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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 blend in streamers of sensation as I face forward into the whistling blast that seems to shape me into a human wind-tunnel as if the air were tearing through me as well as past me, endurable because I've grown from weedy Terran into tough Uranian, but also - though I know nought of the workings of this vehicle I'm riding - I gather that although the machine has no material cowl it must generate a protective force-bubble of some kind, an invisible resistent 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 my 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. Thus, right now I don't think about Zyperan. Instead, looking further, I think about how much easier and more accurate navigation will be when I reach the border of Syoom: for then (if I get that far) at last a certain display-needle will light up on my dashboard, and - what a moment that will be! - I shall be able to use my never-used navigational compass.
thousands of lifetimes it has languished uselessly, far from its
work-area, just as the people of Olhoav have been cut off from Syoom... but when 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, the imperishable Phosphorus Era device will kindle to the purpose it has never been able to fulfil during its dormant aeons in isolated Olhoav.
Elated thoughts are followed by others more sombre: is wise to allow one's mind to dwell upon the gulfs of distance and of time, imagining such remoteness as to shrink one's personal hopes? Whenever I realistically try to picture my attainment of the Sunside realm, with its fabled cities that no Olhoavan has ever seen for 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: I've travelled 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. It is transformed 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!
It is 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. I like keeping to my direction, of course. On the other hand, what I don't like so much, snaking on either side of me now, are parallel ranges which hem me in. They're maybe Chiltern-height, and that size, and their shape, is an incongruous reminder of southern England. Except, that is, for their pointed tops and knolly crests, which are quite un-English.
Every few miles, silhouetted to my left and right, spiked cairns appear, that look artificially regular. I suppose they could be natural growths. That is what I'd prefer them to be.
Here's one closer than the rest, coming past me on my right. Around its central spike are arranged others like spines of a cactus; most likely therefore it's some sort of plant... but maybe I shouldn't suppose that, maybe I shouldn't suppose anything in this doubtful area.
I check on my speed. I'm unsure whether to accelerate or decelerate. 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 streak at full throttle out of this ambience.
Next thing I know, the hills are flattening on both sides, and my unease likewise diminishes, in tame conformity with the smoothing plains, calming like an ocean after a squall.
Not the first time I've oscillated in and out of a near-panic! A recurrent thought: 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?
After all, "He", or rather the Uranian "I", must surely know this place better than any Terran can -
No, no. Useless reasoning. I refute it the same way every time:
Nyav Yuhlm, the Uranian me, doesn't actually know "this place" at all. Nyav Yuhlm has lived all his short life in and around Olhoav. That's one very isolated Uranian city. "He", poor chap, can't imagine what's ahead, 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 and flee back to the environs of Olhoav.
I'm not saying "he" is a coward. In most situations, I can well believe, any Uranian is likely to be braver than the Earthly "I". Nevertheless 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. "He" couldn't take on my mission, even though it's 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 point me forward, and yet, despite all of that, Nyav cannot face the prospect of Zyperan. The legendary monster-mound, the evil hulk athwart the route to Syoom, is too much for an Olhoavan, and so the "Londoner-me" must help out. I, fortunately, am not affected by Uranian superstitions.
Yes, my dreads are purely Terran, or so I reckon. For instance, I couldn't face entering Dracula's castle at night, whereas doubtless many of the folk of this world would doubtless do a lot better in that scenario. By contrast, the typical Uranian nightmare is something I can handle.
At any rate I can hope so.
It makes sense to hope so, 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. Science fiction has always been my comfort zone.
Of course, that's true only in the armchair bookish sense. Real life 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... to borrow a bit of dialectic sleight-of-mind from Hegel and the Marxists... a menace creates its own opposition. That should mean that I can expect to find help. The worse the evil that awaits, the likelier it is that I shall find allies along the way. Support, shelter, fellow-fighters against... It.
That's how Cortes won against the Aztecs, right? His own pitiful force, from what I've read, could never have succeeded on its own...
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. I'm now headed for a region of chaotically sprawled hills, towards which I accelerate impatiently, 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 will be the future of this 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 the 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: which I have guarded ever since, with a hunch that I may be 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, and whatever it's meant to do, it still works. A draught of motivation and hope is what I have just 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.
Despite all this exhortation, I don't sleep.
Without understanding why, I press the stud which unclenches and releases my skimmer's anchor from the ground, and reels it in. Then with the throttle very low, I slide through the air towards that dim shape which attracted my attention when I was wandering on the ground a few minutes ago...
The dark hulk, whatever it is, 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 thing is a house-sized hemisphere, black-haloed with a dozen spikes. I could characterise each spike as 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, and what am I doing here thinking about it at all?
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, why not assert that I'm the real John Carter, aged in a young body, scripted to become Jeddak of Jeddaks after saving his adopted world, which I can do by surmounting the restrictions which baffle its natives -
What has got into me? I shake my giddy head. More dangerous even than the delusions of grandeur are the expectations of answers... That sort of stuff won't do at all, not here it won't; this is Ooranye, for heaven's sake: scrabble not for answers on this world, 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. Forget about the Terran-style search for answers and explanations. Practise, instead, the swordplay of associational thinking which counts towards survival on the Seventh World. In that sense, and that sense only, you can be John Carter.
Well, yes (I argue to reassure my cautious side), that's what I'm going to do - that's exactly why I'm going to succeed -and here's a case in point -
I hover close to the spiky thing and say to myself, "On distant planet Earth, 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, the pollination racket, or its equivalent here, has offered a chance bonus for me, with a galvanising effect on my morale, analogous to, and more useful than, the human pleasure of floral scent in an Earthly garden."
It incites me to think like a winner. In this vein, I conclude that even while I retain my Terran consciousness I can yet behave like a full-blooded Uranian foregrounder protagonist, a streamlined man who shan't be stopped, a surfer of destiny 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 (specifically, a young man's body with a far older mind and the perspective of two worlds), I surrender to my devouring destiny and open the throttle to skim down-slope towards the next stretch of plain, although night is getting on and it's much darker now than I would normally wish for travelling.
At least 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 thrill 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. 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, that 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 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? - heyyyyy it's a FORTRESS - exactly as I predicted -
A city-sized cluster of those spiky things!
No, that's not what it is: 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 real, an actual city.
Though lapped together like soapy bubbles, it is solid. Its smooth domes appear to lack the thronged walkways, bridges or skimways that I expect from a city, but the colourful glow hints at life. And when I scan through my telescope, sure enough I see tiny moving human figures, walking in hexagonal grooves on the hemispheres' sides. Moreover - now I see other pedestrians closer, 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 when they're used in blade-mode. Or no - not quite the same - rather more like baseball bats, for these city-spikes get thicker towards their ends. Some kind of protective armament, I suspect. Or detection equipment. Or both. Whatever the details: all of it shouts the message that this is unquestionably a FORTRESS, especially as 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? 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 and float forward at humbly reduced velocity. This is hard more airspeed than a stroll; I am doing everything I can to look harmless and above-board during my approach.
What can they be doing, those people up ahead? The folk who stand or pace on the ground: they're not tilling fields, for I see no fields.
I notice, coming nearer, an unutterably dreamlike glow that envelops the city, something more than just a hemisphere of brightened air: it appears to consist of millions of brilliant little particles which drift and churn like flakes in a snowglobe. Just a little too marvellous, is this the scene ahead of me, and my instinct bids me hasten to pull an explanation, or rather an incantation, out of my store of sf imagery, and pronounce it firmly: "force-field". For that's what I must be seeing, a defensive force-field. That's thinking like a good Uranian: name the mystery, reduce the stress. I'll get through all this if I can slide thus glibly through 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, and now my boots crunch on the gralm, as I guide 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. What's rare in my experience on this world, he sports a beard, though it's hardly more than a black chin-strap line, only a mild contrast to the grey Uranian skin. Not for the first time, a partial, limited similarity to a Terran phenomenon makes me feel more than ever remote from Earth.
"Stranger from the wilderness," the fellow chants in recognizable Jommdan, "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. My goal is to reach the land of Syoom."
Eyebrows raised, the fellow remarks: "Destination Syoom! An adventure worthy of a Daon!" Apparently my words have createed a favourable impression. Or perhaps my blue cloak is accepted as confirmation of my rank. "I," the man continues, "am Erem Fomst, Sentinel of Gate Eighteen of Amnuyar."
I seek to formulate something respectful to say. I'm not quick enough.
"But let me warn you, brave wayfarer. You may seek Syoom, but do you understand that you are headed straight for Zyperan?"
I can answer that one. "Even so," I say, "I must keep to my mission."
Erem lifts his brows a fraction, then 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. Then as I'm about to choose an additional expression of gratitude, I'm shocked to observe the eyes of Erem Fomst suddenly blaze as though a Halloween lamp has been ignited inside his head.
I stare, petrified, into his retina's veined yellow furnace, horrified at the lack of any apparent reason for the man's violent change of expression. Then, as I frozenly watch, another happening reveals to my infinite relief that sudden the eye-blaze was nothing to do with me. 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. I now understand that 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. Just live in the moment. Otherwise you won't get far.
"This is Abzong, my floom," remarks Erem Fomst. He's smiling for the first time in our encounter. "Abzong 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. The guide will then show you the way to the Storol. That's 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...
In fact 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. My gaze meanwhile trails the floom as it streaks towards Amnuyar, obeying the command to fetch me a guide.
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, 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. Here, as I stand upon a world of which the Greeks and Romans knew
nothing, how can I feel my way amongst traditions? What do I know about
Uranian myth? 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. The hill 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, has become 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'm looking less than enthusiastic. As if, maybe, I need coaxing. For in a gentler voice the sentinel adds some comforting gibberish:
"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. Gazing at the mighty domes, I ask myself, so what's the thing which I must not fret about? I brace myself for some alarming illusion. And sure enough -
For once instant as though reality were gulped into childhood nightmare, the city's entire mass shrugs like a pair of shoulders.
The terrifying absurdity must briefly have caused my mind to founder. Scrambling back towards sanity I totter like one who has blacked out. I manage to tear the visor from my face.
"Good, that's done," the man says, taking back the unwelcome object which I'm holding out to him while I 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. The outrageous nonsense of the "shrug" could not have been real. Not even if each dome were made of jelly could the whole structure have quaked up and down like it seemed, briefly, to do. That's what I firmly tell myself. If only common sense could erase the after-image...
Ha! 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! Does that not 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 demonstrates that I am able to foretell my own illusions. Well, that's good, that's genuinely promising for the 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 it opens like the mouth of a grouper fish, or (let's recast that) it's opening like a drawbridge is lowered. 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."
The youth called 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!
Jumping to conclusions is rightly frowned upon, on Earth, whereas here it's surfing fate's wave.
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 the doorbell-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 quite subdued in here, like a weekday in a museum. I look around me in spellbound awe.
The predominantly empty floor is interrupted by corkscrew-shaped or flame-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 gymnastically standing or walking on their hands. Others are 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, branched in the manner of a giant candelabrum, stands a short way beyond some peculiar escalators which slant up throught the air, apparently going nowhere. I verge upon doubting my senses. Could the whole thing be an illusion to foil spies? That would make sense if they suspect me of being a spy. I must be patient. It's up to them, what they let me see.
Doamon Zul reaches the "candelabrum" and turns to speak in his broken voice.
"This is the Storol," he says. "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 right now?"
A scratchy voice issues from the grille, "Never mind the hour, stranger."
"That was Kreber," says my guide - and then the elevator door opens. And the guide, 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. It bears 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 never sleep before yyne."
I edge forward into a nest hung with tapestry folds, diffusely lit by air like fluorescent milk. The ruler is hunched forward on what looks like a swivel chair. His bushy eyebrows and prognathous jaw are tilted at me.
"Over there," he points. "Don't mind the rapthak; it can't squeeze through the bars."
I obediently lower myself into an enormous cushion, while glancing at the corner of the den where a cage confines a... complexity of horns and fur. The 'rapthak' is an impossibility compacted out of nightmare: drool-fanged, bat-winged, half-saurian. Its ape-like limbs and paws clutch the bars while it grins as though it might break out at will... nevertheless since the man says it can't squeeze through, I shall take that statement 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. (I give a start at the timing of that. It's as though my mind were an open book. But perhaps it's just a common-sense observation.) He continues: "Tomorrow will be soon enough for you to attend our Council. It will absorb your plans and..." he frowns as if struggling for a word, but then his brow clears, "digest your situation. Meantime, because you possess the rank of Daon, I wished to do you honour by 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 and securely 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..."
"Want what?" say I.
Rather than answer, 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? I repeat the word to myself, and shrug. 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. Didn't catch how. 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, or at least I suppose I am.
I've drifted over to the window of this hut. Gazing out over the city-floor, I notice 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, earlier, outside the city, I saw flicking their luminous tails this way and that on the neighbouring plain.
What's this? They've arrested their flight. One and all, they are hovering in unison.
Well, this sure is a reminder that I must be asleep. It's as well to remember that it is sometimes possible to kick oneself out of a dream. Thus, if the sights turn too nasty, I may resist. Hmm... yes, I suspect it's not going to turn out well. The developments are confusing yet they threaten significance, as each one of the comets, or eels or tadpoles or bats (more the latter as they're now hanging upside down in the air as if from invisible perches), has begun to shake, with open mouth, like a dog or cat retching. And sure enough, those floom are sicking something out. Something which swells, which inflates downwards from each pair of lips. The shapes balloon into 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 escapology. Chop at it! Wrench! Smite! Butt my head against the wall twice, thrice, again and again! Still not woken? Repeat the violence. Ah, yes... good, here I am, lying down on the bed. I'm not at the window - that was the dream and I'm out of it. Ah, should be all right now.
All the same, I'll keep my back turned, as I wait for morning.
But now once more the window insists, with a tap tap tap against it, and I must look round - and I see a lot of damned faces looking in, whose expressions 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 just another layer of the hopeless thing. Five or six faces, smiling their certainty. Hoooooo... among them is Gliss Kabaz, with a remnant of flapping about her head. Their knuckles tap again, and I... for a second I must have gone berserk. I find myself 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. 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?
Please, no. I'll take reality this time, rather than a viscid dream. Should be able to choose. Like, if one TV channel forecasts rain and the other forecasts sun, I jokingly say "I'll take the sun". Only, here it's more than a joke: I actually think I can sensibly choose - since no doubt remains that I'm in an evil place - to use what gumption I have left to believe that what I'm facing, at some level or other, asleep or awake, is real.
Swinging my legs round and standing up, I gulp deep breaths, then march to the door of the hut.
I emerge onto the city floor, looking for somebody to confront.
Immediately the gentle, rather ghostly woman, Gliss Kabaz, appears from behind a pillar. She glides towards me, as though she had been waiting all night in case I called upon her.
My mouth in a grimace of scepticism, I stride to meet her. She stops and so do I. 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."
"Your room? It is - "
"Amnuyar. The whole of it. The history - the broad outline anyway. 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 says.
"Ah. The malcontents."
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 - "
I interrupt excitedly, "Instead, like me, they decided to attempt to reach Syoom by skimmer. I get the picture! And they never got there, I suppose."
"Yes, they stopped here."
"A special place?"
"A place rich in ruins and machinery which had survived from a previous cycle, a wealth of resources just waiting to be used. The temptation was too great to resist. 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. So warmed are my emotions by the epic human story, 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 rests 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 (awoke properly) this morning my mind has been cold and clear. Perhaps not yet brave enough to admit the truth, but - at least I do now discern what isn't true; and from that I glean the silhouette of what is.
Presently, though, she does speak. Timidly, as we enter the passage leading to the central and largest dome, she says: "I trust you slept well...?"
I say, drily, "I can trust you, equally, to read my mind."
Looking stricken, she responds, "How so, Daon Nyav?"
"English phrase-construction," I mutter.
"Eng - lish? What is that?"
"English is my Terran language, as you all very well know, and you're welcome, all of you, 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; believing, as I did, 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. On second thoughts, though, 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 you don't. In which case, I apologize."
The ghosts needn't be full partakers...
I hear then, before I see, the process of squish-thump, squish-thump, washing through the pipes overhead and underfoot. Next, as we enter the giant main dome, the hairy network comes at last into view, centred on the floor's bowl-shaped hub:
Adductors in their hundreds, bearing corpuscles of data in constant flow, over the rim and down, over and down, over and down -
Gliss brings me to the bowl's edge. Below me extend the tiered seats and the blurry multitude filling them. The ensemble could not be otherwise than how it is. Each helmeted individual stares into a dashboard-visor, flashing crescents curved like grins, and above the lot stands Kreber at a raised lectern. He hails me.
"Behold, here, Daon of Olhoav, you see the Council of Representatives assembled; the Nrurr of Amnuyar!"
Representatives? From what I've gathered so far on this world, the direct, forthright Uranians don't even possess the concept, let alone the practice, of political "representation", any more than our ancient Athenians did. 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, but I have some willpower left.
This bad dream which is also real, is 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.
"Faces of Amnuyar," booms the Kreber voice, "take heed: our guest, Daon Nyav, is on a mission! He needs our help if he is to complete his dangerous voyage to Syoom, despite the obstacle which we all know..."
"Ahhhh," the voices respond with an undulant pliancy in their murmur's rise and fall. I don't trouble to conceal how little I like it, for they must know.
I say, "I know the 'obstacle' only by name, but you, I suppose, know it by nature."
Silkily, one of the voices suggests: "But a traveller's path need not cross it if he opts to go round."
Kreber interposes, "An excellent idea, that: go round and avoid the worst, for who wants to know what the worst can be?"
After than remark, the silence creaks.
I glance up, to eye the dome overhead, as though tilting my face could hide my thought; but that's no good, I can hide nothing here. "I already know," I say.
Merriment sweeps the Bowl. Turning my gaze back down I see the faces chuckling in unison, no longer even keeping up an appearance of plurality.
More loudly I insist, "The worst is the imprinted moment when you realize 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 - " (billowing hands flap at me to stop, but I finish) "nothing but the the body-parts of Zyperan."
The terraces of the Bowl produce one last deceitful image of a Parliament in uproar, a lying visual metaphor whose moments are numbered. The truth is about to congeal. The squish-thump, squish-thump upsurges towards the final gell. My head is leaking in and out and I totter, but the Thing, unsatisfied, demands - in a voice rebounding from all sides - "Why are you still standing, Daon Nyav? Why are you not crazed with fear?"
The childhood enemy, the old, old bane of my life, a horror much at variance with what I must deal here, comes to my rescue so that I fairly yell with scorn, "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 boy - the mask hovering by the back door, ready to pull me into its electric-barred mouth; the amoeboid thing humping its way up the stairs? You thought I'd crack up with your measly urban-coagulation horror? Ah, so that's why you let me right in and didn't bother to disarm me! Or perhaps, deep down, you 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, if I slide into hesitation or pity, I am lost. I shiver into action, I slice with my laser's incandescent blade, downwards at that Heart.
Lightning in sheets - flash after flash - and though I squeeze my eyes shut my lids blaze gold with the dazzle. Nor can my ears evade the battering roar, nor can my skin shelter from the cushiony rain with its gaggy stench. 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.
If this is the worst, I shall survive.
Or is that thought a slip? Is it a failure to allow for a last trick?
No, no, the Thing is truly dead, and the rain of slime abates. I open my eyes.
