uranian throne
- episode sixteen


confluence at ao

by
robert gibson


[For the story so far, see: 1: Dynoom; 2: Hyala;
3: the nebulee; 4: Exception
5: the lever of power;
6: the infrastructure throbs
7: the claw extends;
8: the brain-mist writhes; 9: the last card;
10: the londoner; 11: the terran heir;
12: the city cracks; 13: the validator rips;
14: the heartland beckons; 15: zyperan]

[ + links to:  Glossary - Timeline - Maps - Survey of Ooranye - Plan of Olhoav -
guide to published stories ]


The pilot's slump onto the rearward deck had tilted the bow a degree or two upwards.  Most fortunate, this unconscious aim: for it oriented the skimmer into a gradual climb, until, after about a furlong, it reached its six-yard "ceiling", where the flight levelled off.  At this modest altitude the vehicle's blind trajectory was able to surmount the boulders, shrubs and lesser crags which sparsely littered the plains.

That was one precondition of Nyav Yuhlm's fantastically improbable survival.  Additional luck was necessary for him to miss the taller crags into which he would have crashed and died; he must, then, have been favoured by the accidents of topography.

Yet far more kindness from fate was needed to preserve the life of a man in his position - in a coma on a vehicle traversing approximately fifteen thousand miles of hostile wilderness - to the extent that historians have been moved to speculate on the toleration, or even mercy, of those malign Fyayman powers which ought to have destroyed him.

We conclude that the animate forces which loomed along his path through Fyaym must have drawn back, by chance or will, casually or promptly as the case may be, in order to allow him passage.  Of these hesitations and hesitators we know nothing; else you would now be listening to an epic of a different stripe.  Indeed it is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the tale of Nyav's transect of Fyaym will ever be told, though we cannot rule out the happy chance that somebody may some day catch a sigaklya, an evidencer-cloud, which will turn out to bear a recording of those days; and what a coup for historians that would be!  But otherwise the scantiness of our knowledge must remain almost as great as that of the voyager himself - who eventually awoke in Syoom with no knowledge of where he had been.

We must make one exception.  One event, which logic tell us took place about two days' flight from Zyperan, we can reconstruct, as follows:

*

On skimmers of more than rudimentary design, as soon as the current fuel-phial is exhausted a simple spring mechanism ejects it and the next phial on the row is shunted into place automatically.  This ought to have happened to the motor of Nyav's vehicle as soon as its feed ran empty.

However, some gob of slime from Zyperan's drenching collapse must have clogged the response mechanism.  An observer would have seen the lights at bow and stern die, and would have heard the hum fade, while the skimmer decelerated as momentum ebbed into drift. 

And there were observers amid the breeze-blown, howling wilderness.  A blank-faced swarm, mounted on skimmers far cruder than that of the Daon, darted to encircle it at a cautious distance. 

They waved their limbs excitedly as they stared.  Accustomed to prey on the borders of Syoom, they rarely managed to find a human victim during their mystic wanderings in deep Fyaym; moreover this drifting vehicle appeared to be of an expensive make; hence the discoverers gesticulated at the inert, sprawled occupant with a frenzy heightened even beyond the usual behaviour of vrars, the strange, child-like pirates of Ooranye. 

Any traveller who falls into the clutches of those berserker people is unlucky in the extreme.  We would have expected Nyav's story to be truncated forthwith - but what saved him was the smell.

The vrar-chief noticed it first.  It was his role to seize a captive and take priority of plunder, so he approached ahead of the others, but no sooner had he closed the gap to within two yards of his prey than he halted, glared about and snarled at his followers to stay back. 

He drew his laser, then hesitantly re-sheathed it, not liking the reek which wafted at his nostrils.  Pressure was on him for a quick decision, for his people would not be restrained for long, but instinct told him loud and clear that no sponnd-slash would erase what he sniffed here.  And besides, you can't enslave a dead man.  The fellow looked quite dead, head lolling, forearm dangling over the skimmer's right side.  Pointless to cut him up, just tip him over the side to permit access to the forward compartment where valuables are likely to be stored -

But that wouldn't do either. 

Undeniable, the nauseous effluvium from the encrustations which streaked the becalmed vehicle and stained its pilot's cloak; undeniable likewise what clanged in the vrar chief's brain:

We don't want this.  What we want is distance between it and us. 

Out of the stew of his emotions, the vrar concocted wisdom.  He lunged forward, struck the clogged phial-replacement mechanism with his palm, and then hastily reversed.

Daon Nyav's skimmer lurched into motion.

The vrar-chief's men, meanwhile, had edged close enough to sniff the same odour and reach the same conclusion as their leader had done; the entire swarm thronged to congratulate him, and to spit and yell after the departing stranger.

*

The nomad chief must have done an effective job, because we know that the next fuel-phial, and the next, slotted into place when their time came, continuing the propulsion of Nyav's skimmer uninterrupted for eight more days, until at last it crossed the invisible statistical boundary of sfy-50, where it passed from Fyaym into Syoom.

The wild, empty plain looked no different at first.  Gradually, though, a low ridge appeared on the horizon.  Straight and regular, it extended to left and right from the viewpoint of the skimmer as it approached.

Most of the great monorails of Syoom were built in the Zinc Era, over two hundred million days ago, but the Innb-Namrol line is a more modern extension of that infrastructure, though it follows the classic design: embankment height seven yards; sides tilted sixty degrees.  A skimmer hurtling at right angles into that mass at fifty miles per hour would smash, but Nyav's flight path encountered it at an oblique angle, which allowed him a cushioned skim that just cleared the surface, up, over - and suddenly down to appear amongst a group of about fifty wayfarers who were camped at the base of the further side.

They were ready for him: a look-out on the embankment had warned them of a stranger's approach. 

When he hurtled down into the midst of them, they glimpsed, under the streaks that stained his clothing, the blue cloak of the Daon's office.  A shout, an arm raised in command, and three skimmers rose from the ground, rapidly to overtake, board and halt the vehicle.

Their own plans made them suspicious of others' appearances; otherwise they might have let him go, on the sound principle that mysteries are well let alone.  The ironic truth, in this case, is that he was irrelevant to them until their action involved him.  It was their own guilt that was to slip them down the muddy banks of destiny's stream; but of this they had no inkling.

In appearance, their encampment could have been a bunch of innocent archeologists.  They might simply have ransacked a site deep in Fyaym and then paused on their way home (some of their parked skimmers were laden with objects; other finds were spread on the ground for sorting).  In fact, this was no scientific expedition.  As a group it lacked even the monstrous innocence of the vrars.

It took the opposite decision to theirs. 

"Heref and Joat - put a tow-line on his skimmer.  Time we were moving," their leader said.

"Skimmjard, sponndar G-S," growled the sullen Joat, and moved to obey.  The similarly sturdy Heref - a woman - went to help him.

A slight, knowing smile quirked behind the grizzled beard of Grilk Sedond as he watched his orders carried out.  He could sense that his decision, by and large, was popular. 

He added, "And put a blurfold on the fellow.  And one on you too, Tem Talfarn," he added, swinging round.

The man he thus addressed was a wiry figure, shorter than most Uranians, who lounged beside one of the laden skimmers.

"Why do that to me now?" the man inquired with a slight sneer at the approaching henchmen who raised the translucent fabric of the "blur" towards his face.

"We're getting close to our destination."  That was Sedond's blunt reply to Talfarn; and to Joat and Heref, who were mumbling as they fixed the tow line onto the stranger's skimmer, he added: "You needn't complain; it's really not far now to the Sdindeeng."

Having overseen the wrap of the blurs and the fixing of the line, Grilk Sedond gave the signal to resume their journey towards Ao.  Thus, now sporting two prisoners instead of one, the Dex Galooga - the succession conspiracy - rose from the plain and sped in the direction of the Sdindeeng Hills.


*

Nyav Yuhlm awoke to the sound of laughter, but it took him some minutes to understand that he was not dreaming.

Time and distance had worked their healing effects upon him, edging his mind towards a readiness to perceive.  However, that same passage of time, since his traumatic victory over Zyperan, had severely weakened him physically, with a lack of food and water that would have killed his former Terran body. 

Vaguely at first, impressions came to him, some of them showing no change from his long voyage: the breeze on his skin, and the dark blue of the sky.

However, to his swivelling eye the dim orange slopes in the middle distance, their gentle gradients daubed with greenish smudges, hinted that he had reached a relatively fertile land.  Perhaps cultivable land?  Could he have reached the settled belt around one of the fabled cities of Syoom?  Excitement made him try to move his arms and head. 

Physical discomfort, pangs and restrictions then woke him more sharply.  The idea smote him, that he was in the hands of enemies. 

He lay on the ground, his arms and legs bound, and even if he had been free he could have done little: his frame was close to wastage from lack of nourishment. 

The scene's dreamy appearance - he next understood - was due to a blurfold that covered his eyes and limited his vision to colours and the vaguest shapes.  He would not be able to distinguish faces, so he might as well not wriggle to stare at his captors, and rather than croak out requests for food and water he preferred to lie still, listening, caution over-riding his hunger and thirst. 

Laughter broke out again.

"You're no good at it, sponndar G-S!" a woman's voice declared with a temperate jeer.  Others' chuckles joined in the knowing mirth.

"All right then," said their targer with the firm, deep voice of a commander who could concede a point good-naturedly.  "I, Grilk Sedond, hereby relinquish the role of Hostile Voice.  In which case, somebody else - "

"Not me!  Don't elect me!" cried the woman.  "I don't know enough!"

"You don't want to know enough, Heref," retorted Grilk Sedond.  "In which case, I elect... you, Tem Talfarn."

Some hoots greeted this surprising choice, but then a silence fell. 

"That's actually quite a good idea," remarked Heref. 

"Yeah, go ahead, Tem.  Be the Dissuader," growled Joat.  "Do a better job of it than our zyr."

Nyav, meanwhile, as he strained to grasp what was going on, felt a welcome little touch of assistance from his lurking Terran personality, Neville Yeadon.  Dissuader - Hostile Voice - "devil's advocate" as we Terrans would say.

What? asked Nyav of himself.

- that's how they aim to test their chances - by listening to all that's wrong with their plan - before they then go ahead and do it anyway - 

At that point Tem Talfarn himself, speaking Nouuan with a pert intonation, said, "Hmm... You asked for it.  If it's irrefutable arguments you want - "

"No need for that," came a jocular comment; "just be genuine!  Put some feeling into it, Tem!"

"Very well, here goes: your Dex Galooga..."

"Don't name it!"

"Ah, so sorry..."  (To the listening ears of Nyav Yuhlm the sarcasm of his fellow-prisoner seemed exquisite in tone.)  "Let us begin, as you do, from your premise that Oreneg Vadon MUST win, and see what follows.  For that to happen he MUST turn out to be better, so the process MUST be fixed to register that outcome, whether he really is better or not.  And though it shouldn't need to be fixed, it will have to be fixed if it MUST be - because your special pleading arranges the rules to ensure that your special pleading is right - "

"Enough," boomed the voice of the zyr.  "Now we'll carry your box round."

For several eerie minutes Nyav heard what seemed like gasps of appreciation, while presumably an object called "the box" was being carried from spot to spot in the encampment.

When it was borne close to where he lay, his mind began to "hear":

Don't understand me
Don't understand me
I do the thing
That cannot be done

In an odd way this was the least mysterious event so far in his short experience of Syoom.  The people of outposts like Olhoav have long known what it is like to stumble across thought-warnings from the gadgetary debris of unknown, previous cycles.  Every lifetime or so, a few such disturbing relics of aeon-dead civilizations are discovered in the wastes of what is now Fyaym.  Most folk assume it's best to leave them be. 

The zyr's satisfied voice finally broke the silence.

"There - it should work, should it not?"

Nobody disagreed out loud.  Changing the subject, Heref shouted:  "The look-out is signalling, zyr G-S!"

Nyav heard the hum of a skimmer and surmised that Grilk Sedond had taken off to investigate. 

A minute passed and then the zyr announced to the gathering, "Dersnam's patrol is on is way here, on schedule.  You all know what to do."

"We're all set, zyr G-S, but have we decided about the 'backwash'?" asked Heref.

A gruffer voice said, "It's take him away with us or kill him."

"He won't have heard anything..." mused zyr Grilk Sedond.

Idiotically close to croaking out, Whom are you calling backwash, the stressed Daon of Olhoav clamped his teeth, but then from a cry "Look, he's awake!" he realized he had given himself away, he had writhed in his bonds -

"Fooled!  Get - " shouted the leader. 

