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 together form one of the city's most popular spaces, partly due to its convenient closeness to the urban hub, but also for 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 two hundred and fifty-four terrible days of the Tin Era. Never to be forgotten, that ravening ordeal won Oso its unenviable, 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, 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 of vlomboz exist at other points in Oso, but the most complete set is that boasted by the Bleftal Frustum. Here, 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 eighteen chattering tourists who had assembled on the level below. Presently, 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 it was going to be one of the easy ones. No tour was ever precisely the same as another, but some types naturally recurred among his clientele.
At this point, we who tell this tale are moved to mention, not for the first time, the problems that beset us. We must make our narrative readable by Terrans, but at the same time we wish to keep it true. How to convey the likeness of 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 must have consisted of a bland bunch of movie-star types. The gradations 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, 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 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. 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.
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, and to someone who did not know of the ancient events that had made the place notorious, Oso would hardly seem at all strange. However, virtually everybody does know at least the macabre outline of that crux of history.
The scene never fails to draw crowds from all over Syoom... people unable to resist the lure of the scene of ancient nightmare.
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, playing 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.
And besides, 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 think "cost". Face it: 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 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 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 did not need to remind them all that any complex city must have a central co-ordinating maintenance computer, but he often did need to discuss what nature such a thing might have; for it 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."
"Then those jumping lights - what were they?"
"Equivalent to an instinctive process. A physical, or, if you like, physiological, by-product of the power-distribution cycle."
"But might it be more akin to real thought-flashes? 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," Raldl said. Out of the corner of his eye he looked for Lyan, 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 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 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. Thus her message was: go study the reolues, lad, if you want to waste your time on questions which are impossible to answer.
Nevertheless the exchange with Zlodid prompted Raldl to re-visit certain ideas. They were tentative thoughts which crawled into his mind whenever he got to speculating about what he might add to future tours. Maybe, next time, he might probe more deeply into questions of ego-expansion, of lust for power and fear of competition. He could invite his audience to put themselves in the place of the Mad City; to shudder sympathetically at the fears it must have had, fears of being out-manoeuvred and constricted; the fears that must have sent it mad.
These brush-strokes upon the canvas of his imagination thus added to the bleak landscape of paranoia. Yes, he might do a lot more than he had done so far. He might really put a scare into these foreign gawpers. That way he could hope to quieten their patronising chortles... stun their tittering complacency... while at the same time he'd attract hordes of those who wished to show themselves tough...
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 Lyan Zett just before part two of the guided walk. He managed, during that walk, to keep spouting his usual commentary, rolling it out from habit, but underneath he kept amazedly thinking, Did she 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...
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: in the massed glow from the puckered spheres that dangled above 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 it was a reminder of how things ought to have been, it was more apt to edge 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. Thus 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, seize it as his own idea and thus maintain 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 proverbs about wishing as 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 it was a particularly smart move to give yourself a blanket excuse for your actions by warning of the nuznong. So - we have a breathing space. Until he returns."
"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.
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.
Raldl Otehr's right hand remained steady and light upon the steering lever, while the smooth ride freed his thoughts to roam in contemplation of where and who he was. On the rebound from the dark obsession which had made him a dangerously effective tour guide, he explored the possibility that he might be headed for an altogether different way of life. Its nature he could not yet recognize, as he hurtled towards it at two hundred miles per hour, six yards above the mauves and browns of the streaking plain.
He was not yet certain that he wished to abandon his former career entirely, but he felt attracted by the idea of a clean break. Impulsively, he pictured renunciation, abnegation, as a 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 imbued with the emotion of melting love. The power of love! Quite unreliable - but let it glow! When such a thing befell, one must allow the possibility that that particular star would continue to shine. And even if it winked out, it had, perhaps, done him a good turn.
Unknown to himself, he had grown less vain and less demanding, and more apt to remind himself with sudden delight how much he had to be grateful for. He almost scared himself at the thought of how far this gratitude might go into overdrive if and when he again met the woman, Lyan Zett. He had grown less afraid than before, of making a fool of himself. Now he seriously mused on the balance he might try to maintain, between the vistas of ambition and the love of a person. He could specialize in strategy, becoming expert at playing one wave against another -
That was an odd thought, he told himself. Play wave against wave? As if one could negotiate more than one at a time. This whole business of waves of fate - how confusing it was; distasteful, too, at any rate in his present mood. It would be good 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 each one as it hits you, one at a time, no longer linked into those chains which destiny fondly shakes into long arcs that sweep you towards your doom.
Anyhow, he told himself, Lyan did invite me to that zoalsh meal.
Suggests she's interested in me. Don't see why she should be. But if she is, all well and good.
Thus his thoughts trickled into inanity, while the open space around him, history's enormous stage, loomed as the backdrop that must dwarf his own concerns. The troubles of one man are bound thereby to shrink, to such minuscule proportions that they cease to be concerns, and become merged in the web of story.
Then a point of fiery blue, with winks of red and green, edged into visibility over the horizon ahead.
So calm was the air, Raldl could imagine that his skimmer was hovering stationary while the world slid beneath to bring the Crystal Grove forward in rapid expansion to meet him.
Before today, he had only ever seen the Torh Yhrviy from too far off to be able to discern the forms of the platterflies, the fobbrakna who roost in the branches, or flutter in a halo around the grove. Now, however, as he carefully decelerated over the last furlong, he was able to examine them, at the same time as 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, while between them, simple and clear, 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. His historical studies had not revealed a single instance where the peace of a crystal grove had been disturbed. 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 relaxed their vigil.
Raldl alighted from his skimmer, bowed to the guardians of the grove, and then with slow strides crossed the boundary between the dark gralm of the plain and the lighter circle of the Torh.
He was aware of some beating of wings above his head as the fobbrakna, having eyed him, settled. Refraining from any reaction to the various flapping sounds, he continued to advance. He passed among the gleaming trunks and branches and their bladelike adornments of crystal leaves, brilliant blue, shiny black, polished red and green.
Already he enjoyed the atmosphere of strong, deserved, invulnerable peace. It encouraged a sense of warmth - not such as would heighten the reading on a thermometer, or melt the underground ice, but a spiritual glow from the pure, serene colours of the grove. Moreover, together with this imaginary warmth, the visitor could sniff an imaginary fragrance from the crystal leaves.
Reaching the central glade, where stood the huts of the human Keepers of the Grove and their occasional guests, Raldl stopped short.
He had expected to see, at most, two parked skimmers, one for the longstanding Keeper, Fraydsten Nahi, and one for his fairly recent bride, Herivot Whemm, who by this time might have become a Keeper likewise.
But instead of two skimmers, he saw three. It looked as though, by coincidence, he had arrived at the same time as another guest.
Raldl shrugged. He began to walk around the huts, seeking a front door at which to knock.
He stopped again, before he had reached the door, his attention arrested by 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, bearing the expression of a traveller overcome and sodden with weariness.
Raldl shrugged again and was in the act of stepping around the fellow in order to reach the hut door, when he heard a murmur.
What language was that? It had an intriguing sound to it. Doubtless some odd dialect picked up by this travel-stained vagabond. The man's face was smiling now, as if he had remembered something pleasant, or found an apt quotation that expressed the happiness he felt. Who was this fellow? Just someone who had desperately needed the peace to be found here.
It would be a pity to wake such a needy sleeper, so Raldl knocked only gently at the door. He waited, listened, and heard no sound inside. He knocked again, a fraction louder.
A rather tetchy cough behind him caused Raldl's heart to sink as he thought to himself: flunnd, I've woken the fellow.
He turned and saw, sure enough, that the smiler slept no longer, though the smile persisted. The man propped himself up on the bench, yawned, and said affably: "Another visitor. Skimmjard, sponndar."
Raldl returned the courteous greeting and asked if the Keepers had shown themselves at all today.
"Earlier," said the man, "Fraydsten Nahi entered the hut, and I hope he's still there."
"Because," the stranger said wryly, "I like to think of myself as a light sleeper."
Raldl understood. The fellow didn't like the idea that anyone could have got past him without him knowing. "Certainly, that's an advantage in most places, but here, I imagine, you can lie safe while dead to the world."
"Takes some getting used to," nodded the stranger, "but it's an attactive idea. Provided your plans don't depend upon alertness."
"I have no plans," said Raldl.
"Sounds good! Tell me more!"
"One isn't supposed to approach the Torh with plans of one's own," Raldl explained, surprised that this point needed to be made, even to a wanderer from far away.
"Well, that suits my present humour," said the other, thoughtfully.
A scrunch of footsteps interrupted their conversation. Somebody was treading around the gravelly purlieu of one or more of the bushes.
She tramped into view, one brawny arm holding an enormous kettle with a spout that sprayed a mist from its nozzle when her other hand pressed a stud. Briskly she said, "I'll be right with you. I'm almost finished." She was aiming the spout at one leafy cluster after another: puff, hiss, puff, hiss went the spray. Not only did the leaves tremble in the gentle current thus created; discernibly, although slightly, the stems themselves could be seen to quiver, perhaps minutely signalling that this bustling practical woman was a favourite with the grove.
She must be Herivot Whemm, wife to the Keeper and surely, by now, a Keeper herself.
She put the kettle down on the ground, paused to recover breath, and sized up the two men.
"Confused?" she asked. "Aha!" - her eyes gleamed briefly, as she confirmed with a casual nod that she had assigned them to that category. "Confused, yes, as to why you came here. So, you'll be wanting to see Fraydsten. He has a ready supply of hints about waves and directions."
"Whereas you do not?" asked Raldl out of a wish to make an equally pointed remark.
"I am glad to be finished with all that."
Raldl, momentarily silenced, looked to the stranger to speak next, and the man did begin: "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. A cause of further amazement was to hear this adult Uranian permanently renounce the practice of carrying a laser: "...And never again shall I bear sponnd."
The wanderer tried again: "In that case, we shall consult Fraydsten, if you will tell us how to find him."
"You'll have to wait a while," she replied. "My husband is on a mind-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 - I got myself dusty. Call me if you need anything. Herivot is my name." With another casual wave, she tramped away.
Raldl and the other visitor exchanged glances.
With some amusement the latter said, "That's what I like about this place - no excessive formality. Still, it's time I introduced myself. My name is Yadon. I'm a Wayfarer, at the moment not of fixed abode. I just go from place to place. 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 short stay in one of these Crystal Groves is supposed to have such a restorative effect, that visitors are never the same again. At any rate, people whom I've talked to say visitors all experience a freshet of optimistic hopes. Maybe that's something to allow for."
Allow for? To avoid being fooled? Raldl wasn't sure what the man meant, but, sensitive to the slightest hint that being fooled might be a possibility, he judged that something dour underlay Yadon's equable manner; it indicated, perhaps, a temperament which from time to time required a sojourn in the "restorative" environment of a Torh.
Slightly nettled at the thought of being in need of such radical repair, Raldl said dryly, "I suppose this is a place for moody people with grim smiles."
Yadon gave an appreciative laugh which won Raldl over.
In the lazy days that followed, trust and friendship extended, without strain, between the contented Herivot, the enigmatic Yadon and the undecided Raldl. The peace of the place grew and grew upon the history-minded Osonian. He could not fail to reflect that it was in a group of such groves that the great Hyala Movoun 1 had grown to maturity, over eighty eras ago. The immense lapse of time had changed most aspects of life, modifying even the groves themselves, which in the long-gone days of the First Sunnoad had not yet evolved any insectoid fobbrakna to guard them.
"You fellows," said Herivot one evening when they reclined on picnic mats, enjoying the view of the plain on one side and the torh on the other, "are becalmed in a gorup."
Yadon's smile was only slightly cagey; Raldl however was nettled at first. The word gorup, meaning a stretch of life with no fate-wave, had connotations of stagnant futility. "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 can afford to waste some."
"True," he replied, mollified. "After all, I'm still on my first life."
"And each of our lives, first and second, contains false starts."
Yadon said, "Herivot, aren't you in danger of becoming a sage yourself? I thought you were leaving that to Fraydsten."
"Yes," said a man's voice behind them, "be careful, chremn."
They all turned. They looked up at the Keeper who had returned: Fraydsten Nahi, who had won a certain 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, but his expression shone with a more unfocused certainty, as if he were surveying other people from a cosmic height, from which they all must seem vague and small. And yet he was friendly enough. He sat down with them, and chatted with them, showing interest in why Yadon and Raldl had come to the Grove.
Yadon said, "I heard about the Torh Yhrviy at a time when I was tired, overwhelmed by the sights of Syoom since I come from a far peripheral land; the Grove, thought I, would be a place of rest. Which has proved true. It's been enough. I didn't come to consult anyone, and now I'm ready to go. I thought I would go on my way tonight."
"That depends. Any ideas, anyone?"
Raldl said, "Go see the notorious former Mad City."
"I expect that's what I'll do."
"And you, Raldl Otehr?" asked the Keeper. "Your reasons for coming here?"
"All sorts," Raldl replied, "coalescing into a 'Why not?'"
To his relief, the Keeper allowed him to leave it at that - in present company. But later, thought Raldl, I must be prepared for a consultation, for unfortunately I'm not like Yadon, who can just rest awhile and move on. I want more. I want an answer.
Several days now, he had rested here, and, as regards destiny, nothing had happened.
Or was that true?
Could he really dismiss the pressure he felt building up as a "nothing"?
The hour of consultation came. They sat facing each other in the Keeper's study: Fraydsten and Raldl, and no one else. After a few shrewd questions Fraydsten came straight to the point.
"You have been under some nasty pressure, sponndar Raldl."
"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, it seems, that I might revive the Mad City merely by tracing the pattern its thoughts made."
"Well, it's understandable, how their minds work," soothed the Keeper. "Thought-waves function as patterns, scientifically considered. And to trace a pattern is to reproduce it. Come to that, with regard to a consciousness like that of the Mad City, it's not clear how one might explain to a nervous layman, that it couldn't happen again." Fraydsten ended this speech with a sympathetic smile.
"I know, I must make allowances," conceded Raldl. "I try, in my tours, to get people to rise above their little worries, to merged into a vista and a perspective larger than themselves. That's the value of it, after all. That's why I bother to do it and why they bother to come..."
"Commendable," approved Fraydsten. Raldl looked at him sharply. Fraydsten continued smoothly, "To become preoccupied with something bigger than oneself, so that one may eventually borrow its bigness FOR oneself."
Raldl's scrutiny of the other's expression became more acute. He's leading up to something. With sudden alarm, the Osonian wordlessly commanded: Whatever your plan is, don't you dare send me back to the state in which I was made a fool of.
Fraydsten, as if he had read his guest's mind, said: "I think I know a cure for your feeling of being let down. For that's what your problem is, is it not, Raldl Otehr? Your fate-wave ran into a trough of muough, did it not?"
That was a strong word, which so far Raldl had dared not use - had not been sufficiently arrogant to use.
Muough, cosmic evil, flouting of natural law, mockery of physical law... To think of that in connection with a failed love-affair... even Raldl was not sufficiently egotistic for such verbal inflation. Not by himself, that is.
But 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. One of the taken-for-granted wonders of Nature. Not a long journey from the Grove. Raldl had never got round to seeing them, but it was something one ought to do before one died.
"Oh," he said, "I get the point. Go see the reolues - and see them with a fresh mind."
At this point, some narrators slant this tale by putting a sinister gleam in the eyes of Fraydsten the following morn, as he and Herivot wave goodbye to Raldl Otehr upon the latter's departure. We do not tell it that way. We say, the Keepers looked without guile upon the Osonian as he skimmed away.
Fraydsten Nahi was a good man, guilty only of an appalling mistake.
Raldl felt good. It was pleasant to be engaged in an easy, possibly useful mission. Pleasant to follow a piece of advice which, he supposed, ought to make sense: to cure his former discontent, go see the reolues, Nature's own trouble-spot, thus putting his own troubles into perspective.
Actually, he thought, he'd already gained the perspective. Such benefit he had derived from his stay in the peace of the Grove.
And now, speeding once more across the open plain, having imbibed the Grove's inner stillness, he trusted he'd grown ready for its counterpoint in the outer, clamant silence, the wordless, tempting cry from beyond the untamed horizon, which ever besieges an adventurous mind on this planet's vast globe.
In every direction, exploits called to be realized. Wayfaring! The restless urge in the blood of all the Nenns of Ooranye! Even folk who had regular careers must often succumb. Ah, it was good to be back in form for the unpredictable!
About one hundred and eighty miles stretched between the Grove and the reolues. Smooth, easy miles. He'd do it in less than two hours. After that, after seeing the so-called "dancing rocks", he'd return (if the Keeper of the Grove was to be believed) equipped with a more decisive mood than before. So, let the future frown its mystery for another two hours. When he, Raldl, was ready, and not before, he'd make a decision about his career. And about Lyan Zett...
What has been wrong with me, thought Raldl, is just a sort of piece of grit in my head: an unwanted, intrusive parcel of thought. That's all the obsession is, or was. A stupid, disproportionate fear that I had been made a fool of. Such anxiety ought to be unworthy of me. Let real fools worry! I must be man enough to send back that mis-addressed attitude; such junk is not for my head.
Actually, since I already understand this, I don't need to undertake this journey, do I? 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, out of respect for Keeper Fraydsten Nahi of the Torh Yhrviy... The trip won't take up a lot of my time, and it will be interesting to see the singularity.
Not that it will be at maximum when I get there. Fraydsten explained that it hardly ever is; most of the time it's a torpid singularity. I must therefore keep in mind - so as not to be disappointed - that only a very few spectators have witnessed the dancing rocks' full outrage, when all scientific propriety is eclipsed, and the result is more than chaos, is a gaping delirium of distilled madness.
No, can't expect the best show. Nevertheless, the chances are I'll see something... who knows, maybe enough to pop the grit right out of my head.
...The distance travelled, as noted on the odometer, appeared about right, when Raldl Otehr noted a furlong-wide splotch of subdued grey on the plain a mile ahead of him. He decelerated and rode his skimmer cautiously to within a few yards of the adumbration.
His spine began to tingle.
We who tell this tale are confident that any world with a human population must have the equivalent of the Terran proverb, "If it isn't hurting, it isn't working". Raldl told himself something like that, as he set himself to endure the queasy sight of the churning gralm.
The rocks were partly visible, or rather their upper surfaces were. Certainly not dancing, they were nevertheless in some way swimming, on a level with the plain's granular surface. Swimming or - a worse thought - shuffling, as though they had legs one couldn't see.
I must not think such plok, thought Raldl, mopping his brow. The sight before him, though it was more or less what he knew he had to see, grated more harshly than expected on his nerves.
He muttered audibly, "is this doing me good? Please, can I go now?"
Surely the reolues and he must be mutually non-relatable. An adventitious, meaningless encounter, it served no further purpose, and the best thing he could do would be NOT to remain an instant longer but to get out of sight of the impossible shufflings -
As for his silly old problem, his grit-parcel of obsession, he could deal with it himself. No need to stay here for that!
But wait, what obsession? Come to think of it the trip here had worked, had shown more clearly than all the wisdom in the world could have done, that all his selfish previous complaints about being made a fool of were of no importance in comparison with the shriek of violated natural law.
Indeed, how could any indignity in one's life-wave count for anything when set against the dull horror that churned before his eyes? So: job done! He could retreat with honour!
He reached for the starting lever. His hand froze on the way.
A real blob in his head, the parcel of obsession was on the verge of literal visibility. It was shifting, doing a dance of its own, in answer to a call from outside.
Muough, ...muough, ...muough -
The rocks, in swelling voice, were rising out of the gralm! The unspeakable had been waiting for him! Muough - the anti-nature summons pulled at the answering fragment of evil within him, and drew it to hail the mass that heaved on the plain.
On the plain and above it: for, lo! the rocks began to dance properly, began to wheel in the air. Slabs weighing scores of tons cavorted in obscene disregard for the limits of the possible: swooped and soared in slow motion like a flock of ponderous birds. As though permitted! As though - oh, no, oh, yes - the performance were a greeting. A correspondence. Matching with his own wrongness.
Meanwhile the HWAA wailing began.
Nothing figurative about this voice. He could hear it, literally, with his own ears. No chance to evade that. It was a voice with, eventually, words, enormous thin words, like beaten metal shaken to reverberate. The production was vast and hollow.
HWAA - sym-pa-thy - at - last - HWAA
"Let me go!" yelled Raldl.
His own cracked voice hardly projected, yet the Thing heard him.
HWAA - you - are - not - all-ow-ing - your-self - HWAA - to - go -
"Well then," Raldl gasped, knowing that what was said was true, that a traitor part of him could not tear himself away, "what do you want of me?"
HWAA - I - in-tend - to - do - some-thing - HWAA - for - you - HWAAAA - you - know - who - I - am - I - the - Vutchar - HWAA
"Xolch," whispered Raldl, in a kind of ecstasy of horror.
Historically erudite, he had no chance of not knowing that legend, of Xolchunnur the Vutchar, the rejected Fragment of the World Spirit. A portion cast out, countless cycles of aeons ago, and doomed never to regain the oneness with its former, greater self as the planetary intelligence of Ooranye.
HWAA - it - looks - like - I'm - real - does - it - not - HWAA - HWAA - HWAA - now - it's - time - for - me - to - show - you - how - you - can - better - your-self - Raldl - my - friend -
A rational portion of Raldl's mind reflected: evidently this thing has retained some powers or even increased them from what the World Spirit itself can deploy; I've never heard of the Spirit juggling rocks like this.
The flippancy of this thought was the human's last refuge before his will went under.
An especially massive cuboidal rock, about the size of two large wardrobes, left the circling swarm and glided over to hover about ten yards before and above Raldl's head. Amid a breeze caused by the other rocks the big one hung, slightly tremulous like a pensile fruit from an invisible tree, and speech came out of it which seemed to cradle Raldl with its gentle sureness.
The voice of Xolchunnur had turned into a normal voice.
"All you need to do at this juncture," it said, "is make a small down-payment. Not, of course, in money, but in understanding and commitment.
"Now, you wonder, why do I call it a down-payment, eh?
"Let me explain...
A prod, a backward wrench of memory, and Raldl Otehr's mind's eye was forced back to view the scene in his past that he most longed to be effaced.
If only I hadn't let her see the way my face fell!
It happened when they were in her lounge. It had been her turn to cook a meal for both of them. Afterwards, relaxed in an armchair, she 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."
WHICH WAS NOT HOW SHE OUGHT TO HAVE ENDED THE SENTENCE. That was when, disastrously, my face fell, I couldn't help the reaction which made it impossible to save the situation, though now I see I might have, should have, by being suave, to help her to carry it off -
"But you didn't, and that was it. A moment, and all was ruined," said Xolchunnur. "A moment, and it was too late. We are agreed, I trust, that this kind of thing is unacceptable, that something must be done about such unwanted fate-lines? I, for one, feel that what has been allotted for my existence just is not good enough; and I reckon I am safe in saying that you, too, know the feeling, eh, Raldl...?"
This was like being lulled into a dream. A wish-fulfilment dream. Danger, thought Raldl; danger of disappointment. Hang on to realism, cried his half-drowned will, trying to bob up.
He managed to object (hoping, however, that his objection would be over-ruled), "But look here, we can't create our own fate-lines. If we could, they would not be fates."
"Bahhh!" hissed Xolchunnur's most intimate voice. "Admittedly we cannot 'create' the lines. But as an intelligent man you must realize that we possess the equivalent power: selection at will out of the infinity of lines, whichever you like can be yours to choose, when you seize your right to dance among them all, side-stepping, evading, grabbing what's best for your dignity and well-being. Do we not all have a right to a decent fate?
"Which brings us," continued the Voice after Raldl found no immediate answer, "to the down-payment."
"In what currency must I pay you?" quavered the Osonian.
"You make the payment to yourself," was the silken reply, "in the currency of commitment, which is the stuff of an effective life. You commit to glueing yourself to the exercise of that freedom which I have held out to you. Then, no longer will you be limited to whatever one line of destiny dishes out to you; you straddle all the lines, putting your weight wherever you choose."
"I don't believe it!" cried Raldl. "It's too good to be true! It must be impossible!"
The air chuckled around him. "That's what the World Spirit thinks. And look, it does nothing, except act as a long-stop safeguard of the world's balance. Balance!" repeated the voice with scorn. "All right for those on top. But for those who have to sustain the average outcome-success-rate from below, it's not so good, is it, Raldl?"
Terrible temptation gripped the man but from some depth of courage and wit he contrived to dare one final objection.
"But tell me, Xolchunnur, what has it done for you, this straddling-of-all-the-lines? Strikes me, you haven't done much except perform a rock-dancing trick."
In the pause that ensued, he half expected the lead rock, the one from which the voice issued, to throw itself forward and precipitate upon him and crush him to the ground.
"Greatness," said the Vutchar, quite sure of itself. "You do not appreciate how right I was to pour my whole being into this singularity of the reolues. To make rocks shuffle or dance is, I concede, a bleak achievement, without purpose other than to affirm that my unsubdued self defies my lot. It is essential, but insufficient, and as my consciousness slides through the ages, I am always on the look-out for more."
That "more" was the word to which the Osonian's tired, buffeted brain sought to cling. Dizzily he asked, "Do you imply that I am the 'more'?"
"You wonder how that can be? Listen: in return for what I do for you, you will help me - just by helping yourself. You will inch me towards retrieving my greatness, by achieving your own. Greatness is my food; I must have it and that means I must cultivate it in others, or suffer a famine inconceivable to your merely protoplasmic stomach! The reolues barely keep me alive. From my merger with this rock-wheeling singularity I can at least dance defiance at the World Spirit who cut me off, but it is nothing to the uproar I would gladly cause, or would gladly have caused in the distant, short, glorious past era which I may tell you about some day after you, Tyoyg-man, have assisted me to cause another - "
Raldl no longer distinguished the words that came at him from the hovering rock. All that was left to him was acquiescence in the irresistible dream-come-true. Even the use of the term 'Tyoyg-man' did not alert him. Tyoyg - collaborator with the darkness -
From behind a bulky, polished wooden desk, Arlok Sed, Noad of Oso, regarded the three women and one man seated in front of him.
The grey fabric of his cloak was matched by the weathered skin of the Noad's heavy face and his sombre eyes, that flicked from left to right, from right to left, scrutinizing the advisors whom he had summoned to the palace.
He had commanded their presence without telling them why; but, by Thremdu, they ought to have guessed! He must now judge the tone he would use with them.
He liked what he saw of their largely visible mood.
Despite growing unease, their loyalty remained firm. They trusted him, he could tell, just as he trusted them. Therefore he was not afraid to say:
"Sponndarou, it is hard for me to admit this, but I have lost touch, at least partially, of the pulse of my own people."
As he said this his eyes flashed at the second on the left, the glossy Clsarmwa Trellem, head of the Secret Service.
She flashed back at him, "I too have lost some touch, I admit; otherwise you, Noad, would know more."
"Consequently," the Noad continued with a grave nod, "I do not understand enough about the matter for which I have called you here. You have, I trust, guessed what it is."
He was glad to see their murmurs of confirmation. That was one test they had passed. These people were well chosen.
"Thus far," the Noad continued, "we appear to have kept it below crisis level. My one concern is to keep it low. The pot may simmer, for all I care, but I am determined that it shall not boil over."
"Then you may need to knock it over," opined a deep voice.
Veering left to the figure at that end of the row, Noad Arlok's gaze fixed on the craggy visage of fleet commander Adaan Merreb.
"Regrettably, omzyr A-M," the Noad agreed, "it may come to that."
It was a condition of the post he held as Focus of his city, that he might need to use pre-emptive force against some serious internal threat. During all the thousands of days of his reign, he had never failed his people, and he would be ruthless if he had to, to keep that record pure.
The omzyr, he well knew, would back up any drastic action. Utterly devoted to the maintenance of the existing Osonian order against enemies within and without, Adaan Merreb was a pillar of the State. Many people wondered why the Noad had not selected this formidably capable omzyr as his heir.
At the other end of the row sat an overwhelming, breathtakingly flouncy woman, suited in garish green under her blue cloak: 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. You're about to tell me that the situation is not as bad as we fear it to be."
"I'll merely go so far," replied Kedin Kanad with a wide smile and a tilted side-glance at Adaan Merreb, "as to guess that you shan't have to unleash the omzyr's forces, Noad Arlok. If there's widespread panic, then yes, you'll have to clamp down. But prioritize the avoidance of panic - which surely we can do by telling the truth - and we'll be all right."
"Telling the truth..." echoed Noad Arlok Sed, and sighed. "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 and acknowledges his power. Yet, significantly, she remains able to state facts, reassuring facts, which corroborate the Daon's view."
The eyes of the Noad now rested upon Agent Lyan Zett. "I hope so," he said mildly.
The girl flushed. This was her big moment. If she played her part well on this occasion, the Secret Service, the "Ipitsi Yeen", might in truth live up to that nickname of "Misgivings-Eraser".
"Eighteen days ago," she began in a tone strung high, "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?"
"I went to talk to the Keeper about this and it seems Raldl just wanted to ask advice about how to cope with pressure from those who disapproved of his activities."
"Pressure from us, in other words," said the Noad grimly, "which, I fear, may be justified."
Clsarma said, "Go on, Lyan. Develop that point. Fraydsten talked about it, didn't he?"
"Fraydsten, it seems, sympathised with Raldl," said the girl, "but told him he would just have to put up with the way things were, and to rise above it all, so to speak. It wasn't too surprising - the Keeper explained - that his guided tours, though innocuous, caused fearful misunderstanding, in view of their sensitive subject. Fraydsten finally advised 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, the Noad said, "And it remains for us to decide whether we share the Keeper's view of what was gained. Continue, Lyan. Opinions aside - what are the objective conclusions of the Service, concerning the rumoured risk that this Raldl Otehr might revive the Mad City?"
Each of those present at the meeting possessed an educated mind, ready to react with thoughts of derision to blow back the pall of fear which threatened to descend...
Clsarma, supporting the Noad's desire for objectivity, 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."
Skeptical approval showed in the Noad's face. "That sounds fine, only I like to hear the reason. What made the thing dead beyond recall?"
"You can't unscramble a brain any more than you can unscramble an egg. Entropy sees to that."
"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."
"That's exactly what I mean," said Clsarma, grateful for the clarity.
"But," the Noad went on, "we ourselves, we humans, every time we sleep or die..."
"Ghepions don't sleep, or reincarnate," Clsarmwa riposted to close that avenue of argument double-quick.
"All right, all right. So we'll take that as settled."
With that, the Noad looked round the room. He sensed a relaxation in tune with the one he himself felt. It was as if the statement of a truth made it stronger, not just true but truly true. Ridiculous reassurance! Time to proceed.
"We must now decide," the Noad declared, "to what extent we should make allowances for what the people may think. Fears are facts in themselves. No matter how ill-founded, they have a reality of their own. I myself am not immune to fearful doubt. I don't at all care for what Raldl Otehr has been doing since his return, though I'm unclear how he plants the seeds of terror. Ghepions can't reincarnate, we are told by historians; yet rumours have spread of an imminent revival whereby the Mad City will awaken to launch a new bid for domination, and, having learned from the mistakes it make in its last life, this time it will win. That's the current story. What do we do about it? What do we do about Raldl Otehr?"
The omzyr said, forthrightly, "Can we not simply... sequester this person?"
"Hmmm," hummed the Noad. "A tempting move, Adaan Merreb; only, I'm wondering if, perhaps, we've left it too late for that."
"What?" spluttered the fleet commander. "What makes you say that, Noad A-S?"
"If the answer to that question was available to me," smiled the Noad, "I might not have needed to call this meeting. Raldl Otehr has got something, whatever it is, on a hair-trigger; I sense that much. I therefore suspect that a crude move would push him to a disastrous action. But if you insist otherwise, omzyr A-M, you can take my place."
"No thank you, Noad!" smiled the omzyr grimly. "What do we do then?"
"Daon Kedin Kanad," said the Noad, abruptly swerving his head, "I can see you're shivering with delight. It's time we all knew what was in your mind."
Like a kind of sacred burglar who has been given impunity to swagger off with sackfuls of loot in broad daylight, Kedin was apt to steal attention as much as she wished, but innocently, for it was not her fault that, even on a world where all women are endowed with beauty, hers swayed onlookers to approve her every reckless plan - And today, thought the Noad, today's no different: she has something in the folds of her cloak [this corresponds, Terrans, to your "up her sleeve"].
"We must use our human resources," began Kedin.
"That sounds portentous," the Noad remarked. "I know you, Daon. You're about to produce some romantic flourish."
"I'd say, one flourish demands another," Kedin replied easily. "Quite a large section of the public are interpreting Raldl's tours as part of a Concurrence - that's to say, a race between coincident rays of fate. People haven't yet got as far as saying out loud that the Mad City is about to return, but, who knows, maybe what they're grafting on to our history right now will be quite as bad."
Omzyr Adaan Merreb grunted, "That's an amazing statement, Kedin Kanad. I doubt whether you can substantiate it."
"I stick by what I have said. Consider: some youngsters are re-defining the adjective 'mad' as a compliment." Ignoring some chuckles, the Daon insisted: "And they're not being funny; they mean it."
On reflection, nobody in the room felt like laughing.
The Noad sighed, "Given that indicator, we may assume others."
"Indeed," said the Daon.
"All right, give us your suggestion, Kedin."
"It's a positive one. Fight popularity with popularity; set one exceptional individual against another."
"You have that look," said the Noad, "that tells me you've brought somebody along."
"A living legend, whom I've bagged for our use! He's waiting outside."
"Bring him in, Daon."
Kedin sauntered to the door, opened it and gestured. The man she ushered into the room was of middle age, tall and rugged, with the easy stride and the far look of a seasoned voyager in the prime of an adventurous life. Uranian society is replete with such men; however, this one was cloaked with an extra, hardly definable aura. Almost, the Noad could identify it, and, looking hard at the fellow, made a furious effort to recall the recent outgrowths of popular legend. Kedin was about to speak when -
"Wait," the Noad said, "I think I can guess who this is." He appraised the fellow. "Are you Yadon, the Starsider?"
A scintilla of profound relief began to glow deep within the Noad's mind. He had not realized how crushing his responsibility was until this moment when it suddenly became possible to glimpse a vague, mysterious promise of rescue.
"How much do you know, of why you have been brought here?"
Yadon's eyes flickered aside to Kedin. "From what the Daon has told me, it is something to do with the clamour surrounding Raldl Otehr."
Kedin added, triumphantly, "Yadon has already met Raldl. They were both at the Grove."
"Kedin," said the Noad, "I think I can complete your briefing of our guest. - Yadon, your folkloric fame has preceded you. You haven't been in Syoom for more than a few hundred days but already you are a hero of fantastic tales in which you slay a monster city, speak with the World Spirit, defeat an invasion from the Ringed Planet... That kind of thing. Perhaps the Daon is right to believe, given the current state of affairs in Oso, that you constitude a force which should be admitted to our counsels."
The 'force' glanced from Noad to Daon and back.
"You're considering," guessed Yadon, "whether to arrest Raldl Otehr?"
"We hope it won't come to that. We dislike having to trammel a crowd-puller, and perhaps in this case we no longer dare, in case suppression makes his cause resonate more."
"And why might he 'resonate' at all? Is this a case of anamnesis?"
Noad Arlok raised his eyebrows, impressed by the Starsider's use of a term that darted so swiftly along one important alley, even though it was a blind alley. "Remembrance of details from a previous existence," he nodded, "could, if valid in a case like this, be a potent source of trouble. But the situation is more serious still, precisely because 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, "We're faced with a rurrup." Hard word to say - a something-that-should-not-be-unquired-into - but, somehow, it was easier to be blunt like this with Yadon present. "Get me?"
"Perhaps," replied the man from Olhoav. "I'll see what I can do."
The Noad turned to look at his Secret Service chief. "I must borrow your Agent, Clsarmwa." To the girl he then said, "Lyan, you will go with Yadon on the next guided tour..."
Lyan Zett awoke next morning in a state of euphoria. She couldn't remember ever having felt so good. Her limbs fairly twitched as she sprang out of bed. Broken skies, she felt as lively as a ten-tentacled murcling gnadd! At first she asked herself, "What's got into me?" but then she replied to herself, "I know, I heard about it yesterday evening: today is a roaring big day, the day of the Great Show."
Yes - today, 10,543,856 of the Actinium Era, was fixed for a "tour" that was more than a tour, a lavish, city-wide historical reconstruction organized by Raldl Otehr, to count as his final assurance, to quieten all doubts. His announcement, coming hard on the heels of the Noad's crisis meeting, had been greeted with huge relief by all who had been nervous of his actions or intentions. Good old Raldl.
Opposition from the authorities having collapsed, permission had been given - gladly given - for such a colourful, innocuous, popular pageant as must diffuse the smell of that relief (Lyan reckoned she could really sniff it) throughout the city's atmosphere.
Lyan also enjoyed a relaxed afterglow of a fascinating dream that had enlivened her night's sleep: during which she'd had the freedom to float, bodiless, inside a giant computer, while she conversed with it in a fluent, relaxed exchange of popular slang.
Well, 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...
At that moment she suddenly remembered: she would have to walk in any case. She was supposed to be calling for the Starsider on the way. Those words of the Noad, "Lyan, you will go with Yadon on the next guided tour..." remained explicit and clear, no matter how superseded by a dramatic subsequent decision.
She clicked her tongue in momentary annoyance. Entirely pointless, now, to bother with Yadon. Whereas at the Noad's palace conference it had seemed a great coup to produce the fellow as a possible resolution to the crisis, his presence had since become quite redundant.
Still - she shrugged - an undertaking was an undertaking. Having arranged to call for Yadon, she would do so. They'd attend the Show together. Thus she would have kept her word. That was a worthwhile consideration in itself, and besides, he was an interesting fellow whose company, in normal circumstances, she'd have found absorbing; only on a day as momentous as this might her attention gravitate 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 demeanour) either from haste or from excitement. "Skimmjard, sponndar L-Z," he said with a polite smile.
Lyan was expecting more than this calm courtesy. "Come on, Yadon, it's the big day!" she fizzed.
A peculiar, wondering look escaped the man's rugged features. It was as though he were inclined to ask what had come over her. However, keeping his own consel, he ventured, more diffidently, to remark:
"I'm still not too clear why the Noad expects that I may resolve this business."
"Oh, forget about all that," replied Lyan with a dismissive toss of her head. "I expect the Noad wanted to make use of the coincidence that you happened to be in the city. But today there's nothing left to resolve. We're all 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. Where the big show ignites."
"Hm," and the Starsider eyed her askance. After a few more moments he remarked, still in his casual, soft-spoken way, "Not everybody's going straight there, it seems."
The tramp of boots was becoming increasingly audible. Moreover, blurred together with it in a developing undertone came the chant of voices.
Lyan and Yadon emerged from the lodging-house alleys and into wider streets, overhung by palatial globes. These dangled from walkways that bellied like hammocks, in turn connected to longer bridge-spans and aerial skimways. Along these various routes, in bewildering profusion, came both pedestrian and airborne processions, tramping or streaking in various directions which could not all lead to the Bleftal Frustum.
"It's city-wide, you see," Lyan explained.
Yadon looked up and from side to side. "Wonderfully organized," he remarked, observing how the processions, when they met, interlaced rather than collided. "What's it all mean, I wonder."
"Here's one whom you may ask," said Lyan gaily. "Sehartix is 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:
As they neared, it became verbally recognizable:
Patterns of greatness
Sliced the air...
Patterns of greatness
Sliced the air...
- and on and on. Often, as they repeated the words, they wheeled their arms in gestures which might have been exaggerations of those used by a tour guide to indicate points of interest.
The youth who led the troop smiled at Lyan as she matched her step to his. The smile was fixed: good-humour petrified into permanence. He and Lyan greeted each other with the same triumphant, sing-song tone. "Brinty-flim, Lyan!" "Brinty-flim, Sehartix!"
"'Brinty-flim'?" queried Yadon.
Sehartix peered at him across Lyan and said, "You're a stranger in Oso?"
"This is Yadon the Starsider!" bubbled Lyan. "Yadon, brinty-flim is the watchword for today's Show."
"But what does it mean?"
Sehartix intervened: "It's our slang for you can argue either way."
The long procession began to snake upwards along a ramp which threaded between a line of towers. Sehartix resumed his chant, joined by Lyan. Yadon kept quiet, surveying the urban vista from the ramp's ascending vantage. More and more chanting lines of people came into view, forming a picture secretly comparable, in the stratum of his Terran memory, to myriads of caterpillars crawling along the branches of a shrub. He also began to note lights that flashed between the vertices of buildings or between the towers of skimways and walkways, and which kept time as they leaped with the rhythm of the chants. More than once he shook his head at these hypnotic concurrences. And as for 'Brinty-flim' - 'Arguing either way' - he'd so far heard no argument voiced. Only, his ear did begin to catch a variation in the chant. Patterns of greatness / Sliced the air... became Patterns of greatness / Slice the air...
He said aloud to Sehartix, "Just then you used the present tense."
"Slip of the tongue."
Yadon firmed his lips in a facial shrug, while the surrounding medley continued, sometimes with "slice" and sometimes with "sliced". What was the point of asking questions? His long time on this world had taught him the fatalistic Uranian way: acceptance of mystery as inevitable.
On the other hand, he had not forgotten that yesterday the government of this city had asked him for his help...
The chanting caterpillar-formations, he now saw, were being funnelled into a much larger general shape which, by combined use of other structures, suggested a sort of city-wide amphitheature, created from the moving weft of dabs of illumination which kept scudding across gaps.
His attention naturally drawn to the base of the design, he peered down at the focus of it all, some forty yards below him: an octagonal space surrounding a truncated pyramid. Lyan ceased her chant long enough to say to him, "That's our destination, the Bleftal Frustum; see the vlomboz!"
"What - those frozen drips of..." He would have had to finish the sentence in English: drips of what looked like icing sugar.
Lyan excitedly specified, "Yes, the historic meltings - relics of the catastrophe of Era 50! What better place for the Show!" She blinked, a bit put out 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 gestured at the lone but central figure standing on the steps of the Frustum. "The chanting will have to stop first, else there's no way that he will be heard." And therefore, so long as the chanting continues, the worst event has not yet been brought upon us by Raldl Otehr.
Lyan Zett did not answer him straight away. Instead she 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 tramped past, to pursue its wider and more lofty spiral, while Lyan took Yadon's arm and swerved onto a branching ramp to aim more straightly down towards the Frustum itself.
Yadon looked quizzical. "Won't there be a crush, down there?"
"Raldl's not being mobbed by frantic followers; we're well enough organized, to allow the fulcrum his space."
"Hmm. 'Fulcrum', is he?" Not exactly the same as a boss. Is that what the Noad was hoping when he gave permission for all this? Could it all be less sinister than it looks? What with Raldl and his surroundings still dwarfed by distance I must wait some minutes to tell for sure... "Lyan, before you start chanting again, can you explain to me what this is all about?"
"Look, it's clear, can't you tell, we're going through the Mad City's motions, to mock them!"
"Yes. To show the pattern can be made by our will. That's our defiance of the old shame: to argue it this time our way, our side of the brinty-flim. And before you say it's dangerous, remember, the Mad City's brain was scrambled, it's dead and gone and cannot be revived by copying its pattern. Ghepions don't reincarnate! So relax and enjoy our celebration, Yadon. ...But you look as though you want to say something."
"I want to say..." and he shook his head and then said it, but in a language which had never been heard in Oso, "I fear you've been had."
"What does that mean?"
Switching back from English, Yadon said, "Oh, don't mind me. I'm new here."
She grimaced at him, and joined back in to the general chant: patterns of greatness / slice the air -
Eventually they reached the city floor. Amid a dense but not packed crowd, they trod the metal octagon which stretched around the Frustum. At first, around them a chanting multitude moved in disciplined, dignified and well-spaced lines. Lyan made as if to to join in, but, as Yadon edged forward and she decided to follow, they reached a stiller region. The eye of the cyclone.
The hundred or so people in this inner zone did not chant but merely shuffled restlessly as they looked up at the Tour Guide on the central steps.
Raldl's awareness blazed with hallucinatory alertness. He felt the rush of time, the minutes hissing past, like the air against the cowl of a skimmer at top speed. He knew it as a countdown towards the inevitable: the imminent, mighty consolidation of Oso's destiny. Meanwhile, though, he stood calm and still. Comfort and resolve seeped up through the soles of his boots, a guiding sensation furnished by Hlorr Humma, the city's well-loved Ghepion Brain, who was one with the citizenry in their throbbing pageant.
No doubt the hundred or so folk in the inner ring surrounding him also experienced similar infrastructural support rising through their legs, though not as surely as he: they shuffled, whereas he stood firm. Perhaps it was to be expected that the intelligentsia would be prone to some itchy anxiety. Well, let them endure temporary unease. He had confidence in them, he had picked them all, or rather, they had been picked through the agency of his knowledge, to provide adequate components for the cerebral administration of the new order.
Except - who was this? A dusty-cloaked lounger, leaning against a pillar: a fellow whom he had not picked.
He recognized him - it was a wanderer whom he had befriended (how long ago it seemed) at the Torh Yhrviy Crystal Grove.
Raldl blinked in sudden sadness at the thought of that casual contact he'd made on a carefree voyage. A whimsical jaunt, that had been, of a type which his future was unlikely to contain. Never mind! Who knows, perhaps even this Starsider Yadon might be recruited?
Raldl sent an experimental pulse of his thought - or imagined he did so - down through his own boots, into the sub-floor maintenance grid, to a communications cluster under the control of the Ghepion. He mentally requested that it bounce back and up through the boots of the Starsider. A message of sorts. Join us in the great work.
Yadon made no immediate sign that he had received anything.
But then - perhaps he had, for suddenly the fellow shifted his lank frame and walked forward to the base of the steps, then tilted up his face and called a cheeky greeting:
"Skimmjard, Raldl! Your tour-guide business has certainly expanded! Are you still charging for it? If so, you must now be a rich man."
Raldl's eyes flicked around to note that the other folk in the inner zone were frozenly attentive to what had just been said. He had better not risk banter. He must sound as serious as befitted the clang of fate.
"What we're aiming at today is a thing beyond any price. Solace. Quietus for the victims of ancient shame."
Yadon nodded, "Provided it does not bring more shame."
Raldl thought he'd have no trouble with this; he need only trot out the oft-repeated smotherer of doubts:
"No such danger exists. The pattern by which we echo and mock the Mad City could never actually revive it, for it is dead beyond recall."
"I'm sure it is," Yadon replied, "but what's to stop you creating another?"
An odd buzz of tension, and then -
Rip! - the air was rent by a woman's cry! Folk wheeled to look. They saw that the shriek had been torn from the throat of Lyan Zett.
She stabbed out two further syllabes: "NUZ-NONG!"
"Oh - " began Raldl -
"YES - NUZNONG!" another shrill voice wailed. "Aaaaargh, THAT, all this time, was the grimy thought in my head! Now it's out!"
A third voice cried, "The words that stuck again and again half way up my throat!"
Another: "Multiple assurances about the Mad City - all true and a waste of time! Forget the cussed Mad City - we've triggered a replacement curse today!"
"Quiet!" cried Raldl Otehr and held both fists aloft with a wrenching gesture that scotched the incipient babble.
He adjusted his voice with care. "Listen, you people!" he boomed. And they obeyed. Partly it was the drama of his force of personality, partly a more-than-human intensity which the crowd perceived in him, as though their young tour-guide were dilated from within, expanded by some shadowy power.
He continued, "You have just heard it suggested that a nuznong, a thought-suppressant, has been employed against us. You think it was used to hide the idea that we are about to create an equivalent evil to that of Era Fifty. Well, just think for a moment. Our modern-day Ghepion is - what? You all know the answer. Hlorr Humma is our beloved city-maintenance Brain. Nen is indispensable to our prosperous way of life. Feel nen's beat now, 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."
The crowd, by and large, seemed disposed to accept this. Many heads nodded eagerly. Others nodded half-heartedly or - a minority - not at all. Many, especially the most doubtful, turned their faces to Yadon.
The expression on the Starsider's face grew more solemn, as he recognized he had been chosen as spokesman by the sense of the crowd.
"One would indeed expect," the Starsider said, "the second time to be different."
He was about to continue but Lyan Zett shoved herself in front of him and supported his words with acid fury:
"Oh y-e-e-e-s, different - different means to the same end."
The force of her anger roused something monstrous in Raldl Otehr. His tongue contorted in his mouth. Out came a peculiar gargle, forming the words:
"Is this the best you can do?"
"Whaaaaaat?" The shocking vent of out-of-character rudeness blanched Lyan with shock. Then she un-stiffened, and reached reflexively for her holster.
Yadon put a restraining hand on her arm and said to her - but loud enough for Raldl to hear - "Wait. It sounds horrid but he's not rebuking you. He's being told off, himself."
"What do you mean?" she gasped.
"Not sure. But before he spoke just then, I reckoned he was trying to say 'sorry', only the word would not come out - eh, sponndar Raldl?" he finished more loudly.
No good answer but a sigh. Days ago, Raldl had made the down-payment and now he must go through with the rest of the purchase. That awkward customer Yadon had already guessed, and the others would soon see: that in speaking to me they are speaking to a mouthpiece.
Well, let it be so; let Xolch make his case directly; for he's right that the best I could do in that line is unlikely to be effective.
"Osonians," came the cry from the lungs of the tour guide, "you are free! No longer constrained or obligated by your past! From today, from now, you can choose your obligations, and justification will be showered upon them, retrospectively, from your blame-free futures, preening whatever fate-line you pick out of your straddled simultaneous bundle - on which you ride with your options open!"
Raldl's own will had sunk so far, he could only listen as an audience to his own words, while without surprise he watched the mood of the gathering promptly veer towards delight. Grins broke out on the faces of folk who very much liked what they'd heard his mouth say. Indeed the people of Oso, as Xolchunnur well knew, had had a hankering after this free-fate doctrine for a long time. Guilt-free, restraint-free, conscience-free, belief would be the trigger for the release of power. A minute or two more and it would tip past the point of no retreat. Who could stand against it? What was Yadon doing now? The fellow had moved back a step or two, perhaps so as not to be cut off, and to keep the rest of the gathering better in view.
Loudly the Starsider once more intervened:
"You're saying we can all hop from one destiny to another, at will?"
"Yes, that is what I have learned," said Raldl's mouth.
"And this, you've been told, is the Fate-bundle, as you call it?"
"Then," declared Yadon, "you've been lied to."
Raldl listened, and the Intelligence inside him listened, to the murmur that gathered and swelled, that showed the people were confused and starting to get angry, with an anger that could go either way, against Yadon or with him. Perhaps the chances were bound to be against Yadon, in which case the most effective course might have been to allow a lethal wave to build up against him from all the disappointed wishful thinkers in the crowd, but nevertheless Xolchunnur was not inclined to take the slightest risk at this late stage in the game.
"Fates do come in bundles," said the Intelligence, "and you, little man, cannot refute that."
"Oh but I can. Though it's a pity, in a way. You've put self-deception on such a beautiful theoretical basis, that I hardly have the heart to spoil your nice try. But it won't do. That 'bundle' theme has been played out on Earth. Listen to me, whatever you are, if you dare listen - "
"Dare? I?" An inhuman, cutting wheeze strained Raldl's throat and caused him to double up in pain. Several in the crowd cried out at the sight. Yadon briefly turned, shushing them, and then confidently faced the possessed figure on the Frustum steps.
Seeing that confidence, Xolch/Raldl contracted inside, into a blob of pain and dismay, recognizing somehow that all had gone wrong at the utterance of that word Earth.
Yadon's words continued to pummel the Intelligence, to wreck its bid for mastery:
"As one whose mind lived on Earth at one stage, I can assure you that though that world's culture is an infant compared to yours, yet, for all our infancy, Terrans are more experienced purveyors of twaddle than you Uranians will ever be. They have forgotten more fallacies than you will ever invent. Take this 'bundle' business. What plok! Believe me, it's old hat, and the rabbit you pull out of it is unimpressive!" (The authenticity of the alien word caused a dire quiver in Xolchunnur.)
"Earth," continued Yadon, "had a philosopher who delved down to the most basic thing that could be certainly known. He rightly said, 'I think, therefore I am.' And yet, despite its obvious truth, objections were raised to it, by those who sought to undermine the concept of 'I' by means of their 'bundle theory of the self' - an emphasis on the way in which awareness fluctuates and varies and evolves, blah blah blah. To which one can always answer: if such an argument is made by a coherent voice, it is self-refuting. What, after all, but an 'I' can mount an argument against the concept of 'I'?
"And similarly, whatever line of action you choose, and however many you may choose amongst, your finalised choice is one fate-wave, just as your ego is one 'I'. And so, the pleasant idea that you can change lines, to hop away from the consequences of your actions, is a no-no; sorry."
Amid the dashing of hopes, which disappointed many in the crowd, came something far worse. Over and above the unwelcome but honest words spoken, everyone within earshot must also have been hit by the wafting wave-front of a spiritual evil, the stench-signature of a Fiend, bearing a rage and depair beyond human ken. Defeat in debate compromised the credibility of Xolchunnur. Such defeat could not be hidden. The game was up, Raldl knew. He crouched within himself, terrified at the thought of how the Fiend might lash out in its retreat.
Admittedly, without belief on its side - the belief which Yadon had destroyed - Xolchunnur could not proceed to the next and final stage in nen's plan: the stage which would have included a pulling together of the threads of awareness in Oso, both citizenry and city-Brain, into a modernised Mad-City gestalt ready to launch a fresh assault upon the rest of Syoom.
Still, the thing might, for all Raldl knew, do dreadful damage. Those were moments of nightmare for Raldl Otehr. The best he could guiltily hope for, was that the Intelligence might wreak its vengeance on the Terran. Amazing, to have met a Terran! Wonder piled on wonder! Of course the fantastic claim might not be true. Yet lunatics and lying show-offs are so rare on Ooranye, that the coincidence of one being present at these crucial moments would be nigh as startling as if the claim were true -
Be that as it may, Xolchunnur would not, could not allow nenself 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 Xolchunnur had the power to do it. Out in the plain, the thing had shown a formidable telekinetic power to juggle blocks of stone. Here, it might possess by proxy the muscles of those it managed to inspire -
What saved the people of Oso will never be surely known, but it would seem that the credit must be shared.
Part of it must belong to Raldl himself. By this time he lay on the Frustum's wide plinth, his limbs contorted, his lungs working feebly, but his mind as determined and acute as it had ever been in his life. He pushed at one idea, which was to repair the disaster he had helped create. The thoughts he directed, at the monster mind pervading him, laid stress on the vital importance of belief. You've lost it, Xolch, you've lost it! But it's not too late to go. Depart, and live to achieve greatness another day and in a different fashion. 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 on a few occasions; and if it did, you would not survive. Go, Xolch - depart! Do you not see, that you must grow weaker and weaker among people who do not believe in your message?
This might not have worked, but for the tacit co-operation of another figure in the drama. Yadon faded from the scene. Later, those who heard more about him realized that he probably would have wished to leave without fanfare in any case. His shadowy departure was another disincentive to Xolchunnur's stay. The focus of nen's hatred gone from the scene, the Intelligence began a diminishment, a trickle outwards, then a vaporising expansion into almost nothing.
Three days later, on 10,543,859 Ac, the tour guide was sufficiently recovered to resume his work. This time the group he conducted included several notables, among whom were numbered the Noad himself, the Daon, the head of the Secret Service and the omzyr of the skyfleet. Afterwards they all professed themselves satisfied with the tour.
It was hard to say with precision exactly what there had been to check upon, for memories of recent days were confused. But precision was not desired. To all concerned, what sufficed was a feeling, an unspoken guarantee that the old, old swells of nightmare had subsided and that, as far as historical awareness was concerned, peace would henceforth reign in the hearts of Osonians.
"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 impishly.
"Hey - how would you know? I thought you said you couldn't be there. You had duties elsewhere, you said."
"Raldl," said Lyan, and leaned across the table towards him. Her tone quietened him, so that he waited with a kind of humble dread.
"My duties," she continued, "were to watch you all from further off, and give a signal to the fleet's Number Two if aught looked too much amiss. Now then, Raldl, I know we've had our differences, and that you resented - "
"No, no," he hastened to interrupt. "That's all over now. I want you to keep watch on me - for the rest of my life."
Uranian Throne Episode 19: