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 - Ooranye website - 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.  It oriented the skimmer into a gradual climb, so that after about a furlong it reached its six-yard "ceiling", at which point the flight levelled off. 

The modest gain in altitude meant that the vehicle's blind trajectory was able to surmount the boulders, shrubs and lesser crags which sparsely littered the plains: a vital 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 more, far more, kindness from fate was needed to preserve the life of a man 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 powers which ought to have destroyed him.

We conclude that the animate forces which loomed along his path - the Fyayman perils that are vague to human understanding - must have drawn back, by chance or will, casually or promptly, to allow him passage.  Of these hesitators we know nothing (else you would now be listening to an epic of a different stripe) and indeed it is unlikely that more than a tiny fraction of the tale of Nyav's transect of Fyaym will ever be told.  Admittedly we cannot rule out the happy chance that somebody may one day catch a sigaklya, an evidencer-cloud, which will turn out to bear some 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 woke 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...

*

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 were accustomed to prey on the borders of Syoom; it was rare for them to find a human victim during their mystic wanderings in deep Fyaym, and 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 chance captive, 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, or knocked onto a macabre course.

What saved him was the smell.

One of the vrars, the chief, whose role it was to seize a captive and take priority of plunder, approached ahead of the others.  But when he had closed the gap to within two yards of his prey, he halted, glared about and snarled at his followers to stay back. 

He drew his laser, then re-sheathed it.  Pressure was on him for a quick decision, for his people would not be restrained for long, but he did not like the reek which wafted at his nostrils. A sponnd-slash would not erase the evil 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 - and it's 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. 

What was undeniable was 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 stuff, we must flee from it, or see that it is far removed. 

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.

His men, meanwhile, had edged close enough to sniff the same odour and reach the same conclusion as he; therefore his action redounded to his credit.  The entire swarm spat after the departing skimmer, and thronged to congratulate their leader...

*

The nameless 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 uninterrupted propulsion of Nyav's skimmer 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' tilt 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 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 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; thus their own guilt prompted the step that was to slip them down the muddy banks of destiny's stream. 

In appearance, their encampment could have been a bunch of innocent archeologists who had 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) but in fact this was no harmless expedition.  As a group it lacked even the monstrous innocence of the vrars, and it took the opposite decision to theirs. 

"Time we were moving," remarked their leader.  "Heref and Joat - put a tow-line on his skimmer.  You can bring him the rest of the way... and you needn't complain; it's not far now to the Sdindeeng."

"Skimmjard, sponndar G-S," growled Joat, and moved to obey.

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 to appraise a man who lounged beside one of the laden skimmers - "since we're getting close to our destination."

Talfarn looked rueful.  A slight, wiry figure, shorter than most Uranians, he offered no resistance as a couple of henchmen approached him with the translucent fabric.

Grilk Sedond oversaw the wrap, surveyed his followers and gave the signal to resume their journey back towards Ao.

Thus, now sporting two blurfolded 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 once more.  However, that same passage of time since his traumatic victory over Zyperan had weakened him physically, with a lack of food and water that would have killed his former Terran body.  Impressions came to him vaguely at first -

The breeze on his skin, and the dark blue of the sky, showed no change from his long voyage, but to his swivelled 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.  Ah!  Cultivable land?  Could he have reached the settled belt around one of the great cities of Syoom?  A fable come true!  Excitement made him try to move his arms and head. 

Physical discomfort, pangs and restrictions then woke him sharply to the idea that he was in the hands of enemies.  He lay on the ground, his arms and legs bound, though even if he had been free he could have done little; his tough Uranian frame had survived, but was close to wastage from lack of nourishment. 

He next understood that the scene's dreamy appearance was due to a blurfold that covered his eyes, limiting his vision to colours and vague 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 any 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 in a kind of tempered jeer.  Other voices joined in with similar chuckles.

"All right then," said the target of this mirth, with the firm, deep voice of a commander who could calmly retain control while conceding a point good-naturedly.  "I, Grilk Sedond, hereby relinquish the role of Hostile Voice.  In which case, somebody else needs to take it on.  I have an idea - I elect..."

"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 choice, but then a silence fell. 

"That's actually quite a good idea," remarked Heref.  "Go ahead, Tem.  Be the Dissuader.  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 - 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 - 

"Hmm... You asked for it," said a voice that spoke Nouuan with a pert intonation. "If it's irrefutable arguments you want - "

"No need to make them irrefutable," came a jocular comment; "just make sure you put some feeling into it, Tem; be genuine!"

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

"Don't name it!"

"Ah, sorry... You start from the premise that Oreneg Vadon MUST win.  And 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 has to be if it MUST be - because our special pleading arranges the rules to ensure, just this once, that special pleading is right - "

"Enough," boomed the voice of the zyr.  "I thank you.  You put the 'case against' so succinctly, so perfectly, that it becomes the 'case for'.  Now we'll carry your box round, to make sure." 

Nyav listened during the wordless interval that followed.  He began to hear what  seemed like gasps of appreciation.  For several eerie minutes they continued, while presumably "the box" was being carried from spot to spot in the encampment.

When it was borne close to his own position, his mind "heard":

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.  For the people of outposts like Olhoav have long known what it is like to stumble across thought-warnings from the gadgetary debris of unknown, vanished civilizations which throve in previous cycles.  Every lifetime or so, a few more of these disturbing artifacts are discovered in the wastes of what is now Fyaym.  It's best to leave them be. 

Finally the zyr's satisfied voice broke the silence.

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

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

From the hum of a skimmer, Nyav 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.  Load the essentials but leave the rest - "

"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 now."

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

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.  He was done for -

"Fooled!  Get - " shouted the leader with an altogether altered preoccupation.  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 contorted further in his frustration: something had transformed the picture and if only he could rip the blurfold away -

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


*

Swathed in a blue much darker than the Daon's own garb, a vast man was frowning down at him, the heavy features sternly quizzical.

"This fellow," he spoke to an aide, "has come from far across Fyaym." 

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

D-G-T?  Nyav's mind, wandering in his weakness and exhaustion, toyed with the appropriateness of having three names... and then a point of brilliance low in the heavens caught his eye and made him marvel and blink. 

The sun!  That's what it had to be!  He was now on Sunside and therefore he was seeing the sun!  For the first time in his life -

"Can you hear me, voyager?  Who are you?"

"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, then again spoke aside to his aide, "Have you any spef for him?"

Lahaz said, "Yes, here," and bent down to hand what was evidently a nutriment bar to Nyav, who took it uncertainly, striving against a wave of dizziness.  "You bite it and drink, Daon Nyav: it's food outside, drink inside," warned Lahaz in a louder voice."

Nyav bit carefully, 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, must still have lingered; "...we can assume he met something bad on the way!  We'll hope he tells us about it all.  But first, hospitality.  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 in addition to your rank and achievement as a voyager.  I am Dersnam Gostomon Thull of Ao, and I invite you as a guest to my estate!  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 guidance...  I bear a message, from my city, for the Sunnoad."

Dersnam stared in amazement.  Finally he spoke.  "You came at an awkward time," he said wryly.

"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, but 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.  For it so happens that our ailing Sunnoad was taken ill at Ao, and it is at Aonian territory that you have arrived.  So you're well placed to be on hand when the successor is elected, for that is supposed to happen where, as well as when, 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.  I will follow shortly; first I must examine the scene here."  Dersnam paused.  "Did you learn aught, Daon Nyav, of what your captors were about?"

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

Dersnam and Lahaz both frowned.  The former muttered, "Oreneg Vadon?  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 in angry frustration.  "Troublemakers scouring the rubbish of Fyaym to disturb our lives!  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, eliciting 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.

It was easily identified, befouled as it was with the Zyperan's crusted remnant of slime - thanks to which Nyav's possessions had not yet been stolen, and now never would be, by the men of the late Grilk Sedond.  A tow-line was attached to link Lahaz's vehicle with Nyav's and the party set off, Nyav managing to sit reasonably upright, blinking with renewed wonderment at the almost blinding golden pinhead in the sky.

*

They floated at modest speed through a gentle hill country.  As the miles went by, evidence of cultivation grew more frequent.  The ground became mostly terraced with cultivated ledges of meaty, bulbous vegetation, while spindly herds of multipeds browsed on the wider ribbons of land between.  Then over flatter terrain they came to a patchwork of orange, purple and green fields and woods, among which, 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 and already loomed over all.  A beacon-topped pinnacle, its 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"; adding, with loyal fondness, "And no less resplendent than it was during the Paramountcy."

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

Then came the spiral approach along a tree-lined avenue to Dersnam's country mansion.  Its four wings jutted at him one after another from a circular colonnade, surmounted by a skeletal dome of polished logs, each of which sprouted glossy foliage.  The profusion of overhead green gave the central court a light magnificence, open to the natural glow of the atmosphere, and here it was that he began to sense the totality of Aonstaggana subtly confirming his feelings of trust and admiration, transmuting every experience into the gold of gratitude, lustrous and - maybe - heavy?  No, he need not fear too heavy a burden of obligation, for he was confident that he could repay these people, at least to some degree, for their goodness to him.

One small doubt made him hesitate still.  It came after he had dismounted and been led in, politely and considerately, to a luxuriously appointed 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."

Nyav almost replied, No, don't trouble yourselves; I'll do 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.  He must soon face the inevitable questions, for they would naturally wish to know about where and how his skimmer had become so 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 an aparition: 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 with gentle, calm 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 simply, "You and your family, sponndar Saronna, have granted me what I most needed, a peaceful end to a long journey." 

"We should know how to treat a Daon!" smiled the lady, handing him a palm-sized summoner. 

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

"Ah, as to that," shrugged Saronna, "that 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.

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 their shoulders and gazed down fondly, "shall meanwhile let you alone, though they can hardly wait to hear horror stories about your journey."

"In truth, sponndarou," he addressed the three of them, "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, so long as there's no hurry."

Though this was a calm closure, 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 gorgeous gardens, which had looked easy enough on the eye during his approach by skimmer, and now seemed more than pleasant.  The jewelled buds and fruits, the ornate stems, the undulating sweep of greenish blue sward and the glittering bulges of the red and gold and orange shrubs all combined in a hypnotic swirl about his winding path.  Before long he found himself hankering for blinkers to moderate the profusion -

Then he noticed a man some yards off with a spade, digging a border.  Beside him some saplings, awaiting plantation, lay across a wheelbarrow.  May as well keep in tune with what backgrounders are thinking.

As he approached, the fellow straightened up and his rugged mien was enlivened by his evident curiosity - evidently, new of the visitor had already been spread around the estate.  "Daon Nyav!  Welcome!" he enthused.  "I am Zaktik, Cultivator of the Fourth Section."

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

Zaktik nodded, "Aonstaggana 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 as he opened his mouth - but then suddenly he became distracted. 

Nyav, following the man's upward glance, beheld a scudding cloud, shaped like a spear or an arrow.  The barbed scudder was gaining in density as it slid towards the zenith.  Clearly identifiable (though their species identity is blurred) as one of the predatory clouds of Ooranye, it 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.  A nearby shrub suffered an immediate commotion.  Out of its glossy leaves poked a dozen stems.  They 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, commented the Terran alter ego sloshing in the bilges of Nyav's brain.)

"You have to pre-empt them," the gardener cheerfully remarked, pressing another button; the laser stems retracted.  "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," commented Nyav.

"The boss has equipped us well.  He's such a speculative employer, 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. Sensible of you to adjust your expectations downwards.

Nyav mentally scowled.  His steps slowed. 

You, eh?  Look, he demanded, what means this sudden outburst of commentary, Neville Yeadon? 

Just agreeing with you.

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, 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 me being awake and aware.  It's not as though I fancied myself as 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.  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, but rather because, on the contrary, 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 your second home in the grass-forest just outside Olhoav.  You're on Sunside now, and this is SYOOM.  Lucky for you so far, the people seem to be giving you the respect due to the rank which you possess, because, in theory, a Daon is a Daon, whether appointed in the furtherst back of beyond or right here in the Sunnoad's realm.  Well, 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 happy with the Terran rider in his skull: the more so, as that 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.  I'm from a far outpost, but at least I'm on my own planet.  And... he may eventually prove right about my need for an extra something.  He's 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, 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; I shall be glad to come."

He followed the aide down corridors and into a dim room where he saw about twenty staff members ranged about a wooden table: people who 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 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."  Warming to that 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, 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 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 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 and 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 Ghepion, Dynoom, begging that the Sunnoad mount a rescue expedition to Olhoav to deliver the Starside city from its 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.  Hardly amounting to protests, all that remained were the vaguest of doubts, possible due to some sly Terran urge to hide facts from friends as well as from enemies.  Firmly in charge of his own head, Nyav regarded his mission as too important for secrecy.  The more people knew of it, the better, because, 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, which remained amiable and easy-going despite the amazement he had caused.  The questions, though eager, 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.  While the atmosphere tingled at his words, such was the contrast between that hell in his memory and the dignified kindness of his new hosts that even the distrustful Terran dregs of his brain accepted the invincible stamp of his favourable first impression of Syoom. 

All that grumpy Neville Yeadon could do was to whisper warnings of 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. 

Still, surely Syoom was already furnished with heroes enough.  And meanwhile it was 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 say 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 Nyav."

"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?  Remain constantly glad of the privilege of having reached Syoom alive, and, 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 accompanied Dersnam and himself.  It was... the memory came back... Tem Talfarn: that wiry little fellow who had been his fellow-prisoner when he'd lain 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.

A sardonic Terran thought floated up: Put it in the '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 back: be as impertinent as you like, Yeadon.  I'm steering, not classifying.  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 willed, the moments must simply 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) 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'.  That flicked him back to his Starside past, to mounded Olhoav which he had thought so great, and he reflected, affectionately and a trifle sadly, on the contrast between that ground-level outpost and this upraised hub of beauty and power -

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

Dersnam turned his head to Nyav and said, "I'm reducing speed because we're inside the twenty-mile limit.  Which means, it's time we looked to be joining an ayash queue."

The ayash - the airstreams which lift skimmer traffic in three spaced fountains from the plain up onto the city's rim - yes, 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 obscured from view 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'm certain, even though it's the first time in my life I've seen one, and I see it now only because the Sunnoad happened to be 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 voice popped back into the Daon's brain all of a sudden.  I bet you he's wistful about power.  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 a start, 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; but at the moment we have no basis...

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

I'm assured by the strength of the current I'm riding; the breadth of its flow; the trust in the plunge I must make 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.  Here, why don't you contemplate the ayash and the city's mighty stem?  Look! Phosphorus Era technology, endured 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 really felt himself to have entered Ao. 

A few moments more, and he and his companions had passed the apex of their flight.  Now they 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.  Clang, clang; 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, than even pre-revolution Olhoav; but then this was, after all, 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.  Of a type partly familiar, though more magnificent than the structures he had known, were the towers, the suspended globes and the interlaced walkways which loomed and tangled and festooned around him.  Crisply unfamiliar were the street-sized boxes of coloured air.  Theze zones took the form of tilted trapezoids, some more specifically parallelipipeds; the pedestrian had a sense of passing through a shaken heap of giant ghostly gems.

"I guess," said Dersnam, "you're wondering about the rallegussou.  Luminous air-stains are part of our address system."

Accepting the idea, Nyav proceeded to imagine how each trapezoidal rallegus might indicate an address via one of its faces, edges or corners.

Dersnam continued, "They're a peculiarity of Ao, dating from the Paramountcy; in fact, just about the only legacy that endures from that era - except (alas) maybe also a certain smugness of my fellow-citizens.  They like looking 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 turquoise air-glow's zone.  It stopped exactly at an abutment at the foot of a broad 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 that pairs were forming, after certain hand-and-finger signs by which partners selected and faced one another.  Each individual would hold up what looked like a grey-glowing mirror, an oval with a handle, and aim 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 remained alert in the central space, seeking more challengers amongst their dwindling numbers.

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

"By report, yes, though I've never seen one before.  In my remote part of the world a thuzolyr-election is a rarity, yet still indispensable if the Noad has died unexpectedly and no Daon is 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 falls ill without having chosen a successor.  And since Arad Thastu 80436 happened to fall ill here...  well, you can imagine."

He could, 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 his eyes witnessed in this concourse had to be one 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.

With a view of the back of Dersnam's thuzolyr, Nyav was able to read a fluorescent "181,387", which made him whistle under his breath: proclaiming that the owner had been proved to have stronger renl than 181,387 others, the figure was 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 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. 

"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 he spoke, for a determined instinct drove him forward, "caution is two-edged.  I'm wary of being stopped."  The words, 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 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, and had passed the closest of the sullen par yentar - when the tension exploded.

*

Some distance behind their backs, the par yentar underwent a spasm.  The shiver turned into a grab whereby the fellow clawed at his laser.  In almost no time he had fired a bolt which hissed through the air towards the trio of walkers. 

Yet even more swiftly, at the first blink of movement before the grudger had even pressed the firing stud, Nyav Yuhlm responded as if coached by destiny to read the tiniest reaction of other witnesses, or as if he had possessed eyes in the back of his head.  The Daon of Olhoav spun, drew and fired so fast that his own bolt smashed into the aggressor and spoiled his aim, so that the deadly candescence from the hostile spoond went wide enough to miss by yards.

Everyone, friend and foe alike, appeared stunned and daunted.  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, despite having long known that he was a good 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.  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.  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 in a wall of grey metal, between two massive bracings.  Somewhat blurred with a close blanket or halo of purple light, the wall was mostly featureless, with just a few enchased studs at eye-level.  In its entirety the Palace was not distinguishable at all at such close range, and even from further off it had appeared vague, its form enveloped in the city's other structures like a boulder shrouded in jungle.  Nyav however felt certain that they had not arrived at a main entrance but rather at 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 being followed by Tem Talfarn.

A short corridor, gently lit by its ceiling's fluorescence, brought them to an end 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 all standing. 

Nyav had never seen anyone look so self-possessed as the fragile mistress of this scene.  No longer young, she was as attractive as a prettily faded flower - but, a controlling flower.  Without being told, the newcomers halted while she studied the Daon of Olhoav with measuring eyes.

In a voice that could have been used for a lullaby the woman said, "I am Indan Orliss, head of the Bostanga Fom.  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: 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 room."

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 indicated this time was the only one in the room who matched her 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, time we got it over," said the latter.

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.  Anyone who came up against Brem Tormalla in a renl-contest could expect to lose - such seemed to be the prevalent attitude: the bout had led to a foregone conclusion.

Nevertheless 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.  He found withing himself the peculiar courage that views further trouble as a kind of expiation.

"...tell us why you have come here."

"To convey a recorded message to the Sunnoad." 

"Who is the sender?"

"A Ghepion named 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.  He was glad that he was doing so in front of a group of witnesses.

"Ah..." said Meron Spett, but, to Nyav's relief, made no move to touch the glowing jewel.  Understandable, the man's reserve when faced with a crystal congelation of thought, the acme of Uranian craft, a rarity not lightly to be fingered.  "And the gist of the message - can you tell us that?"

"An appeal for help.  I cannot well say more."  For as long as he could, Nyav was keeping his answers short.

"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."

This was where a sense of danger, unidentified but thickening, clouded the Olhoavan's brain in accompaniment to the sheer unwelcome difficulty of narrating his experiences inside Zyperan.  However he had no choice but to begin the story of his voyage. 

But how to capture a nightmare in words?  Better not try.  Instead, 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.  They trusted him.  Even the sour Meron Spett seemed seriously impressed

When the questions began to focus upon his arrival in Syoom, he thought at first that he understood where the pitfall in this interrogation might lie.  After all, he'd been among conspirators when Dersnam found him.  That might look bad to the Bostanga Fom.  To be sure, he could and did hasten to point out that he'd been the captive, and not the accomplice, of the "Dex Galooga". Still, he did wonder, what Indan Orliss might be wondering...

Perhaps 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.  "Maybe, as collectors of stuff, they thought they might as well bag me as a curiosity, a survivor out of Fyaym.  It's all I can guess.  Certainly, I can have had no relevance to any plot of theirs."

Meron Spett's look promised some surly comment, but at this point Indan Orliss interrupted.  "On the subject of that aim of theirs, 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, that "Oreneg Vadon 'MUST win'."

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

"Naturally not," said Nyav, "since I've 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 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, he might beat me.  It's what we're waiting to find out.  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 head of the Bostanga Fom musingly, turning her calm, deep gaze back upon Nyav.

She wants my fresh viewpoint, inwardly sighed the hapless Daon.  He set to rapid rummaging among memories of his brief time as a captive of Grilk Sedond's gang; memories which 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...'"

Brem Tormalla commented, "Bizarre.  How could anyone 'fix' an election?"

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

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 its pressure, soft and firm, like the probing fingers of a spiritual surgeon.  It was as if she were pulling to extract the surplus ego while gently pushing opinions down, to recline into a recumbency of acceptance and trust.

Then he suddenly felt a 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 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: be quiet, for goodness' sake.  Do you want to get us in bad when we've hardly started our life here?  Slam. 

Phew.  Quiet reigns.  And just then - he brightly remembered, after all, a slew of details about his captivity among the Dex Galooga, concerning 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' to pick holes in their plan!"

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

Talfarn shrugged, and appeared unafraid to reply.  "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."

"Ah... combing the rubbish of aons? I hear you're addicted to treasure-hunting."

Tem Talfarn, reverting to the sly, pert tone that was habitual with him, said, "I see you get my type.  Yes, it promised to be a grand expedition; I had thoughts for nothing else.  (I found a real good re-setter, for instance.  And guess what, the Galooga fools let me keep it; they don't know good stuff from bad...)"

"But what were they after?"

"How should I know?  Some ancient gadget to to fix elections, you reckon?  Some means of mind-magnifying one's preferred candidate into the greatest renl genius in history?  Is that the suspicion here?"

Talfarn's scoffing lessened the mistrust that had been accumulating against him.  It was hard to believe that he was capable of subterfuge; his selfishness was too plain and narrow.  So long as he could be allowed to potter amidst heaps of ancient artefacts, he could be trusted to spurn all treasonable temptations.  Such was the consensus, and Nyav kicked it down into the basement of his mind: you see, Terran, even the Bostanga Fom can't find anything wrong with him.

Meanwhile 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.  "In my capacity as zinzyr of the Great Triangle, I received my beat-chart from the commander of the skyship Chwur on its scheduled sweep, but 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, in these last days of a dying Sunnoad.  Messenger from Starside, do you expect to see her?"

Shaking his head, Nyav replied, "Of course not, 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.  So be it."  Indan Orliss started to rise from her chair. 

"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.  Kmebb Somm went up first, the others all followed, Nyav in the midst of them, sensible of the honour that was being done him, and at the same time vexed by persistent agitation from his buried Terran persona.  Will - you - stop - yammering, he thought at it, unable and unwilling to make sense out of the upwelling ooze of anxiety, but the emotion coalesced into a retort, I have something to "yammer" about, so listen!  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!  A fact which you seem to have forgotten, and 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 about our dual personality.  She knows, man!  She has grasped that you - we - are part Terran; just see if she hasn't... 

To which Nyav's mind replied, So what?  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.  I definitely should not care to be distrusted by the Bostanga Fom.

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 froze at the sight of the elderly face on the pillow, next to the golden cloak folded on a bedside chair.  For several heartbeats 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 this incarnation of Arad Thastu would never speak again.

He had to speak.  He held up the message-jewel and said in a low voice, "Is it permissible for me to leave this here for her, in case she wakes?"

Brem Tormalla shook his head and said, "She has the sreddesh."

Though as rare as the Sixty-Day Disease that had claimed Barlayn Lamiroth, the Deletion Malady was well understood to be ineluctable and final, allowing 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.  "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 forebodings after forebodings, each persisting until I realize that it's not about a genuine outside danger, it's merely 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 Sunnoad only.  Others may receive it too.  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 too, and Nyav moved, understanding that she needed him to come forward, to drop the crystal into her palm.  This done, he stepped back, not taking his eyes off her.  He, and everyone who was present, watched as she put Dynoom's message to her forehead; watched the smoothness of that forehead become creased; watched the pleasant cheeks go concave, the jaw chomp with distress, the eyes squeeze shut...

I wonder, thought Nyav, if I looked like that, the time I listened to it.  I hope so.  I wouldn't wish it to be worse for her.  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.  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, in fact."

"I know," said Nyav.  "I'm glad you know too."

She inclined her head as she continued, "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 in the concourse on the way here.  I'm just one man.  I'm vulnerable."

Indan Orliss turned her head at Dersnam, inviting comment.

The grandee muttered, "Not that vulnerable.  It's like he has eyes in the back of his head.  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!  Yes, the crystal has told me about you."

She continued, addressing the room, "Sponndarou, here we have 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, and went on speaking, apparently determined to challenge anyone who refused to believe.  "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 he knew it would be useless to say 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, so that his fate would 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 beats you, then give this to him.  Otherwise keep it," finished Nyav bluntly, and, handing the crystal to Brem Tormalla, stalked out of the room.

*

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.  Purely as a spectator he could enjoy this day of festal excitement with the Confluence in full swing.  Good-humouredly he had shown willing to take his busy host's two young daughters to these public Tiered Gardens, where it was possible that they might witness the arrival of Oreneg Vadon, the mysterious candidate so far unbeaten at the thuzolyr, the one remaining serious rival to Brem Tormalla.

Worked up to a pitch of exuberance the girls, whose hobby was gymnastics, repeatedly performed cartwheels and hand-stands on the sloping grass.  Even when on occasion they paused in their flexions they continued to project their bubbling potential energy by the questions they threw at Nyav and the whirling vigilance of their glances around.  "Look! look!" they cried when they saw a notable figure striding near, or another skyship floating towards the docks, or the flash of a late thuzolyr-bout between contenders who had come late to the contest; "could that be the Candidate?"

Candidate.  That bit of English had been taught them by Nyav, partly for his own convenience in speech, partly for the thrill it gave them every time they learned a real Terran word.  News having spread of his dual nature, the girls loved to get him to talk about the mysterious Third Planet, and his attempted descriptions always fascinated them despite - or maybe 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, and to be taken on an outing by him!  He knew he counted almost as a member of the family now, like some renowned uncle, the traverser of Fyaym, the Daon of long-lost Olhoav.  Their joy at being with him gave Nyav a sudden pang, and his face fell. 

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

These words 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.  We'll miss you, but..."

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

"By the Skies, yes!" cried her elder sibling importantly, likewise flexing once more into a line of vibrant force.  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 which these girls showed 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, a voyager from afar, who was naturally ignorant of life in Syoom.

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

In particular, would he not gladly increase his knowledge of the individual to whom he had entrusted Dynoom's message?  The crystal he'd brought - and not, he trusted, in vain - all the way from Olhoav, was now in the hands of a personage 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!  Nobody knows how high his score might be by now!"

"True, sister!" Alinvee brightened. "And 'Vadon' means 'searchlight', after all!"

Nyav said, "Let me check something with you two.  Kyteth, you just said: 'how high his score might be'.  Now, all this stuff about 'scores' confuses me a bit.  They're only measures of past achievement, as I understand it.  So they only give us a suggestion of 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; so 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 that previous victories aren't taken into account.  You reckon they might be."

Kyteth said, "You hear things..."

But it was soon clear they preferred to believe that even with the best record of wins, 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, and which had always been viewed as the odd one out of the great Twenty-Five disc-on-stem cities (and it was a remarkable statistic, that no Grardesh had become Sunnoad since the Foam, over thirty eras ago).  Besides, this 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 was already in the right hands, or else Oreneg Vadon would beat him in which case Brem would dutifully hand over the crystal.  Even if Brem were not the decent fellow he seemed to be, 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 had subsided, apparently in a sulk, having been proved so wrong in all the sinister warnings he'd tried to give.  Well, a humiliation is best endured in silence.  Better than to indulge in a tantrum.

To be fair, though, it hadn't just been the question of what might be done about the message; the fear had also focused upon the very nature of the Bostanga Fom.  Indan Orliss had appeared fearsomely able to... how could one put this... "read paths"?  Or more?  To "read paths", well, that was just renl, wasn't it?  The trouble was, with somebody like that, the idea was bound to creep in, that she could do more than read, she could control the currents of fate.

Perhaps again, who cares?  Perhaps it's something we all do, to some extent; a part of what's allowed us.  It may, thought Nyav vaguely, all turn out fair, when Fate has balanced her books, and shown that we all enjoyed our fair share of control...

*

That which Nyav most feared came to pass a couple of minutes after the children had ceased to chat about the Candidates.  They had resumed their gymnastic whirls, and meanwhile he allowed his attention to rove further afield.

It was most fortunate - so much so that he never ceased to be thankful - that he had just then decided to daydream less, and to pay more heed to the details of the wider scene.  He focused 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.  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, though it could not be that, for 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; whose great interest in life was the discovery of artefacts from previous epochs... what had he recently mentioned about a specific find?  Nyav shrugged; the memory eluded him.  It doubtless would surface - he trusted in Uranian style - 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 the puzzle of 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.

Their stares were desperate.  He had seen that craving not long before: the sick hunger 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.  Here he was, encumbered by children in his care when he was about to be attacked.

Paradoxically, the best thing he could do for Alinvee and Kyteth was not to think about them.  Instead he let full rip with what he was able to do, namely, pin all hope on the unusual speed of his own reactions, for experience suggested to him that the would-be attackers would have small chance after he unleashed his fighting power. 

They 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 by a flash of thought: 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 what he had done.  Had he taken undue risk?  He wasn't sure.

He heard the girls whisper behind him.  "Who...?"  "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?  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, and then we'll try again - so, kill us.  It's the only way out, for what we've got."

Nyav became aware that an audience had quietly gathered, a circle of spectators who were giving him yards of room while they watched and listened sombrely.  He felt he ought to confess he was out of his depth here, and ask somebody what to do.  But no!  Experiencing a willful surge of determination to handle the matter himself, he hollered his refusal, unthinkingly interlacing his diatribe with some English words:

"RUBBISH!  I already killed one poor devil of a par yentar today!  I'm not killing any more!  Thezmedet and Lokol, happiness is within your reach!  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, right and proper."  

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

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

"Innb."

Nyav pointed at him.  "Tell me - for I need to get around - tell me how you travelled here.  How you reached this city, I mean."

"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?"

"Forget that stuff," grinned the Olhoavan; "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 index finger, the young man said, "We got passage here from Innb when we signed on the Pumplon."

"Huh.  A skyship?"  (They nodded.)  Pumplon... 'buffoon'.  "That's not its real name, I suppose," Nyav remarked.

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

*

Dersnam Gostomon Thull, who had approached from behind, was standing between his daughters with his hands resting on their shoulders, the threesome forming a picture of family contentment and relaxed harmony. 

"The Great Triangle Fleet Patrol," Dersnam continued, "mostly uses skyships from the regular fleets.  Ao, Vyanth and Skyyon each supply a hundred first-class ships - but the planners are so good, they can hire at a moment's notice, with the result that not all patrols are carried out by the official vessels..."

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.  And yet, Nyav himself, while 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, 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 of the scene.  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 mandate of the mood, and in the expressions of the faces around you the field of conviction sprouting support.  Phew!  I need that couple.  I need them (in their right minds) to show me how best to rove obscurely, as they must have done.  It's a vital opportunity for me.

Vital, to gain entry to the lower, vagabond life!  He could not verbalize it, could not even crisply think it.  He only knew that, as things were, he was being propelled too fast and too far into the limelight.  For instance, unlike almost everybody else, he dared not obtain a thuzolyr.  The thought of being pushed into this election himself terrified him with a vague but awful sense of the wave he was on, some terrifying prospect of power, of being flung unspeakably high, there to be left high and dry...

On the other hand that worst thing, that strangely dreaded high-and-dry, need not happen if he was given time to adapt to the wave, and, to have that time, he must escape for a while. 

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

Only, how?  He could not just slink away! 

Yet he must!  If he were to talk it over with anyone (except the girls, bless them, who seemed to understand) he was sure, he felt it in his bones, that strong-willed people would convince him, for this or that good reason, that he ought to stay.

Instinctive 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...

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

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

"You think that's what happened?  Actually, they took you," Dersnam chuckled.  "Rumour has it, the Oreneg Vadon-Brem Tormalla bout may happen this evenshine, may happen right here, if Oreneg is coming by skyship from Grard and if the ship he's on makes good time.  In which case, nothing could keep Alinvee and Kyteth from this vantage point..."

Nyav decided to be blunt.  "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.  "Besides, 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.  Fortunately, thuzolyr-elections are rarely needed.  We have to ignore the dangers, to get on with our lives."

Dersnam's "fingers in six pies", as Nyav thought of them, the fellow's interests in vheic farming, food production, city maintenance, transport and fleet patrols, Wayfaring and history-telling... all meant he had much to get on with, and besides, thought the Daon, he's a seasoned statesman, and then - why, we don't have 'seasons' here, that's Earth imagery; hey, are you waking up again down there, Terran mind? 

Aloud, meanwhile, he admitted to Dersnam, "I suppose I agree - if you take the average of my last three or so moods..."

The grandee laughed again.  "'Tramp the frazz / Docket a dream,'" he quoted.  Then, perceiving that Nyav had no idea what those words meant, he explained: "Sometimes the run of the road bars you from the lie of the land; but actually, contrary moods can merge to do the 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, to the extent that it almost felt like a hammering in Nyav's brain.  He had to listen while he strode, heading in the direction of a wooden structure which he'd noticed was being used as a base by Tem Talfarn.

Mountebank-style, he's pitched his booth, and 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 can't imagine the fixing of an election, can you?

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

The re-setter, replied the lower.

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 clien't 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 and 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 turned into a runk?"

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

"Then do so, by all means!"

"First, though, I must earn that much 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.  Now - 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, spreading puddle.

"But why?" asked Talfarn.  "Why?"

"I noticed your pattern," Yadon explained.  "Your next round would take you to Brem Tormalla - whom I've seen waiting with a lot of other people some hundred yards from here."

"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."

Silence reigned for a moment while Talfarn's jaw hung slack and his eyes de-focused.  Then he exhaled.  "Given that you believe your own account, Daon Nyav - Yadon - whoever you are, then what will you do with me?"

Without lowering his laser, Yadon backed away to go.  "My guess is, you plotters are all from Grard or at least descended from Grardesh, and were terribly 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.  So - skimmjard, Tem Talfarn."  And as he spoke these words out loud, secretly he exulted, It is enough.  I have saved the election.  With this I have earned my freedom.  And thank you, O Terran layer of my being; you have, for once, 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 joyful smile.  "Now's just when 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 the greeting as he tramped over the lofty webbing of Dock Five towards the gangplank leading into the Pumplon

The two ex-par-yentar turned and their faces lit up as they recognized him and ran to greet him, almost jostling 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 as she spoke.  "Yadon!  You have given us 'runks' our lives back.  How can we thank you?"

"You told me of this escape route; that's payback enough," said Yadon.  "Come on, let's get inside.  Oh yes, one more thing - you can tell me what we're doing and where we're going."

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

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

Yadon found an amazing informality aboard the Pumplon.  Captain Jara Sekket herself - a cheerful, lithe woman dressed in engineer's overalls - came to sit by him for a welcoming chat hardly a minute after they had cleared Aoan airspace and floated out over the plains.  He seized the opportunity to ask her how the ship had come by its peculiar name; the tale was soon told: 

"...Its first owner found his friends telling him he was a fool to invest so much in a search for evidencer-clouds.  Nobody earns enough that way, they said; only a buffoon would hope to obtain a significant catch within a thousand days...  Well, the very first day out, he netted a cloud bearing the recorded image of a historic battle in the reign of the ever-notorious Sunnoad Tu Rim 78860.  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, - which 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 taking 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.  He gazed up and saw, weltering in the lower atmosphere, a purplish-stained nebulous mass, heavy with what promised to be a rich haul.  No time for a beginner to interfere; quite relishing the fact 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, yet with nothing that could be called reticulation; why, then, the term "netting" wondered Yadon idly, and did not have long to wait for the answer.  Filaments of colour appeared above him; the "net" was being induced in the cloud.  A subsonic pressure seemed to squash his ears; then 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..."  The captain and some technicians lowered the embereed and took down the sphere at its tip.  Without waiting, there on deck while the wind blew their cloaks about them, they gently placed the gelatinous haul in a box the size of a kitchen oven, and gathered to look at its front screen.

Yadon heard gasps of awe.  He bent forward to look.  The others made way for him.  He saw an image of a multitude of skimmers on a plain, and hover-rafts and laser bolts and fighting men lying scorched...  A battle.  

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

He saw the dial she meant, and turned it.  Quite soon they were able to read the names and insignia on some of the rafts.  The captain called for her historical experts... and soon the answer came.  The captured scene was from a battle in the reign of the enigmatically heroid Sunnoad Faran Taknoa 79892.  A terrific find.

All eyes turned to Yadon.

His mouth shaped a brief, uncomfortable grin.

What's all this, a message, an omen?  No, it's just a kind of law of attraction; it's that the fate-wave won't let me go. 

It's not a game that suits me.  I'm as determined as ever to get out.  Sunnoads, Sunnoads...  the traps they are in...  Just think, even now some poor forg, be it Brem Tormalla or Oreneg Vadon, may have got caught in the pitiless spotlight of history, where every mistake you make is illuminated for all time.

The fate-wave may have uses for me; well, too bad - I shall jump ship the first chance I get.  Fate may not wish to let me go, or it may not know how - but I'm letting it go.  And as for being "Yadon", hmm, yes -

He reflected: 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.

They stood quietly for a moment, face to face.

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

Oreneg Vadon, young, aquiline, skin stretched tensely over his cheekbones, also trusted in fate, but not necessarily in this moment.  His was a more distanced view of a final verdict - hardened by a ruthless aim to fulfil his potential: an honest aim, yet unsparing, for the sake of the wave he rode, and for the sake of Grard. 

The arms were raised; 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:

"Sunnoad 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.

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 fated to be present - agreed that Syoom needed an effective Sunnoad more that nen needed an unconscious and dying 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, though, not a permanent one."

Oreneg Vadon inclined his head, in silent agreement that the cloak might yet one day pass to him.

In the evening airglow, the throngs of spectators began to disperse, satisfied that their long wait had been rewarded.  Theirs was the privilege to witness the moment in which the mightiest traditions of Syoom conjured a tingling aura, a greatness which enveloped an individual by means of the unique cloak - for when this was donned, nobody, not even little Alinvee and Kyteth, could imagine aught negative about the wearer.

Brem Tormalla returned to his guest rooms in the Jarntz, where he began on 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 indignant voices suggested searches should be made for the traitorous conspirator.  "He 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 gone!"

"Gone?  What do you mean, girl?"

"He wanted, he needed to go, 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 wants to disappear."

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

With a relaxed shake of the head the Sunnoad, however, dismissed that worry:  "Oh, we'll hear of him."

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN

Uranian Throne Episode 17:   

The Scared Logician