Any visitor to Oso is likely, sooner or later, to be led by curiosity to the Bleftal Frustum. Its broad steps and the surrounding Octagon comprise one of the city's most popular spaces, due partly to its location conveniently close to the urban hub, but consequent also upon the building's historic importance.
Rimmed by overhanging porches, which are covered with what to a Terran would seem like toppings of icing sugar, the Frustum thus betrays its survival from the two hundred and fifty-four terrible days of the short Tin Era. Never to be forgotten, that ravening ordeal won Oso its undying reputation as the Mad City.
The drooping whitenesses, which look as though they have melted and are about to overflow and fall on the pedestrians below, are in reality as hard as rock. They are the toppings known as the vlomboz, which
have been motionless for long ages, ever 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 exist at other points in Oso, but the most complete set is that boasted by the Bleftal Frustum.
Catering for sightseers has long been a business.
The hollow-cheeked, unsmiling young man at the top of the steps stood counting heads. From deep eye-sockets his gaze roved over the eighteen chattering tourists who had assembled on the level below. Then, satisfied as to the number, he descended to meet them.
am Raldl Otehr," he introduced himself, 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.
He continued, professionally amiable: "You've all paid your ticket-fees for the so-called Bozmur Trail. That sounds definite; but I'll be honest with you right at the start: we can't be sure, after thirty-nine eras, of the exact route taken by the impulses of the Thing whom we Osonians prefer not to mention."
That was the first dry hint of the miniaturised dread that these folk had come to enjoy. As a successful tour guide, he knew just how to thrill the curious from foreign cities who came to wallow in the scene of his city's ancient crime. What was once a peril that shook the world, was now a plaything of the imagination.
"And yet, be of good cheer," he went on sardonically; "whether we know it or not, we can't fail, at some point or other, to trace those paths, and when that happens, perhaps, who knows, your own nerves may twang in sympathy..."
Some of the chucklers at this point did indeed look a trifle nervous. Raldl Otehr gave a thin smile, acknowledging and sharing the appreciation of his joke. The establishment of rapport had begun. Today's job looked like an easy one. No tour was ever precisely the same as another, but some types naturally recurred among his clientele.
Here we who tell this tale are moved to mention, not for the first time, the problems that beset us as we endeavour to make our narrative readable by Terrans. How to convey the likeness of the tourists in Raldl's group? Literal description will not do. Uranians are so good-looking that you would be bound to think, if we described the gathering literally to you, that it must have consisted of a bland and implausible bunch of movie-star types. The gradations visible to Raldl would not be noticeable by you 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 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, of course, the group included some who were not in the predictable class.... Broken Skies! Look there! The girl slouching with her fists in the pockets of her heavy cloak.
Yes, it was Lylan 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. He'd show her, by his relaxed demeanour, how little she had disturbed his emotional equilibrium; or 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 which we'll stop at the Nezzen, half way along the Srangalom, for something to eat and drink, and 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, and 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.
Oso had its modern life to live; for someone who did not know of the events that had made the place most notorious, it would not have seemed at all strange. However, virtually everybody did know at least the macabre outline of that crux of its history.
The scene never failed to draw crowds from all over Syoom...
He 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, letting my emotions play with safe terror. After all, as a native Osonian I am every bit as absorbed as they, if not more, in the epic of Era Fifty. Anyhow, it's not only foreigners that join my tours... Lylan Zett, for example...
Lylan, my fellow-citizen, as I know to my cost.
No, mustn't think "cost". For me the end of that story was a lesson worth learning.
Raldl Otehr shoved his ex-lover out of his mind and concentrated on the job at hand. He had led his group as far as the "elbow" region 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, do you see the so-called 'fingers' jutting from either side of the gap - " he pointed - "between the Srangalom and the Trij? (Sorry, I'm in your wazy, Marogga; 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 travelling along the skimway rail.) "Don't worry, it is mere galvanic 'life', not real survival... It's really quite all right!" he reiterated with playfully unconvincing reassurance so as to ramp up the tension. (AIEEE! - came another shriek of pleasurably truncated pretend-fear, at the dazzling blur's spurt across the gap between the greater and the secondary avenue.)
Raldl smiled around at his customers, most of whom were wiping their foreheads. One and all, they must be getting their money's worth of shock. 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. He reminded them all of the common knowledge that any complex city must have a central co-ordinating maintenance computer, which might be, but need not be, a Ghepion - a machine that has evolved into sentience. "As far as is known at the moment," he remarked in answer to a querulous inquiry from Marogga's husband Vormazat, "the Osonian central computer is just a dumb though clever machine. What you saw was a physical, or, if you like, physiological, by-product of the power-distribution cycle. Equivalent to an instinctive process."
"But might you not be wrong? Might the thing actually be a Ghepion?"
"If it is, then we still don't need to worry. You see, if, unknown to us, our present machine has become a Ghepion, we can nevertheless be sure, from the experience of ages, that the consciousness of the 'Mad City' has not been passed on. Reincarnation is for human beings only; dead Ghepions don't come back."
That last reassurance was delivered in a tone of unmistakable sincerity.
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 snacks. "We set off from here in half an hour," he said. Out of the corner of his eye he looked for Lylan, but she, apparently, was one of those who chose to scatter to do their own thing during the break. Probably just as well, Raldl thought. I have found the right cloak of studied indifference but even so, it's easier not to have to wear it...
He found 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 the Ghepion? Surely it must have known it was going to lose?"
"Ha, a sensible attitude!" commended Raldl. "And you may have put your finger on the answer - namely, it was so stupid an idea, it had to happen only once."
Reflectively the lad nodded, and crunched some klast.
An attractive woman of about 9000 days called Detsi Grelonn uttered four words with soft serenity, "Go study the reolues, Zlodid." The reolues - the 'dancing rocks' - were the epitome of long-accepted mystery, so her message was: go study the reolues, lad, if you want to waste your time on questions which are impossible to answer.
Nevertheless the little exchange with Zlodid prompted Raldl to re-visit certain ideas. They were tentative thoughts which crawled into his mind whenever he got to thinking about what he might add to future tours. He made some mental notes: maybe he might, next time, probe more deeply into questions of ego-expansion, of lust for power and, on the other, fear of competition. His audience might be made to shudder sympathetically at the fears which the Mad City must have had, fears of being out-manoeuvred and constricted; fears which had sent it mad.
Upon the canvas of his imagination he thus added brush-strokes to the bleak landscape of paranoia. Yes, he might do a lot more than he had done so far, to put a scare into these foreign gawpers. That way he could hope to quieten their patronising chortles... stun their tittering complacency...
Lyan Zett distanced herself just far enough during the break, to be hidden from the sight of the tourists and their leader. She turned a corner, leaned against a bulwark of the adjacent Studafol building and pressed a stud on her transceiver.
"Operative Lyan Zett."
Some seconds went by. Then a callous, 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, and had budgeted for the mockery in advance. "I won't vouch for him as a person," she replied in an edgy tone which surprised herself. "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?"
"I should like more time on this case," hedged Lyan, well aware of what her boss meant, and aware also of how lame her own response sounded.
Sure enough, the pitiless Chief immediately picked up on her agent's real motive.
"You wish to prolong your contact with Raldl Otehr, because of your previous... entanglement with him?"
Lyan Zett sighed. "Prolong contact - yes - if such means can avert trouble."
"A fair point," conceded Clsarmwa Trellem. "I'm inclined to take a chance on you, Operative L-Z, since you, better than anyone else on my staff, may be in a position to judge how much danger the man represents. If you had to summarise him in one sentence: what sort of person is he?"
Lyan sensed that a lot hung on her answer to this. She knew her boss had not quite made up her mind. A dull, formal, even-toned reply might well be taken as evasive, and cause a swing of opinion. Recklessly the girl replied in slang fashion, "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, 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, he's likely to follow a line of action that impresses him with its grandeur, whatever the consequences."
A sound like a cough came over the transceiver. Perhaps it was one more sign of hesitation. Then...
"What's your next planned move?"
"Have dinner with him this evening. Try to head him off his track."
A 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 Lyran Zett just before he had to lead part two of the guided walk. During that walk he managed to keep spouting his usual commentary, rolling it out from habit, but underneath he kept amazedly thinking, Did she really stroll up to me and say what she said? Yes, she really did. Casual as you please, her words were, "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...
Round and round as though the inside of his head were a turn-table he played and replayed it all, while outwardly he gave out comments about the Mad City's neurotransmitter, like, "We think the bozmur raced along this route", and "Some attempt was made to stop it, at that junction you can see up there..."
Vaguely he was aware, by the end of it, that it had actually been one of his best performances, his audience having enthusiastically followed his anecdote-studded guidance along - as he poetically put it - "the reach-routes by which the Sinister Sentience wrought its ancient havoc". Oh well, it was just as well he knew his stuff off pat, so that he could reel it off even while suffering some modern havoc of his own, wrought by the insistent question: what was that girl after?
Meanwhile his steps guided him to the Nezzen's most romantic hall. The array of restaurant cubicles for two, known as the Whith, had not been one of his usual haunts for quite a while. He smiled to himself at the little flutter his heart gave as he approached the entrance.
He was on time, and so was she. Well, thought he, this is it, I'm going to have to say something. Hoping for the best, he waited for the words to flow from his tongue. After all, he'd been glib enough during the guided tour. But now, the scene defeated him: from the puckered spheres that glowed above the tables in each booth, the girl appeared adorned in a gentle blue glory, seeming to demand that he recall the way he used to look at her.
...Which had always been somewhat unsteady. She always had managed to present him with a contrast, whereby the firmness of her compact figure was seen through the undulant veil of his own treacherous emotions. Even now, speech was going to cost him an effort. Absurd hesitation!
As it happened, he did not have to think of the opening words.
"You're looking pleased with yourself, Raldl," she said; "and I'd say you've a right to. The tour went well. I enjoyed it."
He found himself grinning, "So we're agreed on something! A good start!"
She gratified him with a chuckle as they passed the luminous sign and entered the cosy blur of the array. An attendant showed them to a booth, took their order and padded off.
Lyan carelessly sat with her back to the opening; Raldl, opposite, reclined against the flap of unholstery abutting the partition.
He took breath and said, "I appreciate," - he reckoned that this was a good way to begin - "your graciousness, after our quarrel, in meeting this civilized way. Still, neither you nor I can really believe that it's possible..."
"Stop," she interrupted gently. "I know what you mean: the past can't be wiped. But it can be... reinterpreted. As you know." Her eyes gained an extra twinkle.
This, thought Raldl, is an obvious dig at me.
He dug back: "We can't 're-interpret' the facts out of existence, though. Like the fact that you, all along, were working for the Ipitsi Yeen."
Thus, with irony, he pronounced the Secret Service's half-humorous name of Misgivings-Eraser.
"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, completely ignoring his last remark, "there's nothing more honourable for an Osonian to do, than to work for the Ipitsi Yeen."
"Keeping watch on stirrers."
"Quite! And that's because our old, soul-shaken city understandably wants a quiet life."
"But then you shouldn't object to the minor stirs. The safe, relatively quiet, internal things, the reflective things which are merely thoughts, nothing but thoughts; in other words: historical memories."
He was being disingenuous, provoking her, and he observed the result, the pursing of her button mouth, the tilt of chin which signalled her control over her sharpening temper.
"To quote my boss," she replied, "'memories can be overdone.'"
"Ah," he teased, "an Ipsi Yeen policy secret revealed." But he didn't really wish to annoy her, and so he hurriedly put a smile on when she banged her fork down on the table.
"It's no secret, it's common sense," she snapped. "A citizenry like ours who need to live down an atrocious episode in a long-gone era, will show vigilant regard for their city's reputation. That's why They - my bosses - don't like you."
"But perhaps," he countered with ease, "our reputation is best safeguarded by frankness, by open interest, by not being afraid, by showing all 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. "I've only been putting to you Their point of view. It's not quite the same as mine; but you did challenge me."
"Sort of," he agreed.
In the pause that followed, Raldl marvelled at the route which the conversation had followed so far. Who, overhearing it, could have guessed that when he arrived here this evening he'd been, by rights, the aggrieved party? That she was the one who had previously made a fool of him, pretending to a closeness while concealing the fact that she was an agent assigned to spy on him?
I suppose, he thought, that it's a measure of my success this evening, that I have kept things fairly smooth. Above all I have avoided the sulks. Nothing's more humiliating than to be the fellow who sulks. Now, already I have won a concession: she has signalled she agrees, or partly agrees, with my take on Oso's reputation. But further hurdles lie ahead. I can sense them. I'll certainly be relieved when I have won free of this 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. However, insofar as they reminded of how things ought to have been, they edged his thoughts towards bitterness. He longed for the trust that could never be recovered.
This 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 prefer to amend it as follows:
Hatred of the wave
Mangling every thought
Maiming all bejeh
"That's drastic," remarked Lyan. "Hatred of the wave!"
"Yes," he confessed, "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, or at any rate they mustn't go too far wrong, and if they do, so much worse for the wave," she said with assurance.
Infuriating assurance, confident and calm delivery, perceptive summary of the way his mind functioned! Raldl focused an angry stare upon the woman who, in return, surveyed him languorously, chin on fist. She was relaxed and sure that she'd sufficiently bombarded him with her charm. In her view, his leaden memories must have been churned, his grievance liquidised into nothing.
If that was what she thought, it was high time he retaliated with a cool put-down.
"To return to our main bone of contention," he said, "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. So, yes, 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 They think I may risk re-igniting the bozmur and thus re-awakening the Mad City, absurd though the idea is; but now you've made it plain that They are merely worried about the reputational effects of my tours, it should be easy to set Their mind at rest: just report to Them all the innocuous stuff you've heard me say to the customers."
"I shall," she said.
However, she said it so entrancedly, with such a rapt gaze, as to send Raldl the message that she had gone light-years ahead of him in considering these matters.
The result was - as he had to acknowledge, with wry amusement - that it was he who had been dealt the put-down.
Well, if it meant that his understanding was incomplete, he was willing enough to wait for more. Here it came: she opened her mouth:
"You've heard, I don't doubt, of the nuznong."
"Correct. I have." He blinked. "As a historical guide, I wouldn't be doing my job, if I hadn't."
The nuznong: the thought-suppressant that the Mad City had used at the outset to blank out certain ideas which, had they occurred to the authorities in time, might have enabled them to stop the Ghepion's disastrous rise.
During that terrible time thirty-nine eras ago, the nuznong had ensured that the folk of Oso simply did not think the thoughts which might have saved them.
"Hey," added Raldl, suddenly interested, "are you scared that the nuznong might be working now?"
"Why not?" she asked brightly. "It's a possibility."
"Oh, absolutely," he grinned. "That's to say - absolutely un-disprovable! It's always possible," he continued because she remained silent, "to argue that our minds might be missing something because we're being made to miss it. Ha-hee," he chuckled, "what a corrosive apprehension!"
"You may think it funny," she said equably, "and I hope you're right to do so, but the fact is, I invited you here not because my superiors are worried, but because I am."
As she spoke she looked up. Raldl, drawn by her gesture, did the same. They both contemplated the puckered spherical lamp above their heads, which bathed their cubicle in its dim, gentle, almost tactile blue glow. A warm, caressing sort of blue, not a reminder of cold distances.
Raldl sensed the mutual upward gaze as a tentative offer of happiness. What did it matter whether (as legend had it) this kind of lamp was a genuine reflecter of emotion, re-emitting warm thoughts in mingled form, 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 Lyan had made a statement, of which the implications were huge.
He could seize upon it in a bid for deliverance from shame. It was possible, if she was telling the truth, that he might not have been made a fool of after all.
"You haven't told Them this opinion of yours?" he asked softly.
A slight wickedness lit up her 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."
"You're playing a lone hand, then. If only I'd known..." Well, he thought, as a matter of fact I still don't really know, still am not sure I can trust you, Lyan. Still, the possibility has soared into brilliant view. I can 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 on it that sad day.
Never would he forget that day, when she had tried to persuade him to change the course of his life: to give up being a tour guide, 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, spending some peaceful days in that spiritual retreat in consultation with the Sjaggalom, the Spurner of Waves, who could show him how to live free of the currents of destiny.
It was an option for which he had long felt a lurking attraction, precisely because it was so radically different from his current way of life.
Possessing the allure of revolution, the beautiful vision ballooned in his mind and, viewing it afresh, now that he could opt for it of his own free will, now that he might seize it without being tricked into it, now that he could view it as his own idea and thus keep his dignity - he craved it.
"...And so I did it," Lyan ended her report. "He'll keep his word, I've no doubt of that; he'll be off to the Torh as soon as he's given notice about the tours and has packed his skimmer. He'll probably be able to set out before the end of morningshine."
"I had the impression," crackled the voice of Clsarmwa from the transceiver, "that he was too hard-headed a type to go for that."
"You don't know him at all," declared Lyan. "You should have seen his eyes when I clinched it by holding up the holocube I'd brought with me, and uttered the saying that wishing is itself a form of travel. You know - 'where the mind goes ahead the body must follow', and so on. And that was that."
"Good," said her boss. "Well done, Agent. And in particular, the way you gave yourself an excuse by using the idea of the nuznong; that was a smart move. So - one peril deflected; one possible disaster averted. Or at least it's a breathing space. We must assume he will return."
"We can hope he'll be more amenable then," remarked Lyad.
"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. Lyan murmured to herself: the nuznong... who knows? None of us do, Clsarmwa.
TO BE CONTINUED IN
Uranian Throne Episode 19:
The Non-Dummy Run