The hiss of a sponnd-bolt cut short Grilk Sedond's infuriated yell.  Other cries and the hum of vehicles irrupted onto the scene.  Nyav in his frustration contorted further - if only he could rip the blurfold away -

The hectic sounds died and he heard calm, new voices.  A cupped pair of hands held up his head, other hands snipped the blurfold off him, and at last he had his first sharp view in Syoom.


*

A vast man, swathed in a blue much darker than the Daon's own garb, was frowning down at him.  The heavy features were sternly quizzical.  "This fellow," he spoke to an aide, "who can he be?  He has, I'll warrant, come from far across Fyaym." 

"It would appear so, sponndar D-G-T."

D-G-T?  Three names?  Nyav's mind, wandering in his weakness and exhaustion, toyed with the idea...

Then a point of brilliance low in the heavens, catching his eye, made him marvel and blink.  The sun!  That's what it had to be! 

The sun, the sun...  He was now on Sunside and therefore he was seeing, for the first time in his life, the solar orb in the sky of the seventh planet -

"Can you hear me, voyager?"

Better answer.  He was being asked who he was.  Better not be rude.

"I am Nyav Yuhlm, the Daon of Olhoav," he managed to declare.

"Hear that, Lahaz?  Olhoav!  He seems barely alive, and no wonder."  The big man patted his pockets like a smoker looking in vain for his matches, then again spoke aside to his aide: "Have you any spef for this fellow?"

Lahaz said, "Yes, here," and bent down to hand what was evidently a nutriment bar to Nyav, who fumbled to take it as he strove against a wave of dizziness.

"You bite it and drink, Daon Nyav: it's food outside, drink inside," said Lahaz more loudly.

Nyav bit into it and nibbled and drank gratefully, while the men standing over him watched him. 

The bigger man murmured, "Olhoav...  that outpost!"  He wrinkled his nose.  "Fffaotch," he exclaimed at the odour which, though diminished, lingered on Nyav's clothes and vehicle.  "He must have met something bad on the way! - Daon Nyav!"

"I hear you, sponndar."

"You were a prisoner of the group that fired on me and my patrol: that makes you a friend of mine.  That, and your achievement as a voyager, prompts me to invite you as a guest to my estate.  I am Dersnam Gostomon Thull of Ao.  If, in good time, you tell me your story, I shall be further honoured."

"Thank you, sponndar," sighed Nyav Yuhlm.  "I shall be grateful for your hospitality and also for your guidance...  I bear a message, from my city, for the Sunnoad."

Dersnam stared in amazement. 

"A message for the Sunnoad!  You came at an awkward time," he eventually replied, in a wry tone.

"How?  What..."

"Sunnoad Arad Thastu 80436 is not expected to live many days longer.  Her successor - whoever that turns out to be - is the person who will respond to your message."

"I see," murmured Nyav.  "So I must wait a while." 

It was obvious, from the effort it took him to get the words out, that he would in any case have to wait a while before he was in a suitable condition to bear a message to the Noad of Noads.

The courteous Aoan grandee, rather than allude to this, merely smiled and said:

"Yes, one might demur at Fate's timing.  On the other hand the location is more apt."

"Location?"  It was almost a whisper.

"I mean," said Dersnam, "that it so happens, our ailing Sunnoad was taken ill at Ao, and here you are too, arrived in Aonian territory.  So you're well placed to be on hand when the successor is elected, for the election is supposed to happen at the place where the golden cloak is to be handed on.  Meanwhile, rest, Daon Nyav.  Rest and prepare yourself; my aide, Lahaz Mnom, will look after you and bring you to Aonstaggana, my estate."  Dersnam paused.  "I will follow shortly; first I must examine the scene here.  Tell me, Daon Nyav, did you learn aught of what your captors were about?"

Trying to focus, Nyav replied, "They spoke of one Oreneg Vadon.  They said he 'must win'." 

Dersnam and Lahaz both frowned.  The former muttered, "Oreneg Vadon?"  The name seemed to disturb them.  "Are you sure you heard aright?  He is a good man.  He may well be the next Sunnoad."

"I heard aright," affirmed Nyav.

"Well... and was there anything else?"

"A 'box'," Nyav uncomfortably reported.  "A thought-emitting box that their leader brought round the camp: a thing that repeated, Don't understand me / Don't understand me / I do the thing / That cannot be done."

"Arrrhhhh!" growled Dersnam.  "Troublemakers scouring the rubbish of Fyaym to disturb our lives!  And we can't make their leader cough up his plan - he was killed in the fight.  Oh well.  We're strong enough to forget all about them.  Only - I've just lost four men to laser fire and if there are any clues lying around as to why this scrimmage occurred, I shall follow them up."

"Sorry for not understanding..." began Nyav.

"Don't worry - no need.  I expect to get more from the other prisoner they left behind," Dersnam bluffly remarked.

This elicited chuckles from his entourage, one of whom agreed that Tem Talfarn would certainly be full of things to say. 

A little more of this good-humoured back-chat ensued, which Nyav was unable to follow.  Then, with a palms-on-chest bow, Dersnam turned away to pursue his investigation, while Lahaz Mnom gave orders for the Daon of Olhoav to be helped back onto his skimmer.

The vehicle, befouled as it was with the Zyperan's crusted remnant of slime - thanks to which Nyav's possessions had not been stolen, and now never would be, by the men of the late Grilk Sedond - still had the tow-line the conspirators had fixed to it.  That line was now attached to Lahaz's skimmer, and the party set off, Nyav managing to sit upright, blinking with frequent wonderment at the dazzling golden pinhead in the sky.

*

They floated at modest speed through a gentle hill country.  The miles went by; evidence of cultivation grew more frequent, the ground becoming mostly terraced, with cultivated ledges of meaty, bulbous vegetation.  Spindly herds of multipeds browsed on the wider ribbons of land between. 

Presently, over flatter terrain, they came to a patchwork of orange, purple and green fields and woods.  At intervals of a few miles, human dwellings appeared: single-storey mansions, low-roofed, and of cruciform plan.

Nyav presently became aware that the upper section of a towering shape had appeared beyond the horizon.  Already it loomed over all.  A beacon-topped pinnacle with a spiky halo of floodlights shed glimmers onto the lines and dots which had to be the sky-platforms and the moored airships of a mighty Syoomean city. 

One of the escort, noticing his stare, nodded and waved, proudly speaking the name, "Ao".  With loyal fondness the man added, "And no less bright than it was during the Paramountcy."

For some minutes they remained headed straight that way; Nyav therefore pictured some urban palace as their destination.  Then the party slightly altered course, so he shrugged off that expectation and replaced it with another, enjoying meanwhile the peace to marvel at the scenes which swam before his eyes, enjoying also the fortune which had conveyed him alive to this special hour.  The journey was all the more pleasant as his escort forbore to ply him with questions.

Finally came the spiral approach along a tree-lined avenue to Dersnam's country home, Aonstaggana. 

The mansion's four wings jutted at him, one after another, as they curved round a circular colonnade.  It was surmounted by a skeletal dome of polished logs, each of which sprouted glossy foliage, and the profusion of overhead green gave the central court a light magnificence, open to the natural glow of the atmosphere.  Here it was that he began to sense the totality of Aonstaggana.

It subtly confirmed his feelings of trust and admiration, transmuting every experience into the gold of gratitude.  Lustrous gold and - maybe - heavy?  No, he need not fear too heavy a burden of obligation.  He was confident that he could repay these people (at any rate, to some degree) for their goodness to him.

One small doubt came to him after he had dismounted and been led in, politely and considerately, to a luxurious bathroom. 

"A change of clothes will be laid out for you," Lahaz Mnom assured.  "The staff meanwhile will see to the cleanup of your skimmer."

The skimmer that's a give-away...

Nyav almost replied, No, don't trouble yourselves; I'll see to it myself.  But that might have sounded a bit odd.  Or even like a rebuff - a risk he could not stomach.  Instead he would have to run the other risk. 

After all, he must soon face the inevitable questions, for they would naturally wish to know about where and how his skimmer had become beslimed, how he had escaped, what he had defeated - 

Eventually, bathed and cleanly attired, with his strength half restored, he sauntered from the suite, to be brought up short by the splendour of a genteel apparition: that of a lady, ponderous but beautifully serene, accompanied by two slim young girls of about three or four thousand days, rising to greet him. 

"Daon N-Y, welcome to our home - which is yours for as long as you wish," uttered the lady in a tone of speech that reinforced Nyav's sense of security.  She added, "I am Saronna Gnadal Thull and these are my daughters, Alinvee and Kyteth."

Nyav Yuhlm bowed and said, "You and your family, sponndar Saronna, have granted me what I most needed."

She smiled, "And that is - ?"

"A peaceful end to a long journey." 

"We should know how to treat a Daon!" she remarked.

Feeling the blue fabric that swathed him, Nyav reflected aloud, "Yes, you even had the right cloak to lend me."

"The cloak," explained Saronna, "belonged to Dersnam's father.  He was Daon and then Noad of Ao.  Dersnam inherited the garb though of course he can never use it himself." 

Indeed not, thought Nyav.  The historic taboo against hereditary rulers apparently persisted as strong as ever, in Syoom as in Olhoav.  The son of a Noad could never be Noad, at least, not of the same city as his father.  "Honoured," he responded, with a bow.

She then handed him a palm-sized summoner.  It was almost equivalent to being given the keys to the house.  Nyav took the gadget and bowed again, unable to think of anything to say.  Saronna continued,  "While you stay here you must always feel free to explore the house and gardens.  I have informed all the staff of who you are, so when they see your cloak they won't assume that you've replaced Daon Kalbaran Hezh of Ao!  Then at evenshine my husband, on his return, will invite you to the banqueting hall.  Alinvee and Kyteth," she laid her hands on her daughters' shoulders, "shall let you alone till then, though they can hardly wait to hear horror stories about your journey."

That last bit was said with gentle humour, but Nyav thought it wise to comment, addressing the three of them, "In truth, sponndarou, I have memories which are not pleasant to tell." 

"It would be surprising if that were not so," nodded Saronna.  "But the telling can share the burden."

He ruefully noted how the girls' eyes sparkled with innocent excitement as their mother led them away.

Now, how about that offer to wander around the estate? 

He stepped out into gardens which had looked pleasantly promising during his approach by skimmer, and which now seemed gorgeous.  The jewelled buds and fruits, the ornately convoluted stems, the undulating sweep of greenish blue sward, the glittering bulges of red, gold and orange shrubs all combined in a hypnotic swirl about his winding path.  Before long he almost wished he had blinkers to moderate the profusion.

Then, having noticed a man some yards off with a spade, digging a border, with some saplings awaiting plantation which lay across a wheelbarrow, Nyav decided to approach.  May as well keep in tune with what backgrounders are thinking.

As he approached, the fellow straightened, his rugged mien enlivened by his evident curiosity.  News of the visitor must already have spread around the estate.  "Daon Nyav!" he enthused.  "I am Zaktik, Cultivator of the Fourth Section.  Welcome to the garden of Aonstaggana."

"I have never seen anything like this," Nyav remarked.

Zaktik nodded, "It is a sight to behold, no question.  I'm grateful you've noticed my corner!"

"A peaceful solace," probed Nyav, "for a busy master?"

Intelligence glittered in the gardener's face.  He opened his mouth - but then he became suddenly distracted. 

Nyav, following the man's upward glance, beheld a cloud shaped like a spear or an arrow.  The barbed scudder was gaining in density as it slid towards the zenith.  Clearly identifiable as one of the predatory clouds of Ooranye (though their species identity is blurred), this one had decelerated to the point at which it was about to swoop. 

Zaktik drew a control-tablet from his cloak and pointed it, not up but horizontally.  Immediately a nearby shrub, as if suddenly awakened, suffered commotion: out of its glossy leaves poked a dozen stems that twisted up to aim at the cloud. 

Zaktic then depressed a button which caused the stems to hiss and spurt laser fire.  (Just like an anti-aircraft battery, sloshed the Terran alter ego in the bilges of Nyav's brain.)

"You have to pre-empt them," the gardener cheerfully remarked, pressing another button which caused the laser stems to retract.  "That's that.  Well, you were lucky, Daon N-Y.  One can go days without seeing such action."

"It seems you're ready when the moment comes."

"The boss has equipped us well."

"It's fortunate he knows how to do it," said Nyav speculatively, just in case he might meet with a revealing answer.

"He's ever prepared to go out on a haul."

Guessing that this meant to go scavenging or treasure-hunting in Fyaym's perpetual unknown, Nyav said thoughtfully, "Like the gang he rescued me from, in fact.  They, or so I reckon, were - " he raised his brows - "'out on a haul'."

Zaktik gave a light laugh.  "Ah, we're bound to resemble our enemies, aren't we, up to a point?"

"Undeniable - up to a point."  Bidding farewell to the belligerent gardener, Nyav retraced his steps.  That's right, shift gears, said the inner voice.  

Nyav mentally scowled.  His steps slowed. 

You, eh?  What means this sudden outburst of commentary, Neville Yeadon? 

Just agreeing with you.  Only saying, 'Sensible of you to adjust your expectations downwards.'

Not hinting, by any chance, that I was a trifle slow?

You mean, slow to foresee that an estate near the Fyayan border requires defences.  No slower than I.

Still, you're apparently wide awake, said Nyav, directing his thought as though it were speech (and aware every moment of being drawn more deeply in to this extraordinary conversation with himself).

No need to be jumpy about that; yes, I'm awake and aware, but it's not as though I fancied myself an expert on Syoom.

So you're not applying to take back the helm.

Not a bit of it.  You think I claim to read situations as well as you can?  If that were so, I would already be 'at the helm'.  Relax.  I, just the same as you, am feeling my way.  Aristotle (or someone) said that a friend is a second self; well, in me you have the best friend possible, since I actually am your second self.  Fortunately for you!

Oh?  You're a priceless asset, then?

Well, let's just say, I hope to make up for the dubious origin of your rank.  You weren't appointed Daon for the usual reasons, remember!

All right, all right... I have to admit that Noad Barlayn Lamiroth appointed me Daon of Olhoav as a manoeuvre to defeat Dempelath's designs, not because of any renl ability I possessed.  In fact, on the contrary, I got the job because I was incapable.  And yet, in the thousands of days since then, I hope I can honestly say I have grown in the role; I have become quite lremd...

Of course you have, but listen, this isn't Olhoav, nor is it the grass-forest just outside Olhoav.  You're way away from all that; you're on Sunside now, and this is SYOOM.  So watch out! 

I'll do my best.  I can expect some support.

That's because - lucky for you so far - the people seem to be giving you the respect due to the rank which you possess, since, in theory, a Daon is a Daon, whether appointed in the furtherst back of beyond or right here in the Sunnoad's realm.  But, man, you'd better live up to it. 

With the briefest shiver of laughter Nyav headed back to the mansion, rattled, but also braced, by the "conversation" with his alter ego.

He realized he was quite happy with that Terran rider in his skull: the more so, as the passenger seemed content to remain such and no more.  "After all," reflected the Daon, "he's even more out of his depth here than I am.  It's true that I'm from a far Starside outpost, but at least I'm on my own planet.  Yet precisely because he's from so much further away, he may (I suspect) eventually prove to be my... my..."

Ace in the hole.


*

He was resting and thinking, in the room he had been given, when somebody knocked on the door. 

He opened to see the grandee's aide: Lahaz Mnom, standing back respectfully.  The man softly announced:

"Sponndar D-G-T has not yet returned, but we know he would wish us not to delay on his account.  Therefore, the staff would be honoured to invite you to our quarters for an informal snack, Daon Nyav."

"Right away?  Very well, and thanks to you all."

He followed the aide down corridors and into a dim room where he saw about twenty staff members ranged about a wooden table; they were introduced to him as stewards, surveyor-builder-craftsmen, gardeners, caterers and farmers, while on a nearby rug a snuffling pet ranna rotated on its belly-leg. 

One chair was empty, and the Daon was beckoned to it by smiles, nods and gestures of welcome.  Here it comes, he thought: they'll be wanting the story of my life... 

It was indeed obvious that they were aching to question him, but they let him eat for a few minutes to the accompaniment of small talk about the estate and local matters including (Zaktik the gardener being present) defence against predatory clouds.  Then, in a less casual tone, and speaking for all, Lahaz said, "We shall always remember this date, the ten-million-five-hundred-and-forty-three-thousand-six-hundred-and-ninth day of Era Eighty-Nine, shan't we, my friends?  For us, Daon N-Y, you're a legend come to life."

The one way Nyav could think of to react, was to don an expression of rapt attention, and this he could do without play-acting, in his concern for the views of these Syoomeans.

Warming to his theme, Lahaz then recited the names, lambent with mystery, of the almost mythical outposts on the world's sunless hemisphere - Deev, Karth, Nusun, Poleva, Koar, Olhoav...  "And all of a sudden you, Daon Nyav, a traveller from that last one, from Olhoav the Lost, sit with us here.  A privilege we shall never forget." 

So the Daon of Olhoav gave them what they wanted: he talked and they listened, spellbound, to his account of life in the Starside city, and in the surrounding flaon-scrorr, and of his subsequent exile in the nearby grass forest or smurtu-oyor.  He told them of Dynoom the Ghepion, the wise and ancient city-brain.  He narrated what he knew of the tyrant Dempelath and his revolutionary rise, though to keep his language respectable he told the story without mentioning the taboo words backgrounder and foregrounder, wirrip and forg.  He intensified the astonishment and fascination of his audience when he confessed his own dual consciousness, Terran and Uranian, the fruit of Dynoom's desperate meddling with fate-lines that stretch from world to world.  He began, at that point in the evening, to sense some fidgets in the basement of his mind: the Neville Yeadon persona crying up from the depths to warn him not to give too much away.  But the suggestions lacked authority; the hunches that backed them were weak; and Nyav over-rode that fidgety inner voice.  He continued to narrate and to respond to questions, while the air dimmed further into evenshine and some staff members had to leave to attend to duties elsewhere, others arriving to take their coveted places.  Presently somebody reached to light a pillared lamp in the middle of the table; thenceforward its glow bathed the rapt faces around.  Nyav idly noted that the gardener, Zikdak, who had been part of his audience earlier on, must since have departed.

Minutes after the ignition of the lamp, Dersnam Gostomon Thull strode into the room.  The staff rose from their chairs.  Nyav did so too.

Lahaz began, "Sponndar D-G-T, we thought to cater..."

"Good," said the grandee, sighing with fatigue.  "No banquet tonight - we shan't have the time.  I'll just sit with you people here.  Glad you've been looked after, Daon Nyav."  Three extra chairs were hurriedly dragged into place: one for Dersnam, another for his wife Saronna who had followed him in, and one for a third figure, whom Nyav did not immediately recognize.  While plates and dishes were being slid towards them across the tabletop, Nyav saw Dersnam glance down to adjust the setting of his wrist-transceiver in the manner of one who expects a call.  However - "Don't let me interrupt your tale, Daon Nyav," and the grandee reached for a klast to munch.

Nyav decided he might as well confess what he had carried with him across the wilderness.  He told them about the crystal of frozen thought, which he was duty bound to place in the Sunnoad's hands; he explained that it was a message from the Olhoavan Ghepion, Dynoom, begging that the Sunnoad mount a rescue expedition to deliver the Starside city from a tyrant, who, if he were not stopped, would eventually pose a threat to the entire world. 

While saying all this Nyav was quietly pleased to note that the inner stirrings of his Neville Yeadon ego were muted now, with no more whisperings that he might be giving too much away.  All that remained - hardly amounting to protests - were the vaguest of doubts, possible due to some sly Terran urge, some ingrained tendency to hide facts from friends as well as from enemies.  Firmly in charge of his own head, Nyav could dismiss all that.  He regarded his mission as too important for secrecy.  The more people knew of it, the better: in thus spreading, the news must work to amass success.  And as he sensed with what deep appreciation his words were received, contentment and gratitude stole over him.  The flavour of this evening was his first real taste of the greatness of Syoom.  Surely the madness of Olhoav could never take hold here!  No revolutionary nonsense could pit backgrounders against foregrounders to spoil the humane equilibrium around this table, where, despite the amazement he had caused, the atmosphere remained amiable and easy-going.  Some eager questions were asked: but they never became too insistent.  Here were cultured folk, who knew as well as he that the price of survival on Ooranye was an acceptance of mystery. 

He was thus able, next, to disburden himself of his experience in Zyperan.  This was the greatest challenge and the greatest relief.  He had to say something to explain the peculiarly filthy state of his skimmer on arrival, and out of respect for his hosts he stuck to the truth, or as much of it as he himself could understand.  The atmosphere tingled at his words.  This time there were no questions; an awed silence fell when he finished.  And peace descended on his own mind too.  Such was the contrast between the hell in his memory and the dignified kindness of his new hosts, that even the distrustful Terran dregs of his brain accepted the powerful stamp of his favourable first impression of Syoom. 

One grumpy warning remained for the Neville Yeadon persona to whisper: a comment on the responsibilities that might accrue if he were landed with the status of hero. 

Nyav shifted in his chair, for this aspect of the matter did make him slightly uncomfortable.  A triumph is apt to propel the triumpher forward, into new zones of peril.  People expect much of a hero...

Still, surely Syoom was already furnished with heroes enough, and, meanwhile, it had been such a relief to share the story!  A mound of horror slumps as it spreads...

...He heard a radio-beep.  Then he saw Dersnam Gostomon speak to his upheld wrist: "All right, we'll arrive as soon as we can."

The grandee's eyes then flashed across the table at Nyav.

"A bit more travel for you this evening, Daon N-Y."

"Certainly, sponndar.  Wherever you like."

By this unruffled response he earned a thin smile of approval.

"Good; let's go."  Dersnam stood.  "Down, Glifoong," he said to the ranna as it leaped at him.  "I expect to be back before morningshine."

The animal seemed to understand its master's words.  Reassured, it went back to crouch on its rug.

The inner Yeadon voice, by contrast, tried to disturb Nyav's mood with a patter of unease:  I don't like this, it's too sudden, what are we suddenly going out for...

Accompanied by a group of attendants, they were walking down a corridor towards the skimmer sheds when Dersnam disclosed to Nyav: "One good way of finding your way around Ao, is to start at the palace; well, we've been invited to it."

"By the Noad, I assume."

"Not this time.  You and I have been summoned by the Bostanga Fom."

Whatever that meant, a summons at this juncture had a reasonable ring, thought Nyav, given the importance of the message I bear...  and why should I not happily devour the thrill of a night flight to Ao?  Stay glad of the privilege of having reached Syoom alive!  To that heap of gratitude add extra thankfulness for having earned, by my equable response to the mysterious summons, Dersnam's approval!

For the grandee was eyeing him with a certain respect, saying, as they drew their skimmers from the shed, "You don't know what the Bostanga Fom are, I suppose."

The 'Spontaneous Guard'....  "No, you're right, I have never heard of them."

"So their repute can't have reached Olhoav."

Nyav remarked, "The only Syoomean institutions of which I have heard are those sufficiently famous and long-lasting to appear in ancient histories."

"Naturally," chuckled Dersnam.  "Your lack of unease, if nothing else, proves you are from where you say you are."

They mounted their skimmers, while the attendants waited in the dimness as they slid out of the building so as to close the doors behind them. 

At this point Nyav became aware that a third rider was accompanying Dersnam and himself.  It was... the memory came back... Tem Talfarn: that wiry little fellow who had been his fellow-prisoner, lying bound at the mercy of Grilk Sedond's gang... Tem Talfarn, whom the gang had chaffed playfully before electing him Hostile Voice... devil's advocate... for some unguessable purpose.

What had that all been about?  A sardonic Terran thought floated up: Put it in your 'in' tray and leave it for later.  Or shove it in a file marked 'miscellaneous'; then you'll never have to deal with it at all.

His higher, Uranian self shrugged in retort: be as impertinent as you like, Yeadon; my aim is to steer, not classify, as, living in the present moment, I accelerate through the night air towards Ao, a city I don't know, in the company of people I don't know - 

But shouldn't you even try to guess about this Devil's Advocate stuff?

No, he replied, he asserted, he willed - living in the moment, quaffing the moment.  Moments deserved to be swigged.

*

Elation at the metropolis rising ahead!  The bauble of resplendent hues brandished against the night sky! 

Or rather (the horizon now hoisting the stem-supported circular platform into full view) not one bauble but a whole tray of baubles, held proudly aloft! 

The classic mix was there: the globular palaces, branching walkways and helical towers in the architectural brew characteristic of the twenty-five immortal disc-on-stem cities of Syoom.  He'd soon - to use an Olhoavan phrase - be 'in the drink of it'.  Olhoavan idiom - that flicked him back to his Starside past, to mounded Olhoav which he had thought so great.  Affectionately and a trifle sadly, he reflected on the contrast between that ground-level outpost and this upraised hub of beauty and power -

His thoughts snapped back to the present.  His accompanying group of night travellers weren't the only skimmers headed for Ao.  Scattered pinpoints of other lights crawled across the view.  Folk were arriving from many directions.

Dersnam turned his head to Nyav.

"I'm reducing speed because we're inside the twenty-mile limit.  Which means, it's time we looked to join an ayash queue."

The ayash - the airstreams which lift skimmer traffic in three spaced fountains from the plain up onto the city's rim -

Nyav had heard of these, and now he saw two of them, one close, one further, marked by the scores of specks of light they were lifting high.  (The third airstream must be on the other side of Ao.) 

"More traffic than usual," Dersnam remarked.  "And far more people going up than down.  Must be the Confluence."

"Confluence, sponndar?"

"I am certain of it, even though it's the first time in my life I've seen one.  We are seeing it now only because the Sunnoad was taken ill in my city."

Ask him what he means!  Don't let the moment slip!  Didn't you catch that note of rancour? the Yeadon under-voice popped back all of a sudden.  I bet you he's wistful about power.  Think of it: Dersnam Gostomon Thull, son of a Noad, is thereby forbidden by custom ever to rule, while here you are, a Daon, heir to the noadex of your city; something he can never be to his!

So? was Nyav's impatient retort.

So, he could well be up to something that's not yet apparent, and you need to prepare, for example by pumping him about this Confluence.  Find out what it is, learn swiftly so that you may outguess him when his plot becomes clear -   

Oh shut up, Terran, and allow me to enjoy these moments.  How can you expect me to jump to your idiotic conclusions on no evidence but the tone of a word?  Let me get used to this society.  Then, when I have lived in Syoom for a while, I shall act upon my hunches, and maybe yours, too. 

What makes you think you're going to have the time to play it that cautious way?

I'm assured by the strength of the current I'm riding, the breadth of its flow and the trust I feel in the plunge I must make -

What plunge, idiot?

The plunge of faith to accord with destiny's demands.

All that means nothing to me.

It wouldn't, would it?  So, as I said before, shut up, Terran. 

You really think you're showing sense by not thinking ahead?

Oh perishing skies above, Yeadon.  Here, why don't you contemplate the ayash and the city's mighty stem?  Look! Phosphorus Era technology!  From that time to this, the wonder of the world!  This is my first sight of it, and if you spoil this moment I'll ignore your voice henceforth -

...Skimmers in front of them were swerving to take their places in a queue, and Dersnam steered his group to align with them, so that the ayash updraught from the plain to the city rim soared straight ahead.

With the faintest of howls the air-fountain took hold of Nyav's skimmer, which trembled in the current, so that he gripped the steering-bar to keep his balance, but the need was not great, the vehicle's equilibrium maintained by the surrounding force, and he soon understood that all he had to do was enjoy the exhilaration of the invisible lift, higher and higher over the nighted plain.

The moment came when his ascent took him past the altitude of Ao's rim and the city's splendour smote him full in the face; a few seconds later he was carried above the floor-disc, which marked the point at which he felt he actually had entered Ao. 

A few moments more, and he and his companions had passed the apex of their flight and were descending towards the smooth metal of the oalm, the open space that runs around the periphery of all the great cities of Syoom.

Clang! - he was down.  Other clangs: Dersnam Gostomon and Tem Talfarn were also down. 

Nyav's eyes watered as he stared into the scintillant tracery that massed towards Ao's hub; it was definitely brighter than Olhoav, brighter even than pre-revolution Olhoav.  Here, after all, was the resplendent civilization of Syoom.

*

"We'll store our skimmers here," said Dersnam, who had already stepped out of his. 

Nyav emulated the grandee's next move, which was to float his skimmer some yards to a cubical bank of containers, where it could be quickly and easily inserted. 

The trio then set out on foot across the oalm, towards a radial avenue.

The far-travelled Olhoavan accepted everything he saw as a perfect fit with the legendary greatness he expected to see.  Around and above him loomed structures of a type partly familiar, though more magnificent than the examples he had known: the towers, the suspended globes and the interlaced walkways which festooned them.  Crisply unfamiliar, on the other hand, were the amazing street-sized "gems" of coloured air: zones which took the form of tilted trapezoids or parallelipipeds, insubstantial volumes through which a pedestrian had to pass.

Dersnam noticed Nyav's amazement.

"I guess," said the Aonian, "you're wondering about the rallegussou.  Luminous air-stains form part of our system of addresses."  Nyav proceeded to imagine how each trapezoidal rallegus might indicate an address via one of its faces or edges or corners.  Dersnam continued, "They're a peculiarity of Ao, dating from the Paramountcy.  In fact they're just about the only legacy that endures from that era - except (alas) maybe also a certain smugness.  My fellow-citizens like to look back to our moment of glory."

Just as they turned into a shorter, wider, busier concourse at right angles to the radial avenue they had been following, Nyav found that they faced, a hundred yards distant, the sharp end of their current air-glow's zone.  The turquoise air ceased exactly at a broad abutment at the foot of a tower. 

Dersnam said, "There you see the entrance which we're going to use.  But stop a moment - look - "

Up till that moment, Nyav had not paid so much attention to the people, as to the city itself.  Suddenly he gained the impression that most of the population of the concourse were... not dancing exactly, but sidling, moving in arcs...

"They're still trying to win," remarked Dersnam, "though they're late to the game."

"What game... ah," said Nyav, interrupting himself.

He observed certain hand-and-finger signs by which game-partners selected and faced one another.  Each individual in each pair held what looked like a grey-glowing mirror, an oval with a handle, aiming it so that it shone into the face of the other person.  It flashed.  The other's flashed.  And the glow of one of the "mirrors" promptly died. Then the holder of the deadened thing took a step back, turned and ambled towards the edge of the concourse, where the other losers had likewise wended their way.  The winners, remaining alert in the central space, sought more challengers amongst their dwindling numbers.

Dersnam eyed Nyav and said, "I see you recognize this."

"By report only.  I've never seen one before.  In my remote part of the world a thuzolyr-election is a rarity, yet still indispensable if a Noad has died unexpectedly without any Daon available to succeed..."

"The same for us in Syoom," remarked the grandee.  "Only it must happen on a vaster scale when a Sunnoad dies.  Or, as in the present case, falls ill without having chosen a successor.  And since Arad Thastu 80436 happened to fall ill here...  well, you can imagine."

He could now, without a doubt, grasp the meaning of "Confluence". 

Like a giant soul-searching magnet the city of Ao, harbouring the dying Sunnoad, must draw from all over Syoom every person who even faintly wondered whether perhaps, just perhaps, his or her own renl talent, measured by a thuzolyr, might measure higher than that of the few million other contenders.

What could be seen in this concourse had to be some few of a myriad such encounters, varied in scale but each of them producing one local winner, whose score was enhanced by the sum of all the scores of the vanquished.

After no more than another minute, the middle of the concourse had emptied except for one figure, a fellow of about Nyav's age, who gazed about, hesitantly - and then saw where next to go.

Dersnam sighed.  "Here he comes.  I suppose I had better give him what he wants.  This will mean a short delay."  And to Nyav's tingling excitement the grandee drew a thuzolyr from his cloak and held it up, mirror-front foremost, to meet that of the approaching local winner.

Nyav had a view of the back of Dersnam's thuzolyr, and thus was able to read a fluorescent "181,387", which made him whistle under his breath: the number proclaimed that the owner had been proved to have stronger renl than 181,387 others, a figure impressive enough to set Nyav wondering whether Dersnam Gostomon Thull, barred though he was by strong custom from the noadex of Ao, might yet be fated to attain the one rank higher...

The concourse winner halted a yard from his opponent.  The two mirrors duelled.  Flash, flash, and then - the stranger's went dark, and Nyav saw the number on Dersnam's go up to 195,519.

The defeated stranger bowed, turned and walked off, preserving his dignity amid his disappointment.  There went a man with a rich enough life, that he could lose with aplomb. 

Nyav turned to congratulate his companion -

Dersnam's face, however, showed absolutely no appreciation of the boost to his score.  All it showed was a grim, eye-flickering wariness as the grandee's glance swept the changing scene.  Nyav suppressed his congratulations and tried to match the other's alertness.  What had happened to the concourse?  Far fewer people were now visible.  Most of the crowd seemed to have melted away into the adjacent streets.  A handful of those who remained were - he knew not quite how - unprepossessing.  It was in the way they slouched. 

Suddenly it came to Nyav that it was all too easy to call this election business a game.  He could grasp, from the lesson of his home city, that peril might lurk in the swelling ranks of "losers".

He murmured, "Are the results accepted?"

"Normally."  Dersnam hesitated.  "Except for... (I suppose I'll have to tell you)... the Par Yentar."

('Grievance Goad?')  Nyav hesitantly asked: "An organization?"

"No.  A phenomenon.  We don't enjoy talking about it.  Keep back!" - the abrupt command reinforced by an arm-thrust to bar Nyav's way. 

Dersnam himself had just taken a step forward but now he made sure he and his companions stayed put.  The reason was not obvious straightaway.

"Ah, let's go on," urged Tem Talfarn from behind them.

Dersnam admitted, "I'm not keen to keep the Bostanga Fom waiting.  But even less would I wish to tell them that I allowed harm to come to our guest here."

Nyav peered ahead at the surly slouchers.  "I don't mind walking past that lot," he insisted.  "Compared with what I've been through - "

"That's the point," Dersnam retorted.  "What you've been though.  You're a messenger from Starside.  The first in a very long time.  We don't want you wasted."

"I'm all for caution, sponndar, but," and Nyav moved as a determined instinct drove him forward, "caution is two-edged.  I'm wary of being stopped."  The words and the decision had their effect: Dersnam dropped his arm and followed the outlander.  Not that the grandee really knew why he had let his judgement be overborne.  Often, on our fate-swirled planet, there are things you might think - only might - were it not that your presentiments are erased by the not-yets which cut off your thought...

Now in front and to the left of his host and guide, Nyav was traversing the largely emptied concourse.  He had passed the closest of the sullen par yentar - when the tension exploded.

*

Some distance behind their backs, the sloucher underwent a spasm.  The shiver intensified, thrashed into a clawing motion, a grab at a laser.  In almost no time a bolt hissed through the air towards the trio of walkers. 

Yet even more swiftly, at the first blink of movement before the the firing stud was even pressed, Nyav Yuhlm, given a shove by destiny, had already responded.  Though he had as yet no understanding of what the par yentar was all about, he was keyed up to read the tiniest reaction of other witnesses, with results as good as if he had possessed eyes in the back of his head. 

Laser technology on Ooranye employs vheic-light, which travels not at the speed of photonic light but rather at the visible speed of a hurled spear.  And so when the Daon of Olhoav spun round, drew and fired his own bolt so fast and true, that it collided with that of the aggressor, people witnessed how the candescence from the hostile sponnd was thus deflected wide. 

Friend and foe alike were stunned by the power and accuracy of the outlander's response. 

The remaining par yentar, a half-dozen resentful shufflers dotted around the concourse, began to edge away.  Dersnam meanwhile eyed the Daon askance and murmured, "I have never seen anything like that." 

Nyav himself could have said the same.  He had long known that he was a good shot, but this was something more.  And then he saw more.

The bolt-on-bolt deflection had been so remarkable, it had at first obscured what followed it.  Within an interval to small to measure or perceive had come the finish of Nyav's shot.

Pensive and subdued, he walked over to where the dead loser lay twisted on the city floor, and gazed at the man's commonplace features, at the mouth agape and the eyes staring blankly at futility.  The pitiful end of an inconsolable loser - someone who had not been able to bear the thought that his renl ability was inferior to another's.  That must be the definition of par yentar

Nyav felt that steps must be taken, at this kind of moment, to confront the moral risk which a winner must face in this world.  One must, at need, colourize killing - clad it somehow, in the costume of epic.  Otherwise the thought of it was unbearable.

Or - he wondered - was that just his Terran self talking?  Earthman Neville Yeadon had led a fairly soft life, and was likely to be squeamish about killing, even in self-defence.

Well anyway, the necessary could be done, must be done.  All his life, Nyav had admired Syoom from afar, with a vision of its greatness, and now that he had reached it he would not hesitate to pay the price to preserve that vision.  The very core of Uranian civilization was bound up with the majesty of the Sunnoad, which, in turn depended, at times like these, upon respect for the process of a thuzolyr-election.  Losers ought to be good losers.  He himself would be a good loser when and if his own turn came.  And so would Dersnam, and so would every decent person around here.  Doubtless the par yentar, poor flunnds, deserved pity, but their touchy egos could not be allowed to destroy the body politic. 

So if they attacked, they must be destroyed.  And notwithstanding any queasy moments, the momentum of one's fate-stream was a force one had no right to resist. 

All the same, Nyav found himself profoundly affected by what he had done.  It took him back to the long-distant day when he had fought and killed Blos Nogar in the skimmer-park during the escape from Olhoav.  He must get more used to fighting.

A kind of roadwork deep in his mind kept him silent during the remainder of the walk to the Palace of the Noad.

"Here we are," finally muttered Dersnam.  The trio had reached an inlet or corner between two masive bracings in a wall of grey metal.  The wall was blurred with a close blanket or halo of purple light, and thus rendered mostly featureless, with just a few enchased studs at eye-level. 

In its entirety the Palace, at such close range, was not at all distinguishable.  Even from further off it had appeared vague, its form enveloped in the city's other structures like a boulder shrouded in jungle.  Probably, thought Nyav, this was not a main entrance but rather one of the building's extensions. 

Dersnam presented his right eye to a wall-stud.  "And in we go," he declared as a section of wall slid upwards.

An  electric buzz zinged in Nyav's head as he stepped over the threshold, following Dersnam, and followed by Tem Talfarn.

Gently lit by its ceiling's fluorescence, a corridor brought them to a door which swung inward as they approached. 

"Come in," said a voice that was soft and smooth as... velvet, whispered the Terran depths of Nyav's brain.

Dersnam turned his head as if to make sure of the obedience of his companions, and saw that Tem Talfarn was hanging a few paces back.  Mouthing his words at the smaller man, Dersnam said: "We're at the office of the Bostanga Fom.  Don't dawdle here."  

*

The woman, garbed in a suit of creamy softness, was seated at a circular transparent table.  Other chairs were spaced round it, but they were empty: the four men in the room were standing behind the fragile mistress of this scene. 

Attractive as an elderly faded flower, she was more self-possessed than anyone Nyav had ever seen on his travels.  Together with his companions he halted, while she gazed at him with measuring eyes.

"I am Indan Orliss, head of the Bostanga Fom," she said, in a voice that could have been used for a lullaby.  "One of us, so I have been told, has already met you, Nyav Yuhlm." 

"I see," Nyav replied, recognizing one of the two men on the woman's left as the 'gardener' on Dersnam's estate. 

"Standing beside Zaktik Battebl," she went on, "is the Noad of Ao, Kmebb Somm, who has kindly lent us this venue."

The tall, stringy Noad grinned wryly and said, "One does not refuse Indan when she wants a room."

"And immediately on my right is none other than Brem Tormalla - "

The man she now indicated matched her exceptional poise.  Heavily built, like Dersnam, but with a wider, more reminiscent mien, he interrupted, "Ah, while I think of it - excuse me a moment, Indan - " and lifted a thuzolyr.  "Dersnam!"

"Yes," said the latter, "time we got it over."  He, likewise, held up his own mind-mirror...

A double flash-flash and then Dersnam's went dark. 

Finished, one more election encounter.  No one showed any surprise that the grandee was now out of the running for the sunnoadex.  The prevalent assumption appeared to be, that anyone who came up against Brem Tormalla in a renl-contest could expect to lose. 

Nevertheless, though the bout had led to a foregone conclusion, it was more than a formality, given that it had boosted the winner's thuzolyr-score by the addition of the 181,387 from his latest defeated opponent.

"Back to you, Indan," smiled the winner.

Indan Orliss had been obliged to tolerate the digression.  Now with a glance or two she willed the threads of the meeting back into her grip.  Crisply she named the fourth member of her panel, a youngish, sharp-featured man with deep-set eyes.  "The agent on my far right is Meron Spett, my prime doubter of stories.  Meron, do your work."

Meron Spett's lip curled as he began, "Daon Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav, as you claim to be..."

The implied hostility would have jolted Nyav more, were it not for an unexpected bonus from recent guilt.  His killing of the par yentar now steadied him like ballast, lending him the peculiar courage that views further trouble as a kind of expiation.

"...tell us why you have come here," the man was saying.

"To convey a recorded message to the Sunnoad," replied Nyav, wonderfully relieved at being able to say this in front of a central authority at last.  

"Who is the sender?"

"A Ghepion, Dynoom, the city-Brain of Olhoav."

"Do you have the message on your person?"

For a reply, Nyav drew from his cloak the orange crystal which he had brought across half a world. 

"Ah..." said Meron Spett, but, to Nyav's relief, made no move to touch the glowing jewel.  His reserve was understandable: not lightly to be fingered was the crystal congelation of thought, the acme of Uranian craft.  "And the gist of the message - can you tell us that?"

"An appeal for help.  I cannot well say more." 

"That may be."  Meron Spett glared more intently.  "And now tell us how you survived crossing the more than eighteen thousand miles that lie between our city and yours."

Of course it had to be asked.  They could not simply trust a messenger out of Fyaym.  This was where a thickening sense of danger clouded the Olhoavan's brain, as he faced the task of telling his story.  Part of the problem was the sheer difficulty of narrating his experiences inside Zyperan.  How to capture a nightmare in words?  He would not even try to do justice to that.  However he had no choice but to narrate something of his voyage. 

He spoke with banal concision.  He left it to Meron Spett to draw him out, to insist that he expand upon his verbal sketches...  and he became aware, as the session proceeded, that the more inadequate his account sounded to himself, and the sweatier and hoarser he became, the more spellbound he held his audience.  They believed him.  His floundering sincerity convinced them.  Even the sour Meron Spett seemed seriously impressed

When the questions began to focus upon his arrival in Syoom, he spoke more warily than ever, judging that the pitfall in this interrogation would lie in the fact that he'd been among conspirators when Dersnam found him.  He guessed that would look bad to the Bostanga Fom.  So he hastened to point out that he'd been the captive, and not the accomplice, of the "Dex Galooga"; but as he spoke he continuously wondered what Indan Orliss might be wondering...

"Maybe," he remarked, deciding that he had better make it clear for the record that he knew nothing of any plan that Grilk Sedond and his gang might have had for using him, "they thought they might as well bag me as a curiosity.  After all, a survivor out of Fyaym is an unusual phenomenon.  That's all I can guess of their motivation in holding me."

In other words - I can have had no relevance to any plot of theirs.

Meron Spett's expression promised some surly comment, but at this point Indan Orliss interrupted. 

"You have told us that they seemed to support the election of one Oreneg Vadon to the sunnoadex."

"Yes," confirmed Nyav, remembering the phrase he had heard: "Oreneg Vadon 'MUST win'."

"But you had not previously heard of this person."

"Naturally not," said Nyav.  "I had only just arrived from the other side of the world."

"All right, I can see you are telling the truth."  Turning her thoughtful gaze upon the thuzolyr-winner, who now seemed distinctly uneasy, Indan Orliss asked him:  "What do you make of this, Sponndar Brem?"

"It would seem absurd," huffed Brem Tormalla, wiping his brow and looking embarrassed.  "Oreneg Vadon is by all accounts a good man.  If he were not, he would not have got far enough to be my main rival.  In fact, if he and I meet in fair contest, he might beat me.  It's what we're waiting to find out."

"Thus," said the head of the Bostanga Fom in her most official voice, "you asseverate that you do not distrust Oreneg Vadon?"

Brem Tormally sighed.  He was evidently determined to pick his own words.

"I respect him enormously.  If he... but no.  I can't believe he could be a traitor to Syoom."

"And what does our outsider conclude?" asked the woman as she turned her calm, deep gaze back upon Nyav.

She will have my viewpoint, realized the hapless Daon, who wished the meeting would end.  He set to rapid rummaging among memories of his brief time as a captive of Grilk Sedond's gang.  The memories were mere billowing murk, with a phrase or two that flickered therein.  Fortunately he was able to recall and quote one aloud:

"'The process MUST be fixed...'"

"Ah!" said more than one voice; the atmosphere felt electrified all of a sudden.

Brem Tormalla commented, "Bizarre!  Are you sure you heard that?  How could anyone 'fix' an election?"

"Any ideas, anyone?" asked Indan Orliss, her eyes sweeping the room.

Noad Kmebb Somm coughed and shook his head, "Well, it must refer to some particular current of destiny, the only power that can 'fix' things..."

Nobody had anything to add to that.

The woman's unfathomable gaze came to rest again upon Nyav Yuhlm. 

He experienced the pressure of her will, soft and firm, like the probing fingers of a spiritual surgeon, as if she were pulling to extract the surplus ego while gently pushing his opinions down.  He felt his own will reclining, into a recumbency of acceptance and trust.  But then came a sudden bounce of protest from deep inside him - his pesky Terran self!  Seeking attention at just the wrong moment!  Should he listen?  Ah, flunnd, he might as well.  Just allow a thought or two to surface: you naive fools, of course you can fix an election, it's done all the time on Earth.

No, thought Nyav, this isn't what I need to hear right now. 

He willed a message back down to the basement: Do you want to get us in bad when we've hardly started our life here?  Be quiet, for goodness' sake. 

Slam.  Quiet reigns.  And just then he brightly remembered, after all, some details about his captivity among the Dex Galooga which concerned someone else - someone who was with him in this room...

*

Losing no time in speaking out, he said: "Sponndar Indan, it was Tem Talfarn, my fellow-captive, who was chosen by the conspirators as their 'Hostile Voice', challenged to pick holes in their plan!"

That re-directed her attention!

"Sponndar Tem," said Indan Orliss in a voice gone husky; "why did we not hear this from your own lips?"

Talfarn appeared unafraid.  "I was in no hurry.  I knew you'd get around to me eventually."

"Well," she nodded, "we have got round to you now.  So tell us what you were doing among the Dex Galooga."

"Pursuing my own interest."

"I hear you're addicted to treasure-hunting."

Tem Talfarn began to chatter, "Yes, it promised to be a grand expedition.  I had thoughts for nothing else.  For example I found a real good plennost ['re-setter'], and guess what, the Galooga fools let me keep it; they don't know good stuff from bad - "

"All right, never mind your urge to comb the rubbish of aeons.  What were they after?"

"How should I know?  Are you, by any chance, wondering whether they were looking for some gadget to fix elections?"

"It is not altogether improbable."

"Hmm!" said Tem Talfarn.  "So... some means of mind-magnifying one's preferred candidate into the greatest renl genius in history... that's what you're afraid of?  Really?"

"When you put it that way," smiled Indan Orliss, "it does sound somewhat far-fetched."

The others in the room caught the mood.  Talfarn's scoffing tone was lessening their mistrust of him.  His selfishness was so plain and narrow, it seemed unlikely that he would be interested in the wider temptations of treason. 

Nyav kicked this pacakge of thought down into the basement of his mind as if to say: have a look at that, Terran!  Another worry dissolved.

Next, the interrogation shifted its focus to Dersnam Gostonom Thull.

"Sponndar D-G-T, were you on regular patrol when you came upon Grilk Sedond's gang?"

"More or less," he replied.  "I had some discretion to cover what routes I saw fit - given the unrest caused by the Confluence."

"Which ought to remind us all," said Indan Orliss, "that our habits and plans must grow more flexible than ever during these last days of a dying Sunnoad."  Her attention swerved back to Nyav.  "Messenger from Starside, do you expect to see her?"

Caught out by the sudden question Nyav shook his head in what turned out to be a fortunate reflex.  "No, sponndar - given that she is dying."

"Nevertheless," said the head of the Bostanga Fom, "you came all the way from Olhoav to deliver your crystal to Sunnoad Arad Thastu 80436." 

She began to rise from her chair; Nyav's nerves tingled.

"Allow me," the Noad of Ao, Kmebb Somm, suavely moved to lead the way.  He opened a door which led deeper into the building.  A phosphorescent winding stair glimmered beyond. 

It was about to happen - an audience or at any rate an approach to the presence of the Noad of Noads.  Nyav Yuhlm had to command himself to unfreeze.  Kmebb Somm went up the stair first, the others all followed, Nyav in the midst of them, saturated in the vivid awareness of the honour that was being done him.

At the same time (it would be this time of all times) he was vexed by renewed agitation from his buried Terran persona.  Will - you - stop - yammering, he thought at it, but the spate would not dry up.  Unable and unwilling to make sense out of the persistent upwelling, he had to wait for the emotion to coalesce into coherence, which it presently did: 

Uranian man, will you listen?  I have something to "yammer" about!  While you were telling the Bostanga Fom all about "your" journey through Fyaym and "your" victory over Zyperan, you seem to have forgotten that it was I who was in the driving seat at the time: I, Neville Yeadon, was on top during that journey; and though that's a fact which you appear to have forgotten, yet it must have coloured your account of events, sufficiently so, that I would be very surprised indeed if Indan Orliss has not divined the truth!  She knows, man!  She knows about our dual personality!  I bet you our lives on it - she has grasped that you - we - are part Terran!

To which Nyav's mind replied with an outburst of clarity:  It's a good thing if she does know.  In fact the more she can read me the better, for then the more she'll know I'm telling the truth about everything.  And that's safer for me: I definitely should not care to be distrusted by the Bostanga Fom.  And now - shush, for heaven's sake.

Glimmering at the top of the stair, a pale corridor became marked by the soft slide of a door.  The room thus revealed contained figures on watch around a bed.  The Noad filed in, followed by Indan Orliss, Nyav Yuhlm and the others.

Amid hushed breathing, Nyav for several heartbeats saw nothing but the elderly face on the pillow, next to the golden cloak folded on a bedside chair.  He was no longer aware of the rest of the company, and he forgot who he himself was.

The breast of the eighty thousand four hundred and thirty-sixth Sunnoad of Syoom rose and fell almost imperceptibly.  Her lips were a fraction parted.  Her greyish curls shimmered momently in an eddy of air-current.  Nyav could sense the closeness of death.  But he did not yet know enough to be sure that Arad Thastu 80436 would never speak again.

He held up the message-jewel and began to say in a low voice, "Is it permissible for me to leave this here for Sunnoad A-T, in case...?"

Brem Tormalla shook his head and said, "She has the sreddesh.  She will not wake."

Though as rare as the Sixty-Day Disease that had claimed Barlayn Lamiroth, the Deletion Malady was well understood to be ineluctable and final.  It allowed no remission once it had taken hold.  Arad Thastu would never wake.

"In that case," reflected Nyav out loud, "I cannot fulfil my duty that way."

He became aware of expectant looks directed at himself.  Not for the first time, he was glad that he had plenty of witnesses. 

He continued, "My instructions do not cover the situation by which, at the moment, Syoom effectively has no Sunnoad... so I reckon I could leave the crystal in the care of the Bostanga Fom."

Are you mad? trickled the basement voice in side him yet again.  How can you trust a self-proclaimed "Spontaneous Guard" that much? 

Oh dry up Terran, he projected back; ever since I got here I've had foreboding after foreboding, until I realize that it's not about a genuine outside danger, it's you, inside me, you going on as if this were Earth, as if the people here were Earth-types, selfishly out for power.  Once and for all, will you pipe down!  There's nothing in the message-crystal that says it is for the eyes of the Sunnoad only.  Others may receive it too, on the way.  I have had a taste of it myself.

He continued, "And so, will you take this?"  He held out the crystal while the import of his words lingered uneasily in his own mind, despite his put-down of the Terran voice.

"Very well."  The head of the Bostanga Fom put her hand out and Nyav moved towards her, understanding that she would not take the crystal unless he dropped it into her palm.  This done, he stepped back.  Not taking his eyes off her, he - and everyone else present except the unconscious Sunnoad - watched as she put Dynoom's message to her forehead.

The smoothness of that forehead became creased; the pleasant cheeks went concave, the jaw chomped with distress, the eyes squeezed shut...

I wonder, thought Nyav, if I looked like that, the time I listened to it.  Anyhow... she's not dropping the jewel.

After some tense seconds, the face of Indan Orliss relaxed in grim exhaustion, she brought the jewel down and her eyes opened.

"This is more than a call for help from Olhoav," she announced.  "This has a bearing on the security of the next Sunnoad - and of the world."

Nyav inclined his head.  "I'm glad you know it."

"Daon Nyav, you were right to give me this.  And now... I am right to give it back to you."

"Uhh?"

"Take it back!"  She held out the crystal.  He gulped, obeyed - but protested:

"It is not safe with me!  Today, as Dersnam will tell you, he and I were attacked on the way here."

Indan Orliss turned her head, inviting comment from Dersnam.

The grandee muttered, "Not that vulnerable, he isn't.  I doubt if he's beatable at sponnd-play by anyone."

"Well," nodded Indan, "to me that is unsurprising.  Keep the message on you, Nyav Yuhlm - Neville Yeadon - man of two worlds!"  At these words the Olhoavan went rigid; the Bostanga Fom chief continued, "Yes, the crystal has told me about you."  She addressed the room: "Sponndarou, look well at this traveller; he is not only from Starside.  Here we see a man whose lives began millions of miles apart; whose soul is an amalgam of Uranian and Terran.  It is all true," she emphasized, seeing the astonishment on the faces around her.  "We must pin many hopes on him; we must allow him much.  Just as the Messenger lent that crystal to me, so can he lend it to any of you."

Nyav then plucked up the courage to say:

"Indan Orliss, the way you just spoke indicates that you haven't really given the crystal back to me at all; though I happen to be holding it, you remain, as the Terrans would say, the boss of this show.  So here you are - " he held it out again - "make it official, and take it back.  It's pointless and crazy for me to keep it; I don't want it any more.  I want to give it to you - to the Bostanga Fom."

"A way exists," she husked, "to do both."

Too late, he began to glimpse what he had set in motion.  As she spoke on, she caused his heart to sink.

"You can give not only the message but yourself to the Bostanga Fom.  You obviously ride a mighty current of fate.  We need you, and in return you can attain at one leap a central status in the body politic of Syoom.  Not for nothing, surely, did the Brain of Olhoav reach across space to bring your Terran self to Ooranye; not for nothing did you rise to the dayonnad.  Nor was it for nothing that it was you who were were eventually chosen to take a vital message to Syoom; that you conquered the monster of Zyperan on the way here.  You are on the way to being a legend of Syoom.  I call upon you now in your Terran surname: join us, 'Yadon'."

Slightly mispronounced, thought Nyav, but no point in saying so.

Well, here it was, the mill-race of this woman's personal power, the vortex of her determination that he be "Yadon", and that "Yadon" be a pillar of the Bostanga Fom.  Thus would his fate be merged with that of her organization.

Only - he shook his head - he wasn't going to stand for being mapped out in this way.

"Brem Tormalla!" he addressed the only person in the room not under the sway of the Indan Orliss personality.

"Yes, Daon N-Y?"

"Thanks for not calling me 'Yadon'," remarked Nyav dryly, before he continued: "Sponndar, my guess is that you are most likely to be the next Sunnoad."

"Either myself," Brem nodded, "or Oreneg Vadon."

"But the latter is nowhere in the vinicity, is that right?"

"He has to come all the way from Juxxt; right now he must still be thousands of miles away, gathering points as he follows the Confluence here."

"If, when he gets here, he defeats you, then give this to him.  Otherwise keep it," finished Nyav bluntly.  "And take this, too," he added - to his own surprise and sudden elation - as he unclipped another object from his belt.  No longer would he carry the baffling pistol-shaped "stupp" he'd had on him ever since he'd snatched it during his failed raid on the Husnuth research-complex back in Olhoav!  Unwanted baggage, the Terran phrase came to him.  Thus determinedly relinquishing both items - not only the message-crystal from Dynoom but the artefact stolen from Dempelath - and leaving them in the hands of Brem Tormalla, the Daon of Olhoav stalked out of the room. 

Nobody stopped him, nobody rebuked him for the discourtesy or the rebellion, whichever it was.  It was as though they understood him better than he did himself.  Well, if they were right, and the current of destiny had him in its grip, time would tell - and meanwhile you've earned a breather, said the voice below.

*

Living in the moment, Nyav lounged on a knoll, resting his gaze upon the downward view over leafy lawns and the diffused throngs of central Ao. The bright air of ayshine gave him and the thousands of other outdoors folk a terraced vista of pools, parks, an ice-racecourse, stepped truncated pyramids crowned with ornamental trees, and - its spires level with his chin - the Noad's Palace, the Jarntz, facing him across a sculpted vale, while far above his head extended the webbed platforms of the skyship docks.

He had done his duty and he was a free man.  So far as he could tell, the authorities had allowed him to divest himself of the gages of his old responsibility, so that he might start a new life in Syoom.

Purely as a spectator, therefore, he could enjoy this day of festal excitement.  The Confluence was in full swing, and he, good-humouredly, had shown willing to take his busy host's two young daughters to these public Tiered Gardens.  Here it was possible that they might witness the arrival of Oreneg Vadon, the mysterious candidate so far unbeaten at the thuzolyr.  Oreneg Vadon being the one remaining serious rival to Brem Tormalla, the pulse-beat of popular interest pounded close to maximum; and the girls, worked up to a pitch of exuberance,   repeatedly performed cartwheels and hand-stands on the sloping grass. 

Even when on occasion they paused in their gymnastics they continued to project their bubbling energy by the questions they threw at Nyav, and by the whirling vigilance of their glances around.  "Look! look!" they cried whenever they saw a notable figure striding near, or when another skyship came floating towards the docks, or when the flash of a late thuzolyr-bout, between contenders who had come late to the contest, roused the question: "Could that be the Candidate?"

Candidate.  They pronounced that in English; the bit of English taught them by Nyav.  He did it for the thrill it gave them every time they learned a real Terran word.  News of his dual nature had begun to spread, and the girls loved to get him to talk about the mysterious Third Planet; his attempted descriptions always fascinated them despite - or perhaps because of - how little they could grasp their meaning.

"We're so glad you chose to stay with us, Yadon!" chirped little Kyteth - echoing the name by which their Dad had begun to address the Olhoavan.

Yadon...  Explorer-hero from Starside...  Sharing his soul with a mind from Earth...  For youngsters, what a treat to have such a guest!  What a further treat, to be taken on an outing by him!  He knew he counted almost as a member of the family now.  He could think of himself as some kind of wandering uncle, a relative who had chosen the path of exploration, the traverser of Fyaym, the Daon of long-lost Olhoav. 

All of a sudden, his face fell.

"Listen a moment," he said. "If..." he enquired, "if I have to go away sometime, without warning, will you understand?"

That quelled their mood.  Alinvee looked a silent question at her younger sister Kyteth, who gulped bravely and said, "We will understand."

The elder girl added with a proud shrug, "You did right, Yadon, to confide in us, that when the time comes...  I mean...  you're only reminding us that sooner or later, adventure must claim you once more, because..."

"It makes sense," Kyteth finished her sister's sentence for her.  "You have big things still to do."  Brightened by that idea, she sprang into action again, leaping to turn a somersault in the air.

"By the Skies, yes!" cried her elder sibling importantly, likewise flexing, and then, after landing on her feet with a "whoof" in front of Nyav, the tousled Alinvee voiced an afterthought: "Anyhow, Yadon, I suppose you could stay with us until the expedition is organized..."

Nyav asked dizzily, "What do you mean?  What 'expedition'?"

"The one to Starside, to rescue Olhoav."

Weakly chuckling, Nyav helplessly shook his head.  Was the contents of his special message now all over Ao? 

"I'm absolutely amazed," he admitted, "at what you know."

"And while you're still with us," Alinvee blithely went on, "you may as well learn what you can.  Ask us anything you like about the way things go here!"

"Anything!" squeaked Kyteth, arms outflung in emphasis.  "It's the least we can do!"

Suppressing a smile at the confident blend of awe and patronage in their manner towards him, Nyav realized how irresistible to them the opportunity must be, to show off their knowledge to a much older person who, nevertheless, was ignorant of life in Syoom.

Come to think of it, perhaps it would be best not to dismiss the idea that he might learn from them...

In particular, would he not gladly learn more about the individual to whom he had entrusted Dynoom's message? 

The crystal he'd brought (not in vain, he hoped) all the way from Olhoav, was now in the hands of one who might or might not become the next Sunnoad.

"All right then, girls," he said, "what can you tell me about Brem Tormalla?"

Alinvee pouted slightly.  "A great man," she mused.  "Probably The Next."

Kyteth wrinkled her nose.  "Do you have to sound so certain?  It could yet turn out to be Oreneg Vadon!"

"True, sister!" Alinvee brightened. "And 'Vadon' means 'searchlight', after all!  And nobody knows how high his score might be by now!"

Nyav said, "Let me check something with you two.  Alinvee, you just said: 'how high his score might be'.  Now, all this stuff about 'scores' confuses me a bit.    They're only measures of achievement, aren't they?  So they only suggest the likely future winners - right?  I mean, all that really matters when two thuzolyrs clash is the comparative renl talent at that moment of the two contenders.  That's to say, if Oreneg turns out to have the power in him, then it wouldn't matter if it were his very first bout and he were at zero: he can still, if he's good enough, beat Brem and don the golden cloak.  Right?"

Alinvee said, "I'm not sure." 

"You mean," nodded Nyav, "you're not sure but that the thuzolyrs might have memories.  In which case, previous victories could be taken into account."

Kyteth said, "You hear things..."

But it was soon clear they preferred to believe that even with the best record of wins, even with memory (if it counted) thoroughly on his side, Brem Tormalla could still find himself bested by Oreneg Vadon. 

For it became evident, as the girls spouted details to Nyav, that while they respected Brem they didn't find him interesting.  Brem was from Pjourth, 7300 miles away, a well-known city in Syoom, whereas Oreneg was from Grard, 9300 miles away, still in Syoom but further towards the edge.  Grard had always been viewed as the odd one out of the great Twenty-Five disc-on-stem cities.  It was a remarkable statistic, that no Grardesh had become Sunnoad since the Foam, over thirty eras ago. 

Besides, this particular Grardesh candidate was young - actually younger than Nyav; barely into middle age... 

In short, Nyav realized, Oreneg Vadon had a glamour which his rival lacked.

Still, from the point of view of Nyav's own mission, what did it matter which of them won? 

Brem Tormalla would either become the next Sunnoad, in which case the message from Dynoom was already in the right hands, or else Oreneg Vadon would beat him, in which case Brem (whether or not he was the decent fellow he seemed to be) would have no choice but dutifully to hand over the crystal: for the Bostanga Fom had witnessed the handover of the message, and moreover had ensured that its gist - a warning and a plea for help - was disseminated amongst the people.  The unwisdom of even trying to suppress it must be obvious to all.  No scope existed for betrayal.

Perhaps, in view of all this, it was small wonder that the inner voice of Nyav's Terran self, having been proved so wrong in all the sinister warnings he'd tried to give, had now subsided, evidently in a sulk. 

To be fair, it had seemed rather unnerving, the way Indan Orliss had appeared fearsomely able to... how could one put this... not only "read paths" (that was just renl, wasn't it?) but also to do more than read: to affect, to steer, to control the currents of fate.  But perhaps again, who cares?  Perhaps it's something we all do, thought Nyav vaguely; a part of what's allowed us.  It might all turn out fair, when Fate had balanced her books to show that we all enjoyed our own fair chance to steer...

*

After the children had chatted about the Candidates, they resumed their gymnastic whirls, and meanwhile he allowed his attention to rove further afield.

It was most fortunate that he had decided to daydream less, to pay more heed to the details of the moment, to focus his sight and hearing more sharply than before amid the swarms of colour, the flares of breeze-blown cloaks, the accents of Aoans and visiting foreigners, the bustle in and around the booths of vendors, the sliding ice-course racers... 

His interest was caught by the sight of a shortish, wiry man whom he recognized as Tem Talfarn, that pottering fellow-captive of the Dex Galooga conspirators.  Sauntering among booths about fifty yards distant, Tem now appeared to be engaged in some sort of sprucing-up business.  In his right hand he gripped an instrument that looked vaguely like a small steam-iron, and presently he was running it over a cloak that swathed the patient owner, who stood like... like someone having his shoes shined on Earth.   Tem Talfarn, the man who lived for combing the wilds of Fyaym, and whose great interest in life was the discovery of artefacts from previous epochs... what had he mentioned, recently, about a specific find?  Nyav shrugged; the memory eluded him.  It doubtless would surface when the moment was right. 

He resumed his roving examination of the scene.  Providentially, his eyes rested on a quivery cheeb bush, the closest large plant to where he sat.  What he then saw made him forget about Tem Talfarn.  Through its screen of dish-sized ovate leaves, Nyav caught, just in time, a glimpse of two vague forms creeping closer.

The figures stooped - crouching? - and then some leaves parted for an instant to reveal a pair of young faces, a man's and a woman's, whose desperate stares evinced the sick craving to make one's mark by any means: the brand of those suffering from election-shock, the poor losers, the par yentar.

Nyav sprang up in alarm.  He recognized the pair's lethal intention.  And here he was encumbered by children in his care.

Paradoxically, the best thing he could do for Alinvee and Kyteth was not to think about them.  Instead he pinned all hope on the unusual speed of his own reactions.

The would-be attackers intended to fire through the bush but he dived around the side of it, rolled and blasted at them before they could press the studs on their weapons.  And yet it was not quite like last time.  In this fight his aim was modified: not only would I much prefer not to kill, I also hate to let the children witness death dealt by me.

Time slowed to normal once more.  Nyav, chest heaving, laser pointed, stood and brooded at terrible might-have-beens. 

He heard the girls whisper behind him.  "Couple of runks!"  "Yay-don's disarmed them?"  "Skizza, yes!  Never saw anyone move so fast."  "What's he going to do now?"

What indeed, wondered Nyav. 

He darted quick glances this way and that, but no bystander was within ten yards.  Some people must have witnessed what had happened, but they were letting him deal with it...

"Alinvee," he said, "pick up their sponnds for me, will you?"  His own sponnd never wavered as she collected the dropped lasers.  Then he stood over the sprawled would-be murderers and demanded:

"Explain yourselves.  Who are you?"

The woman said, "You'll have to kill us.  We're par yentar.  I'm Thezmedet; this man with me is Lokol.  Explain ourselves, you say!  Nought to explain.  We teamed up in despair.  I sense you wish to spare our lives, and life is wonderful, but the despair will return if you let us go.  Then we'll only try again - so, kill us."

Nyav became aware that an audience had quietly gathered.  The circle of spectators were giving him yards of room while they sombrely watched and listened. 

Experiencing a willful surge of determination to handle the matter himself, he hollered at the par yentar, unthinkingly interlacing his diatribe with some English words:

"RUBBISH!  I already killed one poor devil of your sort today!  I'm not killing any more!  Thezmedet and Lokol, you lost your hopes in the flash of a thuzolyr, but that doesn't make you failures - or rejects - no!  On the contrary, you have been CHOSEN - by me!"

He paused, passing his hand over his brow, wondering what had taken hold of him. 

Lokol said, wonderingly, "Who are you?"

"I am Yadon, Daon of Olhoav, traverser of Fyaym, newly arrived in Syoom - so newly indeed that I must call upon your assistance right now, whereupon you'll learn that you've jumped on a bandwagon."  

"Your words are strange, Yadon," said Lokol.

Ingoring that, Nyav ploughed on, "For starters, tell me, one of you: where are you from?"

"Innb."

"Tell me - for I need to get around - tell me how you travelled here from Innb."

"Why ask us?" grimaced the woman, propped on one elbow.  "Is this some sort of joke at our expense, in which you, a backgrounder with just one name, claim to be a Daon?"

"I have gone through more names than I care to remember.  I ask you a practical question because you are outsiders, as I am." 

As if hypnotized by Nyav's pointing index finger, the young man said, "We got passage here from Innb when we signed on the Pumplon."

"A skyship?"  They nodded.  Pumplon... 'buffoon'.  "That's not its real name, I suppose."

A very different voice behind Nyav's back said, "Actually, it is."

*

Dersnam Gostomon Thull was standing between his daughters with his hands resting on their shoulders, the threesome a picture of relaxed family harmony. 

"The Great Triangle Fleet Patrol," Dersnam explained, "mostly uses skyships from the regular fleets; Ao together with Vyanth and Skyyon each supply a hundred first-class ships.   But in addition, the planners can hire at a moment's notice, so we find that not all patrols are carried out by the official vessels..."  Listening to this, Nyav felt as though he were slipping into a dream, so airy was the lack of concern Dersnam showed at the fight that had taken place within yards of his offspring.  It was like the gentle, accepting sort of dream; while Nyav was pleased and relieved that with every minute that passed it was becoming plainer that his decision to spare Thezmedet and Lokol was likely to be upheld, he was not really profoundly surprised. 

Except, that is, for his Terran self.  These potential killers are getting off scot free, whistled the amazed thought from the basement of his dual mind. 

Well, yes.  That indeed appeared to be the consensus.  On a world without bureaucracy or written laws, you learn your point is being gained when you feel on your skin the breath of the mood, and in the faces around you the mandate of conviction expresses its support. 

I too, thought Nyav, ride this wave.  I need that couple.  I need them (in their right minds) to show me how best to rove obscurely, to gain entry to the lower, vagabond life. 

Nyav could not verbalize or crisply think it, but he felt strongly that (as things were) he was being propelled too fast and too far into the limelight, and his instinct was to resist.   For example, unlike almost everybody else, he dared not obtain a thuzolyr.  The thought of participating in the election terrified him with a vague and terrifying prospect of power, of being flung unspeakably high, there to be left high and dry...

It was all too soon.  He must escape for a while. 

He must wander alone in Syoom and get the measure of his true self.

Only, he could not just slink away, could he?  But yes, he must!  If he were to talk it over with anyone (except the girls, bless them, who seemed to understand) he felt in his bones that strong-willed people would convince him he ought to stay.

Hunches, these, and all the more slippery and powerful for that.  Look at Dersnam, he told himself, look at that poise, that dignified alertness, the calm flickering of those eyes that steer with constant skill.  He'd see through me in no time...

Dersnam was saying, "Sorry to have been so busy that I couldn't get here earlier.  "People - " he added with an elbow-dig at the girls - "have to excuse my lack of attention."

"It was no trouble to take them here," Nyav politely assured him.

"You think that's what happened?  Actually, they took you," Dersnam chuckled.

"Really?" smiled Nyav.

"Yes, nothing could have kept them from this vantage-point, since rumour has it that the Oreneg Vadon-Brem Tormalla bout may happen this evenshine; may happen right here.  That's to say, if Oreneg is coming by skyship from Grard and if the ship makes good time..."

Nyav decided to be blunt.  "Yes, but look, it turned out not to be safe for them here!  They could have been killed!"

"I was confident that you would protect them, as indeed you did," shrugged their father.

"Mad!" said Nyav, shaking his head.  "You could have locked them up, kept them at home!"

"No, that would have been pointless.  For all the watchers and screens around my estate, do you think the runks - er, the par yentar - could not get through?  It's something everybody has to live with at election time."  Seeing the incredulous look on the Daon's face, Dersnam added: "Fortunately, thuzolyr-elections are rarely needed.  But when they do happen we have to ignore the dangers, to get on with our lives."

Dersnam's "fingers in six pies" - as Nyav thought of them - namely the fellow's interests in vheic farming, food production, city maintenance, transport and fleet patrols, Wayfaring and history-telling... all meant he had so much to get on with, that perhaps he had got used to neglecting the little ones.  The fellow's such a seasoned statesman... what made me think of that phrase?  We don't have 'seasons' here.  Ahoy, down there, Terran mind, are you waking up again?

Aloud, meanwhile, he admitted to Dersnam, "I suppose, if you take the average of my last three or so moods, I can see where you're coming from..."

The grandee laughed his loudest.  "What a phrase!  And what a sound approach, averaging the moods!  'Tramp the frazz / Docket a dream,'" he quoted.  Perceiving that Nyav had no idea what all that meant, he explained: "Sometimes, the run of the road and the lie of the land allow contrary moods to accomplish the seemingly impossible.  Er... what are you looking at?"

"Excuse me," said Nyav; "something needs sorting out, over that way."

*

The subconscious Terran mind was definitely heaving at the basement trap door.  It almost felt like a hammering in Nyav's brain.  Perforce he listened while he strode, heading in the direction of a wooden structure which he'd noticed was being used as a base by Tem Talfarn.

Look at how the fellow, mountebank-style, has pitched his booth.  See, he's filled it with knick-knacks to look good, sneered the now open Terran voice, but it's about time you realized that that's just a cover.  Uranian fools!  You just can't imagine the fixing of an election!

What are you talking about, Neville Yeadon? wearily asked the upper mind.

The re-setter, replied the lower.  The gadget he found in Fyaym.

Ah, that was the reference I'd forgotten, thought Nyav.  That's what I heard mention of.  Is it too late now?

Tem Talfarn was catering for a client at this very moment.  The wiry little fellow ran his re-setter over the client's cloak, burnishing the usual gear therein - the torch, the sponnd, the compass, the stylus, so that they all looked shiny and new.  A superficial, pleasant operation, to earn a few phial-credits.  Now the client was paying out a handful of coins, after which Talfarn turned his steps towards his booth, having finished one circuit, to load up with more wares and prepare for another.