On the open plain I stand, drenched, amid stinking puddles.
The fuscous mile-wide 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 a dead claw clutches my conscience: the sick awareness of an unpaid bill.
Not exactly remorse. I know that what I did was needful, though now I must witness deflating bubble-figures going plop-plop in the slime, some taller than they ought before they waver and topple, making me feel more uncomfortable the closer I look at them.
Particularly one of them, towards whom I can't stop myself from sloshing my way through the gunk. Stepping on many lesser bubbles, I watch the one that looks like Gliss Kabaz.
The shape's a mere five yards away. It stretches its arms to me, and then with a meaningless noise it utterly subsides, dissolves, ripples into nothing with a final twitch of the goo.
Well, that's that. Were the ghost-figures I saw in the "city" ever to any degree conscious, or were they mere illusory recordings? A question which will remain short of an answer.
The bill that must be paid now takes the form of a hurricane roar of emotion from within my Uranian native self, shrieking in reaction. YEOW! I have been to Zyperan! I have seen, I have touched Zyperan!
I don't dare bend to pick up my laser, lest I fall over. I begin to stagger towards a metal gleam some fifty yards away. It's my potential salvation: the glint of a tough light porrang hull. Doubtless beslimed and filthy but still hovering, still serviceable: my skimmer, 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): all the force of my being went into the blow I struck at the monster's heart, so what's needed now will have to be borrowed - borrowed from down below - do you hear me, Nyav Yuhlm? It is I, the Terran Neville Yeadon calling upon the submerged strength of my native self. In answer, new workds filter up... spletch is the bubbles, frul the muck from which they rise. Oh yes, you're showing me, Nyav, that 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; only a Terran, whose imagination is free from Uranian bogeys, could have drawn sponnd against Zyperan. I now just need a little more oomph to get me as far as that skimmer... just help me to plod a little further through the sticky frul among the popping spletch... ah, I feel your upward pressure, Nyav: you wish to take over, is that it? But would you have cared to be in charge a few minutes ago? Not likely, eh? No - so give me your support for this last stretch. (Almost there. Must drag along a dozen steps more. Get to the skimmer, get out of here, then I can cease this balancing act, shove Nyav back down where he belongs - )
Oh, don't argue, Nyav: you need me to stay in charge. Believe me, you'd otherwise be driven mad by recent memory. My immunity to Uranian superstitions is the dam that protects you from a 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 knowledge of what happened here, when it howls unchecked across the partition between your mental zone and mine? Ah, that gives you pause... 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.
Hero? No sane or decent man is a hero to himself but, if I'm honest, I must admit what'll happen when news of this exploit gets out.
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. And besides - when a city-sized monster dies, the truth will out.
This is most serious; almost I hope that I don't make it to the skimmer. The new fear, the fear of responsibility, hits me - fear of a greater responsibility than I can possibly sustain.
The basement-voice mutters louder as Nyav makes another reasonable point. I sense him saying that although I won out over Zyperan, sooner or later I shall take on too much, if I remain in control.
Then, what I'll meet is the Keestaggulb.
Eh? Never heard of that.
All right, stop repeating the term! I can translate "ultimate nightmare". Is that why your voice has 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? What now takes form in my imagination and mingles with a superposed rumble - what is it that's enclosing me in a curtain of grey specks - a curtain that magnifies as I stare around me - the specks resolving into a whirl that smites my brain with an adamantine message - ? No! Go pick on someone else! Let me tell you, Voice, that although I stood up to Zyperan, no one could choose to face those dreams that my child-self was forced to endure - so it's no use you announcing that I
am the destined hybrid hero, suited to save this world from a soul-mangling in both Uranian and Terran terms - for in the face of nightmare there are no heroes.
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. Though my eyes swim I do my best 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. The motion begins, promising escape.
However, even as my mind darkens and my faculties dissolve, my Terran ego hears the rattle of defeat and the rush up from below, telling me 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 Thremdu, 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 agrees 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.
Uranian Throne Episode 16: