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.
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 this un-grasped greatness tempted her. It - whatever it was, she wasn't yet close to understanding - 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 at last caught sight of that heavy-shouldered saunterer, Duruld.
Still, she did not turn; instead, she took a step closer to the window. More intensely than ever, she gazed down onto the plain far below.
But he - he could read her stance, and knowing that she had spotted him, 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 it, since you don't like it; though in fact it's a compliment. You're one who never abandons a trace; never leaves an investigation unfinished. I'd call that enviable. My reputation is still unmade."
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, or - to watch you."
A more economical reply than his last, it was also a bolder one, yet her only reaction was a tiny skeptical smile and a verbal shrug:
"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 room adjacent to the corner buttress where Miril had chosen to wait.
Duruld remarked, "Thud, thud, thud; the slow tramp up the stairs. They like doing it the hard way, those Unbelievers." He eyed her, to discern 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.
Captivated by this absent air of hers, Duruld 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, considering that it's 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. 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. A ladder to greatness, in which he might 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. 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 fiery political zeal! Could he fan it to produce some 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 for a way to help her?"
"Now how might I possibly do that? You're being vague, Duruld, and I'm busy today."
"Busy with method, 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. Intermittent clues..."
"But you plugged all their gaps successfully. 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 you are 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 left by the elevator.
Carefully holding their bowls of liss quabb - White Blood - the candidates were shuffling into the large, main room of this level of the tower. The chanting had not actually ceased but had gone low. It was down almost to a hum, rhythmic with the cloaked candidates' steps, as the white glow sloshed in their bowls. Seats with inbuilt desk-arms had been arranged in rows, for about fifty people. Slowly, they sought their places.
Miril looked around for a seat-desk for herself. She decided she must make sure of one by lifting a spare from the wall and pushing it behind the back row. Having accomplished this 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 stand in the middle! You know that the liss quabb comes from Varramb nenself; do not, however, hesitate on that score, but write what you think. You have half an hour. Pick up your pens. Answer the question as best you can - "
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". On that instant there arose throughout the room a susurration of sleeves, the immediate busy work by pen and hand indicating to Miril 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? But at this early stage, something in her gave way. She fell into that majority state, out from which she had to struggle repeatedly: the view of life as a chaotic random dance of vari-coloured fluffy balloons, forever floating, bumping around, impossible to arrange in any 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. There ought to be more to life than a phantasmagoric swirl of themes. 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. Tricky! She looked at the candidates scribbling away. Scribbling what, precisely? 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, the great and ancient Ghepion, had admitted as much! In fact the Being had warned humanity against reliance on the tool of Simulation. And at length had insisted on retiring, on abandoning all power and influence.
That act, 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. It 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. Better 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. That had 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 the time had come to break the addiction. With a healthy change of heart, all the simulation devices had been 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; had been granted that 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, hundreds and hundreds of lifetimes 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? What was the point? To argue that they had ever existed - what did it matter, one way or the other?
The dim blur of a 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 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.
For the best of motives, Varramb may have 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.
Or that what they disbelieved in was not Simulation, but the Renunciation of it.
Well, this was worth some fuss, eh? Must be a scheme of the Noad's, to revive an old controversial power by presenting it reassuringly as Unbelief. Miril thought admiringly of her heroine, Noad Sevret Vaid. Just like her, to do it that clever way! Miril's already high opinion of the Vlamanoran ruler rose to an even loftier notch.
Miril herself had been regrettably slow to grasp the point, but she'd got it now, and could at least take heart from having worked 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 to some degree 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 precisely where she was, she grasped the reason.
A smooth metal way, like a solid grey stream, separated her from a noteworthy building, a double-scarped hump on the other side of that kerbless road. 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 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. A man who could positively bulk with importance, this time he 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 gestured with an arm-wave, 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 remaining floor space was scanty compared with the room's widest horizontal axis, yet its centre was large enough for a platform over which shimmered a huge three-dimensional image.
It was a breathtaking 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 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 - 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 pleats of shimmering dark material, gathered at her waist in a mode which suggested the slopes of a cone-volcano, formed her upper body into a symbol of aggression - of explosion.
Too powerful an engine of mind can sometimes lurch. The mighty Sevret Vaid was observed for an instant in the midst of a silent rage. In that unguarded moment, Miril Nerred caught the Noad staring at the holograph and thus saw her ruler's expression fleer with hate at the image of Yr.
That betrayal of emotion was a fact which Miril did not know how to place. 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... 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?" Sevret Vaid uttered these words casually, smoothing her face.
"It was 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, "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 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, and so she felt gripped in 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. "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: 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 would be better described as mere 'inspirers'."
"Go on," said the Noad.
Thus encouraged, Miril went on: "Either that - or the total opposite, that the things actually did work as they claimed, which would mean that we ought to disbelieve in Varramb's renunciation. That's the other option for Unbelief."
Sevret nodded eagerly:
"Describe, not the themes, but the shape of your thoughts. Go on, go on! It could be important. You don't see how; but never mind that."
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. It was the command to consider shape, which 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 point conveyed was: biscuits aren't slippery. Another relevance: biscuits can be satisfying.
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 - 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!"
"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, slanted so that one must stoop to reach the opening button. Inviting hesitation, thought Miril wryly. A hint, a prompting to reconsider, but she made no use of the opportunity to turn back.
The button pressed, the hatch swung open on its upper hinge. Its base, dropping, revealed a misty blueness.
Miril bowed her head under the now pendulous door, and stepped into the Vaults of Vlamanor, otherwise known as the Torpor of Byey.
She did not look back at the closing hum behind her.
Strange, that she had not ventured down here before. Strange - because it felt as if she had; in an odd kind of way the sub-floor environment felt familiar. It was like what happens with some much-discussed works of art: they become so known by repute that it hardly seems necessary to go and actually see them. Still, with the Torpor of Byey there was also... reluctance to be reminded, that humans shared their giant world with greater beings.
She descended a spiral stair which ended on a slope, then she took some more steps down the slope itself, and began to make out a jungly mass at the extremity of the misty view. Mounds of cvoc - a word that denotes the clutter of machine evolution: heaped geometric forms and tangled lines, obscuring the older reticulations of the city-vaults' structure - doubtless included Ghepions 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. 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. Nothing for it but to endure the increasingly fuscous gloom while she crunched her way through a metallic "underbrush". Onward and downward, she began to hear echoing whispers or sighs, which gave her some bad moments until her intelligence triumphed over her nerves and she recognized the harmless, indeed uplifting, pump of the ayash currents. Essential streams! Constantly in operation, to maintain the only links between the surrounding plain and the upheld disc of the city floor, which otherwise would only be accessible from skyships.
Next she came to a more desolate section. Here was a scree of broken metal fragments, apparently rubbish (though she withheld judgement on this). And then the "rubbish" saw her... It collected itself into half a dozen little heaps, and a babble of voices from the tops of them assailed her ears. One, the closest, arranged itself into a head with two bright eyes. Or at any rate that was the semblance, shaped for her understanding, in which case (she urged herself) she should appreciate the effort...
A pure, childlike voice in the Nouuan language made itself heard above the babble -
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 overspread via many echoes, and by the last line they had accumulated into a chorus, that of the minor machines welcoming Miril to the great Simulator's presence.
Meanwhile around her boots at "ground" level thousands of even smaller machines were busying about, carpeting the slope with something plush in order to do honour to the visitor.
For many further heartbeats, however, she could not yet see the great Ghepion. Patiently, like an astronomer who waits for clouds to break, she watched and watched... The suspense was unnerving, but she knew she must not quail before the hazy outlines, the dimmed hints around her. She had to keep 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, whereby its components, like opening curtains, were drawn in swathes to either side of Miril's forward view, to make way for her eyesight to penetrate further.
Indistinctly at first, then with brightening clarity, she saw what stood in front of her.
The first suggestion was of a deepening, widening mouth, with horizontal laminae in lieu of teeth; then a lower row appeared, at first presenting themselves to Miril as likewise similar to teeth, and secondly, when she saw her mistake, as legs, restlessly swaying, unbendingly since they lacked knee-joints, while, positioned above them, no striated "mouth" but, instead, the long side of a myriapod. Or had she been right in the first place? Was that whole length nothing but a face with an elongated stare?
Miril concentrated upon standing her ground and ceased to try to interpret what she saw. She stayed firm while, from the centre of Varramb, a long limb extended towards her. It was a many-jointed arm or tentacle, ending in a cup-shaped palm. Aware that to freeze might seem a discourtesy, she nevertheless felt she had a right to stand utterly still until she knew more... A sudden play of flashes on the Ghepion's surface accompanied a series of clicks which sounded irresistibly like a chuckle.
"Miril Nerred, you roused me," washed musically through the Vaults of Vlamanor.
The girl - inanely, she could not help herself - wondered aloud: "Oh... did I really?"
Another, softer puff of words: "In a manner of speaking, yes, you roused me, which actually is good; a change is good, every now and then." The colloquial phrases poured like liquid. Had she not better reply in the same spirit?
"I'm glad you don't mind my coming here," she replied with a swimming head, not having envisaged small talk at all.
"It's pleasant for me," the Voice affirmed. "Here, to wake and find that somebody has chosen to avail herself of what I have to offer! - it's a rare thing nowadays, so few are the citizens who choose to avail themselves of the Bequest of Byey. Which, of course, is just as well. An over-reliance on Simulation leads to disaster, yes, granted, agreed... but I can make occasional exceptions."
A pause. Was she supposed to say something?
Perhaps, from the fog of confusion that was evident on Miril's face, the Being then decided to take pity.
"I expect you may have heard," remarked the Voice, "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. I have mostly ceased to operate. Largely for the best, I have 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?"
Yes, that was it! Clarity 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. Though my chorus calls me forever Varramb, I can get back to work without further delay... - 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. Have you forgotten what I am?"
She whispered, "Oh, of course..."
"Approach, friend, and place your hand in the bowl."
Miril, obedient now and trusting, dipped her right hand in the proffered bowl. She saw her hand submerge beneath a seething white mass. That, she recognized, was the colloidal soup of submicroscopic data units nicknamed the White Blood.
The substance of the Simulator felt cold on her hand, smooth and slippery but not wet. She lifted her hand out of the bowl and the stuff slipped off. It had left no trace on her skin; but presumably it had taken some data from her...
She stepped back.
Utter stillness reigned for a moment or two 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
That was all. Silence resumed its sway.
Miril could sense that the task was complete - as expected. Arranged very fast - as expected. Varramb had been ready for her, had known her requirements, as she might have expected; and now she stood waiting for the words of dismissal - which came forthwith:
"You may go now and check the results. Good-bye!"
Miril's breath whooshed with relief. She had done it! The harried look on her face relaxed into a grin as, leaving the vaults beneath her, she tottered onto the city floor. 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 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. Customarily the vlep-cars flashed from city to city only once every few days. She passed a stationary vlep, but she did not consider comandeering to it; she would keep to her skimmer, paralleling the embankment, watching the forest flow by on her right. In this manner she would re-examine the area which she knew so well from her previous investigation.
Only - how was she supposed to "check the results" A minor unease flopped around in her mind, failing to develop loudly into the question, how was she supposed to - as Varramb put it - "check the results", since she'd not been handed any summary of the last run's data to check against - she had simply been told to go... and so she went, down the line, headed towards the place where the forest ribbons ended.
She skimmed with decreasing speed. 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, but the greater reason was the clang of the alarm bell of common sense, a faculty somewhat muffled during her extraordinary session with Varramb.
The thought at last came bluntly to the fore, with an impact that halted her.
Come, this was scarcely credible! No token from Varramb did she carry; 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 otherwise? What use was a test which was no test? 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, and 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?
Miril swiftly deployed reasons that might explain the unexpected further continuation of the forest. Could it be 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 dishevelled look: one of the mutable surface life-forms of Ooranye might have unleashed damage for one of any number of unguessable reasons... Always, reasons abounded.
She sighed, having failed to convince herself. Too much had changed. The grimly outrageous fact was that the ribbon of vegetation had grown several miles longer.
Presently, she reached the finish. From the end of the extended growths, the monoline continued onwards, 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 one who tires 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 took some deep breaths, and ordered herself to accept the inexplicable extension of the forest.
The drill for a robust Uranian: give yourself full permission NOT to understand.
The area 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. Dozens of other rugged heights, lesser in altitude and bulk, leaned chipped and tumbled. 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, among thin, light vegetation. How unwise had been her hope, she now reflected, that the world might at least trouble itself to make a bit of sense for her. Better just relax, sit on a flat rock for a while.
Really it was silly to feel 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. The extension of the forest could be no older than that. So solidly around her, yet so hard to believe, the new growth tempted her to speculate that she was being fooled by some hypnotic illusion. In a way, she would have preferred that. Yet the appearances around her were (just about) physically possible... for she had to admit the aptitude of Uranian life to indulge in the occasional staccato burst known as an Impulsion.
Impulsion! A term for which she had always felt distaste. But she was well aware that it 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 the harder it was to believe in any dream theory. I must definitely face it, she thought, this is all real.
Then what, when I go back, am I to tell the Noad? Something like: "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.
She thought back to the holographic vision in the Noad's audience chamber. Possibilities for an Impulsion there! An unwelcome insight. Swat the image of Yr, aerial City of Mists! Let the Noad play with fire. "I, meanwhile," Miril muttered aloud, "have earned the right to a vacational Fate-line..." The sound of her own voice made her glance reflexively around. She had spoken quite intensely. 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 was clambering down with ease from a thickety outcrop. He was about fifteen yards away, but she felt convinced he could have heard her voice -
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 must be no more than a chance meeting. Yes, one ordinary Wayfarer hailing another. Or so she hoped, as she waved back - her own gesture rather more stilted and uncertain. Perhaps he had snapped those twigs on purpose, as polite notice of his approach, whereas he was moving quietly now, proving that he need make no sound, as his long legs brought him down from the rocks and onto the level gralm.
There he halted, leaning against the upswelling bole of an immature, semi-transparent ksuiv tree. It swayed against his weight.
"I'm in a vacational mood too," he remarked.
So he had heard her. It put her on her mettle. "You've got good ears," she snapped back.
The man's eyes twinkled: "It's as well to stay alert, even on vacation."
"You'd call this a suitable place for one?" scowled Miril, discomposed by a sudden, swiftly growing attraction towards this stranger. "That tends to show you're from far away. Which is obvious in any case."
"You mean, my Jommdan accent." Taking no offence, the man acquiesced with a lopsided grin: "Correct - what used to be my home is a long way off."
Bluntly she asked, "Who are you?"
"You see before you a mere Wayfarer named Yadon, of no fixed abode. And you, 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. Looks almost as if newly planted!" the affably curious Wayfarer remarked. "But who'd wish or need to plant this stuff? It's natural to wish to know."
"Is it? Well now," Miril could not stop herself from saying, "I, similarly, am desirous to know where you're ultimately from." But her tone had softened, had become less pointed, almost as if requesting a favour.
"I set out from Olhoav."
It took her some moments to retrieve that obscure, ancient name from her store of general knowledge, but when she did, she gasped. A city on the far hemisphere! "You came all the way from Starside!" She stared in acute fascination at the light-hearted voyager.
"It's not un-heard-of, is it, for one to make that journey?"
"True... but no-one I've heard of has done it. Not in this era anyway. The things you must have seen..." She faltered. A hope had come to her, out of the blue. If she could make an ally of this man...
She began obliquely:
"You've learned to deal with surprises, I expect."
"I've certainly met them," he agreed with a short laugh. "Sufficiently often, that I've perforce developed hunches..."
"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.
While she was working out how to begin, he made it easy for her by saying: "...And how does this place look to you, sponndar Miril?"
"I have a sense of being cheated," she blurted out.
Shuddery relief! He's raising his eyebrows encouragingly; now he'll not fail me...
Sure enough, Yadon said kindly: "Sounds like you have a tale to tell. Let's go for a stroll..."
Rejoicing in the permission to confide, she stepped alongside the tall, loose-limbed wanderer as he resumed his reconnoitring of the forest. Ambling beside him, she proudly related 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 interest in Simulation which had been aroused in Vlamanor.
"It became my aim to find out whether Simulation actually worked... Broadly speaking, either it accurately modelled an outcome, or it didn'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!"
"I'll say it was odd! Nen 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... whereupon 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 marvelling along with her; and what a relief that was...
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, by 'affect events', 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) a sufficient powerful modelling cannot help but cause real eddies and swirls among the fate-lines. That's to say, it can't help but be, in itself, a kind of action. How much of a punch that packs, I wouldn't know, but I suspect 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."
After some more minutes of companionable strolling they sat together on a convenient rock. Miril looked at her companion sidelong - and thought to catch a tremble of the lip.
"Why are you laughing at me?"
"I'm not laughing," he said.
"Have it your own way - " Incomprehensibly, it was as if fair weather had been replaced in one heartbeat by lowering stormclouds. Appalled, she had begun to shake.
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."
"And why not?" she quavered, blinking back unforgiveable tears. "Voyaging from Starside to Sunside! Doesn't that make you an unusually well-travelled man?"
"Ah - if only you knew!"
Not the words, but the tone reassured her. She opened her eyes wider. His head had drooped as he mused, and the sight helped to swing the pendulum of her emotion back to belief in him. Feebly she rebuked herself. Foolish, simple-minded infatuation. Postponing all else, to loaf around in this haven of an hour. Nevertheless she went on with it, with a bit of salve for her pride as she talked to him of her original work on the Allomba Fapps. "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..."
"Not bad for a Uranian," Yadon interjected.
"Eh?" She stopped, but she registered only his quirked eyebrow, while his "for a Uranian" passed her by and thus failed to stun, she being too busy seizing upon his note of praise as he went on:
"Yes, you did rather better than most, I'd say. The majority around here take the line that Cause-and-Effect are over-rated..."
By this time, they were reclining on a patch of deep moss, she in his arms, her affections floating in a golden sea; trusting that the undemanding moment stretched likewise for him, she thus continued to overlook that "for a Uranian" phrase, which lay on the floor of her mind like an ignored, hissing fuse.
The golden time could not last. She must turn her head and note the "beyondness" his eyes. She'd known all along, really, that his life-path was out of her reach.
"You have a wife, Yadon?"
He smiled, shaking his head. "I am between wives."
But he did not look old. Therefore... "Your first one was... killed?"
"I am sorry to hear that. And your second?"
He murmured, "I await the impossible." 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."
She scrambled up, and so did he. They busily brushed their cloaks.
Yadon turned her another look of kindness, the sombre kindness of farewell. "I'll accompany you as far as your city, if I may."
"No reason why not," she said primly. "You've done me some good."
"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."
He stared. "I see you mean that. Thanks."
"No question," she affirmed.
That a man who had voyaged across the globe should be exceptionally endowed with apparng - context-awareness, the faculty of seeing things afresh and not taking them for granted - seemed reasonable to Miril. She gave credit where it was due, credit even to her besotted self who could be forgiven for being impressed.
Now, at the end of its fuse, the phrase "for a Uranian" detonated its meaning - though its overdue impact on Miril could no longer signify aught but a picturesque figure of speech: just one of the ways that apparng might enable one to look at life as if from the viewpoint of another world.
A wonderful man, Yadon. But she might have found that sly intellect a bit creepy to live with...
"Let's go find our skimmers," she said while moving 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 massive urban 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 the height of that stem, onto 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: tyeplinoa = 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 not used that word.
She obtained no further glimpse of the Starsider, as their separate vehicles curved downward to complete their arching trajectories.
Upon landing, she stepped off her skimmer and looked around her. Might as well make sure she had lost him - just in case she had not. No, she could not see him. All she could do, instead, was imagine where he might be; picture 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 the great urban disc.
What, she wondered, did he think of this beloved and majestic home of hers, the great, loaded disc of Vlamanor? Such a community, which had stood for so many thousands of lifetimes upborne upon its massive mile-wide stem, could hardly be matched by Olhoav; so far as anyone knew, no disc-on-stem cities had ever been built upon the world's starlit hemisphere. So could a Starsider even want, or envisage, such a home for himself? Miril shrugged again, as if to toss Yadon from her mind. She had enough to do, in her return to the swirl of events.
Fortunately her outing had met with sufficient success. Without further delay she headed for the Palace of the Noad.
Her reception was different from last time. She was not invited into the same room; instead, while in one of the lobbies, a guard handed her a communicator with which to speak to the Noad.
Over this transceiver the voice of Sevret Vaid sounded quite 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?"
"Depends what you mean! I can tell you, Noad S-V, theirs is a merely performative Unbelief."
"Ah, and what will that amount to?"
"A drawing-back in preparation for a rush forward. That's my guess."
"A rush forward to what?"
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 a warning couched in friendly terms. Quite a few Vlamanorians had learned that this 'being asked to dine' was a perilous honour. However, she felt reasonably confident that, even if Fate tried to bury her in the smothering balloons of political confusion, she might still bat her way through.
An officer conducted her along one of the minor corridors, and left her standing 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, spilling over the back of the near-side chair, the glossy locks of the Noad.
The head did not turn while the voice said, "Come in and sit down." Miril obeyed, edging round the table to reach the proferred place on its other side, facing the door. Now she could see the ruler's face. Noad Sevret Vaid wore a quite amiable expression.
The Noad pulled one plateful of delicacies towards herself and pushed the other towards Miril. They both munched for about half a minute, and then:
"Tell me of this Impulsion."
Miril obediently told her story. She answered patiently as the Noad quizzed her in businesslike fashion on the details. The thrust of the questions was unclear; but after all, one did not match wits with Sevret Vaid.
"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."
"Oh, that was a handy coincidence! 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 formed a plenteous smile combined, frighteningly, with fervid eyes. The lips then thinned; the eyes still glowed.
"I'm not as hopeful as I was," husked Sevret Vaid.
"Sponndar?" gulped Miril.
"Which side are you on - the use or the avoidance of Impulsion?"
Miril looked up at the ceiling. Of course this room wasn't that Chamber of the Noad which housed the towering hologram of the City of Mists. But the Noad was uncannily able to guess, from that glance, what Miril was thinking. Impulsion - action - battle with Yr.
"No, don't bother to answer." Sevret Vaid rose from her chair. "Stay where you are, 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; 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.
I was out of touch, Miril thought. Too concentrated on my own projects. Should have guessed that she would guess that I might guess her purpose -
It had become clear by now, that Sevret Vaid planned some move against the aerial City of Mists.
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 -
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 the single unlit pole lamp which stood in a corner.
She optimistically reasoned that the very scantiness of the furniture was an indication that she would be let out soon - and then what?
Possibilities abounded; easily she lathered the bare cell with an ebullition of potential futures. They crowded her imagination out of the empty air, helped by "yes, but" altercations between pessimism and optimism regarding the Noad's plans, which, though they might offer some ugly prospects, yet were sufficiently uncertain to permit countervailing hopes.
Then came a hum, a slide, a click. She whirled to see that a bed was sliding out of the wall.
Further slidings and clicks, while she watched, accompanied the automatic upholstering and unfolding of the bed. Within about ten seconds, to her unease, the cell had taken on a more furnished look. A long-term look.
She sighed, went to sit on one of the chairs, and allowed her mind to retreat from the present.
She reflected on her brief idyll with Yadon in the forest of the Allomba Fapps. Could there be such a thing as a lucky misfortune? Her desolation at the Starsider's disappearance from her life was balanced by the far different hurt she now felt at her treatment by her former idol, the Noad. Somehow, maybe, each blow might serve to lighten the other. Two misfortunes can make a fortune...
Later, bedrowsed on the bed, she allowed her mind to entertain flows of "I'll show her": combative encounters in which she uttered various versions of "How could you?" to Sevret Vaid. Each time, the Noad was quite unable to return a convincing answer...
...When she heard a deeply gentle, calm voice issuing from the top of the pole-lamp.
"I shall favour you now, Miril Nerred."
She must be dreaming, surely! The voice was that of Varramb, the Ghepion.
This is what I want, said Miril to herself. High time I was favoured. And perhaps I am not dreaming.
Dream or reality, it ought to be enjoyable. She propped herself up on one elbow and stared at the glow spilling from the hitherto-dull lamp.
The light seethed, puckered and resolved into a cinematic vision of the Noad's head, possessed with cheek-swelling fury. "Yadon in my city?" cried the image of Sevret Vaid. "That should have been foreknown!"
"Ah," murmured Miril, "she's annoyed! Show me more!, Varramb!"
"...Not one of you 'advisors' warned me - fools that you are!" the image obliged. It all seemed real and yet not real, which of course is what you get in dreams...
Dreams, blung! This was no dream! She could feel an ache in her elbow! Her neck, too, smarted under strain from her tense posture: hard hints that what she was seeing was a confection of reality: not dream but Simulation.
"Varramb," she cried, "what are you up to?"
The answer sighed through the cell. "I feel friendly towards you, Miril Nerred."
So it might be. The immortal evolved machines could indeed develop warm sentiments towards the ephemeral humans whose lives dusted the vast timeline of Ghepion history.
"All right: thank you for that," Miril said. "I'm truly interested. Can you explain why the Noad's so worried by Yadon's presence in Vlamanor?"
"Yadon has worried quite a few people by now."
"Really? But - a single wanderer frightening Sevret Vaid! - hard to believe!"
"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, reaching all the Twenty-Five Cities along the monoline routes between them, which have served as the grapevine for his fame."
"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."
"Varramb, you're certainly enlivening my detention. Please go on!"
"You can guess the rest."
"I'll try," said Miril, sensing she had better not plead too much. "I can guess that the Noad aims to foil Yadon in turn. For a start, by imprisoning me."
"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 city crises. Your human troubles, that come and go, are no business of mine."
"What are you talking to me for, then?" was Miril's frustrated reaction.
Calmly the Ghepion replied, "I told you, I am friendly towards you. Other than that, though, I simply respect the authority of the Noad, the rightful ruler of Vlamanor."
"Still," argued Miril, thinking fast, "you are willing to be kind to me."
"Then can you put me in touch with Yadon?"
"I'm sorry, Miril: so sorry. You will never see him again."
The confirmation overwhelmed her and her face crumpled at the infinite stretch of 'never'. 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?
"But be comforted," the soft, vast voice of Varramb said. "Yadon has done much. Simply by the news of his presence, 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 he deserves."
Perspectives of that sort - did the Ghepion really think they could mitigate grief? Exasperatedly she cried, "Then give me what you can, produce for me what's better than nothing - a Simulated Yadon!"
She excused herself thus: that as a responsible adult she might safely, without breaking her heart, speak with a mere phantom, since she'd be adult enough to keep in mind that it would not be the real Yadon at all. At the same time, on the other hand, insofar as it would be an animated summary of the knowledge available about the man and hence a consequence or outcome of his existence, it WOULD be some kind of manifestation of him, really, in a certain sense.
Irrational to seize comfort from such artifice, she knew; 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. It began to wink with sparks. This was it. Her wish was being granted. Not quite as rapidly as the previous simulation, that of the Noad. Perhaps because Yadon was less well known, these sparks required a few more seconds to coalesce. Nevertheless the holograph was in place before Miril had taken many breaths. And it claimed more room than the image of Sevret Vaid had done. It completely hid the pole lamp, which took on the guise of a pedestal, on which the image of the tall Starsider loomed.
Miril gulped and reminded herself that what she was seeing was mere informed guesswork: an appanage of Varramb's information-store. She guessed it wasn't going to be easy to remember this.
The image smiled down at her.
"Skimmjard, Miril! Good to see you again! Anything you wish to ask me?"
That easy-going drawl! She must keep all this in proportion - but how?
"Yes, there is, Yadon" - feeling darkly clever as she stressed that name. Look, she thought at him, I'm pretending to be fooled. Pretending, mind you.
She went on:
"Yadon, it's good to see you too. Might you - since Varramb will not act to save Vlamanor - might it be that YOU can think of a way?"
"You ask me that? I, a stranger?"
"Yes, because you know what needs to be done, if anyone does. At least I hope so - hope that you can think of something to stave off the disaster threatened by the Noad's insane plan to launch an Impulsion attack upon the City of Mists!" She fell silent, breathing heavily.
Yadon, or rather 'Yadon', looked thoughtful. "You are certain that to challenge Yr will bring defeat upon Vlamanor?"
Well, that was an easy one to answer. "Yr has never been successfully attacked during all the eras it has haunted the skies of Ooranye."
"Ah," and the holographic figure nodded. "And doubtless, motive has not been lacking. My studies tell me that Yr has behaved inimically in the past on more than one occasion!"
"With impunity," commented Miril.
"Well, it's not surprising that no city on the ground has dared retaliate, so far, against one which has the freedom of the air," Yadon remarked.
Miril said, "Quite! Exactly! And no reason is known to me, as to why Vlamanor might succeed where no other city has even dared to try."
Thoughtfully the image of the Starsider remarked, "My opinion is that, 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, be an initiative of one over-ambitious or over-brave Noad, who apparently is willing to risk dying amid the wreckage of her city under an attack from the sky."
"Those are my thoughts, exactly," said Miril - and paused.
The image which she dubbed 'Yadon' had just sounded a note of criticism aimed at the Noad.
Miril, up till this moment, had been assuming that the voice of 'Yadon' was really the voice of Varramb, saying only what Varramb wished to permit the image to say: and Varramb had, just shortly before, expressed nen's loyalty and submission to the rule of the Noad. So, how came the criticism?
But no, - Miril thought further - no no no: her reasoning was faulty. 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 it went directly against what Varramb approved. And that might give grounds for hope.
Probing, she remarked:
"Though of course - supposing Sevret Vaid does attack Yr - even if the worst comes to the worst, anyone living in the vaults will be safe, under the city-floor of iedleis, the ultimate metal." Cheeky, cheeky, Miril Nerred! I as good as remarked, Varramb will be all right, whatever happens, so it's small wonder that nen can't be bothered to interfere.
To avoid cheekiness, I ought for Skies' sake to remind myself continuously, every moment, that I'm not really talking to Yadon but to Varramb, to Varramb nenself; while that image up there in the corner, however it may tug at my fool heart, is just a clever simulacrum, no more.
"Still," said the clever simulacrum with a wry curve of the lip, "it's going to be bad. A lot of destruction and loss of life. Not everyone will be able to shelter under the iedleis metal floor."
"You sound as though you're saying it's inevitable," said Miril with a sinking of the heart. "As though the Noad has already begun the fight against Yr."
"I reckon she has," affirmed 'Yadon'. He shone upon her a compassionate smile.
Miril shuddered: "Then it really is too late."
"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', as folks where I come would call it."
From this point on, the simulacrum was talking more to itself than to Miril. The voice dropped towards a mumble and the Nouuan words became sprinkled with less intelligible jargon. "...From the statistical forecast shading out to the mantic deed, somewhere the line gets crossed. Then, prediction becomes action; perhaps we're always too late to foresee when - as Mephistopheles put it - Im Anfang war der Tat... for what can exist, but deeds? In which case, we don't so much wait for waves to carry us, as lay tracks and march."
Miril cut in with a feeble murmur: "Waves... we have to accept waves... they're everywhere; they're our lives..."
The raised voice of 'Yadon' shook her: "I never cease to be thunderstruck by the fatalism of you people!"
"What?" she said, inanely. She had almost jumped.
"Accept if you have to," 'Yadon' went on, "but at least try to do so with a bad grace! Don't go quietly! And even better than that: you know there is a way out of this one." He continued more gently: "Chin up, Miril: there is, definitely, a way out, one of which you yourself, I assume, must have heard."
"What?" she asked, dully.
"What name you give it, I don't know, but it exists. Else your political structures wouldn't work."
Simula or no, Yadon's real personality seemed to have taken over the conversation. The futile aches roused in Miril by the realism of this performance weakened her resistance to the unspeakable idea: it was possible to do something about a Noad gone wrong. She bowed her head. Then, once more she raised her eyes to stare at the image of the Starsider.
The drapes of his cloak flowed straight and tall, as he stood Noadlike himself, issuing spellbinding instructions:
"Listen to me as I tell you to imagine a world with rulers called Kings, who were anointed, sacred, could do no wrong, and who, nevertheless, being mere men, did do plenty of wrong. On occasion they had to be GOT RID OF despite their legal immunity: it was done because it had to be done. Now, admittedly, your Noads are better than the Kings in that world. Your rulers, whose title means focus or co-ordinator, and who govern by renl rather than by army or bureaucracy, must be so good that it may seem unnecessary to speculate on what could be done to get rid of them. And yet, their superiority only makes it even more urgent, as well as harder, to do what must be done when they lead their people in the direction of disaster... You don't have constitutions, so you lack provision for the necessary step - just like the kingdoms I speak of. But a Uranian body-politic must have... um... let's call it a metabolic pathway..."
Miril, frozen in awe, not just at the increasing evidence that Varramb had given the simula a free hand, but at the developing hunch that 'Yadon' was addressing more listeners than just her: that his words were winging their way down that pole-lamp into other conduits of communication - sagged.
Then she sat bolt upright as she heard him chuckle:
"I seem to have broken ahead some, in getting the idea across."
Not to me, not to me, she mentally replied. She was in a terror lest she had committed herself. But no, she had not. Had not said anything. Had not even silently agreed to anything. Nothing, that is, connected with the - with what could never be admitted - with what must never be recorded as a permissible option.
Oh really? jeered her deepest, most honest self. You've listened, haven't you? You love this adventurer, don't you? The truth of the matter is, you have become linked to a terrible deed.
"'Yadon, or rather, Varramb, show me the Noad again!" she cried.
'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, but the rest of us need never suffer that fate: just hop from one log to another to keep your balance when they start to roll."
Each 'log' being one or another loyalty? "I can't change logs that fast," Miril grated, but before the syllables were out of her mouth the image of Yadon had disappeared.
"Varramb," said Miril out loud, and again after a few more moments, "Varramb," but as silence continued she accepted that the Ghepion Simulator had effectively bidden her farewell. Nen had abandoned her, but not before having granted her wish: 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, but she had been vouchsafed a last waft of his presence, a residue or imprint of his personality. Quiet descended upon Miril's mind; her waves of emotion subsided. Hours went by, and she learned to wait in peace for whatever further developments might ensue.
The next moves, she was fairly sure, would come from the human authorities of the city, not from Varramb. That wise hulk would interfere no more, nen's single political action having been enough for a normally quiescent Ghepion. Therefore, alone and patient, Miril Nerred sat and waited for the Noad, or somebody sent by the Noad, to let her out.
In the version of this tale written for our Uranian readers, we skip over the rest of the time she spent sitting in her cell, but in the version that we tell to you Terrans we are prepared to mention something which she is likely to have glimpsed during that undistracted, lonely couple of days.
It is the flicker that can reveal itself at a confluence of fate-waves, in this case where three of them crashed together: the impetus of Varramb's powers, the force of Yadon's uniqueness and the ambitious yearnings of Miril. Without the peace of the cell, the phenomenon would have occurred quite invisibly, but Miril's isolation enabled her actually to catch some sight of the inner workings of those misleadingly-termed "waves of fate" which swirl in Ooranye's atmosphere, and which, in most of our narratives, are mentioned cursorily and taken for granted.
We are going to try, just for once, to help you picture the truth. It's not surprising that we more often give up hope of describing or explaining it to Terrans. Words are available; we can talk to you about "story-tissue" and "appropriateness-power"; but to what end? Such verbiage would mean nothing to you. Nevertheless we can approach the topic via a negative. That's to say, we can start 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, arising from the paths or tunnels scored in the gradually-worn-through hardrock of reality by the long, long squirm of souls during a history of awareness hundreds of times longer than that of Earth; nay, thousands of times longer if you take into consideration all the previous Great Cycles of Ooranye.
You Terrans are fond of fiction - for good reason. You have a need to read and write it, because your fictional characters' lives possess the artistic shape denied to the messier trajectories of your actual selves. We on the other hand can dispense with invented stories because our Uranian existences have evolved into naturally poetic life-lines: here, thanks to an 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 for the next stage of our explanation, which is to animate it, to make it move and swirl, abandoning the "paths or tunnels" metaphor in favour of life-lines that swirl, that arch and swoop as they lunge to obey the plot-forces, ride the fate-waves or however you wish to express the ebullition of the destiny-crowded Uranian atmosphere.
We're guessing that Miril caught sight of a manifestation of this: in the form of a wispy outline or sketch, a harmonic of the vision of Yadon, as its after-effect lingered in the air of her cell. Perhaps she even noticed it follow her out, when the authorities finally came to free her.
On the other hand perhaps she did not notice it. The surprise she experienced when the door opened, may well have overridden all else.
Not that it was any surprise to see an official backed by guards. 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 to let her out.
What shocked her was a further greyness about him. His cloak! The fact which she had to absorb at once was that 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.
"You are now freed from your unjust incarceration, sponndar Miril," the new Noad announced. "But rather than talk of that, we must turn to deal with the crisis which has come to the city. Follow me if you please, sponndar."
She obeyed, slightly swaying as she walked, like one stunned. So this man was now her ruler!
Miril had never admired him, even when he was merely Daon, 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 curb the immediate ripening by which her mind clasped the man's image and slapped onto it coat after coat of associational gloss so that "Lrar Emdu" in almost no time slid into place for her as the embodiment and focus of her city-state; for Miril was a good Uranian and so, with his coded attire, henceforth for her he was Noad Lrar Emdu, with all that that implied.
All! But - the self-command came naturally to her - don't ask. Don't ask. Sevret Vaid is gone. Don't ask.
It could hardly count as a thought; more like a fizz in the bloodstream expressing the instinct that some topics are NOT suitable for thought.
Walking with the Noad and his handful of guards, Miril emerged from the Palace onto a city-floor space that appeared less frequented than usual; they continued through a few secondary streets until she saw where most of the people had congregated.
Noad Lrar Emdu led his small group to merge into a huge crowd thronging 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, halting the moving way. This in itself had to count as a portent.
Curtly acknowledging the greetings of those who stood nearby, the Noad took hold of Miril's arm and set off to plough through the multitude towards a platform on which an extraordinary bin or hopper had been placed: bulky, circular, its rim about five feet tall, its diameter perhaps six yards.
Miril kept her silence, in thrall to a sense of dreamlike imminence. She found herself on the platform close to the Noad and a few other high officials, including one weighty individual whom she recognized as omzyr Tahat Teherer, a fleet commander. But none of the people with her drew her attention as insistently as the contents of the round bin.
It was easy to look into its interior and see the peculiarly impressive junk it contained: slightly steaming cvoc if her eyes were to be believed.
She turned to look at the Noad; his eyes met hers with a knowing gleam. At that instant her respect for Lrar Emdu underwent a sharp rise. She dared to say, "Shavings of Varramb?"
He nodded with a tight smile and turned to murmur something to the omzyr. While the Noad and the fleet commander scanned the sky with binoculars, the overloaded attention of Miril was divided. Impressions of Lrar Emdu and of Teherer, and the jumbled metallic contents of the bin, and the equally spiky restlessness of the Ezem concourse crowd, caused her mind to swim with dizzy suspicion.
It seemed likely that old Lrar "Noold" ("By-the-book") Emdu was turning out to be a flexible gambler after all - rising to an occasion for which the juggling of events made such skills imperative.
Did she also guess, or sense, that the Yadon-wisp had followed her from the cell and had poured over the lip of the bin to merge with its contents? The reader may judge.
What is certain, is that Miril had the intelligence to spot the doom-laden chain of possibilities. She could imagine, she could watch their links being forged.
Noad Lrar Emdu issued an order to Tahat Teherer.
Here we go, thought Miril. She watched as the omzyr went to the wall of the building which stood behind the platform, climbed some rungs on the wall, and reached a service panel. It was high enough to be well in view of most of the crowd below. Deliberate arrangement, thought Miril. Or as you Terrans might put it, a piece of theatre (we don't have theatres; we don't need them).
The omzyr opened the panel and drew out five control bars. He 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, to make sure that the crowd understood. A heightened roar greeted the gesture.
Miril likewise got the message of readiness, and although she had been incommunicado for two days, she guessed that binoculars could show something in the sky which was perhaps mere seconds away from becoming visible to the naked eye, and which all five airships in Vlamanor's fleet would then be ready to attack.
A moan of detestation rose from the crowd. Miril's glance darted around until at last she spotted the direful wink in the cope of the heavens. Eight miles up the thing must be, if traditional reports were true. She lowered her gaze to the stirred multitude in the concourse, and was left in no doubt that they had seen what she had seen and that they all knew what it was.
It's still a few score miles off. It's drifting towards us slowly. We have some minutes to spare. But those minutes give us time which we might do better without - time in which to make a disastrous move.
Fortunately the Noad - I think - understands. That's why he, and not Sevret Vaid, is now the Noad -
Acutely aware that she was now a mere spectator of events, Miril edged up to the bulky bin with its contents of glinting junk. Her nerves twisting with anxiety, she was desirious of reassuring herself by any means she could think of. It must have been fairly easy, she thought, to send some collectors down into the vaults, to scrape from the screes of cvoc those cast-off components of Varramb's earlier growth, remotely equivalent to hair or nail clippings from a human. Since the Ghepion does not intend to help us any more in this our hour of need, Lrar Emdu has cleverly decided to use that blind, self-organizing rubble as smoking evidence of mighty power, to inspire or placate the people.
But what a vague hope, what a chancy strategy to follow!
It occurred to her that the Noad, too, might be wanting reassurance, from none other than her, Miril Nerred: which must be why he had brought her here: she having known 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 she understood the import of his arrangements, and that in History's judgement she believed he might prevail, and that he must be sure of her support despite her well-known and enthusiastic loyalty to his predecessor - she gave the briefest of nods; then looked away again, satisfied. It was all up to him now, to juggle the forces around him, which was what all Noads must do.
The man was beset by two unspeakable, or scarcely speakable, pressures. 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.
A rumble from amid the crowd of backgrounders, spiked into the higher tones of shouts as a young man shook his fist. Amazingly that fist was aimed at the platform where stood the Noad. Miril, as she watched and listened, hardly knew at which to be more appalled: the sky-borne enemy or the apparent flouting of rightful authority by some of her own people.
Listening to the cries, she made out some of the phrases being hurled; attack, attack, Noad L-E! Will you not offer us the chance of victory? Defend us by attacking. What are you waiting for? Why do you not launch our ships now against Yr, before it gets directly above us?
Noad Lrar Emdu strode to the edge of the platform and held up his arms for silence. He managed to lessen the tumult and to make himself heard:
"Attack? It may come to that, Rarr Reng!" Thus he addressed by name the young man who had shouted the loudest.
Rarr Reng glanced rapidly around him while echoing, "'May'? Where's the doubt? To wait too long is treason to Vlamanor..."
Confused shouts evinced agreement, while others, aghast, began telling Rarr Reng to pipe down.
"But," suggested Noad Lrar Emdu, "there are varieties of treason, you know! One of the worst is googozdamun." Whereupon he turned his back on them all and strode to the steaming bin... leaving the multitude to digest that ugly and terrible word, always reluctantly spoken, which yet is not so rare that anyone on Ooranye is likely to be ignorant of its dire meaning.
Googozdamun - reckless tampering with the forces of Fyaym - signifies the ultimate in criminal irresponsibility. And enough word had got round by this time, for most of the crowd to have some inkling of what Sevret Vaid had asked Varramb to do: namely, Simulate an attack on Yr - a supposed "dummy-run" which in fact called up the reality.
Whom to accuse? So many faces have to be saved; or rather, so many facets of life have to be preserved. Miril watched in fascinated admiration as Lrar Emdu glared down into the bin, the chaos of metal fragments, and spoke the word, "Googozdamun."
Drawn to gaze likewise, she saw the Ghepion rubble stir. The components of the mass began to leak tiny haloes. The pooled mixture became a kind of slurry, quickly thickening, and out of the mealy perturbation there wafted upwards a mist with more definable outlines than heretofore. Let this gamble not backfire, Miril prayed to the World-Spirit.
The misty form, after it had drifted upwards to an altitude which made it visible to the concourse crowd, acquired the lineaments of a human head. Complete with highlights in the black tresses, it moulded itself into a translucent portrait bust of the late Noad Sevret Vaid.
All onlookers were spellbound; during the hush that held sway during these moments, Miril Nerred imagined she could hear the heartbeats of the populace thrumming with awe. Would the image speak, to accuse Lrar Emdu of the unmentionable? Was the emergency political act, which can neither be explicitly forbidden or allowed, about to be brought into the open?
As if he wryly half-expected this, Lrar Emdu's mouth was set in an ironic line, as he - and others who suspected the truth - waited for his predecessor's vapour-smile to curl in a prelude to denunciation.
The denunciation, however, did not happen. Instead of an accusing stare, the eyes of the Sevret image showed vaporous dismay; the vapour-smile became fixed in horror or remorse at the approaching menace in the sky; then abruptly, with a dolorous sag the entire vapour-structure collapsed.
And that, thought Miril, heart-heavy yet relieved, is that.
In her view it was a plain admission, by a residue of Varramb, that the Yr-Simulation had been a bad idea. But the crowd of backgrounders were more likely to see it as a posthumous admission by the former Noad herself: a last testament of the error of her ways.
Miril did not care which of those view became accepted. The vital point was, that henceforth Vlamanorians could, with undivided loyalties, face the onset of Yr.
The floating city was now only a few miles off, and lower in the sky. Perhaps only two miles up and petrifyingly enormous, the mountainous structure floated in slow motion towards Vlamanor. By this time the two weapon-emplacements known as the Shoulders of Yr had become discernible. It was easy to believe that, somewhere up there, 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 between Yr and opposing fleets. Prepared for this, Vlamanor's five skyships were already airborne, awiting only the order from omzyr Teherer to lunge into action against the floating city.
Lrar Emdu, far from satisfied at this basic preparation, growled at omzyr Teherer, "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. "Only one of them exists."
"Well, if it is made of ultimate metal, it could carom against the superstructure of Vlamanor and do as much damage that way - "
"Look," interrupted the omzyr.
A momentous development had occurred: the oncomer had canted, slightly but definitely, a few degrees, and it had begun to swerve.
Spellbound, the Vlamanorians watched.
"Do they intend to enter an orbit?" mused Teherer.
After more silent scrutiny the Noad replied, "If so, it's extremely tight orbit, grazing the air space above our rim."
"Flunnd!" swore the omzyr, "will you look at that!"
On a far greater scale than the brief vapour-sculpture above the bin on the platform, a volume of air above the concourse of Ezem had begun to... curdle, to clench into a brown fist. Out of that mirk a form took shape: a holo-image, huge yet sharp, of the head and shoulders of a man wearing a flared helmet. Behind him could be seen a patch of gleaming crimson wall, while in front of him his fingers rested on a console.
The face, dour and hard-eyed, was that of a merciless ruler. Though the man's lips did not move, words came for him out of the air:
"I am Abon Gnaa, the Voice of Rael Odiram, Noad of Yr. I charge you, Vlamanorians: make plain whether or not you intend war against us."
Lrar Emdu, leaning on the platform railing, spoke back at the hovering image:
"Subsequent to your departure from our skies, sponndar Abon Gnaa, you and your Noad will be able to reflect upon our answer, which by then you will see."
The grey lips of Rael Odiram twitched for a moment, pursed to look like a blob of solder, and then eased dismissively. The holograph began to fade. Within seconds it had melted into thin air. All eyes looked up to see Yr continue to veer along its curving path. One question dominated all Vlamanorian thoughts. Within a few more tense and silent minutes the answer became evident: Yr's course was revealed not as a permanent orbit but a flyby: the floating city had begun to recede.
All lungs exhaled, all muscles and minds relaxed. In profoundest relief many in the concourse crowd simply stared as if in a dream; others began to cheer and to push towards the platform. That movement, though, was largely interrupted by a new surprise: the quite different sight, modest in size, of a new wispy swirl which rose above that bin of junk where recently had brewed the rendition of Sevret Vaid.
People could immediately see that this latest vapour-sculpture was not a repeat of that previous concoction. This one was taking the form of a lean, rugged man.
At first he seemed an archetype rather than an individual: the worn cloak, hardy frame and keen visage of one who had seen many mysterious sights and dared many adventures. A symbol of the tough Wayfarer, it was easy to assume. But then the idea took hold that this was a portrayal of some specific person. Perhaps one in three spectators actually knew of a name that fitted.
From this, a number of them quickly derived the belief - insofar as the image squarely faced the receding Yr - that Yadon the Starsider was "seeing off" the menace in the sky.
A blizzard of emotion gusted through the multitude. Gratitude burst to the fore. Thousands of backgrounders in their heartfelt triumph were keen to grab some prestigious foregrounder to hoist, literally or metaphorically, onto their shoulders. To some extent this urge to venerate was focused upon the new Noad, Lrar Erem, at whom was aimed many a rousing cheer. But to a still greater extent the homage was pitched at the wavering, misty portrait of Yadon.
The crowd yelled all the louder because they did not expect the portrait to remain visible: it was so obviously guttering and fading. It had raised a wispy arm in farewell, dissolving even as it moved off in an ambling slouch.
Miril Nerred, too overcome to think, existed in a suspension of all feeling as though she herself were nought but a mist... until excited voices and the clump-clump of boots told her that waves of people were lapping up onto the platform where she quietly stood.
"Well here we are again, it's Assiduity Miril!" said the voice of a friend.
She turned to see her old admirer Duruld Omott, for whom she had not spared a thought in what seemed a long while.
Rather than tell him off for using a nickname she did not like, she laughed in sudden cheerful amazement. How pleased she was to see him! Duruld, in turn, was suffused with happiness at her attitude of welcome. He clasped her arm and grinned; yet he remained a skyfleet officer and must keep an eye on the departing foe, so his gaze returned to the sky.
Together they watched the dwindling outline of that fabled airborne pirate State which might have, but had not, laid waste to Vlamanor.
At last, when Yr was little more than a dot, Duruld turned back to look Miril full in the eye. He remarked, "People are saying that vagabond fellow, that Yadon, masterminded our triumph. You were close to him for a while, I hear - so what do you think?"
Miril chose her words carefully. "We kept our nerve. Our victory consisted in that."
Duruld, however, persisted: "I'm asking you, what did the man actually do, to defeat Yr?"
Ruffled at this, she shrugged almost angrily. "I don't know any more," she replied.
The answer pleased Duruld. He whispered in her ear, "We've seen how legends are born - in mist and smoke. Let that be his portion, while you and I..."
He did not have to complete the sentence. In a sudden surge of physical affection she pressed her cheek against his, relegating the Starsider to a blur of vague renown.
Uranian Throne Episode 20: