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 which surrounds each one of them. Visitors however, while admiring the rock formations, find their mood affected more by the flatness of the miles between each jut; hence the term the "Plain" of the Moraar, and truly the plain dominates as you raise your eyes to take in the myriad sweeps of moss and beds of scrub, reflected in the many glistening shallows, as they blur into a yellowish distance.
Dampness is an unusual condition among the landscapes of Ooranye, a planet on which 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, a tall mature man, as he trudged through the seemingly limitless icy slush.
Tirelessly he plodded, yard after yard, his boots stained with the salt that prevents the upper inches of the Moraar from congealing into solid ice.
His broad shoulders were swathed in two cloaks; the outer cloak 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 in the wilderness by a vehicular malfunction.
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. It was therefore part of 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 against what threatened him the most. But only a crazed Wayfarer would cease to be watchful, so, whatever the risk, he must gaze around.
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. Still, he did not count himself entirely safe from a recurrence. Whenever he looked towards the horizon's smudged ribbon of crags, some arching infinity hovered, poised to blow his mind as had happened to him on one dire occasion in his youth thousands of days ago. Perhaps one day it would get him again... but that did not mean he would skulk with bowed head for the rest of his life. In defiance of the risk he raised his eyes to scan the closest flonga stap: a Razor-Ridge which reared just over half a mile ahead.
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. His interest was sharpened by a couple of signs of habitation. 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.
Yes, an inn. What relief. The entire landscape seemed all of a sudden tinged with humanity...
Having absorbed the first evidences of settlement 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 now 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 from that, and such an escape was something which was supposed never to happen, he might now be facing a sort of revenge for his cheating of Fate.
He had had many names, and the revenge exacted now was that he had forgotten them all. He was a Stranger even to himself.
"That picture is sharp," the visitor whistled.
The fascination was unfeigned and sincere. Cartographer Strao Gheren was genuinely impressed at the spy-gadget adorning the Logician's lair. It seemed a marvel of technology.
His tight-lipped host nodded curtly, keeping his eyes on the scanscope's circular screen.
A yard in diameter, the screen 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 wandering among the trees. 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 somehow like it's harder than reality, so to speak."
He was too busy admiring the screen to notice that the Logician winced.
The colourless response came: "Yes... it is effective. It enables me, between the visits of clients, to 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. Long dedicated to a sparse, fanatical existence ensconced up here atop the ridge, the fellow was known as 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 the pictures he scrutinised, or invite a 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..."
"Embellishments. Can you be specific?" The tone was flat, the 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."
"You are saying that the 'scope does more than simply provide a magnified view of the landscape down below."
Could it be fear that peeped through the man's eyes? Strao Gheren smiled away the idea.
"Seems we're agreed 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, his tone for the first time showing a bit of heat, "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 replied, wondering if he had gone too far.
However, bluntness of speech was a cultural characteristic of the Moraar, 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. "Imagine that you are walking through the Wood."
The visitor, drawn again to peer, could indeed visualise himself on the move among the knurled branches and their leaves which dangled like burst paper balloons. He actually went as far as to lift a hand as if needing to part those leaves so as to stop them from brushing against his face. Meanwhile his eyes caught glints of the hanging golden fruit which meant wealth for the townsfolk of Oblannerad.
"Impressive," he commented. "You're certainly not bound by the limits of line-of-sight observation."
"And be assured this is no recording."
"How is it done?" Gheren murmured.
The voice behind him said, "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. It was time he took his eyes off the screen.
"I could go on with this for hours," he said, straightening, "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... re-animations 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 ascertain. But you have done better than to tell me: you have shown me. I'm glad I happened along while you still had this one in your possession."
"Actually it's staying right here," commented Laro Hing in his neutral tone.
"Oh? The client...?"
"The 'scope is not a loan but a gift from the Noad of Jador, Sungon Dlaa. After using it for a while, he decided he no longer wished to keep it; so on his second visit he left it with me."
Following that anecdote, and encouraged by the Cartographer, the Logician talked some more about his work. He expanded upon the leaders and experts who came from all over Syoom to seek his advice on problems of Ghepion physiology and Fyayman relics; the scores of official skyships which had anchored on the ridge to disgorge their problematic cargo; and how, every time, the various gadgetary conundrums, which had made a snarled mess of others' practical efforts, yielded to the purity of method which was the secret of Laro Hing.
Strao Gheren, as he stowed these accounts in his capacious memory, reflected that he was being 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, it can't be much fun living alone up here and perhaps I too, if so situated, would get beclouded with nervous gloom.
Just imagine, - his train of thought pursued the idea - being isolated 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; three hundred and fifty million days; fourteen thousand consecutive human life-spans. Full contemplation of the accumulated culture layer during that colossal spate of Time's flow must stun any sensitive mind, quite apart from speculation on 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 these special regions harboured secrets so mind-bogglingly ancient as to date from before the first known era. That is, beyond the thread of historical narrative, the known story which extended unbroken back to Day One of Era One when the first Nenn, Lrar Verzak, had emerged from the prebiotic Lake of Dmara.
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.
If legend were to be believed, the Triple-Brained Horrors of Yimdi had gained a beachhead on the Moraar, before being forced underground -
Whenever the human mind was pestered with thoughts of that kind, the great thing was to kick them back downstairs. Not to correlate stuff; not to join the dots. Instead - kick 'em.
But the cartographer was beginning to doubt whether the Logician was wise enough to do that. There were occasional moments when the poor man appeared quite 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 are not from Oblannerad?" the Logician inquired. "That is my home town, and 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?"
"No, the reason I am here is because a top-rank cartographer, such as I, must chart not only the common and obvious but also the outstanding and unique. Like for instance the lair of an unusual savant atop the Krokkembar!" 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..." (Now where the flaming flunnd was this about to take him? Oh well, more bluntness was in order.) "...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. "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 too much through the scanscope screen?"
"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 what everybody may soon feel about the plain of the Moraar. I'm sorry, sponndar L-H. I didn't expect to say all this."
"No, but now you have..." A frown, a sudden dire promise in the configuration of the Logician's lips -
Gheren queasily summoned a mind-spell against overwhelm, one of the mental disciplines for survival on a baffling planet -
Far preferable would be sardonic scorn - but that man is about to form the syllable 'moss' -
Mossongunain. The Five-Minute Term.
It meant a brief liberty to say what ought normally not to be said. The idea behind mossongunain was: 'Give the thing 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 Krokkembar 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.
However, 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 mindwaves began to form, whereby all who were present began to sense 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. His smiles were neither perfunctory nor insincere. Yet something else was on his mind; something impersonally big.
"Are you fixed for drinks?" And when they nodded at him, he went to buy his own.
After that purchase, 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 of expressions followed, while the music-box repeated the song.
Devlel levelled her silent gaze at Gheren, her omitted words re-forming darkly in the silhouette of her annoyance. Gheren's awareness shaped into a shield equally unmistakable, the confidence of a man equipped with an excuse.
Thus, a draw. The mood-match was tied.
Devlel flinked a fingernail on her glass of myyix. She finally sighed, "How did you get on with Laro Hing?"
Gheren swallowed a strong mouthful, and replied: "He deserves his reputation. He gave me what I hoped for. My visit was a success."
"You look a bit nervous, though."
"No... I just need... flunnd," Gheren swore, suddently interrupting himself.
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 swept the Niffomb's interior with an inscrutable glance.
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 and the women. Evidently this stranger 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."
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, by which the user feels part of the scene at which it is aimed."
This glowing description aroused in the women 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 bluntly 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 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 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, 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 - I'm not sure what possessed me - to press him on the topic of the Moraar. As though he could do something about... about what we all know. And, well, he, er, did do something," Gheren finished with a shruge; " - he uttered mossongunain."
Their ears gulped and their minds echoed: Mossongunain.
A word which bounced from wall to wall.
It throttled the passing seconds; it put a freeze in the air. Not a sound, not a breath could compete. Devlel paled; Estunu likewise; and the others in the room - the landlord at the counter, the stranger at his own table - likewise experienced the stopper of speech.
The women's recent hurt was quite wiped out; they no longer dwelt upon Gheren's lateness; it had acquired an excuse which could not be questioned.
You do not probe further when talk has become wrapped in a coating of mossongunain.
Presently, though, Devlel wondered aloud: "But what was the aim?"
"You ask me that?!" reacted Gheren sharply. "The whole point of... that word... is to relieve tension by the temporary airing of an un-airable topic!"
"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 muttered, "At times, none of us know why we do what we do."
Devlel rolled her eyes. In a similar muttered tone she remarked, "Oh well, the wave has got us, whatever it is."
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. With the reminder came a sudden sharpening of all thought, a mood greater than the sum of the personalities involved, collectively felt as a roving perspective, a mutual 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, blinking with sad eyes, said:
"Customers! 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 understand you?" snorted the cartographer. "You work hard, and so do I. We each have our business to attend to."
"Yes, we each get on with what we have to do. But you are an intellectual 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. He turned to address him - the first time any of them had spoken to the stranger:
"You, sponndar, you feel it too?"
"Certainly," said the heavy-cloaked man.
"And we mean the same thing? A part of the world that possesses an 'itch'?
Resonantly the man put it into words of his own, "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. Don't expand on what we don't like."
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; homesick invaders who emit dream-pictures of a Yimdian megalopolis named Yirisoa. All right - " (seeing a gesture of exasperation by Strao Gheren), "I know I am foolish to dwell on all this. 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 comradeship of the inn was providing a cure! 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, "allow me, first of all, a concerned question. If this is a troubled place, what is your hope? What do you wish to happen?"
Therff's reply was blunt. "I hope we soon agree that 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, and similarly Estunu cried, "Abandon our homes? Break our hearts..."
"Plok," said Therff rudely. "We shall never lack a home. All of Syoom is our home."
"But our livelihoods," began Devlel.
"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 but which are not stuck like we are in a district 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 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, sensing the silhouettes of attitudes, aims, desires and fears that 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.
A marooned sponndar was entitled to expect help in his situation; it was the unwritten law of the plains. But after all, it was also the unwritten law that he ought to do what he could to earn that 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 go not round but through.
Confront instead of evade.
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 with raised brows explained, "When the five minutes are over, 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." Frowning, the cartographer added: "You must be from far away, sponndar Yadon. Further than Ao."
"It's hard to know everything," Yadon smiled disarmingly, "but I want to make up for lost study-time."
Some chuckles greeted this. Therff put in, "Of course the mad temptation exists, to break the conditioning; to hold onto what mossongunain allows one to uncover. But who would really wish to flout what must have evolved for a good 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.
The syllables were uttered in a placatory tone, which kept them from becoming apprehensive or suspicious at the sound of a tongue which nobody knew.
"I simply suggest," the mysterious stranger went on, now in the right language of the place, "that the glimpse gained by sponndar Strao Gheren might also be granted to another. That's to say, perhaps somebody else might climb the Ridge and win an additional five-minute dose of knowledge. In fact..." he added as he rose from his chair, "I need to learn stuff."
"You?" "What will you do?" they cried as they saw him head for the door. The turn the meeting had taken was so swift and unexpected, not one of them could even think whether or not they wished to stop him.
He turned and spoke, "Ask rather, what I will not do. I won't dodge."
The tumultuous effect the stranger was having upon the feelings of his hearers, up-churned a realization that some special crux in their lives had occurred; 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. Therefore, that is what he successfully did, ignoring the voices which were raised behind him in indecisive and bewildered chatter.
A different sound, that of hurrying footsteps, made him turn his head, to see the brawny but attractive Devlel gaining upon him.
She caught up and said, "You'll find the path quicker, Yadon, with me to help you."
"Thanks," he said, "I will appreciate it if you show me the shortest way to the top."
Her eyes lifted to the sky-line. "I've never," she remarked, falling into step beside him, "never felt bothered to climb the Krokkembar. But the beginning of the path is not hard for me to find."
"And now you are bothered to go up." Yadon spoke with a sidelong glance at the woman.
Baffled yet 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. "And interesting likewise is your style, sponndar 'no-dodge' Yadon." He met that with a silence, which for a little while she did not break.
It was not far to the foot of the slope. "And there's the path," she beamed, pointing to a line of chalky pallor. "See, it winds all the way up the Krokkembar's flank."
Eyeing the zig-zag, Yadon observed that it 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 she strongly sensed that a contrail of mood eddied about him, a swarthiness of will, and this mood influenced what she saw.
"Yadon," she broke silence, "where are you really from?"
The side-gleam of a smile caught her eye 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 longer.
"And when," she presently said, "we get to see the Logician, what will you do? Will we learn more about your 'not to dodge' policy? Will it bring out something from your heritage on Starside?"
"Ahhh," he 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. He no longer aimed directly at the summit observatory; he chose rather to head towards a point about fifty yards to the right of that edifice.
Devlel accompanied him without comment on his change of direction. Perhaps, she thought, he intended to gauge the lie of the land before he faced the Logician. She still had not made up her mind whether she liked or disliked Yadon, or whether 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 which suddenly embraced them, as was inevitable, inundated their thoughts and feelings. Their vision enticed with the distant hues and forms of the Moraar, their souls soaked in the bath of contemplation which habitually solaces the wayfarers of Ooranye.
On such heights, little notions as well as big ones, fanciful comparisons and questions of scale, are apt to play about in one's head. 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 after all 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 thrill of Yadon's presence was too harsh and eerie for romance. His companionship offered satisfaction of a rarer kind.
Give him that credit, then, Devlel told herself. He had furnished the excuse that had brought her here. Never before had she bothered to climb this ridge. She had taken it for granted all her life. And now she realized that the impetus would never have come from Strao Gheren. The cartographer had shrunk in her perspective... Strao Gheren was predictable compared with Yadon.
...Meanwhile the man from Starside had stepped to the ridge's further side.
Desirous of knowing what had caught his attention, she trotted over to join him. As soon as she arrived beside him he murmured, gazing down, "Do you see what I see?"
She shrugged, "Those few stick-shapes scattered on the plain? Abandoned skimmers." It was fairly obvious that that was what they were.
Then she straightened and turned round, uneasy about having taken her eyes off the observatory for too many moments. Inadvisable, she felt, to allow the Logician an opportunity to approach 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?"
"Does it matter?" she shrugged.
"I should like to know what fits those facts," he insisted.
"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, for it roused the memory of an old affront, a humiliation which had lain sore in her mind for a couple of thousand days.
The awakened memory rushed at her, snatching at her wits. Oh, the supreme embarrassment of that never-forgotten occasion! Almost she growled out loud.
She had been a young, eagerly curious girl when the arrogant forg, Laro Hing, had for once descended from his lofty workshop to give talks and answer questions from the folk of Oblannerad. Some of them he had answered quite fairly. But not hers! She winced anew.
Yet as the moments ticked by the old memory went out of focus; faltered, slackened, lost all its immediacy. The hot shame unexpectedly died.
She couldn't even clearly recall 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 could wink in and out of her concerns! It was as though her brain had found it in storage and thrown it out, the space it had occupied now freed for other things.
Now, she was big with a new mood of self-assertion.
"He's decided, he's coming towards us, the scruffy savant himself," she said to Yadon. "Should we meet him half-way?"
Her companion replied, "Let's wait for him to show us what he wants."
"Suits me either way," Devlel murmured, enjoying the realization that she did not care.
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. He again spoke: "This is remarkably soon after the previous visitor. Perhaps Strao Gheren sent you to say he had forgotten something?"
"Perhaps he has," said Yadon enigmatically. "Skimmjard to you, Logician L-H. This is Devlel..."
"The lady I recognize."
The lady I recognize... reverberating in her astonished mind, the words were respectfully pronounced, with no condescending quirk whatsoever in the lines around the Logician's lips; she must now re-interpret her memories; apparently a chunk of her life 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.
"Why are you here?"
"Out of curiosity."
"So you must be, since you bring nothing for me to work on."
This sounded like a rebuke for wasting the savant's time, yet Devlel's heart was hammering not on Yadon's behalf but out of sudden concern for the feelings of the Logician! What in the world was going on inside her? Rapport with that two-named forg, Laro Hing, and distance from her single-named companion, Yadon! She still admired Yadon, but her concern was all the other way. She felt no apprehension for what might happen to the Starsider.
Yadon was saying to Laro Hing, "Can you tell me about those skimmers down there?"
"The scattered ones?"
"Yes, the mess down there." Yadon waved in the direction of the plain beyond the Ridge. "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, the owners had fled. The implication was one which no Wayfarer could ignore.
"I'd need more of the story, before I took one."
"Not much I can tell," shrugged the Logician. "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."
"The 'Worst Place'? That what you call that patch of plain? Not a name to encourage scavengers," said Yadon dryly. "Yet come to think of it, not a great surprise in the Moraar, which I'd call Creepy-land. Why," he persisted, "is this district so peculiar?"
"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 (and Devlel looked surprised too). "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."
The sardonic incredulity dropped from the Logician's tone.
"Wonderful," he mused in a raw, brittle voice. "Wonderful also, that I believe you."
It was a turning point in the interview. Devlel, though, was paying decreasing attention, becoming occupied instead with a new understanding of herself, which revealed her real motivation for escorting Yadon up here.
The idea, supposedly, had 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, so that she and her people would not have to abandon their homes. All that, she now understood, was just a transient excuse. Her real reason for this jaunt up the Ridge was -
That she loved a two-namer; and his name was not Strao Gheren!
(The trick of getting the name right - at long last - that's what Love is...)
Meanwhile the Logician 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 resemble being from another world... But surely, some truths must remain the same, anywhere on Ooranye, even on its sunless side. Surely, for Sunsiders and Starsides alike, 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 found the means to do so, the World Spirit would intervene and disallow us from achieving that aim."
Hearing this, Devlel wondered: Could be be arguing against himself? Wrestling against the painful new hope, that the stranger from Starside might actually be a crisis-resolver, a rescuer?
Yadon wrapped his cloak closer about him as the wind on the ridge sought to billow it out.
"I have learned to imagine," the Olhoavan mused, "as though in a kind of dream, that it might be possible to proceed in the fashion of a smaller, safer, more comfortable world."
"Why?" objected Laro Hing. "Why play games with an imaginary world?"
"Because that way we could inspire ourselves to tackle mysteries in a different way. Directly, rather than by dodging. Dart not round but through."
"A strange dream," remarked the Logician. "Is it not wiser to be practical?"
"We have an annoying but useful saying, Think outside the box."
Laro Hing shook his head. "Ours is an overwhelming planet; that fact of overwhelm is a 'box' which we cannot escape."
"Let me tell you," retorted Yadon, "I've escaped from a lot."
"No doubt you have," the Logician acknowledged, sizing up the tall, swarthy Starsider; "but not from the an world."
"You think not?"
"...Not from the plenitude of mysteries which cannot be tamed; you cannot have escaped from that, sponndar Starside wanderer. No matter how far you have come, it is not good to ignore 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, spoil my figure of speech if you like. Come and see something; come, both of you; welcome to my home," and the Logician spread his arms in a gesture of grim welcome.
Devlel's enhanced perception identified a cometary tail of fear as the Logician strode in front of them, a fear that was drawing them through and past an old dullness and into a precarious hope, that the fear itself might at last be jettisoned! Naturally the new-born hope was itself fearful; it screamed like a baby, bawling at the prospect of disappointment. Pressure was on Laro Hing, to grab the unexpected lifeline, daring the Olhoavan to attempt the unthinkable.
She saw all this; saw it because, in this flex of the narrative, hers were the 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 enclosed her sturdily enough in a material sense. 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. Nevertheless, so many mysteries and secrets must crouch within the volume of the building, as to suggest a porous border with infinity. A fitting home for a savant, thought Devlel, though an hour ago she would have dismissed it as a shed unfit for habitation.
She accepted the invitation to sit on a swivel-chair beside Yadon's, while their host went into an alcove to pour drinks.
Yadon took to examining a bulky contraption on the adjacent table; Devlel swivelled to gaze around, at the scuffy shelves that lined the walls - they held an untidy assortment of box-files, books and artefacts - and at the surfaces of the benches and tables. All appeared scratched, nothing was polished; in a sacrifice for knowledge, all was 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 endeared the occupant to her warming heart. Life could be enjoyable up here, she now guessed. 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 hers, she said: "Sponndar L-H, we've missed you, in town."
"Really?" the Logician smiled back at her.
"Yes, really. We've taken you too much for granted, but this won't continue. We, all of us, need you."
At this point she glanced at Yadon for support. Yadon was listening with no sign of objection. Reassured by his attentive mien, she continued with her appeal to the Logician, "You're a savant. Why should we not look to you for help, after all? You see, sponndar L-H, today I've heard talk that some of us - some local townsfolk - are thinking of emigration."
Laro Hing belatedly took a seat, and sighed. "It's the 'silent noise', is it not?"
Few words, but perfectly expressing the topic she aimed to introduce, namely the haunting of her homeland, the routine, low-key eeriness of the Moraar. She looked the Logician in the eye and said, "Precisely. You are with us in this matter?"
"Without a doubt. All the folk of these parts have lived from time immemorial with the mystery of the Plain. It wears us down." Then, to Yadon: "Sponndar, you as a stranger from afar perhaps do not hear the 'silent noise'."
"Oh but I do," the Starsider shook his head. "I'd judge it a good description... along with my term 'Creepy-Land'."
"Quite," shrugged the Logician. "The whole area known as the Moraar is sodden with an eerieness which has never been described, let alone explained. We usually cope because we can contextualize it: 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... left vulnerable to influences that soak in from outside. 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 then, if I do, some people blame me personally."
Yadon's lip curled in scepticism. "Blame you for the 'silent noise'?"
"Well, for making it worse, at any rate. 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. 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 replied. "I mean that, seriously! I heard you once say, 'A' is not 'not-A', and from that truth, everything flows."
Laro Hing leaned forward, grinning. "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. "You mean that is the beast? Emotion versus logic?"
"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. However... although you, in your remark just now, hoped to lighten the tone, you did not succeed."
"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."
In that utterance the man's voice thrummed almost brokenly, as though in a contrary effort, a struggle to disbelieve his own words.
"You mean," asked Yadon, "all fears are justified?"
"Yes," was the dull response. "All of them."
Yadon looked dubious, while for Devlel understanding blurred, mercifully, out of her reach.
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, but nevertheless continues, then that is tantamount to saying that 'A' and 'Not-A' do, after all, co-exist."
"And so, 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 to whom the proceedings around him must thump in tempo.
Yadon pointed to the scanscope.
Laro Hing, obedient now, invited his guest to sit and learn to operate the controls... What was going on, how had things got to here, wondered Devlel, passively.
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, "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, then," quipped Yadon.
He was now quite expertly exploring the Marescent Wood by remote control. Then - the short training having sufficed - he twiddled the dials to shift the televisual focus away from the Wood. The aim veered onto the bare plain.
Laro Hing murmured, "No use. It's been tried. You won't find any answers there."
"The empty terrain is really empty. Mind you, 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. He continued to adjust the controls as he spoke. "Reason must point beyond its own 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. With the deceleration of the sweep of the 'scope's field of view, its chosen focus shifted towards a particular patch of plain: one that was 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 on 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 to the others, thus to downgrade dodging. Surely, one simply had to dodge; surely, no other way existed to survive. How else might one's life pilot its way through its span of days on a giant world? Mad it would be, to hurtle knowingly into the flank of one of the prowling enigmas of Ooranye.
Fortunately for the evasive principle, it looked 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.
Yes, it was turning out to be a demonstration in futility: the result being merely to magnify a blank area of plain, so that grains of gralm looked bigger while naught else appeared.
"What did I tell you? Nothing there," remarked Laro Hing.
"And what about underground?"
"Ah, yes, the supposed Yimdian invaders lurking underground. The tall tales we're supposed to frighten our children with." Laro Hing now sounded tired. "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."
Yadon growled, "Hmm, all right, that stands to reason. So let's forget underground. What about surface space-stretching?"
The Logician was quiet.
Yadon pursued the idea: "History knows, and you must know, that an area can be expanded while keeping the same restricted circumference. Think of the Gold Era Quest for Solor - "
Laro nodded, "Records exist, yes, of that feat being performed... It seems that you Olhoavans must be well-read."
"The library in the Zveggh-Yerrand is quite good," remarked Yadon briefly, continuing his investigation.
Devlel meanwhile settled into a comfortable certainty, that, on the crest of this situational wave, the moment must come, when she'd hear "mossongunain", followed by the five allotted minutes of revelation. That would bring a technical solution, lancing the boil of disquiet, after which everyone would feel so much better, that the problem of the Moraar would exist no more.
Then nobody would need to emigrate, and she and Laro would bask together in this triumphant phase of their life-stories. What an idyll that would be!
One detail remained uncertain. Whose voice would spark the climax? Laro's, or Yadon's? It might well be Laro: he'd uttered mossongunain before; he could do it again. However, on the whole Devlel was inclined to suspect that Yadon the wanderer was the appropriate clincher. He seemed the type to wrap up the episode before moving on.
Anyway, the word would come, 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 - minutes went by, and more minutes went by, and neither of them said it.
Yadon, turning the dials without results, became more and more restless and impatient until at last he let his hands fall. He sat back, eyeing the scanscope apparatus as a whole, not just the screen.
"What," he asked, "are those hand-moulded bumps on the sides of this thing?"
"The palm-holds?" Laro Hing smiled thinly. "Try placing your hands on them, one hand on each."
"Invisible repulsion," muttered Yadon while his attempted grip was bounced aside to right and left. "More than soapy - it's cushiony."
"See, you can't get to it. 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, "You tell me, then, the point of these... appurtenances which one can't reach to touch."
"What's the point of asking for the point?" smiled the Logician. "Starsider though you are, you surely know the way of the world, every bit as well as I do."
Yadon echoed testily, "The way of the world."
Devlel caught a flicker on his face: stark rejection imminent.
Yadon suddenly, violently clapped his palms against the scanscope box-stand's "ears", with a force and an audacity savagely different from his previously respectful handling.
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, the "appurtenances" which had seemed unattainable a moment ago. He had them in a kind of... helmsman's grip. That was the thought that pecked at Devlel: that it was the grip of a fate-driven pioneer, a traverser of voids, who might well be able to 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. Each of them showed scenes that were utterly different from the featureless plain which had covered the entire display an instant before.
The immediate effect was emotionally electrifying, its newness a clear promise of the amazement that must come as one's gaze was drawn in -
Devlel's gaze was first entrapped by 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 could she refuse to be shown what erupted from the plain.
To see that up-funnelling, writhing spout, was to give way to the notion it gave of a peering, eye-on-stalk probe, thrashing in closer and closer sweeps at the observatory. Its crown shone brighter with each sweep. And what that blunt and glowing tip was revealed to be, more and more clearly, was a matching screen, a twin to that of the scanscope.
As for the shape depicted on the waving screen-within-a-screen: there mouthed a blue head, and crowding to either side of it were other, similar jostling faces that thronged the background of the picture.
Laro Hing intervened. He tore his gaze from the scanscope, 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. Nothing at all would seem amiss, were it not for what was being shown 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.
"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. Better fare. It would be desirable to lock eyes with that other stuff. But in order to manage that, it would be necessary to tear one's attention from the blue head, which was enlarging into an approaching face, on the brandished screen-within-a-screen.
If only one could, it would be a relief to ignore it. The globular head, human after a fashion, though with skin coloured royal blue instead of Uranian grey, bulged with authority. Its lips lips pursed and unpursed 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 - "
Continuing its approach, the picture on the screen-within-a-screen tilted and swayed, seeking to fit with exactitude into the whole field of view... seconds away now from a precise match...
"Should we let this happen?" wheezed the Logician.
Yadon did not seem to be listening. He continued to brood at the palm-controls without replying. Laro Hing took an uncertain step towards him and spoke again in an urgent, jerky whisper: "Yadon, you've activated all this without finding out what it's for or how to use it. Listen, sponndar - should we let this happen?"
"Let what happen?"
Then, click! - it was too late. The juncture could not now be prevented; the included and including images of the lower-left third were one; the blue faces entirely filled that part of the screen, mouthing their commands in what was now a steady picture.
Devlel suspected something bogus about the fusion; that the eruption of the spout bearing the picture which had approached and fused with that sector of the screen had in actual fact been a mere emblem or logotype; nothing in the real world had happened, it was just a show to facilitate acceptance by ordinary mortals... but be that as it may, the faces had "clicked" their arrival, and now she sensed permission to widen her attention, to examine the other two sectors of the scanscope's circular view.
Those portions had been comparatively calm. Clarity of outline and a density of meaning blazed steadily...
Her understanding gulped, her imagination stupefied with a bloat of wonder at a a vast purple mountain-scape, drenching her in the conviction that she was being shown a world mightier than her own.
The sense of grandeur was so strong, it tended to overwhelm actual detail, but one fact she noted immediately was that the sky was crossed by a mighty banded arc.
This sky-band, as it glowed down upon that world, revealed more detail as the eye-drinking moments ticked by. A route had been gouged through a tract of mountain, to link one whitish misty lowland hollow to another. Through the pass, in slow motion, crawled a dusting of lights. It must signify a host of vehicles or illuminated creatures...
Meanwhile the last sector, the lower-right third of the scanscope, 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 visual utterance was, at first sight, sadder. It 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. Then the eye adjusted and saw that the scene was - enormous. The figures were not people, they were actual moving buildings, or even blocks of buildings, re-arranging in a stately manner. These moving blocks were a minority in a vaster perspective of mountains that became recognizable as artificial... and in the distance at the core of an immense complex of upsweeping ramps reared a pyramidal statue with a face that moved, that could be lip-read, continuously, triumphantly uttering, "Yirisoa..."
Devlel's head jerked back as she noticed with horror that the gadget itself, the scanscope, was now haloed by a fuzz, an incandescence like superheated steel wool.
"Don't do it, Yadon!" shouted Laro Hing.
What was this? What was the moody Starsider doing now? He had stood up and put his arms around the scanscope as if to heave it. The stretched moment oozed. Laro Hing was gabbling on through a syrupy nightmare. "Don't, for skies' sake, Yadon, don't throw it to them! You'll betray our world! Old machines - can't be trusted - 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. Not even if his hands are full of scanscope and yours are free. He'll be more than a match for you in that line. Please don't try it, Laro.
Yet she herself might have acted if she had been convinced of what was right. She was not sure that Laro had read the situation correctly. Transfixed with fear and indecision, doubting both men but hugely respecting Yadon's power, she could only stare into the scanscope's "halo" which was now growing into a kind of gateway in the air.
Well could she guess, where anything thrown through it would reach. It had become frighteningly understandable, that the Nefforlank's space-stretched pocket was a beachhead held by ancient invaders, who at this hour were beckoning via the scanscope in their urge to break out; but what to do? Uranians are schooled to recognize the Fate that slinks in the costume of circumstance, and the game of life and death is rise to the moment before it harries and destroys you. Thus rising, you 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". It keeps them confined 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, fumbling 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 Thremdu, 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 still 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. That gate between the worlds had shut behind it. "You threw it," he repeated. "They have it now."
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. They can look at their pictures of Yimdi, of Yirisoa, to their hearts' content."
"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. Unless, of course, the scanscope, for them, really can act like a gate between the worlds."
"I doubt that's possible."
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 Ooranye. It was the voice whose nature and purpose raised the most 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 Yadon to the door, waved their farewell, and then turned to face each other. The face of the Logician was filled with wonder. He said to the woman, "The tone, the look, in which you said 'we'..."
She nodded. "I'm staying," she said. "One wave's over, another has begun."
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 however, so as mildly to tease her new lover, 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."
"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. Now the Yimdians will have to abandon their yearning for a breakout and, instead, make the most of the beach-head dimension they have created for themselves."
"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 as Laro spoke in somewhat rambling recapitulation, musing on 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 just a disappearing dot, I can properly breathe. My best wishes go with him - and now let's heave a sigh of gratitude for what he's done, and of relief that he's gone."
Uranian Throne Episode 18: