She was not alone; a young man had eased into the room. It was not his purpose to creep, yet so quiet was his nonchalant step, that she did not notice his entry.
Though she had not turned to greet him, he could picture her face: her daydreaming expression, her eyes narrowed into introspective slits... and with a knowing smile he decided to wait, watching her profile as she gazed out the window.
He and she were the two visible people in the room. The third, invisible presence is ours: it is we, the Uranian Bards who narrate this adventure of many lifetimes ago: privileged to dip, godlike, both into the mind of skyfleet officer Duruld Omott, and into the mind of investigator Miril Nerred, the object of Duruld's fascination. They are open to us, though closed to each other.
Unaware of Duruld's entry, unaware of his admiration, Miril went on enjoying her unique daydream. A clean swoop to the target, a swift flash to success: it had long attracted her with its un-grasped greatness. It - though she wasn't yet close to understanding what "it" was - remained her constant preoccupation. Ah well, she sighed: she must wait for today's test to begin... She gave out a reflective chuckle; and then, accidentally by her head-shake, she noted out of the corner of an eye the presence of that heavy-shouldered saunterer, Duruld.
She still did not turn; instead, she took a step closer to the window, and gazed more intently down onto the plain far below.
But he could read her stance; he could tell she had spotted him. He reckoned it was time to speak.
"Look now - who's here? Why, it's Assiduity!" he exclaimed. "Assiduity Miril!"
"I get tired of people calling me that," she informed him gracefully, without any loss of poise.
"Sorry," said Duruld. "I'll stop doing so, since you don't like it; though in fact it's a compliment. You're the one who never leaves off following a thread; never abandons an investigation unfinished. I'd call that an enviable reputation. I'm still seeking to make mine."
Her mouth quirked at this run of words, and she did then turn to include him in her field of view. "And why are you here, Duruld? To watch the ritual? It's almost time."
"Either that," he shrugged, "or - to watch you." A more economical reply than his last, it was also a bolder one. Yet it failed to elicit any revealing response. So, seeing that her only reaction was a tiny skeptical smile, he added, "I think I can hear them. Yes, here they come: the Unbelievers."
From many floors below, from the direction of the base of the tower, came the muffled chant of the candidates for the examination that was due to take place in the main room adjacent to the corner buttress where Miril had chosen to wait.
Duruld again remarked, "They like doing it the hard way. Slowly, up the stairs." He eyed her carefully, trying to ascertain whether she had been made at all nervous by the imminent event.
Miril however had gone back to being absorbed, even now, in the panorama visible from the window.
Duruld was increasingly captivated by her absent air, which now attracted him to the panorama likewise, and he thought to himself: no wonder she prefers that view - the scene of her detective triumph.
Sghee Tower 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 its embankment. The pair of forests had not been planned to twist 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 perhaps 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. "Perhaps for my own good?"
The remark was a "shot in the dark", and he expected it to fail, perhaps to be a mere annoyance. He was astonished when she turned him a glance of... he could only sense it as kindness! Great skies! It was as though she were fond of him!
"Hereabouts," Miril sweetly said, "acceptance is the mode of life, if you wish to go on living."
Duruld experienced an instant's thrill. Most of the time it was with mere whimsy that he thought about her, and common sense might insist that he'd form a more compatible couple with just about any other woman; nevertheless it was suddenly good, very good to bask for a moment in the concern that flickered, just then, in Miril's face and voice. It was like being allowed a glimpse into some fantastic dream, in which he might deservedly aspire to share the same rung -
The flicker was over. Duruld shook the silliness from his thoughts and 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, gazing out of the window yet again.
All he could do was press on: "You know I'm not happy with some current trends. Sometimes I wonder what this city's coming to. I respect the Noad and all that, but..."
His verbal groping scored some sort of hit. Miril turned in a flash. "She's the greatest Noad we've had in millions of days!"
Ah, the spark of political zeal. Could surreptitious fanning produce some illumination? "She is, I grant you, great," Duruld shrugged. "Only, trouble is, the great can be tempted to take on too much. Are you looking for a way to help her, maybe?"
"Now how might I possibly do that? This conversation is very vague, Duruld, and I'm busy today."
"You've got method," he insisted hurriedly. "For instance, how did you solve the mystery of the forest shapes? By working back from conclusion to premise. Back from the contorted lines of growth - to the currents in the ice. Back from the currents in the ice - to the measurements of rates and time. Back from the measurements of rates and times - to records of attacks by vrars and cremps. Back from - "
" - there to defence policy," she finished for him. "It wasn't a perfect job, Duruld. Intermittent clues..."
"You plugged their gaps nevertheless! I like your style! Do you have a word for it?"
The tramp of boots could be heard on the platform just outside the main room, and the chanting, which had risen to a crescendo, now appeared to have ceased.
Miril went towards the partition door -
Duruld called after her, "Are you going to investigate those folk?"
Over her shoulder she gave him one last twinkle of her eyes.
"No. I'm going to join them."
Then she was gone, and Duruld wondered: should I follow her? Go in too? Invigilate (or whatever), by her side? But what she might get away with, would be undignified for me. She's no older than I am but she knows much, much more. I shan't risk being a further bother today.
In an uncertain mood, but unwilling to take any step which might misbecome him in her eyes, Duruld Omott left by the elevator.
Carefully holding their bowls of liss quabb, or White Blood, the candidates were shuffling into the larger, main room of this level of the tower, where seats with inbuilt desk-arms had been arranged in rows, for about fifty people. The chanting had not actually ceased but had gone low, down almost to a hum, rhythmic with the cloaked candidates' steps, as the white glow sloshed in their bowls while they slowly sought their places.
Miril looked around for a place for herself. She decided she must make sure of one by lifting a spare seat-desk from the wall and adding it to the back row. Having accomplished this she sat down when the others did, copying their mien. Unlike them she had no bowl, no steaming liss quabb, but she could, like them, produce writing materials from a pouch of her cloak.
Then all eyes were drawn to a tall blue swirl at the front of the room, where, padding in to stand at the main desk, the invigilator turned out to be none other than Lrar Emdu, Daon of Vlamanor. Raising his bushy eyebrows at the candidates, the Daon spoke with solemn formality:
"Thank you for volunteering for this test. You are the third group to do so. Each group makes our city stronger.
"Remember, you are here to express your opinions without hesitation. The personal aspect is vital. Hence the contrast of atmosphere, between humdrum pen-and-paper on the one hand, and, on the other, the momentous vapour of the White Blood. You know that the liss quabb comes from Varramb nenself. Do no, however, hesitate on that score! Write what you think! You have half an hour. Pick up your pens. Answer the question as best you can. The question being - "
He turned and wrote in large letters on the board behind him:
"WAS THE WORK OF THE SIMULATOR EVER TRUE?"
The instant the Daon's arm dropped after the writing of "TRUE", there arose throughout the room a susurration of sleeves, that spoke of immediate busy work by pen and hand: most, or all, the candidates had begun to write their opinions. Miril had the impression that they weren't hesitating at all. They knew what they wished to say.
For they were the loyal Unbelievers.
She could follow that clue, could she not? That was why she was here...
But at this early stage, something in her gave way. She fell into that majority state, out from which she persistently had to struggle: the state of perceiving life as a chaotic random dance of vari-coloured fluffy balloons, forever floating and bumping around, impossible to arrange in any proper order. Life on this world of hers was an unending adventure, in which even the profoundest ideas were no more than jostling actors, rather than foundational principles; and this situation didn't satisfy her yearnings; she primly insisted that there ought to be more to life than a phantasmagoric swirl of themes. Huh! - by the Skies, she'd see to it that there was more!
Hmm... she had her work cut out, that was for sure.
For example, this Unbelief business. It was so tricky! She looked at the candidates scribbling away, and tried to guess the contents of their essays.
Of course one thing was certain: they were taking the official line, that the old Simulators of the Hafnium Era, and especially the chief one, Varramb, could not really model the future in the way that legend claimed. The variables were too many; chaos too powerful; randomness inherent in reality.
But then, Varramb nenself had admitted as much! In fact the old Ghepion had warned humanity against reliance on the tool of Simulation, and at length had insisted on nen's right to retire, abandoning all power and influence. That act, known thereafter as the Renunciation of Varramb, had brought the Hafnium Era to a close. People were persuaded that the advice was good, that Simulation as a basis for decision-making had been taken too far; had become a kind of fantasy-addiction which sought to eliminate risk and which thus sapped the moral courage to make real decisions. It was better to leap in the dark, to make mistakes and take responsibility for them, than to run endless 'what-ifs' by means of clever machines. Besides, the machines couldn't really do it anyway. All they had ever really done was suggest probabilities as an inspiration for policy; to help concentrate the minds of humans on what was the most likely result, or what was "likely to be the most likely result", of what they might do. The trouble was, reliance on such aids had become addictive, and it was time to break the addiction. As a result of this change of heart, all the simulation devices were switched off, with the exception of the only conscious one, Ghepion Varramb nenself.
That entity, in retirement, had wandered by monorail to this very city, Vlamanor; had crept down into the vaults below the city floor; and there had been granted a lair in which to rest and dream nen's own dreams, free at last from preoccupation with the wants of humankind. Since that retreat, seventeen eras ago, nen's rest had been unbroken.
Varramb, then, was out of consideration, and so were Varramb's powers. Why then this new drive to disbelieve in those powers - to deny that they had ever existed? What did it matter, one way or the other?
The dim blur of one possible answer took shape in Miril's thoughts. She picked up her pen.
Just to be contrary, she wrote, let me suggest that the machines of the later part of the long Hafnium Era, given their exponential evolution, with the ever-smaller mincing of their components, may, just possibly, have acquired the ability to model a situation in sufficient detail, to run Simulations of future events based on various decisions taken...
For what was the eventual physical result of such machine-evolution?
Can I not see it, sniff it now?
The nano-plasm of super-miniaturised components, the... BLOOD.
Varramb, for the best of motives, may have decided to conceal the truth from us mortals; but now some people have gone down into the vaults and drawn a supply of the liss quabb from the old Ghepion's unwilling veins.
One might then say that the Unbelievers were in fact Believers. Or that what they disbelieved in was not Simulation, but the Renunciation of it.
Well, this was exciting! It must be a scheme of the Noad's, to revive an old controversial power by presenting it reassuringly as Unbelief. Just like her, to do it that clever way!
Miril was only slightly annoyed, that she herself had been so slow to get the point. She could at least take heart from having worked it out without the need to sniff it from a bowl. And her already high opinion of Noad Sevret Vaid of Vlamanor rose to an even higher notch.
Like almost every citizen, Miril Nerred devoted a few hours of most days to instinctive economic labour. Uranian urban civilization is so old that it has evolved a form of upkeep which requires little in the way of conscious thought and can almost entirely be undertaken in a dream-state. The pattern of such activity is organically complex and it is rare that any two consecutive daily sessions match exactly in either content or location. So you don't expect to finish at the same place that you did the previous time. You can find yourself anywhere on or above the city floor.
Still, on this occasion, when Miril Nerred awoke from her daily work-trance in the fourth hour of ayshine, she experienced a mild jolt of surprise.
The cityscape around her was slightly brighter than she expected, which immediately told her it was the fourth hour of ayshine, not the fifth. So, she had come to full consciousness a full hour earlier than usual. The next instant, when she realized exactly where she was, she grasped the reason.
Like a solidified grey stream, a smooth metal way narrowly separated her from the double-scarped structure which humped on the other side of that kerbless road. A wakening beam, flashed from an upper window, had caught her eye and wrested her from her trance. Evidently she was wanted up there, by the person to whom was reserved the right to transmit such summons.
Obediently, and 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 there she encountered one of the Noad's advisors, Jattak Othv, who was stooped in haste like a mere aong, or messenger-of-the-moment. Miril turned to face him with an inquiring look, and the advisor efficiently gestured with an arm-wave, meaning, "You can just go in".
Sure enough, when she approached the door it twirled open for her, and so, without announcement, she went in.
From within, the Chamber of the Noad had a pod-like appearance. The inner walls curved to gather at a point at either end, and the flat floor space was not large compared with the room's widest horizontal extension. The centre was, however, large enough for a sizeable holograph-platform, over which now shimmered a breathtaking three-dimensional image of a city floating in the deep blue of the upper atmosphere, above a landscape that was 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, was in awesomely crisp detail. Nothing less than this could have distracted the visitor for as much as an instant from the sight of the Noad herself. But then the instant was over and the presence of Noad Sevret Vaid drew Miril's attention.
Uranian attire does not emulate the prodigious variation of Terran fashions, and most of us Nenns feel no need to wear anything very different from the usual cloaked suit; skirts are unusual. Sevret Vail wore a pleated skirt of remarkable eye-fooling properties. Its pleats, of shimmering dark material, conically up-swept to gather at her waist in a mode which suggested the slopes of an erupting volcano: thus rendering her upper body symbolic of an explosion of power.
Too powerful an engine of mind can fail to prevent a lurch like that of an undisciplined steed, and thus did Sevret Vail unintentionally allow, for a couple of careless moments, her attention to divide itself between visitor and hologram. The result was, Miril Nerred saw the Noad's expression fleer with hate at the glowing depiction of Yr.
That betrayal of emotion was a datum which Miril noted without knowing how to place it. Evidently, for some unguessable reason, the Noad's feelings were stirred deeply by Yr, even though the depredations of that skyborne city were, statistically, hardly more to be feared than a meteor-impact...
Now two very different modes of beauty, the sharp lineaments of Sevret Vaid and the oval visage of Miril Nerred, regarded each other speculatively.
First spoke the Noad, aware that she had let her emotion show, and aiming to provide herself some cover for that.
"An exuberance of Era Fifteen," she gestured at the hologram. "Our world's only manangaloom - no other flying city was ever built. Strange, do you not think, sponndar Miril?"
"Strange, yes, Noad S-V," agreed Miril laconically, thinking to ration her speech in the presence of the leader whom she greatly admired. But then she ventured to add, "And fortunate too; one of them is more than enough."
With a sudden edge to her voice Sevret replied, "I have heard many people comment as you do. But the uniqueness of Yr, and the scarcity of its dire visits, have had one unfortunate effect: we have not been sufficiently motivated to evolve a defence against it. That, sponndar, should be a matter of serious reflection."
Miril was gripped in the cold clasp of shame - she felt she had been rebuked. If only she could understand why it might be particularly necessary, just now, to reflect upon the danger from Yr! She could think of no reason at all!
However, the next moment Sevret turned on the charm. "Console yourself, Miril, that you are not the Noad," she smiled amiably. "Assessing rumour with insufficient data is a hard road to renl. I will merely say, that I have sniffed an opportunity to do what has never been done before. You may wonder why I am telling you this."
"I cannot help but wonder, Noad S-V."
"That's because, in my job, it's not enough to give orders; one must train habits; create rituals. For instance, the fifty-strong groups of Unbelievers: they are corpuscles which I am injecting into the body politic... you're looking more confused than ever, sponndar Miril. Tell me, what's your current view of the content of their Unbelief?"
"My view..." Miril took a deep breath while she clamped a hold on her whirling mind. "...My view of the line they're taking is, that perhaps the 'simulators' of the Hafnium Era were better describable as mere 'inspirers'. Either that - or the total opposite, that the things actually worked, and that one should therefore disbelieve in Varramb's renunciation." Hearing the contradiction in what she'd just said, she had to suppress a panicky giggle.
Oddly, though, she sensed that her absurd reply was actually what the Noad had wanted to hear. Sevret's voice now took on a hungry edge:
"Say more. Describe your confusion. Not its themes, but its shape. It could be important. You don't see how - but never mind that."
The strange appetence of these words told Miril one definite thing: that she was being given an opportunity. She hesitated at the prospect. It was that command to consider shape...
Unable to resist the chance for real communication with her idol, she ventured to put her own private truth into words.
"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 my weight slides as I strive to keep upright. I can only maintain my equilibrium by letting the globe roll under my boots, so that I re-establish my balance on a different part... or else try to jump to an adjacent globe and start again..."
Noad Sevret Vaid laughed delightedly. "I've never heard our way of life put so well! Imbalances can be righted for a while, but they're always remittent, and maybe in the end you only have one option left, which is to fall off... Yes, it must be allowed that failure is a real option. For me as well as for you. We cannot escape that danger. But we can vary the balancing act and seek occasions of relief from slippery ideas. What you need right now, Miril, is something as dry as a biscuit."