uranian throne
- episode twenty-one

the cincture

robert gibson

For the story so far, see:

volume I: the terran heir
Dynoom; 2: Hyala;
3: the nebulee; 4: Exception
5: the lever of power;
6: the infrastructure throbs
7: the claw extends;
8: the brain-mist writhes; 9: the last card;
10: the londoner; 11: the terran heir;
12: the city cracks; 13: the validator rips;
14: the heartland beckons; 15: zyperan

volume Ii: the golden cloak
16: confluence at ao; 17: the scared logician;
18: the rash down-payment;
19: the non-dummy run ;  20: the immigrants 

[ + links to:  Glossary - Index of proper names - Timeline - Maps - A Survey of Ooranye - Plan of Olhoav - guide to published stories ]

episode-21[with grateful acknowledgement to artist Quentin Stipp]


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 to 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. 

A glance was enough, to show it to be the figure of a man of distinction, and not just the blue Daon's cloak but the casual stance and far-seeing eye matched the legend of 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 recruit 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 numerous 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.  Change away 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 needed no public virtues, but now I must shift to acquire a set of them!  Fortunately, I already value them in other people; henceforth I must simply apply them closer to home!" 


The highly reputed "Availer" of Pjourth, by name Lemedet Tanek, was a strong-boned woman in the prime of her strength.  On many an occasion she had owed her life to her physical agility.  That, however, was not cause enough to trust herself to the spindly structure which she now began to ascend.  Fortunately, her mental agility could reach for the incentive -

To begin with she must climb the thing in order to begin her day’s work.  And her employers, the Wunth, were excellent engineers, whose capabilities in this field outshone those of any human: thus 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 not come from her fantastic perch.  It would come, if it did, from the mountains themselves.

Lemedet smiled defiantly, tossing her long hair which streamed in the buffeting winds.  She was being well paid, and not only by the terms of her bargain.  As a bonus, the circumstances were permitting her to prove what a human could do.  By the same token her performance must emphasize what a Wunth could not do.

Yes, an Availer such as herself, of long standing, need feel no whit inferior to the hemispherical creatures who employed her and 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, no, squelch that picture: success might depend upon NOT allowing her mind to dwell upon the un-pleasing aspects of the Wunth.  Similarly she repressed the thought that one day she'd climb the wire path once too often.  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 base of the wire path: the "anchor of the Ystam", to give it its name.  Receding from her as she climbed, those stacks - casks and drums of solidified energy - would yet remain visible, albeit barely, even after she had ascended all the way to the command post.  They'd keep in her sight as a heartening reminder of the boon which her efforts earned 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, because 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 by more remote cultivation, 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; most were largely self-sufficient. 

All things considered, it was easiest to bargain with the Wunth.

It was an obvious enough arrangement: their energy supplies in return for the human daring of the Availers.  Which daring, she evinced now, as with her athlete's muscles she continued to climb while the shimmering grey mountains unclenched their vistas around her, until, after an hour, she reached a three-way point, the focal command point where the routes, 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.  The instruments faced her; from their further side, she knew, nozzles of ray-spouts projected.  

The skeletal cage gave no protection from the winds, and indeed the wire web in which she was suspended was so fine that it virtually seemed as though she were floating at an airy point miles from the surrounding rocky surfaces of the mountain range; a useful illusion for defence against vertigo, since it appeared to sever all connection with the ground.

The reassurance was most necessary in view of the flickerings on the facing mountain slope. 

Mobile mottlings, reminiscent of plant growth speeded up a thousand-fold, formed cinematic almost-patterns, squimming pink arcs against the grey rock background, which threatened to hurl a blast of meaning. 

Lemedet counteracted even before she knew she'd begun.  It was always like this: her darting eyes and fingers took over while her conscious mind was left to catch up.  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.  Enough, though, to dissolve and scatter the worst concentrations.  And so the rays leaped forth and down at the incipient patterns on the mountain slope, smashing them before their evil could coalesce. 

A strained voice came from the panel's radio receiver:

"Settled in, Lemedet?"

She knew the voice had come from another suspended cage, miles away, whose occupant had witnessed her activity. 

"Yes, you can go now, Efgom.  I relieve you." 

"Good to hear that's so.  Blaping skies - I’m tired." 

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, but, as it was, he could go and take his rest.  "See you later," she said to him.

“Nearly forgot to tell you," added the voice: "a man has been asking after you, down at base."

"What kind of sponndar is he?"

"Just calls himself Yadon.  Some sort of Fyayman explorer, I think.  No specific 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 get 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 was possible.

The hours passed.  She kept rhythmically absorbed, her fingers flying over the studs, taking action repeatedly to prevent the coalescence of terrible things which most fortunately she did not understand, and as she fought the patterns with her lances of radiation she sang the working song of the Availers:

I'm not playing your game,
I'm not playing your game,

Gibberish be,
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 that had approached, and she did not turn her head, nor was she expected to, for she was not required to greet a Wunth: she must simply continue her work and answer questions when asked.

Besides, she already knew what she would see if she did turn her head: the platform floating in air; the rider's hemispherical body, leathery and eyeless, two yards wide and supported by four stubby legs which lengthened and shortened like pistons, causing the bulky mass to rock irregularly to a continuous though slight degree; while the arms of the Wunth, unless for some rare reason they were extruded, remained most of the time retracted and invisible.

Words came from its voice-box in simulation of a cultured human voice:

"Do you ever wonder, Lemedet, why we employ you?"

"Never," she said proudly.  "Not to know, is my skill."

"Then you never wonder why this mountain slope you face has these striving patterns?"

Scornfully she replied, "I want to go on living."

A modification in the breeze soon told her that the Wunth platform had departed.

It had been easy to satisfy both the creature and herself, by saying the right kind of thing; which all went to show this wasn't such a bad job, especially when things went smoothly like today.  Gratitude thus prevailed, and Lemedet sang her way through a few more hours, until her relief, a bright girl named Senntar, one of the youngest Availers on the team, signalled her arrival at one of the work-cages a few miles away.

"All right for me to go now?" called Lemedet over the radio.

She knew it was; across the miles she could see the flashes from Senntar’s 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."

"Yes, so I heard."

"I trust you’ll make a good impression."

"Trust away," said Lemedet drily.

No sooner had she started on her way down than she was able to switch off from the stress of her work. 

Though her energy was reduced by hours of tense labour, the descent of the wiry stair was always easier than the ascent, due to the availability, every hundred yards or so, of a quartet of grooved pads, one for each limb, by which one could slide under gravity as far as the next stop, and then repeat the process, thus descending in hundred-yard spurts of speed which never became dangerously excessive but which greatly shortened the journey down.  The arrangement was a rare example of consideration shown by Wunch technology towards human users. 

Usually she took advantage of some, but not all, of these opportunities to slide.  Most days, for many stretches she preferred to climb down, in reflection and enjoyment of the view; especially, of the pleasure it gave her not to have to pay attention to the coily glitterings on the mountain flanks but, instead, to admire the sheer spaciousness of the vistas on all sides.  Another day "under her belt" in the Mountains of Flame!  Even if her luck ran out tomorrow, even if today turned out to be her last, it was good to notch this door in life's corridor, as one more that had opened upon success.

Yet on this trip down she did use the slide-pads, again and again as though she were in a hurry to get back to the ground.  Why the haste? she asked herself.  Is it an impatient curiosity, to find out what this Yadon person wants?  It would seem so!  Be honest with yourself, Lemedet: perhaps you secretly fear he'll get tired of waiting, and that's why you have put on speed.

That thought made her so indignant that she applied the brakes and slipped out of the pads, thus allowing them to be drawn back up to their point of origin.  She was left perforce with her determination to descend by slow steps, rung by rung, at any rate as far as the next stop down.  It would give her some minutes in which to examine her own attitude.  The result was an amused admission that, yes, she had clearly been hurrying to meet this Yadon, as though flattered by the attention of an admirer.  That was mortifying enough, but a rather more chilly idea was that she had been impelled by the undiscussable fate-breeze, the ghostly brush of destiny’s wing, the hunch with which no wise person dared to argue.  Hence when she reached the next set of slider pads she put them on without further hesitation.  The rest of the way to the ground she descended at maximum possible speed.

Upon arrival, she sauntered out of the Availer booth and went towards a bench at the edge of the adjacent hill-settlement.  In this familiar scene with its comfortable huts, light purple trees edging the lawns, and the polished scaffolding of the phial-compressor which overlooked the valley, she could comfortably sit a while before going home.  Let the visitor come or not; she had done her part to respect the occasion.

However, even before she reached her favourite bench, a tall, blue-cloaked figure stood up from it and turned towards her.

Thanks be to the World Spirit that he does not look to be a hard man, thought Lemedet, but after this first reaction she objected to herself: he is as rugged as a mountain, so why do I regard him as smooth?  And what does it matter anyway?

Meanwhile, courteously stepping forward, the Starsider said: "Sponndar Lemedet Tanek?"

"I am she.  Sponndar Yadon?"

"Yes.  I would be obliged if I could have a few words with you."

She waved him back to the bench.  "Let's sit down.  I've had a hard day."  She granted him a moderate smile.  "But only an ordinarily hard day.  It leaves me able to talk." 

"I'm grateful.  I hardly know how to start." 

"That's not unusual," she said kindly, assuming from his humble tone that this was merely another tourist curious about the work of the Availers, in their setting in the Mountains of Flame.  I thought for a moment I was glimpsing more in him than there really is, she thought; although rather impressive-looking he's basically the same as so many others who, swiftly overwhelmed by the bulk of the mystery of this place, seek from me a form of words, a souvenir to take home with them, to admire like a bit of abstract art that looks pretty on the wall, splashy though incomprehensible.  ...Well, she was in good humour.  "Start any old where," she encouraged him, and settled herself to field his questions. 

True it evidently was, that the poor fellow was finding it difficult to begin.  Tongue-tied in the presence of the top Availer?  Not quite, she guessed, but what it was that made it difficult for him, she was in no great hurry to know.  It was pleasant enough to sit here as though they were a companionably idle couple enjoying the view over the peaceful, flower-decked terraces below.  Still, as the silence grew prolonged, her brows lifted:

"Ask away!" she prompted.

As though he too had enjoyed the repose and would have wished for more, he shifted out of it restlessly.  Squaring his shoulders he said, "I'll guess why you people are called Availers."

"All right - I'm listening."  Initiative, surprisingly, was passing to him, but that didn't worry her because she, being the expert, could retrieve it whenever she liked.

"So far as I understand," he said, "an Availer is a rider of risk.  Rules don't avail because the risk is too swift for thought, so you must go for whatever avails, as your instinct digs down to some layer of strength in your nature, which prevents your mind from being swept away by the forces you challenge.  Sounds weird, but you've hit upon the only practical approach to your job.  Nobody's actually told me all this, mind you.  I deduce it from the silences that greet me, as I research you Pjourthans."

"Well!  You are serious," she remarked.

He nodded, and his tone flattened, "You are employed by beings called the Wunth."

She responded defensively, "The Wunth have their problems, and we are able to help them."  Feeling the eyes of her companion on her face, she dug into her own reasons in order to bring something out, keen to put on a credible performance. 

"They need us to clear the slopes around here.  Clear them of the think-bombs laid by the Iqdaa."

"The Iqdaa?"

"Yes," she said with relief that her mental excavation had yielded an answer.  "Yes, that's it.  The squirming ideographs on the mountains are traps of some kind, laid by a race of beings whose brain-power is as far above that of the Wunth as the Wunth are above us.  We don't normally picture it so sharply, we just do the clearance job in any way we can, and," she added in wry reproof, "I don't quite know how you got all this out of me, Yadon."

"It's called interview technique," and he smiled at his alien phrase.

She didn't bother to ask him to translate.  Wayfarers, after all, were always collecting odd bits of language.  Besides, what she was keenest to dwell on was her own sudden success: she'd found in herself a pocket of material for her answer to his question; and the way it swished, you could almost call it fun.  Furthermore she could add to it.  "The Iqdaa, trying to enlarge their empire, use think-bombs to entrap the Wunth with superior visions."

"And do the Wunth, in turn, try to trap you with theirs?"

Quickly she gave back, "Why do you say that?"

"Just asking.  To cover all the possibilities."

"Well, the answer is that they can't," she said forthrightly.  "The thought has occurred to me - to all us Availers - but we know we are secure from what you are hinting at.  We're secure because we Nenns are intellectually the weakest of the three intelligent species which inhabit the Mountains of Flame."

"Weakness being strength," he nodded.

"Yes, because, out of our weakness we have evolved the expertise in defence against identity-devouring knowledge." 

At this point, hearing Yadon sigh, she shut her mouth.  Turning him a sharp glance she made sure that the man was looking happpy.  Relieved at this, she then sighed likewise, and continued:

"You like the sound of what I'm saying; you get it, that we Availers can destroy the think-bombs without understanding how.  That's good; you're doing well.  Not just a tourist, are you, Yadon?"

"Be patient and I'll explain," he smiled.  "I have to have this clear."

She did wait, telling herself that she had nothing to lose: in a sense it was she, now, who was the tourist, the one whose curiosity craved to be filled, and with a strong personality such as Yadon's this required co-operation.

After some moments he said, "The Wunth value you for your ability NOT to understand.  I'm on target - yes?"

She nodded.  "'Value' is right.  They don't need to resort to any trickery or cajolery; we're too valuable to them as equal partners.  Mutual profit."

"The profit for Pjourth is in energy-phials, I suppose."

"That's the main point.  But also, for me personally," she added, "there is the gratitude I feel for being given work that can never be reduced to any tranced routine.  Though it has to be done faster than conscious thought, it's nevertheless work for which I have to stay awake.  I'm proud of that."

"You're proud of the skill you use; yet you say that you never understand what you're doing..."

"Thankfully!  One day I may overstep the mark and not return..."

"Because you will have understood."

"It has happened to others.  To stop the likelihood of it, one must concentrate, keep focused...  You think I'm talking self-contradictory nonsense, don't you, Yadon?"

"No - actually I like the sound of what you're saying.  I want more from you, though - I want to be sure!  A long hangs on it, believe me.  Now listen: you said 'focus, concentrate'; but on what?  If you don't know understand what it's about, how do you possess any inkling of how to act?"

"How do I know?" she murmured, playing for time; and by the mercy of fate the answer came.  She said aloud:

"How do I sniff the scent of what is evil to the Wunth?  Evil is reality's misbehaviour or overflow or whatever it is that prompts me to rid the slope of an intruding blah - and how I know it is by a sort of sting, a pinch at the soul - "

Yadon held up a hand to stop her babbling.  "Enough.  You've reassured me!  You're indispensable!" 

She turned a blazing glare at him, a don't-you-dare-be-laughing glare.  He met it with a firm and steady look.  The look silently said, this is not a tease.  All right, she thought.  It is a real compliment, then.  But -

Shaking her head, she said: "Nobody's indispensable.  I may be the best Availer, but if I were to disappear right now, another good one would take my place.  We're all spare parts in this business."

"Then allow me to suggest," said Yadon, "that if you go out on the job again tomorrow, it will be a waste.  You will have missed your chance to say yes to what I now propose, which is, that rather than continue to work for the incomprehensible Wunth, you enlist with me on the Sunnoad's forthcoming expedition to Starside.  We aim to do a great deed: to rescue a city - my home city - from a tyrant who may ultimately threaten us all."

Stunned, bombed with this idea, she sat stock still while her thoughts fragmented and whirled: it had to be something as big as this, to explain what I have sensed about him.

Then came incredulity's counter-attack. 

"I don't believe it.  You're testing me.  I would have heard of such a thing.  We would all have heard of it; I dare say you think we're out of touch here in Oam, but - a Sunnoad-led expedition to Starside?? - Come on, we Pjourthans would have heard of something like that!"

Yet, even as she spoke, silent belief wormed its way with a message of gladness.  That sense of expectancy with which Yadon's arrival had enwrapped the scene, plus the sheer glamorie of the sunnoadex which made it hard to believe that any respectable person would concoct a such a colossal lie about Brem Tormalla 80437, undermined her skepticism, allowing her an eager hope to hear her words rebutted.

"Rumours," said Yadon flatly, "are already spreading."

"You call that an answer?  Rumours?"  She spoke with a scorn that she did not deeply feel.  "What's required is evidence!  Then it would be time for me to believe your news.  As for rumours, I admit that if I had the inclination I could become far more knowledgeable about them than I am now.  It's just that such cloudy 'news' doesn't interest me all that much."

"Ah, yes, it does rather lose definition as it spreads."

"Well, it's evaporated into nothing here.  We Pjourthans are so provincial, you know."

"Now, now," reproved Yadon.  "The Sunnoad himself is from Pjourth, after all."

So he is, thought Lemedet proudly.  So he is!  I ought to have made that point myself.  But then... what is this Yadon leading up to?  Ah, he's taking a deep breath -

"Now listen, sponndar," Yadon said with no lilt in his tone.  "A good reason exists for the fact that a Syoom-wide announcement of the project has not yet been made, and I am about to show you the key to the reason, which I hold in my hand."

He opened his right fist.  Behold, a glowing orange crystal lay on his palm.

She began, "You want me to..."

"Yes.  I can vouch for the source.  It was sent by Dynoom, the city-brain of Olhoav on Starside.  I myself brought it all the way across Fyaym."

Each syllable hammered into her the curiosity that forged her will.  To put the crystal to her forehead was an action not lightly to be performed, yet she did not delay.  Yadon watched her do it; watched the wonder and dismay and astonishment chase over her features.

When a couple of minutes later she dazedly handed it back to him, he spoke to confirm and reassure:

"You see, now, don't you, that though it would be unthinkable not to send the expedition, it would be worse than unthinkable to send it without achieving success.  That means we must - absolutely must - take along the right personnel.  We dare not rush the recruitment process.  It must be perfect."

"Perfect," echoed her dazed voice.

"On the other hand it may not be if we risk a lot of public excitement too soon.  We must not cloud our planning, nor warn the enemy.  So we intend to recruit a key number before we announce the rest.  The commitment of those key personnel will propel our scheme to the next stage.  In other words..."

Lemedet said breathlessly, "A Cincture?"

"A Cincture."


While the Availer was being recruited by Yadon in the region around Pjourth, another capable sponndar was plodding across the bare plain about nine thousand miles away.

The plodder was a young man with a gaunt tautness about him.  The effect of his extreme alertness was to make him look older than he was.  In his right hand he held a sort of gun with a flared muzzle, though to any observer (none were present) it would have been evident that the object was no kind of laser; however, neither was it a projectile weapon in the ordinary sense.  As though the man himself were confused as to its nature, he man now and then gloomed at it with knitted brows.

Presently he halted his steps and looked around him.  A couple of hundred yards away his skimmer was parked on the gralm.  A couple of miles beyond that, the disc-on-stem city of Grard loomed.  That was his home, his beloved home.

Yet the buildings which stood close to the disc's edge became targets of the weapon's weaving muzzle as the man's right hand rose to aim it.  At the same moment his mouth drooped at the corners, with the scowl of one who takes aim at a hated enemy.  His finger began to squeeze the trigger.  His eyes narrowed to slits...

Suddenly, however, those same eyes flew open in amazement.  What the flunnd was he doing?  He caught his breath.  His throat produced a strangled sound. Broken Skies, what was he doing? 

He had no notion why he, Oreneg Vadon, distinguished Notable of Grard, was out here on the plain instead of in his urban apartments or his mansion in the Halaok Hills.  Nor did he understand the peculiarly shaped object he held.  A shiver went through him.  A sense of the closeness of some great evil narrowly avoided, almost overpowered him. 

In a drive towards rationality he commanded himself to stop and think, hard.  He listened to the noise of the wind, and he heard and felt, mixed with that, a faint, squeaky vibration in the barrel of the gun or whatever it was.

He raised the thing to his ear, then fumbled with the catch.

The barrel broke open and at that instant he understood a fraction more, for he knew he had released something.  Just a little cloud of faint yellow sparks - harmless, he hoped.  Away they flew, disapparing into their unknown freedom.  It was good to give little things their freedom, was it not?  Could he hope that he had done a good deed?  But other, unclear ideas were terrible... and he blocked them off before his intellect could try to formulate them.  He was in no condition to embark upon adventures of that kind: he could not remember any reasons for his present actions or his presence out here in the open barrenness.  Extensively appalled, he set off at a run towards his parked skimmer. 

Reaching the vehicle, he ran his hand over the smooth metal reality of its hull while he gasped in relief that his mobility was assured.  Yet, really, how important was that?  While still breathless he asked himself: could a skimmer speed him fast enough to escape the in-crowding doubts about his own self? 

Well, maybe that depended on his choice of destination. 

His options were many.  Their spacious ranks assembled like a crowd of cheering supporters.  Lots and lots of possibilities, all of them quite rational!  Most comforting was the thought that he would not be thinking like this if he were lurching into the opening stages of nebulation.  Whatever was wrong with him, it was not that.  No, and apart from being empty madness, nebulation (from all that he’d heard about it) was to do with feeling small.  He on the contrary was nagged by the opposite…  he, or his ego, was far too big, distended, unwieldy.  He felt as though he were about to lurch destructively into some guilty nightmare.

Well, doubtless his psyche had been stung by one of the innumerable hostile influences of this giant world.  It happened now and then.  The only recourse was to throw it off by an effort of will.  Nenns were usually strong enough to do that.  And especially he, Oreneg Vadon, sometime candidate for the sunnoadex itself, flunnd well ought to be equal to it! 

His pride and dignity had returned.  Now, two main lines of action presented themselves.

He could return to the city, right now, this minute.  That was one hefty trunk of opportunity, from which a myriad fates branched. One of these branches was that he could ride the Grardesh Travelator all around its circular route half way between periphery and hub.  That was as good a way as any of “feeling the pulse” of events and gaining receptivity to important news.  A pleasant way to relax, in communal, patriotic, mind-nourishing satisfaction in the heritage of Grard: for the ancient Travelator, coeval with the city itself, was unique in Syoom.  All right, you could cite the Ezem of Vlamanor, but that wasn't so great: the Ezem was just a superstructure added to the Vlamanorian disk, whereas the Grardesh Travelator was intrinsic to Grard's iedleis surface, and it had revolved ever since the Phosphorus Era construction had brought the urban disc itself into existence.  How did this work?  What was the source of the power-input?  Nobody really knew for sure.  Supposedly a case of frictionless perpetual motion, the Travelator sometimes inspired uneasier theories: for who could be certain that power was not still being sucked from another universe?  That would count as a continuation of the ancient crime which darkened the conscience of Ooranye.

Well, that ancient question would not be answered today…  But for some strange reason the very thought of it tarnished the plan he’d had, of riding around the ancient moving way.  Or perhaps some other stupid emotion was responsible for the unaccountable menace associated with an innocent-seeming tour of his own city.  All right then, so what would he rather do?  What would help best to clear the rubbish that sloshed inside him? 

The answer came: go to his country estate. 

Yes!  That would raise his spirits.  Recuperate his strength.  And when he found who or what was responsible for the mood that assailed him… haha...  the thought caused an itch in his right arm.  Not yet time to draw his laser, but the moment must come.

With a theatrical nod of determination Oreneg Vadon straightened, mounted his skimmer and set course for the flaon: the agricultural ring around Grard.

This farm belt is visible, but only distantly, from the urban rim, because in order to satisfy the requirements of defence (Grard being especially isolated and close to Fyaym) the inner edge of cultivation begins only after a four-and-a-half-mile interval of bare plain devoid of cover. 

Five minutes at moderate speed brought Oreneg across the barren gap, whereupon he entered the brightness of glowing fields.  Onward he skimmed, but with a slower weave to his route.  He always respected farm boundaries. 

After a few more minutes he arrived at the next clear space, the Sixif Snand, a division between the inner and outer flaon analogous to the great gap which Uranian astronomers observe in the Rings of the planet Yimdi.  Along this open circular artery you are likely to meet, with fair frequency, skimmers and hover-rafts, motorised sleds and crawlers.  Oreneg Vadon had occasion to greet farmers, stewards and owners like himself making use of an arc of openness for ease of transportation.  Soon he reached the turning which gave onto his estate.

Sudden, absurd but compelling, a daydream invaded his mind.  The vision caused him to decelerate abruptly.  His skimmer settled towards the gralm while he blinked in confusion, trying to absorb what had suddenly flashed inside him. 

He could still see what was around him and he perfectly well knew where he was - but the dominant idea which now gripped him, and which concerned a tremendous project, was almost enough to blot out the evidence of his eyes.  His mind's eye, abler than his retina, went exploring, partly in the realms of what might be, and partly into what might have been.  It was all too much to assimilate in one go, and while the case was being prepared he had time to summon up resistance, with the result that, with an indignant effort of will, he kicked the whole ridiculous picture away.  It had been far too ambitious, and now it was gone. 

Starting up his skimmer again, he went faster than before, so that within half a minute he reached the turn to his country mansion, Ahantorol.  Swerving into the drive, he strove, while decelerating, to moderate the grim look he could feel on his face.  That lost scheme or daydream - no one must guess it.  If it came back, he must with it himself, without any questions from his intelligent, watchful staff.

The restful outlines of Ahantorol glimmered soothingly before him, in harmonious sprawl, and (thankfully) quiet: no one happened to be in sight to greet the returning master.  He dismounted, stored his skimmer himself, and hurried in through the porch.

His favourite salon, which was one quarter given to a workstation, was a good spot in which to stand and brood and think of his next move.  Preferably alone - though since by habit he was almost always approachable he left the door to the room wide open behind him.

"Sponndar O-V," said a voice after hardly a minute had gone by. 

He turned to face a stringy, bearded man younger than himself, who held in his arms a furry pet that bulged and squirmed.

"Skimmjard, Naldorn," replied Oreneg Vadon to his highly-pad pzak, or troubleshooter-cum-steward.  "So you found him."

"Or he found me," shrugged the steward as he deposited the animal, who immediately ran to its master; "when I saw him skittering about in Field 17, he may have been trying to attract my attention."

"Quite likely," remarked Oreneg.  He sat down and wryly contempled the shongo who twirled about while he stroked its back.  "Hoping we've grown fonder with your absence, eh, Foffix?" he addressed it.  (The shongo responded with its most show-off twirl, using its seventh leg as a pivot.)

Oreneg raised a palm in a salute of thanks to Naldorn, who nodded and left. 

"Now that you and I are alone, scatterbrain," Oreneg announced to his pet, "I'm tempted to use your senseless doings to randomize my actions.  That might foil the enemy, don't you reckon, Foffix?  Whoever or whatever the enemy is."  He stroked the furry head, shook his own and swore:  "No, blaping flunnd, how unfair that would be, putting such responsibility on you."  But that was a fanciful scruple; the little thing would never know.  Again he shook his head, this time with a grimace at the way his own bizarre thoughts seemed to lead nowhere except to worse bizarrerie…  To Fyaym with it all! 

He got up and, reaching to the nearest of the tall lamps at the map table, slid the switch to full illumination.  Now his body threw a definite shadow on the white wall.  Foffix pricked up his ears; ah, he knew it was time for the shadow game!  (That’s to say, the dark-shape-on-the-wall game; for Oreneg doubted that the creature understood what a shadow was.)  For the next few minutes, Nenn and shongo amused each other: Oreneg making moving silhouettes with his hands, Foffix jumping at them as though they were things one could catch.  Jump, jump, twist and somersault and more jumps and frantic efforts to claw at the insubstantial as though it were real... never tiring.

Oreneg finally said, “That’s enough now, Foffix; I don’t have your unflagging enthusiasm.” The fluff-head knew that tone, and subsided.  Oreneg reached to pat the furry thing, but in the midst of the action he froze at an idea which appalled him:

Was the shadow game analogous to a game being played by some greater power which today had been amusing itself at the expense of Oreneg Vadon?

He must review that daydream he'd had.  The one which, shortly before, had irrupted into his awareness without warning, while he was approaching his house.  It was time for a show-down:  instead of kicking the idea downstairs into his subconscious, he would confront it. 

Decision made, he dared the picture to re-surface in his mind, and sure enough it came, and this time he did not reject it but allowed it to preen itself in all its magnificent absurdity.  Like one who enjoys a view from the air or a display on a colourful animated map, he saw the great ring-way which divided the inner from the outer farm districts, not like it really was but like a moving surface: the idea it offered was none less than a larger copy of the urban Travelator, running not in the city of Grard but around the entire farm belt's Division Ring!

A mad, stupendous project!  And of course absolutely unnecessary!  The farms of the flaon were quite adequately accessible by motor vehicle - what need of a moving belt?  Insanity!  The whole idea was a laugh, so ridiculously expensive, it would require another universe-pillaging crime like that of the Phosphorus Era.

Ho, perhaps that was the idea.  The the energy to build the twenty-five disk-on-stem cities of Syoom had been plundered from the Chelth dimension… the energy to build Grard's flaon's moving belt could be seized likewise from another universe -

If I had lived in the Phosphorus Era, I could have advocated something of this kind.  I was born at the wrong time -

For example, for example... yes let the bad thoughts flow, let them betray themselves:

If he'd lived back in Era Fifteen, he could have taken advantage of the fact that Grard had been the last of the disk-on-stem cities to be built: its iedleis frame had been brought into being considerably later than the others.  By that stage, what remained of the Chelthan wealth was enough for a bit more than one extra city but not enough for two.  So the decision had been made to allow the construction of Grard and then to "bank" the remainder of the looted energy.  But a different option could have been chosen.  Brisk, ruthless action back then might have commandeered the “bank” and... 

Oreneg recoiled in horror from the inhumane contents of his own mind.

Still, the thought would not go away.  The thing that might have been dared!  The excuses which might even now be made for a similar attempt, if the means could be found -

One of the consequences of it all being so long ago, was that no one could now be sure about how the plunder of Chelth had been done.  It was hard even to be sure exactly what had been done.  So it was now open to think optimistic thoughts.  For instance, maybe it had merely amounted to a kind of cost-price pillage, admittedly risky and high-handed, but no more than equivalent to the capture of a few minutes' worth of energy-output of a Sun-type star, rather than the exhaustion and wreck of a universe.

His thoughts wobbling towards the boundary set by racial guilt, just at that moment Oreneg Vadon saw, out of the corner of his eye, that the room's doorway had admitted an outline: the delightful silhouette of Awid Awidoan, wife of his steward, Naldorn. 

He knew why she had come.  It was to ask him whether he wished her to prepare his third-day meal.  Once every three days, if nothing else interrupted the schedule, he ate at home, and it was Awidoan who prepared it all.

Sure enough she said, "The three-day usual, sponndar O-V?"

Predictably he replied, "Thank you, yes, Awidoan."  But he was amazed at what came pouring into him in secret accompaniment of the words. 

With a force that ditched honour, in undulant delight his emotions swayingly chanted, O Awidoan my if-only, my gorgeous if-only, your shoulders bowed unconsciouisly, let me relieve you of that burden of which you are unaware, let me lighten it by telling you (content though you seem, in your work-trance, to be a languorous drudge for five hours a day) that the situation might change if fate's apparent promises to me were fairly granted -

Luckily, the woman heard his words and not his thoughts.  She noticed nothing unusual in his tone, and, simply acknowledging his thanks with a nod, left to go about her duties. 

With a shiver he called her back.  "Awidoan!"

"Yes, sponndar?" she reappeared.

"On second thoughts, I won't be here for the rest of the day."

"Very well, sponndar."

Again his steward's wife moved away, and this time Oreneg Vadon breathed a shudder and demanded of himself, what he had been thinking.  Sickly skies!  What kind of a grutt was he? What kind of a human searchlight ["Vadon" means searchlight] was he, if, instead of perceiving his way, he let himself bump into a stupid emotional trap? 

The trap of misdirected love must force him either to backtrack or to go ahead and violate not just one but two taboos...

He might have risked one of them.  What saved him from dishonour - the wrong reason, but save him it did - was that he simply did not have the guts to transgress both.  That is, he dared not envisage, in combination, a repetition of the ancient crime whereby an out-of-sight universe had been plundered, PLUS stealing (or trying to steal, or thinking about trying to steal) another man's wife.

He looked around his splendid room.  I'm a rich man, he thought bitterly.  And that's all I am.

He turned to go, and Foffix made a leap at him, whining in distress; the creature sensed that something was wrong.

"Come on, Foffix, tell me," he addressed the pet, "is there anything more ridiculous than a young man of fortune and reputation who is discontented with his lot?  The answer, fellow-fluffhead, is No.  The height of absurdity is yours truly, Oreneg Vadon."  He patted the thing on the head, disengaged and slipped out, switching the door shut.  In his life so far he had enjoyed unearned luck and nothing else.  To a man who faced that truth, one course remained: boldness.

Not, however, the type of boldness he had been picturing a minute ago.  Not the one with the hope, "Who knows what might be possible for a man who stops at nothing?"  Rather, the tinge of that thought was transformed into: "Who knows what humiliation might be possible for a man who stops at nothing to confess?"

Humiliation of the ego, because the ego must die.  That's why it was time to confess.  But not to just anybody.  Now, back to the city, quick!  Get rid of that excrescence of the mind!  He strode and leaped to his skimmer and took off, ignoring paths, straight across fields in the direction of Grard.

His half-seeing eyes bulged at the magnifying hugeness of the approaching city.  Get it over with, get it over with, confess to the Noad!  He would have preferred to tear into the city streets at top speed, although, grinding his teeth, he refrained lest he invite a crash; such an accident, especially one which he survived, would simply pile more guilt upon his irresponsible self.  Still, he piloted his skimmer as fast as was decently possible once it had risen up along the ayash current to attain the oalm at the periphery of Grard.  After he had darted down Plandan Avenue he lurched and swerved around the Coigns of Xunnung to finish face-on to the Palace of the Noad.

Unsteadily he alighted, his sudden deceleration having caused his vision to blur.  He shook his head and gazed around.  Partially re-focusing his eyes he appreciated the plaza's unhurried, normal look.  Perhaps a couple of hundred people were in sight, no more, and nobody close to him, and although his sudden arrival must have attracted some attention, folk who recognized him were apt to leave him alone when he was evidently busy.  Hah, thought Oreneg; not much longer would his reputation last beyond today...  Time to head for the palace door.  Who was that old fellow sitting in the middle of the steps?

The “old fellow” uncoiled himself and stood straight, gathering his cloak about him.  His grey cloak.  By this he was revealed, even to Oreneg’s partially blurred eyes, as Bnurul Thazd, Noad of Grard.

"Skimjard, sponndar O-V," said the old man, smiling, and sat back down on the step, an action which nonplussed Oreneg.

So certain had he been that the Noad would lead the way into the palace for a private talk, that for a moment or two his visualisation of that process took precedence over what he actually saw.  Thus, although it did not happen, he could almost see the Noad's hand press the button for the doors, see them slide open to reveal the glowing carpet beyond... whereas in reality he, Oreneg Vadon, was not being invited in.  Instead, it must be the Noad's intention for them to talk outside, in public!  Hey - am I not worth a private audience, then? 

The prickly rash of indignation lasted barely an instant and then faded into sadness:  Evidently the answer is no.  I am not worth itI know that anyway, do I not? 

Oreneg sat down on the step, on the Noad's left side.  He steeled himself to say what he had to say. 

But what's the man doing now?  "Permit me," said Noad Bnurul Thazd while he reached with his left hand.  With finger and thumb he pinched a part of the hem of Oreneg's cloak. 

A faintly tangible "click", a minor instant throb, occurred inside the fabric.  "That has switched off the tell-tale," smiled the Noad.  "We can dispense with it now.  You will have to forgive the impertinence.  Recently it had become necessary for me to keep track of you."

Oreneg was speechless.

"Observe how I trust you now," the Noad went on.  "You are prepared to listen."

With grim restraint, Oreneg Vadon replied: "I might as well withhold judgement."

"I knew you would; your spirit has crash-landed, which lessens the impact of further wallops.  Give me in your own words," continued Bnurul Thazd, "the reason for your despair."

Oreneg darted a bitter look askance at the Noad.  "In my valuable words?"

With a chuckle the Noad said, "It seems you're not quite ready to do my job.  Otherwise you wouldn't sneer at yourself."

Frustration!  It came to Oreneg then that his own arrogance was so multiply layered, as to invite him again and again into indignation at any departure from what he'd assumed to be the script.  Almost growling out the words, he said:

"You know that I was beaten right at the end of the contest which elected Brem Tormalla 80437.  I was as close as that, to doing the job of the Sunnoad himself."

"Everyone knows that, and everyone remembers."

Oreneg winced, "So, you see, it's hard!  Savagely hard for me, ever since that election.  Yet it has become clear to me that it's just as well I lost.  Monsters of the lower mind, which I'd never thought could live inside me, are rearing their forms into my awareness in such a way that I can no longer trust myself not to do hideous things.  For example I caught myself entertaining the idea that, if I had the power, I might repeat the plunder of a universe, like our forebears did in era 15, and on a smaller but equally dishonourable scale I - but no, I shall stick to the one example.  That's all you need to know.  Whatever you choose to do to me, in order to rid Syoom of the danger I pose, I must accept.  At least by this confession I have saved what can be saved of my honour."  Oreneg's mouth snapped shut after his speech.  He bowed his head and waited to hear the consequences pronounced from the Noad's lips.  Bnurul Thazd would surely wield the sponnd of justice.  Never should a Noad allow compassion for an individual to deflect him from his duty.  The ruler of a city must protect his people.  Indeed, all civilization might need protection from a menace such as Oreneg Vadon felt himself to be: a man enraged at his betrayal by a fate which had pretended to hold out the ultimate prize and then had snatched it back.  Such a man was far too dangerous to be left loose: he ought to be put out of the way: therefore, let punishment be pronounced.  He was ready to relinquish this life and try his luck in a future age. 

The words he heard, however, did not fit at all. 

"Seems familiar."

Uh?  That the reply?  Not the expected reaction at all.  Oreneg rolled his eyeballs left and right, confusedly.  Surely he had misunderstood.  What could "seem familiar" about his unique moral disaster? 

Must wait, denuded of pride, for it to become clear. 

He heard the Noad continue:  "Yes, it's an echo of similar news.  Nothing firm as yet; just a waft of attenuate flutterings from various parts of Syoom."

Sit still, Oreneg told himself, don't move from this spot, just sit fatalistically hunched on the step in patient auscultation of the pulse of destiny.  Do without the smallest nugget of hope; accept what's doled out.

"By the way," the Noad suddenly asked as though he were changing the subject, "what is that gadget you're holding?"

"Aaah?" gasped Oreneg.  He stared, newly appalled, at the "gun" which he now realized he had not let go.  In fact he had continued to carry the thing for over an hour, quite unconsciously.  Why hadn't he slung it back into storage when he'd called at his estate?  What in the name of all the skies was he doing toting it here?  His shoulders slumped; he answered weakly: "I don't really know."

"If you don't know what it is..."

"I don't know what it does.  The lettering on the barrel says it's a Stymb, which is just a name, just one more artefact for a collector to pick from the garbage-dump of history." 

Whereupon, to express his disdain, Oreneg threw the thing aside.  It clattered down a step or two, while he shrugged at his own petulant gesture. 

He added, "As for why I brought it here, I haven't the faintest idea."

Perhaps not only petulance had governed his action; perhaps, also, fear.  Yes, the fear was massing inside him, to countervail all his defences.  It was dreadful that he could not find any bearable explanation of why he had clung to that artefact for over an hour.  Dreadful that he could do anything so deliberate and at the same time pointless, without at any moment asking himself what he was doing.

The Noad must have seen the other's shiver, but chose not to comment; instead,  he spoke in a tone of firm gentleness.

"The time approaches when we shall have to be frank, I equally as well as you.  For a start, I must advise you not to feel ashamed of your confession.  You have, you say, been thinking evil thoughts about what you WOULD do if you had the power.  But a distinction needs to be made between thinking of doing a thing, and actually doing it."

Was this some sort of a rescue?  Oh if only he, Oreneg, could believe it! 

"Yes, that's so - practically.  But morally?  To have thought the stuff - is that not evil?  Is it not a mere accident of circumstance, that it did not get as far as being performed?"

"Maybe not," said the Noad.  "That's to say, maybe it's not evil anyway, but something else."

"What, then?"

"Garbage," said the Noad.

This further swat at Oreneg's ego squashed him down to point at which he had no further to sink.  He was now deprived of even that negative dignity and false grandeur which the category of evil might permit.  Not even a villain, he was a nobody, garbage alone being the status that remained to him; and as a consequence he could not muster the energy of rage, but sagged instead, in moping dejection. 

When he caught himself at this, the belated recovery began.

As befitted one who, in a thuzolyr election to the sunnoadex, had advanced to within one step of the golden cloak, Oreneg Vadon began to ride rather than merely tumble along his fate-wave.  It was still a descent but he could make it to some degree a controlled slide, a glissade of humiliations, with a prospect of a rise on the other side of the trough.

"I realize," he said thoughtfully, "that anyone can gather artefacts from Fyaym and take the risk of tinkering with them, and that it may not be altogether realistic to pity or condemn oneself for having taken that risk.  Maybe.  I can't be sure.  So much of it I don't remember."

"Ah, it can happen to anyone," remarked the Noad, steering the conversation into a minimising duet, now that he could see that the punches he'd delivered had knocked the other man onto the right track.  "We're all vulnerable, and in his own way each one of us is uniquely bad.  Not to worry, provided one doesn't get snared by the idea that one's own uniqueness is more unique than any of the others!"

"Point taken," said Oreneg Vadon, surveying the ruined waste of his self-respect with a desolate inner eye.  The universal equality of uniqueness!  One could never excel in what was allotted to everyone.  This being obvious, how could he ever for one moment have forgotten that the gifts of Fortune are not achievements but gratuities?  One might as well feel smug about the shape of one’s nose, as presume to glory in the extent of one’s abilities.  Yet such was this trough of depression and shame, hope could now whisper the idea that henceforth his life-path must lead him upwards.  He could be led by a new longing for victory and revenge against whatever damaging force had influenced him and others so direly.  After all, the Noad had more or less assured him that individual guilt wasn't the whole story.  Some sort of wider moral disease had begun to break out in Syoom.

The satisfied Noad, slowly nodding at what he saw in the other's face, judged the moment ripe to take the next step to save that face.

"A big thing is happening," he said, "and you can be a part of it..."


The region known as Beown is roughly equidistant from the cities of Skyyon and Narar, and 4,000 miles from each; similarly between Yoon and Jador, 3,500 miles from each.  Beown's few thousand square miles are sparsely populated, yet popular with thoughtful explorers.  Thus at any one time the region is likely to contain a scatter of savants and wayfarers from across Syoom. 

These wandering visitors never reach firm conclusions about the history of the  low-lying, frozen "Lake" of Beown, or the meaning of the area's ghostly silver glint.  Agreement extends to the proximate cause: quite evidently the gralm which covers most of the plains of Ooranye has here been swept away, by an unknown process, to reveal the planetary mantle of ice. 

Why, though, has much of the ice been whipped into jagged "waves" mixed with darker rock?  The beautiful, sinister spectacle is admired and intellectually dismissed, as yet one more unknowable marvel of the previous Great Cycle of Ooranye.

Knowledge, therefore, of the kind which Terran scientists seek - that's to say, conscious knowledge of physical processes, of cause and effect - is not the aim of the roaming savants during their visits to Beown.  Rather, what they must be after (Yadon mused with his cloak wrapped round him) is a typically Uranian defensive tough-mindedness; a toning of the imagination's reflexes against likely assault from the unknown.

He felt it himself, that reflex-toning, as he stood on the edge of the glinting wildness, and he enjoyed how its freshness breezed into him as though he were once more the newly arrived Earthman, goggling at the scene on this Seventh World.  Could he, in fact, be in for one of those bouts of outright Earthly consciousness? 

Probably not, he decided.  Nowadays those old ego-tracks were quite rare.  Mostly his awareness had become accustomed to float in the stable amalgam of his dual identity, Uranian-fused-with-Terran.

Of course, minor gear-shifts in his personality were to be expected.  They came with the little shocks, the wobbles in life's road which might cause him to veer several times a day, sometimes approaching quite close to the boundary between lanes... but actually to cross?  No, he didn't think so.  Not again.  He was through with that.

Hardly had he formed the thought, when he was proved wrong. 

Seamlessly the segue came upon him, just as he turned his head -

The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:

The villagers are keeping their respectful distance.  None of my colleagues have arrived yet.  Until they do, I must play my part alone, focus on my duties and not falter.  Did that old woman notice me give a start just then?

"Old", of course, is not the word: "elderly", rather, insofar as Hedjel Ummungul is the Elder of Beown and fits the part well.  More than that, she knows a lot about the world.  She has met the Sunnoad, and she knows who I am. 

She says in an amused tone, "Cease your restless pacing, Yadon."

"I just have."  My reply sounds a bit snappy in my own ears, but she is obviously unconcerned; old in experience, she has the manner of one who has 'seen it all'.

"If none of them arrive," she remarks, "it won't be the end of the world."

I satirically retort: "For that matter, even if it were the end of the world, the universe would carry on."

That slight head-shake of hers...  Is this what bothers me most of all - not the chance of failure of the rendezvous, but my failure to impress the Elder?  I keep wishing I could convince her of the importance of the occasion. 

In turn, what unsettles me about that is the extent to which I now care what people think.

The good old life I enjoyed on this world until fairly recently was free of any such obsession.  How nostalgically I now look back on the days when I roamed without responsibility!  How my circumstances have changed since I received my commission from Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437, darn him! 

(Better not say "darn him" out loud here.  Not even in English.  Ever since I was milked of that language in Olhoav, it has spread among hobbyists, and is beginning to be known in unexpected parts of this most un-English world.)

Shall they ever return, those old days of mine, those Yadon-the-free-wander days?  Perhaps, once this job is over.  Well, that is certainly an incentive to get it done!  But if the enterprise is to succeed, people must support it...

I am glaring frustratedly at Hedjel Ummungul.

With her usual perspicacity she has divined my thought.  "Don't worry, Yadon - the expedition will go ahead (if it does) without my views affecting the outcome."

"Nevertheless, sponndar Hedjel," I smile, "I have a strong urge to try and convert you!"

"Why is that?  What do I matter?"

"I'll tell you why - it's because I look upon you as an indicator.  Thus, to cure you of your skepticism will bode well for the level of public support, at this crucial early stage, for the deliverance of Olhoav."

She laughs, and points into the sky.  "Look up there, and forget about me."

My gaze follows her finger.  My heart misses a beat at the sight of the oval shape rising over the horizon from the direction of the Sunward pole.  It is the ship from Skyyon!  The man has kept his word; of course he has; the Sunnoad must keep his word... 

How supremely satisfying it is, to watch the vessel as it swells in view, bestowing  the gift of confidence in destiny that you get when riding a good fate-wave, the buoyant feel for an occasion when things are about to come right.  I can forget about trying to convert people.  What need of persuasion when history is on your side?

Huger and huger looms the skyship, magicking away the minutes.

It comes to rest over my head, at about the height of a church spire above the ground.

My eyes follow the opening nadir-hatch and the platform that floats down to rest on the ice.  A man steps off the platform; I see he is not the Sunnoad.  My mind begins a cautious recoil from confidence.  I glance at Hedjel.  She wears a look on her face that says 'no comment'. 

The man from the ship walks up to me, stops and greets me:

"Skimjard, sponndar Yadon.  I am Tarl Ezart of Skyyon, bringing you a message from Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437."

He holds out a packet.

I take it from him and respond: "Skimjard, sponndar Tarl.  The fact that the Sunnoad has sent me a message, instead of coming in person for the Cincture, has more significance than any words in his message can possible contain."

Heavens above, that's a rebuke, I realize as soon as the words are out of my mouth.  I wonder whether the whole mission has been cancelled, but only for a moment does that cold wild thought blow through my mind.  It's not cancelled; it can't be.  But the support of the Sunnoad's presence is lacking, and that must mean that the occasion has been dealt a serious wound. 

Still, fortunately, I have not exhibited my dismay; I owe it to myself and to my mission to show myself no less cool than this courier-bloke, this Tarl Ezart.

That name, as a matter of fact, is one I recollect having heard.  He’s a native of Skyyon, and, as such, he's a more centrally based adventurer than I; one who doubtless often sees Brem Tormalla at work in the palace of the Zairm during the hours of day.  Well-placed, therefore, to be awarded missions, quests, tasks – including that of bringing me the great man’s apologies for absence.

Forthwith, something emboldens me, fuels me with a capacity for resistance to the facts.  Or rather, a preference for some facts over others.  Favourite fact: the earlier hours of today were preferable to now.  They surpassed the present in fidelity to hope’s script.  I beckon them and those memories muscle forward like minders who shoulder into dominance, to form a protective circle, to ensure that no fact dares to disturb my mind’s eye while it accords priority where it is deserved, and does so far more vividly than my bodily eyes, allowing me to cancel the present disappointment and focus instead upon those splendid earlier hours -

The first arrival was the fine athletic woman who zoomed up to halt by the icy lake shore, the sight of her rousing me to give the glad greeting: “Skimjard, Lemedet Tanek, Availer of Pjourth!”

And she replied with an ebullient smile, “Skimjard, Yadon!  I call myself Yozazel now."

"Why the name-change?  If you don't mind me asking."

"You ask me that?" she grinned; "you, Nyav Yuhlm alias Yadon?  You've started something, Earthmind!  Or at any rate, in me you have.  - But where are all the others?  I see no one else here; am I the first, or maybe the last?  Whichever it be, it's good to see you again."

"You are indeed the first, 'Yozazel'."  Realizing that this word was close to yozazar, 'Quester', I added: "How perfect a sobriquet for the first Recruit to arrive for the Cincture!"  I gave her a Terran-style hug, not something I should have dared with anyone but an extrovert Pjourthan.  We chatted some more and then she wandered off to look at the Settlement of Beown, while I kept watch by the ice-lake shore, waiting for the others.  I was more confident than ever that they would come.

Come they did, from varied directions, one after the other.  The second arrival was another adventurous woman called Hrezin Medd.  She is from Lysyon in Ux.  I interviewed her twenty-five days ago, and she impressed me with her speculations about Dempelath's possible moves when the time comes for us to attack him.  Hrezin is as concise as Yozazel is expansive.  "We must remember, that while we shall have all of Syoom at our back, he, though outnumbered, will be on his home ground, with Fyayman surprises at his back."

From the crag-pierced plain of the Moraar came the third recruit, the Logician, Laro Hing.  A few dozen days back I had managed to lure him from his eyrie on the ridge of the Krokkembar, by means of a letter full of appeals to his professional skills.  Upon arrival here at Beown he endorsed what Hrezin had said, citing his experience with the myriad artefacts which form the cultural detritus of this inconceivably ancient planet on which the reach of history shades back into geological time.  I expressed relief that he was here for today's commitment-ceremony.  His austere face cracked into a rare smile.  "I wouldn't miss this voyage," he said, "for all the treasures of the Nefforlank."  Remembering what he meant, I nodded in grim appreciation but did not encourage further talk about our experience of the Moraar's "worst place", lest that sombre topic dampen my euphoria at the way things were going.  Yet in a way it added to the sense of triumph, at having attracted such exceptional talent to the historic enterprise for which I had been honoured to gather the personnel.

The fourth arrival further increased my elation: it was the Grardesh notable, Oreneg Vadon.  He's the fellow who reached second position in that thuzolyr-election to the sunnoadex which Brem Tormalla won.  I had had some doubts about Oreneg, not so much from the few dealings I had had with him so far, more from a hunch that the greater a man's ability the greater his vulnerability to ego-traps.  Anyhow, this formidable character arrived, modest in demeanour, greeted me soft-spoken and appeared more withdrawn and tired than I had seen him before.  He seemed disinclined to converse, and I suggested he relax with the others in the village nearby, while I waited for the ship from Skyyon.  With an easy nod he re-mounted and skimmed away to join the other recruits.

The next hour saw three further arrivals, names I'd managed to enroll in the enterprise during the previous fifty days of energetic "head-hunting": two men, Niom Rax of Jaax and Gnarr Solairn of Invun, and one woman, Hevad Quafroa of Jador.  I do not know them well.  For the same of speed, I have allowed my hunches to "call the shots", to enlist the gifted and the reliable on the basis of reputation.  At the last, just as I had begun to worry, I saw strolling towards me - he must have left his skimmer at the village - the dark and hairy giant, Dezagan.

"I trust I am in time," said the kalyar in his deep voice.  "I delayed because the voices of custom kept rumbling at me."

"Oh?  Rumbling what?"

"Bidding me reconsider."

I grinned, "All they achieved was to time your arrival to maximum effect.  You're probably the last - except for the Sunnoad himself, whom we're now waiting for.  Do you want to wait here with me?"

"No, thank you, I shall wait with the others."  He turned and went.  I did not fully understand the exaggerated respect - if that is what it was - that made them keep back while I alone of our company stood watching by the lake shore; unless they were simply tired... but no, these were the elite of all the adventurers of Syoom.  Anyway, the main thing was, they had kept their word, they had come to the rendezvous...

...And here they are now, for they must have seen the skyship and are walking from the village, ceremonious in their stride, to gather for the Cincture at last.

As if a camera clicks in my brain, I sharply register the scene to make sure I never forget it.  Beyond this band of individuals advancing in line abreast to keep their appointment with destiny, I see the faint waves of the bare Nalgudda hills which distantly encircle Beown and emphasize the loneliness of this spot; how perfect was the Sunnoad’s choice of venue free from the pull of all distraction: a fitting place from which to launch Syoom’s campaign against Dempelath's evil darkness.  Our hard-sought band has gathered together at what will be a landmark for future memories of Brem Tormalla’s reign. 

It would be more so if only he were here. 

The present grips my mind once more.  "If only" - what rubbish is that thought – the event will go ahead regardless; we shall make sure of that.  Here they come close, the recruits; their line curving as they co-operate to form, with me, a ring, a ring which leaves a space for Tarl Ezart, for he too, in a move that earns glances of approval from the rest of us, steps forward to join the Cincture. 

Their eyes turn to me.  They all see that I am holding the packet with the gold emblem.  Except for Tarl Ezart they must all assume that I have read the Sunnoad’s message.  No matter.  No more delay.  The procedure begins.

The ceremony of the Cincture is of a rare, uninterruptable design well-known to every educated Uranian.  I too (since my days in Olhoav’s great library) know all about it, and though wonderment seizes me, it is no surprise when the round green glow begins to form in the centre of our circle.  It reminds me of a circular radar screen, though it lies flat on the ground; its pointer scans radially, round and round as if to say to each of us in turn, You are recruited – You are committed - You are married to your task.  Three times or more it goes around,  and now it begins to fade. 

I suddenly blink as I realize it’s gone, glimmering back to whatever layer of the racial subconscious it may inhabit.  That’s that.  Sighs from all round.  Bowed in thought, we stand in subdued awareness; none of us stupid enough to wonder out loud how far the vision was “real”.  Presently we look up, meeting each other's eyes. 

I can tell by the forceful smiles that the immediate spell has relaxed but also that it's left us with no going back.  We all understand that we shall never be the same. What binds us is a memory that will never let go.  It's a memory of purpose and commitment so powerful, it has fastened around us like the click of a belt that cannot be undone. 

So far it has been achieved quietly, but now feeling is that some spoken words from me would be appropriate.  Before the circle breaks up, therefore, I say:

"As the Terrans would say, we have 'taken a vow".  And though we number but few, we suffice to give our purpose the critical mass.  Its momentum will ensure that the expedition to rescue Olhoav shall be launched, in the Sunnoad's name if not in his presence."

Hearing my own words, I feel as though a rag has wiped across my awareness, ridding me of the dust or dirt which had smudged me with doubts.  I look down at the packet which is still in my hand.  My choices have narrowed to a point.  It's time to open the thing.  Not only that, but I must read it out loud to this assemblage.  That what they're expecting.  They watch me as I open it - and nohow can I disappoint them.  Go ahead, Yadon, I tell myself, go ahead as though you were of the confidence that the contents will not make you look like a fool.

“'Greetings from Brem Tormalla to the Cincture of Beown,’” it begins (and my audience sigh their satisfaction: it's proof he'd had no doubt that they would go through with the ceremony.  Such evidence of the Sunnoad’s trust, in the very first sentence, is already message enough.)  I read on:

“’You have planted a tree of purpose that will stand sturdy against all blasts of distraction.  The fact that I could not be with you today, while most regrettable, is far from being a sign that you mission lacks priority.  On the contrary!’”

Now what is this leading up to?  Before my eye scans the next few lines I look up to scan the faces of my audience.  They look back at me with a readiness to swallow the promise held out, and I then realize that I too am leaning to gulp the fate-wave just as hungrily as they.  The surfing of fate!  Reinforcing the Uranian slant to my soul!  Does any trace remain of my fear of being exposed as a fool?  On the contrary, far from blundering I have done well to reserve the Sunnoad’s letter to this moment.

“’Our move has been anticipated by the enemy,’” I continue to read out.  “’Hitherto the best justification for the mission to rescue Olhoav from tyranny is that by fighting Dempelath over there we can avoid fighting him here.  Now however I must tell you, it is too late to hope that we can confine the struggle solely to Fyaym.  The past few days have seen a spilth of his power into Syoom.  I have acted to contain it, but in doing so I had to miss our rendezvous. 

“’Whether or not the Spilth is a deliberate diversion on the enemy's part, it will not prevent us from coming to get him.  You with your commitment have made sure of that, even if our path to victory turns out to be less straight than expected.  In order to concert measures I hope you will be able to meet me in Skyyon three days from now.’”

I pause and look them over.  To apply the Sunnoad’s “tree of purpose” figure of speech, they are a solid-trunked set of people.

“Three days…” nods Tarl Ezart.  “And then, perhaps, some hundreds of more days to prepare the fleet.”

“Must there be a fleet?” inquires Hrezin Medd.  “We don’t want another Phosphorus Era disaster.”

Laro Hing says, “We’re not intending to conquer Fyaym, so we can’t be compared with Fiarr Fosn.  However, even a moderate-sized fleet for action against one Starside city will take hundreds of days to organize…”

I let them talk on.  My peripheral vision catches a minor movement: Elder Hedjel Ummungul, standing somewhat apart, has shaken her head.  Ah, so she's still skeptical, I see; written all over her is the opinion that the crest of this wave will be followed by a trough.  To her, I guess, the flow of fate will average out to one of history's minor ripples. 

Doubtless a preferable belief. 


Uranian Throne Episode 22:   

The Golden Cloak