Nyav, unnoticed, followed him in.

He shut the flap behind him.  Talfarn turned and said, "Who - oh, it's you, Daon Nyav."

"You might as well call me - Yadon; I'm not fighting it any more," smiled the Olhoavan, and drew his laser.  "Give me that gadget."

"Are you mad?  Have you become a runk?"

"I'm not exactly a par yentar, no.  Rather the opposite, in fact.  Far from craving limelight, I want to go away and get lost."

"Then do so!  By all means!"

"First, though, I must earn that degree of freedom," mused Nyav.  "The re-setter... hand it over."

"Why should you steal this?  What do you need it for?"

"I intend to destroy it.  Give it here!"

Tem Talfarn, no match for the Daon, went pale and did as he was told.  Nyav - or Yadon - put the thing on the ground and promptly blasted it with a sponnd-bolt, so that the remains marred the grass with a hot puddle.

"But why?" asked Talfarn.  "Why?"

"I noticed your pattern, your route," Yadon explained.  "Your next round would take you to Brem Tormalla.  He's not far away." 

"And?" shrugged Talfarn.

"Your re-setter was going to do a lot more than it usually does, was it not, when it came to Brem's thuzolyr?  My strong guess is, thuzolyr-bouts do depend at least partly on the previous score.  And if Oreneg Vadon were to meet Brem Tormalla, and the latter's thuzolyr were previously to have been re-set to zero by your interference, well, that might do the job of the Dex Galooga quite nicely, eh?  Only, it won't happen now."

Talfarn's eyes de-focused and his jaw hung slack for some moments.  Then he exhaled and said in a croaking voice, "Given that you believe your own account, Daon Nyav - Yadon - whoever you are - what will you do with me?"

Without lowering his laser, Yadon backed away. 

"My guess is, you plotters are all from Grard or at least descended from Grardesh, and were addicted to ensuring that, in the person of Oreneg Vadon, there'd be a Grardesh Sunnoad at long last.  But no doubt you wouldn't admit any of that.  Skimmjard, Tem Talfarn."  And as he spoke these words out loud, secretly he exulted, I have saved the election.  With this I have earned my freedom.  And thank you, O Terran layer of my mind; just for once you have given me good.

He picked up the flap and ducked out of the booth - and almost stumbled over Alinvee.

She looked at him with great round awe-filled eyes.

He stated, "You heard it all."

She nodded.  "I ran over here, worrying about you, Yadon."

His face cracked into a smile.  "You need worry no longer," he said and hugged her.  "This is where I go - like I said I would earlier, remember - but first I want to see you return to your father.  Go on.  Go back to him.  Run!"

She understood, turned and ran back towards the figure of Dersnam, who was in conversation facing elsewhere.  Yadon watched her go, and then took his own way towards the clustered elevator towers...

*

..."Skimmjard Thezmedet, skimmjard Lokol," he called in greeting, while he tramped over the lofty webbing of Dock Five, headed towards the gangplank of the Pumplon

The two ex-par-yentar turned and their faces lit up.  They ran to greet him, past other crew-members who were toiling into the skyship with kit on their backs.

The wind was strong up here, and Thezmedet's long hair lashed her tear-glistened face.  "Yadon!  You who gave us 'runks' our lives back!"

"You told me of this escape route; that's payback enough," said Yadon.  "Come on, let's get inside.  And tell me what we're doing and where we're going."

She trilled, "We're not going to get rich, I can tell you that!"  While they settled into the main crew-lounge, she explained.  "This is basically a netter, you know - that it, I suppose you don't - a netter crew is one that nets evidencer clouds.  Or tries to."

"Just assume I know nothing."

"Evidencer clouds are rare, and even more rarely are they useful.  Be that as it may, that's what we're going to do, as soon as we've finished our hire schedule and can set our own itinerary.  Meanwhile we're on Patrol.  Our Captain, Jara Sekket, has insisted we play fair according to our contract: so, no matter what the election-excitement, we leave on time!"

"Suits me," muttered the Olhoavan.  The throb of the skyship's engines began to drum through the floor. 

They were off, and, hardly a minute after they had cleared Aoan airspace and floated out over the plains, Captain Jara Sekket herself - a cheerful, lithe woman dressed in engineer's overalls - came to sit by him for a welcoming chat; which was when he began to realize how much more informal than he had expected was life aboard the Pumplon.  He seized the opportunity to ask the Captain how her ship had come by its peculiar name; the tale was soon told: 

"...Its first owner-investor found his friends telling him he was a fool.  Nobody earns enough to break even, they said, by hunting evidencer clouds; only a buffoon would hope to obtain a significant catch within a thousand days...  Well, the very first day out, he struck it rich, netting a cloud bearing the recorded image of a historic battle in the reign of Sunnoad Tu Rim 78860, no less.  A fantastic find!  So, ironically, he called his ship the Buffoon..."

Nyav felt in his bones that this trip would count as a pleasant interlude, but an interlude only.  For one thing, he would need to get away from the grateful pair, Thezmetet and Lokol.   He had cured them of being par yentar, by convincing them of their own worth, but unfortunately the only way he had been able to get them to pay heed was by convincing them of his own importance.  That was precisely what he was trying to get away from.

Fortunately the world was wide...

*

The call for action galvanized the crew before the day was done. 

"You've brought us luck, Yadon!" the captain called out as she clattered up towards the roof deck.  She and her netter crew all took for granted that he would follow; and he did.

On that kind of ship the roof deck unfolds and opens out, allowing the eight chief netters to raise the emberedd or "sceptre" (more colloquially, the "lollipop") - which was the size of a small tree - and point it towards the belly of the cloud.

Yadon was the last to emerge onto the roof-deck.  Craning his neck he saw, weltering in the lower atmosphere, a purplish-stained nebulous mass.  No time for a beginner to interfere: realizing that he understood hardly anything of what was going on, he watched the experts at their work. 

In promixity to its target the emberedd began to crackle out sparks of orange and purple, at first with nothing that could be called reticulation, but after some seconds the colours became filaments as the "net" was being induced in the cloud.  A subsonic pressure squashed against his ears; then came a colossal "pop" and a swapping of lights -

It was over.  The cloud had begun to drift away, happy at the meaningless radiation it had received in exchange for the loss of its long significant load.

Jara Sekket led the cheering.  "We've hauled in a big one!" she cried with glee.  "Yadon, look what we've got?"

"What is it about?" he asked.

"Give us a moment, we're about to find out..."  Working on deck while the wind blew their cloaks about them, the captain and some technicians lowered the emberedd, took down the sphere at its tip and gently placed the gelatinous haul in a box the size of a kitchen oven, with a glowing front screen that formed an image.

Yadon heard gasps of awe.  He advanced to look, and he was given the space to see.  An image of a multitude of skimmers on a plain, and hover-rafts and laser bolts and fighting men lying scorched...   

"Magnify it," murmured Jara Sekket.  "Go on, shift that..."

Someone turned the dial she meant.  Quite soon the picture showed such detail that they were able to read the names and insignia on some of the rafts. 

The captain called for her historical experts, who soon identified the captured scene as being from a battle in the reign of the enigmatically heroid Sunnoad Faran Taknoa 79892.  A terrific find.

Expectant eyes turned to Yadon, as though he had brought this luck and might bring more.  His mouth shaped an uncomfortable grin.  What's all this, a kind of law of sticky attraction, ensuring that the fate-wave won't let me go?  It's not a game that suits me.  I'm still determined to get out.  Not only some potential Sunnoad, be it Brem Tormalla or Oreneg Vadon, but any poor forg may get caught in the pitiless spotlight of history, where every mistake you make is illuminated for all time.  Therefore the way to escape is not to be a forg at all.  Be a backgrounder.

If the fate-wave has uses for me, well, too bad - I shall jump ship the first chance I get.  Fate may not wish to let me go, but I'm letting it go.  And as for being "Yadon", hmm, yes - Indan Orliss of the Bostanga Fom is getting something of what she wants, for, yes, I am "Yadon" now. 

But on my own terms...

*

The two remaining serious Candidates encountered one another that day, at the spot where the crowds in the Tiered Gardens had hoped they would meet.

For a short spell they stood quietly, face to face.

With a gentle gravity the easy-going Brem Tormalla, with nothing in life left to prove, remained serenely relaxed in his trust in fate, albeit alert as befitted the moment.

Oreneg Vadon, young, aquiline, skin stretched tensely over his cheekbones, also trusted in fate, but his was a more distanced view of a final verdict, hardened by a ruthless aim, honest yet unsparing, for the sake of the wave he rode, and for the sake of Grard. 

Each candidate raised his arm; the thuzolyrs flashed; one held its light; the other faded.

Nobody spoke a word until the top-ranking spectator, the Noad of Ao, stepped forward and spoke loudly to all within hearing:

"Arad Thastu 80436 is still alive, but she shall never wake.  I, and the Bostanga Fom, deem it unnecessary to await her death before bestowing - this!" and he brandished the golden cloak, taken from the dying bedside of the old, and now former, Sunnoad.

Everyone who heard drew sponnd and aimed blades at the sky in spontaneous salute.

Oreneg Vadon stepped back and conceded graciously, "So it's yours, Sunnoad B-T."

Thereupon, when Brem Tormalla took off his old cloak, accepted the golden one and swirled it around his shoulders, no trouble-makers, no nay-sayers objected; his action had crystallized the mandate of the mood.

For when it came to the point, all those present - all there because they were fated to be there - agreed that Syoom needed an effective Sunnoad more than an unconscious and moribund figure in that role. 

And so the reign of the eighty thousand four hundred and thirty-seventh Sunnoad officially began during this second hour of evenshine on Day 10,543,613 of the Actinium Era.

Brem Tormalla 80437's first words were, "You've had a lucky escape, sponndar O-V."

"Perhaps not a permanent one," replied the Grardesh, inclining his head.

The new Sunnoad took this as it was meant - a statement of fact, rather than one of breathtaking insolence, for he perceived that Oreneg Vadon, in thus suggesting that the cloak could yet one day pass to him, might have been brushed by the shadow of a sombre truth.

In the evening airglow, the throngs of spectators began to disperse, satisfied that their long wait had been rewarded with their privileged witness of a historic event, in which the mightiest traditions of Syoom had conjured a tingling aura, swathing one chosen individual with the enveloping greatness of the golden cloak.  The sight of such responsibility fill everyone with awe.  When such a garment was donned, nobody, not even little Alinvee and Kyteth, could imagine aught negative about the wearer.

Brem Tormalla meanwhile returned to his guest rooms in the Jarntz, where he began a series of meetings with the advisers who had been waiting to confer with the long-awaited successor to Arad Thastu 80436.

The Bostanga Fom were not present - they insisted upon working in the shadows - but the Noad and Daon of Ao and the Noad of Innb conferred long with the new Sunnoad, who also insisted that Oreneg Vadon take part.

One eccentric interruption occurred in the serious business of the evening.

The grandee Dersnam Gostomon Thull of the estate of Aonstaggana found it easy to gain admittance, for he was highly regarded.  Eyebrows were raised, however, when he brought a girl-child into this august company.

"Sunnoad B-T, will you listen to what Alinvee has to say?"

"Indeed," replied Brem Tormalla, with not too broad a smile; Uranian culture respects the unexpected.

They all listened, then, while the wonderstruck girl found words to narrate what she had witnessed between Yadon the Olhoavan and Tem Talfarn.

When this was over, some passionate voices were raised, to suggest that searches be made for the heroic Starsider who ought to be rewarded and for the traitorous conspirator who ought to be punished.  "Talfarn can't have got far," said Oreneg Vadon.

The Sunnoad said, "I understand your anger, sponndar O-V.  Talfarn and the rest of this Dex Galooga tried their best to compromise your honour.  If they had succeeded they'd have made a villain out of you, a cheat pseudo-Sunnoad.  But - they failed.  That is all that matters."

Alinvee dared to speak up.  "May it please you, Sunnoad B-T, one other thing also matters: to recognize the services of Yadon.  Only, we can't - he's away by skyship now!"

"Can you tell us why, girl?"

"He wanted, he needed to go, away in secret... and now we may never hear from him again," she choked.  "Gone by ship - but I bet that's only the start.  He really does want to disappear."

Grave expressions round the table admitted the truth, that it was all too easy to sink without trace in the anonymity of the plains.

Only the Sunnoad had no worries on that score.  "Oh, we'll hear of him."

CONTINUED IN

Uranian Throne Episode 17:   

The Scared Logician