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Eyes glittered in the hairy face of a humanoid figure, seven feet tall, concealed by vegetation at the rim of the clearing.
The evolved man was contemplating the Olhoavans' celebrations with a cool, objective smile beneath his facial fur. Contentedly aware that the future belonged to him and his kind, not to the glade's temporary inhabitants, he allowed his gaze complacently to rove around the makeshift trestle tables at the near end, the shacks of the settlement at the far end, and the lively migrants who strolled, sat, ate, drank and chatted from one end of the occupied space to the other.
Let the Nenns enjoy their time; the kalyars' turn must come...
Spoken behind his back, in a harsh whisper he well knew, the sound of his name impelled him to turn - and his eyes met the sight of a beckoning figure, senior to himself.
This was a minor interruption, a negligible annoyance, so he did not mind obeying the crooked finger of old Zingalorb the Watch - Elder and censor-in-chief of all the kalyars of the Forest of Namrol.
"So you've been following me?" asked Dezagan as he allowed himself to be drawn back from the brink of the glade.
"No, that was not necessary," said Zingalorb. "It was an easy guess that you would be here."
"But why act upon your guess, correct though it be?"
Coldly ignoring the cheeky word "act", which for kalyars is packed with connotations of time-wasting futility, Zingalorb continued: "...Yes, you are easy to read, Dezagan. Your interest has long veered towards the doings of the Nenns."
"A purely objective interest," said Dezagan, confident that this was true.
"Yet it may prove unhealthy."
That monosyllable, and the calm smile which accompanied it, caused Zingalorb to waver for a heartbeat or two. Must the 'doings' be mentioned? Yes, they must. No help for it. They are the reason why young Dezagan must be warned off.
"Because," sighed the Watch, "the Nenns are about to gather around one of their heroes, to launch one of their epic adventures."
"And you think I may be tempted to join in?" laughed Dezagan.
"You may think it funny - but I frankly doubt your strength to resist the temptation."
Dezagan's face settled into an easy grin. "Wise you may be, most of the time, but on this occasion, Zingalorb the Watch, you are utterly wrong, as you would know if you could read my mind. I, tempted? By the adventures of this day and age? Let me tell you, that at the very moment you interrupted me, my awareness was ablaze with how immensely, how... giantly, our assured future surpasses all that the Nenns can ever be and do. Broken Skies - I don't even like them all that much! Granted, the patterns of their dead-end doings often fascinate me, but that is hardly a motive for me to participate; if I have been watching them keenly, it is a spectator's fascination with pattern, no more."
"Hmm..." Some deadlocked moments dragged by, during which Zingalorb's skeptical, darkly probing stare was met and blocked by Dezagan's unworried countenance.
Zingalorb mused: He trusts himself, but nevertheless a few of our number have been lost, lured by the Nenns' swirls of action, and I believe it's time I went to confer with the Nenn who is at the root of the trouble. It's an opportunity: the man is within reach, right now. Yadon must be made to understand that we kalyars are not to be included in his recruitment drive. Aloud he said: "Wait here, Dezagan."
Striding through the curtain of foliage in the direction of the partying Nenns, the censor disappeared from Dezagan's view.
He doesn't believe me, but that doesn't matter, Dezagan mused wryly. In due course he shall believe me because, no matter how many days it takes, you can't beat innocence for convincing power. Meanwhile, for courtesy's sake, I shall wait here for his return.
Dezagan sat down on a tree-stump and reverted to his habitual condition of happy daydream, in which the multi-coloured patterns of history, the sparkling wonders of life and time, swished across the view-plate of his awareness.
Kalyars know a vast amount. Currently they have little to do except extract knowledge from travellers' tales and evidencer clouds, while living in peaceful poverty off the fruits of forest land. In place of present ambition they look forward to reincarnation in their distant, glorious future - reconciled meanwhile to this life of waiting, by destiny's promise that they are the heirs to all human history; heirs of all the false starts that have ever been, all setbacks and defeats to be slotted with ultimate justification into the final fulfilment.
It was therefore harmless for Dezagan to absorb himself into those old times of the kalyars' most splendid false start, their very own dead-end cultural and political efflorescence during Eras 74 to 76, those bright and powerful days when they had openly vied with Nenns for control of Syoom; had striven for mastery and had lost.
It had all been premature, of course, but wonderfully glorious nevertheless; glorious to imagine now:
The kalyars' rise during the Tungsten Era, culminating in the conference at which kalyars and Nenns aimed to thrash out their spheres of influence, and at which the World Spirit intervened during the transcendent Rhenium Moment that lasted the few hours of Era 75; the ensuing Osmium Era, adorned with the sagas of the Great Triangle and of Sunnoad Taldis Norkoten, by which time, under cover of continuing inter-species rivalry, the kalyars' competitive ambition beat an epic retreat...
It was during that last downward wave of fortune that they had gradually jettisoned present hopes in favour of a far more certain faith in the far future - but the tapesty of those eras, which stretched across forty-one million days, had not been woven in vain. The saga gifted Dezagan with more stored daydreams than his imagination could ever re-play. Even grumps like Zingalorb shared the boon.
Zingalorb and the other censors only worried because they feared that the prize of faith might be snatched away from those who backslid into wave-riding adventures alongside Nenns. Yet what could be more innocent than to bask in peaceful contemplation of present activities, provided that one considered them in the same spirit as that of bygone adventure? To view and enjoy current doings in that mellow frame of mind was the opposite of an illicit craving for activism. On the contrary, it argued possession of the large perspective kalyars ought to have, as a people focused upon far-future greatness.
Only, could Zingalorb ever be persuaded to accept this innocent interpretation? Dezagan hoped so, but he was far from sure.
Therefore, as he sat on his stump waiting for the censor's return, he composed imaginary debates in which he floored his opponent...
Zingalorb: By fixating yourself on the crises of the Tungsten and Osmium Eras, eventually you'll have worked up your mind into such a state of addiction that nothing is going to satisfy you except a plunge into endeavour in this Actinium Era.
Dezagan: The larva of crisis becomes the imago of dream; I thus crave, not the immature crises of those bygone days, but the adult form into which they have now been glossed, the maturer shine of peaceful retrospect.
Zingalorb: You're saying you merely dream; but a dream about conflict may inspire to action when you wake.
Dezagan: If you had listened to me properly you would understand that I don't dote on the conflicts but on the patterns they weave in time's tapestry.
Zingalorb: But suppose you wish to weave some more?
Dezagan: I'm not a weaver, I'm an admirer, which will occupy me for this lifetime. The next life will be time enough, when we kalyars are reborn into the following Great Cycle. Then and not before, we shall come into our own to build and rule what will then be our world. You know that; I know that; so why are we arguing?
No further imaginary answer from Zingalorb. The end of the spat is well timed, thought Dezagan, for I see standing, over by the line of trees, the fellow himself, presumably back from his consultation. His mouth is tight shut and he has a frustrated look. It's as though my conversation with him has not been imaginary and he knows he's beaten, which is fine, but...
The silence dragged until Dezagan became uneasy. This can't be a confrontation - thought he - because neither of us is saying anything; still, I'd prefer him to berate me and get it over with.
Zingalorb eventually raised an arm; beckoning again? What did the old Watch want now? Oh, well, censors must be humoured. Dezagan stood up and walked forward.
"I must check," the elder said when they were close enough for husky words, "on whether you are ashamed of the thoughts you have been harbouring."
Ashamed? Ashamed? Dezagan ground his teeth and replied: "No."
"Not in the slightest?"
"Not in the slightest! Look, haven't I made it clear, I'm just appreciating - "
"Good," interrupted Zingalorb with a gleam of white teeth.
" - history's budding shoots of retrospective aliveness - "
"Good," said the censor again.
That repetition caused Dezagan's mind belatedly to skid, like a vehicle whose fuel feed has snapped. Hard to register, because it was unconnected to sense, the little word whipped around in his skull. Good?
Zingalorb then did another unexpected thing: he stood aside with a wave. It looked as though he were inviting Dezagan to advance further. To meet someone... a figure who had stepped into view... who was standing at the tree-line bordering the next glade... one of the Nenns.
At a glance, it appeared to be a man of distinction. Special, not just because of the blue Daon's cloak he wore. In fact, it had to be Yadon himself.
Dezagan, uncertain how to ensure against being fooled or tricked by events, fatalistically walked forward.
He felt irrationally guilty, a quite baseless emotion. It was not possible that Zingalorb could somehow have suborned the Nenn to bear false witness ("See here, Dezagan, this man Yadon swears you were applying to enrol in his action-adventure"). No, it couldn't be anything like that; such injustice was simply not done, and surely no motive existed for it. So something else must be the explanation for this meeting: some unimagined reason as to why Zingalorb, having warned him not to have anything to do with the Nenns' hero, was now bringing them together....
Dezagan advanced to within a couple of yards of the famous Starsider, and, finding himself staring down into the deep pits of Yadon's equable eyes, could do no otherwise than greet the Nenn in the fashion of the Nenns. "Skimmjard, sponndar."
"Skimmjard, kalyar. What can I do for you?" replied Yadon in a tone as affable as one could wish, a tone, however, in which Dezagan sensed an irresponsibility, as though on this particular day some huge happiness had convinced the man that anything could be promised, anything could be achieved.
"What can you do for me? Nothing, or so my censor hopes," smiled Dezagan with a glance at Zingalorb. "But nevertheless I am honoured to meet you, puzzled though I am. What can an obscure kalyar have to do with the Daon of Olhoav?"
"You may become less obscure," suggested Yadon, "if you enlist in the Sunnoad's mission to liberate Olhoav."
"Ah, it's out in the open." Dezagan turned to face Zingalorb. "You have arranged for this man to co-operate with you in testing me. But why go to that trouble? That's what I have a right to know."
"Tell him, censor," contributed Yadon.
"Dezagan, listen," said the Watch, "admittedly I told you not to get involved, but now..." And he struggled for words.
"Now," finished Yadon for him, "Dezagan wants to know why the volte-face, so let me tell him: it's due to a dose of this."
The Daon of Olhoav had lifted his right arm at the same moment as his voice ceased to be jocular. Between thumb and forefinger he held a glowing orange crystal. Zingalorb drew back and stuttered, "He'll let you try it, Dezagan. Just as he allowed me."
The crystal's beauty was exacting a price as Dezagan stared at it ever more closely. It was as though daylight
had been halved. A dimmer-switch had turned, a blanket of solemnity had descended as Yadon's voice murmured:
"Different people don't hear the same things in messages of this kind, which are direct communications of thought - but after all, that's also partly true of words, isn't it? My guess is, you'll find it, broadly speaking, the same as the few others who have experienced it. I should like you to give it a try, Dezagan. From what I've heard about you, you could play a part... But of course the choice is yours. No one will blame you if..."
Dezagan's hand closed on the crystal - might as well give in, the wave was so strong - and he put it to his forehead.
Then, eyes squeezed shut in desperation, he strove in vain to remove his stuck hand. Yadon and Zingalorb watched while expressions of evident horror chased each other over the befurred face. Something was tearing through Dezagan, something unimaginable to those who had not seen the Message, and indescribable by those who had. The effect, for some seconds, was dire; but after half a minute or so, the young kalyar's eyes opened in wonder; he had relaxed from dismay into awe; his hand went down from his forehead and offered the crystal back to the Starsider.
Yadon took it, but kept up the murmuring flow: "You'll understand that a variety of personnel is likely to be a good idea for an expedition across the world; not that I can be sure, but I'm inclined to bet that the presence of a kalyar might be a good idea..."
Dezagan found himself saying, "I accept."
Zingalorb, who had had to undergo a more drastic change of view, uttered in exasperation: "But what the Xolch is going on? Why have matters reached this point?"
No polite answer existed in any Uranian tongue. The message crystal from Dynoom, the City-Brain of Olhoav, pleading for help against the tyrant Dempelath, expressed its urgency in thoughts, not words.
That wordless fumarole of mystery continued for several seconds to smoke in their minds.
Yadon's short laugh resounded like an audible shrug: "Aye - you may well ask - what the devil is going on?"
At the sound of the unfamiliar English word, Zingalorb sighed, "Something worse than Xolch, it would seem. But you appear to be up to doing something about it, Yadon. At any rate you look confident enough."
"That's because I'm slap-happy," the Starsider said, suddenly grinning. "I've my family again. Fortune has handed me a brimming cup."
The two kalyars gazed at the Nenn, and his candid eyes gazed back. Coincidentally both kalyars, at that moment, were thinking the same thing - that the man could be trusted, even when pitting himself against the unmentionable. Reinforced by odd elements in his vocabulary, the legends that his mind was part alien served now to increase their confidence in him. An unknown good, to match itself against an unknown evil.
"Please excuse me while I enjoy a few hours with my people," Yadon said to Dezagan, and turned away with a friendly nod. "Come and join the party as and when you like."
"Thank you, I shall, presently." Dezagan's swim-stroke of awareness was newly decisive, propelling him out of choppy waves into a sea of outward calm, for the thing that had happened to him was too great for jumpiness. He waited till Yadon had disappeared back into the crowded glade, and then he turned to Zingalorb, who, visibly, had a stiff-necked look about him. Yes, no doubt about it, Zingalorb was thoroughly irritated at having had to change his mind. Without being unkind, Dezagan felt amused and in a way comforted by this pettiness.
"Well, we were both right, as it happens," he said to the censor tactfully. "It would normally be wrong to get involved in the Nenns' action-games. But here the principle doesn't apply, for - "
"Yes, yes," said Zingalorb, "this is no game, all right."
"Yadon must have heard," Dezagan remarked as he thought it through, "what kalyars achieved in eras 74 to 76. No wonder it's occurred to him to rebruit one of us. Really we might as well agree, there are no dead ends in history."
"Retrospectively alive," whispered Zingalorb. "Reaching forward towards us, forcing us to change our policy, to make this exception to our non-interference rule. And afterwards, will we - in particular will you - be strong enough to resume proper focus?"
"Yes," said Dezagan without hesitation. That one word, keeping it simple and sure, was the best he could do for Zingalorb, whom he left standing in sad composure: a censor in breach of rules. Well, to fill that breach the fellow must repair his principles. Adjust their focus to preserve the priority of the Great Cycle to come, and thus retain the soul of our destiny. It shouldn't be too hard to admit that an evil may be so great, you have to fight.
Accepting the Starsider's invitation, Dezagan crossed the leafy boundary and entered the glade where the other Starsider immigrants were sitting at tables enjoying good cheer, or chatting as they wandered about, circulating in a state of bliss at the fact of Yadon's presence.
Dezagan himself became the object of some attention, turning heads because of his noteworthy height and appearance, and one Nenn got up from his table and strode over to him. "Skimjard, kalyar. You can tell me if you like. I'll see it's passed around."
It was natural for these people to assume that any kalyar who bothered to approach them must be the bearer of some practical message, perhaps a neighbourly warning about some dangerous forest animal that had approached the vicinity.
"My name is Dezagan and I am here not as a messenger but as the guest of your Daon."
Astonishment! "You're interested!" exclaimed the other.
"Yes," chuckled Dezagan, "I'm an interested kalyar, and hence interesting."
The man laughed delightedly. "We give you warm welcome!" He was much too polite to add what everyone knew - that it was impossible to feel interested in people who dream away their lives fixated on a future which awaited them scores of thousands of lifetimes away, but if this Dezagan was an exception, good for him.
Shortly afterwards a venerable omzyr approached. "Skimjard, kalyar! A guest, I hear. I had heard from Yadon that he was thinking of recruiting one of you people."
"He has. Myself. He has convinced me of the need to fight a certain Dempelath..."
Thergerer relished any opportunity of drawing up a verbal indictment against the tyrant of Olhoav. "He sucks the city's light, and in the dimness he causes confused folk - especially the young - to march in formation and chant his slogans. He tells them how important they are in such a way as to imply that they were not important before, and that their present importance is thanks to him; thus he twists the minds of Olhoav till it is virtually unrecognizable by those who remember the old days..."
Peculiar stories, these, and, at their core, a vagueness which Dezagan could see was inevitable. He had experienced the message in the crystal: the cry for help from Olhoav's City-Brain, Dynoom. It put into thought-form ideas which were scarcely mentionable. It was impossible to pinpoint the nightmarish smudge of these themes, to reduce their shimmer of uncertain menace.
All that could be said for certain was that Dempelath had effected a revolution against the very fabric of Uranian life: backgrounders were invited to cease being contented with their lot; those vastly numberous extras were all promised leading roles in the plots which wove the fabric of history. Darker still were the hints of something called the Snaddy-Galomm, reaching beyond the world to some alien inspiration behind the known evil.
The day wore on, the air dimmed and evenshine gave way to anyne, the first five hours of night. The gathering gradually diminished as groups and individuals bade goodnight to Yadon and sought their huts in the settlement nearby.
Strolling amongst the lessened numbers, Yadon approached the kalyar and said, "Well now, Dezagan, since I noticed you talking to our omzyr, I'm wondering what he's been telling you about the opposition we face."
"Details," said the kalyar, "just details which mean little. The main thing is what the crystal told me."
Yadon muttered understandingly, "That certainly does the job. You have no hesitations, it appears. You are willing to take part in the Sunnoad's rescue mission."
"How can I refuse? The future I had thought was promised may, I now see, be taken away, and so I must abandon the comfort of that old fireside in my head."
Unexpectedly the Starsider said: "I too must change, in a big way. From an easy selfish life, as a lone adventurer with no more responsibility than was needed to deal with random problems as they arose, I must shift to acquire a set of more public virtues - which, fortunately, I already value in other people; henceforth I must simply apply them closer to home!"
Lemedet Tanek, the highly reputed “Availer” of Pjourth, was a strong-boned woman in the prime of her strength, who on many an occasion had owed her life to her agility. Now, however, she needed other reasons to trust herself to the spindly structure which she had begun to ascend.
Her basic motive was that she had to climb
it, if she were to begin her day’s work.
Besides, her employers, the Wunth, were excellent engineers. Their capabilities in this field quite obviously outshone those of any human: thus
Lemedet knew she need not fear a material collapse. Her route might seem to vanish
into nothingness between one huge slope and another amidst the airy vastness of
the Obbong Holobb – the Mountains of Flame; yet the real risk would come not from her fantastic perch but from the mountains themselves.
Lemedet smiled defiantly, tossing her long hair which would continue to stream in the buffeting winds until the time came to bind it. She was being well paid, and not only by the terms of her bargain. The circumstances were permitting her to prove what a human could do, that a Wunth could not do.
Yes, an Availer of long standing, such as she, need feel no whit inferior to the hemispherical creatures who for all their formidable intellect would never dare the risk she was ready to run, time and time again. Let them thump around… no, squelch that picture: success might depend upon NOT allowing her mind to dwell upon the un-pleasing aspects of the Wunth.
Similarly for the likelihood that, one day, the risks would prove too much for her: she must put up with that prospect. After all, the offered rewards were generous enough.
She could feast her eyes on those rewards right now. They were stacked in ready bales on a ledge next to the anchor of the Ystam, the wire path she must climb. Receding from her as she climbed, those casks and drums of solidified energy would yet remain visible, albeit barely, even after she had gone all the way up to the command post, as a heartening reminder of the mighty boon which her efforts were earning for her city.
A city she loved but whose weakness she could not deny, Pjourth, the ancient capital of Oam, counted as one of the greatest of Syoom’s disc-on-stem metropoli, yet lacked an agricultural surround. The fields of vheic which fuelled other urban centres could grow only sparsely in the rocky lands of Oam. In theory this might be remedied, but it would be a huge task to develop a Pjourthan farming community at long distance, and in this era not much help could come from trade with other human settlements, which were mostly self-sufficient.
All things considered, it was easiest to bargain with the Wunth: their energy supplies in return for the human daring of the Availers.
With the muscles of an athlete Lemedet Tanek climbed for over an hour while the shimmering grey mountains unclenched their vistas around her, until she reached the three-way point of focal command. Here the routes which had been slung from slope to slope to slope met in the framework of a small human-sized cage.
It was furnished with a chair and a panel of instruments that faced her; on its further side, she knew, nozzles of ray-spouts projected.
This skeletal cage gave no protection from the winds; the wire web in which she was suspended being so fine, it seemed virtually as though she were floating at a mid-airy point miles from the rocky surfaces below and around. But at least that illusion appeared to sever all connection with the ground.
The reassurance was particularly necessary in view of the ominous flickerings on the facing mountain slope. The surface's mobile mottlings looked like a film of plant growth weirdly speeded up a thousand-fold. Pink arcs which squirmed and mingled with the grey rock background formed almost-patterns, which threatened to hurl a direct blast of meaning.
Lemedet counteracted with the right response even before she knew she had begun. It was always like this: her darting eyes and fingers took over while her conscious mind was left to catch up with her actions. She had, immediately upon arrival in the cage, strapped herself in, bound her hair, and begun to play upon the instrument panel.
Swish and stab with the rays! Not everywhere, for that would be impossible, but enough to dissolve and scatter the worst concentrations! And the rays leaped forth and down at the incipient patterns on the mountain slope, before their evil could coalesce.
A strained voice came from the radio receiver on the instrument panel:
"Settled in, Lemedet?"
She knew the voice had come from another suspended cage, miles away, whose occupant had witnessed the start of her activity.
"Yes, you can go now, Efgom. I relieve you."
"Good to hear. I’m
Efgom Hosh was a good friend and colleague, and if she had needed more time he would have given it to her, exhausted though he might be. As it was, he could go. "See you later," she said to him.
“Nearly forgot to tell you," added the voice: "a man has been down at base, asking after you."
"What kind of sponndar is he?"
"Just calls himself Yadon. Some sort of Fyayman explorer, I think. No title as far as I know, but some of our crowd seem to act like they've heard of him. Will you see him when you come down?”
"You can tell him yes, whoever he is." She was fairly used to satisfying the curiosity of travellers concerning the Mountains of Flame, as far as it was possible to do so.
The hours passed, and she grew more and more rhythmically absorbed, her fingers flying over the studs. Again and again she took action in time to stop the coalescence of something terrible which she most fortunately did not understand. And as she fought the patterns with her lances of radiation she began to sing, the working song of the Availers:
I'm not playing your game,
I'm not playing your game,
Can't collect me,
So sorry I'm not,
Playing your game,
Dozens of times had she sung this, when the sensation stole upon her of a presence "on hover". Oh flunnd, she thought, in her usual distaste for the closeness of the thing. She did not turn her head; she knew that she was not required or expected to greet a Wunth "on hover". On the contrary, all she was expected to do was to continue her work and answer questions when asked.
Besides, she knew what she would see if she did turn her head: the platform floating in air; the rider's hemispherical body, leathery and apparently eyeless, two yards wide and supported by four stubby legs that for some reason lengthened and shortened regularly like pistons, so that the bulky mass was always irregularly rocking to some slight degree. No visible arms unless for some rare reason they were extruded; most of the time they were retracted and invisible.
Words came from its voice-box in excellent simulation of a cultured human voice:
"Do you ever wonder, Lemedet, why we employ you?"
"Never," she said proudly, knowing what was required. "That's my skill."
"Or why this mountain slope you face has these striving patterns?"
"I want to go on living," she said scornfully.
After some minutes a modification in the breeze told her that the Wunth platform had departed.
It had been easy to satisfy the creature and, for that matter, to satisfy herself, by saying the right kind of thing; and it all went to show that, especially when things went as smoothly as today, this was not such a bad job. Out of the accustomed mix of fear and gratitude, gratitude prevailed as it usually did. Lemedet sang her way through a few more hours, until the arrival of her relief, a bright girl named Senntar, one of the youngest Availers on the team.
"All right for me to go now?"
She knew it was; across the miles she could see the flashes from Senntar’s work-cage. But it was polite to confirm.
"Absolutely fine, Lemedet. You know you’ve got a visitor down below," her colleague added with a touch of amusement. "Name of Yadon. I trust you’ll make a good impression."
"Trust away," said Lemedet drily, preparing to descend.