The smoothness of that region known as the Moraar is broken by peculiar crags, shaped rather like chisels although their generic name (flonga stap) means "Razor-Ridge".
A multitude of these formations glower upon the salty wetness all around. Visitors, however, have found their mood affected more by the flatness of the miles between each jut of ridge; hence the term, the "Plain" of the Moraar. Its sweeps of moss and beds of scrub, reflected in the many glistening shallows, blur into a yellowish distance.
Dampness is an unusual condition among the landscapes of Ooranye, where the average temperature is below freezing, yet on a world of this size the unusual can hold vast local sway. This was understood and accepted by the Stranger as he trudged through the seemingly limitless icy slush.
tall, mature man, he tirelessly plodded, yard after yard, his boots stained with the salt that keeps the upper inches of the Moraar from congealing into solid ice.
His broad shoulders were swathed in two cloaks, the outer of which was laden, in every pouch, with additional supplies taken from his abandoned skimmer.
For he had been overtaken by that doom which every Uranian wayfarer dreads, of being marooned by a vehicular malfunction in the wilderness. Nevertheless he expected to survive. He knew roughly where he was; and though this eerie plain looked empty of human life, a handful of settlements the size of towns were known to exist within its area of a few million square miles bounded at four corners by the cities of Ao, Dmara, Skyyon and Hoog. Most importantly, the entire region counted as an area of Syoom, not Fyaym; the reach of civilization, not the utter unknown.
Therefore he simply needed to keep going. His rugged features were confidently grim, as one who can recognize the return of an old enemy whom he has beaten once before and will defeat again. Any good Wayfarer has this fortitude, this patient readiness to take what comes.
Only, here the challenge was perhaps greater than most, for although by and large the Stranger's personality was as strong as iron, his past had left him with one weak point within himself.
He would have kept his eyes downcast if it had been practicable to do so, for that would have been one defence. But only a crazed Wayfarer would cease to be watchful, so he must gaze around, and whenever he looked towards the horizon's smudged ribbon of crags, some arching infinity hovered, threatening, poised to blow his mind as had happened to him once in his youth thousands of days ago.
Fortunately he was tougher and far more experienced now, than he had been when, as a very young man, he had last fallen victim to nebulation. In defiance of the risk he raised his eyes to scan the closest flonga stap: a Razor-Ridge that reared just over half a mile in front of him.
This, though he did not know it yet, was the Krokkembar.
It was tent-shaped, a triangular prism of grey rock perhaps two miles from end to end, and somewhat larger than its neighbours in his field of view. He felt a tingle of excitement when he noted a couple of signs of habitation. What appeared to be a domed building was perched on the very summit, while sprawling on the ground at the foot of the slope was a more ramshackle structure which, if he mistook not, was an inn.
An inn! What relief! The entire landscape seemed all of a sudden tinged with humanity...
Having absorbed the first evidences of habitation he began to see others: signs of pathways in the middle distance, and a few half-visible huts and cleared patches amid the scrub. The likelihood was, he would soon see people, and his heart palpitated at a fresh thought. He wondered what he would say if they asked him his name.
For that raised a difficulty.
Not exactly "nebulation", no, but - perhaps because he had escaped that - Fate might be exacting a sort of revenge.
He had had many names, and now he had forgotten them all. He was a Stranger even to himself.
"That picture is sharp," the visitor whistled.
The fascination was unfeigned. Cartographer Strao Gheren was genuinely impressed. The spy-gadget, which adorned the Logician's lair, seemed a marvel of technology.
His tight-lipped host, with a complacent nod, acknowledged the compliment.
The scanscope's circular screen, a yard in diameter, glowed with an image of the Marescent Wood. Not as the naked eye might see it from the observatory window, but close as if the viewer were actually inside the Wood. Strao Gheren, as he peered, felt that the dead leaves which clung to the branches were about to tickle his ears.
Waving at the picture, the cartographer added: "It's as if I were there. Except that it's more vivid than that - it's like it's harder than reality, so to speak."
Too busy admiring the screen to notice that the Logician winced, he merely heard the colourless response, "Yes... between the visits of clients, I keep watch over the neighbourhood... as a hobby."
Gheren repressed a smile. Who would have expected the Logician to have a hobby?
Everybody thought of Laro Hing as a cold, austere thinker, dedicated to a sparse, fanatical existence ensconced up here atop the ridge. A recluse whose only joy was the fierce pursuit of Truth. Well, he certainly looked the part: lean of torso and wiry of limb, with a
taut visage framed by ragged grey hair, and lit by eyes that
gleamed a determination to follow any argument wherever it might
lead, the Logician was someone whom you would not normally expect to get fond of a picture, or invite his guest to admire one.
Strao Gheren finally turned his gaze from the scanscope, straightened, and ventured a probing remark. "Quite spectacular, all told. Especially the... embellishments..."
"Ah..." responded Laro Hing. "Can you be specific?" His tone was flat, his expression neutral.
"Oh," replied the cartographer, "it's like I was trying to say... just that the colours on the screen seem stronger than in real life; and the shapes... well... I do get the impression that the 'scope somewhat exaggerates, or in some way touches them up."
"You realize, then, that the 'scope gives more than just a magnified view of the landscape down below."
Could it be fear that peeped through the man's eyes? Strao Gheren dismissed the idea.
"Seems we're agreed," he smiled, "that you're getting a kind of artistic view of your target. Which is good for you, Logician! Like framing a picture which has sentimental value..."
Laro Hing wryly interrupted, "You are implying that although I may be a poor fellow who spends most of his life up here on a bare summit, at least I keep fond watch on the surface of the land where I was born and bred."
Born and bred? Gheren reflected that it was quite hard to imagine that this fixture of the Razor Ridge had ever been born. In that sense Laro Hing was, in truth, a 'poor fellow'. "The words are yours, sponndar L-H," the cartographer responded; after which, he wondered if he had gone too far.
However, that bluntness of speech characteristic of the district was shared by both men, and the Logician apparently took no offence. Instead he stooped and twiddled some knobs on the scanscope's control-box.
"Now watch the picture move," he murmured. "You'll almost believe you're walking through the Wood."
The visitor, drawn again to peer, could indeed imagine he was actually on the move among the knurled branches. Almost he could feel that he personally was parting the dead leaves which dangled like burst paper balloons, so as to stop them from brushing against his face. His eyes caught glints of what hung from the branches: the golden fruit which meant wealth for the townsfolk of Oblannerad.
"Impressive," he commented. "Certainly not bound by the limits of line-of-sight observation."
"And be assured this is no recording: you're see what's there now."
"How is it done, I wonder," Gheren murmured.
The voice behind him said offhand, "I would assume an elastic plasma leash, maximum range several miles, to provide such extensions of view. But naturally there's no way of knowing, short of taking the thing to bits to find out how it works - and how often can one do that with an ancient machine? It may belong to a pre-human cycle, it may even be of interplanetary origin."
Once more Gheren whistled, and straightened to take his eyes off the screen.
"I could go on for hours, peeping round corner after corner," he said, "but I shan't take up so much of your time. I can assume that your mastery of this gadget is a fair sample of the...er... re-animations which you undertake for your clients."
"That is correct. People bring me artefacts they've found; I theorize; I deduce, on abstract grounds, the way in which they must function; then, by exterior manipulation, I set them to work."
"Which is what I came to you to hear about, but you have done better than to tell me: you have shown me. I'm glad I happened along while you still had it in your possession."
"Actually it's staying right here," commented Laro Hing in his neutral tone. "The 'scope is not a loan but a gift from the Noad of Jador, Sungon Dlaa, who, after using it for a while, decided he no longer wished to keep it. He paid me a second visit and left it with me."
Following that anecdote, and encouraged by the Cartographer, the Logician talked some more about his work: about the leaders and experts who came from all over Syoom to seek his advice on problems of Ghepion physiology and Fyayman relics; about the scores of official skyships which had anchored on the ridge to disgorge their problematic cargo; and about how, every time, the gadgetary conundrums which had made a snarled mess of others' practical efforts yielded to the purity of Laro Hing's method.
Strao Gheren, as he stowed these accounts in his capacious memory, reflected that he was amply rewarded for his arduous climb up the long zig-zag path to the summit of the Krokkembar.
Only, he was left mildly puzzled by the Logician's underlying melancholy. Every word the man spoke seemed tugged by a hint of a sigh. Oh well, Gheren inwardly shrugged, perhaps I too, if I lived up here alone, would end up beclouded with nervous gloom.
Just imagine, - his train of thought pursued the idea - me in this wind-battered building day after day, with a view of that secretive Marescent Wood, and, beside it, the area of plain which the locals call the Nefforlank, though nobody can tell me what gave it that name of "Worst Place".
The work, to be sure, must be endlessly fascinating. To be known throughout Syoom as an expert in the reanimation of ancient gadgets, was to be assured of an inexaustible supply of adventurous tasks. But that, too, would tinge one's lifestyle with a certain awesome melancholy. The history of the Nenns on Ooranye reached back across eighty-nine eras; over three hundred and fifty million days; fourteen thousand consecutive human life-spans. During that colossal spate of Time's flow, full contemplation of the accumulated culture layer must stun any sensitive mind, quite apart from any speculations of what may have come before.
Ah yes, that was the real hitch, was it not? Of course, Uranians had grown used to their position atop so much history; they mostly lived with it easily enough, not allowing the weight of it to upset their mental balance; but there were (one had to face it) some regions of Syoom, of which the Moraar was one, which challenged one's poise. According to tradition they harboured secrets so mind-bogglingly ancient as to date from before the first known era - that is, beyond the thread of historical narrative. That thread extended unbroken back to Day One of Era One when the first Nenn, Lrar Versak, had emerged from the prebiotic Lake of Dmara - but pastward from that point the continuity of history was lost, and there was nothing but murk, amidst which glimmered occasional isolated smudges, the widely scattered hints of fearsome legend.
Strao Gheren, while Laro Hing spoke on, listened with one ear while he found that another part of his thoughts, as an unwelcome accompaniment, was gliding in the direction of those dark pre-Nenn times. There was for example the legend that there had been an invasion from Yimdi, the Ringed Planet, whose Triple-Brained horrors had gained a beachhead on the Moraar, before being forced underground -
The great thing, when thoughts like that start pestering one, is not to correlate stuff, not to join the dots, but to kick the ideas back downstairs.
But he was beginning to doubt whether the Logician was wise enough to do that. There were moments when the poor man appeared distinctly twitchy.
...Laro Hing's account reached a full stop. "Has this been the kind of exposition you wished to hear?"
"Perfectly," replied Strao Gheren. "I recognize in you a kindred spirit. We are both at the top of our respective professions."
"You're not from Oblannerad?" the Logician inquired. "From long observation I can recognize just about all the local folk."
"No cartographers live in Oblannerad," smiled Gheren. "I am from Sombax; not exactly close, but after all it is the next town."
"And you are here on behalf of the folk of Sombax?"
"Not at all. I am here because a top-rank cartographer, such as I, must chart not only the common and obvious but also the outstanding and unique. Like, the lair of an unusual savant atop the Krokkenbar!" A waggish and surely a sufficient reply. Yet to his own amazement Ghered's tongue ran on, "Though the townsfolk might have hired me, if..." (Where the flaming flunnd was this about to take him? Oh well, more bluntness was in order, if he was to shoulder his way through this.) "...The townsfolk might have hired me," he continued, "if they had known about the scanscope."
"In such hypothetical case," the Logician remarked with the merest ripple of dry amusement, "your townsfolk would have expected you to accomplish - what?"
Gheren's suavity had not deserted him, but it had become mixed in with the bluntness. "Well," - and his drawl was almost a growl - "they might have hoped that as a philosopher I might possibly restrain you."
"Restrain me - let me guess - from looking through it?"
"I hadn't heard of the gadget till my visit today," Gheren shrugged. "But it may be relevant."
"I am intrigued; you have my attention, sponndar." Folding his arms, and leaning against a window-frame, the Logician kept Gheren and the landscape both in view. "Relevant, you say. To...?"
"To what everybody may soon feel about the plain of the Moraar, if matters get out of hand. I'm sorry, sponndar L-H. I didn't expect to say all this."
This was greeted by a frown. "No, but now you have..." A sudden dire promise in the configuration of the Logician's lips -
Gheren queasily recognized it. He knew the disciplines which had evolved for survival on a baffling planet; knew the mind-spells against "Giant Overwhelm" -
That man, seriously, equably - though far, far preferable would be sardonic scorn - is about to form the syllable moss -
Mossongunain. The Five-Minute Term. A brief liberty to say what ought normally not to be said. Give it five minutes and then forget it -
Oh, we're in for it now.
Two young women, wrapped in gum-stained cloaks and smelling of resin, sat sipping in their usual niche under the polished beams of the Niffomb Ollog.
That venerable inn, built of "carrion trunks" which have died a natural death, lies along the base of the Krokkenbar at a point roughly mid-way between the Marescent Wood and the town of Oblannerad. During the period of this history the inn was the only such halt available for the town's workforce on their way to and from their silvicultural labours. It was moreover a haven for anyone in this region of the Moraar who might need rest, sustenance or a trysting place.
The women currently nursing their drinks were not in the happiest of moods. The man who had agreed to meet them had not arrived.
They reacted to this disappointment in different ways.
Estunu, humble and petite - she might in Terran terms have been labelled "cute" - was resigned to waiting. Though she watched the door, her daydreaming smiles welled from imagination, not hope, and her eyes, though lively, twinkled solely with amused reproof at her own feelings: since her expectations were at zero she could at least relax and laugh quietly at herself.
Her less patient friend Devlel glared, her cheeks puffed with tauter sheen, while she murmured against the quirk of fate that had allowed her heart to be set aflutter by a slick two-name forg. It was looking more and more as if the fellow had aimed to get rid of her. He had rejected her offer to accompany him to the Ridge's summit; he'd promised her that he would be back down by the fifth hour of morningshine. "Was that not clear enough?" she said out loud, her form tensed like an athlete listening for a postponed starting-shot. Her fingers twitched for her glass.
"He'll be back before too long," Estunu ventured.
"Haah," snorted Devlel and took a swig. Her gaze flounced to the door, the ceiling and back. "He will or he won't." She clamped her teeth at the very thought of ever admitting to distress should sponndar Strao Gheren decide never to return.
background folk of the Moraar are imbued with
fathomless disdain for anything that may smack of foregrounder pretension. In this respect the two women, though rivals in love, were of one accord.
Estunu, nevertheless, meekly suggested: "He's shown himself a staunch friend to our town."
"During what - a few tens of days?"
"That's long enough to get to know a man, I think."
"It might be for you," Devlel replied with a touch of a smile, "but I don't have your lyrical soul."
A moment later the door began to swing open.
Estunu caught her breath; Devlel glanced at her while her eye enjoined, If it is he, don't let us look too glad... then, seeing how little her friend needed this advice, re-focused on the threshold.
The door opened wider and a figure stepped in. Yes, it was the man himself, the prestigious cartographer safely returned from the Logician's lair.
"Here!" waved Devlel to attract him to their corner.
Strao Gheren waved back. Yet he did not approach straight away. He seemed abstracted; rather than hurry to where the women sat, he first put out a hand to pet the tame pentapod that revolved on its mat by the entrance.
The beast, delighted at the attention, spun faster on its pivotal leg. The man murmured to it, "Good ranna, Laffut; good ranna."
Devlel blinked away a tear of exasperation. This was not at all how things were supposed to happen; Gheren ought to have stridden eagerly towards her, full of the news he must have to tell.
Estunu, for her part, smiled tenderly and sadly. What difference, after all, did the delay make to her, resigned as she was to the prospect that when he did approach he would have eyes merely for Devlel?
However, this turned out not to be literally true, for when Gheren finally approached the women, he smiled equally at both.
Like when you Terrans drop a coin onto the plate at the entrance to a charity sale, we similarly pay our dues to the social atmosphere, obeying the etiquette of Uranian inns, whenever we step inside.
Thus, because now as many as three customers were patronising the Niffomb Ollog, a knot of collective mindwaves began to form. All who were present began to sense as it were the silhouette of the others' thoughts... not enough to read messages, but enough to show that Gheren really did mean to be kind to both of his admirers... Yet though his smiles weren't perfunctory or insincere, something else was on his mind; something impersonally big.
"Are you fixed for drinks?" They nodded at him. "I'll just get mine then," and he went to buy, after which he placed an additional coin on the counter, whereupon the host pressed a button on the music-box.
It struck up the tune,
The richness of the way,
The richness of the way,
The richness of the way,
The richness of the way,
Myyix and bejeh,
"I just fancied that soother," remarked Strao Gheren as he carried his glass to the women's table. Picking up the scarf which they had left for him on a chair back, he sat down.
A wordless duel followed; a duel of expressions. To start with Devlel levelled her gaze at him. What she omitted to say, took shape nevertheless, as the dark silhouette of her annoyance. Gheren's awareness, however, turned out to possess a shield against it - in the form of an excuse, its silhouette equally wordless, equally unmistakable.
Thus, a draw. The mood-match was tied. Devlel flinked a fingernail on her glass of myyix. Finally she sighed, "How did you get on with Laro Hing?"
Gheren swallowed a strong mouthful, rested cheek on fist, and replied: "He deserves his reputation. He gave me what I hoped for."
"You look a bit nervous, though."
"No... I just need... flunnd," swore Gheren as he jerked his head round.
They were no longer alone. A tall, heavily-cloaked figure was stepping across the threshold of the Niffomb Ollog.
Now the customers numbered four...
The new arrival was nobody they recognized. Chances were, he was a complete stranger to the area. A somewhat formidable-looking customer, with fine though rather haggard features...
The fellow's inscrutable glance swept the Niffomb's interior and then, with impeccable courtesy, he made his way to a table not too far from, and not too close to, the one already occupied by Strao Gheren, Devlel and Estunu. Evidently this was a sponndar at ease with unspoken rules.
Reassured on this point, Gheren's attention switched back to his own table. In a lower tone than before he said, "Never seen him before. We won't mind him. And now, I'll tell you how it went with the Logician. I can't complain of my reception up there..."
He proceeded with an account of his visit to the summit of the Krokkembar. In particular he enthused over the "fascinating scanscope, of unknown make, which provides a viewpoint-in-motion for the scene at which it is aimed." So satisfied did he sound, that he induced in them the melancholy thought, It sounds as though Strao has obtained everything he wants; has collected the data he sought; and will soon return to Sombax.
Well, nothing could be done about that! - thought Estunu.
Devlel feared the same. Clearly, the cartographer regarded today's trip as a successful climax of his study of the neighbourhood. Job done, he would soon go home. Leaving a void in her heart...
Trying to face the worst, she jarringly remarked, "So, if I understand you right, sponndar Strao, you've got all you came for, and you need lodge no longer in Oblannerad?"
Gheren assented with no idea of the feelings he had churned. "I've enjoyed my time with your people."
"A pleasant interlude in the 'gum town'," Devlel remarked.
"Very true," was his even response that quite washed away her pinch of sarcasm. "And today's visit to Laro Hing was a good note to end on. Though..." his voice went up in pitch, "it's funny, right at the end, uh, I can't remember the details - "
"Something you can't remember, you with your perfect recall?" whistled Devlel, a stream of irony being all that was left to her. "That in itself is amazing! How did it come about?"
"You may well ask. On arrival at the observatory, I was sure of my own motives: I wished to gauge the Logician's achievement so as best to depict the place on my charts. And that went well. But after a while, all of a sudden, I began to press him on the topic of the Moraar. As though he could do something about... what we all know. And, well, he, er, did do something," Gheren finished with a shruge; " - he uttered mossongunain."
Their ears, their minds, gulped: Mossongunain.
A word which bounced from wall to wall.
It throttled the passing seconds; put a freeze in the air. Not a sound, not a breath could compete. Devlel paled; Estunu likewise. The others in the room - the landlord at the counter, the stranger at his own table - also experienced the stopper of speech.
The women's recent hurt was wiped out; Gheren's lateness had acquired an excuse which could not be questioned.
You did not probe further when a thread of talk had become wrapped in a coating of mossongunain.
Presently, though, Devlel wondered aloud: "What was the aim?"
"You ask me that?!" reacted Gheren sharply. "The whole point of... that word... is to relieve tension by allowing an un-airable topic to be temporarily aired - "
"I know that," said Devlel equally sharply, "but I wasn't asking what the Logician said during those sealed five minutes. I simply keep wondering why you triggered the thing in the first place."
Glooming at the table-top, Gheren mused wryly, "At times, none of us know why we do what we do."
Devlel rolled her eyes but forbore any retort. Instead, in her unease she muttered, "Oh well, I suppose a wave has got us."
Meanwhile the stranger who had entered a few minutes ago, and who had remained quiet, was now shifting in his chair -
To every single person present, this came as a reminder that for several minutes there had been four customers in the inn, for a sudden sharpening of all thought, a mood greater than the sum of the personalities involved, made itself felt as a roving perspective of mind-sniffing.
Yet it was not the dark-browed newcomer who spoke to break the silence. Words came from a different quarter. Behind the counter, the landlord of the inn, the bolster-shaped Therff, blinked with sad eyes and said:
"I foretell, we must take heed."
"'We'?" asked Gheren.
Therff said with another mournful blink, "I don't know how well you understand us, you man of Sombax."
"Why should I not? You work hard, and so do I," snorted Gheren.
"Yes but you are an intellectual from Sombax with a library of maps; we of Oblannerad, on the other hand, toil in the open air. Thus we endure more than our fair share of the Moraar's... curious itch."
At that point, the nameless stranger muttered an indistinct assent.
Therff heard it and turned to address him:
"You, sponndar, you feel it too?"
"Certainly," said the heavy-cloaked man. Resonantly he mused, "This area feels... transparent."
"Oaaaah," said Therff. "It takes a foreigner to put it so well. But listen, stranger, we'd rather you didn't put it TOO well. If you've heard what we Moraar folk are like, you know what we don't like to hear."
Strao Gheren interceded, "Drop it, Therff."
Shaking his head, the landlord insisted, "I have my reasons. Stranger, folk from other lands think we're stupid believers in infantile legends; like, they think we think that Yimdian invaders from way back are still lurking underground. Yet given that there is, in fact, truly something odd about the Moraar, a mind-achy feel as if some intruding space is about to ooze into the here and now, what else can you expect? I'll be frank with you, stranger - this land is humiliated by legends, and our cup of toleration is just about full. Now tell us who you are."
The stranger bowed his head. The others became aware of his private agony of embarrassment. They could easily guess that, like many a newcomer to the region, he had forgotten who he was. They, unlike he, knew it was a temporary condition.
Then - Skies! it always was a gladdening sight - they watched his face brighten with relief!
The problem had simply sneaked away as the amnesiac mood of the Plain dissolved with the aid of conversation. With smiles encouraging him, he could breathe calmly and tell them:
"I am Yadon, a voyager from Ao."
"Welcome, sponndar Yadon," said Therff amidst the others' greetings.
They then waited for more.
"I was a culler, in a netter crew," he explained. "Had some luck; helped catch a few evidencer clouds; but after a while I wanted a change, so I left my ship, and here I am."
This whetted their appetite; they expected Yadon to recount tales from his journeys, or show interest in their lives in some respectful way, to pay more of his social due.
"Sponndar Therff," he began with a concerned question, "if I am correct in my understanding that this is a troubled place, what do you hope will happen?"
Therff's reply was blunt. "We ought to get out."
All eyes swung to aim at the landlord. Yadon was forgotten as demands were fired at Therff: "What's this?" "What do you mean, 'get out'?"
"I mean, leave the area," Therff grimly replied. "Permanently."
"After we've lived here all our lives?" asked Devlel.
Estunu joined in, "Abandon our homes? Break our hearts..."
"Plok," said Therff rudely. "All of Syoom is our home. I have been pondering the matter for some time."
"But," objected Devlel, "if we were to go and live somewhere else - "
"Look. People may say - " (Therff frowned at Gheren) "that Oblannerad is a 'gum town', dependent upon the Wood. Be it so; nevertheless there are other 'gum towns' in the world, other areas which depend upon silviculture for their livelihood, and which are not stuck like we are in the midst of a plain which plagues us with irritating effects. We could even start up an entirely new settlement all for ourselves - I'm sure that not all of the marescent woods are taken. We have skills, in short, that could be used elsewhere to earn us a living. I say, let's leave. We can do better than this. We don't have to stay where people will always think of us as credulous children."
Yadon alone remained silent while they argued. He could not know all the background to the dispute but, in hearkening to his mind's lower regions where listening becomes watching and where the deep eye roves, he could range around the arena where the silhouettes of attitudes, aims, desires and fears swipe and edge and poke at each other in a blind effort to comb out their tangled fates...
It was, at first, no more than a spectacle for him: he wished these people well, but their community's problems were not his.
Only after some ten minutes of discussion had gone did he begin to see himself as a shape in the picture, a shape in some way important, to judge from the stolen glances in his direction... Underneath the sometimes strident arguments he could sense a muffled throwing of emotional pillows; of grumbles of anxiety less fraught than they sounded; of whiffs of pretend-despair. It all amounted to fantastic proof that their hopes were being pinned upon a chance arrival, namely, himself.
So, a fate-current had picked on him. Such was the way things happened on Ooranye.
Well, he had best conform, if he wished to retain their goodwill. For now it had become more than a mere matter for his curiosity. Having rested, having recovered his memory, he woke to the practicalities. He was a grounded wanderer who had lost his skimmer and needed material help.
Besides, he sniffed a further, more enticing chance, that he might show these people how it just might be possible, even in this remote, mystery-ridden place, to confront instead of evade; to go not round but through.
While he chewed on that notion, the moment came, when their faces all turned to him. Again the time had come for him to contribute.
"This mossongunain thing..." he asked, "is it really so impossible to know?"
"'To know?'" echoed Strao Gheren dubiously.
"I mean, to know what it was all about," was Yadon's equable reply.
Strao Gheren frowned, "When the five minutes are over, that is that: the memory is gone and you don't get it back. That's the discipline of it. That way, you don't 'know' - instead, you survive. You must be from far away, sponndar Yadon. Further than Ao."
"It's hard to know everything," Yadon smiled disarmingly. "But go on; I want to make up for lost study-time." He heard chuckles which reassured him.
Therff put in, "Of course the temptation exists, to break the conditioning; but who would wish to flout it? It evolved for a reason."
Devlel slapped on a further layer of reproof: "You, sponndar Yadon from Ao, what were you getting at? Is it in your mind to throw off a discipline that protects us?"
"Easy, easy," replied Yadon - thoughtlessly, in English.
They stared, puzzled, but the syllables, in a tongue that none of them knew, were uttered in a placatory tone.
"I simply suggest," the mysterious stranger went on, now in the language of the place, "that the glimpse gained by sponndar Strao Gheren might also be granted to another climber of the Ridge. That's to say, perhaps somebody else might seek, and win, another five-minute dose of knowledge. In fact..." he added with serenity as he rose from his chair, "I reckon I need to learn stuff."
"You?" "What will you do?" they cried as they saw him head for the door.
He turned and spoke, "Ask rather, what I will not do. I won't dodge."
These words had a tumultuous effect upon the feelings of his hearers, up-churning an awareness that the flow of fate had burst its usual banks. No one was sure enough to stop Yadon from striding out the door of the Niffomb Ollog, which he did, ignoring the voices which were raised behind him.
A different sound, that of hurrying footsteps, made him turn his head.
Devlel caught up and said, "You'll find the path quicker, Yadon, with me to help you."
"Thanks," he said simply, "I will appreciate it, if you show me the shortest way to the top."
Her eyes lifted briefly to the sky-line. "I've never been up there," she remarked, falling into step beside him as headed for the Krokkembar; "never felt bothered to go. But the beginning of the path is not hard to find, for a native like me."
"And now you are bothered to go up," Yadon remarked with a sidelong glance at the woman.
In a tone at once baffled and caustic she replied: "I'd be embarrassed on behalf of my homeland if I allowed a visitor to lurch alone into trouble. Somebody needs to watch over you. A task which falls to me - since Gheren plainly does not wish for another climb, a fact which tends to suggest that he wouldn't be any use up there anyway. So it is my turn to leave him behind."
"Isn't it?" She compressed her lips. Then she added, "And interesting, likewise, is your style, sponndar 'no-dodge' Yadon."
It was not far to the very foot of the slope.
"And over there's the path," she beamed. "See, it winds all the way up the Krokkembar's flank."
Eyeing the zig-zag, Yadon observed that its chalky pallor became indistinct beyond the next two turns, and invisible thereafter; nevertheless its regularity promised its continuance.
"Ready?" said the woman. "Then up we go."
The way was wide enough for Devlel to trudge beside him, and now and then she scrutinized his rugged profile, which showed no great physical difference from that of any tough wanderer; Yadon's skin was no rougher, no greyer than that of the average Nenn -
But a contrail of mood eddied about him, a swarthiness of will, influencing what she saw.
"Yadon," she broke silence, "where are you really from?"
She caught the side-gleam of a smile as he replied, "Olhoav."
"Olhoav!? Isn't that - "
"Broken Skies!" she ejaculated.
"That's it," he agreed.
"You really have wandered here all the way from Starside?"
That silenced her for a while.
"And when," she presently said, "we get to see the Logician, what will you do? Will we learn that your 'not to dodge' brings out something from your heritage on Starside?"
"Ahhh," he breathed, and murmured, "something from my heritage..."
He spoke no more until they reached the top.
Along its final stretch the path became smudged, until it petered out into the light soil. In this uppermost region Yadon began to deviate from his route, so that he no longer aimed directly at the summit observatory, but at a point about fifty yards to the right of that edifice.
Perhaps, thought Devlel, he intended to gauge the lie of the land before he faced the Logician. She followed the swerve without comment. She still had not made up her mind whether she liked or disliked Yadon. Or maybe the Starsider ought rather to be considered as a force beyond her likes or dislikes: an object of impersonal fascination.
Gaining the summit, they halted to gulp cool air into their lungs, while the panorama embraced them as such vistas were bound to do, inundating their thoughts and feelings, enticing their vision with the distant hues and forms of the plain and the other ridges of the Moraar, and soaking their souls in the bath of contemplation which solaces the wayfarers of Ooranye.
Little notions as well as big ones, fanciful comparisons and questions of scale, are apt to play about in one's head, on such heights... For instance, here the line on which the walkers stood was about five yards in width, hence, 'razor'-ridge was no longer quite such an appropriate term when the edge was viewed so close, yet nevertheless a microbe crawling onto the edge of a real blade would relate in comparable proportion, so maybe it was a true metaphor after all... Turning round and about, Delvel felt a sudden affection for her companion, he being likewise moved by splendours and curiosities.
Only so much affection, though, and no more. The breezy thrill of Yadon's presence was too harsh and eerie for romance. His companionship offered satisfaction of a rarer, nameless kind.
Give him that other credit, then, she told herself. He had furnished the excuse that had brought her here. Never before had she bothered to climb this ridge; she'd taken it for granted all her life. And now she knew that the impetus would never have come from Strao Gheren. The cartographer had shrunk in her perspective... Strao was predictable compared with Yadon.
The man from Starside, meanwhile, had stepped to the ridge's further side.
Desirous of knowing what had caught his attention, she trotted over to join him.
He asked, gazing down, "Do you see what I see?"
She shrugged, "Those few stick-shapes scattered on the plain? Abandoned skimmers." Then she straightened and turned round, uneasy about taking her eyes off the observatory for too many moments at once. It was inadvisable, she felt, to give the Logician an opportunity to approach them unnoticed.
"Yes, but," insisted Yadon, still intent on the scene below, "what kind of accident leads to undamaged vehicles being abandoned - and no bodies visible? What could fit those facts?"
"Rather than brood about it, look there," and she touched Yadon's sleeve so as to bring him round to face the porch of the observatory.
The form which had emerged from between the pillars, was one from which she expected to recoil, to flinch, to squirm - for it roused the memory of an affront which had lain sore in her mind for a couple of thousand days.
Indeed the awakened memory rushed at her, snatching at her wits; her attention was enveloped. Oh, the supreme embarrassment of that never-forgotten occasion, which now almost caused her to growl!
She had been a young, eagerly curious girl when the arrogant forg, Laro Hing, had for once descended to give talks and answer questions from the folk of Oblannerad. Some of them he had answered quite fairly. But not hers!
Yet even as she winced anew, the old memory went out of focus; its grip faltered, slackened, lost all its immediacy; the hot shame lost precision, the embarrassment unexpectedly died.
She couldn't even clearly recall, now, what her public question had been. She only knew it had been perfectly sensible, and had not deserved the put-down he'd issued; and now - she suddenly realized - she couldn't really remember the put-down itself. Something about "I haven't time to teach" - but no further details. Wondrous how it now mattered so little! It was as though it had been thrown right out of her brain-storage and the space used for other things.
Now, she was big with a new mood of self-assertion while the scruffy savant took a step towards them.
"He's decided, he's coming towards us," she said to Yadon. "Should we meet him half-way?"
"I think not," her companion replied. "Let's wait for him to show us what he wants."
Either way, it suited Devlel.
Ten yards off and closing, Laro Hing boomed, "Skimmjard, sponndarou!" Next, at half that distance he halted, his stance wide, suggesting a reflex urge to block them off should they try to reach his door. Slightly less loudly, he spoke again. "This is remarkably soon after the previous visitor," he declared; "perhaps Strao Gheren had forgotten something?"
"Perhaps," said Yadon. "Skimmjard to you, Logician L-H. This is Devlel..."
"The lady I recognize..."
Those words, to Delvel's further astonishment, were respectfully pronounced. The lady I recognize... And not only the tone was level. In the lines around the Logician's lips, no quirk could she find, of that condescension which she had expected from Laro Hing. She was drawn back to re-interpret what had happened before. A chunk of her life evidently required revision! Flabbergasting how she could have been so wrong for such a stretch of days!
"...but who are you?" the Logician continued.
"My name is Yadon," said the Olhoavan, "and I am here out of curiosity."
"So you must be, since you bring no artefacts with you; nothing for me to work on."
This sounded like a rebuke for wasting the savant's time, yet Devlel felt no anxiety on Yadon's behalf. Rather, her heart hammered in her breast with concern for for the feelings of Laro Hing. What in the world was going on inside her? Rapport with that two-named forg! Distance from her single-named companion! She still admired Yadon, but her concern was all the other way. She felt no apprehension for what trouble the Starsider might get into.
Yadon was saying to Laro Hing, "Can you tell me about those skimmers down there? They're lying like wrecks, but they look to be in good condition."
"And if you were to take one," remarked the other, "the former owners would certainly not claim that you had robbed them."
So, thought both listeners, the owners had fled. The implication was one which no Wayfarer could ignore.
"I'd need more of the story, first."
Laro Hing shrugged. "Not much I can tell. Losing control, they were lucky to make forced landings and walk away. I repeat: nobody will object if you descend to scavenge in the Nefforlank."
"That mere patch of plain? The 'Worst Place'?"
"That's what it's called nowadays."
"Not a name to encourage scavengers," said Yadon dryly. "Yet not a great surprise, I'd say, in the eerie Moraar. To be blunt, I'd call it Creepy-land. Why," he persisted, "this peculiarity of the area?"
The other two looked on him with surprise.
"You surely did not climb all the way up here to ask me a question like that," scoffed the Logician.
"But is the question not valid?"
Laro Hing gazed in true astonishment.
"Sponndar Yadon, one is tempted to ask, what planet did you come from? Oh well," with a quirk of the brow, "I suppose I should not be surprised at the attitudes which can spring up in out-of-the-way places..."
"I am from Olhoav, in Starside."
That announcement gave the Logician pause. The sardonic incredulity dropped from his tone.
"Wonderful," he mused in a raw, brittle voice. "Wonderful also, that I believe you."
It was a turning point in the interview, but decreasing attention was paid to it by Devlel, concurrently occupied with a new understanding of herself, which shone a torch upon her real motivation for escorting Yadon up here.
It hadn't really been to consult with Laro Hing about the mysteries of the Moraar, in the hope that the Starsider's input might somehow make emigration from the area unnecessary; that was just a transient excuse. No, her real reason for this jaunt up the Ridge was -
That she loved a two-namer; and his name was not Strao Gheren, but Laro Hing. Of course!
(Love was the trick of getting the name right at long last...)
Meanwhile the Logician seemed jittery as he spoke to Yadon:
"...Your habit of deep questions is, shall we say, peculiar, but I suppose that Starside is so far away, that to hail from there might be like being from another world... But surely, some truths must remain the same, anywhere on Ooranye, even on its sunless side. Surely, mysteries must be accepted, not plumbed. Wherever you are on this un-tameable world, you must know that we cannot master it (and even if we somehow could, the World Spirit would intervene and subdue us...)"
Could be be arguing against himself? Trying - wondered Devlel - to wrestle against a new hope? Might the stranger from Starside actually be a crisis-resolving rescuer?
Yadon meanwhile wrapped his cloak closer about him as the wind on the ridge sought to billow it out, while he mused aloud:
"I have learned to imagine, like one can picture things in a dream - that it might be possible to proceed in the fashion of a smaller, safer, more comfortable world."
"Why?" muttered Laro Hing. "Why play games about some other world?"
"Because that way we could inspire ourselves to tackle mysteries directly, and not dodge; dart not round but through."
"A strange dream," remarked the Logician. "Is it not wiser to be practical? Ours is an overwhelming planet; that is a fact which we cannot escape."
"Let me tell you, I've escaped from a lot," said Yadon.
"No doubt you have," acknowledged the Logician, sizing up the tall, swarthy Starsider; "but not from the entire world. Not from the plenitude of mysteries which cannot be tamed. It's not good, you know, to ignore how things really are. Imagine you're riding an air-current between the peaks of a mountain range: each peak must be accepted as it is, and evaded as it is, so that you weave around them."
"Or you can land," Yadon pointed out.
"Oh, huh," chuckled the Logician wildly, "spoil my figure of speech if you like. Come and see something; come, both of you; welcome to my home."
It was heartily said, but as she followed the two men, Devlel's enhanced perception identified a cometary tail of fear as the Logician strode. Grown familiar and dull, the fear had been sparked into renewed life - by the unexpected hope of getting rid of it. Precarious, that enlivened hope! Re-born, it bawled at the prospect of disappointment! In such a case, anything that looked like a lifeline must be seized. Laro must shortly dare the Olhoavan to attempt the unthinkable.
She saw all this; saw it because, in this flex of the narrative, hers were the hidden snake-eyes of destiny; hers the viewpoint flame.
To enter the observatory was to exchange the open sky for a grey ceiling and four grey walls with small windows; yet somehow Devlel did not feel shut in, even though the structure, looming about her, seemed sturdy enough in a material sense, although exposed atop a windy ridge. The breeze which sighed and whistled outside the walls, and seeped under the door, did not rattle the structure physically, for it was solid and strong, but so many mysteries and secrets must crouch within the volume the walls enclosed, as to suggest a porous border with infinity. A fitting home for a savant, thought Devlel admiringly, though an hour ago she would have scornfully dismissed it as a dingy shed unfit for habitation.
Happily she accepted the invitation to sit on a swivel-chair beside Yadon's. Whereas he straightaway took to examining a bulky contraption on the adjacent table, she swivelled to gaze around the interior, while their host went off into an alcove to pour drinks.
The walls were lined with scuffy shelves, holding an untidy assortment of box-files, books and artefacts; the surfaces of the benches and tables were scratched and nothing was polished; in an endearing sacrifice for knowledge, all must be for use and nought for show. Devlel fondly glimpsed, through an open inner door that must lead to Laro Hing's bedroom, what looked like some furs heaped on an austere pallet, and the sight further warmed her heart. Life could be enjoyable up here, amid a lonely dedication which, if her fate ran true, she would soon arrange to become less lonely... Quickly she looked up, for the Logician was back, offering glasses of myyix to her and to Yadon. Smiling her thanks as she took her drink, she said, "Sponndar L-H, we've missed you, in town."
"Really?" the Logician smiled back.
"Yes, really. You find what I say hard to believe... and I admit it's true that we've taken you too much for granted. I have, myself. But this won't continue. We can't afford it. We need you."
At this point she glanced at Yadon for confirmation. Reassured by his attentive mien, she continued with her appeal to the Logician, "You're a savant. We should look to you for help. You see, sponndar L-H, today I've heard talk that some of us - some local townsfolk - are thinking of emigrating."
Laro Hing belatedly took a seat, and with a sigh he responded, "It's the 'silent noise', is it not?"
Few words; yet due to the confident understanding with which they were spoken, without hesitation she was able to grasp them as proof that they clicked with the topic she intended to raise, namely the routine and persistent low-key eeriness of the Moraar, the perpetual haunting of her homeland. She looked the Logician in the eye and said, "Precisely; and you are one with us in this matter."
"Without a doubt. We - all the folk of these parts - have lived from time immemorial with the mystery of the Plain. At times it rather wears us down." Then, to Yadon: "Sponndar, you as a stranger from afar perhaps don't get the 'silent noise'."
"Oh but I do," the latter shook his head. "I'd judge it a perfect description... having recently walked a way through the Moraar. Far superior to my term 'Creepy-Land'."
"We might as well admit both appellations," shrugged the Logician. "The whole area known as the Moraar is soaked, sodden with an eerieness which has never been described, let alone explained. We usually cope because we can contextualize it. We do that by telling ourselves that such regional 'haunting' is bound to occur upon the surface of a giant ancient world which has been worked over for so many aeons by powerful forces and therefore, so to speak, thinned... That's the general excuse."
"And do we leave it at that?" smiled Yadon.
With a short laugh the Logician went on, "I'd prefer to. But some people blame me personally."
Yadon's lip curled in scepticism. "Blame you for the 'silent noise'?"
"Well, for making it worse. Yes, indeed."
"But - you're only a human being."
"A meddler. Devlel will tell you. People have said that I've done or caused something which has filtered down from my height, to bother folks down below. My irresponsible prying, they say - or they hint - has disturbed the plain."
Devlel brightly remarked, "What nonsense people talk, sponndar, when they can't make up their inconsistent minds. They shouldn't accord you the title Logician, if they think you're as foolish as that."
Laro Hing chuckled more gently than before, "Thank you, Devlel! I'll count you as a colleague!"
"I could be that; I shouldn't find it too hard," she seriously replied. "I heard you once say, 'A' is not 'not-A', and from that truth, everything flows."
Laro Hing leaned forward and, grinning, said, "The beauty of logic. Excellent stuff - but listen now; and you, Yadon-from-Starside, listen likewise. The beast is not slain."
His smile gone, he looked at them, waiting for the words to register in full.
"Emotion?" suggested Yadon.
"Irrational fear." Laro Hing shifted in his chair.
"Well," said Yadon, "you of all people ought to have an idea of what to do about that..."
"Logic works upon statements. But statements don't always have to be made with the mouth."
"I often make them with a smile," remarked Devlel sweetly.
"That's good," said her host, "and I mean it. In smiling, you're making a real point, but although you, in your remark just now, hoped to lighten the tone, you did not."
"That's a pity," Devlel whispered.
"Qualitative statements," nodded Laro Hing, "are still statements, and hence, emotions are admissions of belief. The truth thus comes smashing in: fear is not mere feeling, fear is a statement," and the man's voice thrummed as though in an intensified struggle to disbelieve his own words.
"You mean, all fears are justified?" asked Yadon.
"Yes," was the dull response.
Yadon looked dubious, while Devlel, for her part, could only listen without believing.
Laro Hing ruminated: "It happens all the time. Say you reach one conclusion according to your logic-code, while you reach another, different conclusion according to your emotion-code: then you are not merely being incoherent, you are actively contradicting yourself. As soon as I realized that I was doing this, I was aware that up till that moment I had not been a proper logician at all."
Yadon murmured, "Perhaps nobody is..."
With a chopping gesture Laro Hing pressed on, "If, in my profession, fear is not aligned with calm reason, then that is tantamount to saying that 'A' and 'Not-A' do, after all, co-exist. Since that cannot be, the duty of the logician is crystal clear: if he cannot suppress, he must believe the fear."
"I see where you're headed," said Yadon. "You believe that a 'haunting atmosphere' must be a warning of real danger. All right," and he clanged the words so that Devlel swung round to look at him, swung back and looked at the Logician... who appeared not to have taken offence at the Olhoavan's peremptory tone.
This was the point at which Devlel pictured Yadon as a ticking timer, Yadon, Yadon, Yadon, a metronome in reference to whom the proceedings around him must thump in tempo.
Yadon pointed to the scanscope.
Laro Hing, obedient to the intention, invited his guest to sit and learn to operate the controls...
During the following few minutes the Olhoavan familiarised himself with the dials on the screen's boxlike base-stand. At one point he rubbed his fingers together, saying inconsequentially, "The surface of this thing feels... soapy."
"The whole apparatus is coated," said Laro Hing, "with a microscopic layer of frozen force."
"Won't get dusty through the aeons," quipped Yadon, while he practised exploring the Marescent Wood by remote control. Then - this short training having sufficed - he twiddled the dials to shift the televisual focus away from the Wood.
Now the aim veered onto the bare plain.
Laro Hing murmured, "No use. It's been tried. You won't find any answers on the empty terrain. I wish one could. I, too, feel that the scanscope is the key to it all... but, if it is, I've never managed to point it rightly."
"Reason in the abstract," Yadon murmured, continuing to adjust the controls, "must point beyond its own known use... and so must the scanscope! Ah... here we are."
On the screen, the mostly barren ground had become less blurred. This was because the tufts and pebbles were panning past more slowly than before; the sweep of the 'scope's field of view was decelerating, its chosen focus shifting towards... a patch of plain strewn with abandoned skimmers.
Belatedly the Logician understood. With an edge to his voice he said, "You're onto the Nefforlank."
"Might as well give it a try."
"But... all right, it's where those skimmers crashed, but apart from that, it's just an ordinary patch of the Moraar, so why waste time examining it?"
With an incredulous lift of the brows Yadon said, "You mean, you haven't got round to it yet? Seems to me, any place that's dubbed the 'Worst' must be worth a look." Silence greeted his words. Once again the Starsider had unnerved his audience with his yen to probe rather than dodge.
It sounded unfair. One simply had to dodge, in order to pilot one's way through life on a giant world. How insane to risk the opposite! Mad it would be, to hurtle knowingly into the flank of one of the countless prowling enigmas of Ooranye.
Still, in any case it looked for a while as though Yadon's meddling would lead nowhere. Minutes went by without his investigation revealing anything profound. Fingers on dials can only twiddle so much. If the result is merely to magnify a blank area of plain, so that grains of gralm look bigger while naught else appears, the result is a demonstration in futility.
"What did I tell you? Nothing there," remarked Laro Hing.
"And what about underground?"
"Ah, yes, the supposed Yimdian invaders lurking underground," said Laro Hing tiredly. "The tall tales we're supposed to frighten our children with. You're out of date. Nowadays we Moraarans mock all that stuff as much as foreigners do. Nothing underground except ice. Otherwise - you can be assured - we'd know about it by this time!"
"Yes, yes," growled Yadon, "that stands to reason. But, forget underground. What about surface space-stretching?"
"An area can be expanded while keeping the same restricted circumference. History knows of it. Think of the Gold Era Quest for Solor - "
Laro nodded reluctantly. "All right. Records exist, yes, of that feat being performed... Hmm, you Olhoavans must be well-read in the history of Ooranye."
"The library in the Zveggh-Yerrand is quite good," Yadon briefly grinned.
Devlel meanwhile settled into a comfortable certainty, in which the over-all shape of what must happen became clear. On the crest of this situational wave the moment must come, when she'd hear the word mossongunain, after which, she envisaged, the five allotted minutes would be devoted to some technical revelation. That would count as the solution, lancing the boil of disquiet. Afterwards everyone would feel so much better, that the problem of the Moraar would exist no more, nobody would need to emigrate, and she and Laro would bask together in this triumphant phase of their life-stories.
One detail remained uncertain. Whose voice would spark the climax?
It might well be Laro: he'd pronounced the word before; he could do it again. However, on the whole Devlel was inclined to suspect that Yadon the wanderer was the appropriate episode-clincher. He seemed the type to wrap it all up before moving on.
Anyway, mossongunain would be uttered, of that she was sure. And since she herself had no intention of pronouncing it, and since there was no fourth person present, it would have to be one of the two men.
Only - the minutes went on and neither of them said it.
Yadon, turning the dials without results, was becoming restless. Presently he let his hands fall and pensively sat back. Eyeing the scanscope as a whole, he asked:
"What are those hand-moulded bumps on the sides of this thing?"
"The palm-holds?" Laro Hing chuckled. "Try placing your hands on them, one hand on each." For a minute he watched the Starsider try.
"Invisible repulsion," muttered Yadon, his attempted grip being bounced aside to right and left. "More than soapy - it's cushiony, only I can't see the cushions."
"See, you can't get to it that way. Try harder if you like."
Yadon duly increased his efforts to touch the mid-patches on the right and left flanks of the gadget's control-box, but the greater the effort he put in, the greater the invisible resistance his palms encountered.
Patiently he asked, "What's the point, then, of these... appurtenances which one can't reach to touch?"
Laro Hing smiled, "What's the point of asking what's the point? Starsider though you are, you surely know the way of the world as well as I do."
Yadon echoed testily, "The way of the world." He seemed about to shrug, but Devlel caught a flicker on his face: stark rejection was imminent.
Yadon clapped his palms against the scanscope box-stand's "ears" with a force and an audacity quite savage compared with his previous try. This time he achieved a result. An imagined "pop" like that of a burst bag caused Devlel to blink. When her eyes re-focused she saw that Yadon's hands now successfully grasped the holds which had seemed unattainable a moment ago. He had them in a kind of... helmsman's grip: the thought pecked at Devlel, that it was the grip of a fate-driven pioneer, a traverser of voids who could smash any old psychological barrier erected by the "way of the world". Devlel gazed with awe at the Starsider... until the scanscope screen itself drew her full attention.
Its circular view was now divided by three equally spaced radii into three separate views, all of them utterly different from the featureless plain that had covered the entire display an instant before.
Devlel's gaze was immediately drawn to the lower-left third. She would have preferred to tear her eyes away from that image and give it instead to either of the other two thirds, but she dared not do so, not even for a moment; dared not refuse to be shown what was erupting from the plain.
To see that writhing spout, funnelling up, was to give way to some dreadful though vague belief; whatever the thing might be, it could not be viewed neutrally. The notion it gave was of a peering, eye-on-stalk probe that thrashed about in closer and closer sweeps at the observatory. And its crown shone brighter with each sweep. That blunt and glowing tip was revealed, more and more clearly, to be a matching screen, a twin to that of the scanscope itself.
On the screen-within-a-screen mouthed a blue head with deeper blue eyes. Crowding to either side of it, other similar faces jostled in the background of the picture.
Laro Hing tore his gaze from it, dashed to the window of the observatory and cried, "All illusion! Nothing out there!"
For a moment or two Devlel's heart beat with gladness because, from where she sat, she could hope that he was right: if she made the effort she could turn her head sufficiently, to see for herself that no visible monstrosity was actually lurching up from the plain. In truth, nothing would seem amiss, were it not for what was on the scanscope screen.
Again the Logician insisted, "Nothing's really happening!"
The quiet man at the controls, though, showed no interest in those words.
Desperate for vocal agreement, Laro shouted, "Did you hear me, Yadon? It's not happening!"
"You think I've triggered a recording, perhaps?" asked the Starsider with innocent calm, not taking his eyes off the screen.
"Possibly," gasped the Logician, striving to master himself. "Anyhow it's only one of the three..."
Indeed the other two thirds of the scanscope's field of view promised some quite different fare. To lock eyes with that other stuff, it would be necessary to tear one's attention from the approaching face on the brandished screen-within-a-screen.
If only one could. It would be a relief. The globular head, human after a fashion, though with skin coloured royal blue instead of Uranian grey, bulged with authority, its lips lips pursing and unpursing with repeated and urgent commands, while the background heads mouthed excitedly to each side. Though the image was soundless, and no known words could be lip-read from it, the sense of the oral contortions was plainly conveyed: Let us out - let us out - let us out -
The picture swayed as the screen-within-a-screen tilted on its approach, seeking to fit with exactitude into the scanscope's field of view... seconds away from a precise match.
"Should we let this happen?" wheezed the Logician hoarsely. He took an uncertain step towards Yadon who still brooded at the palm-controls which he had activated without knowing how to use. Again, in a hoarse, jerky whisper: "Yadon, listen - should we let this happen?"
"Let what happen?"
Then, click! - it was too late to prevent the juncture; the two screens were one; the blue faces filled the lower-left third, mouthing their commands in what was now a steady picture.
Devlel obscurely smelled something bogus about the whole dramatic rendezvous. She suspected that the eruption of the spout bearing the approaching picture had in actual fact been a mere emblem or logotype. Nothing of the kind had really happened; the show was just to facilitate reception by ordinary mortals... Well, be that as it may, the faces had arrived. The "click" of their arrival moreover permitted her, for some reason, to widen her attention. She could now examine the other two thirds of the circular view.
Those portions had been comparatively calm. They had blazed from the start with clarity of outline and steady, dazzling, density of meaning.
Her understanding gulped first at the upper sector which showed a vast purple mountain-scape. To look at it was to be convinced, one was staring into a scene upon a mighty world. The sense of wonder and grandeur was so strong, it swamped the appreciation of detail, but Devlel grasped that the sky was crossed by a gigantic banded arc. It glowed, it shed its pale light down onto a pass, a route gouged through a tract of mountain... The route appeared to link one whitish misty lowland hollow to another; and through the pass, in slow motion, crawled a dusting of lights, which must mean a host of vehicles or illuminated creatures...
The lower-right scene was quite different. It was much flatter, and it lacked that super-charged quality which made the upper image so much more impressive than the sum of its colours and shapes. But the lesser landscape had its own silent emotional speech to make. Its sadder visual utterance came from a modestly removed horizon between pale ground and pale sky. Circumscribed withing these closer limits, some figures could be seen, their wanderings strung bead-like along dim roads in a filigree of intermittent threads.
Devlel suddenly noticed with horror that the gadget itself, the scanscope, was bordered, surrounded, haloed by a fuzz like incandescent steel wool.
"Don't do it, Yadon!" shouted Laro Hing.
The moody Starsider had stood up and put his arms around the scanscope as if to heave it. The stretched moment oozed and Laro Hing gabbled on through syrupy nightmare: "Don't throw it to them! You'll betray the world! Old machines - can't be trusted - not just for seeing but doing! Aliens are getting at you, Yadon, backtrack or I'll shoot, I see it all now - "
No, thought Devlel; you won't beat this Starsider to a laser-draw. Even if his hands are full of scanscope and yours are free, he'll be more than a match for you in that department. Please, please don't try it, Laro.
She herself might have acted if she had been totally convinced that Laro had read the situation correctly. As it was, transfixed with fear and indecision, doubting both men but hugely respecting Yadon's power, she could only stare into the scanscope's "halo" which had now manifested itself as a kind of gateway in the air.
Well could she guess, that anything thrown through it would reach into the Nefforlank's space-stretched pocket.
That, they all now saw, was a beachhead held by the ancient invaders who were beckoning in their urge to break out; but what to do? The situation had become frighteningly understandable. Even an ordinary Uranian, schooled necessarily by existence on a giant world, knows enough to recognize what slinks in the costume of circumstance, and the game of life and death is to read the imagery before it harries and destroys you. Thus you rise to the moment and guess:
The Yimdians invaded in pre-human times, and met with resistance. Whatever beings may have inhabited Ooranye in those days were able to contain the invasion inside its beachhead. Devlel could figure that, somehow, the scanscope was the key to confining or releasing the Yimdians. Whether it is one of our world's artifacts or one of theirs, either way, it's the "draw-string of the bag" that keeps them within the space-stretched bounds of the Nefforlank. Yes, but - now what?
Yadon seemed to know. He hefted the scanscope, lifting it high, uncovering in full the "halo" behind it, the door in the air. "Don't interfere with me, Logician," he gritted.
Laro Hing snarled and fumbled to draw his laser.
Yadon with a twist of his body hurled the scanscope through the door as Laro found his weapon and aimed to fire -
MOSSONGUNAIN, resounded a voice so penetrating and immense, that all thought and action in the room was frozen.
Devlel could neither ask herself what Voice that was, nor believe that she did not know. Of all recognitions compelled at a cellular level, that of the Uranian planetary intelligence, the World Spirit, is the rarest and most unmistakable. To avoid being stunned by the idea, that the source of the communication her own ears had just heard was the greatest and rarest in history, she could only sit as if in a waking dream.
Likewise dreamily accepting, Laro and Yadon, slumped on chairs, exchanged words in short, exhausted sentences.
Laro, panting, spoke first.
"You threw it." Rather than mention the Voice, he could only bring himself to remark on what Yadon had done, for the irrevocable fact was, the scanscope was gone, and so was the haloed fuzz, the gate that had shut behind it. "You threw it," he repeated. "They have it now."
"What I did is all I did."
"I mean I didn't do anything else," said Yadon, sitting back with eyes closed.
Yadon opened his eyes and managed a wan smile. He seemed less stunned than Laro.
"It's like if someone at the bottom of a well asks you to throw down a rope. If you don't want him to get out, but can't disobey, what do you do?"
"You throw him the whole rope, of course. Both ends. So it's no use to him. He's trapped, forever."
Laro Hing nodded finally. "You did right, I see."
"And now," remarked Yadon, "we have the luxury of pitying them..."
"Yes, maybe. Pity them, even through they tried to invade our world." Laro Hing rested and then stirred, "But what I don't like is, they still have their stretched space. They can stretch it more. Their 'bag', though they can never open it, can get bigger..."
"Well, let it. Makes no difference to us. Given that they can't get out."
The talk died down again. They sat in long silence, energies drained not so much by the crisis as by that Voice that had spoken at the end.
It was, they all realized, the voice that had only been known to speak a few times in the entire history of the world. The voice whose nature and purpose raised staggering questions -
But perhaps, thought Devlel, those questions aren't going to get asked, since that's the point of "mossongunain". With cosmic humour, the Voice had ensured its oblivion after its work had been done.
In fact, she realized, I feel the dream fading... It's lasted maybe a bit more than five minutes but now it's... it's... it's...
Yadon shifted in his chair. "It's time for farewells, I think," he said. "I'll be getting one of those skimmers which you say, Logician, are free for the taking. Thanks for inviting me here. And to you, Devlel, thanks for conducting me here."
Thank you, she thought with a surge of affection, for triggering my happiness. Aloud, she said, "I'm sure we'll again be hearing from you, or hearing about you, before too long."
They followed him to the door, waved their farewell, and then turned to face each other. The face of the Logician was filled with wonder. "The tone, the look, in which you said 'we'..."
She nodded. "I'm staying," she said. "One wave over, another begun."
"I understand you!" he delightedly exclaimed. "Though as to how..."
A while later, watching from the ridge, Devlel and Laro Hing, arm in arm, contemplated the diminishing form of the Starsider descending the further slope of the Krokkembar.
Devlel said, "I trust he's going to be all right down there."
Laro smiled, "He will. 'Nefforlank' will be just a name, from now on. Not the 'Worst Place' any more."
Devlel agreed, but, so as mildly to tease her new lover, she expressed a bit more concern for the wanderer from Starside. "It's a bit soon, nevertheless, to tread that patch of ground..."
"Soon or not, he'll cope," said Laro matter-of-factly. "Better times are ahead, in fact, all over the Moraar. I can feel it already, can't you? The psychic radiation dying down. Now that the Yimdians will have to abandon their yearning for a breakout and, instead, make the most of the dimension they have created for themselves - "
"Thanks to you," said Devlel with a fond squeeze of his arm.
"Thanks to me!! What did I do?"
"You didn't shoot him," she said with a laugh.
"True," he laughed in return. "But so close to being not true... By the Skies, am I glad I thought better of it."
"Best thing you ever did," smiled Devlel.
They continued to watch the receding Starsider. It was a time for reflection, and Devlel listened with half an ear to Laro's recapitulation of the truth behind old legends.
Suddenly the woman smiled and waved.
Laro glanced at her in surprise. "He's not looking back. He can't see you."
"No, but now that he's a disappearing dot, I can properly breathe. The great, kind, fortunate catalyst; look at him go - my best wishes with him - and now let's heave a sigh of gratitude for what he's done, and of relief that he's gone."
TO BE CONTINUED IN
Uranian Throne Episode 18:
The Rash Down-Payment