuhlm doesn't actually know "this place" at all. Nyav Yuhlm has lived all his short life in and around Olhoav, which is one very isolated Uranian city. Nyav Yuhlm, poor chap, can't imagine what's ahead of me any more than a Londoner can.
And if I were to lift the lid on him and hand him the reins of my will, do I have a single scrap of doubt as to what he would do?
That native self of mine - the truth is beyond dispute - would immediately turn about, would flee back to the environs of Olhoav.
In most situations, I can well believe, any Uranian is likely to be braver than the Earthly "I", but on this particular voyage my mind can hear the frantic thrashing in its basement as my suppressed native self pleads for me to alter course, even though my mission is for the sake of the entire world and, thereby, essential to save the home and the lives of my children. Duty and honour and the needs of survival may point me forward, yet, despite all of that, Nyav cannot face the prospect of Zyperan, the legendary monster-mound, the evil hulk athwart the route to Syoom.
Here's where the "Londoner-me" must help out. I am not too affected by Uranian superstitions. My dreads are Terran - for instance, I couldn't face entering Dracula's castle at night, whereas doubtless many of the folk of this world would do a lot better in that scenario. By contrast, the typical Uranian nightmare is something I can handle. I reckon. Just about. At any rate I can hope so.
That's because (if I've rightly understood the meagre folkloric references I've picked up so far) Uranians' deepest fears connect not with the uncanny supernatural but with what we'd class as science-fictional horrors, such as: ego-devourers; vaporous recruiters; atavist beslimers; monstrously congealing hive-minds... and though I don't exactly like the sound of that kind of stuff either, it doesn't scare me enough to make me turn back; partly because science fiction has always been my comfort zone, in the armchair bookish sense. Real life, of course, is... hmmm... not going to be the same; but what the heck, I have to be of some use; I wasn't brought here to contribute nothing...
Besides... a menace creates its own opposition. That dialectic (might as well borrow from Hegel and the Marxists) means I can expect to find help. The worse the evil that awaits, the likelier it is that I shall find support, shelter, associates or allies along the way to... It.
That's how Cortes won against the Aztecs, right? His own pitiful force, from the accounts I've read, could never have succeeded on its own... though perhaps my choice of analogy is pitiful too...
It's almost too dark to go on. It really is time I settled. My mental chatter subsides like an Earthly wind expiring at dusk. I'm left with the cold reality of this giant, dim world.
Ah, here's another interruption of the plain: a region of chaotically sprawled hills, towards which I accelerate with an impatient whim to pick an overnight anchorage.
In a very short time I am skimming up a slope to a cup-like depression of bare gralm.
Here, in the summit's shallow crater rimmed by thorny shrubs and less identifiable shapes, I settle to the ground, to wait for pmetn. Quite what made me choose this place, I don't know. Anyhow, pmetn comes; I watch the three-minute apparition of the stars; I make my usual observation and score the accompanying mark in the gralm.
Then, sitting on my skimmer, I relax while my eyes adapt to the dimness of anyne, the first five hours of night. I delay the chore of anchoring my skimmer. I don't wish to go up in it and settle for sleep just yet. I feel I ought to, but -
Instead of that rational move, I pick up my torch (though I don't switch it on), and then I take some steps away from the skimmer and towards a hulking shape which I can still make out in the dim air.
Anyne is not as deep as yyne, the second five hours of night; in the earlier hours dark-adaption can suffice to show obstacles or pitfalls. I take more steps...
What am I thinking of? I was about to do something really stupid. With shivers of dismay I turn and creep back to the skimmer. To behave as though I were here to explore on a whim, aimlessly poking around - and what's more to do so on foot - phew, skies above, what was I playing at?
I mount to the pilot's seat and, no nonsense now, rise aloft to the six-yard "ceiling", the altitude-limit for a skimmer.
It seems I need reminding of my purpose. I am, like it or not, a foregrounder with a mission. It must not be forgotten, or risked.
In my tunic is a pocket where I keep the message-crystal which I must take to the Sunnoad of Syoom. I take it out and look at it. I don't put it to my forehead - once was enough - but I remember the wordless inkling it gave me, of what Tyrant Dempelath has planned. Dire it will be for the world, if he is not stopped. Then, deliberately, I call up peaceful and happy memories of my children, Tsritton and Idova; and concurrently, to encourage in me the belief that I may help to secure a future for them, I take from my belt the mysterious pistol-like object which I stole from the Tyrant's lab in the Husnuth building, so many thousands of days ago, and which I have guarded ever since, with the strong hunch that I am destined to fathom its use for Dempelath's overthrow.
I put the artefact to my ear. Its self-identifier whispers: stupp... stupp...
Whatever it is, it exists, and whatever it's meant to do, it still works. A draught of motivation and hope is what I have just mixed for myself and quaffed... I re-attach the object to my belt. I have relaxed my mind. It is time to get some sleep and be fresh for tomorrow's stretch of the great journey to Syoom.
Despite all this exhortation, I don't sleep.
Without understanding why, I press the stud which unclenches the anchor, releases it from the ground and reels it in. Then with the throttle very low, I slide through the air towards that shape which has attracted my attention...
It squats on the highest point of the rim of the cup-shaped summit over which I now float. At least I'm not so mad as to approach it on foot this time. But still I feel a shortness of breath as I close the gap between us.
The dark bulk is a house-sized hemisphere, black-haloed with a dozen spikes, each a three-yard chopstick with the stubby point of a broadsword, and what the heck does any of it mean, and why should I expect to know?
Ah, we're fond of answers, we Terrans, and we expect to get them, much more than Uranians do. Uranians are intellectual defeatists, I tell myself... whereas I... as I hang in the air close to the Shape...
A volley of flashed ideas, a challenge shot from each spike, pierces my brain: hey, I'm the real John Carter, aged in a young body, scripted to become Jeddak of Jeddaks after saving his adopted world by surmounting the restrictions which baffle its natives -
Wait a moment, what has got into me? I shake my giddy head at the delusions of grandeur and, more dangerous still, the expectations of answers... This is Ooranye, for heaven's sake: scrabble not for answers here, little man.
If you value your sanity or if you wish to avoid becoming easy meat for whatever foe may outmatch you in knowledge and guile, you must forget about Terran-style answers and explanations and, instead, practice the swordplay of associational thinking which counts towards survival on the Seventh World.
Well, yes, but, you see (I argue to reassure my cautious side), that's what I'm going to do - that's exactly why I'm going to succeed -
"On distant planet Earth," I say to myself as I hover close to that spiky thing, "some plants give off scent. Here - maybe - some give off mind-scent, possibly in order to tempt voyagers to carry their dust to far regions; whatever the details, evolution has advanced the capacity for stimulation. The pollination racket, or its equivalent here, arose for the profit of the plants, but the galvanising effect it's had upon my morale, like the human pleasure of floral scent in an Earthly garden, is a chance bonus for me."
It incites me to think like a winner. Even while I retain my Terran consciousness, I can behave like a full-blooded Uranian foregrounder protagonist, a streamlined man who shan't be stopped, swathed by his mission in a robe of power.
So it's not bed-time yet, by any means. No matter that the rule of caution says, don't travel at night. Why shouldn't I at least skim a bit further during anyne, provided that I go reasonably slow? My purpose is an elixir that fires my innards, I don't feel like sleeping at all, and given that I enjoy the overwhelming luck of John Carter, a young man's body with a far older mind and the perspective of two worlds, I surrender to my devouring destiny and cry Onward! Notch up more miles! I open the throttle and skim down-slope towards the next stretch of plain.
Although it's much darker now, I think I can detect that the further horizon is clear: which means I'm getting through these hills faster than I got through the last lot; what a joy it is to whirr unimpeded through the night air.
Some impulse of caution makes me glance back over my shoulder.
I'm descending a slightly convex slope, and am just about to go out of line of sight of the spiky thing that prompted, or seemed to prompt, the thoughts that led me to this spurt of nocturnal activity; and as I look back at it, and see its top spines disappear from view, suddenly my mood changes as though a pipe that was feeding me has been blocked, and a wave of doubt assails me. What am I doing speeding through this darkness?
So bewildered am I, that I don't even think to stop, but carry on with the momentum of my course, and continue across the further plain after I've passed the foot of the slope.
The result is, after a minute I come again into line-of-sight of the now more distant Thing, and its influence clicks back on. Not quite so strongly as before, but enough to restore some gumption to my erratic mind.
I continue, therefore, on my course. All right, maybe I'm too easily influenced, but I'm learning something. It's an experience for me. I'm probably learning the hard way the sort of stuff which Wayfarers need to learn.
Yet another range ahead. I must be crossing an entire cordillera of them. This one, for some reason, stands out because it is silhouetted by some glow beyond it. The light is just enough to limn its ridge-line with a flush of orangy red. The range is not as high as the one I've just crossed, and that gives me hope that it may be the last one in the series. If so, and if I can only get beyond it, I'll feel I've achieved something decisive before I turn in for the night.
I head for a pass. I'll be through in a couple of minutes, I guess. Gulps of night air make my head buzz with euphoric energy; I grin at the approach of promontories that seem to stretch like welcoming arms at my approach. And - nothing bad happens, I'm in the pass and it looks like any moment I'll be through and will discover the source of that light.
Over the top I - gasp - decelerate with maximum abruptness - almost pitched forward over the skimmer's bow - what am I seeing? It's a FORTRESS - exactly as I predicted! Yea-heyyy!
It's a city-sized cluster of those spiky things!
No, it's not. I sift out a better understanding from what has dazed me - and I realize that the glowing heap is no city-sized plant cluster, it is, simply, a city, a real, actual city.
Lapped together like soapy bubbles, but solid, its domes appear smooth and without any of the thronged walkways or bridges or skimways that I expect from a city, but the colourful glow makes it certain that the agglomeration is far from lifeless. And when I scan through my telescope, sure enough I see tiny moving human figures in hexagonal grooves on the hemispheres' sides, and similar pedestrians close by on the surrounding plain.
The "spikes" raying out of the domes remind me, albeit in vastly magnified form, of the bars of stubby light that stab out from lasers in blade-mode. Not quite the same, though. These city-spikes, rather like baseball bats, get thicker towards their ends. I suppose they must be some kind of protective armament. Or detection equipment. Or both. I don't need to guess at the details; all of it shouts the message that this indeed is unquestionably a FORTRESS -
To clinch it, I see no straggly outlying buildings: the entire huddle must be built compactly for defense. Exactly as I deduced I'd find, here is the ally against Zyperan. Pat on the back for the old intuition, eh?
For what else can I be looking at here but an armoured neighbour of the evil monster which, precisely because it is evil, must have neighbours whom it can be evil to? Behold the thesis proved. Here is an urban structure undoubtledly designed to ward against some powerful enemy. Put two and two together and you must make four whether you're on Ooranye or Earth.
The sleepless glow lights my way: I may as well go right now to meet my new friends.
I skim down the slope towards the plain. Upon reaching it I decelerate, switch my bow light onto full-beam - it's been a while since I've done that - and float forward at humbly reduced velocity, hardly more than a stroll, doing everything I can to look harmless and above-board during my approach.
What can they be doing, those people up ahead, who stand or pace on the ground? They're not tilling fields, for I see no fields.
I notice, coming nearer, an unutterably dreamlike feature of the surround. The glow that envelops the city is more than just a hemisphere of brightened air. It is composed of brilliant little particles which drift and churn like snowglobe flakes. The entire picture ahead of me becomes, thereby, just a little too marvellous: my instinct says, quick, pull an explanation, or rather an incantation, out of my store of sf imagery, and pronounce it firmly, "force-field": for that is the kind of thing I must be seeing, a defensive force-field. Name the mystery, reduce the stress. That's thinking like a good Uranian, is it not? I'm doing all right. I'll get through this if only I can slide, glibly, keeping my balance throughout the waking dream.
Coming closer to the people, I see that one of them, a silhouette against the middle flank of the nearest dome, has begun to walk towards me. To show courtesy I dismount to walk likewise, guiding my floating vehicle with my left hand.
The point arrives at which we face each other, about four yards apart. I see a tall, almost excessively thin young man, cloaked in black and - this is rare in my experience on this world - sporting a beard. Hardly more than a black chin-strap line, only a mild contrast to the typical grey Uranian skin, it nevertheless counts as a beard. Not for the first time, a partial, limited similarity to a Terran phenomenon makes me feel more remote from Earth.
"Stranger from the wilderness," the fellow chants, "who are you and what brings you to Amnuyar?"
I see no reason not to reply with the crisp truth. "I am Nyav Yuhlm, Daon of Olhoav, and I seek to reach the land of Syoom."
Apparently this creates a favourable impression. Or perhaps my blue cloak is accepted as confirmation of my rank. Eyebrows raised, the fellow remarks: "Destination Syoom! An adventure worthy of a Daon! I am Erem Fomst, Sentinel of Gate Eighteen of Amnuyar. But let me warn you, brave wayfarer. You may seek Syoom, but do you understand that you are headed straight for Zyperan?"
"Even so," I say, "I must keep to my mission."
Erem inclines his head. "Then will you stay overnight as guest of our ruler, the Mannag Ufomon? He would help you on to your destiny."
"My luck is with me," I bow, and am about to choose additional ceremonious words to express my gratitude, but for no apparent reason the eyes of Erem Fomst suddenly blaze as though a Halloween lamp has been ignited inside his head, and I stare, petrified, into his retina's veined yellow furnace.
Then, as I frozenly watch, a swooping intruder, a sort of flying eel, whisks into sight from the side. The playful little comet-thing swims through the air to alight like a falcon on the Sentinel's arm.
With infinite relief I realize that the man's eye-blaze was nothing to do with me; he was merely greeting or in some way reacting to the arrival of the creature which is now preening itself in an S-shape on his forearm. He's stroking it as though it were a pet. Could it be one of the aerial flakes I noted earlier? What then of my force-field explanation? Ah, forget explanations, I tell myself - live in the moment or you won't get far.
"This is Abzong, my floom," remarks Erem Fomst, whom I see smiling for the first time. "He helps me survey my allotted arc, don't you, my chremn?" He purses his lips and trills affectionately at the squirming thing. "Now then, Daon N-Y, since I must not leave my post, I shall send Abzong to fetch a guide for you, to show you the way to the Storol, the palace of Kreber, our ruler. Abzong, d-r-r-m-m," he croons to the eel-like flyer, and it shoots off - and I think to myself, no, this is too easy. I bet they'll still test me in some way before they let me in. I'd actually prefer them to show some mild distrust at least; that way, it won't all seem too lax to be true. With such calculations I attempt to combat the eerieness of the scene while my eyes trail the floom as it streaks towards Amnuyar. I'm in a
panting hurry to sort out my attitude to this city, before the guide
arrives to take me in. The multitudes of flying flakes brush my mood as they loop and swirl, to induce a patter of unease that tautens my mood with a sense of imminence, reminding me of the scene in Jason and the Argonauts just as the giant Talos is about to come to life. Ah, myth... may it help if it can. C
Lewis, in his fiction, suggested that the distinction between myth and
history becomes blurred beyond the Moon's orbit... but I've gone beyond
the range of his tales, to the far outer Solar System where classical
go mute, and I stand upon a world of which the Greeks and Romans knew
nothing. So, how about the traditions here? What do I know about
Uranian myth? Not as much as I should. Then, most unwelcomely, my mind reverts to Terran lore, not classical Western legend this time, but Chinese: one of the many
tales collected from all over the world by Andrew Lang in the nineteenth
century. Palahuni. The hill that is alive, with a heart that beats.
Hmm... at this juncture I can do without eerie metaphors like that.
The expression on the face of Erem Fonst, meanwhile, becomes less friendly, more neutral. He puts his hand into his cloak and takes out a shining, almost transparent mask. "A necessary formality," he remarks. "Put this visor over your face, then look towards Amnuyar."
Well, so here is the test after all, and now that it's come to the point I suppose I must look less than enthusiastic, for in a gentler voice the sentinel adds some gibberish which, like a placebo, is comforting:
"The woo-likanarman simply klimms the soll-ikanam while the dapaffal is yulled - so you needn't fret at what you see."
I do what I'm told. The plastic transparent mask goes over my eyes, and I gaze at the mighty domes... So, what's the thing which I must not fret about when I see it? I brace myself for some alarming illusion. And sure enough -
For once hellish instant, as though reality were gulped into the most evil childhood nightmare, the city's entire mass shrugs like a pair of shoulders.
The terrifying absurdity must briefly have caused my mind to founder, for as I scramble back to sanity I totter like one who has blacked out. I tear the visor from my face, protesting under my breath.
"Good, that's done," the man says, taking back the unwelcome object which I'm holding out to him while I do my best to clamp down upon a fit of the shudders. He either doesn't mind my discomfiture or he's politely not noticing. I, meanwhile, gaze hotly at the heap of domes, the of-course-motionless city. I busy myself with telling myself that the outrageous nonsense could not have been real. I repeat to myself that not even if each dome were made of jelly could the whole structure have quaked up and down like it seemed, briefly, to do. If only common sense could erase the after-image...
But wait, I can turn this round, turn it into good news. I was thinking, was I not, about the legend of Palahuni, the living hill, and then, what should happen just a few seconds later but my vision of the city's shoulder-shrug! Doesn't that suggest - according to associational thinking of the sort required here - that the Spiky Thing did more than energize me; that it triggered a latent talent in me, an aptitude for precognition! An addition to my powers! I am now a precog! A silly speculation one moment, a silly sight the next: the sequence shows I can foretell my own illusions; better and better for the onward and upward trajectory of my Uranian career.
I notice a change in the side of the nearest dome: a dark patch is widening, a door opening, downwards like the mouth of a grouper fish, no, let's recast that, it's opening like a drawbridge is lowered, and a figure runs out, straight out towards Erem Fomst and me.
It's another youth, who arrives breathless and wordless, giving me a vacant stare. Erem Fomst says to me, in a louder voice than he has so far used, "This is your guide, Daon N-Y. His name is Doamon Zul, and he will conduct you to the Storol."
Doamon Zul rumbles something in his throat, like a gormless teenager, and turns to head back to the mouth in the wall. "Follow him," says Erem, "and you will be cared for."
"Tgeb," I say - thanks - obeying the direction, and thinking intently meanwhile:
Wasn't it only a couple of minutes ago that I was telling myself how two plus two equal four on both Earth and Ooranye, and yet now look what I'm doing, going in for figurative precognitions, jumping to conclusions via associational thinking, and thence, most remarkably, not being more worried than I am? How swiftly I'm maturing!
Whereas on Earth, jumping to conclusions is frowned upon, and rightly so, here it's fate's wave and you have to surf it.
I have found my self-foretold ally, my defence against, or antidote to, or evasion of, Zyperan. My old Earthly self might have called it wishful thinking, but my Uranian side listens in triumph to its chime of truth.
I follow Doamon Zul up the gangway created by the down-lowered door, and into a reddish interior hush, where our boots alone make echo.
It's subdued in here as a weekday in a slack museum. Predominantly empty floor is interrupted by flame-shaped or corkscrew-shaped buildings, some standing alone, others connected by ramps and bridges. The antics of a few dozen blurs prompt me to suggest to myself that this must be the hour of public exercise in Amnuyar: the wan light allows me to spot folk standing or walking on their hands, and others walking backwards as though practising the art of retreat without tripping over. They're all doing their various doings with hardly any sound; none take any notice of me as I am led towards a central tower.
The tower is branched in the manner of a giant candelabrum. Before it, I pass some escalators which slant up throught the air, apparently going nowhere, and I slip into danger of doubting my senses. Ah, here's an excuse that pops into my head: the whole scene could be an illusion to foil spies. No business of mine, anyhow, to worry over strangeness. If they see fit to allow me a view of reality, they'll do so. It's up to them. I won't ask.
Doamon Zul reaches the "candelabrum" and turns to me.
"This is the Storol," he says in his broken voice. "You must enter and go to the top floor." He presses a button next to a grille...
I say, hastily, "Look, it's late, it's night... need I disturb your ruler...?"
A scratchy voice issues from the grille, "Never mind the hour, stranger. I never sleep before yyne."
"That was Kreber," says my guide - and then the elevator door opens.
Doamon Zul is sloping off. He doesn't want to come with me. I glance this way and that, and then I shrug and enter the cage alone.
The door shuts; next the weight of acceleration announces I'm shooting upward; next, the purr of the mechanism stops and the cage-door opens and I gaze at another, recessed door, gilded and scroll-carved, bearing a title: MANNAG UFOMON.
Those glowing curlicues then swing aside, and out of a brownish red interior a voice, no longer scratchy but laden with authoritative heft, reaches me:
"Come and sit down."
I edge forward into a carpety nest of tapestry folds, diffusely lit by air suggestive of fluorescent milk. The ruler is hunched forward on what looks like a swivel chair, his left elbow on a desk, his bushy eyebrows and prognathous jaw tilted at me.
"Over there," he points. "Don't mind the rapthak; it can't squeeze through the bars..."
I lower myself into the indicated chair-sized cushion, while glancing at the corner of the den, where a cage confines a... pleated thing, a complexity of horns and fur, an impossibility compacted out of nightmare, drool-fanged, bat-winged, half-saurian with ape-like limbs and paws that clutch the bars... still, if the man says it can't squeeze through, I shall take him on trust.
I nevertheless hope this visit will be short. If only Kreber doesn't plan to while the night away listening to a traveller's tales or to news of Olhoav. Better look tired... Indeed, no need to pretend; the tiredness has come on fast.
"You look rather worn out," the ruler says, and I give a start at the timing of that. He continues: "Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to attend the Council, who will absorb your plans and..." he frowns as if struggling for a word, but then his brow clears, "digest your situation. But meantime, because you are a Daon, I wished to do you honour, welcoming you in person."
"I thank you, sponndar Mannag Ufomon Kreber," I say, hoping I have addressed him correctly. "The Council, then, may advise me...?"
"Let us speak frankly," says Kreber. "It is all too easy for Wayfarers who pass this way to end in the maw of Zyperan. And with the evil power on the rise at this stage in its cycle... do you not sense this?"
"Sense what?" I ask, bluntly.
"The curdling..." Suddenly his eyes acquire that blaze which I saw briefly in the Sentinel. Here, too, it is brief - mercifully brief. With that moment gone, Kreber remarks, "The truth is, such enterprises as yours are better abandoned."
"Abandon my mission... Is that what you expect me to do, sponndar?"
"Naturally not. But it is a point which the Council must make, whatever else they may say or do. We are all... caged by our circumstances." He smiles as he pans his gaze from me to the rapthak. "But we can make the best of things. Yegguk here, though caged, is not unhappy."
"I'm glad of that," I say drily; adding to myself, that if I were a monster like that, I'd prefer to die, caged or not.
"Of course, happiness on such terms may be considered as part of the horror..." Kreber chats on; then, with a change of tack, "but it's getting late for philosophy."
He thumps the desk and I hear a swish. Nervously unsure of the direction of the sound, I squirm on my seat and manage to see a woman arrive as if poured or squirted (yes, for an instant this is what seems to be happening) through a sphincter-like entrance, I guess from one of the branches of the "candelabrum". I shake my head, exasperated at such intrusion of dream-motion into my waking life. To stuff a city with defensive illusions is all very well, but it can be wearisome for a guest, even one as carefully glib with excuses as I.
Placidly the woman stares with moist eyes that gleam in a large, pleasant face. Kreber says to her, "Gliss, this is Daon Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav. Tomorrow he attends the Nrurr. Tonight he must rest well. See that our illustrious guest is well lodged."
I willingly follow Gliss as she leads me out of that tapestried eyrie, down the elevator, back onto the floor of Amnuyar, and away from Kreber's dwelling...
She turns as she walks and says, "I am Gliss Kabaz. I am your guide till your session with the Assembly."
So, she calls the Nrurr an Assembly, whereas Kreber calls it a Council, and I am too nervous and tired to care. It's just one more big thing which I'll have to face, some sort of city-heart no doubt, while Kreber, perhaps, is the brain... enough of these metaphors; I'll be calling this dome a stomach next. "Thank you, sponndar Gliss," I say, and she twitches her sad smile.
She leads me as far as a little cylindrical hut on the vast dome-floor. "Press the entrance-button, and you will see..." she indicates, and I do so. The door opens; she stays outside, stating, "Everything you will need for the night is inside. If you should want adductors..." With an arrested half-gesture she interrupts herself to add, "But no, of course, you're not like us..." All of a sudden I perceive her face to be beclouded with infinite sorrow.
Adductors? No, as the lady says, I'm different, and I don't want to know how different. I just want to rest. "Thank you again," I say, and blink - she has gone. Disappeared. I stump heavily into that room, close the door behind me and sit on the bed. I look around. It's almost as though I were back on Earth in a decent guest-house. One big difference: many pipes, too many, and they look frightfully odd, snaking in four or five lines along the walls and around the door-frame. The adductors, no doubt. Well, that's not my concern. I just want a few hours' respite from the eeriness of Amnuyar. I'm not here to investigate those perishing pipes.
I am soon asleep; at least I suppose I am.
I've drifted over to the window of this hut and, gazing out over the city-floor, I'm noticing what I must have overlooked - that the space inside the great dome is swarming with the eel-things, the floom, those same cometary darters which flick their luminous tails this way and that on the neighbouring plain outside the city.
What's this? They've arrested their flight. They are hovering in unison, one and all.
Well, this is a reminder that I must be asleep. If need be, if the sights turn too nasty, I may resist; it is sometimes possible to kick oneself out of a dream.
Hmm... I suspect it's not going to turn out well. Each one of the comets or eels or tadpoles, hanging upside down in the air like bats from invisible perches, has begun to shake with open mouth like a dog or cat retching.
Next, the floom are sicking something out, something which swells, which inflates downwards from each pair of lips. The forms balloon into the shapes of people. They are people. I watch them wriggle out of the eels' lips' grasp and plop down onto the city floor.
I don't want to see the rest of this. High time for some escapology. Chop at it! Wrench! Smite! Butt the head against the wall twice, thrice, and again and again! Still not woken up on the bed? Then repeat the violence. Ah, yes... good, here I am, lying down. Ah, that's better. Should be all right now.
All the same, I'll keep my back turned from the window, as I wait for morning.
But now there's a tap tap tap at the window; I must look round - and those damned faces looking in at me tell me it's one of those dreams, that you think you've got out of and then find you haven't because the 'waking' is also just another layer of the hopeless thing. Five or six faces, smiling their certainty, that for me the long run will extend to a shut finish. Hoooooo... among them is Gliss Kabaz, with a remnant of something flapping on her head. Their knuckles tap again, and I... for a second I must have gone berserk because I am now lying on the floor, where I hit my head, and I hear silence. I risk a glance at the window. The view is empty of faces. I am clear of the dream. Really clear of it at last, thank God.
A normal sleep is what I must have. Perhaps, wrung out as I am, I shall get it.
...Is it morning yet? Or "morningshine", as they call it on this planet. The airglow has picked up a bit and I suppose it's reached what they call pallyne, the prelude to morningshine. Oh well, I'll try to sleep some more.
...A peristaltic movement along the pipes... like long throats swallowing... is it another dream?
I'd actually rather it weren't. I'll take reality this time, rather than a viscid dream. Like, if one TV channel forecasts rain and the other forecasts sun, I'll take the sun. That sounds like rot, but what I think I mean, is that since no doubt remains that I'm in an evil place, I might as well use up what gumption I have left in choosing to believe that what I'm facing is real, because, at some level or other, asleep or awake, real is what it probably is.
Swinging my legs round and standing up, I gulp deep breaths, then march to the door of the hut and emerge onto the city floor, looking for somebody to confront.
Immediately the gentle, rather ghostly woman, Gliss Kabaz, appears from behind a pillar, and glides towards me. It's as though she had been waiting all night in case I called upon her.
My mouth in a grimace of scepticism, I stride towards her. She stops and so do I, within grabbing distance, though I refrain from seizing her by the cloak-clasp.
"How can I help you, Daon N-Y?" she says in a low, meek, lost kind of voice.
I snap out the words, "Tell me about this place. Amnuyar. The history - the broad outline. Who founded it, and when?"
"Forlandag Orst and the Five Hundred," she recites, "broke away from the other marooned survivors of the Jolharr..."
I interrupt her excitedly, "I've read about this! The folk from Jolharr founded Olhoav..."
"Except for the group led by Forlandag Orst," she goes on, "who were not reconciled to a life of exile on Starside, and did not wish to settle where the airship had collapsed. Instead they decided to attempt to reach Syoom by skimmer."
"Like me," I mutter. "But they never got there, I suppose."
"Yes, they stopped here, where some ruins and machinery had survived from a previous cycle, a wealth of resources just waiting to be used. The temptation was too great to resist, and, abandoning the aim of reaching Syoom, the Five Hundred decided to settle on Starside after all."
"Thank you," I say to her, greatly cheered. Though my intellect tells me that the events to which she has referred are so remote in time that they can have little or no relevance to what I experience now, my emotions are warmed by the human story, so much so, that I feel almost a fondness for creepy Amnuyar.
I add, perhaps daftly, "Why don't you take the rest of the night off, Gliss, and call me when it's time for me to attend the Council."
I am conducted forth, Gliss Kabaz at my side, her hand gentle on my right arm.
She hasn't spoken except to say she has come to fetch me to "the Nrurr". Perhaps she senses my mood: from the moment I awoke this morning - awoke properly - my mind has been cold and clear. Perhaps not yet brave enough to admit the truth, I do now discern what isn't true, and from that I glean the silhouette of what is.
Presently, though, she does speak. As we enter the passage leading to the central and largest dome, she timidly dares to ask, "I trust you slept well?"
I say, drily, "And equally I can trust you to read my mind."
Looking stricken, she responds, "How so, Daon Nyav?"
"You did it again just then. English phrase-construction," I mutter.
"Eng - lish? What is that?"
"English is my Terran language, as you all very well know, and you're all welcome to dig what you can of it out of my head."
I ought not to snap at her; it's my fault for being so stupid before. To believe that I had acquired precog powers whereas in fact I was merely being read and echoed...
Gliss's hand clenches on my arm. I almost shake it off, but, on second thoughts, why not allow a pittance of human contact, even if it's only the touch of an illusion? Why be unkind to a poor, harmless recording?
She says dolefully, "I don't understand you, Daon Nyav."
"Maybe," I concede. "Maybe."
The ghosts needn't be full partakers...
I hear the process before I see it: squish-thump, squish-thump, washing through the pipes overhead and underfoot; next, as we enter the giant main dome I do finally see the hairy network centred on the floor's bowl-shaped hub: the adductors in their hundreds, bearing their corpuscles of data in constant flow over the rim and down.
Gliss brings me to the bowl's edge.
I look down at tiered seats and a blurry multitude filling them, each individual helmeted with a dashboard-visor, their flashing crescents curved like grins. Above it all, a man at a raised lectern hails me. It is Kreber.
"Behold, here, Daon of Olhoav, you see the Council of Representatives Assembled; the Nrurr of Amnuyar!"
Representatives? To judge by everything I have learned on this world, the forthright Uranians don't have even the concept, let alone the practice of political "representation", any more than our ancient Athenians did; which is yet another reason to disregard what's being put into my head. I hug my scorn while I can. I can't actually stop them - or rather, it - if it's determined to fit its pipes into me, as no doubt it is, but meanwhile I have some will left. The power appears to be spinning out its coagulation-game in order to prolong the ghastly climax; and that delay suits me too; I can try to firm what's left of my guts whilst the nameless horror remains nameless for that bit longer.
"Daon Nyav," booms the Kreber voice, "needs help! Heed, all you faces, our guest is on a mission! If he is to complete his dangerous voyage to Syoom... despite the obstacle which we all know..."
"Ahhhh," the voices respond, an undulant pliancy in their murmur's rise and fall. I don't trouble to conceal that I don't like it - for they must know.
I say, "I know the 'obstacle' only by name, but I guess you know it by nature."
Silkily ignoring the barb in my tone, one of the voices suggests: "But a traveller's path need not cross it, if he opts to go round."
The voice of Kreber interposes, "What an excellent idea. Thus the traveller spares himself even the need to inquire. For who wants to know the worst than can be?"
At the close of that sentence, the silence creaks. I glance up, to eye the dome overhead, as though tilting my face could hide my sudden thought from the power that surrounds me. "I already know," I say, "the worst that can be."
A mere instant of hesitation - and then, merriment sweeps the Bowl. Looking back down I see the faces chuckling in unison, care no longer taken to keep up an appearance of plurality.
More loudly I insist, "The worst is the recurrent memory, the imprinted record of that appalling moment when the truth first flashes into the mind; you know the shock, the yellow-eyed despair at the news that it's all a pack of lies, that there is no city of Amnuyar and there is no you, for you're the pack of lies, you're nothing but the the body-parts of Zyperan - "
Massed figures gesticulate, and the terraces of the Bowl sum up to the image of a Parliament in uproar, a false, deceptive, unrealistic, lying visual metaphor whose moments are numbered. The truth must be about to congeal, for reality is upsurging in the undertone, the squish-thump, squish-thump getting louder, and the final gell may as well happen now, for I'm as ready for it as I'll ever be. My hope must be, that although my head is leaking in and out, the Thing's comprehension may slightly lag behind its perception.
It speaks in a voice rebounding from all sides: "Why are you still standing, Daon Nyav? Why are you not crazed with fear?"
I scoff, "Crazed at your brand of nightmare? What have you got to show me that might compare with the bed-time hells I endured on Earth as a little boy, the mask hovering by the back door ready to pull me into its electric-barred mouth, or the dark amoeboid billowing and humping its sure way up the stairs... Ha, you thought I'd crack up with your urban-coagulation horror, so you let me right in and didn't bother to disarm me! Or did you perhaps, deep down, want to die, Zyperan?"
My laser swishes into blade mode just as the "Parliament" disappears. All lies are snapped up in the truth: the enormous, beating Heart fills the Bowl as focus of all the pipes - SWISH-THUMP, SWISH-THUMP - and if my Terran arrogance falters now, if I stop to stare at the Thing, if I slide into hesitation or caution or pity, I am lost. I shiver myself into action, I slice downward with the incandescent blade, to stab that Heart.
Lightning in sheets - flash after flash -
I squeeze my eye-lids tight, but my lids blaze gold with dazzle, my ears can't evade emotion's battering roar, nor can I shelter from cushiony rain with its gaggy stench, so I do what I can: with raised elbows and bowed head I make an air-cage for my face, like you're told to do if you're caught in a snow-avalanche on Earth, though I'd much prefer snow to the downpour here -
Yet, if this is the worst, I shall survive.
Or is that thought a slip, a failure to allow for a last trick?
No, no, it's all right, the Thing is truly dead. The rain of slime abates. I open my eyes.
On the open plain I stand, drenched, amid stinking puddles.
The fuscous mile-wise circle of Zyperan's collapsed body has tainted the ground but the air, on the other hand, is quite clear. Not a floom in sight.
I am alive. I have accomplished what no Uranian could do. But - here clutches the dead claw - the sick awareness of an unpaid bill.
Not exactly remorse; I know I did what was needful, although those bubbles I see going plop-plop in the slime, some taller than they ought before they waver and topple, make me feel more uncomfortable the closer I look at them, particularly at one, towards whom I can't stop myself from sloshing my way through the gunk, stepping on some of the lesser bubbles as I watch the one I have my eye on expand to look like Gliss Kabaz.
The shape's a mere five yards away, stretching arms to me, and then with a meaningless noise it subsides, dissolves, ripples into nothing. Well, that's that, I tell myself; a final twitch of the goo. Whether, at any stage, the ghost-figures I saw in the "city" were ever conscious to a degree, or were mere illusory recordings, is a question that shall remain unwed by any answer.
That bill, meanwhile, which still has to be paid, decides that now's the moment to hit my swimming head with a hurricane roar of untranslatable emotion which must be endured because it's coming from within me: it's my native self, shrieking in reaction at where I have been.
I vaguely realize that I have dropped my laser; I don't dare bend to pick it up, lest I never straighten again. I totter instead, towards a metal gleam some fifty yards away, my potential salvation, the glint of a tough light porrang hull, doubtless beslimed but, though filthy, still hovering, still serviceable:
My skimmer. Get to it! It's my only hope.
I'll get to it if I have enough stamina left. Or even if I haven't - says I to myself, vaingloriously, desperately: because all the force of my being went into the blow I struck at the monster's heart, what's needed now will have to be borrowed.
From down below. Yes, do you hear me, Nyav Yuhlm? It is I, the Terran Neville Yeadon, calling upon the submerged strength of my native self.
What's this I hear? New words filtering up... spletch is the bubbles, frul the muck from which they rise. Oh all right. You're showing me you know more than I do about this world. Hardly surprising. But we need each other. I'm the one that got us out of this. I just need a bit more energy to enable me to plod as far as that skimmer... plod through the sticky frul among the popping spletch... I feel your upward pressure, Nyav. You want to take over? Is that it? Would you have cared to be in charge a few minutes ago during the struggle with Zyperan? Not likely, eh? (Almost there. Must drag along a few dozen steps more. Get to the skimmer, get out of here, then I can cease this balancing act and shove Nyav back down where he belongs.)
Yes, you need me to stay in charge, don't you, Nyav? My immunity to Uranian superstitions is the dam that protects you from the flood of horror.
Eh? What's this you're whispering now?
Yes, all right, I know our 'two minds' aren't really separate. But if I don't stay on top, how do you expect to deal with the memory of what happened here, what will you do when it howls unchecked across the partition between your zone and mine? Ah, that gives you pause for thought! Let's face it - WHAT?
Good heavens above, how do I answer this... He's made the point - which is undoubtely true - that if I remain in charge, I logically can't be trusted to avoid further challenges too ghastly for normal Uranian consciousness to bear; because heroes are expected to repeat, and that's what I'll be, when news of this exploit gets out.
But wait, not so fast: the news need never get out.
Oh yes it may, for I dropped my laser. My personal laser. It's lying back there somewhere in the gungey frul.
I must turn back to get it! But no, I haven't the energy to turn back; I'll only just have enough to reach my skimmer. Besides - truth must out, when a city-sized monster dies.
This is most serious; almost I hope that I don't make it to the skimmer - for a new fear hits me, the fear of responsibility, of a greater responsibility than I can sustain.
And now the basement-voice is muttering louder. Nyav is making another reasonable point. He's saying, that although I won out over Zyperan, yet if I remain in control, sooner or later I shall take on too much, and then -
Then, the Keesta-Gulb.
Eh? Never heard of that. The ultimate nightmare?
All right, stop repeating the term!
What's that you're saying now, Nyav? I can't understand you. And why has your voice changed?
What do you mean, it's not your voice?
Why has my field of view darkened as though I were on Earth at a total eclipse? And what is it - taking form in my imagination and mingling with my senses, with a superposed rumble that repeats "The Keesta-Gulb" at me from all directions - what is it that's enclosing me in a curtain of grey specks? The curtain magnifies as I stare around me, and the specks resolve into a whirl of dancing cubes, heavy stone blocks that defy gravity to leap and spiral in a churning wind, and my brain is smitten by an adamantine message that yells at me in those blocks.
Voice, your message - No! Go pick on someone else! Let me tell you, Voice, that in the face of nightmare there are no heroes. No one could choose to endure the horrors in those dreams that my child-self used to endure without choice... so it's no use you announcing that I
am the destined hybrid, suited to save this world from a soul-mangling
fate in both Uranian and Terran terms -
Ah, here at last, I stretch a hand to a metal flank, it's my good old hovering skimmer; scraping up dregs of energy I lurch on board, and though my senses swim I run my eye to check that the vehicle is aimed approximately right - if I hit anywhere in Syoom I'll be happy - and I collapse against the starting lever and feel the motion begin, promising escape. But even as my mind darkens and my faculties dissolve, my Terran ego hears the rattle of defeat and the rush up from below, and I know that when I awake, if I awake, it will be as my Uranian self. And so be it; for I no longer wish to resist. Good-bye Terran control, my Earth self's price is too high...
We the Bardic narrators, wish to pause at this turning point in the tale of Nyav Yuhlm. Behind him lie his Olhoavan, Starside origins; ahead of him his Syoomean, Sunside career.
The pause is traditional for storytellers. Here is where we naturally wonder: did he really hear the voice of the World Spirit, amid the puddled remains of Zyperan?
Or did the 'message' spurt from stressed depths in his own bifid mind?
Historians may disagree with our rendition of this episode, but everyone can agree that whatever the origin of the Voice, it spoke the truth.
Not that the stunned Daon of Olhoav had any inkling of the destined finale, or of aught else, while his exhausted body, slumped askew against the bows of his skimmer, was borne unconscious in the direction of Syoom.
TO BE CONTINUED IN
Uranian Throne Episode 16: