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The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:
Stop being so jumpy, I chide myself. A dark plain and a stand of drunken-looking trees a half-mile off, but no visible enemy. Peaceful enough, for me to bivouac here for the night.
I realize, however, that for one moment my fingers had strained as though to point my laser at one of those scrawny, leafless growths which clutch at the sky.
In fact, I heard the actual click, meaning I made more than just an abortive grab at my holstered sponnd: I got as far as to snick the catch on the weapon, setting it for bolt-mode, for distance combat.
Momentarily, as the saying goes, I was "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, in both directions: hundreds of thoughts and habits smearing their way through my awareness until by now I suspect I'm developing a hybrid Terro-Uranian 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... that figure of speech from card-play, "the hand I've been dealt", though a thoroughly Terran metaphor, can temptingly snuggle into conditions here: the hands dealt by fates, all tangled and meshed together like the weather-systems of Earth.
Still, that "weather" is more purposive here. It allows the individual's will, if he's co-operative, to contribute something from his own puny strength.
Or am I fooling myself? Does it amount to the same, in the end, on both worlds? Sometimes that's what I think and feel, whenever it seems that I can no more influence a fate-current here than a swipe of my arm could have diverted a meteorological tempest back on Earth.
In these moods I sadly fear that my growing reputation, which swirls and packs onto me to glisten like frost, is a role I've been handed, not earned, because whatever I do seems to splash and then encrust me with another coating of legend, another spattering of undeserved fame.
Thank goodness Syoom is wide, with four hundred million square miles 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. Are they frowning at me? The fanciful thought may have its uses: 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...
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 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". And what does the ensemble signify? I neither need nor wish to know. Quite an un-Earthly attitude of mine, that!
One of the immigrant notions that have strayed over the border into my Terran identity, is that ignorance is power. It's something that I've learned to believe in during my life here: the valuable insight that you are less likely to get pulled into a trap if you insulate yourself from its meaning.
For if, instead, you strive to understand, you may get pulled into a game you don't want to play, a series of reflexes and reactions which will end with you sucked into the current of somebody else's plot; whereas they can't do that to you if you refuse to know what it's all about!
Nevertheless, while avoiding that game, I can put my own gloss on things.
For a start, I respect those guard-towers. I shan't retreat from them, for whoever's there will have seen me by now, or at any rate they'll have seen the gleam of my skimmer's whitish-silver porrang hull, and it could well be safer for me to go on than to go back, though whithersoever I look I see sufficient cause for wariness, with the skittish rawness of nerves that comes to
me often on this giant planet. Others, apparently, see in me an outward calm. Let that become true! Let the outward calm seep inwards! Perhaps eventually I'll become as cool a customer as I am reputed to be.
Meanwhile, here goes.
Having tidied up and removed all trace of my night's bivouac, I mount my skimmer, and nudge the steering lever to set off at slow speed.
I aim to ride past the central group of "tree-towers", skirting them at a moderate distance of a few hundred yards. Veering further might look too much like sneaky evasion; closer in, my track could be viewed as impertinent defiance. Every second, I'm watching carefully. This area seems like (the weird phrase comes to mind) an ungenerous zone.
I'm almost level with the shapes when I see, from a spot up in the "branches", a white cushiony thing undulate into view. It's too big to have have been occluded 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... but what is it doing here, oozing among the towers?
It floats into fuller view, detaches completely from its base about fifteen yards up, and starts to slide through the air. I decelerate and turn my skimmer, to keep the thing in my sight as it turns to trace an orbit around the stand of towers.
The thing's swerving flank brings into my view a discolouration, a brown-black indentation, a bruise which throbs on a five-second pulse. I halt, hover and stare.
The timing of this horrid Bruised Cloud's arrival suggests to me that it's employed in a morning patrol. Like a sentry and dog on their round guarding some compound on Earth. Fanciful though such an analogy may be, I quite often have to sustain myself with imagery of this sort, in my effort to make sense of life on Ooranye.
Having stood my ground for some moments, I decide that 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, a plop and a fizzle as something lands on the plain ahead of me.
The message is as clear as any "shot across the bows" can be.
Should - can - I lunge off at full speed? Foolishness. I'm neither a desperate nor a guilty man. Whoever's in that guard-tower, since he wants to stop me I must allow it; this is his patch and he may have the right of it.
I turn my skimmer, cause it to descend to a low half-yard altitude, 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 aren't completely unknown but they tend to be noticeable, if at all, for reasons other than the interruption of the far sun's feeble light. Ooranye's daytime airglow, ubiquitous and pervasive, naturally seeps around every object, with the result that outside objects are illuminated from all sides, and therefore a Uranian landscape is in the style of an impressionist painting dominated by colour, rather than that of Renaissance-style chiaroscuro shapes. Yet here, as I enter the grove of guard-towers, I perceive some definite shadow. Though mild, 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's not a case of such plant-hugging cloaks; it seems a more general diffusion of shade.
I meawhile begin to detect the sussurous tracery of a fence-plant. You see them occasionally around dwellings on the plains; this one surrounds the bole of the central guard-tower. Despite its warning whisper, I've no doubt that I'll be provided with a way through. Sure enough, as I plod on, I see a ripple shake the fence, and now some of its dark green strands have parted. It's an invitation which I ought to accept; when I reach that point, I shall walk through.
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.
Next, a door opens in the bole of the central tower. All right then... I squeeze in.
And immediately shoot upwards! Straight upwards. This must be wrong. Because of the tower's contorted shape I had been 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 if subjected to the anticipated corkscrew ascent. My fed-up intellect asks, isn't all this 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 ordinarily I wouldn't tolerate a floor that's so see-through that you feel you're suspended fifty yards up in the air, and, what's more, so flimsy that it ought to be heaving in the breeze like the deck of a ship -
Only, it isn't. 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, are swaying, 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 that was used, just now, to make the ascent through the twisted tower seem straight.
This immigrant thought, which (to be fair) is helpful, trickles up through the horizontal barrier I'm furiously trying to maintain between my consciousness mind and the vast alien archive lurking below it. Must stop grinding my teeth... They're staring at me, those two Uranians, and I stare back. Unusually for the inhabitants of this world they wear no cloaks but shiny-plated tunics and helmets, though I notice the ubiquitous cloaks aren't far away - thrown over the back of the chair. They hold their lasers, resting them 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. Even the woman looks fanatical, like a younger and prettier Madame Defarge. It is possible that somewhere in my brain is the knowledge of who they are.
One thing I can tell: they are obvious chirrs, vigilees: folk whose work is done entirely in a state of full awareness 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.
No third chair is available, so I can't complain that I'm not invited to sit...
"I am Sol Ostobon," the man speaks harshly, "and this is my wife Zadrun Mok. We are of the Bostanga Fom, which gives us the right to detain you, 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. Re-attached to that base, it deflates rapidly, until within seconds it is no more than a discolouration on the tower.
"I am Yadon, a homeless wanderer," I reply.
They're looking at me, expectantly. I haven't yet said where I come from. Any chance they'll not ask? I notice they were watching my reaction to their funny cloud. Perhaps they can guess that I'm a stranger to Syoom. To stress my vagabond status, I add: "I live off the land, or by contractual Wayfaring."
"We thought so," says Sol Ostobon. "So - we meet at last, Starsider."
He makes a sign to his wife as if to say, Keep him covered... and she, understanding, turns the tip of the laser she's holding in her lap, so that it points to me.
Oh heavens - this "come in Mr Bond, we've been expecting you" stuff shows that all they had to do is wait for the fate-lines to bunch their coincidences their way. So the needle in the haystack is caught, despite Syoom being eight times the land area of the Earth.
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," he says, "cover several pages. Here are some recent 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 need be, pre-emptively."
Despite my previous determination not to comprehend, I sadly grasp the situation. The memory comes back, 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," replies Sol Ostobon without hesitation.
It's no good pretending I don't see the point. I reply:
"You wish me to name my accomplices? 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..."
An 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 Corrected," I say.
"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.
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 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 for a long time, carelessly creating the wrong impression on a world which, lacking laws, is networked instead 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.
"Actually you needn't worry," I assure him; "I have not the slightest intention to become a Corrector. Having read some history I'm well aware that the role is just about the most dangerous which anyone can play. Death and ignominy are the penalty for failure, and I'm not crazy enough to take that risk."
He slowly shakes his head, 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 - I am going to find out what awaits on the other side of death's door -
"Stop!" says the woman. She now has her own laser pointed at her husband.
"Zadrun! What - ?"
"The Starsider may be on a destined path."
"What do you mean, by the Skies?"
"He could really be a Corrector!"
Not all my past life, only one fragment of memory flashes into my mind: I'm 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, an aeroplane happens to fly overhead, and, at the noise of it, some in the audience chuckle at the incongruity.
Back to the present: I sense a droning overhead, not a real sound this time, but something that presses down on one's Uranian senses.
Sol Ostobon feels it too; his suddenly pursed-up mouth and the too-and-fro flicker of his eyes are those of someone having second thoughts; his eyes come to rest on mine and he reads the recognition of the same truth that I simultaneously read in his.
"I dare not shoot," he admits. "My wife may have seen a reason to trust you."
He lowers the point of his laser, and I vow henceforth that I shall never more resist the immigrant thoughts in my skull.
Neither of us mention the 'overhead thing', the fate-wave, the intensity of 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, to 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, an undignified scrimmage would have been a poor swap for higher-grade salvation.
The overhead sound-that-wasn't-a-sound has meanwhile flown by, leaving us with a dreamlike sense which causes speech to falter. I'm sure that Zadrun and Sol, same as I, feel that our preoccupations and ambitions have paled by contrast with the mighty wave.
"Now that it is decided, Starsider Yadon," Zadrun Mok's voice bites into the silence, "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; "no thank you; I work alone; let Nuruk stay here; truly, I'm better relying on myself."
Zadrun with an acidic smile says, "I believe you, Yadon, having noted the speed of your decision! Very well, Nuruk stays."
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, but just to make sure I spread a 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?" With that, I reach the elevator door, it opens, I step in, and down it goes.
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, down on the ground at last, 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 they were in to pack itself away. Chattering up from my subconscious store of Uranian knowledge comes a new surge of immigrant explanations, hinting that some key units had been lifted off a genuine organic grove years ago, and now - 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 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 again gone up in my head; reaction against the past few seconds, I suppose.
Perhaps it's all right for a while, to block it all off. 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 I am not sorry to picture the whole thing blurring as it recedes 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 once more 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; however to my way of thinking it's seldom advisable to go at top speed for such a length of time. Sometimes I've done it, and the skimmer motor is sufficiently robust to continue for years at full power if need be; my hesitancy is due to a reluctance to attract attention. To whizz blindly past some clue of a threat impending is, I strongly feel, never a good idea on Ooranye.
I am therefore travelling at half-speed. This gives me time for easy sightseeing as I pass through a notable region of giant windbent flowers, 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 wonder at their isolated profusion.
Then some metallic glints on the gralm - possibly the litter of an ancient airship crash - hint to me the origin of the giant flowers. On the Uranian plains the debris of disaster can give later rise to remarkable growths. Many a unique ecosystem has evolved to feed upon a 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, my mind wanders into counting my extraordinary blessings. 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 fate's backlash. A sort of jagged prickle of awareness, promising to sink my heart. It is as though, despite not seeing anything to crash into, I know I am about to collide. With what?
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; hundreds of them now, man-high, each of them just a stem above which the slatty part swings to and fro. Those which are close together, and have rhythms that don't match, thwack each other often. They're becoming noisier as they become more frequent. I slow down to sixty, fifty, forty miles per hour, and start to weave around so as to avoid the clumps.
Ahead, I see a few low covered in these slat-plants. Curiosity invites me to steer through the valley between, and somehow I'm reminded 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), I feel I can prize the Uranian way of things without abandoning my Earthly mind-set. Now and then, however, it's not so easy; here for example where the view threatens to break into a grin of terror. So far it's a muffled monition, telling me I must open a valve in my mind, to assimilate another puff of native mentality. That way, without completely succumbing, I can nevertheless sip at what's needed, enough to get the strength which my purely Terran self could never provide.
Such a moment is now. A shimmering from a tennis-racket-sized thing, stuck in the ground, facing me, arouses an instinct which tells me that the object is enormously valuable. But to get the reason 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. Just avoid it. The thing stands between me and the small hills, so I'll veer around and circle the hills, instead of passing through. Thus my path will shun 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 hills are gone, gone as if they had never been, and flat plain is all I see! Shuddering, without coherent thought, I pull the lever and halt once more.
I look again at that racket-thing which, now that I've gone far enough to the side, is no longer facing me. Quite sensibly my inner voice says, the object must be the creator of an illusion, such 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, passing by its mysteries which don't concern me, 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. Raiders approaching from this direction would be satisfied with snatching and making off with it... ...though so far nobody has thieved the chaomattaz. Anyhow, 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...
And so on and so on, sentence following sentence with reference to "he", without overtly specifying who "he" is, except that it is somebody who, to decoy unwelcome callers, uses the chaomattaz, despite or rather because of its value, which is so great as to tempt some Uranians to theft: a rare crime on the seventh planet. "He", therefore, is one whose status allows him to choose to surround his workplace with a ring of such artifacts that are each worth a fortune.
That's disturbing enough, but 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 penetrate the stretch of plain behind and beyond the chaomattaz. What am I about?
I suppose the Bostanga Fom may not have been wrong about me.
I'm 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, the imminent next stage of my life is educed, and then the next, likewise, from what I 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 were made, I'd say, over a period of a few hundred days, the older ones more eroded than the newer from the 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 culture layer in this area of plain, I note clumpy concentrations of the slat-plants becoming closer-packed and taller, and one particular clump further ahead rises into a featureless mass. Somewhat nearer and to one side of it a small-model Crawler rests, looking like a cross between Terran military tank and farm-tractor. It has apparently been abandoned upon what looks like an ancient junk-pile which has crumbled down to a two-foot swell of rubble.
I keep an eye on it as I skim past, heading for the main mass of slat-plants which resolves as I approach into several dark groves. I enter among them, determined now to face what is here, since I have come so far in.
Behold, here are 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 which seem to have been patched up and arranged into buildings.
At this point I stop the skimmer, sink to the ground and get off. I stand, amidst this somewhat gloomy set-up of junk-like structures, warning myself to get tactful.
In fact the scene is quietly shouting at me to mind my manners, and in me a wise obedience accepts.
I detect motion, about a hundred yards in front of me, and a creature has appeared around the corner of a shed. With a fluid metallic twinkle it reveals 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 reverberating growl the thing makes sounds like exrre, exrre, exrre.
Its hunchy head noses on and on, circling a central group of sheds. A phrase, a fragment of contemporary 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 yet; is this because I am reserving all my fear for the "guard-dog's" owner? Oh well, at least I can trust the excavations in my head to heave up some practical considerations. At some able native level I piece together clues which would be inadequate to a pure Terran, and, so doing, 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 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.
Probably it's anyway. The sensors will have spotted me, and it would look too suspicious if I slunk away now. I'll pay my respects to the Sunnoad 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. I must cut down on the stupefaction at seeing him wait on the threshold; must call my mental processes to order; adopt a studied manner and advance coolly? Actually that's what I am doing, thank goodness. Panic is squashed out of sight. I halt and wait for him to speak first.
"A visitor," says Sunnoad Brem Tormalla, tight-lipped.
"A datum," say I, "to be ignored or not as the Sunnoadex chooses."
His face relaxes in friendly appreciation of my reply. "I'm disinclined to ignore data, so come in," he says, moving aside.
He's that same genial, burly man with whom I was briefly acquainted back in the city of Ao about two thousand days ago. His broad features have not changed in ways 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. But mostly the change is subliminal, and I get it jammed all at once into my awareness that the old granitic serenity of Brem Tormalla has now been overspread by that expansion of the persona which must happen to a Noad of Noads to enable nen to hold down the job, so that I can no longer see him without the overlay of symbolism. The man is shrouded in the connotations of history, so that the jovial effect of his welcome is drowned in some phosphorescent chorus.
Right now the honour of the visit had best be accepted; it would be a huge mistake to spout something inane about not wishing to waste his time. All the same I wish - as I cross the threshold of the kiosk - that the fate-wave was not so smelly-strong! Well then, I tell myself, put your trust in Providence rather than in this planet's convoluted paths of destiny... 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 pit 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 wave at the flashing lights.
"You allude to these telltales," he nods, "but perhaps you count as a warning-light yourself."
That brings it out into the open. The moment stretches.
"I suppose," I hazard gloomily, "the Bostanga Fom has warned you about me."
I see a reminiscent smile grow upon Sunnoad Brem Tormalla's face. He remarks, "You're not an unknown quanitity, Daon Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav, alias Yadon the wanderer, and I am not terribly surprised to see you. I have had some reports from the Bostanga Fom," he acknowleges, "and from my own agents, who have tracked you as you sweep your lazy curves through Syoom. In fact, never have I entirely forgotten your existence since that occasion about two thousand days ago when you entrusted me with the message which you had brought all the way from your Starside city. Most of what I hear, I like, and even envy; my estimation is that you should be a contented man."
Leave yourself a loophole, I warn myself.
"So far contented," I agree, "to know that as a messenger I made the right guess, leaving my data with the man who soon after was elected Sunnoad. No need for regrets as far as that's concerned."
"And afterwards?" He rests one hand on the chart table, while his speech probes me as though I were one of the moving lights on his maps. Heaven help me if I try to fool him; yet how vital it is to put on my best show!
I answer: "My active part was finished."
"But you must have kept your ears open."
"For rumours, Sunnoad Sponndar?"
He nods. "Regarding the purport of your message. Regarding what is being done."
"I have heard no rumours," I shrug, "of any great preparations to send a skyfleet to Starside to rescue Olhoav from the tyranny of Dempelath."
"Say on. Your attitude to this...?"
"I cannot presume to say more about it," I speak warily, "except that I count myself immensely fortunate to live the life I love, the life of a happy vagabond, wandering through this utterly fascinating land of Syoom. I'd be less happy did I not well understand that the hardest questions of policy are entirely your business, Sunnoad sponndar, and not mine."
His eyes flicker around the room, but, no whit distracted by all the flashing lights, he replies in a steady voice: "I detect 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 my apparent neglect of the appeal from Olhoav."
"No - that is - " Is it too late?
"You appear surprised at yourself," says he.
"Surprised at my own crassness," I say, "in Uranian terms."
"Ah yes, we detect an exculpation here. I know the thin though far-spread rumour, that your mind is partly that of an Earthman."
"And it's all the harder to talk about," I babble, "as the distinction between my Terran and Uranian personae is becoming blurred at their common frontier."
"Mental miscibility," nods the Sunnoad, and his expression breaks into a grin. "You had to think fast on that one."
"One has to be extemporaneous in this game," I grin back.
"The 'game' being...?"
"Fate-ball!" says I with a sudden laugh. He laughs too, catching my amusement though he can't possibly know anything 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 to express a truth. I can't remember ever being able to speak so frankly as this, concerning my dual nature. In wonder and relief I further trace out my thoughts: "Even if I had retained my Terran body by travelling through space physically to this world, I would have had to change profoundly to adapt. As things are, my mind travelled alone; my physical self is perfectly Uranian, and what's Terran in me is just what's left of my memories, plus that side of my soul. Enough - barely - to allow me to call myself an Earthman still."
"But you are equally a native of this world."
"One is allowed to have more than one home."
At my utterance of "home", the Sunnoad, to my brief surprise, assumes a gloomy expression. He broods at the floor. Then he raises his head and jbs at a button, which startles me; I hear a faint grinding noise, and sense a gentle vibration under my boots - "Regarding your particular Uranian home in Olhoav, Starside, allow me to express some regret that I have not, so far, answered the call for help which you brought me from that city."
Can it be that I have just heard a Sunnoad apologizing?
That's how it sounds, for certainly I heard the words aright. So, of necessity, my insight expands and - from what I know of history and from this unornamented control room - I get hints of that life of homeless dedication which the world's loftiest rank can bring.
Again with a casual gesture he jabs at another button. I hear another soft grind and feel the faint tremble in the floor. With an absent air he presses with his finger a third time.
Then 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."
What he holds, causes a tremor as past is knitted to present in the depths of my being: in his right hand the glowing message-crystal which was brought to me at the hands of the messenger from Dynoom; in his left, the artefact called the "stupp" which I purloined in my raid upon the Husnuth.
I crossed half a world to bring those things to him. I desperately hope that he's not going to hand them back to me now.
"Yes," he continues, "here they are. They summon memories, do they not?"
"Memories..." I murmur.
"Of that room where 80436 lay dying. I owe you, Yadon."
Curse my wobbliness; whatever he says is apt to make me jump. Must focus, must be sharp, must note every detail. Like the way he refers to his predecessor Sunnoad Arad Thastu 80436 by her number alone, that's to say her place in the sequence of the sunnoadex; maybe that's the style in which I should address Brem Tormalla, calling him 80437, rather than "Sunnoad Sponndar".
"Indeed, Sunnoad Sponndar?" (So much for that; I can't bring myself to sound so demeaningly dry to call a man by a number. Yet that's Terran thinking.)
"Upon investigation," he explains, "I found that before leaving Ao you took action against one Tem Talfarn."
"Yes, that's true, because - "
80437 holds up a hand. "He 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. To repeat: I owe you, Yadon."
"Ifs abound, Sunnoad Sponndar. Ifs without end. I stopped Talfarn and that makes me one, just one, of a world-full of factors in your rise."
Carefully thus I dilute the suggestion of my importance, so as to counter the suggestion that he owes me a lot - because it occurs to me that at this height of things it could be just as dangerous to be owed as to owe.
I'm being 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 redefine his dereliction of duty into an advantage at my expense. But this is crazy: who am I to resist his fate-wave?
Stuff is happening: 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 reverses another switch, perhaps putting something on hold, and catching my eye he says: "I must show you a sample of business here."
This time I hear a groaning rumble, and it comes to me forcibly that the blank areas in the circumference of this 'Kiosk' are all three of them doors. They slide open as I watch. What's this? To my bewilderment they are giving not onto open ground but onto covered walks. I must accept what I see; it has been slickly done. It appears, doubtless for some reason to do with security, that these protected walks can be raised in almost no time at the press of a switch. Where do they lead? Brem Tormalla brushes past me and without turning his head he gestures for me to follow.
I could refuse. No - that would never do.
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; here, in a way, the contortion is more difficult still, for I shan't be able to avoid disagreeing one way or the other, since if he's right now he must have been wrong before...
I stride in his wake down a cloche-like way towards an arch, through which I pass into a humming brightness.
Among more instruments, more lights, a curved glowing screen dominates my awareness. The room's floor is a 120-degree sector, and the wall's arc is largely filled by that screen, which leans over us as we stand before it.
My guess is, the entire installation was built by one man - by this man. The fused plastic coamings, the offsets and minor irregularities, suggest to me the work of one individual. So judges my native under-self. If only my instinct could go further. If only it could help me answer the question: was he wrong before or is he wrong now? Then comes a deep whisper from within me: perhaps it's not "either-or".
Punching switches, the man remarks, confirming one of my hunches:
"I built all this from the wreck of a grounded skyship, the Niom Krarb. It's good to have a hobby." Snap goes another switch. "There goes the locking collar. Just in case this place has to turn into a fort."
He explains some more, but I cease to take in his disquisitions, for they're drowned out by the question: Why is he telling me all this?
As though I might ever need to know! It must be, that he is simply honouring me in this way as compensation for having failed to act in the matter of Olhoav.
My thoughts lurch this way and that. Dare I speak up while he's waiting for something to show up on that screen? Alternatively, dare I stay silent? With a spasm of the will I speak:
"The swirls of fate, Sunnoad Sponndar!"
"What about them?" he asks without turning his head.
"They press so thick around the wearer of the golden cloak," I say, "that nen never does make a real mistake. Decisions may seem like mistakes at the time, but..."
But now I seem to hear a ghost from Earth. It is Thomas Jefferson, muttering, 'Let history answer this question'. And with regard to Uranian history I recollect that Sunnoads Fiarr Fosn and Tu Rim went vastly wrong. Rare cases - but that's the way of catastrophe. (Did I hear him chuckle just then, when I said "never does make a real mistake"? Anyhow, he's no longer listening.)
He turns to me. "Watch this, Yadon!" he says briskly. "I'm getting the pre-arranged signal from Byndin Ghelanver, Noad of Toolv."
I automatically step back, as light blazes in my face. I see the Sunnoad limned against the image of a beautiful woman. She has flashed into magnified view on the screen, and her glory towers over us. Even in a world in which everyone is handsome by average Terran standards, this lady excels, brooding haughtily in her high-ranking solitude as she sits wrapped in furs which match her grey-caramel skin.
They've begun to speak to each other and I'm losing track - I can distinguish the words if I make the effort, but particular drops of meaning are hard to distil from the downpour of impressions. I gather that the conversation began with an exchange of courtesies whereby the Sunnoad thanked the Noad for reporting and she thanked him for his interest in her city's problem. Which is what? I can't fathom it. Now she's interlacing her fingers and leaning forward to say something desperate, and I don't get any of it, but the Sunnoad does.
He straightens and says:
"What we know, is that the flomquaz is closing in on a spiral."
"Indeed it is, Sunnoad Sponndar; but at least it has not yet begun to smile."
"We can at least be thankful for that, anyway," Brem Tormalla answers, and I grimly note that I've got the comprehension level about right here; that's to say, I have not the faintest idea what they are talking about, and that's fine with me.
But this is not altogether true. I am developing a sketchy feel about it. The words bring me an idea of the "flomquaz" as a mountainous spherical monster which rolls forward threatening to "smile" a nightmarish, arc-shaped rent in its surface. Shudders shake my frame, but next I become aware that the great screen has gone blank. Whew! The interview is over. I wonder if the Noad of Toolv was at all satisfied with it.
Well, it was standard stuff, I suppose; all in the day's work for Sunnoad Brem Tormalla. Wiping away the sweat from my forehead I repeat to myself my own big question: am I merely being honourably shown a glimpse of the golden-cloaked man at work, or am I (far more direly) being trained?
Another big picture blazes on the screen, but rather than concentrate on it my memory keeps clinging to the sight of the beautiful Noad Byndin Ghelanver of Toolv, her pouting self-possession, her vulnerable power. I dig into my knowledge of the world. The city of Toolv, my education tells me, has a unique constitution: its Noad is always a woman, and just below her in rank are the Four Hundred Lords, all male. Interesting, but I really must switch off from her and onto the new screen-image.
Its viewpoint is hovering outside a mighty geodesic dome, through the panes of which I can glimpse something huge flapping inside. In a voice-over, a man's voice is debating with the Sunnoad. I catch some names: Trarral Htem, Noad of Jaax; and the dome is called the "wjait"; the giant bird inside it, the "paom". The whole lot nevertheless seems metaphorical rather than real. How that could be, I can't grasp; a thing is either real or it isn't, surely? I catch a place-name, "Htem". That means it's real, does it not?
Flick! Another picture! No time to finish puzzling over the last one! Blocky cliffs now confront me, with saurian forms spread-eagled against them. This third scene gives rise to more chatter, the Sunnoad now exchanging comments with someone he addresses as "Wayfarer Alom Tharro", who mentions "the Abutments of Mezenk" where the "Ghardinu" must decide how far to trust the "preceptor of klorr" with regard to the "metamorphism of trarral". I thank the Lord for the merciful truth that all this stuff is nothing to do with me.
Certainly this is a fascinating world, but there are limits to what I can take in; hence my gratitude that it's not my job to do so. Yet, thankful as I am for my non-involvement, I'm starting to feel rebelliously grumpy about the pushy throng of mysteries.
The light dims; the pictures vanish; the transmissions, the reports, the updates are over. I catch the Sunnoad's eye and I sense to my surprise that the grumpiness is not mine alone; he has a slightly crabby look.
"It's hard, hard," he mutters, shaking his head. The next moment I see him straighten up; he's putting some sort of plug in his ear.
He makes a call on a different, minor screen. I hear the word "captain". He's talking to the control room of a skyship, it seems. His tone is easier, relaxing the atmosphere somewhat from the intensity which pervaded a short while back. So then why did he say that it was "hard, hard"?
Maybe it was a hint to me of an apology and an excuse, blaming the hail of input to the sunnoadex as what has prevented him from helping Olhoav. Well, the excuse is good enough, is it not? Why should this juggler give priority to a plea from a remote Starside city?
Now he clicks off that communicator and turns to me. "What do you think of it all so far, Yadon?"
I say, "I'm almost speechless, 80437."
He lifts ironic brows and remarks, "That may be because you're wondering exactly how Noads Byndin Ghelanver and Trarral Htem, and Wayfarer Alom Tharro, are the better for having conferred with me."
"No, that was not in my mind at all," I truthfully reply.
"Good, you're raising my hopes, that the fluid grasp of situational logic which we Uranians call renl is part of your armoury too... Earthman."
I dare to correct him:
"Pick and choose the best of both worlds, then! Use the amalgam to read your mental barograph!"
"But, 80437 sponndar, I am only a wanderer. I used to be a Daon, but can hardly even claim that any more."
He waves this aside. "Now listen, Yadon. You've seen me offer help and moral support to some of my people who are under pressure. I want you to do the same for some other folk whom I am currently too busy to reach. Will you do this?"
I consider, and discard, various prevarications.
"Who are these people you wish me to help, Sunnoad Sponndar?"
"Recent immigrants to Syoom. Currently at the periphery. The Grardesh border patrols spotted them, and notified Noad Amnen Narsh of Vyanth, since his is the closest city to the newcomers, but although Amnen Narsh, while reporting the matter to me, offered to help, I reckon - for reasons I shan't specify today - that you're the man for the task. Captain Tak Valakar of the Zeztul has agreed to take you most of the way to the encampment."
"Immigrants? From where?" say I, to make sure I heard aright; for though the word exists here it is not often used.
With a tightening of the mouth the Sunnoad answers: "From Fyaym; it happens now and then. And it can transpire that the people have had experiences which... well, you, Starsider and part Earthmind, stand as good a chance as anyone..."
"A chance to do what?"
"Plough your own furrow."
I smile at how the idiom exists on both worlds. And as a job description, it's the sort I like best; anyhow, one can't refuse the wearer of the golden cloak.
Up in the skyship and looking down, I keep doing double-takes. I'm out, I'm out, my mind exclaims. Escaped without humiliation. I did all right, yes really I actually did converse with the Noad of Noads without disgrace to my equilibrium.
Nor did I boggle too much as the platform floated down to fetch me. Or as it then carried me up into the Zeztul.
Well, well, my poise (for what that's worth) is so far preserved. I dare say I shouldn't care so much; what would a little loss of dignity matter? But if word has got around so generally that I possess the consciousness of an Earthman, then perhaps for the sake of my former home planet, if not for myself, it is natural for me to wish to preserve some scraps of the reputation which I have somehow acquired as a resourceful, fate-favoured wanderer.
Captain Tak Valakar greeted me kindly and showed me the settings for the vision sensors in this alcove of the control room, so that at the touch of a button I can see all around, as if dangling in clear air underneath the skyship.
Actually he needn't have shown me. Skyship design has remained mostly unchanged for thousands of lifetimes, since Uranian culture has outgrown technological fidgets, and so virtually anyone on this world knows a control room like nen knows the alphabet; therefore with not much effort I can access that native memory in my Uranian head. Still, it seems that a lot of people are, like this Captain, eager to make allowances for me - for my exotic and mysterious Terran mentality, which they see as something that sits on top of my normal self like a magic hat. For the folk of the Seventh World, "Earth" - a place hardly visible even in telescopes, because it's so near the Sun - apparently counts as some mystery-shrouded elfland which might produce anything at all.
Before going to see to his own duties the Captain remarked to me, "Our departure is delayed while we pick up the swaffr. Meanwhile you can study the sprawl of Icohi." The words flowed past my ears. But now my understanding has caught up with them. The swaffr - ah yes - I see them -
Semi-transparent blocks, they're coming up now. They are being lifted up or pulled along bright lines which radiate from the skyship like glowing wires that stream out horizontally from the hull. I can't decide whether those glowing "wires" are physical or whether they are lines of force. They look like force, insofar as they flashingly multiply into a winnowing-fan formation to overspread that part of the field of view occupied by what "the sprawl of Icohi", that complex of structures on the ground which has been built by the Sunnoad. (From this height Icohi is a lot easier to comprehend as a whole, than it was from ground level. I now see that it covers several acres. Acres which are now yielding their harvest of knowledge.) But the lines look material insofar as each one, at the end of its horizontal extent, bends through 90 degrees and plummets vertically, to complete a connection from ground to skyship. Along those "wires" I see semi-transparent blocks busily running up and along, from one of Icohi's buildings to up here in the ship, and again I am not sure whether these swaffr are physical or whether they are compositions of force.
I think back to a scene long ago when I, as the youngster Nyav Yuhlm, gawped at the ground-floor of the Pnurrm in Olhoav; subsequently I haven't been much involved with signal blocks, material or not. Though many Wayfarers do liaise with the cartographers in the use of swaffr, I prefer to leave that task entirely to the experts, whose vocation it is to compose the kinematic, existential maps of Ooranye. But now, as I follow the Captain's suggestion, and occupy my time in looking down through the sensor screens at the "sprawl of Icohi", several thoughts surge together to tempt me towards a decision.
The loads being hoisted - the delay they're causing - could I be looking at the opportunity I need?
While the Sunnoad's swaffr-doodles are being so carefully transported up here, persumably so they can be distributed to eager cartographers throughout Syoom - might I pop back down for a second interview? Get a proper briefing from 80437?
Popping back down would admittedly appear to be a retrogade move. But then, isn't that what one might expect from an Earth-minded eccentric, one who isn't so bound by the flows of the fate-waves of Ooranye, and who ought to be indulged if he changes direction?
It's not as if I am refusing the commission outright. I'm willing to go and see the immigrants from Fyaym. But it's reasonable to demand - well, ask nicely for - some more solid content to my instructions. Yes, if people are willing to make allowances for an Earthmind, they can surely do it this way: they can allow me my own job-description in black and white. That's all! I don't even insist on a contract! Just something a bit more definite than faith in a fate-wave!
I could seek out the Captain or even one of the officers and explain that I need to go down again, just for half an hour maybe, or even less. I could say: sorry, you know, but this is how we Terrans do things; you people needn't wait for me anyhow; I shan't inconvenience your schedule...
I continue to gaze as I conduct my part of the conversation in my head; meanwhile, as more and more of the swaffr are being borne up to the ship, I feel a constriction in my chest, and I know it's no good: I am not merely an Earthman; my soul straddles both worlds; I can't or mustn't step off the wave.
The chest pressure eases. Minutes go by, while I breathe better.
"We're almost set - "
I give a start; it's the Captain again.
To show that I appreciate his personal attention, I stand up and give a slight bow. He thumbs at one of the lower view-screens: "Looks as though it's break-time for Exrre."
I follow his indication, looking straight down at a grey-blue patch of surface gralm, and I note the truck-sized arthropodal shape of Exrre, making its way with a slow, lurching waddle. Then with a minor shock I see the golden cloak of the Sunnoad stride to the beast's side. Break time, eh? Yes, it would seem so: Brem Tormalla reaches with what looks like a key, and suddenly Exrre splits down the middle of the spine and falls apart, whereupon, from between the exoskeleton's halves, a bright fluffy creature emerges bouncing with glee. Brem Tormalla gives the thing a pat, ruffles its fur, and then turns away with maybe a hint of a spring in his august step.
Perhaps the thoughts of the Captain are somewhat coincident with mine, as he remarks: "It's quite gratifying, Yadon sponndar, that when just now I exchanged some words with the Sunnoad, he seemed lighter of heart than usual. I suspect you have lifted a bit of the weight off his mind."
Well, yes, I dare say it probably did make 80437 cheerful to sling-shot me whithersoever he's currently keen that I be flung -
"I'm naturally honoured to be given a task by the Noad of Noads," I say in a faultless tone.
Equally impeccably, this youngish Captain, in his smart grey tunic and super-smooth air of relaxed command, restrains his superficial curiosity with ease and, after assigning me a cabin, takes his leave of me without having asked anything about my mission.
A mild acceleration and a soft thrum under my boots, and a shift in the scene outside, tell me the skyship is underway.
I have never been superstitious, but what I now sense is akin to, only more meaningful and more powerful than, mere superstition: it is the way things on this planet naturally and persistently point, point, point.
Even the otherwise unrelatable fact of Exrre's "break" has this pointiness, like a breeze-blown guidon fluttering to track my break from vagabondage as I'm steered onto a lane of official stuff. Breaks galore.
Oh well, it's not so bad, I needn't assume I've lost my freedom, for I can 'up' the scale, I can subsume it all into a larger pattern. That way, the fact that I've wandered into doing a job for the Sunnoad is not so much a change of direction as a zoom-out into the scope of a larger vagabondage... perhaps. We'll see.
Nine thousand miles, three days' travel at the standard skyskip speed of one hundred miles per hour, and now, I'm told by Valakar, we are about to land... but I see no recognizable destination.
I have been informed, though inexactly, about the whereabouts of the immigrants: they have settled in a patchily forested area known as Namrol, which is close to sfy-50, the boundary between Syoom and Fyaym, and some few hundred miles from other settlements in the border territory.
So far, through the scanner "windows" I see no forests; nothing but open plain. Yet the Zeztul has begun to descend.
Could it be that during these three days I might have learned more from the crew? They are all friendly and respectful towards me, but somehow I can't bring myself to ask the questions which I might have asked on Earth; because, of course, this isn't Earth; here I am living amidst what in Terran terms is an impossibility - a civilized land without laws.
My studies have taught me that laws have existed in Uranian history; even police forces and detectives have existed - but not often. Such cultures form a tiny minority in the saga of this giant world.
Mostly, instead of laws, we have pointy waves.
Now comes Tak Valakar to say something to me. Simultaneously the skyship's descent ceases; now it hovers.
"Your skimmer has been placed ready for release," Valakar tells me. "It has been an honour to transport you, Yadon."
It is a dismissal. Valakar's toughness I now recognize, smoothed though it is into invisibility by his urbane manner, and I know I can't ask for any more help than that which I have been given.
"Thanks for the lift," I say.
He smiles at that. "I'm sure you could have reached this area twice as fast on your own; but not as safely. I bid you goodbye and I wish you success."
Safety? Whatever protection the Zeztul has provided is about to be withdrawn, and I must continue on my own for the last lap, but any rational objection is over-ridden by the pointiness of things. Perhaps, because of my two-world perspective, I can notice contradictions better than they can. But is such queasy perspective any use to me? Let me see if I can shut it off. I sort of feel inside my head...
What have I done? Not sure.
But as I step through the ribwork surrounding the hold, across a vast bare floor and onto the platform where my skimmer has been placed, I feel good!
Mounting my trusty vehicle, I notice that they’ve cleaned every part of it shiny-new,so that the small rectangle of the pilot-board glows invitingly before my eyes as I wait to be let out of the skyship.
The platform begins to tilt. I hear the soft tchut-kunk as the under-hatch opens; the ship must be drifting low enough for me to slide out of it and drop neatly onto a level flight-path at the skimmer’s altitude ceiling of six yards above the plain.
Giving a wave to those who are watching on their vidscreens, out I go; the wind soughs against the shield and I am free. In seconds I am in steady flight. Navigational problems aren't bothering me; I am simply aimed at a horizon that is sparsely dotted with patches of forest concealing I don't know what; all I know is, I’m plumb lucky. That’s the truth, I realize as I contemplate the recent turn in my fortunes. Just a few days ago I ran into the Sunnoad, no less, and has honoured me by giving me a job to do – and when that’s over I will be in a much better position than before, with my last worry gone, for he has reassured me that he hasn’t forgotten about the message I brought him all the way from Starside. I can henceforth trust him to do as well as he possibly can to help Olhoav, while I, for my part, shall likewise do my best not to complain of my return to centrality. For better or worse, my life won't go back to what it was.
All right, maybe in a way I would have liked to wander on and on without commitments, but with that pliancy of will which you must show if you are to surf the fate-waves of Ooranye I am able to welcome the supersession of my old aim, and re-shuffle my priorities accordingly. No longer a vagabond, I am, once again, a man with a mission.
Which is fine because the mission still permits me the tang of the breeze as I hurtle towards the horizon; so long as my skimmer’s prow thus cleaves the air of the giant world, what difference does it make on whose scanty orders I travel? Wherever on Ooranye I happen to go, if my life here so far is anything to go by, discoveries will pelt my awareness.
Even as I formulate that very thought, I see a blurry enormity begin to rise above the skyline.
I was told which section of the border this is, and so I’d happily bet a million genthou that what I’ve spotted is the top of great Kafumabapsu, the “wooden peak”. Besides, the conformation of the giant tree is unmistakable from pictures I've seen.
I wasn't told, though, how circumspect I need be when approaching this wonder of the world and its allies. I'll therefore please myself what special precautions I take: such as, none. The authorities were content to let me out of the skyship alone, and so - without fear of rebuke in case something goes wrong - I skim onwards to where the bushy patches begin.
Here, of course, it is necessary to slow down, while with my usual maximum alertness I look and listen around.
I’m surrounded by sizeable vegetable clumps, the pathways between them winding out of sight in all directions. More difficult, now, to keep in mind a linear fate-wave. All my actions, plus the actions of others, must ramify like the forkings of a road system. In this mood, warning myself that the unknown will not promise to keep straight, I slow to a cautious creep, and as I do so I hear voices.
Too far, as yet, for me to distinguish individual tones and words, they draw me forward. My line of action is pulled taut once more - the priority is to spot the source of those voices.
I approach a clearing, and see people, perhaps a hundred or more, congregated loosely. Not a purposeful audience so far as I can sense - more like a picnic, in fact. They're not particularly alert and I manage to position myself behind a thicket, quietly get down from my skimmer, tie it to a branch, and inch forward to peer through the leaves.
My gaze roves among the seated and standing figures, the tables of food, the strung lamps on the peripheral boughs... and penetrates to the far end of the clearing, perhaps a quarter of a mile off, to a scattering of makeshift huts. Back again I look towards the near figures, from face to face of the ones that are turned my way, and comprehension leaps into my mind -
I am no longer the only Olhoavan exile in Syoom, for that grizzled fellow is old General Thergerer! Following on from that shock I see others whom I can name; Gevuldree and Lanok Ryr, Aatul and Ambrerl and Raddao Cruvunnd - old acquaintances whose presence slaps a new canvas onto the easel of my mind.
All is affected, all is changed. They've got here. I must find out how many of them have made the journey; for another thought follows on, a tremendous idea that won't let me rest till I know. Oh but no need to wait at all - for right now in a sunburst of love and wonder I discern two figures, a bit further off than the others I'd noted, but still unmistakable despite being several Terran years older than when I last saw them: my two children, now adults, Tsritton and Idova, stunningly returned to my life.
The joyous vision has been granted under the best circumstances imaginable: for this gathering has no smell of danger about it, no aura of anxiety; it's plainly an innocent celebration, connected, I guess, with these exiles' successful advent in Syoom. Perhaps they've just raised their new homes, completing their settlement.
I draw on my courage. Slowly side-stepping from concealment, I show myself to anyone who happens to look this way.
My eyes are a bit blurred but I see a few figures whose movement undergoes a jolt which may mean they’ve spotted me – but instead of immediately coming to investigate they draw the attention of Thergerer. I meanwhile begin to walk forward into the clearing.
I guess at a sort of narrow expression on Tsritton's face, and I can picture how his eyes have become thoughtful slits; the General waves him forward. I advance further and the people make way for me, with voices now hailing, “Yadon! Yadon!” Next here’s Idova stepping forward; her lips are parted in astonishment but I think she believes.
My eyes sting, my heart races as I and Idova and Tsritton come to a halt within yards of each other. Our gazes lock, and then their faces (and mine, I can feel it) contort with incredulous joy. Not only do we realize, we really realize that we are together again. Tsritton, falling back a step, swears, "Thremdu!" In a choking voice he remarks aside, "This is zandralg" ("an over-weighted moment”).
“No it is not,” says his sister, and runs up and hugs me.
“Your brother’s right, though,” I say with a merry laugh. "So jettison the load!" My voice drops as
I reckon what it must be like for them under this shovelful of change. One moment they still had their image of famous wanderer ‘Yadon’, and the next moment here I actually am.
Tsritton recovers, grins and comes to join the hug. “Ah but father, we can't take stuff in our strike like you do,” he quavers.
“Though we should have,” says Idova, gazing into my face at arm’s length, “since we knew you'd turn up sometime.”
I echo, "You knew?"
Tsritton nods: "From what we kept hearing, we knew."
“So this is inevitable,” I smile, but though they agree in words, their softened eyes say they're drinking the draft - not at all inevitable - of amazing luck. They harbour no doubt about how fortunate we are. I allude to this by saying, “But all depended on you surviving the journey from Olhoav. Can't wait to hear about that!”
The celebration has sprawled over longer hours than planned, and I'm still waiting to hear my children's story. While the air has darkened to yyne, the deepest part of night, the Olhoavan exiles’ settlement has stayed completely awake in joyful and unruly vivacity, bobbing lights betraying the whirls of dancers and the flung trails of lixxou, those ornamental comets which merrymaking Uranians like to hurl, while I have talked late and long. Mostly it has been I who have answered questions, not only from Tsritton and Idova but from Darilar, Razpar and Latal, friends of Idova, and Sumul, friend of Tsritton, and with the older folk including Thergerer, Lanok Ryr and Gevuldree whom I never thought to see again.
I must surrender to the allurement of trust, a
belief in a fortune that has no catch. Many
sources show that Idova and Tsritton have won golden opinions from the exiles' community; I
welcome but do not need Thergerer’s explicit confirmation that they played
a noble part in the trek across Fyaym.
For me to meet them now is pure gain with no price attached: it definitely looks as though I can go on being what they seem
to be so proud of, namely a wanderer, a problem-solving adventurer, answerable
to no one.
Here come Darilar and Razpar, two fine-looking girls wearing secretive smiles: “We bear a message,” they say, beckoning me a direction in which others are beginning to steer their steps. “A presentation has been prepared for you, Yadon.”
On the assumption that Tsritton and Idova, whom I can no longer see,
have gone ahead to cook up some sort of surprise for me, I obediently follow my guides deeper into the scrubby forest. Through more glades I am led, and past groves inside the glades, while my glimpses of sky allow me occasional impressions of giant Kafumabapsu towering over his wide-scattered leafy children.
I become aware during this trek that I and my guides are not alone. At a respectful distance, and partially visible amongst the growths around us, crowds are accompanying us, mostly silent except for the sounds of boots tramping through the brush. A sense of purpose is what I sense most strongly; the determination to enact and appreciate a ceremony for the sake of those in the know (all of them) and the equally for one who isn't in the know...
Before long I'm approaching a lantern-lit grove which is surrounded by flame-shaped trees, faintly reminiscent of Terrestrial poplars.
At the same time I hear words cried out in syllables that sound oddly half-English: “The perpars ploint!” It sounds like a garbled rendition of the poplars point. Absurdity! But then I remember that long ago before I set out for Syoom, in the days when I and my people were political exiles in the lands around Olhoav, some of my English words had rubbed off on Uranian tongues. The resulting hybrid was dubbed celeriton-speak.
All right then, “the perpars ploint”...
The space in front of me is emptying as the crowd moves aside. I step forward. My attention is splintered in several directions, up at the majestically quivering "plointing" perpars, and around at the folk who are strolling off to line the edges of the grove. Looks like the centre will soon be left just for me and a very few others. The mood is now flowing between convivial and solemn; amid a residue of chatter and laughter my ears catch a word which I’ve heard before from Uranians who tinker with English: consuff, a portmanteau term meaning “convivial sufficiency”. Why has it caught on so well? Yet why should I wonder at it, amid so much else that I haven't yet grasped about this world?
A whistle suddenly sounds, drawn out - DZEEEE - into an eerie shriek: one of the perpars has fired a laser bolt up into the sky. Usually they aim at some prey, a cloud lured by infra-red emission, but this one appears to have been goaded by human agency to fire its shot as some kind of ceremonial signal. I’m approached by Tsritton and Idova and a middle-aged man whom I have been told is the settlement’s elected head, called Rallix Noom.
They point me forward to a table. It's a simple piece of furniture, the size and shape of a barbacue grill. My obedient advance is seconded by the crowd jostling in again from the edges of this most hidden grove: nobody wants to miss what's about to happen. Yet they move in a restrained fashion, not like a Terran mob.
The face of Rallix Noom, the headman, appears almost blanched. He now looks as pallid as grey-skinned Nenns can ever get. For some reason he's nervous, and not only recently - he’s hardly spoken to me at all this evening and that’s rather strange: it can't just be an unwillingness to butt into a family re-union; I’ve chatted to so many other members of this throng of Olhoavan exiles... They’re my people, after all. Come to think of it I am technically still the Daon of Olhoav.
It's vital to process my impressions quickly, as I'm surely facing the crest of a fate-wave as it rears to gather itself for a smash. This headman, Rallix Noom, is, I can tell, burdened. He has some certain knowledge. The
others may be glad that it rests on his shoulders, not theirs, but now a hush
has descended upon the clearing, and it is more than the hush of
respect, it is that they, too, are
reminded that the knowledge exists.
Weird, the awareness I have that all these people and I, despite our mutual affection, are also somewhat afraid of each other.
Rallix Noom clears his throat.
“Here is your property, Daon Nyav Yuhlm,” he says, stretching an arm towards what lies on the table.
I approach it. Recognition surfaces as I make out the shape that rests on a piece of charred-looking cloth. The thing is my own laser-sponnd, the one I dropped amid the scene of the greatest horror and triumph of my life.
I pick up the weapon, with a shudder at the thought of when and where I had let it fall in the collapsed ruin of Zyperan.
“You followed my exact route?” says I, knowing that that's what my children must have done.
“We did, father,” Tsritton nods; "we saw with our own eyes what fate befell the city-monster."
I'm in for it, forever; this true legend is going to grow and grow and never die; always shall I be “the slayer of Zyperan”. Never any escape for me, from the further demands consequent upon the status of hero. Brr-r-r-r…
I lick dry lips and restrain my impulse to shrug away the truth or say some trite thing.
Motion from another direction - Rallix Noom must have given a signal - I turn and see four people wheeling an upright panel, a man-high field-vidscreen, in from the grove's periphery, towards where I am standing. So - the Syoomean authorities have lost no time.
Ah well... I don’t dare refuse the next stretch of destiny's wave. Besides, curiosity prompts me to look at the face on the screen. Somewhat to my surprise I recognize Captain Tak Valakar. His expression is not the one he wore during my voyage in his skyship.
“Greetings once again, Yadon,” he says slowly, his tone almost grim. “Your re-union has gone well, I trust.”
“Greetings, Captain,” I chirpily reply; “yes it has; but do divest yourself of your unpleasant news.”
“The time has come," he said with the flicker of a humourless smile, to let you know that we have gathered evidence – never mind how – of what your band of immigrants, during their trek across Fyaym to Syoom, have unwittingly dragged in their wake.”
I harshly respond, “Something bad, I presume?”
“The Sunnoad,” comes the reply, “does not believe that you should be given too much information all at once.”
“I had noticed that,” say I, smoothing my voice.
“Then you must note furthermore that this constraint shall hold for as long as Sunnoad Brem Tormalla sees fit.”
“I may play along,” I say, relaxing further into Terran idiom, which so often strikes Uranians’ fancy. "Or," (snapping back to insolence) “I may exercise my right to snatch more information to supplement the meagre rations which 80437 allows me."
"Why do you suppose you have this right?"
"Because it seems I’m about to be given an extra job, that's why.”
I’m put off by my own tone, especially that ugly word "job", pronounced as I would have spoken it on Earth. I can only hope that my bluntness is still in the expected range for Yadon the half-alien.
Tak Valakar however seems unoffended, and the bystanders here, those close enough to have overheard, are looking excited in a positive sense, even old Rallix looking brighter, and my children holding their breath as though expecting a treat.
“You will certainly be given latitude in this ‘djaobb’,” says Valakar.
My nerves draw tighter at his intense pronunciation of the English word.
"The 'djaobb' being...?"
“You are to recruit for the Sunnoad’s expedition to defeat Dempelath and rescue Olhoav.”
My feelings swing, my expectations pivot around what I've just heard. Joy bursts open the flood-gates of belief.
That it is Valakar who is speaking to me
instead of the Sunnoad himself, is not any kind of demotion but rather a reassurance: tremendous deeds are being planned, for a project encompassing layers of
command, and I am no longer a mere one-off legate
sent on an errand by Brem Tormalla; I am henceforth part of something huge.
The cheer which now spreads from throat to throat is not one of total astonishment. The crowd knew, and they kept their secret well. With my son’s and daughter’s arms suddenly around my neck and the congratulations resounding from countless lips I ask myself in amazement, why the heck I had I not thought more about getting back to my family during the past 2000 days? Admittedly it would have meant a return across Fyaym, tempting fate for the second time, with scant chance of survival. But the real reason must be that a fate-wave is a blinker, focusing the front-view, suppressing the side-view.
Now the rescue of Olhoav has shifted to the front view.
We leave this special place, where my people had stored and preserved the memento which I now carry at my belt as we retrace our steps. The ceremony is over; the rest of the day is ours to enjoy back in the party grove, the settlement at the forest's edge, for a unique few hours which I shan't spoil with business - though from this moment on I'm receptive to opportunities as a recruiter.
Uranian Throne Episode 21: