The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:
Stop being so jumpy, I chide myself. A dark plain and a stand of drunken-looking trees but no visible enemy: it's all up to par, as far as peacefulness is concerned, for me to bivouac here for the night.
I realize, however, that for one disconcerting moment my fingers had strained as though to point my laser at one of those scrawny, leafless growths which clutch at the sky a half-mile away.
In fact, I heard that click which proves that I did more than make an abortive grab at my holstered sponnd, I actually got as far as to snick the catch on the weapon. That means I 've set it for bolt-mode. For distance-combat.
Umm.... It goes to show that momentarily I was, as the saying goes, "beside myself".
And that's not so much a figure of speech for me as it is for most people...!
My head is like two countries, two realms which adjoin along the leaky border that divides my Terran from my Uranian identity. Immigrant ideas pour across it in both directions, so that hundreds of thoughts and habits smear their way through my awareness until by now I suspect I'm developing a hybrid consciousness, which in the long run is, I suppose, inevitable.
For example that tingle of impatience, which readied my hand just now to snatch sponnd from holster, might have come from either "country" or from both. I was no kind of fighter on Earth, but I was as keen a believer in the right of self-defence as any average Earthman. Here on a strange planet (Uranus will always be overwhelmingly strange) it's natural for Neville Yeadon, Londoner, to be hyper-vigilant and sensitive to appearances; but equally such edginess must appertain to the Olhoavan, Nyav Yuhlm, student of the arts of survival in the hard schools of travel and adventure on both Uranian hemispheres, Starside and Sunside. The world of Ooranye will always overwhelm any human mind, be it from the third planet or the seventh.
...Hand, hand... the word makes me think of that figure of speech from card-play, "the hand I've been dealt", which, though a thoroughly Terran metaphor, can temptingly snuggle into Uranian conditions. The hand dealt by Fate, or rather by many fates, all tangled and meshed together like the weather-systems of Earth.
Still, that "weather" is more purposive here, or so I gather. It's a force to which the individual, if he's co-operative, may contribute something from his own puny strength.
Or am I fooling myself? Does it amount to the same, in the end, on both worlds? If so, then I can wield no more influence upon a fate-current here than a swipe of my arm could have diverted a meteorological tempest back on Earth.
In these moods I find myself suspecting that my growing reputation, which swirls about me and packs onto me to glisten like frost, is a role I've been handed, not earned. For whatever I do seems to splash and then encrust me with another layer of legend, whether I deserved or simply got spattered by fame.
Thank goodness Syoom is wide. Four hundred million square miles is quite enough to get lost in.
The air is getting dimmer; evenshine is drawing on; I shall go no further today. Tomorrow is time enough to ride through, or to avoid, the region of gnarly trees. Do they frown at me, those things ahead of me? The darker they look, the more care I shall take to think bright thoughts as I arrange my gear, preparing for sleep.
Here's the brightest thought of all: I did do the job I was sent here to do. Dynoom sent me a message to take to Syoom, and I delivered it faithfully.
Yes, faithfully. But - effectively?
Well, that's another issue. Since my adoption of a vagabond lifestyle I have rather lost track of time, but I've been wandering around Syoom for four or five Terran years, during which I've heard not the slightest rumour of any campaign to send help to the victims of Dempelath's tyranny.
Anyhow the matter is out of my hands, and after all Olhoav is so very far away...
Awakening. Morningshine glows about me as I lie swathed in my cloak on the cork-like gralm of the plain. I am alive for another day on this strange and wonderful planet.
My mood, too, has lightened. My thoughts are crisper -
Those funny-looking 'trees' are in reality guard-towers!
They're sculpted to look like trees, except the tallest, rising in the middle of them, which more resembles a giant flimsy kiosk; in daylight I can now see that it is held up by cables connecting it to the "trees".
I neither need nor wish to know what the emsemble signifies: quite an un-Earthly attitude of mine, that! One of the immigrant notions that have strayed over the border into my Terran identity. And gotten accepted. For it's something that I've learned to believe in my life here: namely, that ignorance is power. You are less likely to get pulled into a trap if you insulate yourself from its meaning; otherwise you may get pulled into a game you don't want to play, a series of reflexes and reactions which will end with you being sucked into the current of someone else's plot. They can't do that to you, if you refuse to know what it's about.
Mind you, I can put my own gloss on them.
For a start, I respect those guard-towers. I shan't retreat from them - what's the use? Whoever's there will have seen me by now. Or if not me, then they'll have seen the gleam of my skimmer's whitish-silver porrang hull. It might even be safer to go on than to go back. As usual I accept, whithersoever I look, that I see sufficient cause for a certain degree of wariness, a skittish rawness of nerves that comes to me often on this planet, and always will. Others, apparently, don't see that in me; they see an outward calm. Let that seep inwards!
Having tidied up and removed all trace of my night's bivouac, I mount my skimmer, and edge the steering lever to set off at slow speed.
I aim to ride past the central group of "tree-towers" at a distance of a few hundred yards. That's skirting them moderately. Further off, my track might look like sneaky evasion; closer in and it could be viewed as impertinent defiance. Every second, I'm watching carefully as I go. This area seems like - I don't know - like (the weird phrase comes to mind) an ungenerous zone.
I'm almost level with the shapes when I see a white cushiony thing undulate into view from somewhere up in the "branches". It's too big to have have been hidden behind them, so it must just now have thrown off a camouflage colour. Doubtless some member of one of the innumerable species of sentient cloud which infest this world... and what is it doing here, oozing among the high branches?
It floats into fuller view, detaches completely from its tower, and slides through the air, keeping at a height of about fifteen yards... In response I decelerate and turn my skimmer to face the thing so as to keep it in my sight. It becomes evident that it is tracing an orbit around the stand of towers. I halt completely, hover and stare, as the thing's swerving flank brings into my view a discolouration, a brown-black indentation, a bruise which throbs on a five-second pulse.
The timing of the arrival of this slightly horrible Bruised Cloud suggests to me that it's employed in a morning patrol. I compare it fancifully with a sentry and dog on their round guarding some compound on Earth. Faint and ridiculous though such an analogy may be, I quite often have to sustain myself with imagery of this sort as I strive to make sense of life on Ooranye.
Well, so far, I've stood my ground. Perhaps honour is satisfied and I can now go on my way at a respectable pace. I turn again, so that my vehicle's bow is once more directed into the forward distance.
Just a touch on the lever and I'm off again -
But no: I hear an explosion behind me and the whizzing of a projectile, and then a plop and a fizzle as something lands on the plain ahead of me.
The message is clear, clear as any "shot across the bows" can be.
Should - can - I defy it and lunge off at full speed? Foolishness. I'm neither a desperate nor a guilty man. Whoever's in that guard-tower, if he wants to stop me, I must allow it. He may have the right of it.
Now that I know what is immediately required of me, I turn my skimmer, cause it to descend to half a yard above the ground, step off and begin to walk, leading the vehicle with my right hand on a deck-ring, towards the stand of tower-trees.
For the first time I perceive that the area possesses something which is common on Earth though seldom seen on Ooranye - shadow.
Umbrageous zones on this planet tend to be noticeable, if at all, for reasons other than the interruption of the far sun's feeble light. Ooranye's common daytime airglow, ubiquitous and pervasive, naturally seeps around every object to illuminate it from all sides, with the result that a Uranian landscape is in the style of an impressionist painting dominated by colour, rather than that of a Renaissance depiction of shapes via chiaroscuro; yet here, as I enter this grove of guard-towers, I definitely receive an impression of shadow.
It's mild, but it startles me somewhat. Admittedly, on my travels around the seventh planet I have come across some plants which have evolved to stain their surrounding air with a protective darkness, but here it seems a general diffusion of shade rather than a bunch of plant-hugging cloaks. Has somebody learned to synthesize the effect?
At the same time I start to see and hear another Uranian oddity, the sussurous tracery of a fence-plant. You see them occasionally around dwellings on the plains, and this one surrounds the thin bole of the central guard-tower. I've no doubt, though, that I'll be provided with a way through. Sure enough, as I plod on, I see a ripple shake the fence. Some of its dark green strands have parted, which will allow me entrance when I reach that point.
Now crossing the orbital path of the Bruised Cloud which floats by over my head, I approach sufficiently close to the towers to note that they are pre-fabricated. The screw-heads in the wood, and the slats and joints, make it easy to imagine it all being taken down and packed at short notice. Whatever it is that I'm about to meet, won't be slack or disorganized: they aren't going to waste either my time or theirs.
Next, a door opens in the bole of the central tower. All right then, in for a penny... I squeeze in.
And immediately shoot upwards! Straight upwards. This must be wrong. Because of the tower's contorted shape I was wincing in anticipation at being jerked about, and instead the impossible comfort of my actual rise makes me more queasy than I would have been along the anticipated corkscrew ascent. In no time at all my fed-up intellect seizes its chance. Isn't all this inconsistent daftness typical of the whole crazy planet? A tower, denying on the inside what it looks like from outside. Isn't it time I stopped adapting? Time to reject, or go as crazy as this world.
Now the upward whoosh is over and I'm facing an opened door. I step onto an almost transparent platform. My head for heights is fairly good but there are limits; ordinarily I wouldn't stand for, or rather on, a platform that's so see-through that you feel you're suspended fifty yards up in the air.
What's more, the flimsy surface ought to be heaving in the breeze like the deck of a ship, yet the platform is rock-steady because - the heaving has been transferred... to the world! That's to say the plains below me, and the remote horizon itself, sway about, bucking and yawing, while contrariwise the transparency I'm standing on, and the seated couple waiting for me, remain rock-steady.
They're doing it through will-power. It must be. The same will-power they used to make the ascent through the twisted tower seem straight. This immigrant thought, which (to be fair) is helpful, trickles through the barrier I'm now furiously trying to maintain between my immediate consciousness and the vast alien archive lurking below it. Must stop grinding my teeth...
They stare at me, and I stare back. Unusually for Uranians, they wear no cloaks, but shiny-plated tunics and helmets, though for each of them I notice the ubiquitous cloak isn't far away - it has been thrown over the back of the chair. They hold their lasers in their hands, resting across their knees. Both man and woman are younger than I, but I hope I don't have their hard-bitten look. The man looks worse, but even the woman looks fanatical, like a younger and prettier Madame Defarge.
It is possible that somewhere in my brain is the knowledge, or the suspicion, of who they are.
If so, it's information I want nothing to do with.
One thing I can tell despite all my efforts not to: these folk are obvious chirrs, vigilees: folk whose work is done entirely in a state of full consciousness rather than in the tranced routine which suffices for humbler toil in the streamlined societies of this ancient planet. No everyday jobs for this pair!
Neither of them invite me to sit. Well, looks like no no third chair is available anyway.
The man speaks:
"I am Sol Ostobon and this is my wife Zadrun Mok. We are of the Bostanga Fom, which gives us the right to detain you..." Animosity is perceptible in his tone as he goes on, "...to ask who you are and what is your business."
The term Bostanga Fom means nothing to me. Whether or not it ever did, I seek not to remember. I just want out of this. Out of the corner of my eye I see the Bruised Cloud creep into view. The thing is slowing down. I turn my head and watch as it pastes itself to one of the lesser tree-towers in the stand. Apparently, the cloud's "bruise" is an anchor pad of some sort, a base to which it deflates rapidly, until within seconds it is no more than a discolouration on the tower.
"My name is Yadon," I reply. "I am a homeless wanderer." I pause. They're looking at me, expectantly. I haven't yet said where I come from. Any chance they'll not ask? They've been watching my reaction to their funny cloud. Perhaps they can guess, just from that, that I'm a stranger to Syoom. To stress my vagabond status, I add: "I live off the land or by Wayfaring."
"We thought so," said Sol Ostobon. "So - we meet at last, Starsider." He makes a sign to his wife as if to say, Keep him covered while I... and she, understanding, turns the tip of the laser she's holding in her lap, so that it points to me.
Oh heavens - they know. This "come in Mr Bond, we've been expecting you" stuff is so corny yet it's true that all they had to do (says the immigrant thought) is to ride the fate-lines to bunch their coincidences their way. So, despite Syoom being eight times the land area of the Earth, the needle in the haystack is caught.
Sol Ostobon meanwhile, using both hands, has lifted a heavy volume from the floor, has opened it and now begins to read aloud from it, punctuating his words with sharp stares in my direction.
"The reports here," he says, "cover several pages. Here are some recent salient samples.
"On Day 10,545,487 Ac, at Invun, one of my agents overheard you in the Swoa Zoalzh in conversation with one Thendon Arek, Wayfarer, who remarked that he was leaving Invun the next day on an agreed transect to Pjourth. You are recorded as having replied in these words: We'd be leaving in our hundreds of thousands if we knew what's at stake; we ought not to breathe freely until the Sunnoad leads a fleet to Starside.
"On Day 10,545,561 at Xydur you were overheard in the central market chatting to a farmer who had planted a new field of vheic. Your recorded comments included, It's time the Sunnoad led us to plough the first furrow of victory on Starside.
"Most recently, on Day 10,545,614 Ac at the Museum of Relief Operations in Jaax you were heard to interrupt a guide's speech with the words, It's comfortable to cloister ourselves here in Syoom but the passage of time will darken our prospects until they are unrecognizable, unless the Sunnoad gets a move on and does his duty on Starside."
Sol Ostobon shuts the book with a snap. He leans forward, his stare more concentrated and more grim.
"I don't pretend to know what cloister means," he says, "but the drift is clear. You are discontented with the Sunnoad. Seriously discontented. That makes you our business. We of the Bostanga Fom have the duty to act, if necessarily, to pre-empt what you may do."
Despite my previous determination not to comprehend, I'm now sadly able to grasp the situation. The memory comes back to me quite clearly, of my encounter with the voluntary elite of the Bostanga Fom some two thousand days ago shortly after my arrival in Syoom. Yes, after all, I do know them. I can, moreover, understand them. Analogies from my Earthly home come to mind. Recorded in the history of England are those associations which sprang up for the protection of Elizabeth the First and of William the Third, two sovereigns who were much threatened with assassination. In both cases the members of the association swore to defend the endangered ruler and that if the worst happened they would wreak vengeance upon the plotters. Of course the time scale is vaster here on Ooranye, and as I understand it the Fom is a more or less permanent feature of history, at any rate of this Actinium Era...
I speak - relieved to hear no tremor in my voice -
"If you really believed that I am a threat to the Sunnoad, would you not have resolved to shoot rather than talk?"
"I can do both," snaps Sol Ostobon.
He said that without hesitation, and it's no good pretending I don't see the point. I reply:
"You wish me to name my accomplices first, I suppose. But surely, if you've listened to the rumours that follow me around, you must know that I work alone."
"Then you admit that you're working towards..."
A particularly insistent immigrant thought is banging for admission, and on a whim I allow it, crazily provocative though it seems:
"It would not be the first time a Sunnoad was acceptably Corrected," I say, for it is true: the role of Corrector exists.
"You dare to smile as you score that point," remarks the sponndar who has my life in his hands.
"I suppose it would have been better not to," I admit, aware of how the temperature in this eyrie has sunk still further, "but unfortunately I couldn't resist it."
Perhaps the only reason I'm not yet dead is that my super-confident antagonist has no reason to hurry. Not only has he "got the drop on me" but also, though noticeably younger than I am, he oozes that kind of seniority that comes from being steeped in a vastly older culture. It comes to me that I have seriously erred by carelessly creating the wrong impression on a world without laws or rules, a world which, instead, is networked with steely lines of responsibility. If this fellow really is sufficiently dubious about me he will follow his conscience by firing his laser. If it's not too late I had better add some emollient remark; here goes:
"Actually you needn't worry - I have not the slightest intention to become a Corrector! Having read some history I'm well aware that 'Corrector' is just about the most dangerous role which anyone can play, death and ignominy being the penalty for failure; and I'm not crazy."
He listens, but slowly he shakes his head. Distrust is winning out, and the moment sparkles with a glitter of finality. I have been privileged to live a life on two wonderful worlds; let that suffice. The greatest adventure of all now awaits within the next second -
"Stop!" says the woman; and I become aware that she has her own laser pointed at her husband.
"Zadrun! What's this?"
"The Starsider may be on a destined path."
"What do you mean, by the Skies?" demands Sol Ostobon.
"He could be a Corrector!"
Not all my past life but only one fragment of memory flashes into my mind: I was a schoolboy at the school play, and Romeo is making his great speech. "But soft: what light through yonder window breaks? / It is the east, and Juliet is the sun." At which point, I now remember, an aeroplane incongruously flew noisily overhead, and some in the audience chuckled at the incongruity. Just one aspect I extract from this now. It is the sense of a droning overhead. But not a real sound this time. Just something that presses down on one's Uranian senses. He feels it too; the man with the laser pointed at me - his suddenly pursed-up mouth and the too-and-fro flicker of his eyes are those of someone having second thoughts; his eyes then come to rest on mine and he reads the same recognition of the truth that I simultaneously read in his.
"Perhaps," he admits. "My wife, it seems, already trusts you."
He lowers the point of his laser; and I vow henceforth that I shall no longer resist the immigrant thoughts in my skull, for they - plus the move made by Zadrun Mok - have saved my life.
Neither of us mention the 'overhead thing' which we've just experienced: the power of a fate-wave, the intensity which admits no question.
Most of all am I grateful for the fact that I did not make any desperate move to escape the threat of death. I might have attempted to lunge forward and wrest Sol's weapon from him. Almost certainly such an attempt would have failed, but even if my chances had been far better than they were, it would have been a shame to opt for an undignified scrimmage in lieu of a higher-grade salvation.
The overhead sound-that-wasn't-a-sound has meanwhile flown by, leaving us with a dreamlike sense of something great which causes speech to falter. I'm sure that Zadrun and Sol, same as I, feel that our efforts, preoccupations and ambitions have paled by contrast with the mighty wave.
"Now that it is decided, Starsider Yadon," Zadrun Mok breaks the silence in a biting tone, "that we are not going to kill you, logic requires that we ought, instead, to help you." And she cups her hands in front of her mouth, and trills... a piercing sound which causes me to shudder.
"Er... may I ask..." I begin.
"Nuruk," she says with a gesture that directs my gaze to where the Bruised Cloud is re-inflating itself.
"No," I say, watching the thing as swells; I really do not wish to be gifted with such a companion. "No thank you; I work alone; let Nuruk stay here. Really, truly, I'm better relying on myself."
Zadrun with an acidic smile nods and says, "I believe you, Yadon, having noted the speed of your decision!"
Her husband says, "If we can do nothing more for you, we bid you farewell. Skimmjard, sponndar! May luck favour you."
Looks like I can go! Even so, I spread a smooth patter of speech to cover my retreat. "I'm of the opinion," I say, "that I have already enjoyed all the luck I can reasonably expect; but since Fate is not reasonable, maybe I shall indeed receive more; who knows? In any event I value your good wishes." With that, I reach the elevator door. It opens; I step in.
Down it goes; and if this isn't some nightmare trick in which, once I'm in the open, they set Nuruk onto me, I am free of the clutches of the Bostanga Fom... Yes, here I am, down on the ground, and I am being allowed to mount my skimmer, and to set off... and that indicates... oh dear.
I may have to take seriously what's been said.
No, dammit, I won't. I am not the stuff of which Correctors are made.
I look back over my shoulder at the grove which is dwindling behind me. It's oddly changing. I can't understand what I'm seeing. I slow down for a better look. It... the entire complex... is coming to pieces; it's being disassembled. Skies above, Sol and Zadrun aren't losing any time. They're packing away, or rather, ordering the thing to pack itself away! Chattering up from my subconscious store of Uranian native knowledge comes a surge of immigrant explanations, hinting that some key units had been lifted off a genuine organic grove years ago, and now come into play so as to - but hold it, I don't want or need to know all this; why should my proper mind be forever huffing and puffing as it strives to run alongside such commentary in order to keep up with Uranian justifications for events? All that I need to understand is, the couple who detained me have now finished their stint, whether because they had been waiting to assess me, or simply because their watch in this district happens to be over. Either way, I can hope that they and I are finished with each other.
I am thinking now like a purely Terran mind, which I admit is somewhat risky since I'm here and not on Earth, but nevertheless the blocks against immigrant thoughts have gone up in my head; reaction, I suppose.
Anyhow, perhaps it's all right for a while, the more so because whether I'm being pushed about by historical forces (as on Earth) or used as a lever by fate (as on Ooranye), I have no choice in either case but to accept the hand I have been dealt.
Yes, in a way the result is the same: things happen; causes are followed by effects. Maybe the Uranian way of looking at things amounts merely to a different mode of expression from that which is used on Earth. Cause and effect must be the same everywhere.
I look back once more at the disassembling grove; it now seems not only further and smaller, but also fuzzier with the dust of activity, which chimes aptly with my feelings, as symbolically I am not sorry to picture the whole thing blurring as it recedes pastwards behind a smokescreen of rationalisation. I am alone and free, and I accelerate for a while, enjoying the emptiness of the plain.
Now that my Terran self has laid claim to be indisputable boss, I can afford to allow dribblets of native knowledge to seep up from the basement, such as, it is the preferred style of the Bostanga Fom to guard the Sunnoad remotely, unobtrusively; they don't crowd him; they leave him space. So their presence does not mean he is close; indeed it is reasonable to assume that he is far from here. That means he is far from me, which suits me well. I cannot be pressurised by fate to become a Corrector if I am nowhere near the Sunnoad.
My compass (or direction/distance indicator, as I suppose it would be called on Earth) tells me that I am 6,000 miles from Skyyon, the Sunward polar city, which I've picked as my next destination. At top speed I could do it in a day - that's to say if I travelled at top speed of 200 m.p.h. for the whole 30 hours of a Uranian day; however to my way of thinking it's seldom advisable to go at top speed for such a length of time. Sure, sometimes I've done it, and the skimmer motor is sufficiently robust to continue for years at full power if need be; the hesitancy is rather a reluctance to attract attention... one might whizz blindly past some clue of a threat impending, and that, I strongly feel, is never a good idea on Ooranye.
I am therefore travelling at half-speed. This gives me time for easy sightseeing as I pass through first notable region since I left the grove of the Bostanga Fom. A very different scattering of plants, this time. Giant windbent flowers, a score or so of them, are nodding their stelliform heads, each twice man-length, maybe thirty yards above me as I skim by. What a beautiful sight, arousing in me a brief wonder at their isolated profusion.
Then on the surrounding gralm I notice some metallic glints. Possibly, or so I judge, it's the litter of an ancient airship crash. I bet that is the origin of the giant flowers. On the Uranian plains the debris of disaster often gives later rise to remarkable growths, unique ecosystems that evolve to feed upon the foreign admixture of trace elements in the ground. And so I, the wandering tourist from Earth, am treated to this fascinating but brief view... As the majestic flowers recede, I find myself counting my extraordinary blessings. It's enough to intoxicate me with gratitude. Just suppose I had remained on Earth and somehow survived the attack on me in that London backstreet, I would be an old man now, or dead; whereas here, having lived a great part of a marvellous second life, I am still in my middle-aged prime, stronger and fitter than I could ever have become as an Earthman.
Next comes what feels like fate's backlash. Some few hundreds of miles later, an awareness comes to me, a sort of jagged prickle as though I am threatened with a crash despite not seeing anything to crash into. I do see something new: more plants, again quite different from what I've seen before. I hear them as well as see them, for they rattle in the wind, reminding me of the swinging saloon doors in Wild West movies. I'm coming into a region of hundreds of them, about man-high, most of them nothing but a short stem above which the slatty part swings to and fro. Those of them which are close together, and have rhythms that don't match, hit each other often, adding to the sounds.
They're becoming noisier as they become more frequent. I slow down, sixty, fifty, forty miles per hour. I start to weave around so as to miss the thickest clumps.
Ahead, I see a low contour, actually two or three small hills, covered in what I've dubbed the slat-plants. Curiosity invites me to nose around. I could steer my way into the hilly bit and out the other side, just taking a brief look... but it might be a sort of trap. But so could anything be a sort of trap. So...
I'm reminded of the need to steer myself as well as the skimmer. Most of the time I feel reasonably accustomed to this world. I'm attracted by its Wayfaring ethos that sets such a high value on adventure and voyaging. And since these aspects of life are valued on Earth too (though Earth provides far fewer opportunities for them), I feel I can prize the Uranian way of things without abandoning the primacy of my Earthly mind-set. Now and then, however, it's not so easy. Here, for example, where a grin of terror threatens to break out around me. So far it's just a sort of a muffled monition, telling me I must open the valve in my mind, sufficiently to let me assimilate another puff of native habits of thought. That way, without completely succumbing to Uranian nature, I can nevertheless sip at it enough to get the strength to endure what my purely Terran self could never manage on its own.
Such a moment is now. I notice a shimmering from a tennis-racket-sized thing, facing me. It's stuck in the ground between me and the small hills. My native self sends me a message: the object is enormously valuable. To get the reason for this I'd have to allow a gush of other stuff to spurt up into my consciousness, and I don't want that. So -
I'll go round. Circle the hills, and start by turning aside from the tennis-racket-thing.
I set my skimmer in motion once more, on my new, swerving course.
Flash! Mere seconds have gone by and all of a sudden the group of hills is gone! Gone as if it had never been. Flat plain is all I see. Shuddering, and without thought of what I'm doing, I pull the lever and halt once more.
I look at that racket-thing again. I've gone far enough to the side of it, that it's no longer facing me. Now quite sensibly my inner voice says, the racket-thing is the creator of an illusion, so that if you're in front of it, you see past it to a landscape that does not really extend in that direction. Maybe it does not exist at all, anywhere; or maybe it is a reflection of the far past, when those hills did exist in that area - hills which have been ground down since.
A short skim in the other direction confirms the idea, that you have to be fairly in front of the racket-thing to see the illusion. Well, what now? I was about to leave this whole area, leave its mysteries which don't concern me, and go on my way. And that still seems like a good idea.
I reach for the starting lever. But now, the inner voice babbles once more.
... you could say he positioned it as a decoy... ...that's to say he placed the chaomattaz [racket-thing] some way off from his workplace, so that intruders approaching from this direction would be satisfied with snatching and making off with it... ...so far nobody has thieved the chaomattaz, but when it does happen, he will either have to find some other spot to work in or find some other decoy to plug this gap in his line of defence against unwelcome callers...
And so on and so on, sentence following sentence with reference to "he", without overtly specifying who "he" is. I can't stop myself from learning that the chaomattaz is one of a class of objects which are so valuable that they can tempt some Uranians to theft. That's a comparatively rare crime on the seventh planet. More disturbing is that "he" is one whose status allows him to choose to surround his workplace with a ring of such artifacts that are each worth a fortune.
Most scary of all, is what I myself am doing right now. Instead of proceeding with my original intention to give the whole area a wide berth, I turn my skimmer to cross the ring and enter the stretch of plain behind and beyond the chaomattaz. What am I about?
I suppose, to be honest, the Bostanga Fom may not have been wrong about me...
But this isn't really a deduction; rather, I'm not so much deducing as permitting the force that carries me along with it to bring out, develop, educe the potential of this time and place. From that sophisticated toy, the chaomattaz, which I now skim past, a portion of the imminent next stage of my life is educed, and another portion likewise from what I next begin to see, namely tracks in the gralm, tracks of a Crawler, scored hither and yon like graffiti on the surface of the plain.
These tracks are of various ages, made, I'd say, over a period of a few hundred days, the older ones more eroded from windblown grains of dust, vegetable debris and loose granules of gralm. Skimming along very slowly now, so as to be able most carefully to examine the aggregations of the culture layer in this area of plain, I note clumpy concentrations of the slat-plants becoming more frequent, closer-packed and taller, and one particular clump further ahead rises into a featureless mass, with, somewhat to one side of it - aha! - a small-model Crawler, looking like a cross between Terran military tank and farm-tractor, resting, apparently abandoned, upon what looks like an ancient junk-pile which has crumbled down to a reduced two-foot swell of rubble... I ponder whether to swerve to examine this, but quickly decide to head straight for the main mass of slat-plants which are resolving as I approach into the more detailed sight of several dark groves, and so I enter among them, and behold, they hide some ramshackle clusters of low buildings, built of parts of slat-plants and - why am I muttering to myself "I told you so"? - parts of crashed skyships.
At this point I stop the skimmer, sink to the ground and get off. I stand, amidst this somewhat gloomy set-up of plants, junk and shed-like structures, asking myself: why do I think it best to go forward on foot? Answer: it's time to get tactful.
In fact the scene is quietly shouting at me to mind my manners, and a wise obedience in me accepts that some bigness looms ahead, in the face of whom I had best forbid myself to get too clever.
Talking of bigness... I see a motion, about a hundred yards in front of me, and as I watch, a creature appears around the corner of a shed, with a sort of fluid metallic twinkle, revealing a body the size of a gas-truck with a cylindrical back and many legs like curved cuts from a pipe, scissoring as they ripple along. The deep growl the thing makes sounds like exrre, exrre, exrre.
It does not swing its hunchy head to look at me; instead it noses on and on, circling a central group of sheds. A phrase, a legendary fragment of lore, wells up from the native depths of my Uranian mind: "Exrre guards the golden one; he radds from place to place." What the verb "to radd" is, I don't know. But anyhow, for some reason the thing does not scare me, and that's a good thing, is it not? Why then am I not too pleased at my lack of fear for this "guard dog"? Is it because I don't like the way I am reserving all my fear for the owner? I suppose so. Oh well. At least I can trust the excavations in my mine-of-a-mind to heave to the surface some considerations of practicality. Ably, at some native level, I piece together clues which would be inadequate to a pure Terran, and while doing so, I walk forward.
The tractor-vehicle is a small-model trading Crawler, rather than the flat-bed titan necessary for large construction work, and my mind leaps from this to the conclusion that what I see has been built without the usual considerations of efficiency during a protracted span of time by one lone recluse, who has the wealth and the status to arrange things how he wants in the place he has chosen...
At last I see it, the nerve-centre of its various outbuildings: the lonely kiosk of the Sunnoad, the Noad of Noads. The size of a cylindrical hut, this unlisted address amidst the thousands of miles of plain between Jaax and Skyyon actually jogs a name in my memory, which proves that I have heard of it: Icohi.
It's a place to leave alone, unless you're pushed there by one heck of an excuse. But isn't the fate of a chance wanderer a sufficient excuse? It ought to be. I shan't turn aside from Icohi.
Probably it's anyway too late to turn aside. The sensors will have spotted me, and it would look too suspicious if I slunk away now. I'll pay my respects and after that I can move on.
Walk towards that modest-looking door...
I'm not there yet but it opens. The golden-cloaked man himself has operated his own front door and is standing on the threshold, and I must cut down on the stupefaction, must call my mental processes to order; for heaven's sake can't I adopt a studied manner and advance coolly? Actually, it seems, that's what I am doing, so, thank goodness, the panic is squashed out of sight, as I stop, waiting for the Noad of Noads to speak first.
"A visitor," says Sunnoad Brem Tormalla, casual yet tight-lipped.
"A datum," say I, "to be ignored or not, as the Sunnoadex chooses."
His face relaxes ever so slightly, which suggests to me that he likes the manner of my reply. He's that same genial, burly man with whom I was briefly acquainted back in the city of Ao about two thousand days ago; why then should I not find it easy to recognize him? His broad features have not changed in any way that would show up on a photograph, except that they're slightly more lined as one would expect in someone who has been transfixed all that time by the status of the world's most vertiginous post. No...
Mostly, the change is subliminal. The old granitic serenity of Brem Tormalla has been weathered by effects which are visible to the mind rather than to the eye. In some fashion, the results of the forced growth, of the expansion of the persona which must happen to a Noad of Noads to enable nen to hold down the job, have poured into my sight of him so that I cannot see him without the overlay of symbolism and the connotations of history, as though everything he says and does must be accompanied by some phosphorescent chorus.
"I'm disinclined to ignore data, so, come in," he says, moving aside.
I dare not refuse; right now the honour had best be accepted, and it would be a huge mistake to spout something inane about not wanting to waste his time. All the same I wish - as I cross the threshold of the kiosk - that I could be inwardly as well as outwardly calm. The fate-wave is so strong I can sort of smell it! Well then, I tell myself, put your trust in Providence rather than in this planet's convoluted paths of destiny...
Er - but no, that won't do. It's not a case of one or the other. Fate, here, is a mere force of nature, not a competitor with Providence. No use playing a priority game between them. It would be like trying, on Earth, to utilise theology against meteorology -
He clicks the door behind me. At the same moment, at a glance, I take in the fact that I am in a circular room, maybe six yards across, that must occupy the whole of the interior of the "hut". It has no windows, but a transparent ceiling lets in the airlight and the meagre sunlight.
Round the wall in three separate arcs run stretches of instrument board from waist to head high, and in the room's centre stands a chart table, likewise round, on which I see luminous dots and lines, some winking quickly, some more slowly, and some with a steady shine.
My eyes play around all this for a second or two and then I turn to look at my host and I see that he, too, is scanning the interior, more intently than I, as though he were anxious to check on the instrument clusters after his attention had wavered for the previous minute...
Then he switches his attention to me.
"I'm glad to have a visitor," he says - and I can't quite read his tone; possibly sardonic, but, beneath, is there a thrill of sincerity? "...Though I can't invite you to sit," he adds, with a gesture around the room, which, indeed, lacks any chair or bench.
"I shan't voice any peeve about that," I reply, "nor will I mind if you have to interrupt my visit at any moment, due to more urgent things." Saying this, I waved at the flashine lights.
"You allude to these telltales," he nodded, "but perhaps you count as a warning-light yourself."
That brings it out into the open! The moment stretches, while I strive my hardest to catch the spirit in which he spoke his words.
"I suppose," I hazard a bit gloomily, "you're saying that a 'visitor' is someone who might do anything."
Sunnoad Brem Tormalla's face relaxed with a reminiscent smile. "You're not an unknown quanitity, Daon Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav, alias Yadon the wanderer," he remarked, "and I am not completely surprised to see you. I have had some reports from the Bostanga Fom and from my own agents, reports which show me that you've been sweeping in lazy curves through Syoom ever since that time, about two thousand days ago, when you entrusted me with the message which you had brought all the way from your Starside city. And most of what I hear, I like. My estimation is that you ought to be a contented man."
Careful, careful. Ought, he says. Go along with the positivity, but leave yourself a loophole...
"So far contented," I agree, "to know that I made the right guess, when I left my data with the man who soon after was elected Sunnoad. No need for regrets, then, as far as that's concerned. As a messenger I was a success."
He stands and rests one hand on the chart table, while his speech probes me, as though I were one of the unpredictable mapped moving lights that encapsulate his mental world... and Heaven help anyone who tries to fool him. I, certainly, don't dare risk it, though I sense how vital it is to put myself in the best light.
"Afterwards, though keeping my ears open, I heard no rumours," I shrug, "of any great preparations to send a skyfleet to Starside to rescue Olhoav from the tyranny of Dempelath."
He prompts: "Say on."
"I cannot presume to say more about it," I shrug again, warily, "except that I count myself immensely fortunate to live the life I love, wandering through this utterly fascinating land of Syoom, and knowing that the hardest questions of policy are entirely your business, Sunnoad sponndar. That's the line to be taken by a happy vagabond such as I."
During my speech, his eyes continually flicker around the room, but when he, in turn, speaks, his voice shows he has been no whit distracted by all the flashing lights. "I detect," he remarks, "a discrepant aspect to your account. The picture of contentment which you have drawn needs revision to accommodate those occasions in which you HAVE been heard to utter expressions of discontent with the way I've appeared to neglect the appeal from Olhoav; expressions which are inconsitent with - "
"No - that is - " I hoarsely cry, appalled at the way his words are pinning me down and appalled equally at my crassness in interrupting the Noad of Noads.
I've stopped my mouth; but is it too late? Not sure. He's wearing that intent look.
"You appear surprised at yourself," says the Noad of Noads. "I, perhaps, can choose for you an explanation, better than you could do for yourself. A thin though far-spread rumour has it that your mind is partly that of an Earthman."
I take permission from his face and tone, to jump ahead in my answer:
"And it's all the harder to talk about, as the distinction between my Terran and Uranian aspects is becoming blurred at their common frontier."
"Mental miscibility," nods the Sunnoad, and all of a sudden his expression breaks into a grin! "You had to think fast on that one," he remarks.
"On the contrary," I breathe in relief, "I didn't think at all. "One has to be extemporaneous in this game."
"The 'game' being...?"
"Fate-ball!" says I with a sudden laugh, and he laughs too, catching my amusement though not, of course, aware of the echo of Terran culture. And it's true that this conversation is flowing on as thrillingly as the best kind of World Cup match, with the added virtue of competing not to "win" but to find the best way to express a truth. Never before during my time on Ooranye have I felt able to speak so frankly about my own dual nature. I find myself commenting: "Even if I had retained my Terran body by travelling physically through space to this world, I would have had to change profoundly to adapt to Uranian conditions. As things are, my physical self is Uranian, and what's Terran in me is merely what's left of my memories, plus that portion of my soul. It's just barely enough to allow me to call myself an Earthman still. I suppose one is allowed to have more than one home."
At my utterance of "home", the Sunnoad, to my brief surprise, assumes a gloomy expression, brooding at the floor. Then he raises his head once more and explains: "I'm not sad about anything, but - " and he jabs at a button, which startles me; I start to hear a faint grinding noise, and sense a gentle vibration under my boots - "you have a particular Uranian home in Olhoav, Starside; and allow me to express some regret that I have not, so far, answered the call for help which you brought me from that city."
I'm amazed, flummoxed! Can it be that I have just heard a Sunnoad apologizing? That's how it sounds, and so astonishing it is, that of necessity my insight expands and I get hints, from what I know of history in concert with what I see of the bareness and lack of ornament in this control room, of that life of homeless dedication which the world's loftiest rank can bring.
Again with a casual gesture he jabs at a button and I hear the soft grind and feel the faint tremble in the floor. With an absent air, he does it a third time.
Meanwhile, as I stand in thought, he turns, he takes a few steps around the chart table, bends as if reaching down to a side-drawer, straightens up...
"I still have these, of course."
His words jolt me, in combination with the sight of what he holds in his hands, one object in each hand: the glowing message-crystal which was brought to me at the hands of the messenger from Dynoom, and the artefact called the "stupp" which I purloined in my raid upon the Husnuth. I crossed half a world to bring them to him; I desperately hope that he's not going to give them back!
"Yes," he continues, "here they are, summoning our memories of that room where Sunnoad Arad Thastu 80436 lay dying. I owe you, though, for more than these."
Curse my wobbliness; whatever he says is apt to make me jump, not visibly I hope, but at any rate internally; must get used to it I suppose...
I say, "Indeed, Sunnoad Sponndar?"
"Upon investigation," he explains, "I found that before leaving Ao you took action against one Tem Talfarn, who had been about to use some Fyayman gadget to inflluence the thuzolyr-election. In other words if you had not acted as you did, I might not be wearing this cloak."
This time I can think of a solid reply. "Ifs abound, Sunnoad Sponndar. Ifs without end. I stopped Talfarn and that makes me one, just one, of a world-full of factors which lead to the outcome recorded by history."
Carefully thus I dilute the suggestion of my importance, so as to counter the suggestion that he owes me a lot, and I make this careful move because it occurs to me that it may be just as dangerous to be owed as to owe, at this height... gosh I'm being so terribly strategic here... striving to match wits with the Noad of Noads on the assumption that if I fail to do so, he'll be sure to change his mistake into an advantage at my expense... but this is crazy: who am I to resist his fate-wave? Why is my mind working in this fashion, as though I believe I should and can control this situation -
Oh, look - stuff is happening: events have not ceased to take place while my thoughts steam around in my head. I just at that moment saw the Sunnoad reach to flip a switch in response to a beep from some tell-tale on the bank of lights which circles the room. Now he pulls another switch. Maybe he's put something on hold. Now he is returning his attention to me; yes I do believe he did just then put something on hold, choosing to prioritize sorting out the question of his supposed dereliction of duty in the matter of Olhoav.
He says with deliberation, catching my eye: "I think I shall show you a sample of business here."
This time he reverses the switch. I hear a sudden groaning rumble. It comes to me forcibly, what he has been quietly doing for some minutes past, for the blank areas in the circumference of this 'Kiosk' are, I now see, all three of them doors, sliding open as I watch; to my bewilderment they are giving not onto open ground but onto covered walks. I blink and stare, forcing myself to accept what I see. It has all been slickly done. Doubtless for some reason to do with security these protected walks can be raised in next to know time at the press of a switch, but where do they lead?
Brem Tormalla brushes past me with the air of someone who has made up his mind. Without turning his head he gestures for me to follow.
I could refuse. No - that would never do. And what's more, I must go along with his purpose.
Like in the old courts of Earth you had to back out of a ruler's presence because etiquette forbade you to turn your back on him, so here what I'm not allowed to do is to disagree. If he wants to say he made a mistake, I must agree he's right. Even though if he's right now it means he was wrong before.
I stride in his wake down the cloche-like through-way towards...an arched entrance into a humming brightness.
More instruments, more lights, and a huge curved glowing screen impact upon my awareness. The room is shaped like one-third of an observatory-dome; in plan it's a 120-degree sector, the arc of which is occupied by that screen which leans over our view as we stand before it.
I suspect, how I do not know, that this was all built by one man. The gleams of metal, the plastic coamings and the offsets and minor irregularities suggest to me the work of one individual, who can only be Brem Tormalla. In this conclusion I trust the judgement of my native under-self.
If only my instinct could help me answer the question, was he wrong before or is he wrong now? Then comes a whisper from deep inside me... perhaps it's not "either-or".
Now as he punches more swtiches the man remarks, confirming the hunch I had a moment ago:
"I built all this from the wreck of a grounded skyship, the Niom Krarb. It's good to have a hobby, you see, especially if it's a useful one... Now let's see - "
Snap goes another switch. "That's the locking collar," comments the Sunnoad. "Just in case this place has to turn into more of a fort... let's hope that never happens. Then he explains to me more, and more, but I cease to take in his disquisitions because they're drowned out by the question, Why is he telling me all this? As though I might need to know one day! Impossible to believe that; so it must be the other explanation: all this sharing is by way of apology; he is honouring me as compensation for having failed to act in the matter of Olhoav.
He's waiting for something to show up on that screen. Dare I speak up? Dare I stay silent?
I seek to grab his attention: "The swirls of fate, Sunnoad Sponndar!"
"What about them?" he asks, not looking round.
"They concentrate so densely around the wearer of the golden cloak," I say, "that nen never does make a real mistake."
But as soon as I say this I seem to hear a ghost from Earth, named Thomas Jefferson, mutter, 'Let history answer this question'. And with regard to Uranian history I remember what I know of Sunnoads Fiarr Fosn and Tu Rim. Rare cases, to be sure; but when they go wrong, they go vastly wrong. That's the way of catastrophe. So now I'm getting it wrong.
Anyhow, he's not listening! Instead he peers at some read-out and says to me with a kind of brisk entreaty, "Watch this, Yadon! I'm getting the pre-arranged signal at last, from Byndin Ghelanver, Noad of Toolv."