uranian throne - episode nineteen

the non-dummy run

by
robert gibson


For the story so far, see:

volume I: the terran heir
1:
Dynoom; 2: Hyala;
3: the nebulee; 4: Exception
5: the lever of power;
6: the infrastructure throbs
7: the claw extends;
8: the brain-mist writhes; 9: the last card;
10: the londoner; 11: the terran heir;
12: the city cracks; 13: the validator rips;
14: the heartland beckons; 15: zyperan

volume Ii: the golden cloak
16: confluence at ao; 17: the scared logician;
18: the rash down-payment  

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


She was not alone; 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 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.

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 the mind of investigator Miril Nerred, the object of Duruld's fascination.  They are open to us, though closed to each other.

Unaware of Duruld's entry, unaware of his admiration, Miril went on enjoying her unique daydream.  A clean swoop to the target, a swift flash to success: long had this particular un-grasped greatness attracted and tempted her.  It - though she wasn't yet close to understanding what "it" was - remained her constant preoccupation.  Ah well, she sighed.  She must wait for today's test to begin...  She gave out a reflective chuckle; and then, accidentally by her head-shake, she noted out of the corner of an eye the presence of that heavy-shouldered saunterer, Duruld.

She still did not turn; instead, she took a step closer to the window, and gazed more intently down onto the plain far below. 

But he - he could read her stance; he could tell she had spotted him; and he reckoned it was time to speak.

"Look who's here!" he exclaimed.  "Why, it's Assiduity! Assiduity Miril!"

"I get tired of people calling me that," she informed him without any loss of poise.

"Sorry," said Duruld.  "I'll stop doing so, since you don't like it; though in fact it's a compliment.  You're the one who never leaves off following a thread; never abandons an investigation unfinished.  I'd call that enviable.  I'm still seeking to make my reputation."

Her mouth quirked at this, and she did then turn to include him in her field of view.  "And why are you here, Duruld?  To watch the ritual?  It's almost time."

"Either that," he shrugged, "or - to watch you." 

A more economical reply than his last, it was also a bolder one.  Yet it failed to elicit any revealing response.  Her only reaction was a tiny skeptical smile.

He added: "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 main room adjacent to the corner buttress where Miril had chosen to wait.

Duruld again remarked, "They like doing it the hard way, those Unbelievers.  A slow tramp tramp up the stairs."  He eyed her in an effort to ascertain whether the imminent event was making her at all nervous.

Apparently not: she had gone back to being absorbed, even now, in the panorama visible from the window. 

Duruld, increasingly captivated by this absent air of hers, felt impelled to move forward, to survey the panorama likewise.  Must be something in it, he thought lightly; and then he reminded himself: no wonder she prefers that view - the scene of her detective triumph.

Sghee Tower, in which they stood, had been constructed, 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 outlook seemed like that of an outpost on the city's rim. From such a vantage it was possible to enjoy the sight of a great engineering masterpiece of Era Thirty: the Vlamanor-Yoon monorail.

Miril could see straight along that 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 contrastingly irregular ribbons of forest that snaked their way on either side of the rail's embankment.  That accompanying pair of forests had not been planned to twist and meander in such fashion.  They had been planted straight, as a defensive glacis to protect the monoline on both sides; but during subsequent ages convection in the subsurface ice had distorted their positions.  Only the monorail itself, its embankment constructed with the skills of the Zinc Era, had resisted the deviating pressures of glacial flow.  It still ran straight to Yoon, 5,124 miles away over the curve of the giant planet.

Of all that stretch of rail, 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.)  I'm wondering now... do you intend to solve the mystery of the Unbelievers, too?"

He stopped to listen; the chant on the stairs had grown closer, louder.  Yftim-mar-teray, yftim-mar-teray...

"You do not answer me, Miril," said Duruld. 

He was astonished when she turned him a glance of... he could only sense it as 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."

Duruld experienced an instant's thrill.  Most of the time it was with mere whimsy that he thought about her, and 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 deservedly aspire to share the same rung -

The flicker was over.  Duruld shook the silliness from his thoughts.  He reminded himself, as he listened to the gradually increasing chant from below, that he had two or three minutes at most to probe for the clue he sought.

"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 was gazing out of the window yet again.

All he could do was press on: "You know I'm not happy with some current trends.  Sometimes I wonder what this city's coming to.  I respect the Noad and all that, but..."

His verbal groping scored some sort of hit.  Miril turned in a flash.  "She's the greatest Noad we've had in millions of days!"

Ah, the spark of political zeal.  Could surreptitious fanning produce some illumination?  "She is, I grant you, great," Duruld shrugged.  "Only, trouble is, the great can be tempted to take on too much.  Are you looking for a way to help her, maybe?"

"Now how might I possibly do that?  This conversation is very vague, Duruld, and I'm busy today."

"You've got method," he insisted hurriedly.  "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.  Intermittent clues..."

"You plugged their gaps nevertheless!  I like your style!  Do you have a word for it?"

"No."

The tramp of boots could be heard on the platform just outside the main room, and the chanting, which had risen to a crescendo, now appeared to have ceased. 

Miril went towards the partition door -

Duruld called after her, "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?  Invigilate (or whatever), 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.  I shan't 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 left by the elevator.

*

Carefully holding their bowls of liss quabb, or White Blood, the candidates were shuffling into the larger, main room of this level of the tower, where seats with inbuilt desk-arms had been arranged in rows, for about fifty people.  The chanting had not actually ceased but had gone low, down almost to a hum, rhythmic with the cloaked candidates' steps, as the white glow sloshed in their bowls while they slowly sought their places.

Miril looked around for a place for herself.  She decided she must make sure of one by lifting a spare seat-desk from the wall and pushing it into position in the back row.  Having accomplished this she sat down when the others did, copying their mien.  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, where, padding in to stand at the main desk, the invigilator turned out to be none other than Lrar Emdu, Daon of Vlamanor.  Raising his bushy eyebrows at the candidates, the Daon spoke with solemn formality: 

"Thank you for volunteering for this test.  You are the third group to do so.  Each group makes our city stronger.

"Remember, you are here to express your opinions without hesitation.  The personal aspect is vital.  Hence the contrast of atmosphere, between humdrum pen-and-paper on the one hand, and, on the other, the momentous vapour of the White Blood.  You know that the liss quabb comes from Varramb nenself.  Do no, however, hesitate on that score!  Write what you think!  You have half an hour.  Pick up your pens.  Answer the question as best you can.  The question being - "

He turned and wrote in large letters on the board behind him:

"WAS THE WORK OF THE SIMULATOR EVER TRUE?"

The instant the Daon's arm dropped after the writing of "TRUE", there arose throughout the room a susurration of sleeves, that spoke of immediate busy work by pen and hand: most, or all, the candidates had begun to write their opinions.  Miril had the impression that they weren't hesitating at all.  They knew what they wished to say.

For they were the loyal Unbelievers.

She could follow that clue, could she not?  That was why she was here...

But at this early stage, something in her gave way.  She fell into that majority state, out from which she persistently had to struggle: the state of perceiving life as a chaotic random dance of vari-coloured fluffy balloons, forever floating and bumping around, impossible to arrange in any proper order.  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; and this situation didn't satisfy her yearnings; she primly insisted that there ought to be more to life than a phantasmagoric swirl of themes.  Huh! - by the Skies, she'd see to it that there was more!

Hmm... she had her work cut out, that was for sure.

For example, this Unbelief business.  It was so tricky!  She looked at the candidates scribbling away, and tried to guess the contents of their essays.

Of course one thing was certain: they were 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.

But then, Varramb nenself had admitted as much!  In fact the old Ghepion had warned humanity against reliance on the tool of Simulation, and at length had insisted on nen's right to retire, abandoning all power and influence.  That act, known thereafter as the Renunciation of Varramb, had brought the Hafnium Era to a close.  People were 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.  It was better to leap in the dark, to make mistakes and take responsibility for them, than to run endless 'what-ifs' by means of clever machines.  Besides, the machines couldn't really do it anyway.  All they had ever really done was suggest probabilities as an inspiration for policy; to help concentrate the minds of humans on what was the most likely result, or what was "likely to be the most likely result", of what they might do.  The trouble was, reliance on such aids had become addictive, and it was time to break the addiction.  As a result of this 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 wandered by monorail to this very city, Vlamanor; had crept down into the vaults below the city floor; and there had been granted a lair in which to rest and dream nen's own dreams, free at last from preoccupation with the wants of humankind.  Since that retreat, seventeen eras ago, nen's rest had been unbroken.

Varramb, then, was out of consideration, and so were Varramb's powers.  Why then this new drive to disbelieve in those powers - to deny that they had ever existed?  What did it matter, one way or the other?

The dim blur of one possible answer took shape in Miril's thoughts.  She picked up her pen.

Just to be contrary, she wrote, 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 of future events based on various decisions taken...

For what was the eventual physical result of such machine-evolution?

Can I not see it, sniff it now?

The nano-plasm of super-miniaturised components, the... BLOOD.

Varramb, for the best of motives, may have decided to conceal the truth from us mortals; but now some people have gone down into the vaults and drawn a supply of the liss quabb from the old Ghepion's unwilling veins.

One might then say that the Unbelievers were in fact Believers.  Or that what they disbelieved in was not Simulation, but the Renunciation of it.

Well, this was exciting, was it not?  Worth some fuss, eh?  It must be a scheme of the Noad's, to revive an old controversial power by presenting it reassuringly as Unbelief.  Just like her, to do it that clever way!

Miril was only slightly annoyed that she herself had been so slow to get the point.  She could at least take heart from having worked it out without the need to sniff it from a bowl.  And her already high opinion of Noad Sevret Vaid of Vlamanor rose to an even loftier notch.

*

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 slightly 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.  The next instant, when she realized exactly where she was, she grasped the reason.

Like a solid grey stream, a smooth metal way separated her from the double-scarped hump on the other side of that kerbless road.  A wakening beam, flashed from an upper window, had caught her eye.  That was what had wrested her early from her trance.  Evidently she was wanted up there, by the person to whom was reserved the right to transmit such summons.

With beating heart Miril crossed the way and was admitted to the Palace of the Noad.

Up the elevator she travelled, into the top corridor and, uncertainly, towards the sphincter-like door at the end.  Half way along she encountered the advisor Jattak Othv, who was stooped in haste like a mere aong or messenger-of-the-moment.  Miril turned to face him with an inquiring look.  Efficiently, the advisor efficiently gestured with an arm-wave to signify, "Just go in".

Sure enough, when she approached the door it twirled open for her, and so, 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, leaving little flat floor space compared with the room's widest horizontal extension, yet its centre was large enough for a platform over which shimmered a huge three-dimensional image: a breathtaking holograph of an aerial city, a marvel which seemed to float in the deep blue of the upper atmosphere, above a landscape rendered hazy by vertical distance.

Skyborne Yr approaches Vlamanor

The image was at least three times the height of a human and its depiction of the legendary Yr, City of Mists, showed such awesomely crisp detail, that it was able to distract the visitor, for an instant, from the sight of the Noad herself. 

Then the instant was 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 - 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, which possessed eye-fooling properties.  Its pleats, of shimmering dark material, gathered at her waist in a mode which suggested the slopes of an erupting cone-volcano: thus her upper body was made symbolic of an explosion.

Too powerful an engine of mind can fail to prevent lurches, and thus the mighty Sevret Vaid was observed for an instant in the midst of a silent rage, which she would not have desired her visitor to witness.  In that unguarded moment, Miril Nerred caught the Noad staring at the holograph and therefore saw how her ruler's expression fleered with hate at the depiction of Yr.

That betrayal of emotion was an odd fact which Miril did not know how to place.  Well, evidently, for some unguessable reason, the Noad's feelings were stirred deeply by Yr.  Yet, statistically, the depredations of that skyborne city were hardly more to be feared than a meteor-impact...  Miril's mind kicked the datum into storage.  Right now she must concentrate on paying respectful attention to Vlamanor's Head of State.

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 the Noad, with a wave at the hologram.

"The one and only manangaloom.  No other flying city was ever built.  Strange, eh, sponndar Miril?" remarked Sevret Vaid casually, smoothing her face.

"An exuberance of Era Fifteen," replied Miril, refraining from a shrug in the presence of the leader whom she greatly admired.  She ventured to add, "Strange, yes, Noad S-V, but also fortunate, that only one was built."

With an edge to her voice Sevret replied, "I have heard many people comment thus.  But in one respect the uniqueness of the 'City of Mists', and the scarcity of its dire visits, have had one most unfortunate consequence.  Rarity leads to lack of experience.  We have not been sufficiently motivated to evolve a defence against Yr." 

Miril was gripped in the cold clasp of shame - she felt she had been rebuked.  She had said the wrong thing; or at any rate she had failed to say the right, the best thing.  Miril was a perfectionist when it came to relations with the Noad.  If only she could understand why it might be particularly necessary, just now, to reflect upon the danger from Yr!  She could think of no reason at all, and she could not summon any words to say.

"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.  "Assessing rumour with insufficient data is a hard road to renl.  I will merely say, that I have sniffed an opportunity.  You may wonder why I am speaking to you like this.  I see a way to do what has never been done before."

"I... am full of wonder, Noad S-V."

"I know.  I can see.  In my job, it is not enough to give orders; one must train habits; create rituals.  Consider for example the fifty-strong groups of Unbelievers: they are corpuscles which I am injecting into the body politic... you're looking more confused than ever, sponndar Miril.  But try to focus on this; tell me, what's your current view of the content of the Unbelievers' Unbelief?"

"My view..."  Miril took a deep breath.  "...My view of the line they're taking is, that perhaps the 'simulators' of the Hafnium Era were better describable as mere 'inspirers'."

"Go on," the Noad encouraged.  "You say 'perhaps'."

"Either that - or the total opposite, that the things actually worked, and that one should therefore disbelieve in Varramb's renunciation.  That's the other option for Unbelief."  Miril had to suppress a panicky laugh. 

Sevret nodded eagerly:

"Describe, not the themes, but the shape of your thoughts.  Go on.  It could be important.  You don't see how - but never mind that."

The strange appetence of these words told Miril one definite thing: that she was being given an opportunity.  It was the command to consider shape, that alarmed yet enticed her.  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.  Occasions of relief from slippery ideas.  As for you, Miril, what you need right now is something as dry as a biscuit."

The phrase succeeded at once; the point conveyed was: biscuits aren't slippery.  Another relevance: biscuits can be satisfying.

Swiftly, words came to Miril's ears which confirmed she was not going to be disappointed:

"...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 - this is 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!"

"That is most pleasing.  You know I'm suggesting... Simulation."

Miril nodded without demur.  "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 which stood slanted so that the user must stoop to reach for the opening button.  Perhaps, thought Miril wryly, it was an invitation to use the time to hesitate.

If it was an opportunity to turn back, she did not make use of it.

The button pressed, the hatch swung open on its upper hinge.  Its base thus dropped, and as it did so it revealed a misty blueness. 

Miril stepped forward, bowing her head under the now pendulous door, and entered the Vaults of Vlamanor, otherwise known as the Torpor of Byey. 

She did not look back at the closing hum behind her.

It occurred to her to wonder why she had not ventured down here before.  In an odd kind of way the sub-floor environment felt familiar, and she could guess the reason: it was like what happened with some much-discussed works of art, which became so known by repute that it hardly seemed necessary to go and actually see them.  But with the Torpor of Byey an additional factor came into play.  Reluctance.  Nobody went here for fun. 

Not that the place was actually sinister; it was, however, a disquieting reminder that humans shared their giant world with greater beings.

She descended a spiral stair which ended on a slope, and then she took some more steps down the slope itself.  At the extremity of the available misty view she began to make out shapes of cvoc - a word that denotes the jungly clutter of machine evolution: random geometric shapes and tangled lines, obscuring the older reticulations of the original city structure.  She had little doubt she was seeing Ghepions of various sorts.  None of them, so far, were anything like the form and size of the one she was looking for.  She'd know Varramb when she saw nen: the Simulator was enormous and unmistakable.

Unfortunately, she'd have to trudge through quite a bit of the cvoc before she reached Varramb.  Nothing for it but to endure the increasingly fuscous gloom as she crunched her way through a sort of metallic underbrush... stumbling onward and downward, she began to hear sounds, whispers or sighs, which gave her some bad moments at first.  But soon her intelligence triumphed over her nerves and she recognized the harmless, indeed uplifting, nature of the noise: none other than the pump of the ayash current which governed one of the three airstreams at the city's rim.  Essential streams!  Were they not kept constantly in operation, the upheld disc of the city floor would be out of reach of anyone approaching from the ground. 

Next she came to a more desolate section: a scree of broken metal fragments, apparently rubbish though she withheld judgement.  And then the "rubbish" saw her, and collected itself into half a dozen little heaps, and a babble of voices came from the tops of them.  One, the closest, arranged itself into a sort of head with two bright eyes.  Courtesy eyes only, doubtless; but she appreciated the effort to shape a body for her to look at. 

A voice in the Nouuan language made itself heard, above the babble, singing in a pure childlike tone -

The pulses of the plot
The pulses of the plot
The pulses of the plot
Varramb!

Wizened old Truth
Wizened old Truth
Wizened old Truth
Varramb!

Execute the run
Execute the run
Execute the run
Varramb!

The pulses of the plot
Wizened old Truth
Execute the run
Varramb!

The other "heaps" joined in gradually, and the words overspread by means of echoes, until, by the last line, they had accumulated into a chorus, an entire court of minor machines welcoming Miril to the presence of the great Simulator. 

At the same time, around her boots at "ground" level, myriads of even smaller machines were busying about, changing the texture of the slope, carpeting it with something plush in order to do honour to the visitor.

For many heartbeats, however, she could not yet see the great Ghepion.  Like an astronomer who waits for clouds to break, she watched patiently.  The suspense was unnerving, but, by an effort, she managed not to quail before the haze-bedimmed outlines around her, and kept a lid on the incipient nightmare which  the commingled masses of cvoc were always liable to suggest.

Presently the entire scene underwent a process of being pulled apart, its components, like opening curtains, drawn in swathes to either side of Miril's forward view, to make way for her eyesight at last to penetrate considerably further.

At first indistinctly, then with increasing clarity, she saw what stood beyond.

The thing became suggestive of a deepening, widening mouth, of horizontal laminae in lieu of teeth.  Then the row of legs appeared: swaying, restless, without knee-joints but still reminiscent of human legs.  Positioned above them, the striated "mouth" became possibly a body.  A hulking metallic myriapod?  Or was that whole length after all nothing but an elongated stare? 

Miril concentrated upon standing her ground without trying to interpret the details of what she saw.  She continued to stand her ground as, from the centre of Varramb, a long limb extended towards her, a many-jointed arm or tentacle, ending in a cup-shaped palm.

If she had been facing a human, she would have felt impelled to look closer at that palm, that cup, lest she commit a discourtesy, but as it was she felt she could stand still and ignore it until she knew more.

A sudden play of flashes on the Ghepion's surface, was accompanied by a series of clicks which sounded irresistibly like a chuckle.

"Miril Nerred, you roused me," were the gently musical words that washed through the Vaults of Vlamanor. 

The girl wondered aloud: "Oh... did I really?" - whereupon she felt relieved no human was present to hear that inane reply.

The voice wafted another puff of softness: "In a manner of speaking, yes, you roused me.  Which actually is good!  You know how it is... a change is good, every now and then."  Colloquial phrases, pouring easily like liquid...  Had she not better reply in the same spirit? 

"I'm glad you don't mind my coming here," she said, her head swimming.  She had had no firm idea of how her audience with the great Ghepion would go.  But she had not envisioned small talk!

"It's pleasant for me," the Voice affirmed, "to wake and find that somebody has chosen to avail herself of what I have to offer.  So very few are the citizens who choose, actively, to avail themselves of the Bequest of Byey.  Which, of course, is just as well.  An over-reliance on Simulation leads to disaster; but we can make occasional exceptions."

Perhaps, from the fog of confusion that was evident on Miril's face, the Being then decided to take pity.

"Byey," remarked the Voice, "is one of my old names, and the Bequest is the gift I gave to Syoom.  It is the gift of my quiescence.  I have ceased to operate in my old way.  Mostly for the best, I have, largely, moved on from Simulation.  Nevertheless - I can still do it!  Now, my friend, you came down here to ask me for a test-run, did you not?"

She could only nod, 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.  Though my chorus calls me forever Varramb, I can get back to work... I shall know in an instant what you wish me to do.  - You look like you wish to say something, my friend."

She stammered, "You're - you're about to start?  B-but, I have given you no details as yet..."

"No need."

She whispered, "Oh, of course..."

"Approach, friend, and place your hand in the bowl."

Miril obediently approached, and, trusting, dipped her right hand in the proffered bowl.  She saw her hand submerge beneath a seething white mass, recognizable as the colloidal solution of submicroscopic data units known by the term the White Blood.

This inner substance of the Simulator felt cold on her hand; smooth and slippery but not wet. She lifted her hand out of the bold and the stuff slipped off, leaving no trace.  But presumably it had taken some data from her...

She stepped back.

Utter stillness reigned for a moment, and then, plink! the Being's long row of legs began to ripple to and fro 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
Federating Fact
Varramb!

That was all.  Silence resumed, and Miril could sense that the task was done.  As expected.  All arranged very fast.  As expected.  Varramb had been ready for her, had known her requirements.  As expected.  She stood waiting for further word.

"It is time now for you to go and check the results.  Good-bye!"

*

Miril's breath whooshed with relief as, leaving the vaults beneath her, she tottered onto the city floor.  She had done it!  The harried look on her face relaxed into a grin.  Yes, she had done it.  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 in delayed reaction, she thought: Never again.

Of course the old creature was not evil.  Was, doubtless, a heap of good.  But the flavour of that particular goodness was hard for humans 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.  

No excuse, now, 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.  Standing on the landing-plain or oalm at the city's edge, she was able to gaze down upon the plain fifty yards below, to see - from its ground-level terminus - the running gleam of the Vlamanor-Yoon monoline: the straight metal rail which streaked into the distance atop its seven-yard embankment of compacted gralm, flanked for about twenty miles by a meandering accompaniment of dark forest.  Beyond the point at which those ragged ribbons of vegetation came to an end, the rail alone continued to dwindle steadily horizonwards in vanishing perspective.

Within ten more minutes she had taken a skimmer from the local vehicle bank and was descending the ayash airstream which linked the city's disc-floor to the plain. 

Besides her skimmer, others also rode the stream; wayfarers, farmers or farmland administrators, the ordinary traffic of settled times.  She however was the only one who headed for the railhead when she reached the ground. 

The embankment, seven yards high, appeared deserted.  This did not surprise Miril; the monoline was not in heavy use at present.  Unless irregularly commandeered, the vlep-cars flashed from city to city only once every few days.  She passed a stationary vlep, but she did not consider transferring to it; she would keep to her skimmer, paralleling the embankment, watching the forest flow by on her right, as she eyed the area she knew so well from her previous investigation.

A minor unease failed to develop properly into the question she ought to have asked herself, namely: how was she supposed to "check the results", as Varramb had put it?  No summary had been handed to her.  She had simply been told to go...  and so she went, down the line, headed towards the point where the forest ribbons ended.

She went with decreasing speed.  After a few minutes she had slowed her skimmer to a mere fifteen miles per hour.

Partly this caution was simply because she wished to examine the details of the scene with care, to refresh her memory of a section which she had studied successfully before.  The greater reason, though, was the clang of that alarm bell of common sense which had been muffled by her extraordinary sesssion with Varramb.

The thought at last came bluntly to the fore, with such vigour and impact that she actually halted.

Scarcely credible, this!  No token from Varramb did she carry; no document or crystal holocube or evidence of any kind, that might exhibit the modelled result of forest growth, with which she might compare the actuality at the forest's far end - such comparison being, supposedly, the object of the exercise.  What use was a test which was no test?  She had been sent here, or manoeuvred here, by Varramb and, ultimately, by the Noad - but why?

To test Simulation by some unfamiliar means?  Perhaps (for example) the "document" which she had expected had in reality been imprinted on her mind and she'd soon become aware of it. 

An impressive feat, if such were the case.  Hardly practical, though.  A "document" that could not be read or consulted by anyone else was of limited use, surely.

No, wait.  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, and then she'd pick up a capsule or package which was waiting for her. 

Miril shrugged, resuming her progress, still 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 ought to be... 

She put her spyglass to her eye and scrutinized the scene ahead.  The trees and bushes looked rather... dishevelled, contorted even. 

Miril swiftly deployed reasons that might explain what she saw.  Could it be the convection currents, which can arise from the slow churning of the various ice-crust dwellers called stryegns, to cause sudden destruction?  Or one of the mutable surface life-forms of Ooranye might have unleashed damage for one of any number of unguessable reasons...  She sighed, having failed to convince herself, for her journey soon revealed a truth far more unpalatable than any mere variation in the forms of living things.  The grimly outrageous fact was that the ribbon of vegetation had grown several miles longer.

Presently, she reached the finish, the end of the extended growths.  From this point onwards the monoline continued unaccompanied across the open plain.

No 'ping' in her mind had announced any depot or outlet which might hold a report from Varramb for her to collect.  The truth crashed down on her: the "Simulation", so-called, was nothing of the kind.  Instead it was an Action - a Change.

Mirril Nerred hovered for a while on her skimmer, while her thoughts likewise aimlessly floated.  Presently, like you may tire of trying to catch some sheets of a document whirled away in a high wind, she wearied of attempts to gather fragments of old plans.

She brought her skimmer down to the ground.

She stepped out of it, and considered that she must accept this inexplicable extension of the forest.  She must allow herself not to understand. 

The area had recently been subjected to raw violence.  The vegetation that clothed it was light and thin.  Creepers straggled down from the overbeetling brows of five or six major ice-chunks which jutted up a hundred yards or more.  Dozens of other rugged heights, lesser in altitude and bulk, leaned this way and that in a frozen tumble.  From ground-level grew a scattering of trees, weedier than elsewhere along the forest line, but substantial enough - barely - to continue it.  The spaces between the trees permitted an easy stroll from one small clearing to another, and Miril began to wander on foot, reflecting how unwisely she had hoped, until this hour, that the world might at least trouble itself to make a bit of sense for her.  Ah well, she told herself, better relax, sit on a flat rock for a while and let the let-down simmer down.

No use feeling disdainful towards facts.  She had met the first real check to her plans and naturally she did not like it, but fate ought never to be snubbed...

She rested her legs while her eyes still wandered - in particular she scanned the foliation that had spread in a sparse blanket of green lace over the monolithic ice-crags around her.  The encroachment must only be days old, as was the upthrust of the crags themselves, for the entire extension of the forest could be no older than that.  The facts, so solidly around her yet so hard to believe, tempted her to speculate on the possibility of being fooled by some hypnotic illusion.  In a way, she would have preferred that; hence she distrusted the idea.  Besides, what appeared to have happened was (just about) physically possible.  She had to admit this - given the aptitude of Uranian life to indulge in the occasional staccato burst known as an Impulsion: a term for which she had always felt distaste, but which, she knew, had not been coined for nothing.

The atmosphere was peaceful, yet, when she listened, she heard not only the breezy rustle of leaves but also a faint crepitation, as of an unfinished settling of recently disturbed ice and rock.  The more she concentrated upon such realistic details of sound, the harder it was to believe in any dream theory.  I must definitely face it, she thought, this is all real.  And when I go back, what am I going to tell the Noad?  "I have to report, Noad S-V, that Varramb has progressed from Simulation to Impulsion."  Ha!  How would Sevret Vaid react to that?

Perhaps she would like it very much indeed.

A click of memory linked that thought with her memory of the holographic vision in the Noad's audience chamber.  Possibilities for an Impulsion there!  Miril didn't want to make any sense of that unwelcome insight.  Swat the image of Yr, aerial City of Mists!  Forget the suggestion it raised.  Let the Noad play with fire.  Mirul muttered aloud, "I, meanwhile, have earned the right to repose on a vacational Fate-line..."  The sound of her own voice made her glance reflexively around.  She had spoken quite intensely, but of course - fortunately - no one was present to hear.

Next moment she heard some twigs snap; she jumped up, whirling to pinpoint the source of the noise.

A dark-clad, limber figure had edged into view, clambering down with ease from a thickety outcrop.  He was about fifteen yards away, but she felt convinced he could have heard her voice - and she had supposed her words private! 

Her hand went to her sponnd-hilt; but no - a ridiculous gesture - after all she hadn't uttered some State secret.  So what if she had mused aloud?  And look, the man just gave her a friendly wave.  This was no more than a chance meeting, one ordinary Wayfarer hailing another; or so she hoped, as she waved back, her own gesture a bit more stilted and undertain than his.

He was moving quietly now.  Perhaps he had snapped those twigs on purpose, as polite notice of his approach.  He was certainly proving that he need make no sound, as his long legs brought him down from the rocky patch and onto the level gralm.

There, on a level with her, he halted, leaning against the upswelling bole of an immature, semi-transparent ksuiv tree which swayed against his weight. 

"I'm in a vacational mood too," he remarked. 

That removed all doubt.  He had heard her.  It put her on her mettle.  "You've got good ears," she gave back snappishly.

The man's eyes twinkled:  "It's as well to stay alert, even on vacation.  Assuming, which I doubt, that this is a suitable place for one." 

"Your doubts may mean much or little," scowled Miril, discomposed by a swiftly growing attraction which she felt for this stranger.  "You're from far away, I'd guess."

"Is that obvious?"

"Yes - since you speak Nouuan with a Jommdan accent."

Taking no offence, he replied with a lopsided grin: "Correct - what used to be my home is a long way off from here."

He still had not introduced himself.  Bluntly she asked, "Who are you?"

Again, no offence: "You see before you a mere Wayfarer of no fixed abode.  My name is Yadon - and yours, sponndar?"

"Mirril Nerred.  From - " and she waved back over the miles towards the hazy smudge of the great city - "there."

"Which is where I was headed, when I saw this patch and wondered," Yadon remarked.  "Looks almost newly planted!  But who'd wish or need to plant this stuff?  It's hard to resist curiosity..." 

"I know - which is why I'm curious to know where you're from," Miril could not stop herself from saying, though now in a tone of admission rather than of assertion.

"I set out from Olhoav."

It took her some moments to retrieve that obscure, ancient name from her store of general knowledge.  When she identified it as a city on the further hemisphere she almost gasped.  "You came all the way from Starside!"

"It's not un-heard-of, is it, for one to make that journey?"  His light tone had turned pensive.

"No-one I've heard of has done it.  Not in this era anyway.  The things you must have seen..."  She faltered, captivated by a hope that had come out of the blue.  If she could make an ally of this man... 

An oblique approach was called for.  She began with:

"You've learned to deal with surprises, I expect."

"I've certainly met them," he agreed with a short laugh, "again and again, and I've perforce developed hunches...  How does this place look to you, sponndar Miril?"

"I..."  Quite dismaying, this onset of confusing happiness!  Could she be justified, allowing herself such beguilement by the personality of a complete stranger with a craggy smile?  Was it because he was a foreigner, rather than one of her own people, that she was about to offload a complaint which she would not have trusted to a Vlamanorian? 

Well, that reason would do for a start.

"I have a sense of being cheated," Miril blurted out. 

Shuddery relief!  Now it's said, and he'll not fail me...

Sure enough, Yadon encouragingly raised his eyebrows, and his next words gave her joy: "Sounds like you have a tale to tell.  Let's go for a stroll..."

With permission thus granted to confide, she stepped alongside the tall, loose-limbed wanderer as he resumed his reconnoitring of the forest.  Ambling beside him, she told him of her previous project, proudly relating how she had discovered why the forest lines meandered as they did.  Then she told him of the mysterious Unbelievers flourishing in her city.  To figure out what they were up to, she had to investigate the interest in Simulation which had been aroused in Vlamanor.

"It became my aim," she explained, "to find out whether Simulation actually worked.  Broadly speaking, either it accurately modelled an outcome, or it didn't.  Either the confirmation or the refutation would have been worth knowing.  So down I went, to Ghepion Varramb nenself.  I wanted to say to nen: please model the forest growth from its starting point to now, using the data from that old time..."

"So that you could then compare that Simulation-report with the real thing," Yadon prompted, seeing her hesitation.

"Yes - only the crazy thing was, Varramb didn't give me a report!  He just sent me back out, giving me to understand that my request had been fulfilled, and I, as in a dream, unquestioningly came out here... and one look at all this - " she waved at the surround - "gave me the answer: that Simulation was no longer the issue at all."

"Ahhh," responded Yadon in a voice that sank to a pensive hum.  He was, she realized with deep relief, agreeing with her astonishment at the new reach of forest. 

After a while he broke the silence.  "You know, I can imagine how a really powerful model of reality may affect as well as simulate events."

"You can?  That's good!  Tell me!" she demanded with a wobbly chuckle.  "Unless you're going to disappoint me... I mean, unless 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."

"No, that wasn't what I meant; what I'm saying is, that (this world being like it is) an act of powerful modelling cannot help but cause eddies and swirls among the fate-lines.  That's to say, it can't help being a kind of action.  How much a principle of that sort can affect things, I wouldn't know, but if such a thing is at all true, then the chances are (this world being what it is) that sooner or later one is going to run into an extreme case."

"'This world being what it is'," echoed Miril.  "I think you're wise, Yadon." 

They strolled more slowly.  After some more minutes of companionable silence they sat together on a convenient rock.  Miril looked at her companion sidelong - and was put out by his expression. 

"Why are you laughing at me?"

"I'm not laughing," he said.

"Have it your own way - "  It was as if fair weather had been replaced in one heartbeat by a hideous storm.  Appalled, she had begun to shake.  She braced herself to blink back unforgiveable tears.  What by all the skies was the matter with her, she wondered.

She heard a sigh from Yadon.

"You don't understand," the Starsider said.  "It's the irony that got to me.  Your view of me as a man who is an expert on this world; a well-travelled man who knows so much.  If only you knew!"

Not the words, but the tone reassured her.  She opened her eyes and saw his head droop as he mused beside her.  The pendulum of her emotion had swung to belief in him.  Part of her protested that this was foolish, simple-minded infatuation, yet, postponing all else, she embarked upon a few hours' wholehearted loafing in an oasis of trust.

Salve for her pride came when she brought herself to do a bit of bragging about  her original work on the Allomba Fapps, the ribbon-like forests - "I thought it odd, that nobody else had done the work before I did.  For basically all I did was forge a chain of deductive reasoning...  one factor causing another..."

"You're being too modest about it," Yadon replied; "yes, I'd say you did rather better than most of you Uranians who seem to take the line that Cause-and-Effect are over-rated..."

The stunning implication of "you Uranians" passed her by; instead, she delightedly seized upon his praise of her technique: "Cause-and-Effect!  Cause-and-Effect!  That's it!  That was the weapon I was trying to hone."

By this time, they were reclining on a patch of deep moss, and she was in his arms, her affections floating in a golden sea.  Trusting that the same undemanding moment stretched likewise for him, she continued to ignore the hissing fuse of that "you Uranians" phrase.

In any case, though, the golden time could not last.  She must turn her head at some point.  The point came, and the far look in his eyes sadly confirmed the "beyondness" that was out of her reach.  She'd known it all along, really.  Nevertheless -

"You have a wife, Yadon?"

He smiled, shaking his head.  "I am between wives."

"Allow me to guess," she requested gently.  "Your first one was... killed?"

"Yes."

"I am sorry to hear that.  And your second?"

He murmured, "I await the impossible."  As though his own assurance had startled him, his eyes opened wider as he said it...

"Then it won't be Miril Nerred," remarked the girl, "for I would have been all too possible.  Never mind - you have set me in a good direction, for which I thank you, Yadon." 

She scrambled up, and so did he, and they brushed their cloaks. 

Yadon looked at her, with the sombre kindness of farewell.  "I'll accompany you as far as your city, if I may.  I'm glad to hear what you just said, about setting you in your 'good direction', though I don't know what I've done."

"Oh, you've allowed me to see how Simulation-as-Action works.  I suppose it took a Starsider to jolt my views; to give me a better grip on my task."

Cautiously quizzical, he stared for the space of a breath, then nodded.  "You mean that.  Thanks."

"No question," she affirmed.  "You have helped."

It did indeed seem reasonable to Miril that a man who had voyaged across the globe should be better endowed than most with apparng - the faculty of context-awareness: seeing things forever afresh and never taking anything for granted; a pervasive, unstated gift of all Uranian minds, but, like all gifts, possessed more by some than by others. 

Miril, therefore, though disappointed with herself, gave credit where it was due.  And it was now, at the end of its fuse, that the man's extraordinary "you Uranians" phrase detonated overdue, within full attention-range but past the point of any literal impact.  What could it signify but a mere idiom, a picturesque figure of speech?  It must simply express how Olhoavans' extreme apparng could equate with looking at Uranian life from the viewpoint of another world.

A wonderful man, Yadon.  But she might have found that sly old intellect a bit creepy to live with...

"Let's go find our skimmers," she said firmly.  She moved off, adding, to show she wasn't at all annoyed with him, "It's really time I reported back to the Noad.  I owe it to her to be as prompt as I can.  She is not only a really good ruler of Vlamanor, she has been good to me personally, the way she's entrusted me with this investigation."

Soon they had regained their vehicles and were speeding along the Allomba Fapps back towards the great city.  The forest and the monoline simultaneously came to an end a half mile from the base of the city's massive stem. 

Miril and Yadon, by tacit consent, allowed themselves to drift apart from one  another as they approached the aerial fountain that would lift them to Vlamanor's rim.  Yadon waved and cried to her above the rising swish of the ayash:  "Convey my salutation to your estimable Noad."

Miril cried back kindly, "Tyeplinoa", which means, "I have feasted" - a polite phrase we Uranians use to mean that we have enjoyed another's company.

It was only after she had risen high over the plain among the other vehicles in the traffic stream, that she thought of the nuance: I have feasted enough, and want no more.  She looked back and could not see Yadon.  With a pang of regret she thought, I wish I had put it another way; I wish I had not said "tyeplinoa".

*

She obtained no further glimpse of the Starsider, as her vehicle and his curved downward to complete their arching trajectories.  Upon landing she stepped off her skimmer and looked around her, in case she hadn't lost him.  She could not see him; instead, shrugging, she pictured him, pictured how he must have risen past the looming city-rim and then swept down as she had done, to alight upon the great urban disc.  Her beloved and majestic home; and what did he think of it, she wondered.  The great, loaded disc of Vlamanor, which had stood for so many thousands of lifetimes upborne upon its massive mile-wide stem: could a  Starsider even want, or ever envisage, such a home for himself?  Olhoav on Starside could hardly be like this.  So far as anyone knew, no disc-on-stem cities had ever been built on Starside.  Miril shrugged again, as if to toss Yadon from her mind.  She herself had enough to do, to return to the swirl of themes, the kaleidoscope of events.

Fortunately her outing had met with sufficient success, that even if Fate tried to smother her in the balloons of political confusion, she might bat her way through that swirl.  Without further delay she headed for the Palace of the Noad.

She was not invited into the same room as last time.  In a lobby, a guard handed her a communicator with which to speak to the Noad.

Over this transceiver the voice of Sevret Vaid sounded oddly offhand:

"Back already, Miril?  You must think you have found something important."

"I reckon so, Noad S-V, though it's for you to judge."

"First say: have you joined or rejected the Unbelievers?"

"I can tell you, Noad S-V, theirs is a merely performative Unbelief."

"Ah, and what will that amount to?"

"I'd guess, it's a drawing back in preparation for a rush forward."

"Forward to what?"

"Impulsion."

That word brought a couple of seconds' silence.

"Come and dine," invited the voice in Miril's ear.  "We need to explore all this, but I'm hungry."

The words bounced around in Miril's head, producing a sense of contradiction, of a warning couched in friendly terms.  The knowledge had diffused across a stratum of Vlamanorians, that this 'being asked to dine' was a perilous honour.

An officer conducted her along one of the minor corridors, and left her outside a room which, through its open door, looked mostly bare.  All that could be seen in it was a table, with two chairs, one on the near side and one on the further, and, pouring over the back of the near-side chair, the glossy locks of the Noad's hair. 

Sevret Vail's voice said, "Come in and sit down."  Miril obeyed, edging round the motionless head, to circle the table and reach the proferred place on its other side, facing the door.  Now she could see the ruler's face, business-like yet quite amiable. 

Sevret Vail pulled one plateful of delicacies towards herself and pushed the other towards Miril.  They both munched, for about half a minute.  Then the Noad said: "Tell me of this Impulsion that you've identified."

Miril told her story, and, as the Noad quizzed her on the details, answered patiently even though she was unclear about the thrust of the questions; unsurprised at lagging a step or two behind her interlocutor.  One did not match wits with Sevret Vail.

"Your conclusion," the Noad summarised, "is that the process which has hitherto been called Simulation, actually causes that accelerated spurt of events known as Impulsion."

Miril nodded and said, "I met a Wayfarer who agreed with me."

"You discussed the matter?"

"In general terms."  Miril sensed danger now.

"The name of this Wayfarer?"

"He gave his name as... Yadon."

The lips of the Noad briefly formed a sweetly plenteous smile combined, frighteningly, with fervid eyes.  And when the lips thinned, the eyes still glowed.

"I'm not as hopeful as I was," husked Sevret Vail, "but I'll still ask you: which side are you on - the use or the avoidance of Impulsion?"

Before she could stop herself, Miril looked up at the ceiling.  Of course it wasn't the same ceiling as the Chamber of the Noad which housed the towering hologram of the City of Mists.  But with an intuition amounting almost to telepathy the Noad was able to guess, from that glance, what Miril was thinking.

"No, don't bother to answer."  Sevret Vail rose from her chair.  "Stay where you are, Miril."  Backing out through the door, the Noad added: "You're good, but 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; the sparse, windowless room was void of interest.  A pole-lamp stood in one corner, but light came not from that - only from the diffuse ceiling-glow.

I was out of touch, she thought.  Too concentrated on my own projects.  Should have guessed that she would guess that I might guess what she's up to -

She plans some Impulsion connected with the aerial City of Mists.  I see that clearly now.  No wonder she has locked me in here.  I can't be the only one appalled at the risk she is running.  You don't challenge the floating pirate city.  If it attacks, you defend, but it would be madness to provoke it -

*

A soft unvarying glow from the walls and ceiling emphasized the bareness of the cell.  Miril had been left with no furniture other than the table and the two chairs, plus one unlit pole lamp which stood in a corner.

However, she was able to infuse the scene with more interest by means of a mental summons to the seething possibilities, the invisible ebullition of potential futures, which her situation implied, so that they duly crowded upon her out of the empty air, jostling her brain with calls for endless speculation.  The very scantiness of the furniture suggested she wasn't going to be left here long; she would be let out soon - and then what?  The Noad had plans; those plans - or what Miril could guess of them - offered some ugly prospects, yet were sufficiently uncertain to permit countervailing hopes.

Then came the hum, the slide, the click, which told her even as she whirled to look that a bed was sliding out of the wall, and within minutes of further slidings and clicks the cell had taken on a far more furnished look. 

It looked as though she might be here to stay for longer than she had hoped.

She sighed, and, retreating from the present, reflected on her brief idyll with Yadon in the forest of the Allomba Fapps.  This particular opening of the taps of memory had some sound instinctive strategy behind it.  Two wrongs do not make a right, but two misfortunes may make a fortune.  Thus her sense of loss at the end of the forest idyll, and Yadon's disappearance from her life, balanced the far different hurt she felt at her treatment by her former idol, the Noad.

One trust still remained in Miril: her faith in life itself, in the turn of Fortune's wheel.

Some hours later, she lay bedrowsed on the bed, allowing her mind to entertain flows of thought of the "I'll show her" variety, not very realistic, merely combative in a picturesque way: encounters in which she said various equivalents of "How could you?" to Sevret Vail, who each time was utterly unable to give a convincing answer...

...When she heard a voice which persuaded her that she had to be asleep.

The dream-voice was that of Varramb, issuing from the top of the pole lamp.  The Ghepion said:

"I shall favour you, Miril Nerred, with explanatory visions."

Good, that's what I want, said Miril to herself.  Keen to enjoy this dream, she propped herself up on one elbow, and stared at the apparent source of the voice.

A glow began to spill from the lamp.  It resolved into a cinematic picture of the Noad's head.  Sevret Vaid was swelling with fury.  "Yadon in my city!" she cried.  "That should have been foreknown!  Not one of you 'advisors' warned me - fools that you are!"  The image went on in this vein, while Miril watched and listened in wonder.  It all seemed real and yet not real.  Ah, well, that's what you get in dreams...

Dreams, blung!  This was no dream; she could feel the ache in her elbow and her neck as they were put under strain by her posture!  What she was seeing - she abruptly realized - was Simulation.  "Varramb," she cried, "how are you doing this, and why?"

"I thought you might be bored in your confinement," the Ghepion's answer sighed through the cell.  "I feel friendly towards you, Miril Nerred." 

So it might be.  The virtually immortal evolved machines sometimes did develop warm sentiments towareds the ephemeral humans whose lives were sprinkled like dust motes along the vast timeline of Ghepion history.

"All right, then: thank you for that," Miril said.  "Can you also explain why Noad S-V should be so worried by the presence in Vlamanor of a single wanderer?  Is it because he's from Starside?"

"It's because of the reputation he has gained in the last few hundred days.  A catalytic reputation, you might say.  Three-fifths of Syoom has heard of him by now, and the stories of his exploits have run along the monoline routes between all the Twenty-Five Cities, which form, according to a new word grapevine which arrived soon after Yadon, the rumour-routes for his fame.  Sevret Vaid is obviously terrified lest this trouble-shooter (another Yadon verbal infection) foil her attempt to attack the City of Mists.  She's doing what she can to foil him in turn.  For a start, by imprisoning you.  You and he together might, she guesses, be too much for her."

Miril declared, "Varramb, your attempt to enliven my detention has succeeded: but why can't you do more?  If you voice and your images can penetrate to this cell..."

"I have the run of the city," the Ghepion acknowledged, "but that does not mean that I wish or intend to interfere with policy.  Your ruler is the Noad of Vlamanor, and a mere sheltered guest such as myself has no call to take part in the innumerable crises which come and go, and which are no business of mine."

"Still," argued Miril, thinking fast, "you seem to like me, you are willing to be kind to me as an individual.  Can you put me in touch with Yadon?"

"I'm sorry, Miril: you will never see him again.  But do not grieve.  Simply by the news of his presence, he has impelled the Noad to take premature action from her point of view.  If you wish her plan to fail (as I think you do), he has played his part."

"Then let me speak with a Simulated Yadon!" she cried.  "It will be better than nothing!"

She excused herself as she uttered that plea: rationalising it as follows: that she, not being totally stupid, could safely, without breaking her heart, speak with a mere phantom "simulated" Yadon, that's to say, not with the real Yadon at all but merely an animated summary of Varramb's knowledge of him.

Admittedly, part of her doubtless wished for this for the wrong reasons; but if her emotions were to derive some irrational comfort from the phantom image, so what?  The valid excuse was, the off-chance that something helpful might come of it.  Some idea for her next move when the chance came.

The upper area of the pole lamp began to collect a little oval cloud of shimmering sparks, which required a few seconds longer to form themselves into an image than the simulation of the Noad had taken, perhaps, guessed Miril, because Yadon was less well known; be that as it might, the holograph was soon realistically in place.  It was as if the Starsider stood in the corner, on a pedestal where the pole lamp had been.

Miril gulped and told herself: remember, this is not he, this is a mere appanage of Varramb's vast store of informed guesswork.

The image smiled down at her, and said, "Anything you wish to ask me, Miril?"

Her own answering smile was superficial as she replied, "Yes, there is, Yadon" - feeling darkly clever as she used that name; for the idea had come to her, that in pretending to be fooled, she might more effectively expostulate with Varramb... if, that is, she could think clearly enough what to say, and if it did not turn out that Varramb the whole time foreknew her strategy.

"Yadon, since Varramb will not act to save Vlamanor, might it be that YOU can think of a way to stave off the disaster threatened by the Noad's insane plan to launch an Impulsion attack upon the City of Mists?"

Yadon, or rather 'Yadon', looked thoughtful.  "You are certain that such a challenge will bring disaster?"

"How can we know?  But it is a fact that Yr, the City of Mists, has never been successfully attacked during all the eras it has haunted the skies of Ooranye, though motive has not been lacking.  If such a measure were taken, it ought to be led by the Sunnoad himself on behalf of all Syoom - not as the initiative of one over-ambitious over-brave Noad, who apparently is willing to risk dying amid the wreckage of Vlamanor under an attack from the sky."

Now we'll see, thought Miril.  I've invited an observation based on the fact that Varramb nenself will be safe in the vaults if that happens; safe, under the city-floor of iedleis, the ultimate metal.

Of course, 'Yadon' won't say anything quite as crude as, "Varramb will be all right if that happens, so why should nen interfere?"  But it's worth listening for an attempt to minimise the danger, to say, for instance, that even if the city is wrecked, its floor will stay firm and the structures based on it can be re-built...

That'll show up Varramb as careless, or that nen is assuming I'm stupid...

Really, thought Miril, I am hoping for a more subtle performance.


UNFINISHED