She was, as yet, unaware that a young man had eased into the room. It was not his purpose to creep, yet so quiet was his nonchalant step, that she did not notice his entry.
He, for his part, - though she had not turned to greet him - could well picture her face: he knew her well enough to guess at her daydreaming expression, her eyes narrowed into introspective slits... and with a knowing smile he decided to wait, watching her gaze out the window of this corner buttress of Sghee Tower.
He and she were the two visible people in the room. The third, invisible presence is ours: it is we, the Uranian Bards who narrate this adventure of many lifetimes ago: privileged to dip, godlike, both into the mind of skyfleet officer Duruld Omott, and into that of the object of his fascination, investigator Miril Nerred. Both are open to us, though closed to each other.
Unaware of her admirer's entry, Miril continued to enjoy her unique daydream. A clean swoop to the target, a swift flash to success: long had she been drawn towards its as-yet un-grasped glory.
Ah well, she must wait for today's test to begin...
Reflectively she chuckled, shook her head - and at last became aware of Duruld.
It surprised her that she had not sensed his entry straightaway; he, whom she had previously classed as a heavy-shouldered saunterer, must have learned stealth. Whatever the reason for this, it was likely to be a strong one. Still, she did not turn; instead she took a step closer to the window, away from Duruld, to gaze, more intensely than ever, down onto the plain far below.
Nevertheless he read her stance, and knew that she had spotted him. He reckoned it was time he opened his mouth.
"Why, it's Assiduity, Assiduity Miril!"
"I get tired of people calling me that," she crossly responded.
"Sorry," said Duruld. "I'll stop it, though actually it's a compliment. You're known as one who never abandons a trace. To me, that's enviable. My reputation is still unmade."
Her lips quirked at this, and she did at last turn. "And why are you here, Duruld? To watch the ritual? It's almost time."
"Either that, or - to watch you." (He'd turned up his boldness a notch.)
Her only reaction was a skeptical smile.
"Watch if you like. I think I can hear them. Yes, here they come."
From many floors below, from the direction of the base of the tower, came the muffled chant of the candidates for the examination that was due to take place in the adjacent room.
Duruld remarked, "Thud, thud, thud up the stairs; they like doing it the hard way, those Unbelievers." He eyed her, marvelling at her nonchalance as she resumed, even now, her absorption in the panorama visible from the window.
Captivated by her absent air, Duruld felt impelled to move forward, to emulate her survey: must be something in that view, he thought lightly; but of course - he reminded himself - it had been the scene of her triumph.
Sghee Tower stood not at the rim of Vlamanor but a third of the way in towards the hub. Yet its altitude extended so far above its neighbouring structures that from its upper floors the view was like that of an outpost on the city's rim. Thus it was possible, from here, to enjoy the sight of that ancient engineering masterpiece of Era Thirty, the Vlamanor-Yoon monorail.
Miril could see straight along the clean metal arrow for scores of miles as it swept to its vanishing point at the horizon, and she had an equally good view of the ribbons of forest that snaked their way on either side of the rail's embankment. Those paired forests were not tidy like the rail which they accompanied: far from matching its straightness, they twisted and meandered. Not that they had been planned that way. They had been planted in regular formation, as a defensive glacis to protect this section of route on both sides, but during subsequent ages convection in the subsurface ice had distorted their positions, and now only the monorail itself, its embankment constructed with the skills of the Zinc Era, had resisted the deviating pressures of glacial flow, and still ran directly to Yoon, 5,124 miles away over the curve of the giant planet.
Of all that entire rail-route it was this first part, the portion in sight of Vlamanor and accompanied by the ribbon-like forests, that was the most fabled.
"The Allomba Fapps," murmured Duruld. "No longer a puzzle, thanks to you, Assiduity! (Sorry - sponndar Miril.)"
He stopped to listen; the chant on the stairs had grown closer, louder. Yftim-mar-teray, yftim-mar-teray...
He spoke again: "I'm wondering now, Miril... do you intend to solve the mystery of the Unbelievers, too?"
Louder grew the chant.
"You do not answer me, Miril," persisted Duruld.
He was astonished when she turned him a glance of... kindness? Great skies! It was as though she were fond of him!
"Hereabouts," Miril sweetly said, "acceptance is the mode of life, if you wish to go on living."
Did that just mean, shut up? Duruld did not think so. He felt an instant's thrill. Most of the time it was with mere whimsy that he thought about this girl, for she really wasn't his type. And yet, though common sense might insist that he'd form a more compatible couple with just about any other woman, nevertheless it was suddenly very good to bask in the momentary scrap of concern that flickered in Miril's face and voice. It was like being allowed a glimpse into some fantastic dream, in which he might aspire to share a rung on the ladder to greatness -
The flicker was over. Duruld shook the silliness from his thoughts. He reminded himself, as he listened to the noise increasing from below, that he had two or three minutes at most to probe.
"Miril," he said, "I know you well enough to tell you're up to something, but not well enough to tell what that something is." (She had gone back to being distrait. She did not seem to be listening to him. All he could do was press on.) "You know," he continued, "that I'm not happy with some trends in this city. Sometimes I wonder what the place is coming to. I respect the Noad and all that, but..."
His verbal groping must have scored some sort of hit, for Miril turned in a flash. "She's the greatest Noad we've had in millions of days!"
Ah, the spark of political zeal! Could he fan it to produce illumination? "She is, I grant you, great," Duruld conceded, "only, trouble is, the great can be tempted to take on too much. Maybe you're looking to help her?"
"You're being vague, Duruld, and I'm busy today."
"I'll bet," he smiled. "For instance, how did you solve the mystery of the forest shapes? By working back from conclusion to premise. Back from the contorted lines of growth - to the currents in the ice. Back from the currents in the ice - to the measurements of rates and time. Back from the measurements of rates and times - to records of attacks by vrars and cremps. Back from - "
" - there to defence policy," she finished for him. "It wasn't a perfect job, Duruld."
"But you successfully plugged all its gaps. I wish I had a word for your style."
The tramp of boots could now be heard on the platform just outside the main room, whereas the chanting, which had risen to a crescendo, had ceased.
Miril went towards the partition door.
Duruld called after her, "So tell me, are you going to investigate those folk?"
Over her shoulder she gave him one last twinkle of her eyes.
"No. I'm going to join them."
Then she was gone, and Duruld wondered: should I follow her? Go in too? Stay by her side? But what she may get away with, would be undignified for me. She's no older than I am but she knows much, much more. No, better not risk being a further bother today.
In an uncertain mood, but unwilling to take any step which might misbecome him in her eyes, Duruld Omott walked to the elevator, and left the scene.
Carefully holding their bowls of liss quabb - White Blood - the cloaked candidates were shuffling into the large, main room of this level of the tower. The chanting had gone low. It was down to a hum, rhythmic with the candidates' steps and the to-and-fro slosh of the white glow in their bowls.
Slowly, the fifty sought their places: seats with inbuilt desk-arms, arranged in rows.
Miril looked around for a seat-desk for herself. She lifted a spare from the wall and pushed it behind the back row. Having accomplished this lone act, she sat down when the others did.
Unlike them she had no bowl, no steaming liss quabb, but she could, like them, produce writing materials from a pouch of her cloak.
Then all eyes were drawn to a tall blue swirl at the front of the room: the Invigilator, padding in to stand at the main desk, who turned out to be none other than Lrar Emdu, Daon of Vlamanor. Raising his bushy eyebrows at the candidates, the Daon intoned:
"You are the third group to volunteer for this test. Each has made our city stronger. Remember, you are here to express your opinions without hesitation. The personal aspect is vital. In the contrast of atmosphere, humdrum pen-and-paper on the one hand, and, on the other, the momentous vapour of the White Blood, you work in the middle. You know that the liss quabb comes from Varramb nenself; do not, however, hesitate on that score, but write without hesitation; write what you think. You have half an hour to answer, as best you can, the question I am about to set for you. Pick up your pens - now!"
He turned and wrote in large letters on the board behind him:
"WAS THE WORK OF THE SIMULATOR EVER TRUE?"
The Daon's arm dropped after the writing of "TRUE". He stepped aside, and there arose throughout the room a susurration of sleeves, of busy hands writing.
Miril fell into their majority state, out from which she had to struggle repeatedly: the loyal Unbelievers' view of life as a chaotic random dance of vari-coloured fluffy balloons, forever floating, bumping around, impossible to arrange in any order. For it was true that life on this world of hers was an unending adventure, in which even the profoundest ideas were no more than jostling actors, rather than foundational principles. Yet this situation didn't satisfy her yearnings. There ought to be more to life than a phantasmagoric swirl of themes. Hmm... tricky. Here fifty candidates were scribbling away, doubtless taking the official line, that the old Simulators of the Hafnium Era, and especially the chief one, Varramb, could not really model the future in the way that legend claimed. The variables were too many; chaos too powerful; randomness inherent in reality. So far, so obvious. Then why make the point? What else could one do but admit it as true, as Varramb nenself, the great and ancient Simulator Ghepion, had ended by doing? Yes, the Simulator had finally warned humanity against reliance on the tool of Simulation. After that, nen had insisted on retiring, on abandoning all power and influence. So again - what was this new parade of Unbelief all about?
Miril reflected on a past age that was over a hundred million days gone.
The act of retirement known thereafter as the Renunciation of Varramb had brought the Hafnium Era to a close. People had been persuaded that the advice was good, that Simulation as a basis for decision-making had been taken too far, had become a kind of fantasy-addiction which sought to eliminate risk and which thus sapped the moral courage to make real decisions. Better to leap in the dark; better to make mistakes and take responsibility for them, than to run endless 'what-ifs' by means of clever machines.
Besides - it was also realized - the machines couldn't really do it anyway. All they had ever really done was suggest probabilities as an inspiration for policy. That had admittedly been of some use; it had statistically helped concentrate human minds on what was "likely to be the most likely result" of what they might do. Unfortunately, insidiously, during the Hafnium Era reliance on such aids had become addictive, and when the time came to break the addiction with a healthy change of heart, all the simulation devices were switched off, with the exception of the only conscious one, Ghepion Varramb nenself.
That entity, in retirement, had then wandered by monorail to this very city, Vlamanor; had crept down into the vaults below the city floor; lastly had been granted that lair in which to rest and dream nen's own dreams, free from preoccupation with the wants of humankind.
Since that retreat, seventeen eras and hundreds upon hundreds of lifetimes ago, the repose of Varramb had been uninterrupted.
The old Being was therefore out of consideration, and so were its powers. Why then this new drive to disbelieve in those powers? What was the point of arguing that they had, or had not, ever existed? What did it matter, one way or the other?
At last the dim blur of a possible answer took shape in Miril's thoughts. She picked up her pen.
Just to be contrary, she wrote on her paper, let me suggest that the machines of the later part of the long Hafnium Era, given their exponential evolution, with the ever-smaller mincing of their components, may, just possibly, have acquired the ability to model a situation in sufficient detail, to run Simulations far more effectively than we realize...
For what would be the physical result of such machine-evolution?
Can I not sniff it now?
The nano-plasm of super-miniaturised components, the... WHITE BLOOD.
Involuntarily she sniffed, as though the substance she suspected could waft its effluvium into her nose.
Yes, it has been fetched and we have it now in our bowls. For the best of motives, or so is my guess, Varramb long ago decided to conceal the truth from us mortals. But now some people have gone down into the vaults to draw a supply of the liss quabb from the old Ghepion's unwilling veins.
One might then say that the Unbelievers were, in fact, Believers.
Their view was that Simulation could work.
Or if they must be called Unbelievers, what they disbelieved in was not Simulation but the Renunciation of it.
Well, this was worth some fuss, eh? It would be a big project, if it were done at all. A scheme of the Noad's, to revive an old controversial power by presenting it reassuringly as Unbelief.
Daring and risky, but exciting, to revive Simulation in that style. Miril thought admiringly of her heroine, Noad Sevret Vaid of Vlamanor. Just like the Noad, to arrange things so cleverly. Miril's already high opinion of her ruler ascended to an even loftier height.
It was regrettable, thought Miril, that she herself had been so slow to grasp the point, but at any rate she'd got it now, and could at least take heart from having figured it out without the need to sniff it from a bowl.
Like almost every citizen, Miril Nerred devoted a few hours of most days to instinctive economic labour. Uranian urban civilization is so old that it has evolved a form of upkeep which requires little in the way of conscious thought and can almost entirely be undertaken in a dream-state. The pattern of such activity is organically complex and it is rare that any two consecutive daily sessions match exactly in either content or location. So you don't expect to finish in the same location that you did the previous time. You can wake from the work-trance to find yourself anywhere on or above the city floor.
Still, on this occasion, when Miril Nerred came conscious at the end of her stint during ayshine, she experienced a mild jolt of surprise.
The cityscape around her was a bit brighter than she expected, which immediately told her it was the fourth hour of ayshine, and not, as expected, the fifth. So, she had woken from work a full hour earlier than usual. She grasped the reason the next instant, when she realized precisely where she was.
A smooth metal way, like a solid grey stream, separated her from a double-scarped hump of a building. Some wakening beam, flashed from one of the structure's upper windows, had wrested her early from her trance. Evidently she was wanted up there. Wanted by the person to whom was reserved the right to transmit such summons...
With beating heart Miril crossed the kerbless avenue and was admitted by the guard-ray to the Palace of the Noad.
Up the elevator, into the top corridor she advanced before meeting anyone; then, half way toward the sphincter-like door at the far end, she encountered the advisor Jattak Othv. A man who usually bulked with importance, this time he was stooped in haste like a mere messenger-of-the-moment, or aong. Miril turned him an inquiring look. The advisor gestured, Just go in.
Sure enough, when she approached the door it twirled open for her. Thus, without announcement she crossed its threshold into the pod-like Chamber of the Noad.
The inner walls curved and narrowed to gather at a point at either end. The floor space was scanty, its centre occupied by a platform over which shimmered a huge, breathtaking three-dimensional image.
It was a holograph of an aerial city. The marvel seemed to float in the deep blue of the upper atmosphere. Gliding like a lone stratospheric cloud, immensely far above a landscape rendered hazy by vertical distance, the gravity-defying structure inspired awe, admiration and fear.
The image was at least three times the height of a human. Enough crisp detail was available in its depiction of the legendary Yr, City of Mists, that for some moments it could distract Miril's curiosity from the sight of the Noad herself.
Then those moments were over and the presence of Noad Sevret Vaid drew Miril's whole attention.
Uranian attire does not vary as much as Terran. Rather than emulate the prodigious variation of your Earthly fashions, we Nenns - at any rate, most of us - customarily feel no need to wear anything very different from the usual cloaked suit. Skirts, therefore, are unusual.
Nonetheless, the Noad of Vlamanor, Sevret Vaid, wore a pleated skirt, with eye-fooling properties. Its shimmering dark material, gathered to suggest the slopes of a cone-volcano, formed her top half to promise an explosion of perpetual vigour.
The mighty Sevret Vaid, during this unguarded moment, in the midst of a silent rage, was caught staring by Miril Nerred - staring at the holograph and fleering with hate at its image of Yr.
That betrayal of emotion caused Miril to infer that too powerful an engine of mind can sometimes lurch. Evidently, for some unguessable reason, the Noad's feelings were stirred deeply by Yr. And yet, statistically, the depredations of that skyborne city were hardly more to be feared than a meteor-impact... so why the vehemence? Miril's mind kicked the question into storage. Right now she must concentrate on paying respectful attention to her ruler.
The two very different modes of beauty, the sharp lineaments of the older woman and the oval visage of her younger subordinate, regarded each other speculatively.
First spoke Vlamanor's Head of State, with a wave at the hologram, while she smoothed her face.
"The one and only manangaloom. No other flying city was ever built. Strange, eh, sponndar Miril?"
Carefully, in the presence of this leader whom she greatly admired, Miril suppressed a shrug.
"It was an exuberance of Era Fifteen," she replied, and ventured to add, "Strange, yes, Noad S-V. But also fortunate. I mean - that only one was built."
With an edge to her voice Sevret replied, "But in one respect the uniqueness of the 'City of Mists', and the scarcity of its dire visits, have had one most unfortunate consequence. Its rarity has left us insufficiently motivated to evolve a defence against it."
Miril felt she had been rebuked. She had said the wrong thing; or at any rate she had failed to say the best thing, and so she felt the cold clasp of shame, for she was a perfectionist when it came to relations with the Noad. If only the answer would come, as to why it might be particularly necessary right now to reflect upon the danger from Yr...!
"And that, sponndar," the Noad continued, "should be a matter of serious reflection."
"I'm sorry, Noad S-V - "
"Console yourself, Miril, that you are not in my place," the ruler amiably replied, turning on the charm. "You do not have to assess rumour with insufficient data, along the hard road to renl. I will merely say, that I have sniffed an opportunity. I see a way to do what has never been done before."
"I... am full of wonder, Noad S-V."
"I can see that's so. In my job, one must train habits; create rituals. Consider for example the fifty-strong groups of Unbeliever-corpuscles whom I am injecting into the body politic... you're looking more confused than ever, sponndar Miril. But tell me, what's your current view of the content of their Unbelief?"
"My view..." Miril took a deep breath. "...Is that one line they could be taking is, the 'simulators' of the Hafnium Era would have been better described as 'inspirers'."
"Go on," said the Noad.
Thus encouraged, Miril went on: "Either that - or the total opposite, that the things actually did work precisely as they claimed, which would mean that we ought to disbelieve in Varramb's renunciation."
Sevret nodded eagerly:
"Describe the shape of your thoughts. Go on, go on! It could be important."
Miril had to suppress a panicky laugh. The strange appetence of these words told her one definite thing: that she was being given an opportunity. Unable to resist the chance for real communication with her idol, she ventured to confess her own private truth.
"It's like balancing on a globe," she heard herself take the plunge. "I totter and sway on the top of an idea that curves away on all sides. I try to hold my place, but the more I strive to keep upright, the more my weight slides. I can only maintain my equilibrium by dancing as I let the globe roll under my boots. That way, unbalanced one moment, I can re-balance the next, on a different part... or else jump to an adjacent globe and start again..."
Noad Sevret Vaid laughed delightedly. "I've never heard our way of life put so well! It's a good way to make the point, that imbalances can be righted for a while but that they're always remittent, and maybe in the end you only have one option left which is to fall off... Yes, failure is a real option. For me as well as for you. We cannot escape that peril. But - we can vary the balancing act. We can seek vacations, relief from slippery ideas. As for you, Miril, what you need right now is something as dry as a biscuit."
The point was: biscuits aren't slippery. Another relevance: biscuits can be satisfying. Miril nodded.
"...your success so far," the Noad was saying, "has derived from a process of backwards reasoning, that's to say, deductions from effects to causes. That's how you achieved your solution to the mystery of the ribbons of forest paralleling the monoline. Thanks to you, we are now sure what gave them their shape. What you could do next - merely my suggestion, Miril - is that you could calculate forwards instead. Work from the pastward end of the chain of events, and see if its product is the same as we've got now. You see? You'd be checking on whether the historical process is commutative..."
The voice of the Noad stopped - then resumed:
"You're not saying anything, Miril. Are you happy, then?"
"I think so, Noad S-V," breathed the girl. "Yes, it seems I am happy."
"You know I'm suggesting... Simulation."
Miril, without demur, agreed: "That has to be it. The classic way to carry out the check."
"Classic is right. You know where I'm telling you to go?"
"Yes, sponndar Noad."
"Seems you're not dismayed at the prospect of descending to Varramb's lair. Good - very good. This is, after all, an exciting time to be alive. We're about to move forward into an era of live experimentation, I do believe. And trust me, you'll be taken care of..."
Miril Nerred was conducted by a palace official to a floor-level room, empty except for a closed hatchway, slanted so that one must stoop to reach the opening button. An invitation to hesitate, thought Miril wryly, as she proceded to press the button.
Pendulous on its upper hinge, the hatch swung back to reveal a misty blueness.
Bowing her head, Miril stepped into the Vaults of Vlamanor.
She did not look back at the closing hum behind her. Onward, downward lay her goal, the section of the vaults known as the Torpor of Byey, which, strangely, she had never ventured into before. Strange - because it felt as if she had; in an odd kind of way the sub-floor environment felt familiar, as can happen with some much-discussed works of art, which become so known by repute that it hardly seems necessary to go and actually see them. That must be part of the reason why she had not bothered, had not needed to come here until today, yet it wasn't the whole explanation. There was also a certain reluctance to be reminded that the humans of Ooranye share their giant world with greater beings.
She descended a zigzag stair which ended on a slope, then she took some more steps down the slope itself, and began to make out, at the far bounds of the misty view, a jungly mass consisting of mounds of cvoc, the clutter of machine evolution. Heaped geometric forms and tangled lines had flopped over and obscured the older reticulations of the city-vaults' structure. Some actual Ghepions, minor ones, were doubtless to be found amid the mess, but none of it, so far, showed anything like the form and size of the Being she sought. She would know Varramb when she saw nen. Necessarily enormous and unmistakable, the Simulator's presence would announce nenself.
Unfortunately, she'd have to trudge through quite a bit of cvoc before she reached Varramb, so there was nothing for it but to endure the increasingly fuscous gloom as she crunched her way through the metallic "underbrush", onward and downward, soon accompanied by some echoing whispers or sighs that gave her some bad moments until her intelligence triumphed over her nerves, whereupon she recognized the harmless, indeed uplifting, pump of the ayash currents, the blessed, essential streams, constantly in operation, which maintain the only links between the surrounding plain and the upheld disc of the city floor, which otherwise only skyships might attain.
Next she came to a more desolate section. This consisted of a scree of broken metal fragments, apparently rubbish (though she withheld judgement on its value). And then the "rubbish" saw her.
It rattled, it moved, it collected itself into half a dozen little heaps, and a babble of voices issued from the tops of them. The closest heap arranged itself into a head with two bright eyes; or at any rate that was the semblance, shaped for her understanding. She should - she must - appreciate the effort the thing was making.
Above the babble, and in the Nouuan language, a pure, childlike voice burst into song:
The pulses of the plot
The pulses of the plot
The pulses of the plot
Wizened old Truth
Wizened old Truth
Wizened old Truth
Execute the run
Execute the run
Execute the run
The pulses of the plot
Wizened old Truth
Execute the run
The other "heaps" gradually joined in, the words spread via echoes, and by the last line they had accumulated into a united chorus of the minor machines, welcoming Miril to the great Simulator's presence.
Around her boots at "ground" level meanwhile, thousands of even smaller machines were busying about, tidying, carpeting the slope with a sort of plush metal wool.
For many further heartbeats, like an astronomer who waits for clouds to break, she watched and watched.
She knew she must not quail before the hazy outlines, the hints; she had to keep a lid on the incipient nightmare which the commingled masses of cvoc were liable to suggest. Therefore she was ready when, presently, the entire scene underwent a process of being pulled apart. That's to say its components, like opening curtains, were drawn in swathes to either side of Miril's forward view, so that, by peeling off to left and right, they made way for her eyesight to penetrate the central gap, until with brightening clarity she saw what stood in front of her.
First, a deepening, widening mouth, with horizontal laminae in lieu of teeth. Then a lower row, presenting itself as likewise similarly placed to teeth, until from their motion Miril saw her mistake: they weren't teeth, they were legs, which unbendingly swung back and forth, with an apparent lack of joints. Positioned above them, Miril now decided, was not, after all, any striated "mouth" but, instead, a myriapod's long side. Yes, she was not looking at a face but at the side of a body. Or - wait - this was confusing - had she been right in the first place? Was that whole length nothing but a face, after all, a face with an elongated stare?
Whatever the case might be, Miril sought to concentrate upon standing her ground. It was infinitely better to stand firm than to interpret what she saw.
From the centre of Varramb, a long limb extended, in her direction. Unlike the legs it was many-jointed, and it ended in a cup-shaped palm. Aware that to freeze might seem discourteous, she nevertheless could not bring herself to move, and besides, she felt she had a right to stand utterly still.
A play of flashes on the Ghepion's surface accompanied a series of clicks sounded irresistibly like a chuckle.
"Miril Nerred, you roused me," washed musically through the Vaults of Vlamanor.
The girl weakly and inanely said, "Oh..."
Another puff of words: "You roused me, yes, which is good, a change is good, every now and then."
"I'm glad you don't mind my coming here."
"It's pleasant for me," the Voice affirmed. "Here, to wake and find that somebody has chosen to avail herself of what I can offer; so few are the citizens who choose to avail themselves of the Bequest of Byey. Which, of course, is just as well, since an over-reliance on Simulation leads to disaster, as I have many times said, and yet I can make exceptions."
A pause. Miril's thoughts seemed to fly far away. She could not move her tongue.
"I expect you may have heard," the Simulator chattered on, "that Byey is one of my old names, and the Bequest is the gift I gave to Syoom. It is the gift of my quiescence. Largely for the best, I have moved on from what I used to do. Nevertheless - I can still do it. Now, my friend, you came down here to ask me for a test-run, eh?"
Some coherence returned to her. She nodded, agape.
Another chuckle from the Being. "We Vlamanorians, human and Ghepion, are a proud lot. Byey the Simulator, as I used to be called, became Varramb the Renouncer, yet I have kept the old name too, and though my chorus calls me forever Varramb, I can get back to work without delay... You wish to say something?"
She stammered, "You're - you're about to start? B-but, I have given you no details as yet..."
"No need. Have you forgotten what I am?"
She whispered, "Oh, of course..."
"Approach, friend, and place your hand in the bowl."
Obedient and trusting, for she had to be, Miril dipped her right hand in the proffered bowl, and saw her fingers and then her palm submerge beneath a seething white mass: that very same colloidal soup of submicroscopic data units that had been nicknamed the White Blood.
Cold, smooth and slippery, but not actually wet, the substance slipped off to leave her hand clean when she lifted it clear of the bowl. No trace was left on her skin. Presumably, though, it had extracted data from her...
Utter stillness reigned for a moment or two. Then, plink! the Being's long row of legs began to ripple like a field of vheic-stalks in a changing wind, swaying the huge bulk to right and left, while the hidden chorus struck up one more shrill stanza:
The options all congeal
Cramponning the hunch
Silence resumed its sway, a silence in which Miril could sense that the task was complete. It had been accomplished swiftly, as might have been expected, for Varramb had been ready for her, had known her requirements, again as she might have expected, and now she stood waiting for the words of dismissal which duly came forthwith:
"Go now and check the results, little one, and may Thremdu guard your soul!"
Miril's breath whooshed, and the harried look on her face relaxed into a grin.
During the way back she repeated to herself, I've done it, I've done it; until finally, leaving the vaults beneath her, she tottered onto the city floor.
Yes, she had done it: she had visited none other than the Dweller in the Vaults. Simulator Varramb, that old Ghepion from the Hafnium Era who, having settled in Vlamanor, had never since obtruded into the light of day - she had seen and talked to nen, and had emerged with her equilibrium just about intact!
Shuddering, she thought: Never again; no more downward trips of that kind. Of course the thing in the vaults was not evil, merely over-large; in fact it doubtless amounted to a heap of good; but the flavour of that particular goodness - eugh! - was hard to digest.
Well, anyhow, she'd been given what she'd sought. In fact the Being had known her wish before she had asked for it. Which meant she was left with no excuse to lose the trail; follow it she must.
Clutching the skein of her purpose, within ten minutes Miril had made her way to the rim of Vlamanor, where she stood on the landing-plain or oalm at the city's edge, from which she was able to gaze down upon the plain fifty yards below. Easily visible from her altitude were the ground-level terminus and the running gleam of the Vlamanor-Yoon monoline: the straight metal rail streaked away into the distance atop its seven-yard embankment of compacted gralm, flanked for about twenty miles by its meandering accompaniment of dark forest, and then, beyond the point at which those ragged ribbons of vegetation came to an end, dwindled horizonwards, bare and alone.
That vanishing perspective held her gaze for some heartbeats; then she went to take a skimmer from the local vehicle bank and within minutes was descending the ayash airstream which conveyed people down from the city's disc-floor to the plain.
Besides her own skimmer, dozens of others rode the stream; wayfarers, farmers or farmland administrators, the ordinary traffic of settled times. Upon reaching the ground, however, she was the only one who headed for the railhead.
The embankment, seven yards high, appeared deserted. This did not surprise Miril; the monoline was not in heavy use at present. Customarily the vlep-cars flashed from city to city only once every few days.
She passed a stationary vlep, but she did not consider commandeering it; she intended instead to keep riding her skimmer, paralleling the embankment as she watched the forest flow by on her right. Thus she'd re-examine the area which she knew so well from her previous investigation.
Only - how was she supposed to "check the results"? Unease flopped around in her mind, failing to develop loudly. The underlying question was: why had she had not been handed any summary of the last run's data to check against? She had simply been told to go... and so she now went, down the line, hoping for the best.
She skimmed with decreasing speed as she headed towards the place where the forest ribbons ended. After a few minutes she had slowed to a mere fifteen miles per hour.
Partly this was simply because she wished to re-examine the details of the scene with care. The greater reason, however, was the clang of the alarm bell of common sense. Somewhat muffled, that faculty had been, during her extraordinary session with Varramb, and it was time she recovered it.
With an impact that halted her, the thought at last came bluntly to the fore:
Come now, this was scarcely credible! She wasn't equipped for this investigation! No token from Varramb did she carry; that's to say, no document or crystal holocube or usable evidence of any kind; nothing that might exhibit the modelled result of forest growth, with which to compare the actuality at the forest's far end.
Such comparison being, supposedly, the object of the exercise, what good could she do here? What use was a test which was no test? Having been sent here, or manoeuvred here, by Varramb and, ultimately, by the Noad, she was left to wonder - why?
To test Simulation by some unfamiliar means? Perhaps (for example) by a "document" imprinted, as yet unbeknownst to her, on her mind? Something she'd soon become aware of...
An impressive feat, if such were the case, but hardly practical. A "document" that could not be read or consulted by anyone else was of limited use, surely.
Or it might simply be that Varramb had a sensory outlet somewhere close by, and when she came within range its location would 'ping' inside her head. Then she'd pick up a capsule or package which was waiting for her.
Miril shrugged, resuming her progress paralleling the monoline on her left. She now recognized from some rock formations on the forest edge to her right, that the end point of her journey was nigh.
Or it ought to be...
She put her spyglass to her eye and scrutinized the scene ahead. The trees and bushes looked... dishevelled, contorted even.
And just where was the end? Why hadn't she already reached it? This didn't look right.
Miril swiftly deployed reasons that might explain the unexpected further continuation of the forest. Could it have been caused by the convection currents, which can arise from the slow churning of the various ice-crust dwellers called stryegns, sometimes to cause destruction, but sometimes, alternatively, distortion and elongation? And as for the vegetation's dishevelled look: one of the mutable life-forms of Ooranye might have caused damage for any of the unguessable reasons which always abounded.
She sighed when forced to face the outrageous fact that the ribbon of vegetation had grown several miles longer.
Too much had changed. Grimly, she proceeded on her way, and at last she reached the end of the extended growths. From this point on, the greenness ended and the monoline continued unaccompanied on its bare embankment that ran on and away over the brown and purple-patched open plain.
No 'ping' in her mind had announced any depot or outlet on her way so far; nothing, that is, which might contain a stored report from Varramb for her to collect. The truth crashed down on her: the "Simulation", so-called, was nothing of the kind. It must, instead, have been an Action.
Miril Nerred hovered for a while, while her thoughts floated as stationary as her skimmer. Presently she went back a bit, to re-enter the vegetation zone, and brought the vehicle down to the ground. She stepped out of it, took some deep breaths, and gave herself full permission NOT to understand.
Her ideas had become as confused and weary as the movements of one who has been running to catch sheets of a document whirled away in a tempest. That particular comparison occurred to her because, in truth, this end of the forest had recently been subjected to raw violence. Torn creepers straggled down from the overbeetling brows of five or six major ice-chunks which jutted up a hundred yards or more. Some dozens of other heights, lesser in altitude and bulk, leaned chipped and tumbled, while from bare ground grew a scattering of new trees, weedier than those further back along the forest line. The spaces between these were sparsely strewn with lesser growths, slight enough to permit an easy stroll from one small clearing to another. Miril began to wander on foot, among this thin, light vegetation. How unwise had been her half-conscious hope, that the world might at least trouble itself to make a bit of sense for her.
Deciding to relax for a while, she sat down on a flat rock.
Silly to feel disdainful towards facts! So what if she had met a check to her plans? Fate ought never to be snubbed. Bewilderment ought to be viewed as an opportunity.
She rested her legs; her eyes wandered.
She scanned the foliation spread in a blanket of green lace over the ice-crags around her. The encroachment was thin; it must only be days old, as were the upthrust crags themselves, for this whole extension of the forest could be no less recent than that. That newness of the trees, so solid yet seemingly impossible, tempted her to speculate that she was being fooled somehow. Hypnotic illusion? In a way, she would have preferred it so. Yet the rougher answer was the one she had to allow: for Uranian life did occasionally give forth a staccato burst, known as Impulsion.
That distasteful term had not been coined for nothing.
Not only the breezy rustle of leaves but also a faint crepitation, the unfinished settling of recently disturbed ice and rock, became audible the more she concentrated, making it ever harder to believe in any illusion theory.
Then when I go back, she thought, what am I to tell the Noad? "I have to report, Noad S-V, that Varramb has gone from Simulation to Impulsion." How would Sevret Vaid react to that? Perhaps she'll like it.
Miril thought back to the holographic vision in the Noad's audience chamber. A hate-image of Yr, City of Mists, kept in deliberate view so that Sevret Vaid might stoke her defiance until she was ready to hurl a challenge at the real thing. Possibilities for Impulsion there!
Well, let the Noad play with fire if she wished. "I," Miril muttered aloud, "have earned the right to a vacational Fate-line."
Yes, she had - she realized - spoken out loud. Reflexively she glanced around. But of course no one was present to hear! No chance of being overheard out here, surely.
Next moment, though, she heard some twigs snap.
She jumped up, whirling, to see a dark-clad, limber figure who was clambering down from a thickety outcrop. He was about fifteen yards away. With sufficiently acute hearing -
Her hand went to her sponnd-hilt; but no - she hadn't uttered some State secret, so what did it matter that she had mused aloud? And look now, the man was giving her a friendly wave. Yes, one ordinary Wayfarer hailing another. A chance meeting, or so she trusted, as she waved back.
moving soundlessly now, no more snapping of twigs as his long legs
brought him down from the rocks and onto the level gralm. Perhaps - twitched her mind - he had initially made a bit of noise on purpose, as polite notice of his approach.
The man halted, leaning against the upswelling bole of an immature ksuiv tree, which swayed against his weight.
"I too," he remarked, "am in vacational mood."
So he had heard her. "You've got good ears," she snapped back.
"It's as well to stay alert, even on vacation. Even in a peaceful place like this."
"That's what you call it, eh?" scowled Miril, discomposed by a swiftly growing attraction towards this stranger. "If you think things are peaceful around here, that only show you must be from far away! Which is obvious anyhow."
"You mean, my Jommdan accent." The man acquiesced with a lopsided grin. "You're right, anyway; what used to be my home is a long way off."
"Who are you?"
"You see before you a mere Wayfarer named Yadon, of no fixed abode. And you, sponndar?"
"Miril Nerred. From - " and she waved back over the miles towards the hazy smudge of her great city - "there."
"Which is where I was headed."
"You've interrupted your journey."
"I saw this patch and wondered," the Wayfarer explained, looking around. He continued conversationally, "All looks quite new. It must be new. But who'd wish (or need) to plant an arboretum here? It piques my curiosity."
"I, to a similar extent," Miril could not stop herself from saying, "am desirous to know about you; about where you're ultimately from." Though her words were still sharp, her tone softened as she spoke, until by the time she finished her sentence she sounded as though she were requesting a favour - a development that amazed her.
He replied: "I set out from Olhoav."
That obscure, ancient name, was a datum which took her store of general knowledge several moments to yield; then her jaw dropped.
"You came all the way from Starside!"
"A not un-heard-of journey, surely?"
"But not for hundreds of lifetimes... The things you must have seen..." She faltered, gaping at this light-hearted voyager. From out of the blue a hope had come to her.
She began obliquely:
"You've learned to deal with surprises, I expect."
"I've certainly met them," he laughed.
"I..." began Miril, and found she had lost the thread. This confusing happiness! Could she be justified, allowing herself such beguilement? This craggy stranger with a friendly smile - could he (perhaps precisely BECAUSE he was such a foreigner) have been sent by a kindly Fate, to allow her to offload a complaint which she would not have confided to one of her own people...?
While she was working out how to begin, the man made it easy for her. "How does this place look to you, sponndar Miril?"
"I have a sense of being cheated," she blurted out.
The relief! He's raising his eyebrows invitingly.
Yadon said, "Sounds like you have a tale to tell. Let's go for a stroll."
Rejoicing inwardly, she stepped alongside the tall, loose-limbed wanderer as he resumed his reconnoitring of the forest. As she ambled beside him she happily related, to begin with, how she had discovered why the forest lines meandered as they did. Next she told him of the mysterious Unbelievers flourishing in her city. She explained to him that, in order to figure out what they were up to, it was necessary to investigate the revival of interest in Simulation.
"Is that the 'in thing' in Vlamanor?"
Accepting the turn of phrase, she nodded and said yes, it was a feature of Vlamanor's current scene. "It became my aim," she went on, "to find out whether Simulation actually worked. Either it models an outcome, or it doesn't. Worth knowing, either way. So down I went, to Ghepion Varramb nenself. I wanted to say to nen: please model the forest growth from its starting point onwards to now, using the data from that old time..."
"So that you could then compare that report with the real thing," Yadon prompted.
"Yes - only the crazy thing was, Varramb didn't give me a report to compare!"
"I'll say it was odd! Nen just sent me out, giving me to understand that my request had been fulfilled, and I, as in a dream, unquestioningly came here... whereupon one look at all this - " she waved at the surround - "told me the answer: that Simulation was no longer the issue at all."
"Ahhhummmm," hummed Yadon.
How great that he was marvelling along with her! She felt extraordinarily content.
For a while there was a silence, which he broke with: "You know, during my travels, I've perforce developed hunches. With regard to what you've told me, I can imagine how a really powerful model of reality might affect events as well as simulate them."
"You can? That's good! Then tell me how it works!" she demanded with a wobbly chuckle. "Unless by 'affect events' you simply mean, that a report of that kind can influence policy-makers to act. That's not the case here: there hasn't been time for any more reports and decisions."
"No, all I'm saying is, that (this world being like it is) a sufficient powerful modelling cannot help but cause real eddies and swirls among the fate-lines, which means that the model becomes more than a model, and constitutes - in itself - an action."
"The power of prediction," Miril murmured.
"How much of a punch it packs, I wouldn't know," continued Yadon. "I suspect, though, that (this world being what it is) sooner or later one is going to run into an extreme case."
"'This world being what it is'," echoed Miril, having heard him say it twice. Something tingled in her mind. She did not exactly shiver. The merest notional shadow caused her to glance at her companion sidelong. Was that a flicker of amusement on his face? Broken skies - did he find her funny?
"Why are you laughing at me?"
"I'm not," he said.
And that was true, she decided. But after
some more minutes of companionable strolling, when they sat down together on a
convenient rock, Miril found that the fair weather of her emotions was giving way to stormclouds. The shivers began: uncomprehending jolts of distress.
"You're maybe too well-travelled for me," she said in a bitter tone.
"It's the irony," the man shook his head, "that gets to me."
Blinking back tears which appalled her, Miril shot back: "What irony? Voyaging from Starside to Sunside: doesn't that make you unusually entitled to laugh? I mean, laugh at comparative stay-at-homes?"
"Ah - if only you knew." His head drooped, surprising her and causing the pendulum of her emotion to swing once more. Feebly she tried to rebuke herself for the amazingly sudden, simple-minded infatuation which had her in its grip. What was she doing, loafing around in this short-lived haven with a man who churned her up? And what was that he'd just said: if only you knew - if only she knew what?
Following a strong instinct, she refrained from asking.
Soon they got talking again, and he steered the conversation away from himself and towards her own experiences, and here she obtained some salve for her pride, for, drawing her out, he appeared genuinely interested in what she had to say about her original work on the Allomba Fapps.
"Not bad," he judged, and at first she did not register the next three words, spoken under his breath, "for a Uranian."
"...I thought it odd, you see, that nobody else had done the work on the ribbon-forests before I did, since all I did was forge a chain of deductive reasoning... Eh?" she stopped, belatedly stunned at the three words for a Uranian.
"Yes, you did rather better than most would have done, I'd say," the Starsider was agreeing with himself. "Deductive reasoning, no less. Something which most of you haven't taken to. Cause-and-Effect are, it seems, regarded as over-rated on this world."
She had a choice. By this time they were reclining close to each other on a patch of deep moss, but she might, rejecting the softness, foment her dismay at the streak of remoteness in him; or she could give way to the urge to trust, to plunge deeper into the golden sea of his glamour and charm.
A short while later she was lying in his arms, having made her choice. Trusting that the undemanding hour stretched likewise for him, surely she could, for such a little while, overlook "Not bad for a Uranian", though the phrase hissed like a fuse on the floor of her mind.
When for one moment she shifted her head to check on his expression, his eyes met hers quite shyly, and she happily looked away again, snuggling against him. All right, the "beyondness" of him still hovered about him, and she knew, really, that his life-path was not hers, and that this could not last, but it was allowable to dream.
"You have a wife, Yadon?"
She sensed his head-shake as he replied, "I am between wives."
"Your first one was... killed? I mean - you do not look old."
"Yes, my first wife, Dittri, was killed."
"I am sorry to hear that. And your second?"
He murmured, "I await the impossible."
"Ha. Then it won't be Miril Nerred," remarked the girl. Deciding, after all, that it was time to scramble up and brush the gralm and the leaves from her cloak, she did so and added dryly, "I'm all too possible."
Yadon, standing up likewise, contemplated her sombrely. "You are going now? Back to your city?"
"I'll accompany you, if I may."
"No reason why not."
"Are you all right?" - a strange, foreign, kind phrase.
"You've done me some good, yes."
"I don't know what I've done."
"Oh," she said, "I suppose it took a Starsider to explain to me, how Simulation-as-Action can work. Credit where it's due."
"You mean that?"
"It may have sounded sarcastic, but yes, I mean it."
That a man who had voyaged across the globe should be exceptionally endowed with apparng - context-awareness, the faculty of seeing things afresh and of not taking them for granted - seemed reasonable to Miril. And yes, her besotted self - credit to that - could be forgiven for being impressed. She'd been perceptive - "for a Uranian". That phrase, now at the end of its fuse, detonated its meaning.
Its overdue impact could now only signify a figure of speech: picturesquely meaning as if Yadon were judging this world from outside. He couldn't really be an alien. Or rather, as a Starsider he was alien enough. A man from the remotest part of the planet could well possess insights which demonstrate apparng at its most powerful. He might look look at life as if, or almost as if, from the viewpoint of another world.
A wonderful man, but perhaps he'd be a bit eerie to live with.
"Let's go find our skimmers. It's time I reported back," she chattered while moving off. "I owe it to the Noad to be as prompt as I can. Not only is she a really good ruler, she has been good to me personally."
Soon they had regained their vehicles and were speeding along the Allomba Fapps back towards the great city. Though they skimmed side by side, the speed and the whistle of the air were not conducive to conversation, even had they desired it.
A half mile from the massive base of the urban stem, forest and monoline simultaneously came to an end. Vlamanor towered hugely above the approaching skimmers. Miril and Yadon, by tacit consent, allowed themselves to drift increasingly apart from one another as they approached the ayash, the aerial fountain that must lift them to the height of the rim. Yadon waved and called above the rising swish: "Convey my salutation to your estimable Noad."
Miril cried back, "Tyeplinoa", which means, "I have feasted" - a term we Uranians use to mean that we have enjoyed another's company; it was moments later, after she had risen a good way among the other vehicles in the traffic stream, that she thought of the nuance that meant "I have feasted enough", or in other words, I want no more, which was not what she had wished to imply; and with a pang of regret she looked back to find that she could no longer distinguish Yadon among the others borne upon the airstream, which meant she hadn't a hope of retracting the word.
She tried again to spot the Starsider but obtained no further glimpse, while her vehicle curved downward, along with its neighbours, in the airstream's arching trajectory until, gently as a falling leaf, she was set down upon the smooth metal of the oalm.
She stepped off her skimmer. A quick look around confirmed that she had lost her man. By picturing his path through the air - how he must have risen past the looming rim and then swept down as she had done, to alight somewhere upon this portion of the great urban disc - she could well imagine so many places he might be, that she had to shrug in the realization that only improbable luck would reveal him. Besides, what was the point of wishing to see him now? It would be perhaps more respectable to wonder what he was thinking at this moment: whether he was impressed with this beloved and majestic home of hers, the loaded disc of Vlamanor.
She hoped so; she trusted so. A community such as hers, which had stood for so many thousands of lifetimes upborne upon its massive mile-wide stem, could hardly be equalled in splendour by Yadon's Olhoav or any other outpost in the world's starlit hemisphere; so far as anyone knew, no disc-on-stem cities had ever been built out in that remoteness. Yadon might, or might not, think it good to make a new home for himself here, amidst a Syoomean city whose blazing splendour must so clearly outmatch anything in his native land... Miril shrugged yet again. Time to toss the fellow from her mind.
Without further delay she headed for the Palace of the Noad.
Her reception was different, this time. She was not invited into the same room. Instead, while she stood in one of the lobbies, a guard handed her a communicator. Miril held it to her ear.
The voice of Sevret Vaid crackled:
"Back already, Miril? You must think you have found something important."
"I reckon so, Noad S-V."
"First, tell me: have you joined or rejected the Unbelievers?"
Miril's brain whirred intensely. Usual wisdom held that one did not match wits with Sevret Vaid, but on this occasion -
"Depends how you mean! I can tell you, Noad S-V, theirs is a merely performative Unbelief."
"A drawing-back in preparation for a rush forward."
That word brought a couple of seconds' silence.
"Come and dine," invited the voice in Miril's ear. "We need to explore all this."
Quite a few Vlamanorians had learned that this 'being asked to dine' was a perilous honour. Miril, as the words bounced around in her head, felt reasonably confident nevertheless. No matter what political balloons the Noad might bat at her, she could probably flounder her way through them, since they were unlikely to overwhelm more drastically than those already-breasted waves of confusion, of the Ghepion in the Vaults or the Starsider in the forest.
An officer conducted Miril along one of the minor corridors, and left her standing outside a room which, through its open door, appeared mostly bare. All she could, looking in, was a table, with two chairs, one on the near side and one on the far; and, spilling over the back of the near chair, the glossy locks of the Noad.
The voice said, "Come in and sit down." Miril obediently edged round to reach the proferred place on the table's other side, facing the door.
Now she could see the expression on the face of the ruler. It was quite amiable. Noad Sevret Vaid pulled one plateful of delicacies towards herself and pushed another towards Miril.
They both munched for about half a minute, and then:
"Tell me of this Impulsion."
Miril told her story, without, however, mentioning Yadon.
"Your conclusion," the Noad summarised, after having quizzed Miril on some of the details, "is that what's hitherto been called Simulation, actually causes - not merely models but causes - an accelerated spurt of events."
Miril nodded, and judged that this was the right moment to get round to saying: "I met a Wayfarer who agreed with me."
"Oh, what a handy coincidence! I want to hear more of this! You discussed the matter?"
"In general terms."
"The name of this Wayfarer?"
"He gave his name as... Yadon."
The lips of the ruler formed into a frightening, plenteous smile broadening under fervid eyes. "Tell me, Miril," the Noad husked, "which side you are on."
"Sponndar?" gulped Miril.
"I said tell me now which side are you on! The use or the avoidance of Impulsion?"
Miril involuntarily glanced up at the ceiling. Of course this room wasn't that Chamber which housed the towering hologram of the City of Mists. But the glance was enough.
Impulsion - action - battle with Yr - that was the thought that could be read in Miril's face.
"Don't bother to answer." Sevret Vaid rose from her chair. "Don't get up, Miril." Backing out through the door, the Noad added: "I need you out of circulation for a while."
While the door hissed shut Miril's thoughts accelerated to such a speed that she could not possibly voice them; otherwise she might have shouted, "I meant no harm!" She slumped, alone, hoping her imprisonment would be of short duration.
Long or short, she was stuck here. The sparse, windowless room was void of interest. A pole-lamp stood in one corner, but it was unlit, and light came only from the ceiling-glow. Miril was soon awash with self-blame. I was out of touch, she thought. Too concentrated on my own projects. Should have guessed that she would guess that I might guess her purpose -
No wonder she has locked me in here, so clear has it become, that she plans some move against the City of Mists. So clear, indeed, that I can't be the only one appalled at the risk she is running. You don't challenge the floating city. If it attacks, you must defend, but it would be madness to provoke it -
Soft and unvarying was the glow from the walls and the ceiling of Miril's prison. She had been left with no furniture other than the table and the two chairs, plus one other item: the single unlit pole lamp which stood in a corner.
Since the Noad was not cruel, the very scantiness of the furniture (Miril optimistically reasoned) must be an indication that she would be let out soon. And then - what?
Possibilities abounded, her imagination lathering the bare cell with potential futures. An ebullition of "Yes, but" frothed between pessimism and optimism concerning the Noad's plans. They offered some ugly prospects, yet their uncertainties allowed countervailing hopes.
- A hum, a slide, a click! She whirled. A bed was sliding out of the wall.
Further slidings and clicks accompanied the automatic upholstering and unfolding of the bed.
Within ten more seconds, to her unease, the cell had taken on a more furnished look. A long-term look. Oh, oh, this was not looking so good.
Her consciousness must now shoulder the burden of lonely imprisonment for longer than she had hoped. She sighed, went to sit on one of the chairs, and allowed her mind to rove. Be free in that way, at least!
The nicest theme for daydreaming was her brief idyll with Yadon in the forest of the Allomba Fapps. Except that it brought an additional sorrow: Yadon was lost to her. But wait: could there be such a thing as a lucky misfortune? Her desolation at the Starsider's disappearance from her life could perhaps be balanced by the far different hurt she now felt at her treatment by her former idol, the Noad. Thus, each blow might serve to lighten the other; two misfortunes might make a fortune...
Later, bedrowsed on the bed, she pictured a flow of combative scenes, visions of "I'll show her"; imaginary conversations in which Sevret Vaid was unable to return a convincing answer...
...Presently she heard a voice, and she assumed she must be dreaming. A deep, calm voice it was, a vaster-than-human voice, and it issued from the top of the pole-lamp.
"I shall favour you now, Miril Nerred."
It was Varramb, the Ghepion, who was speaking to her. High time, smiled Miril. She propped herself up on one elbow and stared at the glow spilling from the hitherto-dull lamp. A very odd idea came to her, that perhaps after all she was not dreaming.
The light seethed, puckered, steadied and resolved into a cinematic vision of the Noad's head.
In cheek-swelling fury the image was yelling, "Yadon in my city? That should have been foreknown!"
It was a sight to fascinate and to alarm, this ruler in her rage; this ruler who had imprisoned Miril and who, to judge from this glimpse, was now a prisoner of her own anger. "Ah, show me more of this, Varramb," demanded Miril aloud.
"...Not one of you 'advisors' warned me - fools that you are - "
It all seemed real and yet not real, which of course is what you get in dreams... but Miril could feel an ache in her elbow, while her neck, too, smarted under strain from her tense posture, and from these hard hints she knew that what she was seeing was not dream but Simulation.
"Varramb," she cried, "what are you up to now?"
The answer sighed through the cell. "I am friendly towards you, Miril Nerred."
So it might be.
It wouldn't be the first time that a Ghepion had liked and befriended a human. Many of the immortal evolved machines had indeed develop warm sentiments towards the ephemeral humans whose lives dusted the vast timeline of history.
"All right: thank you for that," Miril said. "And truly I'm interested in what you are showing me. But can you explain why the Noad is so worried by Yadon's presence in Vlamanor?"
"Yadon has worried quite a few people by now."
"Has he really? But even so - a single wanderer frightening Sevret Vaid!"
"But he is a wanderer from Starside," Varramb replied. "An adventurer whose catalytic reputation, gained in the last few hundred days, has spread across Syoom."
"I have heard nothing of this."
"You have been too absorbed in your own local interests, Miril. Otherwise you might by now have understood that the monoline routes between the Twenty-Five Cities, and the random trajectories of countless Wayfarers, have served as the grapevine for Yadon's fame."
"'Grapevine'? I don't know that word - "
"It means rumour-routes. Sevret Vaid is obviously terrified lest this trouble-shooter (you may not have heard that one either) foil her attempt to attack the City of Mists. You can guess the rest of it."
"Varramb, you're certainly enlivening my detention. Let me now guess that the Noad aims to foil Yadon in turn. For a start, by imprisoning me, his friend."
"That could be so," agreed Varramb. "She may have reckoned that he and you together might be too much for her."
She and Yadon together - a fond thought. But - enemies of the Noad? A sad thought.
"Can you get me out of this cell, Varramb? Can you interfere with locks?"
"I have the run of the city," the Ghepion acknowledged. "But a sheltered guest such as myself has no call to take part in your crises. Your human troubles come and go, and are no business of mine."
"Then what are you talking to me for?"
Calmly the Ghepion replied, "I told you, I am friendly towards you. I cannot release you, though. I respect the authority of the Noad, the rightful ruler of Vlamanor."
"Still," argued Miril, thinking fast, "you are willing to be kind to me. So then, can you put me in touch with Yadon?"
"I'm sorry, Miril: so sorry. I doubt that you will ever see him again."
Her spirit crumpled at that. Not ever again see the Starsider man? Not ever be warmed in the rays of his presence, not for all the rest of her life? Of course she knew how silly it was, to be so overwhelmed by the loss of a bliss which had been hers for only a few hours.
"But be comforted," added the soft, vast voice of Varramb. "Yadon, simply by the news of his presence, has done much for Vlamanor: he has impelled the Noad to take premature action. So, if you wish her plan to fail, as I think you do, you must rejoice in the credit which the Starsider deserves."
No doubt the Ghepion really did think that perspectives of that sort could mitigate grief, Miril realized. Exasperatedly she cried, "Then produce what you can - a simulated Yadon!"
For she might safely, without breaking her heart, speak with a mere phantom. Yes, safely: for she'd not be deceiving herself with an illusion. And at the same time, taking all aspects into consideration, it could be said (insofar as the simulation would be an animated summary of the knowledge available about the man and hence a consequence or outcome of his existence) - it could be said that it WOULD after all be some kind of manifestation of him, in a certain sense.
Irrational artifice of comfort - but why not? It might even be justifiable! Something practical might spring therefrom.
The upper area of the pole lamp began to collect a little oval cloud which winked with sparks. This was it: her wish was about to be granted: a production not quite as rapid as the previous simulation, that of the Noad (for these new sparks - perhaps because Yadon was less well known - required a few more seconds to coalesce); nevertheless the holograph was in place before Miril had taken many breaths.
Claiming more room than the image of Noad Sevret Vaid had done, this one completely hid the upper part of the pole lamp, while the base took on the guise of a pedestal.
Miril gulped and reminded herself that the beloved looming image was mere guesswork, informed guesswork and no more, certainly not really Yadon but, rather, an appanage of Varramb's information-store, no more than that.
The image smiled down at her.
The man seemed to speak. "Skimmjard, Miril! Good to see you again! Anything you wish to ask me?"
That easy-going drawl, that relaxed enfolding of infinite personality...
"Yes, there is, Yadon" - and saying the name she felt darkly clever: look, I'm pretending to be fooled. Pretending, mind you. I know you're not real. She went on: "Yadon, it's good to see you too. Varramb, unfortunately, will not act to save Vlamanor; might YOU think of a way?"
"You ask me that? I, a stranger from further away than you can imagine?"
"Yes, because you know what needs to be done."
"You think so?"
"I hope so."
"Tell me how. Tell me what your hope consists of."
"Something, anything, that you think up in order to stave off the Noad's insane plan to launch an Impulsion attack upon the City of Mists!"
Having gushed out these words, Miril fell silent, breathing heavily.
Yadon, or rather 'Yadon', looked thoughtful.
"You are certain that your Noad is acting foolishly - that to challenge Yr will bring defeat upon Vlamanor?"
That was an easy one to answer. "I know this much history, Varramb: I know that Yr has never been successfully attacked. Never, during all the eras it has haunted the skies of Ooranye, has anyone given battle to the flying city."
"Ah," the holographic figure nodded. "A significant datum - for, doubtless, motive has not been lacking; Yr has behaved inimically on more than one occasion."
"And with impunity."
"I acknowledge the point. It's not surprising that no city on the ground has dared retaliate. To fight an entire city that possesses the freedom of the air..."
Miril said, "Precisely. And if one were to ask why Vlamanor might succeed where none other has even dared to try, I see no good answer."
"Therefore," the image remarked, "if such a move were made, it ought to be led by the Sunnoad himself on behalf of all Syoom, and not, as is the case here, to be a local initiative of one rash Noad, who is foolishly willing to risk dying amid the wreckage of her city under an assault from the sky."
"My thoughts exactly," said Miril - and paused.
Up till this moment, she had been assuming that the voice of 'Yadon' was really the voice of Varramb, which meant of course that it was saying only what Varramb wished to permit the image to say: that same Varramb who, short while ago Varramb, had expressed nen's loyalty and submission to the rule of the Noad. Now, however, the image had just sounded a serious note of criticism aimed at Noad Sevret Vaid. How come?
But then, come to think of it, if the simulation was to be authentic, it had to be given free reign. It must be allowed to express what Yadon himself would have said, even if that went directly against what Varramb approved.
Grounds for hope?
Probing, she remarked:
"Let's imagine the worst comes to the worst: the Noad attacks Yr and Yr retaliates to the full. I suppose, even then, Vlamanor won't be utterly destroyed. Anyone living in the vaults will be safe, under the city-floor of iedleis, the ultimate metal."
(Cheeky, cheeky! I'm as good as saying that since Varramb will be all right, whatever happens, it's small wonder that nen can't be bothered to interfere.)
To avoid such cheekiness it would be as well to keep firmly in mind that the image up there in the corner, though it might tug at her fool heart, was just a clever simulacrum, no more, and that she must never forget that she was talking not to Yadon but to Varramb.
At that moment the clever simulacrum said with a wry curve of the lip:
"Still, not everyone will be able to shelter under the iedleis metal floor. It's going to be bad, very bad, with a lot of destruction and loss of life."
"You sound as though you're saying it's inevitable," said Miril with a sensation as of a leaden weight upon her chest. "As though the Noad has already begun the fight."
"I reckon she has," affirmed 'Yadon', bowing his head and compassionately smiling down.
"Then," shuddered Miril, "it really is too late."
"Yes." The smile was gone. "What with your fate-waves and stuff," grimaced 'Yadon' peculiarly, "I would guess that Sevret Vaid fired the starting-gun, so to speak, the moment she requested from Varramb a... 'dummy run'."
"A dummy run." The simulacrum's voice dropped towards a mumble, rendered the less intelligible by unfamiliar jargon. "Im Anfang war der Tat - from the statistical forecast shading to the mantic deed, somewhere the line gets crossed: prediction becomes action; perhaps foresight is always too late, for what can exist but deeds? Really we wait not for waves to carry us; instead we lay tracks and march."
Miril cut in feebly, echoing the only theme from his speech that she did understand: "Waves... we have to accept waves... they're everywhere; they're our lives..."
She was shaken by the other's raised voice:
"Thunderstruck is what I am, what I never cease to be - thunderstruck by the fatalism of you people!"
"What?" she gaped.
"Accept if you have to, but at least do so with a bad grace! Don't go quietly!" glared Yadon at the slack-jawed girl. "And anyway you know that there is a way out of this one!"
She felt so dull! "What?" was again all that she could manage to say.
He continued more gently: "Chin up, Miril: there is, definitely, a way out. Not sure what you call it, but whatever name you give it, it exists. Else your political structures could not work. You know what I mean: replacements must be possible."
Simula or no, Yadon's real personality seemed to have taken over the conversation, tempting Miril not only to believe that it was, in some sense, really he, but also that he might be right -
He was weakening her resistance to the unspeakable!
For he was right that it was, indeed, possible to do something about a Noad gone wrong.
The taboo thought caused her to shake and bow her head as though trying to retreat into the shell she did not have. Presently, though, she managed to raise her eyes to regard the image of the Starsider.
The drapes of his cloak flowed straight and tall. He stood Noadlike himself, while he issued his spellbinding instructions, couched in the form of explanations.
"Imagine a world far from Ooranye: a quite different world with rulers called Kings, who were anointed, sacred, could do no wrong. Being mere men, they nevertheless did do plenty of wrong. So much so, that on occasion they had to be GOT RID OF. Despite their legal immunity, it was done: because it had to be done. Now, regarding your world: it is true that your Noads are better than the Kings in that other world. Your rulers' very title means focus or co-ordinator, suggesting one who governs by renl rather than by army or bureaucracy. Anyone sufficoently capable to do that, must be so good that it may seem unnecessary to speculate on what could be done to get rid of him or her... And yet - !" The voice slowed, went more serious still:
"And yet, such superiority only makes it even more urgent, as well as more difficult, to do what must be done whenever Noads lead their people in the direction of disaster...
"You don't have constitutions, you lack official provision for the necessary step - just like the medieval Earthly kingdoms I speak of - but nevertheless a Uranian body-politic must - just like any other - have... um... shall we say... a metabolic pathway..."
Miril sagged, overwhelmed by the increasing evidence that this simula had been given a free hand to think for itself, attaining direful and essential conclusions. Moreover she was subject to the developing hunch that 'Yadon' was addressing more listeners than just her. Perhaps she was the closest recipient, but his words (she strongly suspected) were winging their way down that pole-lamp into other conduits...
"I seem," the image chuckled, "to be getting the idea across."
She sat bolt upright. "Not to me, not to me!" No no no, she added mentally, she not said anything, had not even silently agreed to anything; in no way had she touched the never-to-be-recorded option.
Oh really? jeered her deepest, most honest self. You've listened, haven't you? This adventurer, whom you love, has mentioned the un-mentionable in your presence; has thus linked you to a terrible deed.
"Yadon," she cried, "or rather Varramb - show me again that vision of the angry Noad!"
'Yadon' grimaced sadly, "Better not, right now. The woman is in a bit of a pother; you won't gain from viewing her haggard face. It's hard for the obdurate to come to the end of their road."
"The end?" echoed Miril.
"Only for her. The rest of us need merely hop from one log to another to keep our balance when they all start to roll."
Each 'log' being one particular loyalty? "I can't change logs that fast," Miril grated hoarsely.
Before the syllables were out of her mouth, the image of Yadon had disappeared.
"Varramb," said Miril out loud, and "Varramb" she again called, but in the continuing silence she had to accept that the Simulator had effectively bidden her farewell.
So much for the Ghepion. Nen had abandoned her. Not, however, before having granted her a vision of Yadon; and with that she must be content.
No doubt by this time the real Yadon had bestridden his skimmer and taken off for distant parts, drawn by the suction of his destiny. Well then, she must count herself fortunate for having been vouchsafed a last waft of his presence. A residue or imprint of his personality was better than nothing; losses were often worse than this, more brutally abrupt.
Miril's waves of emotion therefore subsided, and quiet descended upon her mind as more hours went by, so that she was able to wait in peace for whatever might ensue, even as the hours became days. The next move, she was fairly certain, would come from the human authorities of the city, not from Varramb. That wise hulk would interfere no more; nen's single political action had surely been the most one might expect from a quiescent Ghepion. Miril therefore sat in patient reflection until somebody - the Noad, or one sent by the Noad - should come and let her out of the cell.
...In the version of this tale written for our Uranian readers, we skip over the rest of the time she spent imprisoned; but in the version that we tell to you Terrans we are prepared to reveal a secret about that lonely couple of days.
It can happen, on rare occasions, that the fate-waves which swirl in Ooranye's atmosphere are detectable by the naked eye. The collision between the three forces which crashed together in Miril's cell - the impetus of Varramb's powers, of Yadon's uniqueness, and of Miril's own ambitious yearnings - would normally have been invisible; but the isolation, the concentration, here brought some trace of the story-carrying surge into visual wavelengths.
Consequently, whereas in most of our narratives the fate-waves are taken for granted, here we shall try, for once, to help you picture the truth. It's not surprising that we don't do this often. It's far easier simply to give up hope of describing or explaining the phenomenon to Terrans, for although we might use phrases like "story-tissue" and "appropriateness-power", such verbiage would most likely mean nothing to you. In fact the challenge is so great that it's better if we approach the topic by telling you what a fate-wave is not. It is not anything deterministic. Hold onto that idea. Rather than a blind natural force, it is closer to being a live thing. Hold that too; and then hold the contradiction as we add a 'but': but, if you like, it is, nevertheless, a kind of natural force.
It arises from the equally invisible paths or tunnels scored through the hardrock of reality by the age-long squirm of souls. And when we say age-long, we refer to a history of awareness hundreds of times longer than that of Earth; nay, thousands of times longer, if you take into consideration not just us Nenns but the inhabitants of all the previous Great Cycles of Ooranye.
You Terrans are fond of fiction; you have a need for it because the lives of your fictional characters possess the artistic shape denied to the messier trajectories of your actual selves. We on the other hand can dispense with invented stories, since our culture has had time to evolve into naturally poetic life-lines. Here, therefore, thanks to that age-old selection process, reality is as shapely as fiction. Rather than read tales, we live them.
If you've followed us this far, perhaps you're ready to picture the next stage of our explanation. To do that, you must animate it. Abandon our recent "paths or tunnels" metaphor in favour of life-lines which arch and swoop and lunge. Let them obey the plot-forces, ride the fate-waves, skate the fortunes or however you wish to express the ebullition of the destiny-crowded Uranian atmosphere...
We're guessing that Miril caught a glimpse of all this. She will have noticed some wispy harmonic of the vision of Yadon, an after-effect lingering sketchily in the air around her.
When the authorities finally came to free her, she may also have noticed that the wisp followed her out. Or perhaps not. The opening of her cell door may well have driven all other thoughts from her mind.
Not that the arrival of an official backed by guards was any great surprise. And the grizzled brush of grey hair atop the elderly figure who stood stiffly to greet her was not completely unexpected either: she had been wondering if this particular man might be sent.
What shocked her was a further greyness about him. His cloak.
The city's one and only grey cloak now swirled about the shoulders, not of Sevret Vaid, but of this erstwhile Daon of Vlamanor, Lrar Emdu.
Vlamanor's new Noad.
"You are now freed from your unjust incarceration, sponndar Miril," the Successor announced. "But rather than talk of that, we must turn to deal with a crisis. Follow me if you please, sponndar."
She obeyed, swaying dizzily as she walked, and repeating to herself, this man is now my ruler.
Miril had never admired Lrar Emdu, and the fact that he had been promoted from the blue cloak to the grey did nothing to warm her reaction to him personally. Yet that could not restrain her polishing, could not curb her refurbishment of his image, could not prevent the busy slapping-on of coat after coat of associational gloss to make - in almost no time at all - "Lrar Emdu" the embodiment of her city-state in her belief system.
Imagination having dressed him in that coded attire, he took his place in her mind as rightful Noad.
But then -
Don't ask. Don't ask. Sevret Vaid is gone. Don't ask.
It was not precisely a "thought", more a fizz in the bloodstream, a voiceless instinct that some topics are NOT suitable for reflection.
Meanwhile she walked with the Noad and his handful of guards, emerging from the Palace onto a city-floor space, and continuing through some secondary streets which appeared less frequented than usual. Presently she saw where most of the people had congregated.
A huge crowd thronged the Ezem, the famous concourse that normally revolves at walking speed at the half-radius of Vlamanor. The rotation, however, had now ceased; for the first time in living memory an order must have been given to close the master switch.
The halting of the moving way must count as a portent.
The Noad took hold of Miril's arm and, acknowledging the greetings of those who stood nearby, made his way through the dense multitude, in the direction of a platform on which a bulky hopper had been placed. This extraordinary object was circular, its rim about five feet tall, its diameter perhaps six yards. The bin bulged incongruously amid the dignified structures of central Vlamanor.
In thrall to a dreamlike expectancy, Miril kept her silence as she was led onto the platform. She found herself standing close not only to the Noad but also to some other high officials, among whom she noted the weighty form of the fleet commander, omzyr Tahat Teherer; but she did not pay any of them much heed. None of them could draw her attention from the round bin.
She was able to see over its rim and into its interior, which was almost full of slightly steaming cvoc, if her eyes were to be believed. Having struggled to understand, finally she turned to look at the Noad.
His eyes met hers with a knowing gleam.
Miril's respect for Lrar Emdu underwent a sharp rise. "Shavings of Varramb?" she dared to say.
He nodded and, with a tight smile, turned to murmur something to the omzyr. Then the Noad and the fleet commander scanned the sky with binoculars.
Impressions of Lrar Emdu and of Teherer, and the jumbled metallic contents of the bin, and the spiky restlessness of the concourse crowd, caused Miril's mind to swim amid ominous forebodings, from which she intuited that the new Noad was no longer the plodder she'd once judged him to be. Old "by-the-book" Lrar Emdu was turning out after all to be an event-juggler, a flexible gambler, his personal star on the rise to meet a crisis for which gambling skills were imperative...
Let the reader guess whether Miril, while she pondered this, also noticed that the Yadon-wisp had followed her from the cell. And whether she saw it pour over the lip of the bin, to merge, most likely, with the contents.
At any rate she had the intelligence to picture a chain of possibilities being forged.
She saw Noad Lrar Emdu's lips move, as he issued a quiet order to omzyr Tahat Teherer.
The fleet commander, obeying, proceeded to climb the rungs on the wall which stood behind the platform, and then reached for a service panel that was high enough to be well in view of most of the crowd below.
Everyone now watched as he opened the panel, drew out five control bars, bunched them under one arm and carried them down. When he returned to the platform, he walked to the edge and held up what he had fetched. A heightened roar of understanding greeted the gesture.
Miril, though she had been incommunicado for two days, guessed what a pair of binoculars (had she one to hand) would show in the sky; a thing perhaps mere seconds away from becoming visible to the naked eye; an object which all five airships in Vlamanor's fleet must be ready to attack.
By this time a moan of detestation was wafting up from the crowd. Miril's glance now spotted the direful wink in the cope of the heavens: yes, there the thing floated - eight miles up, if tradition proved true.
She lowered her gaze again to regard the stirred multitude. Their agitation left her in no doubt that everyone in the concourse had seen what she had seen, and that they all knew, just as she did, what it was.
However it's still a few score miles off, and it's drifting towards us slowly, so we have some minutes to spare.
On the other hand those minutes give us time in which to do the wrong thing - time to make a disastrous move. Fortunately the Noad is no longer Sevret Vaid.
Miril edged up to the bulky bin with its contents of glinting junk. Her nerves twisting with anxiety, she was desirous of reassuring herself by any possible means. It must have been fairly easy, she thought, to send some collectors down into the vaults, to scrape from the screes all this cast-off cvoc of Varramb's earlier growth, remotely equivalent to hair or nail clippings from a human. Clever of the Noad - since the Ghepion does not intend to help us any more in this our hour of need - to use that blind, self-organizing rubble as smoking evidence of mighty power, with which to inspire or placate the people.
It occurred to her that the Noad, too, might be wanting reassurance. Why, after all, had he brought her here? Answer: reassurance from none other than Miril Nerred!
Yes - for she had Varramb as well as any citizen had in recent days. She raised her eyes and, ah, yes, they again met those of Lrar Emdu, and, in order to show him that in History's judgement she believed he might prevail, and that she now supported him despite her former enthusiastic loyalty to his predecessor, she gave the briefest of nods. Noads were adept at receiving signals. It was all up to him now. Let him juggle the forces around him, which Noads must ever do, the more effectively the more they are beset. Right now two scarcely speakable pressures crowded Lrar Emdu. One was the terror from the sky, the aerial city drifting closer, its lower surface beginning to show what appeared at first to be fracture lines and then, when closer, the formidable Strakes of Yr, the running ridges standing out like veins which, during battle, open to emit blades of power -
The other peril came from below, ignited and stoked by the one above.
Here it came: from amid the crowd of backgrounders, a wide low rumble which gathered and spiked into sharper yells. A young man down there was shaking his fist. Amazingly he was shaking it at the platform where the Noad stood. Miril hardly knew at which to be more appalled: the sky-borne enemy or the defiance of rightful authority by one of her own people - no, by more than one. She distinguished the hurled phrases: Attack, attack, Noad L-E! Will you not offer us victory? Defend us by attacking! What are you waiting for? Why do you not launch our ships? Launch them now, against Yr! Launch them before the enemy gets above us!
Noad Lrar Emdu strode to the edge of the platform. He held up his arms to plead for quiet, and was heeded somewhat, so that he could make himself heard:
"It may come to that, Rarr Reng!"
The young man who had shouted the loudest glared. "'May'? Where's the doubt? To wait longer is treason to Vlamanor!"
Confused shouts evinced agreement by many, though not by all - some were calling to Rarr Reng to pipe down.
"You think so. You think so. But," suggested Noad Lrar Emdu, "there are varieties of treason, and you know what one of the worst is called?"
He spoke the word, and then turned his back on them all, leaving googozdamun to echo in their ears and brains.
Striding towards the steaming junk-bin, he left the multitude to digest that ugly and terrible four-syllable term, spoken reluctantly as its rare mentionings always were. Not so rare, though, that Uranians could be be ignorant of its meaning.
Googozdamun: the ultimate in criminal irresponsibility: reckless tampering with the forces of Fyaym.
By this time enough rumour had got round for most of the population to suspect that the late Noad, Sevret Vaid, had requested Varramb to simulate an attack on Yr, and that the "dummy-run" had so lamentably exceeded itself as to summon its object for real.
With a blunder of this magnitude, many faces have to be saved. Miril watched as Lrar Emdu, glaring down into the bin, repeated: "Googozdamun."
Miril saw the chaos of metal fragments stir. The components of the Ghepion rubble began to glow with tiny haloes, which pooled to suggest a kind of luminous slurry, fast thickening into a mealy perturbation from which steamed a cohering waft, a mist with definable outlines.
Let this gamble not backfire, prayed Miril. O Thremdu, O World-Spirit, allow that misty form its voice.
Indeed it almost looked like that would happen, as the shape drifted upwards to an altitude which made it visible to the concourse crowd, acquiring, as it soared, the lineaments of a human head complete with highlights in the black tresses, having moulded itself into a translucent portrait bust of the late Noad, Sevret Vaid.
During the hush that held sway during these moments, Miril Nerred's heartbeats sympathetically thrummed with those of the populace, while every mind was filled with the awesome question regarding the late Noad, expunged yet now visible: would her image speak, to accuse her successor, Lrar Emdu, of the unmentionable? That rare deed, that emergency political act, which can neither be explicitly forbidden nor explicitly allowed - was it about to be brought into the open? Could that be a smile taking form in the vapour?
Lrar Emdu's mouth was set in an ironic line as he watched those vapourous lips which, perhaps, were curling towards denunciation.
Miril judged the same way, and she froze in horrid realization that she did not wish the truth to come out. Sevret had had to go! And it had had to be seen to quietly! To bring it all out into the light of day, especially during an enemy attack, would be ruination!
Perhaps the forces which governed the scene agreed. The eyes and features of the image, instead of shaping themselves into an accusing glower, swerved in wispy dismay to focus, in a sketch of remorse, upon the approaching menace in the sky. Dismay seemed to undermine the gaseous lineaments of the late Sevret Vaid, and abruptly, with a dolorous sag, the entire vapour-structure collapsed.
And that, thought Miril, is that. Heart-heavy yet relieved, she saw it as a plain admission, by a residue of Varramb, that the Yr-Simulation had been a bad idea. But the crowd of backgrounders, taking the image literally, were more likely to see it as a posthumous admission by the former Noad herself: Sevret's last testament of the error of her ways.
Which of these interpretations became acccepted, Miril did not care, for the vital point henceforth was that Vlamanorians could, with undivided loyalties, face the onset of Yr.
The floating city had come several miles closer. It was now much lower in the sky, perhaps only two miles up - petrifyingly enormous. No doubt remained that the mountainous structure was floating straight towards Vlamanor.
By this time its two weapon-emplacements, known as the Shoulders of Yr, had become discernible. Somewhere up there, it was easy to believe, a finger must be tensed on a button. This much was known from scraps of history: that whereas the Strakes were for air-to-ground combat, the Shoulders were for air-to-air battles. Prepared for this, Vlamanor's five skyships had been launched from their tower-docks. They only awaited an order from omzyr Teherer to lunge into action.
Noad Lrar Emdu growled at the omzyr, "Too many unknowns. We don't even know if the thing's hull is made of ultimate metal."
"No other examples to learn from," the omzyr muttered back. "Yr is one of a kind."
"For which may Thremdu be thanked. But if the hull is made of ultimate metal, it could carom against the superstructure of Vlamanor. It could do as much damage that way - "
"Look," interrupted the omzyr.
Yr had canted, slightly but definitely, a few degrees. It had begun to swerve.
Forgetting to breathe, the Vlamanorians watched while further moments oozed past. "Do they intend to enter an orbit?" mused Teherer.
"If so, it's an extremely tight orbit," the Noad replied, "grazing the air space above our rim."
"Flunnd!" swore the omzyr, because, suddenly, a huge volume of air above the concourse of Ezem had begun to... curdle.
The local darkening clenched into the image of a brown fist. Without doubt this was a transmission from Yr. It was on a scale far vaster than the brief vapour-sculpture of Sevret Vaid above the bin on the platform.
Within the fist a sharper holo-image, perhaps ten yards high, appeared, of the head and shoulders of a man wearing a flared helmet, a man who perhaps was seated behind a console on which his fingers rested, all backed by a patch of crimson wall.
The hard-eyed face was that of a merciless ruler who did not deign to move his lips. Words resounded on his behalf, out of the empty air:
"I am Abon Gnaa, the Voice of Rael Odiram, Noad of Yr. I charge you, Vlamanorians: make plain your intentions. Say whether you intend war against us."
Lrar Emdu leaned on the platform railing, and raised his head at the towering image. Aside to Teherer he said, "Get me a microphone, quick. I want all my people to hear this." Teherer relayed the command and within a minute the Noad was able to Yr in a voice equally loud:
"Sponndar Abon Gnaa, I, the Noad of Vlamanor, say that subsequent to your departure from our air space you and your Noad will be able to reflect upon our answer, which will be evident by then."
The gigantic holograph's eyes narrowed as it stared down; the entire face pulsed somewhat in and out of focus while its lips rounded, pursing to look like a blob of solder. Then came a sudden, dramatic fade. Within seconds the image had melted into thin air.
Trying to guess what this meant, the people of Vlamanor swivelled their eyes to watch the actual enemy city itself: and they noted that Yr continued to veer along its curving path.
One question dominated all Vlamanorian thoughts: and within a few more tense minutes the answer became evident. The floating city had not settled into an orbit. Rather, it was on course for a fly-by.
Lungs exhaled, muscles and minds relaxed, as it became apparent that Yr had begun to recede. Many in the concourse crowd simply stared as if in a dream; others broke into cheers and set out to push towards the platform where the Noad stood.
That movement was interrupted by a new surprise: where recently the rendition of Sevret Vaid had been brewed out of the bin of cvoc, a different vapour-sculpture now arose.
Definitely not a repeat of that previous concoction, this newest wispy swirl was taking the form of a lean, rugged man, at first seemingly an archetype rather than an individual: the worn cloak, the hardy frame, the keen visage of one who had seen many mysterious sights and dared many adventures. A symbol of the tough Wayfarer.
Within a few moments, however, the idea took hold that this was a portrayal of some specific person. Quite a few spectators, perhaps one in three, thought of a name that fitted.
Those who recognized him also noted that the image squarely faced the receding Yr. From this it was natural to speculate that Yadon the Starsider was "seeing off" the menace in the sky. A blizzard of emotion gusted through the people. Gratitude burst to the fore, so that, either literally or figuratively, thousands of backgrounders were keen to hoist some prestigious foregrounder onto their shoulders.
Some of this urge to venerate was focused upon the new Noad, Lrar Erem, at whom was aimed many a rousing cheer, but to a greater extent the homage was pitched at the wavering, misty portrait of Yadon.
The crowd yelled all the louder because the portrait was guttering and fading. Even as they watched, it raised a wispy arm in farewell, dissolving as it moved off in an ambling slouch.
Miril Nerred, too overcome to think, existed in a suspension of all feeling. It was as though she herself were nought but a mist... until the clump-clump of boots and the approach of excited voices told her that the crowd's human waves were lapping against the platform where she stood.
"Well here we are again," said the voice of a friend: "it's Assiduity Miril!"
Her old admirer Duruld Omott! A long while it seemed, since she had spared a thought for him! This time, she did not tell him off for using a nickname she did not like. Instead she laughed in cheerful amazement at how pleased she was to see him.
Duruld, in turn, suffused with happiness, clasped her arm and grinned. Yet, because he remained a skyfleet officer, his gaze returned to the sky. Together they watched the dwindling outline of Yr.
At last, when the departed menace was little more than a dot, Duruld turned back to look Miril full in the eye. He remarked, "I hear people saying that vagabond fellow, that Yadon, masterminded our triumph. What do you think? You were close to him for a while, I hear."
Miril tried not to answer.
Duruld, however, persisted: "I'm asking you, what did the man actually do, to defeat Yr?"
Ruffled at this, she insisted: "I don't know any more, than that we Vlamanorians kept our nerve, which was what was needed."
The answer seemed to please Duruld. He leaned towards her and whispered in her ear, "We've seen how legends are born - in mist and smoke..."
He did not have to complete the sentence. In a sudden surge of physical affection Miril pressed her cheek against his, relegating the Starsider to a blur of vague renown, fittingly blent with the fly-by of that fabled airborne pirate State which might have laid waste to Vlamanor.
Uranian Throne Episode 20: