uranian throne
- episode eighteen

the rash down-payment

robert gibson

For the story so far, see:

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

volume Ii: the golden cloak
16: confluence at ao; 17: the scared logician

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

If you visit Oso, curiosity will lead you, sooner or later, to the Bleftal Frustum.

The broad steps of that edifice, and the surrounding Octagon, together form one of the city's most popular spaces.  This is partly due to its convenient closeness to the urban hub, but the attraction of the place stems also from its historic importance. 

Rimmed by overhanging porches, which are covered with what to a Terran would seem like toppings of icing sugar, the Frustum betrays its survival from the short Tin Era.  Never to be forgotten, the ravening ordeal of those two hundred and fifty-four days won Oso its unenviable, undying reputation as the Mad City. 

The drooping whitenesses of those porch-toppings, which look as though they have melted and are about to overflow and drip onto the pedestrians below, are in reality as hard as rock.  They are the frozen melts of the vlomboz, motionless for all the long ages since the heat of their fusion during the City's disastrous last stand over one hundred and eighty million Uranian days ago. 

Other well-preserved examples of vlomboz exist at other points in Oso, but the most complete set is at the Bleftal Frustum - where catering for sightseers has long been a business. 

A hollow-cheeked, unsmiling young man stood at the top of the steps, counting heads.  From deep eye-sockets his gaze roved over a knot of chattering tourists who had assembled on the level below.  Presently, satisfied as to their number, he descended to meet them.

"I am Raldl Otehr," he introduced himself to his eighteen clients, obtaining their attention without effort as he moved with the practiced smoothness of an experienced tour guide, to take his position at the start-off point. 

Professionally amiable, he continued his introduction: "You've all paid your ticket-fees for the Bozmur Trail.  That sounds definite, but I'll be honest with you: we can't be sure, after thirty-nine eras, of the exact route taken by the... Thing... whom we Osonians prefer not to mention."

That was the first dry hint of the dread that these folk had come to enjoy.  As a successful tour guide, he knew just how to thrill the curious from foreign cities.  What they came for was a miniaturised, cost-free wallow in the scene of his city's ancient crime.  What had once been a peril that shook the world was now a mere plaything of the emotions.

"And yet, be of good cheer," he went on sardonically; "whether we know it or not, at some point or other we can't fail to trace those paths, and when that happens, perhaps, who knows, your own nerves may sympathetically twang."

It went down well, though some of the chucklers looked a trifle nervous.  Raldl Otehr smiled, secretly laughing at them while building his professional rapport.  No tour was ever quite the same as another, but today's job looked like it was going to be one of the easy ones.

At this point, we storytellers are moved to mention, not for the first time, the problems we face.  We must make our narrative readable by Terrans, but at the same time we wish to keep it true.  How to portray the tourists in Raldl's group?  Literal description won't do.  Uranians are so good-looking that you would be bound to think, if we described the gathering faithfully, that it was a bland bunch of model types.  Differences visible to Raldl would not be noticeable by readers from Earth.  So we must magnify those gradations, blow them up till contrasts appear.  That way, we shall allow terms like "plain/distinguished", "handsome/ugly", "fat/thin", and so on, to gain meaning in the Uranian context.  And so -

Raldl noted the predictable ones, the portly middle-aged couples with the cube-recorders round their necks, the gaunt spinster who had simpered the loudest at the mention of nerves, and the adolescents trying not to look impressed... and he made his usual calculations, such as, where it might be best to pause, and whence the shrieks were likeliest to come.  But as always the group included some who were not in the predictable classes....  Broken Skies!  Look there!  The girl slouching with her fists in the pockets of her cloak!

Yes, it was Lyan Zett: none other.  Raldl's heart constricted; but then he thought: oh, well.  By no means was her presence going to put him off his stroke.  In fact, he decided, she was welcome.  Yes, yes: a satisfied thought: this actually was a priceless opportunity to show her, by his relaxed demeanour, how little she had disturbed his emotional equilibrium; or if not that, then at any rate how swiftly he had righted himself...

"The first stage," he declared to the group, "ought to take us a little more than an hour.  After that, we'll stop for something to eat and drink at the Nezzen, half way along the Srangalom.  Then in part two we'll pursue the skimway round by another route to finish here at mid-ayshine.  Any questions?  Right - off we go."

They followed him as he strode up the ramp to the gallery which lined the Bleftal Octagon.  From that convenient height they continued along the walkway over Psed Arch and around the globular Palace of Trewewpel, and deeper into the typical airy maze of a large Uranian city. 

Visitors to Oso generally agree that it mostly seems like a normal place, easily standing comparison with the other twenty-four great disc-on-stem cities of Syoom.  Its citizens have their modern life to live, after all, and to someone who did not know of the ancient events that have made the place notorious, Oso would hardly seem at all strange.  However, virtually everybody does know at least the outline of that macabre crux of history.

The scene of ancient nightmare never fails to draw crowds from all over Syoom... 

Raldl thought to himself: perhaps in their place I would do the same.  If I didn't live here I'd end up in one of these groups of gawpers.  Playing with safe terror just like they do.  Except that as a native Osonian I'd be more seriously absorbed.

And that should remind me, it's not only foreigners that join my tours.  Lyan Zett, for example... Lyan my fellow-citizen, as I know to my cost.

No, mustn't call it "cost".  For any lesson worth learning, one has to pay. 

Raldl Otehr shoved his ex-lover out of his mind. 

He had to concentrate on the job at hand.  He had led his group as far as the 'elbow' of the Srangalom.  Here that skimway avenue reaches a point of inflexion in its curve around the district of Thyss.  He help up his hand; the group flowed to a halt around him.

"I hope I've timed this right," he said.  "Look, see the so-called 'fingers' up there?"  He pointed and, for the benefit of the slower-witted, waved and pointed again.  "Jutting from either side of the gap, between the Srangalom and the Trij.  (Sorry, I'm in your way, Moragga; can you see now?  Good.)  Now it is undoubtedly true, as you will all (I hope) see in a minute or two, that not all of the reflexes of the Mad City are dead... ah, here it comes."  (OOOOH....EEEEE!!! came cries from the group, as a gob of light appeared, sliding along the skimway rail.)  "Don't worry, it is merely galvanic, not real survival...  It's really quite all right!" he reiterated in a deliberately unconvincing tone of reassurance.  (AIEEE! - came another shriek of pleasurable fear when the dazzling blur spurted across the gap between the greater avenue and the secondary.)

Raldl smiled around while his customers wiped their foreheads.  One and all, they must be getting their money's worth.  Only the teenager, Zlodid, had outwardly kept all his nerve.  One of the others, elderly Moragga Zneen, had flinched but had then been quick to jerk her cube-recorder into position.

Then came a flood of questions, which Raldl answered to general satisfaction.  Where necessary, he reminded them - by saying that he did not need to remind them - that any complex city must have a central co-ordinating maintenance computer; whereupon he was drawn in to discuss what nature such a thing might have: possibly, though not necessarily, that of a Ghepion, a machine that has evolved into sentience.  He remarked in answer to a querulous inquiry from Moragga's husband Vormazat: "For long ages our present central computer, which we name Hlorr Humma, was just a dumb though clever machine.  Even now, its limited conversational powers suggest, at most, a very limited awareness, hardly counting as thought - though its functioning is technically faultness."

"Then those jumping lights just now - what were they?"

"Equivalent to an instinctive process.  A product of Oso's power-distribution cycle."

"But might they be more akin to real thought-flashes?"

"Ah-haha, you mean, might Hlorr Humma now count as a full-blown Ghepion?  Well, if it is, then we still don't need to worry.  You see, if, unknown to us, our present machine has become properly sentient, we can nevertheless be sure, from the experience of ages, that the consciousness of the 'Mad City' has not been passed on to it.  Reincarnation is for human beings only.  That's one thing we've learned from history.  Dead Ghepions don't come back."

Having got his little crowd past the "Fingerpoint" power-leap, Raldl was pleased though not surprised to find that the rest of the tour's first half went equally well.  A few other noteworthy sights and reflections brought them to the promised interval at the Nezzen Zoalsh. 

Apart from its ornate banqueting functions, the Zoalsh also had an open colonnaded area which served outdoor snacks.  "We set off from here in half an hour," Raldl said.  Out of the corner of his eye he looked for Lyan, but she, apparently, was one of those who had chosen to scatter during the break.  Probably just as well, Raldl thought.  I have found the right cloak of studied indifference but it's easier not to have to wear it...

He was joined at his table by four of his clients.  One of them was the apparently imperturbable teenager, Zlodid.  [Note to Terran readers: "teenager" is our translation of medebberan, or person between 4000 and 5000 Uranian days of age; in terms of your years, from between about thirteen and a half to just over seventeen.]

Zlodid leaned forward across the table and said:

"Sponndar, what I don't get about this Mad City business, is, what was in it for that old evil Ghepion?  Surely it must have known it was going to lose?"

"You'd think so," agreed Raldl.  "But then often you'll find, in history, that an idea so stupid that it could only happen once, does happen once."

Reflectively the lad nodded, and crunched some klast.

"Go study the reolues, Zlodid," intervened an attractive woman of about 9000 days called Detsi Grelonn.

The reolues - the 'dancing rocks' - were the epitome of long-accepted mystery.  Thus the woman's message, uttered with soft serenity, was: go study the reolues, lad, in order to accustom yourself to questions which are impossible to answer.

Zlodid swallowed and said, "I have another, more modern question.  If you have time for it, sponndar tour-guide."

"Certainly," Raldl smiled.

"That well-timed flash, had you arranged beforehand with Hlor Humma?"

It was expressed with a bit of a sneer, a you-haven't-fooled-me tone, which drew protests from Detsi Grelonn and another woman named Plennor, who rebuked the lad with a tutting headshake.

"It could be," replied Raldl easily.  "If so, I wasn't cheating - any of us can make our requests to the Brain."

Raldl meanwhile got thinking about future tours.  Ideas crawled into his mind, about how he might probe more deeply into questions of ego-expansion, of lust for power.  He could invite his audience to put themselves in the place of the Mad City.  Let them shudder sympathetically at the fears it must have had.  Let them imagine being out-manoeuvred and constricted, in the terror that must have sent the thing mad.  Such brush-strokes upon the canvas of the imagination, when added to the bleak landscape of paranoia, could really put a scare into these foreign gawpers. 

In addition to it being good for business, he might, that way, quieten their patronising chortles... stun their tittering complacency... while at the same time attract more hordes of those who wished to show themselves tough... and they'd flock here only to find themselves forced to change their minds about that.


Lyan Zett distanced herself during the break, just far enough to get out of sight of the tourists and their leader. 

She turned a corner and, leaning against a bulwark of the adjacent Studafol building, pressed a stud on her transceiver.

"Operative Lyan Zett."

A beautiful voice issued from the tiny grille:

"Well, what's your view now, Lyan: is he good?"

Lyan winced, even though she was familiar with the scornful melodies of Secret Service Chief Clsarmwa Trellem. 

"I won't vouch for him as a person," she replied.  "But as a tour guide he's certainly good."

"In that case, what I want to know," the older woman said, "is, is he too good - at running more rings round you, for instance?"

Lyan had budgeted in advance for this callous mockery, which was just as well, as she was in no position to answer back.  "I should like more time on this case," she lamely hedged.

Pitilessly perceptive, her Chief replied, "You wish to prolong your contact with Raldl Otehr because of your previous... entanglement with him."

"And yet, sponndar, it could prove useful."

Clsarmwa Trellem sighed, and conceded, "I'm inclined to take a chance on you, Operative L-Z.  You, better than anyone else on my staff, may be in a position to judge how much danger the man represents, and what, if anything, we can do about it.  Tell me now - suppose you had to summarise him in one sentence...?"

Recklessly the girl replied, "He's a bit of a gommor, if you know what I mean.  A bit gnopey-tropey."

"No, sponndar-Agent, I do not know what you mean.  Kindly refrain from such colloquialisms when you are on this circuit."

"Sorry, sponndar-Chief," apologized Lyan, though she felt sure that a more formal, even-toned statement would have seemed too evasive; slang had been the safer option.  "I'll put it this way: Raldl is besotted with the past.  That's what I mean by gommor.  And by the other term I mean that he's likely to follow whatever line of action impresses him with its grandeur."

A sound like a cough came over the transceiver.  Then...

"What's your next planned move?"

"Have dinner with him this evening.  Try to head him off his track."

An unmistakable chuckle.  "Sounds like you've got yourself a challenge, Lyan.  Especially if he guesses whom you work for."

"He already knows, sponndar.  That's what spoiled the 'entanglement' last time."


Raldl spent the last half of the tour virtually on autopilot, in an inner daze, and all because of a swift and quite unexpected exchange of words with Lyan Zett.

It happened just before part two of the guided walk.  Afterwards he managed, during that walk, to keep spouting his usual commentary, rolling it out from habit, but underneath he kept amazedly thinking, Did it really happen?  Did she, Lyan, really stroll up to me just then and say what she said? 

Yes, she really did.  Casual as you please.  "Haven't seen you for a while, Raldl.  My turn to treat you, I think.  How about dinner at the Whith, say hour two of evenshine?"  And what did I do but accept? 

Well, what else could I have done?  The way she asked me, within earshot of others...  I couldn't say no.   

Round and round, he replayed it all, as though the inside of his head were a turn-table, while outwardly he continued his job, giving out comments about the Mad City's neurotransmitter; "We think the bozmur raced along this route", and "Some attempt was made to stop it, at that junction you can see up there..." and so forth.

When the tour was over he was vaguely aware that it had actually been one of his best performances.  His audience had enthusiastically followed his anecdote-studded guidance.  The way he'd taken them along "the reach-routes by which the Sinister Sentience wrought its ancient havoc" - they obviously appreciated that he knew his stuff, and he himself was quite impressed at how he'd been able to reel off the old saga so pat even while suffering some modern havoc of his own, namely the clanging question: what was that girl after?

It was time to find out.  His steps guided him to the Nezzen's most romantic hall.  The array of restaurant cubicles known as the Whith had not been one of his usual haunts for quite a while; he smiled at the little flutter of his heart as he approached the entrance.

She, too, was prompt.  Well, this is it, thought he.  Hoping for the best, he waited for suave words to flow from his tongue; after all, he'd been glib enough during the guided tour; shouldn't dealing with just one person be easier?  But now the scene defeated him: in the massed glow from the puckered spheres that dangled above each booth, the girl appeared adorned in a gentle blue glory, requiring that he recall the way he used to look at her. 

...Which had always been somewhat unsteady.  The firmness of her figure was wont to be seen through the undulant veil of his treacherous emotions. 

Even now, absurd hesitation raised the cost of starting the chat...

As it happened, however, she annexed the opening anyway. 

"You're looking pleased with yourself, Raldl," she said; "and rightly, I'd say; the tour went well.  I enjoyed it."

He found himself grinning, "So - we're agreed on something!"

She gratified him with, "Yes, it's a good start."  They passed the luminous sign and entered the cosy blur of the array.  An attendant showed them to a booth, took their order and left them to recline. 

Lyan carelessly sat with her back to the opening.  Raldl, opposite, leaned against the flap of unholstery abutting the partition. 

He breathed deep and said, "I appreciate all this.  Grateful that, after our quarrel, you suggested we meet in this civilized way."

"I know the past can't be wiped.  But," her eyes twinkled, "it can be... reinterpreted." 

A dig at me? wondered Raldl.  Yes, a humorous borrowing from my historical commentary-style.

He dug back: "We can't 're-interpret' the facts out of existence, though.  Particularly, the fact that, all along, you were working for Them."  Might as well be blunt about it now, he thought.  Get it over with. 

"I'm sure," she retorted coolly, "you haven't told me all the important facts about yourself, either."

"Perhaps there aren't any."

"Anyhow," she went on, ignoring that, "there's nothing more honourable for an Osonian to do, than to work for the Ipitsi Yeen."

"Keeping watch on stirrers."

"Indeed.  And that's because our old, soul-shaken city wants a quiet life."

"But," he tried to insist, "you shouldn't object to the minor stirs!  The safe, relatively quiet, internal things!  Reflections which are nothing but thoughts; mere historical memories."

He was being disingenuous, provoking her, and he saw the result in the pursing of her cute button mouth, the tilt of chin.

"'Mere' - !" she echoed with scorn.  "As my boss has rightly said, memories can be overdone."

"Ah - an Ipsi Yeen dogma revealed.  Secret until now, one of the policies pursued by Them: distrust memories." 

Lyan banged her fork down on the table.  "It's no secret, it's common sense," she snapped, no longer cute at all.  "Memories can rot the reputation, and vigilant care for reputation makes good sense for a citizenry like ours who need to live down an atrocious episode in a long-gone era.  That's why my department - why They - don't like you."

"But perhaps," he countered, "our reputation is best safeguarded by frankness, by open interest, by not being afraid.  I, by my tours, help to show the world that we can face the truth.  And after all, the Mad City was thousands of lifetimes ago."

"You have a point there," she sighed. (At this concession he felt a surge of affection; he had not wished to tease her; a pity he kept doing it...)  Lyan Zett went on, "I've been putting to you Their point of view.  It's not quite the same as mine, but, well, you did challenge me."

"I did, sort of," he agreed, surprised at how calm his voice had gone. 

Quite a marvel.  Who, hearing the way this conversation had developed so far,  could have guessed that when he arrived here this evening he'd been, by rights, the aggrieved party?  She, after all, was the one who had made a fool of him when pretending to closeness while concealing the fact that she was an agent assigned to spy on him; yet now here they both were, having a meal together, and after one squall of disagreement they were relaxing in convivial warmth. 

Above all, thought Raldl, I have avoided the sulks.  Nothing's more humiliating than to be the fellow who sulks.  And now she has signalled she agrees, or partly agrees, with my take on Oso's reputation.  But further hurdles lie ahead...  Pleasant though this is, I'll do well to win free of a woman whom I can never trust again.

The plates of smoking klasts arrived.  Raldl and Lyan for a while did justice to the crackly meats amid the snugness of the zoalsh.

The idyll of a shared convivial meal, so supremely important to the Uranian mentality, might have mellowed Raldl further; yet insofar as it was a reminder of how things ought to have been, it was more apt to edge his thoughts back towards bitterness. 

He longed for the trust that could never be recovered; but he was determined not to be fooled again.

Nostalgia surged at him more strongly when somebody switched on the music box and the currently popular song soothingly permeated the hall, "The richness of the way / Candle-bright thought / Myyix and bejeh / Plorl-orm..."

He spoke out:

"You know, Lyan, I'm sick of that song.  I'd amend it as follows:

Hatred of the wave
Mangling every thought
Maiming all bejeh

"That's drastic," remarked Lyan.  "Hatred of the wave!  Why hatred?"

"And why not?  Why shouldn't I hate what lets me down?"

"It's because you tend to think that things must go right for you, and if they don't, then the line you take is: 'so much worse for the wave'."

Infuriatingly perceptive summary of the way his mind functioned!

Raldl focused an angry stare upon the woman.  She surveyed him languorously, chin on fist. 

Let her conclude, thought he, that she had sufficiently bombarded him with her charm.  Let her!  In her view, no doubt, she had now liquidised his grievance; but now it was time he retaliated. 

"To return to our main bone of contention, Lyan, let me reassure you, and the authorities behind you, that I am full of theoretical esteem for your work.  I freely admit (in the abstract) that it has to be done.  A city needs an intelligence service.  Therefore some people have to dirty their hands with that sort of stuff."

She smiled, "So long as it isn't you."

"With regard to my own case," he went on, "at first I thought it possible that you had invited me here this evening to warn me that your Authorities really do think I may risk re-igniting the bozmur and thus re-awaken the Mad City.  Absurd though the accusation would be, I dare say they'd be mentally capable of believing it.  But now you've made it plain that they are merely worried about the reputational effects of my tours.  They fear lest I mar the city's public image.  Well, it should be easy to set their mind at rest about that.  You can just report to them all the innocuous stuff you've heard me say to the customers."

"I shall," she said.  "That, and more." 

The way she said it, Raldl felt that it was he who had been dealt the put-down.  Well (he thought wryly), if she was light-years ahead of him, he'd better be willing to wait for more of her superior wisdom.  Here it came -

"You've heard, I don't doubt, of the nuznong," Lyan resumed.

"Correct.  I have."  He blinked.  "I wouldn't be doing my job, if I hadn't."

The nuznong: the thought-suppressant which the Mad City had used at the outset of its bid for power.  The nuznong, during that terrible time thirty-nine eras ago, had ensured that the folk of Oso simply were not able to think the thoughts which might have saved them.

"Hey," added Raldl, suddenly interested, "are you scared that it might be working now?"

"Why not?  It's a possibility."

"Oh, absolutely," he grinned.  "That's to say - absolutely un-disprovable!"  Because she remained silent, he felt impelled to add:  "It's always possible, I do admit, to argue that whenever our minds are missing something it's because we're being made to miss it.  But - what a corrosive apprehension!  Come on now, Lyan!"

"You may think it funny," she said, "and I hope you're right to do so, but I think it's time I told you why I invited you here.  It's not because my superiors are worried; it's because I am."

As she spoke she tilted her face upwards and Raldl, drawn by her action, did the same.  The puckered spherical lamp above their heads, which bathed their cubicle in its almost tactile glow, blanketed the diners with a special tint of blue; a warm, caressing sort of blue, not a reminder of cold distances.  Raldl experienced the mutual upward gaze as an offer of happiness.  What did it matter whether (as legend had it) this kind of lamp was a genuine reflector of emotion, or whether (as common sense would aver) the wave of togetherness merely flowed from natural propinquity amid comfort and ease?

What was important to him, was that he could seize upon Lyan's statement in a bid for deliverance from shame.  He was not sure how or why, but he now thought it possible, if she was telling the truth, that he might not have been made a fool of after all.  She might still have been merely pretending to love him, back in those deceptive days of unfounded trust, but to the extent that she was now revealed to have been playing a lone hand rather than following orders to pretend, he might hope...

"You haven't told Them this worry of yours?" he asked softly.

Mischievous smile:  "You could say, I work for Them because I'm inclined by nature to secrecy.  That means, I can keep secrets from Them too."

"If only I'd known..."  As a matter of fact I still don't really know for sure that I can trust you, Lyan, but still, the possibility has soared into view.  I now see that the course you tried to get me to take, on the occasion of our quarrel, might bear another interpretation than the one I placed upon it that sad day.

Never would he forget that day, when she had tried to persuade him to give up being a tour guide.  Her idea had been, he should repudiate his obsession with the drama of the long-gone Era 50, and perform an ideological about-turn by making a visit to the Torh, the Crystal Grove, to spend some peaceful days in that spiritual retreat, where he might re-think the course of his life.

As an attractive opposite to his current lifestyle, it was an option to which a part of him had long felt drawn.  Spiritual renewal!  In his mind the vision swelled, magnifying its allure now that that he might opt for it of his own free will, seize it without being tricked into it; seize it as his own idea.  And once he begant to view this as a real possibility - that he actually might, without sacrificing his self-respect, learn in consultation with the Sjaggalom, the Spurner of Waves, to live free of the currents of destiny - he found that he craved it.


"...And so I did it," Lyan spoke into her transceiver.  "He'll keep his word, I've no doubt of that.  As soon as he's given notice about the tours, he'll be off.  Probably before the end of morningshine."

"Well done, Agent," crackled the voice of Clsarmwa.  "I had thought that he was too hard-headed a type to fall for it..."

"You don't know him at all," declared Lyan.  "You should have seen his eyes when I clinched it.  When I held up the holocube I'd brought with me and uttered the proverbs, 'wishing is a form of travel', and 'where the mind goes the body must follow' - "

"And it was a particularly smart move to mention the nuznong," said her boss.  "Gives you a blanket excuse.  So, we have a breathing space, until he returns."

"We can hope he'll be more amenable then," Lyan suggested.

"He had better be," said the voice from the transceiver.  "On the other hand, if we're both spectacularly wrong, it won't be the first time that a world-shaker has emerged from a Torh."  

The communicator clicked off. 


From city to grove - from Oso to the Torh Yhrviy - the one hundred and forty miles can be skimmed in about three quarters of an hour, in normal weather, if one's vehicle is raced at top speed; and top speed is feasible where no rugged topography or forests interrupt the open plain, no enemies bar the route and no storms churn the air. 

With his hand steady and light upon the steering lever, the smooth ride freed Raldl to daydream, in spacious rebound from the obsession which had governed him during his time as a tour guide.  He might now be headed for an altogether different way of life.  If so, and whatever it might be, he was hurtling towards it at two hundred miles per hour, six yards above the mauves and browns of the streaking plain, and the sensations flooded him with joy and hope. 

Not that he was sure about abandoning his former career entirely, but he was definitely tempted by the notion of a clean break, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the skills - the dangerous skills - he had accumulated in his line of work.  Throw it all away, he felt like commanding.  Renounce the old ways, in favour of a new golden track to - somewhere. 

All the more did he suspect that a visit to the Grove might be a good move for him, since the advice to make it had come from a source melting with the powerful glow of love.  Love was admittedly unreliable, but one must allow the possibility that the emotional star, even if it winked out, had done him a good turn.  And what if the radiance continued to shine?  Could he henceforth balance ambition and the love of a person?  Ride a wave that combined both?  This whole business of waves of fate -  He found himself wondering, radically, if one could chuck the concept (no matter how ingrained it was in Uranian life) and instead just atomise life into separate phenomena.  Do that, he thought, and then you can accept whatever hits you, one thing at a time.  Events, then, would no longer linked into those chains or arcs that sweep you towards your doom.  Was that what he was about to learn at the Torh?  Vertiginous idea!

Anyhow, he told himself, Lyan did invite me to that zoalsh meal: that is fact.

Suggests she's interested in me. 

Don't see why she should be. 

But if she is, all well and good.

Thus his thoughts faded into inanity, while around him extended history's enormous stage, the limitless backdrop of the Uranian plains, where the troubles of one man naturally merge into the vaster web of story. 

Over the horizon ahead, a point of fiery blue edged into visibility.

So calm was the air, Raldl could imagine that his skimmer floated stationary while the world slid beneath to bring the Crystal Grove towards him. 

At first the Torh Yhrviy was too far off for him to discern the forms of the fobbrakna who flutter in a halo around the grove or roost in its branches.  Soon, however, he was able to observe those "platterflies" as he decelerated over the last furlong. 

At the same time, they became interested in him. 

They, the defenders of the crystals, numbered several score; some with triangular wings, some with oval.  Two compound eyes glittered at him from the sides of each narrow head, and between those pairs of eyes shone the third eye, the ruby laser.

Raldl slowed to a stop and faced the hovering insectoids. 

He trusted that they were calm in their own power and would not react hastily.  His historical studies had not revealed a single instance where the peace of a crystal grove had been disturbed by mistake.  If the defenders had been a human organization, doubtless the long ages of unbroken success, of lack of challenge in their task, would have bred some degree of carelessness, but these creatures never varied their steady vigil.

Raldl alighted from his skimmer.  He bowed to the guardians of the grove, and then he ventured across the boundary between the dark gralm of the plain and the lighter soil of the Torh. 

He was aware of some beating of wings above his head: the fobbrakna, having eyed him, were settling back into their former poses.  He refrained from any sudden movements of his head as he continued to advance amongst the gleaming trunks and the branches' bladelike adornments of blue crystal leaves.

Already he enjoyed the atmosphere of strong, deserved, invulnerable peace. It warmed him with the spiritual glow which went with the serene colours of the grove and the fragrance from the leaves.

Reaching the central glade, where stood the Keepers' huts and the guest huts, he saw three parked skimmers. 

One would be for the longstanding Keeper, Fraydsten Nahi, and one for his fairly recent bride, Herivot Whemm.  As for the third - apparently Raldl had happened to arrive at the same time as another guest. 

He began to walk around the huts, seeking the front door.  Before he reached it he stopped at the sight of a figure sprawled on an outside bench. 

The man was wrapped in a light brown cloak, blotched with windborne stains.  His unconscious face was lined, exhausted: that of a traveller sodden with weariness.

Raldl was in the act of stepping around the dozing fellow when he heard a dreamy murmur.

"Splendidior vitro..."

What language was that?  It had a polished sound to it: doubtless some smooth ancient tongue brought to light by this travel-stained vagabond.  The man was smiling as if remembering something pleasant, or selecting a quotation to express the happiness and peace which he had found here.

It would be a pity to wake such a needy sleeper.  Raldl knocked at the hut door as gently as he could. 

He waited, listened in vain, and knocked fraction louder.  A throat-clearing behind him caused Raldl to start, turn and note that the guest had propped himself up.  Flunnd, I've woken the fellow. 

"Another visitor!  Skimmjard, sponndar," drawled the man.

Raldl returned the greeting and asked if the Keepers had shown themselves today.

"Earlier, yes, Fraydsten Nahi entered the hut.  I hope he's still there."

"Why 'hope'?"

"Because," the stranger said, "I like to think of myself as a light sleeper."

"I'm the same, in most places," Raldl remarked, understanding the point, that this fellow didn't like the idea that the Keeper could have slipped out past him without his knowing.  "But if this place is what it's claimed to be, I imagine you can lie safe while dead to the world."

"Point taken," replied the stranger, "only I wouldn't want it to become a habit; not on a world like this, where to lose one's alertness is not a good plan."

A world like this.  Raldl repressed a smile.  "Plans might not be the thing, while you're resting here."

Just then he heard a scrunch of footsteps.  Somebody was treading around the gravelly purlieu of an arc of bushes. 

A thickset woman tramped into view, one brawny arm holding an enormous kettle.  Misty puffs sprayed from the spout whenever her other hand pressed a stud.  Briskly she said, "I'll be right with you.  I'm almost finished."  The men watched as she aimed the spout at one leafy cluster after another: puff, hiss, puff, hiss.  Not only did the leaves tremble in the gentle current thus created; discernibly the stems of the plants quivered, proving that this bustling woman was a favourite with the grove. 

She must be Herivot Whemm, wife to the Keeper and, by now, surely a Keeper herself, Raldl realized. 

Presently she rested the kettle on the ground, paused to recover breath, and sized up the two new arrivals.

She summarized, "You'll be wanting Fraydsten's supply of tips about waves and directions.  As for me, I'm finished with all that, I'm glad to say."

Momentarily unsure what best to say, Raldl looked to the stranger.

The fellow began, "In that case, sponndar - "

"You need not call me sponndar," said the woman.  "I am unarmed."  Her lack of a weapon was indeed plainly evident; she was attired simply in blouse, trousers and boots, with no cloak that might have concealed holster or tube.  "And never again shall I bear sponnd," she added, causing amazement in Raldl, who had never heard an adult Uranian permanently renounce the practice of carrying a laser.

The wanderer, likewise surprised, was prompted into some obscure dialect ejaculation: "Gdevans!"

"We'll talk to Fraydsten," said Raldl, "if you'll tell us how to make an appointment with him."

"You'll have to wait a while," the woman replied.  "My husband is on a trance-journey and cannot greet you until he returns.  Might be a few days.  Meanwhile, make yourselves at home."  She waved at the guest huts.  "Well stocked.  Feel free.  I meanwhile am going to clean up."  She slapped at the dust on her clothing.  "Call me if you need anything."  She tramped away.

The other visitor said to Raldl, "No excessive formality here, it seems!  Anyhow - my name's Yadon; a Wayfarer with no fixed abode.  And yourself?"

"I am from Oso; my name is Raldl Otehr; previously I was a tour guide."

"Whereas now you are...?"

"That's what I'm here to find out."

"Perhaps," mused Yadon, "it may turn out the same for me.  I have heard that a stay in one of these Crystal Groves is supposed to have such a restorative effect, that visitors are never the same again."

"One way or another," nodded Raldl, "I expect that's true."

In the lazy days that followed, friendship grew without strain between the contented hostess Herivot, the enigmatic wanderer Yadon and the former tour-guide Raldl. 

They accepted each other without bothering to try to find out much about each other.  On no occasion did Yadon relate much detail about his adventures, extensive though they must have been; evidently this was a typical wanderer, a mere sponge of experience who gave nothing back except for the route-statistics of his survival; thus (Raldl judged) typical of the backgrounders whose lives and deaths bubbled to sustain the foamy under-weft of civilization...  "Well," reflected Raldl, "this amiable drifter seems just the kind of acquaintance that suits me best during the planless trough between my past and future goals."

The history-mind Osonian could not fail to reflect that it was in a group of crystal groves such as this one that the great Hyala Movoun 1 - the First Sunnoad - had grown to maturity, over eighty eras ago.  Truly, that had been a trough before a wave of greatness!

Between then and now, the groves must have changed over such a colossal span of time, yet apart from one major difference - that in the long-gone days of the First Sunnoad they had not yet evolved any insectoid fobbrakna to guard them - in their essential function they remained the same oases of peace and calm, outside the rush of events and the currents of fate, that they had been in Hyala's day.

"You fellows," remarked Herivot one evening, while they reclined on picnic mats, "are becalmed.  You're just floating in a gorup."  Gorup: a stretch of life with no fate-wave. 

Yadon's smile was cagey, while Raldl - thinking to detect connotations of stagnant futility - objected, "Is that quite fair?  We don't know the end of the story." 

"You think," said Herivot, "that I'm accusing you of wasting your time.  But you needn't worry - you can afford to 'waste' some time!  That's the point of being here."

"True," replied Raldl.  "After all, I'm still on my first life."

"And all lives contain false starts."

Yadon said, "Herivot, you're becoming a sage in your own right.  I thought you were leaving that to Fraydsten."

"Yes," chuckled a man's voice behind them, "be careful, chremn."

They all turned and looked up at the Keeper who had returned: Fraydsten Nahi, who had won renown as the Sjaggalom, the Spurner of Waves.

Like his wife, Fraydsten Nahi wore no cloak and no laser.  He was not a big man, about the same size and build as Herivot.  His vague expression bleared as if he were surveying other people from a height that made them hazy.  And yet he was quite friendly as he sat down with them and asked why Yadon and Raldl had come to the Grove.

Yadon explained, "Coming from a far peripheral land, I found myself overwhelmed by the sights of Syoom.  I heard about the Torh Yhrviy and thought to myself that the Grove would be the place of rest I needed.  Which has proved true.  I didn't come to consult anyone, and I'm about ready to go on my way."


"That depends.  Any ideas, anyone?"

Raldl said, "Go see Oso.  The notorious Mad City.  Former Mad City, I mean."

"Sounds interesting enough!"

"And you, Raldl Otehr?" asked the Keeper.  "Your reasons for coming here?"

"All sorts," Raldl replied.  He thought:  If I were a simple wanderer like Yadon, who can rest awhile and then move on the same as before, I too would be ready to leave now... but for better or worse, I am an achiever.  Aloud he said, "I came for a private consultation." 


They sat facing each other in the Keeper's study: Fraydsten and Raldl, and no one else. 

The Keeper, having listened to Raldl's story, said kindly, "You have been under some nasty pressure, sponndar."

"Thank you for seeing it that way," sighed the Osonian.  "I was afraid you would not believe that some people in authority really are scared of me.  It's hard enough for me to believe it myself: that they really do fear that I might revive the Mad City, merely by tracing the pattern its thoughts made."

"Well, try to look at it from their point of view, and maybe you'll concede that the way their minds work is understandable," soothed the Keeper.  "Because thoughts function as wave-patterns, and to trace a pattern is to reproduce it, the question of revival is bound to be asked.  Come to that, it's not clear how one might explain to a nervous layman that the Mad City could not happen again.  Make allowances, Raldl."   

It was firmly said, alerting Raldl to scrutinize the other's sympathetic but serious face.  

"I realize," Raldl replied with care, "as a matter of fact, that I have alarmed people unnecessarily, in some of my tours.  On the other hand" - justification came in an easier flow - "I have also worked to get people to merge their little worries into a perspective larger than themselves.  That's the value of it.  That's why they bother to come."

"Commendable," said Fraydsten.  "To become preoccupied with something bigger than oneself, so that one may eventually borrow its bigness FOR oneself - "

He's leading up to something, realized the Osonian with alarm.  Whatever your plan is, he wordlessly beseeched, don't send me back to where I was; back to being made a fool of -

It was as if Fraydsten had read his guest's mind:  "I know a cure for your feeling of being let down."

Now how did he jump to that? 

"...Your fate-wave," the Keeper continued, "ran into a trough of muough, did it not?"

Muough: a word which so far Raldl had dared not use.  Muough: cosmic evil, flouting of natural law, mockery of physical law. 

To connect all that with a failed love-affair seemed like an absurd piece of verbal inflation; however, if the Keeper of the Grove encouraged the idea -

"Your cure, Keeper F-N?"

"I advise," said Fraydsten, "that you go and see the reolues."

The dancing rocks.  A taken-for-granted wonder of Nature. 

"Go," repeated Fraydsten, "and get your answer from the reolues."

But why?

Why that particular planetological freak of nature?

All right, they were a sight one ought to see, some time in one's life, and, as it happened, they were situated at no great distance from the Grove. It wouldn't be a long journey.

Suddenly he understood.

"Oh," he said, "I get it.  Go see the reolues, the inexplicable things that make all else seem easy to grasp..."

Some narrators put a sinister gleam in the eyes of Fraydsten the following morn, as he and Herivot wave goodbye to Raldl Otehr; but we have portrayed the Keeper as a good man, without guile, guilty only of an appalling mistake.


It was pleasant to be engaged in an easy, possibly useful mission; pleasant to follow a piece of advice which ought to make sense.  And to cure his former discontent, what could be simpler, thought Raldl, than to go see the reolues?  Nature's own trouble-spot must surely shrink his own conundrums in perspective.

Actually he rather felt that his stay in the Grove had already gained him sufficient perspective, so this further trip was superfluous; still, no harm in boosting his faculties even further, for to get more of a good thing, or an additional brand of it, could hardly fail to profit him.  So now, speeding once more across the open plain, having imbibed a good dose of inner stillness, he trusted he had grown ready for its counterpoint in the outer, wider, clamant silence.  Somewhere ahead of him sounded the tempting cry of the beyond, that ever-untamed horizon which tugs the adventurous mind on this vast globe, where exploits await the adventurer in every direction, and where Wayfaring - the restless urge in the blood of all the Nenns of Ooranye - is the career to which all others must at times succumb, whatever occupations may employ the majority of one's days. 

Between the Grove and the reolues stretch about one hundred and eighty easy miles; Raldl Otehr would cover them in less than two hours.  And afterwards, having seen the so-called "dancing rocks", he'd return equipped (if the Keeper of the Grove was to be believed) with a more decisive outlook. 

What that mood might entail, he did not yet need to know; let the future frown its mystery for another two hours.  Afterwards, thought Raldl, when I'm ready, I'll decide about my career, and about Lyan Zett.

What has been wrong with me, the piece of unwanted dust or grit in my head, is the stupid, disproportionate fear that I had been made a fool of.  Time that I was man enough to reject such an obsession!  Let real fools worry about such junk; it's unworthy of me.

Again the thought occurs to me that since I already understand all that, I don't need to undertake this journey at all; I could turn round and head back to Oso right now. 

On the other hand, why not finish what I've started, if for no other reason than out of respect for Keeper Fraydsten Nahi of the Torh Yhrviy, who advised me to go...  The trip won't take up a lot of my time, and it will be interesting to see the reolues; I have not yet observed any such singularity with my own eyes.

Not that it will be at maximum when I get there.  Fraydsten emphasized that it hardly ever is.  Most of the time, it's a torpid singularity, and so as not to risk disappointment I must keep in mind that only a very few spectators have witnessed the dancing rocks' full outrage.  On those rare occasions when all scientific propriety is eclipsed, and the result is a gaping delirium of distilled madness, then you get the best, the rarest show.  Let's hope I'll be lucky.  But even if my luck isn't exceptional, maybe I'll see enough to pop the 'grit' out of my head.

...The odometer on Raldl's skimmer showed that the distance travelled was about right, and sure enough he noted a furlong-wide splotch of grey on the plain a mile ahead of him. 

He decelerated and rode his skimmer cautiously to within a few yards of the area of subdued colour, where his spine began to tingle.

We who tell this tale, and who hope to do it moral justice while evoking sympathy for bewildered voyagers; we who, proud though we are to be Uranian, wish also to be fair, and to avoid over-stating our world's uniqueness - we suspect that any planetary culture with a human population must have the equivalent of the Terran proverb, "If it isn't hurting, it isn't working". 

Raldl advised himself with a phrase of that sort as he suffered the queasy experience of the churning gralm.

Like lumps that seethed in boiling stew, the rocks in the gralm were partly visible; certainly not dancing, they nevertheless surfaced and dived and swam about on a level with the plain's granular surface.  Or (a worse way to look at it) those rocks were shuffling.  I must not think such plok, thought Raldl, mopping his brow.  Though he accepted that the spectacle in front of him was what someone who'd come here had no choice but to see, it grated on him more harshly than he had expected.  "Please, can I go now?" he heard himself mutter.  Surely all this was non-relatable to his life; he was in an adventitious, meaningless, purposeless encounter, and the best thing he could do would be to go.  Get out of sight of the shufflings!  Don't remain an instant longer!  The sight was NOT doing him any good, and as for his supposed need for perspective, for extra wisdom and experience in order to get rid of his silly old grit of obsession, why, he could deal with that himself.  No, wait -

It was true, the trip here had worked.  For, come to think of it, his mind was clear.  All the wisdom in the world could not have cleared it so smartly.  All those self-centred previous complaints about being made a fool of were of no importance in comparison with the shriek of violated natural law cavorting now in front of his eyes. 

Yes, the scene offended, but in so doing it had cured his mind! 

So: job done!  He could retreat with honour from this dismal place.  Better not delay.  He reached for the starting lever. 

His hand froze on the way to it -

The unspeakable had been waiting for him, and now the parcel of obsession, the blob in his head, capered in response to the call, muough, ...muough, ...muough - as the rocks, in swelling voice, rose out of the gralm in concerted formation. This anti-nature summons was answered by the wrongness within Raldl that hailed the rearing mass, and gazed at it with that sense of recognition by which evil answers to evil, while the rocks at last began to dance, no longer merely surface-shuffling but wheeling in the air: slabs which weighed scores of tons cavorting in obscene disregard for the laws of nature or the limits of the possible.  Permitted by the Adversary of rightful order, they swooped and soared in slow motion, a churn-churn-churn which matched that within Raldl.  He guiltily heard the wail begin, "HwaaaaaAAAAAaaaaaAAAAAaaaaa..." 

Nothing figurative about the voice.  With his own physical ears he heard the reverberating sheets of sound form themselves into words. 

Hwaaa - sym-pa-thy - at - last - hwaaa -

"Let - me - go!" panted Raldl in a cracked voice.  The wail became louder.

HWAAAA - you - are - not - all-ow-ing - your-self -

True, true, he was not allowing himself to depart, because the worst in him did not wish to; the traitor side of him could not tear himself away.

"Well then," Raldl gasped, "what do you want of me?"

HWAAAA - I - in-tend - to - do - some-thing - HWAAAA - for - you - HWAAAA - you - know - who - I - am - I - the - World - Spirit - Thremdu - HWAAAA

If that was the truth, then the truth was a despair-lined hole, from which he, Raldl Otehr, would never dig himself out; therefore he instantaneously knew he had no alternative but to give it the lie. 

Whatever worth remained in him must express his denial - out loud.

"No you're not Thremdu," he managed to say.  It was the bravest thing a mortal could do, to stand before the live Singularity and deny its claim.

Quibbler - HWAAAA - I - am - a - fragment - of - Thremdu -

"Ex-fragment, you mean!  You are Xolch!"

Xolch's etheric cackle retorted gaily:

I - am - proud - to - be - no - longer - bound -

Raldl Otehr, erudite antiquarian, well knew the mythic fact of Xolchunnur the Vutchar, the rejected Fragment, the prehistorically cast-out portion doomed for all the subsequent aeons never to regain its oneness with the planetary intelligence of Ooranye.  Yet scolarship and erudition were not needed.  Even one who had known no history would not have been deceived for an instant into believing the lie that here was the presence of Thremdu the Entire, the Uranian World Spirit.  A far lesser man than Raldl would likewise have felt the truth.  Raldl's credit was to have found the courage-of-the-moment to blurt it out, and thus save himself from contagious collaboration in the lie. 

But the danger remained; the thing had not finished with him.

I - can - show - you - how - to - better - your-self - Raldl - my - friend -

Raldl reflected: Xolch, having split away, might indeed have retained some powers or even increased them.  And these powers, by now, might even surpass in some respects those available to the World Spirit.  After all, I've never heard of Thremdu juggling rocks like this.

As though welcoming the flippancy of this thought, an especially massive cuboidal rock, the size of two large wardrobes, left the circling swarm and glided over to Raldl, to hover about ten yards from his head.

Hung tremulously, vibrating in the breeze from the other rocks, a pensile fruit from an invisible tree of power, the boulder gave forth:

"All you need to do" - the speech fondled Raldl's ears - "is to make a small down-payment, and you will be richly rewarded.  In the coin of understanding, pay with your commitment, and you will see the worth of my offer."

A backward wrench of memory, and Raldl Otehr's mind's eye was forced to suffer a re-play of that particular scene which he most longed to be erased from his past.

If only I hadn't let her see the way my face fell!

It had happened in her lounge.  It had been her turn to cook a meal for both of them.  Afterwards, in an armchair, she had said, "I've been thinking about you.  Thinking," she added as her eyes twinkled at his melting look, "about what to put in my report."


That was when, disastrously, my face fell.  That way, I let her see how I'd been hit.  I couldn't help the reaction.  Couldn't save face; couldn't manage to be the slightest bit suave...

"And that was it, wasn't it?" said Xolch rhetorically.  "A moment, and all was ruined.  Something must be done about such unacceptable fate-lines, don't you agree?  It's the same for both of us, Raldl, for, let me tell you, I can vouch for similar unacceptable phenomena in my own existence.  What has been allotted to us is simply not good enough, eh?  But we'll solve it, you and I."

Lulled towards this wish-fulfilment dream, Raldl's half-drowned rational self cried, "But look here, we can't create our own fate-lines.  If we could have what we want with a snap of the fingers, fates would not be fates."

"Bahhh!" Xolchunnur hissed, "though we cannot 'create' the lines, we can select them." 

Raldl had to listen.

In intimate confidence the voice continued to explain, insist, persuade.  The voice was level now, utterly reasonable in tone, no matter how momentous its claims.

"We can choose at will out of the infinity of lines.  Pick whichever you like, seize your right to dance among them all, side-stepping, evading, grabbing what's best for your dignity and well-being, and thus you'll assert your right to a decent fate.  - Which brings us," continued the voice after Raldl had still found no answer, "to the down-payment."

"In what currency must you be paid?" quavered the Osonian, recovering his own voice at last.

"Didn't I say 'commitment'?  You make the payment to yourself," was the silken reply, "thus glueing yourself to the exercise of that freedom which my hand of power reaches out to offer to you.  Then no longer will you be limited to whatever humiliations destiny may dish out; for then you will straddle all the lines, putting your weight where you choose..."

Feebly, Raldl cried: "I don't believe it." 

The air chuckled around him.  "Too good to be true?  That's what Thremdu thinks.  Thremdu the World Spirit who does nothing except exist as a sort of thermostat of the world's balance.  Balance!  All right for those on top!  But for those trampled underneath, for those of us kicked around by the currents, it's not so good, is it, Raldl my friend?"

Terrible temptation gripped the man.  He could only flail against it with a crazy insult -

"Only tell me, Xolchunnur, what has it done for you, this straddling-of-all-the-lines; what have YOU been able to do for yourself, apart from perform a rock-dancing trick?"

Exhausted after these words had left his mouth, he half expected the lead rock to precipitate upon him and crush him to the ground.  Once again, though, the Vutchar sounded sure.

"The action of the rocks affirms that I am unsubdued.  A bleak achievement, true; but as my consciousness slides through the ages I am always on the look-out for more."

"And I am the 'more'?"

"You say that in a tone of wonder and disbelief, you small-voiced human.  But consider, is it not reasonable that you will help me by helping yourself?  You are bound to inch me that bit further towards retrieving my greatness, by achieving your own.  For greatness is my food, and that means I must cultivate it in others.  If I fail to do this, I suffer pangs inconceivable to your merely protoplasmic stomach.  The reolues?  The dancing rocks?  They barely keep me alive.  From my merger with this rock-wheeling singularity I do no more than dance defiance at the World Spirit who cut me off.  That is nothing to the uproar I would gladly cause, after you, Tyoyg-man, have assisted me - "

Tyoyg - collaborator with darkness - but -

Raldl acquiesced in the dream-come-true. 


From behind a desk, the Noad of Oso eyed the four figures seated in front of him.

For some time Noad Arlok Sed had impressed his people not with shrewd commands but with the weary stolidity of his presence.  He appeared to have aged perceptibly in recent days; the grey fabric of his cloak was matched by his weathered skin; the sombre eyes in his heavy face flicked to and fro, scrutinizing the advisors whom he had summoned to his palace.  

He thought: by Thremdu, they'd better have guessed why I have called them here. 

"Sponndarou," he began, "it is hard for me to admit this, but I have to some extent lost touch of the pulse of my own city."

As he spoke his eyes flashed left, to fix upon the glossy Clsarmwa Trellem, head of the Secret Service. 

Rightly taking this to be an accusation as well as a confession, Clsarmwa flashed back: "I admit the same - otherwise you, Noad, would know more."

With a sombre nod the ruler continued: "As for the crisis concerning which I have summoned you, we can skip any 'briefing'; agreed?"

He was glad at their murmurs of assent.  This was one test they had passed. 

"I called it 'crisis'," the Noad continued, "and yet we appear to have kept it below that level, so far.  My one concern is to keep it that way.  The pot may simmer, for all I care, so long as it does not boil over."

"You may need to knock it over," opined a deep voice.

Veering further left, to the figure at that end of the row, the Noad's gaze came to rest on the craggy visage of fleet commander Adaan Merreb.

"Regrettably, omzyr A-M, it may come to that," the Noad agreed.  "Pre-emptive force."

That was a condition of the post he held as Focus of his city.  During the thousands of days of his reign he had never failed in his trust, and to keep that record pure he would if necessary be ruthless.

The omzyr, he well knew, would back up drastic action against an internal threat as loyally as he would against an external foe. Utterly devoted to the maintenance of order, Adaan Merreb was a pillar of the State.  In fact many people had wondered why the Noad had not selected this formidable commander as his heir.

At the other end of the row sat the contrasting figure of a flouncy woman, suited in garish green under her blue cloak.  She was the adventuress whom, to the amazement of many, was the Noad's actual choice of successor.  Now he addressed her: 

"Daon Kedin, you look like you have not a care in the world.  I expect that means you're about to tell me that the situation is not as bad as we fear it to be."

The woman, with a tilted side-glance at Adaan Merreb, replied: "You shan't need to unleash the omzyr's forces, Noad Arlok!  That's my guess anyway; although, of course, if there's widespread panic, then yes, you'll have to clamp down.  What we must do is prioritize the avoidance of panic.  We can surely do that merely by telling the truth.  Do that, and we'll be all right."

"Really?" demanded the omzyr.

"In the long run, yes."

"In the very long run," the omzyr sneered.

"Telling the truth..." echoed Noad Arlok Sed.  "Clsarmwa...?"

"Here," the Secret Service chief rested her hand on the shoulder of the girl to her left, "is the Agent you asked me to bring, sponndar Noad.  She knows the culprit personally.  She believes in him."

"And does that mean we should worry more, or less, than Daon Kedin advises?"

"My agent is able to give us some reassuring facts, which corroborate the Daon's view."

The eyes of the Noad now rested upon the girl-Agent. 

Lyan Zett flushed.  This was her big moment.  If she played her part well on this occasion, the Ipitsi Yeen might in truth live up to its "Misgivings-Eraser" name.  Dry-mouthed, she began:

"Eighteen days ago, on 10,543,837 Ac, the tour guide Raldl Otehr returned to Oso from his stay at the Tor Yhrviy where he had stayed for a few days to consult the Keeper of the Grove, Fraydsten Nahi..."

The Noad intervened: "Do we know for what purpose he went there?"

"I went and questioned the Keeper about this," said the girl agent, "and it seems Raldl just wanted to ask advice about how to cope with pressure - the pressure of disapproval - " her tone tautened - "that's to say, his feeling of being hated or snubbed or condemned by those who don't like his tour-guide activities." 

"Pressure from us, in other words," said the Noad grimly.

"Deal with that point, Lyan," urged Clsarma.

"Fraydsten the Keeper told me he sympathised with Raldl," said the girl, "but that his advice to Raldl had been, to put up with the way things were, and rise above it all.  It should be no surprise - the Keeper explained - that Raldl's guided tours, though well-meant, have roused fears: so sensitive a subject is the nightmare era of the Mad City.  Fraydsten finally urged Raldl to gain a peaceful perspective on his personal wrongs, by paying a visit to a far vaster natural wrongness, namely, the singularity of the reolues."

Nodding at this speech, the Noad said, "And it remains for us to decide whether we share the Keeper's view.  Clsarmwa!  What are the objective conclusions of the Service, concerning the rumoured risk that this Raldl Otehr might revive the Mad City?"

The blunt question had finally been asked.

No one in Oso was immune to the fumes of panic that might arise from such bluntness.  However, each of those present possessed an educated mind, capable of wielding intellectual derision to blow back the pall of fear which threatened to descend.

Clsarma said firmly:

"We've sifted all that, time and again.  No such danger exists.  The intelligence of the Mad City is dead beyond recall.  To revive it is simply not possible."

"Yes," said the Noad; "that sounds fine, only I like to hear the reason.  What made it so dead beyond recall?"

"Entropy.  You can't revive a dead Ghepion any more than you can unscramble an egg."

"You mean," said the Noad, "that though all the physical ingredients may still be in existence, the vital ingredient was the pattern, and that was destroyed.  But," the Noad went on, "we ourselves, we humans, every time we sleep or die..."

"Ghepions don't sleep, nor do they reincarnate," Clsarmwa riposted.

"All right, all right, so we'll take that as settled."

With that, the Noad looked round the room, sensing a relaxation as if - inanely - the statement of a truth made it stronger, not just true but truly true. 

"We must additionally decide," the Noad went on, "to what extent we should make allowances for what the people may think.  Fears, being facts in themselves, no matter how ill-founded, have their own reality, and let me confess that I myself am not immune: I am far from easy about what Raldl Otehr has been doing since his return.  Historians tell us that Ghepions can't reincarnate, yet rumours still spread of an imminent revival, a new bid for domination to be launched by a re-awakened Mad City; and the worst dread is that this time, having learned from the mistakes it make in its last life, it will win.  That's the story now doing the rounds of our city, and I have no idea how or why that tour-guide has been planting such seeds of terror; but let's first of all decide what to do about it."

The omzyr said, "Can we not simply... sequester this person?"

"Hmmm, a tempting move, Adaan Merreb," replied the Noad, "only, I suspect we may have left it too late for that."

"What?" spluttered the fleet commander.  "Why 'too late'?"

"I might not have needed to call this meeting," smiled the Noad, "if I were sure of the answer to that.  Raldl Otehr has got something, whatever it is.  My political instincts tell me, he has it on a hair-trigger."

"And my instincts tell me," the omzyr smiled grimly, "that if he dared to make a fight of it, we'd win."

"It could be a costly win.  Which is why I wish to avoid any crude move by us which might push him to a disastrous action.  But if you insist otherwise, omzyr A-M, you're welcome to take my place."

"No thank you, Noad!"

"Then over to you, Daon Kedin Kanad," said the ruler, turning to his heir, and figuratively remarked:  "It's time we all knew what's in the folds of your cloak."

She began, "We must use our human resources."

"Which sounds portentously like you, Kedin.  Come, flourish your find."

Like some sacred burglar who has been given impunity to swagger off with sackfuls of loot in broad daylight, Kedin could steal attention and sway onlookers to approve her every reckless plan -  and today, thought the Noad, today's going to be no different.

Kedin readily embarked on her exposition: "I'm gleaning more and more, from the section of the public that goes on Raldl's guided tours, ideas which could mean, not that the Mad City is about to return, but that something quite as bad is about to be grafted onto our history, via concurrent fate-rays.  For instance - some youngsters are re-defining the adjective 'mad' as a compliment - "

"Pranks.  Jokes."  Adaan Merreb was dismissive.

"No, they're not being funny; they mean it."  She gazed around the room.  "I sense that nobody here feels like laughing, either."

"Any other evidence?" asked the Noad.

Kedin shook her head.  "Just the fact that Hlor Humma is a public utility that can be accessed by anyone; no study has been made of how far it may be possible to - as one might say - co-operate creatively with the Brain."

"All right," sighed the Noad, "give us your suggestion, Kedin.  Earlier you said, prioritise the avoidance of panic.  Now tell us how."

"Fight popularity with popularity.  Set one exceptional individual against another."

"You have that pleased look," said the Noad.  "You've netted someone."

"I've bagged a living legend, who is waiting outside."

"Bring him in, Daon."

Kedin sauntered to the door, opened it, beckoned and ushered into the room a man of middle age, tall and rugged, with the easy stride and the far look of a seasoned voyager.  A fine sight, but then, Uranian society is replete with such men in the dignified prime of their adventurous lives; however, this one's 'far look' was further; in some indescribable sense extraordinary; cloaking him with an aura which prompted the Noad to recall certain recent outgrowths of popular legend.

"You are Yadon, the Starsider?"

"I am."  A soft-spoken reply.

"Do you know why you have been brought here?" the Noad asked, a spark of hope kindling in his mind.

"From what your Daon has told me, it is to do with the clamour surrounding Raldl Otehr."  The tone mantled the words with patience and ease.  Here was a man who could learn anything and worry about nothing.

Daon Kedin added: "Yadon has already met Raldl.  They were both at the Grove."

"Starsider," said the Noad, "your folkloric fame has preceded you, and my Daon, who has brought you here, is wearing a triumphant look.  You haven't been in Syoom for more than a few hundred days but already you are a hero of fantastic tales."

Yadon shrugged, "Words are cheap."

"And plentiful.  People say you have slain a monster city, spoken with the World Spirit, defeated an invasion from the Ringed Planet... Perhaps therefore, given the current state of affairs in Oso, you should be invited to our counsels.  What do you say?  Will you help us?"

"You're considering," guessed Yadon, glancing from Noad to Daon and back, "whether to arrest Raldl Otehr?"

"We are - but we hope it won't come to that.  We dislike having to trammel a crowd-puller.  Besides, perhaps in this case we no longer dare."

Yadon nodded.  "Suppression might - you fear - add further resonance to his cause."

"That's often the way, isn't it?  Especially when the past flexes its muscle."

"A case of anamnesis?"

"Remembrance of details from a previous existence," agreed Noad Arlok, raising his brows in further respect, "can be a potent source of trouble.  But the situation is more serious still.  Actually we can rule out anamnesis here, since Raldl is a first-lifer: and without previous incarnation he can't have developed any resonance with the Mad City."

"Then what's the danger?" asked Yadon bluntly.

The Noad's fist crashed onto the desk.  "Broken skies!" he ejaculated, "can't you sense it?  Do you require a volumetric analysis?"

"I perceive the stress you're under," the Starsider said, calm as ever.

Mopping his brow, the Noad said, "Sorry for the outburst.  We're faced with a rurrup."  Hard word to say - bound to be hard, to mention a something-that-should-not-be-inquired-into - but somehow Yadon's presence made it easier.

"I'll see what I can do," replied the man from Olhoav. 

Turning with a relaxed sigh to his Secret Service chief, the Noad then said, "I must now borrow your Agent"; and to the girl herself he said, "Lyan, you will go with Yadon on the next guided tour."

With the order given, the Noad sat back, a peaceful expression overspreading his face.  "We've made a start," he said.


Lyan Zett awoke next morning unable to remember ever having felt so good. 

She enjoyed the afterglow of a fascinating dream in which she had had the freedom to float, bodiless, inside a giant computer, while she and it conversed in a fluent exchange of popular slang.  She decided it must have symbolized the better sort of Ghepion, the opposite of the Mad City - an excellent sign, and quite understandable in view of what was scheduled for today.

Her limbs fairly twitched with eagerness as she sprang out of bed to greet the morning, which was due to roar ahead with the Great Show.  Broken skies! she felt as lively as a ten-tentacled murcling gnadd.  

From the window she could see knots of folk whose gestures and springy stances told her it was not just she, it was the entire city that rejoiced at the lifting of a cloud of fear.

For good reason.  The tour fixed for today, 10,543,856 of the Actinium Era, was to be more than a tour.  The most lavish historical reconstruction ever organized by Raldl Otehr, it was billed as a final assurance. 

The announcement had come hard on the heels of the Noad's crisis meeting and had been greeted with huge relief.  Permission had been given - gladly given - for the kind of colourful, innocuous, popular pageant, the promise of which must waft relief throughout Oso's atmosphere.  Swiftly the positive pressure-front of that sense of relief had surged over and smothered that unease which, in the hearts of many (Lyan Zett included), had previously shadowed their thoughts of Raldl's plans.

Whether the smothered concern retained some vestige of subconscious existence, and might re-surface when its moment came, or whether it had dissolved for good - Lyan neither knew nor cared.

She'd better get ready so that she could set off early enough to walk to the Bleftal Frustum.  Chances were, the crowds would be too immense to allow her a place to park a skimmer, so it would be better to walk.  Next she remembered that she would have to walk in any case, because she was supposed to be calling for the Starsider, Yadon, on the way. 

No matter that the situation had been transformed by the reassurance which Raldl had given the authorities; the Noad's instruction remained explicit.  "Lyan," the ruler had said, "you will go with Yadon on the next guided tour."

She clicked her tongue.  Entirely pointless, now, to bother with the wandering stranger.  Yesterday, at the palace conference, it had seemed a great coup to produce the fellow, but since then his presence had become redundant.  Oh well - she shrugged - an undertaking was an undertaking.  She and Yadon would attend the Show together.  Thus she would have kept her word; and besides, Yadon was a man whose company, in normal circumstances, she'd have found absorbing.  Only on a day as momentous as this would her attention most likely be drawn away from him. 

Twenty minutes later she knocked at the Olhoavan's lodgings. 

He answered the door straightaway; he, too, must have been ready early - but not (to judge from his relaxed demeanour and polite smile) either from haste or from excitement.  "Skimmjard, sponndar L-Z," he greeted her.

"Come on, Yadon, it's the big day!" fizzed Lyan.

The man's rugged features remained calm. 

"I'm still not too clear why the Noad expects that I may resolve this business."

"Oh, forget about all that," replied Lyan.  "Today there's nothing left to resolve.  All's sure to be all right now."

"Well, thank you for coming to fetch me, anyway," said Yadon, falling into step beside her.  "Where are we going?"

"Where everybody's going!  The Bleftal Frustum."

After a few more moments the Starsider remarked, still in his soft-spoken way, "Not everybody's going straight there, it seems."  For an increasingly audible tramping of boots, with the developing undertone of a chant of voices, surrounded Lyan and Yadon as they emerged from the lodging-house alleys. 

Now they were walking in wider streets, overhung by palatial globes which dangled from the walkways that bellied like hammocks, and which in turn were connected to longer bridge-spans and aerial skimways.  Along these various routes came both pedestrian and airborne processions, headed in various directions which could not all lead to the Bleftal Frustum.

"It's city-wide," Lyan explained.

"Wonderfully organized," Yadon remarked.  He was looking up and from side to side, doubtless observing how the processions interlaced.  "What does it all mean, I wonder."

"Ask this one," suggested Lyan gaily.  "Look, this is Sehartix, coming our way."  A company of about thirty youngsters was marching to funnel into the same route she and Yadon were on.  The beat of their chant grew heavier and became verbally recognizable:

Patterns of greatness
Sliced the air...

Patterns of greatness
Sliced the air...

As they repeated the words, they wheeled their arms in gestures which might have been exaggerations of those used by Raldl Otehr to indicate points of interest on his tours.

Lyan matched her step to his to that of the youth named Sehartix who led the march.  He and Lyan greeted each other with the same triumphant, sing-song tone.  "Brinty-flim, Sehartix!"  "Brinty-flim, Lyan!" replied the marcher, his smile fixed in petrified good-humour.

"'Brinty-flim'?" queried Yadon.

Sehartix peered at him over Lyan's head.  "You are a stranger in Oso?"

"This is Yadon the Starsider!" bubbled Lyan.  "Yadon, brinty-flim is the watchword for today's Show."

"And it means...?"

Sehartix intervened, "It's our slang for argue either way.  We can't lose."

The procession began to snake upwards along a ramp which threaded between a line of towers.  Sehartix resumed his chant, joined by Lyan.  Yadon alone kept quiet.


...kept quiet as he surveyed the urban vista from the ramp's ascending vantage.  More and more chanting lines of people came into view.  They were forming a picture, secretly comparable, in his Terran memory, to caterpillars crawling in their myriads along the branches of a shrub. 

Yadon next began to note, between the vertices of buildings, and between the towers of skimways and walkways, lights which flashed and leaped in time with the rhythm of the chants. 

These hypnotic occurrences had scant appeal to the Olhoavan; he shook his head at them, and wondered about 'Brinty-flim' - 'Arguing either way'.  So far, he'd heard no argument voiced at all; but his ear did begin to catch a variation in the chant.  Patterns of greatness / Sliced the air...   sometimes became rearranged with "slice" - in the present tense - instead of "sliced". 

He remarked aloud to Sehartix, "You're switching to the present."

"Vivid, vivid!"

Yadon firmed his lips; what was the point of asking questions?  His long time on this world had taught him the fatalistic, the Uranian way of acceptance of inevitable mystery.  That approach did quite appeal to him.

On the other hand, he had not forgotten that yesterday the government of this city had asked him for his help; which meant that some people did think you could do something about things. 

The chanting caterpillar-formations were now being funnelled into a much larger general shape, an illusion of a city-wide amphitheature created from selective illumination of other structures augmented by persistence-of-vision brightnesses scudding across gaps. 

Yadon's attention was drawn to the base of the design; he peered down at the focus of it all.

It was some forty yards below him, an octagonal space surrounded a truncated pyramid. Lyan ceased her chant long enough to say, "That's our destination, the Bleftal Frustum.  Look, see the vlomboz!"

"What - those frozen drips of..." He silently finished the sentence in English, drips like icing-sugar

Lyan excitedly specified, "Yes, the historic meltings.  The relics of the catastrophe of Era 50.  What better place for the Show?"  She blinked at him, puzzled by his apparent lack of enthusiasm.

"And has the Show, the real Show, started?"

"Well, what do you think, Yadon?" she asked tartly.

"I suspect it has not yet really begun."  He pointed downwards at the lone, central figure standing on the steps of the Frustum.  "The chanting will have to stop first.  Otherwise there's no way that he will be heard, when he speaks to us, as I suppose he will."  

Lyan Zett, instead of answering, bade farewell to Sehartix:  "This is where we leave your procession.  See you later, maybe."  Sehartix gave a casual wave and he and his procession marched on past to pursue their widening spiral, while Lyan took Yadon's arm and swerved onto a ramp that led down towards the Frustum.

Yadon asked, "Won't there be a crush?"

"We're better organized than that!  Raldl's not being mobbed; he's the essential pivot, the fulcrum; we'd be stupid not to allow him his space." 

"Hmm.  Lyan, before you start chanting again, can you explain..."

"Look, can't you tell, this is a clean-up!" snapped the girl at Yadon's politely quizzical expression.  "We're going through the Mad City's motions, to mock them!  To show that the pattern can be made by our will!  That's our defiance of the old shame."

Yadon nodded, "I get you.  It's your argument this time, your modern side of the brinty-flim."

"At last!  About time you got it!"


"And before you say it's dangerous, remember, the Mad City's brain was scrambled, it's dead and gone.  No copying can revive a dead thing, so relax and enjoy our celebration, Yadon... oh, you still look as though you want to say something."

He shook his head, but then he said it.

"I fear you've been had."

"What does that mean?  I don't know that language."

Switching back from English, Yadon with a mild grimace said, "Don't mind me.  I'm new here."

Lyan scowled back, and let the matter go, and once more joined with the general chant:

...patterns of greatness / slice the air -

Amid a dense crowd they reached the city floor.  United with the chanting multitude (except that Yadon kept his mouth shut) they at first moved along one of the disciplined, dignified, well-spaced lines of people.  Yadon however then quietly diverged, to weave inward towards a quieter central region, towards the eye of the cyclone, and Lyan, after some hesitation, and wishing to keep an eye on him, followed.

In the inmost zone, the hundred or so folk who occupied the floor were not chanting, but silently shuffling. 

Tour Guide Raldl Otehr gazed down at them from the central steps...


...Raldl's awareness blazed with hallucinatory alertness to the rush of time, the minutes hissing past like air against the cowl of a speeding skimmer.  Unstoppable, the countdown towards Oso's destiny!  Inevitable, the comfort and resolve that seeped up through the soles of his boots!  The guidance furnished by Hlorr Humma, the city's well-loved Ghepion Brain, embraced the city and the citizenry in one throbbing pageant.

No doubt the legs of the hundred or so shufflers in the inner ring surrounding Raldl Otehr felt similar support pumping up through flesh and bone, though not as surely as the Tour Guide himself, whose privilege was to stand still.  Perhaps the inner-ringers were less than completely happy; perhaps it was to be expected that the intelligentsia would suffer some itchy anxiety; but whatever unease they might have, he had picked them all, to provide components for the cerebral administration of the new order.  That should qualify them.

Except - who was this?  A dusty-cloaked lounger?  Leaning against a pillar: a fellow whom he had not picked.

After a moment, Raldl recognized him.  It was the wanderer whom he had befriended at the Torh Yhrviy Crystal Grove. 

Carefree, that jaunt had been.  For a few moments of sudden sadness Raldl squeezed his eyes shut, regretting the unlikelihood of a return to the Grove, to the calm which his future appeared to lack.  Never mind!  Who knows, perhaps this Yadon fellow might be recruited! 

Raldl sent a pulse of his thought - or imagined he did so - down through his own boots, into the sub-floor maintenance grid.  Rightly or wrongly he felt himself to be in touch with a communications cluster under the Ghepion's control.  Mentally he requested that his message bounce back and up through the boots of the Starsider. 

Join us, Starsider Yadon, in the great work.

Promptly then, in what seemed to be proof that the procedure was real, Yadon shifted his lank frame and walked forward: he'd got the message!  

Reaching the base of the steps, Yadon tilted up his face.

"Skimmjard, Raldl!  Your tour-guide business has certainly expanded!  Are you still charging a fee?  If so, you must now be a rich man."

Taken aback and even chilled by this cheeky greeting, the humour of which ran acid, Raldl flicked a glance around to note that the other folk in the inner zone were frozenly attentive like himself.  He had better not risk banter now.  The response must fit the clang of fate. 

"What we're aiming at today is a thing beyond any price," Raldl reproved.  "Quietus for the victims of ancient shame."

"Provided you don't bring more shame," amended Yadon.

Raldl could only resort, as usual, to the stock argument, the oft-repeated stifler of doubts:

"Scrambled patterns are dead beyond recall."

"I'm sure that's so," Yadon replied, "but what's to stop you creating another?"

The air was rent by a woman's cry - and the crowd wheeled to look.  They picked out Lyan Zett.  Lyan Zett, who had been so happy this morningshine, so sure that all would be well - and who had now remembered something crucial.  Two syllables tore from her throat:  "NUZ-NONG!"

"Oh - " began Raldl - and realized - irrevocably - that "nuznong" meant something to the crowd -

"YES - " another shrill voice took up the cry: "NUZNONG!"  "Aaaaargh, it's out!" cried another.  A third one cried, "Yaaaark, the grime, the outrage!"  Another: "Multiple assurances about the Mad City - forget them.  A new woe, that's what we've triggered by these cursed tours."

"QUIET!" cried Raldl Otehr, holding both fists aloft.  He performed a wrenching gesture and boomed, "LISTEN!" and by and large the people obeyed, perceiving in him a more-than-human intensity, as though their young tour-guide were dilated from within by some shadowy power that allowed him to scotch their babble.

"You have just heard it suggested," he continued, "that a thought-suppressant nuznong has been employed against us.  You think its aim is to hide from you a new and evil plan, to let loose a modern force equivalent to the madness of Era Fifty.  Well, just stop and think!  Our modern-day Ghepion is - what?  You all know: Hlorr Humma is our beloved city-maintenance Brain."

Some of them hung their heads, reflecting upon the growing belief that Hlorr Humma was alive: an infant Ghepion.  Affection, not doubt, was what they felt they ought to feel.

"...Indispensable to our prosperous way of life," Raldl's voice drove at them.  "Feel nen's beat, feel the personal warmth that pulses up through the floor; every moment, Hlorr Humma is assuring us that nen is just as anxious as we are to wipe the shame of the past.  Hlorr Humma is on our side."

Many heads nodded, some eagerly, others half-heartedly, while doubtful faces turned in hope, not towards Raldl but towards Yadon.  What could the stranger say?

With loud neutrality the Starsider remarked, "One would indeed expect the second time to be different." 

Lyan Zett shoved herself in front of him and seconded his words, but in a tone that charged the atmosphere:

"Oh y-e-e-e-s, oh YES, Raldl Otehr - different routes to the same end!"

The shock of her fury caused Raldl's his tongue to twist in his mouth, and out came a gargle, a retaliation which became coherent with reciprocal rudeness:

"Is this the best you can do, stupid wirrip?" 

"Whaaaaaat?" blanched Lyan, and Yadon saw her hand reach for her holster.

"Wait," and the Olhoavan restrained her arm; "you're not really hearing Raldl; he is being told off, himself."

She gasped, "What do you mean?"

"Before he spoke just then, he was trying to say 'sorry', only the word would not come out - eh, sponndar Raldl?" he finished loudly.

No good answer.  Only a sigh, for Raldl had made the down-payment some days ago and now he must go through with the rest of the purchase.  That awkward customer, Yadon, had evidently guessed.  The others would soon see:

In speaking to me, to the human form they see as Raldl Otehr, they are speaking to a mouthpiece.

Well, let it be so; let Xolch make his case through me. 

"Osonians," came the cry from the tour guide's lungs, "you can pick, you can pick, you are freed!  Freed from your past, no longer constrained or obligated at all, for from today, from now, you can CHOOSE your obligations, and get them showered with approval from your blame-free futures, by picking whatever fate-line you choose from your straddled bundle - pick, preen it, brandish and ride!  It's your own, chosen by you!"

During this harangue, Raldl's own will had sunk so far, he could only listen passively to what issued from his mouth, but the many folk who liked it and who grinned, did not know that.  In fast recovery from the nuznong-suspicion, they very much liked what they heard; as Xolchunnur well knew, the people of Oso had long had a hankering for free-fate doctrine: the guilt-free, restraint-free, conscience-free belief which is bound to trigger a release of power.  Within another minute or two it would tip past the point of no return...

But what was Yadon doing now?  The fellow had moved back a step, perhaps so as better to frame the rest of the gathering in his field of view, before he addressed them all loudly:

"You're saying, Raldl, that we can hop at will from one fate to another."

"Yes," came from Raldl's mouth; "that is what I have learned."

"No fooling?  This lavish Fate-bundle really is on offer?"

"Yes indeed."

"You've been lied to."

Another scenic lurch; another collective slap in the face of the gathering.  Lied to - lied to - echoed round the crowd.  It penetrated all ears.  Murmurs swelled.  New confusion widened.  An anger which was unsure of its focus took uncertain hold.

Retaliation, however, was delayed.  The chances, in the opinion of the skulking spirit of Xolchunnur, were bound to be against Yadon, so why interfere?  All that the Intelligence needed to do was wait for a lethal wave of disappointment from all the wishful thinkers in the crowd, and for that wave to gather against the impudent Starsider.  Meanwhile the Intelligence could utter a taunt through Raldl's mouth. 

"Fates do come in bundles, and you, little drifter-man, cannot refute that."

"Oh but I can," Yadon smiled.  "That 'bundle' theme has been played out on Earth."

"Earth?"  An inhuman wheeze strained Raldl's throat and caused him to double up.  Several in the crowd cried out at the sight. 

Yadon turned once to shush the people and then turned back, to face the haunted figure on the Frustum steps. "Yes, whatever you are.  I said 'Earth'.  You know who I am, don't you?  My mind once lived on Earth.  Listen to me if you dare."

Xolch/Raldl's senses contract into a blob of dismay, pummelled by the name of the Third Planet.  "Earth," the Intelligence hissed.  "An infant compared to Ooranye."

Yadon's argument advanced regardless.

"For all our world's infancy, we Terrans have forgotten more fallacies than you will ever invent.  This 'bundle' business is old hat.  It was tried on after a philosopher of ours had rightly said, 'I think, therefore I am'.  The bundlers stupidly sought to undermine the concept of 'I' with a lot of blah about how awareness fluctuates and varies and evolves; an argument which is the more self-refuting the more it is coherently advanced, for what but an 'I' can argue at all?  People of Oso!" - the Starsider's gaze swept the crowd - "whatever line of action you choose, and however many lines you may choose amongst, your finalised choice is one fate-wave, just as your ego is the one and only 'I' who rides the wave.  So don't ever think you can hop away from the consequences of your actions."

Hundreds of beclouded faces evinced the dashing of hopes, though many were braced by the honest words.  Wafting over all this, however, came the signature-stench of a rage and despair, of a spiritual evil that could not abide the rupture of its idea. 

Raldl Otehr, mind as well as body crouched, trembled at the thought of how the Fiend must lash out in its retreat.  Yadon had destroyed the belief, without which Xolchunnur could not proceed to the next and final stage in nen's plan.  Now it would never happen: the pulling together of all the awarenesses in Oso into a modernised Mad-City gestalt, ready to launch a fresh assault upon the rest of Syoom.  Never, now; the explosion, the destruction, still-born.  For on Ooranye - we must stress this to Terran readers - a crowd can be swayed by intellect. 

Still, the defeated Adversary in its rage might (for all Raldl knew) do dreadful damage.  These were moments of nightmare for the guilty tour-guide. 

The best he could shamefacedly hope for, was that the malevolent Intelligence might wreak its vengeance on the Terran alone.  Yes, a Terran!  The man really was a Terran - or so Xolchunnur's dismay seemingly confirmed.  Wonder piled on wonder!  Of course, Yadon's fantastic claim might still not be true.  Yet lunatics and lying show-offs are so rare on Ooranye, that the presence of one at this crux would be a coincidence just about as startling as the claim itself.

Be that as it may, Xolchunnur would hate to lose face.  The meddler who had unmasked his fraudulent ideology would go down in legend - and the only way to nip that legend in the bud would be to kill everyone here present.  And surely, an entity which had demonstrated, out on the plain, that it could juggle enormous blocks of stone. had the power to murder on a grand scale.  No boulders were available here, but it might rip or throw bodies about - 

What saved the people of Oso will never be surely known.  But it would seem that the credit must be shared.

Part of it belongs, it is believed, to Raldl himself.  Collapsed, he lay on the Frustum's plinth, his limbs contorted, his lungs working feebly, but his mind as acute as it had ever been in his life.  He pushed and worked at one idea, which was to repair the disaster he had helped create.  The thoughts he directed, at the monster mind which pervaded him, laid stress on the future.  "You've lost it, Xolch, you've lost it.  But it's not too late to go.  Depart, and live to achieve greatness in a different fashion, on another day.  But if you try to kill us all now, and happen to miss just one or two of us, who knows but that the World Spirit, from which you split away, might not intervene?  It hates to intervene, but it has done so before, and if it did so now, you would not survive.  Go, Xolch: depart while you can, before you weaken further, before you become helplessly stuck among people who have ceased to believe in your message."

Yadon also, by his quiet departure from the scene, removed much of Xolchunnur's motive to stay; that malign Intelligence, deprived of the focus of nen's hatred, had no further urge to linger, and began a vaporous trickle outwards...


Three days later, on 10,543,859 Ac, the tour guide was sufficiently recovered to resume his normal activities. 

Perforce he had risen in society; this time the group he led included several notables, among whom were numbered the Noad himself, the Daon, the head of the Secret Service and the omzyr of the skyfleet.  The occasion went well, and afterwards they all professed themselves satisfied with the tour.

It was hard to say exactly what they had planned to superintend, for memories of recent days were confused.  But what contented them was the quiet evidence, the unspoken conclusion that the old swells of nightmare had subsided and that, as far as historical awareness was concerned, peace would henceforth reign in Osonian hearts.  Ancient events were ancient events, tamed and scrubbed of fear.

"Well," said Raldl afterwards to Lyan, who met him for a meal at the Nezzen, "it all went splendidly, I must say."

"I thought so too," she said.

"Hey - how would you know?  You weren't there; you had duties elsewhere, or so you told me."

"Raldl," said Lyan, and leaned across the table towards him.  Her tone quietened him.

"My duties," she said, "were to watch you from further off.  If aught seemed amiss, I was to signal to the fleet's Number Two." 

He looked up at her with a frown of wariness and sudden dread.

"Now then, Raldl," she went on, hastening to quell the incipient glare, "I know that you've resented - "

"No, no," he interrupted with equal haste as the sun of his smile broke though; "I've just had the thought, that I really want you to keep watch on me, for the rest of my life." 


Uranian Throne Episode 19:   

The Non-Dummy Run