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 as he watched the Olhoavan immigrants' celebrations.

Their hero, Yadon, had just been honoured with the role of Recruiter for the great expedition which the Sunnoad at long last intended to launch, to rescue the exiles' home city from the tyranny of Dempelath.

The tall humanoid cared naught for this.  He had, it is true, become faintly aware of a whiff in the cultural atmosphere of Syoom which suggested that Dempelath must be defeated for the good of all Nenns.  But what did this matter to a kalyar?

Beneath his facial fur, a complacent smile expressed the mood of the evolved man, contentedly aware that the future belonged, not to the glade's temporary inhabitants, but to himself and his kind.  In tranquil contemplation he allowed his gaze to rove around the nearby trestle tables, to the shacks at the far end, and the lively exiles 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... 

"Dezagan!"  It was spoken behind his back, in a harsh whisper he well knew. 

The sound of his name impelled him to turn, to face a minor interruption, a negligible annoyance.  He did not mind obeying the crooked finger of old Zingalorb the Watch.  Zingalorb was, after all, the Elder and censor-in-chief of all the kalyars of the Forest of Namrol.  Some respect was due to that office.  Or, if not respect, at least tolerance.

"So you've been following me?" asked Dezagan as he allowed himself to be drawn back from the brink of the glade.

"No," said the Elder; "it was an easy guess that you would be here."

"But why act upon your guess?" 

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."  He jerked a thumb at the glade.  "Your interest has long veered in that direction." 

"Towards that bunch of settlers?"

"Towards the doings of Nenns."

"A purely objective interest," shrugged Dezagan.  "Not an addiction."

"Yet it may prove unhealthy."


That monosyllable, and the calm smile which accompanied it, caused Elder Zingalorb the Watch to waver, to ask himself: Must I answer this young fellow?  Must the 'doings' be named?  Yes, no help for it, they are the reason why this headstrong type must be warned off, and so, since he's challenged me to given him the reason why what he wants to do may prove unhealthy, I shall let him have it -

"Because," sighed the Watch, "the Nenns are about to gather around one of their heroes."

"So they are."

"And we can guess what that means!" insisted Zingalorb.  "They'll launch one of their epic adventures!"

Dezagan laughed.  "And you're scared I may be tempted to join in?"

"You may think it funny - but frankly I doubt your strength to resist..."

Dezagan's face was settling 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 our giant future surpasses all that the Nenns can ever be and do."

"Good, so far.  And yet you greatly like to watch them, do you not?"

"Granted, often enough I'm fascinated by the patterns of their dead-end doings, but that is hardly a motive for me to participate!  So you can rest assured that mine is a spectator's fascination, an enjoyment of pattern, no more.  Broken Skies! - I don't even like those folk all that much."

"Hmm..."  Some deadlocked moments dragged by.  Zingalorb's stare, darkly skeptical, probed.  It was met by Dezagan's unworried countenance.

Zingalorb mused: He trusts himself, I can see.  Absolutelyt trusts himself; and yet it is nonetheless a fact that some of our number have been lured by the Nenns' swirls of action; lured and lost to our number.  It is a tendency which I can no longer ignore.  It is high time I conferred with the Nenn who is at the root of the trouble.  The moment is oppportune, for the man is right now within reach.  I need merely step into the glade and make Yadon the Starsider hero understand that we kalyars are not to be included in his recruitment drive. 

Aloud he said: "Wait here, Dezagan."

Striding with determination through the curtain of foliage in the direction of the partying Nenns, the censor disappeared from Dezagan's view.

The young kalyar gazed after him and shrugged.

He doesn't believe me, Dezagan wryly mused, but - it doesn't matter!  In due course he shall believe me because, no matter how many days it takes, you can't beat innocence.

I am innocent and I see no need for further argument; yet for courtesy's sake I shall await his return.

Dezagan sat down on a tree-stump and reverted to his habitual condition of happy daydream.

The multi-coloured patterns of history, the sparkling wonders of life and time, swished across the view-plate of his awareness - for kalyars know a vast amount.  It is natural and inevitable that their stock of knowledge is so ample.  Currently they have little to do except listen to travellers' tales and accumulate data from evidencer clouds, while living in peaceful poverty off the fruits of forest land and looking forward, in place of present ambition, to reincarnation in their distant, glorious future.  They are quite reconciled to this life of waiting, for they have destiny's promise that they are the heirs to all human history: heirs of all the false starts that have ever been, all the setbacks and defeats which shall be slotted with ultimate justification into the final fulfilment.

The most splendid false start, for kalyars, had been their very own dead-end efflorescence during Eras 74 to 76.  Those were the bright and powerful days when they had openly vied with Nenns for control of Syoom; three long eras during which the evolved men had striven for mastery and had lost.

It had all been premature, of course, but wonderfully glorious nevertheless, glorious to imagine ever since, and so now Dezagan daydreamed about the kalyars' rise during the Tungsten Era; and then about the culminating conference at which kalyars and Nenns aimed to thrash out their spheres of influence, and the transcendent Rhenium Moment that lasted the few hours of Era 75, during which the World Spirit uniquely intervened; followed by the Osmium Era, crowded with sagas such as those of the Great Triangle and of Sunnoad Taldis Norkoten, but also allowing, under cover of continuing inter-species rivalry, the kalyars' competitive ambition to beat an epic retreat... 

It was during that last downward wave of fortune that they had gradually jettisoned all present hopes, rejecting them for a better faith, a more certain far future.  Yet the tapesty of those old eras, stretched across forty-one million days, had not been woven in vain.  The epic gifted Dezagan with more stored daydreams than his imagination could ever re-play.  Such a crop of race-memories yielded a never-ending store of contemplative delight; even grumps like Zingalorb shared the boon. 

Zingalorb and the other censors were apt to worry merely because they feared that the true faith might might be snatched away from those who backslid from the future vista into participation in the present, that is to say, into disastrous wave-riding adventures alongside Nenns.  Yet what could be more innocent than to bask in peaceful contemplation of present epics?  To enjoy the spectacle of current doings in a mellow frame of mind, the same calm spirit as the appreciation of bygone adventure, was the opposite of an illicit craving for activism.  On the contrary, it showed maturity.  It evinced the large perspective which kalyars ought to have, focused as they are upon far-future greatness.

Only, could Zingalorb ever see this?  Could he ever be persuaded to accept the innocent interpretation of such interest in current affairs?  Dezagan hoped so.  But since he was far from sure, he used the time, seated on his tree-stump waiting for the censor's return, to compose imaginary debates, to foil any possible counter-thrust: 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.  That's where you're headed: a craving for present epic rather than mere past.

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.  In that sense, and that sense only, I need interest myself in the present - namely, that the present polishes the past.

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 themselves, but on the patterns they weave, in quiet retrospect, in time's tapestry.

Zingalorb:  But suppose you yourself wish to join in the weaving business?

Dezagan:  I myself am not a weaver, I'm an admirer.  That will occupy me sufficiently for this lifetime.  And when we kalyars are reborn into the following Great Cycle, that will be time enough for us to 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, with his mouth tight shut and a frustrated look on his face: it's as though imagined conversation with him had really taken place, as though he knows he's beaten.  Which is fine, but...  I'd prefer that the silence did not drag like this.

Dezagan had become uneasy.  This can't be a confrontation - thought he.  Neither of us is saying anything; still, I'd prefer him to berate me and get the quarrel over with.  Ah, what's this?  Zingalorb has raised an arm; beckoning again?  What does the old Watch want now?  Oh, well, censors must be humoured. 

Dezagan stood up and walked forward.

When they were close enough, the elder said huskily, "I must check."

"Check on what?" snapped Dezagan.

"On whether you are ashamed of the thoughts you have been harbouring."

Ashamed?  Ashamed?  Dezagan ground his teeth.  "No."

"Not in the slightest?"

"Not in the slightest!  Look, haven't I made it clear - "

"Good," interrupted Zingalorb with a gleam of white teeth.

" - history's shoots bud retrospective aliveness - "

"Good," said the censor again.

Dezagan's mind belatedly skidded.  Good?  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, a man, one of the Nenns, who had stepped into view and who was standing at the tree-line bordering the next glade. 

A glance was enough to show it to be a figure of distinction, and not just the blue Daon's cloak but the casual stance and far-seeing eye matched with the legend of Yadon. 

Dezagan, uncertain how to ensure against being fooled or tricked by events, fatalistically walked forward, feeling 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 for it existed, so something else must explain this meeting: some unimagined reason 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, yet 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.  "Except you might tell me, skimmjard - 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?"

Zingalorb hesitated.

"Tell him straight, censor," contributed Yadon.

"Dezagan, listen," said the Watch, "admittedly I told you not to get involved, but now..."  And still he struggled for words.

"All right, let me tell him," finished Yadon for him, "why the volte-face."  The utterance of a mysterious Terran phrase had its usual effect on the audience: a soft alien punch which compelled special attention.  "It's due to a dose of this." 

Whereupon the Starsider, the Daon of Olhoav, the slayer of Zyperan, 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 on Dezagan, to whom it seemed, as he stared at it ever more closely, that daylight had been halved.  A dimmer-switch had turned, a blanket of solemnity had descended, while Yadon murmured on:

"Different people don't hear the same things in messages of this kind, which are direct communications of thought, but after all, isn't that also partly true of words?  My guess is, you'll find, broadly speaking, the same as the few others who have experienced the crystal, if, as I suggest, you should 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 you demur."

Dezagan's hand closed on the crystal.  Might as well give in, the wave was so strong.  He put it to his forehead.

Then, too late, eyes squeezed shut in desperation, he strove to remove his stuck hand.  Yadon and Zingalorb watched expressions of evident horror chase each other over the befurred face that talked of something tearing through Dezagan, something unimaginable to those who had not seen the Message, indescribable by those who had. 

The dire effect lasted for some seconds; then 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 back the crystal. 

Yadon took it, but kept up the murmuring flow: "You'll understand that an expedition across the world is likely to require a variety of personnel.  I'm inclined to bet that the presence of a kalyar will prove to be a good idea..."

Dezagan found himself saying, "I accept."

Zingalorb had had to undergo a more drastic change of view and now he complained: "I wish I knew what the Xolch is going on!  Why have matters reached this point anyway?"

No polite answer existed in any Uranian tongue.  Zingalorb regretted his utterance of exasperation.  After all, well brought-up Nenns and kalyars alike had the ability in common to whiff or hear the mood of fate, which played the overture of a coming crisis far in advance, long before any verbal inquiry could become appropriate - the more so as 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 heads. 

Yadon however was apt to be an exception to rules.  His short laugh resounded like an audible shrug:  "Aye - you may well ask - what the devil is going on?"

At the sound of another unfamiliar English word, Zingalorb sighed, "Something worse than Xolch, it would seem.  But please ignore my grumble, Yadon; you at any rate look confident enough."

"That's because I'm slap-happy," the Starsider said, suddenly grinning.  "I've found 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 Zingalorb and Dezagan were at that moment thinking the same thing - that the man could be trusted, even when pitting himself against the unmentionable.  They knew the legend that his mind was part alien and now this, reinforced by odd elements in his vocabulary, 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 folks," 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 propelling him out of choppy waves into a sea of outward calm.  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.

Visibly, the Elder 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.  In a way he was, moreover, comforted by this pettiness.     

"Well, we were both right, as it happens," he said tactfully to the censor.  "Though normally it would be wrong to get involved in the Nenns' action-games, here the principle won't apply, for - "

"Yes, yes," said Zingalorb, "this is no game, all right."

Continuing to think it through, Dezagan remarked: "Yadon must have heard what we kalyars achieved in eras 74 to 76.  No wonder it's occurred to him to recruit one of us.  Really, there are no dead ends in history."

"Retrospectively alive," whispered Zingalorb.  "Reaching forward towards us, forcing us to make this exception to our non-interference rule.  And afterwards, will we - in particular 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, who was 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.  Nothing's lost so long as we 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 meanwhile an evil may be so great, you have to fight.

Accepting the Starsider's invitation, Dezagan crossed the leafy boundary and entered the glade.  Trying to spot Yadon he looked around at the other Starsider immigrants who were sitting at tables enjoying good cheer or chatting as they wandered about, circulating in a state of bliss at the fact of their Daon's presence. 

Now the kalyar himself became the object of some attention, turning heads because of his noteworthy height and appearance.  Soon a Nenn got up from his table and strode over to him.  "Skimjard messenger!  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.  "Wonderful!"

"Yes," chuckled Dezagan, "I'm an interested kalyar."

The man laughed delightedly.  "Hence interesting!  We give you warm welcome."  He was much too polite to add what everyone knew - that it was impossible to feel generally 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-looking man approached; an omzyr, by his bordered cloak.  "Skimjard, kalyar!  I 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 someone by the name of Dempelath."

Thergerer said with relish, "Every committed ally counts!  The tyrant of Olhoav sucks the city's light, and in the dimness he causes confused folk to march in formation and chant his slogans, making them feel that they were unimportant before, that their present importance is thanks to him... we don't want that sort of thing to spread..."

Dezagan went on listening to peculiar stories from the Starside city, which confirmed his experience of the message in the crystal.  The cry for help from Olhoav's City-Brain, Dynoom, shaped ideas which were scarcely mentionable, a nightmarish smudge of themes.  All that could be said for certain was that Dempelath had effected a revolution against the very fabric of Uranian life: backgrounders, those vastly numerous extras in the scenes of adventure, were invited to cease being contented with their lot, and were henceforth promised that all of them would enjoy leading roles in the plots which wove the fabric of history.  Darker still were the hints of fate's control-diagram, 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.  During these first five hours of night the gathering gradually diminished as groups and individuals sought their huts in the settlement nearby.

Strolling amongst the lessened numbers, Yadon approached the kalyar and Thergerer 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."

"Just details which mean little as yet," said the kalyar.  "The main message is what the crystal told me."

Yadon nodded, "That thing certainly does the job.  You have no hesitations, then.  You are still for the Sunnoad's rescue mission." 

"How can I refuse?  We kalyars deserve to lose the future we thought was promised, unless we are prepared to abandon our comforts for a while."

Unexpectedly the Starsider said:  "I too must change, away from the cosy fireside in my head, away from an easy selfish life."

"Easy?  Selfish?  Don't you mean adventurous and daring?" asked Dezagan.

Yadon shrugged.  "As a loner, 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 others; now's the time to apply them closer to home." 


Syoom is wide - it is a fifth of Ooranye - and its people various, their attention scattered amongst their myriad different concerns.  Except during the extremely rare historic eomasps which mark the boundary between one era and the next, their hearts do not beat as one.  Some days after Yadon had begun his recruitment, countless folk were far from being likely to hear of it.

Roughly thirteen thousand miles from the Olhoavan exiles' glade, in the region named Oam, a strong-boned woman in the prime of her strength had just begun to climb a spindly pylon.  It quivered with each tread of boot on rung, yet despite its rickety feel she was unworried by the ascent. 

She was a highly reputed "Availer" of Pjourth, by name Lemedet Tanek.

Her employers, the Wunth, were excellent engineers; Lemedet knew she need not fear a material collapse of a structure they had designed and built.  Therefore her safety depended entirely on her own fitness, which superbly exceeded the already excellent Uranian average of supple litheness.  Besides, hesitation would be a waste of time; she must get up this wiry thing in order to begin her day’s work.

Up she went, on a vertical path that looked like vanishing into nothingness amidst the airy vastness of the Obbong Holobb – the Mountains of Flame.

Yet the pylon's height was not the problem.  The real risk in her job would not come from its artificial perch; it would come, if it did, from the surrounding peaks themselves.  Lemedet smiled and tossed out her long hair so that it streamed in the buffeting winds.  Let the mountains do their worst!  She was being well paid, in more ways than one. 

Not only the terms of her bargain were favourable.  She also profited psychologically, from being allowed to prove to the Wunth what a human could do and, by the same token, emphasize what a Wunth could not do.

Her lips stretched into a grin at the thought of those cowardly hemispherical ground-lubbing creatures who, if they'd climbed here, would by this time have been blown off in the gale.  Yes, for all their intellect, they'd never dare come up here... 

Actually, she had better not let her thoughts dwell for too long upon the rather un-pleasing Wunth.  She would direct her mind elsewhere.  Similarly she would blank out the likelihood that one day she'd climb the wire path once too often. 

Instead she would feast her eyes on the rewards: still visible though receding as she climbed.  Stacked in bales on a ledge next to the base of the wire path, those casks and drums of solidified energy were a heartening reminder of the boon which her efforts earned for her beloved city.

A city whose weakness she could not deny.

Climb, climb, step after step... and think of Pjourth, ancient capital of Oam, counted as one of the greatest of Syoom’s disc-on-stem metropoli, yet denied an agricultural surround.  The fields of vheic which fuelled other centres could grow only sparsely in the rocky lands of Oam.  Energy was the great problem for the Pjourthans.

In theory the lack might be remedied by more remote cultivation of the fuel-plants, but it would be a huge task to develop a Pjourthan farming community at long distance, and as for trade with other human settlements - most were largely self-sufficient in this era of history.

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

An obvious enough arrangement: Wunth energy supplies in return for the human daring of the Availers. 

The shimmering grey mountains unclenched their vistas around her as with her athlete's muscles she continued to climb until, after an hour, she reached the three-way focal command point where wires, slung from slope to slope to slope, met at a human-sized cage suspended in vastness.

She squirmed in, strapped herself in the chair provided, and bound her blowing hair so as to concentrate on the facing panel of instruments.  From their further side (she knew) nozzles of ray-spouts projected.  

The skeletal cage gave no protection from the winds.  Indeed the wire web in which she was set was so fine that it virtually seemed as though she were at an unconnected airy point miles from the surrounding rocky surfaces of the mountain range.  That feeling of detachment from the ground, a severance which made one feel more like a floater than a climber, could be a useful defence against vertigo. 

Now to attend to the flickerings on the facing mountain slope. 

Mobile mottlings, reminiscent of plant growth speeded up a thousand-fold, formed cinematic near-patterns of pink arcs, glaring as they writhed against the grey rock background.  The patterns threatened to hurl an unidentified blast of meaning. 

Even before she knew what she did, Lemedet counteracted.  It was always like this: her darting eyes and fingers took over while her conscious mind was left to catch up.  She had begun to play upon the instrument panel.  Swish and stab with the rays.  Not everywhere, for that would be impossible, but enough to dissolve the worst concentrations, as her attacking rays leaped at the incipient patterns on the mountain slope.  She must scatter them before their evil could coalesce. That was the game, that was her task.

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. 

"Yes, you can go home now, Efgom.  I relieve you." (Tap, tap, fire, fire, her fingers continued to work as she spoke.)

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

Efgom Hosh was a good friend and colleague, and Lemedet knew that 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?"  (Tap, tap, fire, fire, got that one early...)

"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.

The hours passed.  She kept rhythmically absorbed, her fingers flying over the studs, taking action repeatedly to prevent the coalescence of terrible things.  Fortune stayed with her and she managed not to understand the patterns as she fought them with her lances of radiation.  Sometimes 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 a new sensation stole upon her.  Somewhere close, a presence "on hover"... 

Oh flunnd, she thought.  In her distaste for the closeness of the thing, she did not turn her head.  Nor was she expected to.  One was not required to greet them...  one must simply continue work and answer questions when asked.

Besides, she knew what she would see if she did turn her head.  She'd see the platform floating in air; the rider's leathery, eyeless, hemispherical body, two yards wide and supported by four stubby legs which lengthened and shortened like pistons, thus causing the bulky mass to rock irregularly to a slight degree.  The arms on the other hand were rarely extruded; they remained most of the time retracted and invisible.

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

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

"Never," she said proudly. 

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

"Not to know, is my skill," she scornfully replied.  "I want to go on living, after all."

Moments passed; a modification in the breeze then told her that the Wunth platform had departed - she had been allowed the last word.

It had been easy to say the right kind of thing, to satisfy both the creature and herself.  Grateful at life, Lemedet sang her way through a few more hours, until a bright girl named Senntar, one of the youngest Availers on the team, signalled her arrival as relief, at one of the adjacent work-cages a few miles away.

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

She knew it was; she could see the flashes from Senntar’s cage; but it was polite to confirm.

"Absolutely fine, Lemedet.  You may or may not be aware that you’ve got a visitor down below," her colleague added.  "Name of Yadon."

"Yes, so I heard from Efgom."

"I trust you’ll make a good impression," remarked Senntar with a lilt in her tone.

"Trust away," said Lemedet.

She started on her way down and immediately was to switch off from the stress of her work.  Hours of tension had drained some of her energy, but  the descent of the wiry stair was always easier than the ascent.  Provision had been made for weary workers: every hundred yards or so you would find a quartet of grooved pads, one for each limb, by means of which to slide under gravity as far as the next stop.  Repeating this process, Lemedet descended in hundred-yard spurts of speed, greatly shortening the journey.  Thus the technology of the Wunth was considerate towards human users, though often she preferred to climb down instead of slide down some of the stretches, for that way she could spend time in reflection and enjoyment of the spacious vistas, enjoying also the fact that she did not have to pay any after-hours attention to the coily glitterings on the mountain flanks... 

Even if her luck ran out tomorrow, it was good to count this day's door in life's corridor, this little apartment of success.

Yet today she found she was using the slide-pads more than usual.  It was as though she were in a hurry to get back to the ground.  Why such haste? she asked herself.  Don't say it's curiosity about the man who's asked to see me!  But it would seem so.  Be honest with yourself, Lemedet: perhaps you secretly fear he'll get tired of waiting...

Indignant at that thought, she applied the brakes, slipped out of the pads, and let go of them so that they were drawn back up to their point of origin, while she was left to descend by slow steps, rung by rung, as far as the next stop down.  This gave her some minutes of self-examination, after which, amused, she admitted that, yes, she had clearly been hurrying to meet this Yadon.  Ridiculous - as though she were flattered by the attention of an admirer!  A rather more chilly idea was that she had been impelled by an undiscussable fate-breeze, the ghostly brush of destiny’s wing.  It was unwise to argue with a hunch like that.  Therefore when she reached the next set of slider pads she put them on.  She'd better get down the rest of the way at maximum speed.

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

However, even before she reached the bench, a tall, blue-cloaked figure stood up from it.

Thanks be to the World Spirit that he does not look to be a hard man, thought Lemedet.  Rugged - but not hard.  In fact, smooth, in a way.  Confusing impressions - but what does it matter?

Meanwhile, 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.  "I've had a hard day."  She granted him a smile.  "But only an ordinarily hard day."  They sat. 

"I'm grateful for your attention.  I hardly know how to start." 

"That's not unusual," she said kindly, thinking of all the tourists who were quite flatteringly curious about the work of the Availers and its setting in the Mountains of Flame. 

She thought: I was glimpsing more in him than there really is.  Though he looks impressive he's basically the same as so many others.  They all seek from me a form of words, a souvenir to take home and admire like a splash of abstract art that looks pretty on the wall.  "Start any old where," she encouraged him.   

Evidently the poor fellow was finding it difficult to begin.  Tongue-tied in the presence of the top Availer?  Be that as it might, she was in no great hurry to do aught but sit here.  It was as though they were a companionably idle couple enjoying the view over the flower-decked terraces below. 

Still, as the silence grew prolonged, she prompted:  "Go on - ask away!"

As though he too had enjoyed the quiet, he shifted out of it with a squaring of shoulders.  "To start with, let me say what I understand of why you people are called Availers."

"All right."  Initiative was passing to him, but that didn't worry her, the expert; she could retrieve it whenever she liked...

He said, "an Availer is a rider.  Of risk.  Rules don't avail.  They can't - because the risk is too swift for thought.  So you must go for whatever avails.  Your instinct digs down into your nature.  It reaches some layer of strength which prevents you from being swept away by the forces you challenge.  Thus you've hit upon the only practical approach to your particular job."

"Somebody has explained it well to you."

"Not really; I deduced it from the silences that greeted me when I tried to research you Pjourthans."  His tone flattened, "You are employed by.... beings called the Wunth."

She responded defensively, "They 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, keen to put on a credible performance.  "You see, they need us to clear the slopes around here."

"Clear them of what?"

"Of the think-bombs laid by the Iqdaa."

"The Iqdaa?"

"Yes, yes, the squirming ideographs on the mountains are traps of some kind, laid by beings whose brain-power is as far above that of the Wunth as the Wunth are above us.  I've heard that they are called the Iqdaa, but that's all."  Lemedet paused for breath, relieved at having excavated some sort of answer. 

"So you don't know much." 

"And we don't want to.  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."

The twinkle in his eyes discouraged her from asking to translate.  Wayfarers, after all, were always collecting odd bits of language.  Besides, she was keenest to dwell on her own success; you could almost call it fun, this digging, this guessing.  "I suppose the Iqdaa are trying to enlarge their empire by using some kind of think-bombs to entrap the Wunth with superior visions."

"And in this empire of brain do the Wunth, in turn, try to trap you?"

"Why do you say that?"

"Just asking.  To cover all the possibilities."

"Well, the answer is that they can't," she said forthrightly, "because we Nenns are below their attack-range.  We're intellectually the weakest of the three intelligent species which inhabit the Mountains of Flame."

"Weakness being strength," Yadon nodded.  "Out of your weakness you have cultivated your defence against identity-devouring knowledge." 

That summed it up, she agreed.  Summed it to perfection, so that for a couple of moments she was dumb with admiration.  Then came a suspicion that he was being ironical; she turned him a sharp glance.  But no: he was looking happpy and serious. 

"You grasp the essence," she congratulated him, "of our task.  We destroy the think-bombs without understanding how.  It's the best, the only way to do it.  Ah... not just a tourist, are you, Yadon?  Just what are you doing here?"

To judge from his composure, far from being offended at the sudden demand, he seemed glad to be brought to the point.  "Be patient and I'll explain," he smiled. 

She felt a little shock, a lurch of perspective whereby it was herself, now, whom she saw as the tourist...

Yadon spoke: "I'm going to take you there stage by stage.  For starters: you're valued by the Wunth for your ability NOT to understand."  (She nodded.)  "And they pay you - or they pay Pjourth - in energy-phials; right?"

"Yes, but also," she added, "for me personally it's good to be given work for which I have to stay awake.  I'm proud that it can never be reduced to any tranced routine."

"So you're proud of the kind of 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 lessen the likelihood, one must concentrate, keep focused on evasion..."

"I like the sound of what you're saying, Lemedet.  I want more from you, though - I want to be sure.  A long hangs on it, believe me.  Now listen: you said 'concentrate'; but on what?  If you don't know understand what it's about..."

"How do I know?" she murmured, playing for time, and by the mercy of fate again the answer came, it popped up within her from the subconscious ocean of instinct, and she was able to say:

"How do I know what to fire at?  How do I sniff the scent of what is evil to the Wunth?  Evil is reality's misbehaviour or overflow, whoever you are; it's whatever prompts me to rid the slope of an intruder which I recognize by a sort of pinch at the soul - "

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

She turned a blazing glare at him, a don't-you-dare-be-laughing glare; but he met it with a firm and steady look. 

This - the look silently said - is not a tease. 

She subsided.  All right, all right, she thought.  He's paying me a real compliment, then.  But -

She shook her head and contradicted him: "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'll just be doing what another could do, and 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."

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.

He spoke on:  "We aim to do a great deed: to rescue a city - my Starside home city - from a tyrant who may ultimately threaten us all.  I'm collecting the most suitable recruits from all over Syoom..."

Incredulity's counter-attack then gripped her:

"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!" she repeated.

Yet, even as she spoke thus, silent belief wormed its way into her with a message of secret gladness, chiming with that expectancy with which Yadon's arrival had enveloped the scene.  An expedition to Starside, led by the Sunnoad in person.  The sheer glamorie of the sunnoadex made it hard to believe that anyone would dare to lie about this.

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

"You call that an answer?  Rumours?  What's required is evidence!  Then it would be time for me to believe your news."  But she was already believing it.  Just a little longer she continued to resist in words:  "I admit that if I had the inclination I could become far more knowledgeable about rumours than I am now.  Vague talk doesn't interest me all that much."

"Ah, yes, I admit the news is cloudy, losing definition as it spreads."

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

"None of that," reproved Yadon.  "The Sunnoad himself is from Pjourth, after all."

So he is, thought Lemedet proudly.  So he is!  Her chest heaved.  She was almost ready -

"Now listen, sponndar," Yadon said with no lilt, "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 of this.  It was sent by the city-brain of Olhoav on Starside.  I myself brought it all the way across Fyaym."

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

Within a couple of minutes she dazedly handed it back to him.

"You see, now, don't you," said the Starsider, "that although it would be unthinkable not to send the expedition, it would be worse than unthinkable to send it without success.  That means we must - absolutely must - take the right personnel.  Recruitment must be perfect."

"Perfect," echoed her dazed voice, her outlook transformed.

"On the other hand it may fall short 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 few key personnel before we announce the rest.  The commitment of those chosen will boost our scheme to the next stage.  In other words..."

Lemedet said breathlessly, "A Cincture?"

"A Cincture."


About nine thousand miles from where the Availer was being recruited by Yadon, another capable sponndar was plodding across a bare plain.

The plodder was a young man whose extreme alertness, and consequent gaunt tautness, made him look older than he was.  In his right hand he held a sort of gun with a flared muzzle.  It was not a projectile weapon in the ordinary sense; as though the man himself were confused as to its nature he now and then gloomed at it with knitted brows.

Presently he halted his steps and looked about 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. 

Grard was his home, his beloved home.

Nevertheless, buildings which stood close to the disc's edge became targets of the weapon's weaving muzzle as he sought to point it steadily.  At the same moment his mouth drooped with the scowl of one who takes aim at a hated enemy.  His finger began to squeeze the trigger while his eyes narrowed to slits -

Then those same eyes flew open in amazement as he caught his breath in wonderment and his throat produced a strangled sound as he almost uttered the question aloud:  Broken Skies, what the flunnd am I doing? 

He had no notion why he, Oreneg Vadon, distinguished Notable of Grard, was out here on the plain.  Why wasn't he instead in comfort in his urban apartments or his mansion in the Halaok Hills?  As for the peculiarly shaped object he held - a shiver went through him, a sense of the closeness of some great evil narrowly avoided. 

In a drive towards rationality he commanded himself to stop and think; at the same time he could not help but listen to the noise of the wind, and he heard and felt, mixed with that, a squeaky vibration in the barrel of the gun or whatever it was.  Too many impressions at once, eh?  He raised the gun-thing to his ear, then fumbled with the catch.  The barrel broke open.

At that instant he understood a fraction more, for he knew he had released something.  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? 

Other, less clear ideas were terrible... and he blocked them off so as not to allow time for his intellect to formulate them.  He was in no condition to embark upon adventures of that kind; the idea smelt far too risky, given that he could not remember any reasons for his presence or his actions out here in the open barrenness.

He set off at a run towards his parked skimmer. 

Reaching it, he ran his hand over the smooth metal reality of its hull.  His mobility was assured, at least!  Yet, how important was that?  Could a skimmer speed him fast enough to escape the doubts about his own self - doubts which crowded in on him while he gasped for breath? 

Well, maybe that depended... on his choice of destination. 

His options were many.  That was a reassuring thought: the spacious ranks of possibility, assembled like a crowd of cheering, trustworthy supporters.  Most comforting of all was the quite sensible point that he wouldn't be thinking like this if he were slipping into the opening stages of nebulation.  That was always a worry for those Nenns who dared too much, but whatever was wrong with him, it was not that empty madness which came (from all that he’d heard) from a sudden overwhelming awareness of being small.  He, on the contrary, was nagged by the opposite: he (or rather his ego) was too big!  Distended and unwieldy, his sense of his own identity caused his feelings to lurch destructively into an excess of ambition, teetering on the verge of guilty nightmare.

Well, doubtless his psyche had been stung by one of the innumerable hostile influences of this giant world.  That sort of thing happened now and then, and one's 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 repelling a hostile mood!  

His pride and dignity had returned.  Two two main lines of action now presented themselves.

He could return to the city, this minute.  From that hefty trunk of opportunity, various options branched.  On one of them 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.  It would be a pleasant way to relax, in communal, patriotic, mind-nourishing satisfaction in the heritage of Grard: 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 continuously 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...)

Oreneg shook himself out of historical reverie.  But somehow it had tarnished the plan he’d had, of riding around the ancient moving way.  Or perhaps some other stupid emotion was responsible.  He puzzled over the question.  Some unaccountable menace did seem to be associated with the innocent-seeming idea of a Travelator-tour of his own city.  All right then, what else might he 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, the pesky mood that assailed him… haha...  the thought caused an itch in his right arm. 

Not yet time to draw laser: but the moment must come.

With a theatrical nod of determination Oreneg Vadon straightened his back, 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.  It does not crowd the city too closely 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 now 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.  (This division between the inner and outer flaon has been fancifully compared to the 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.  As he skimmed past them Oreneg Vadon greeted farmers, stewards and owners like himself making use of an arc of the Sixif Snand; soon he reached the turning which gave onto his estate.

Absurd yet compelling, a sudden daydream invaded his mind.  The vision caused him to decelerate abruptly.  His skimmer settled towards the gralm while he blinked in confusion. 

While he strove 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 his ordinary physical sense of sight.  His mind's eye, abler than his retina, went exploring.  He found himself partly in the realms of what might be, and partly of what might have been.  It was a realm of mighty regrets, mightier temptation...  Luckily for him, it was all too much to assimilate in one go, and while the trap was being laid 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 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 made an effort to moderate the grim look he could feel on his face.  That lost scheme or daydream - no one must guess it.  Even he himself - especially he himself - must not think of it, but if it came back, he must deal with it himself, without any questions from his intelligent, watchful staff.

The restful, harmonious sprawl of Ahantorol glimmered before him, and thankfully 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 on his next move.  He hoped he'd have the time alone, though since by reputation he was almost always approachable he left the salon door wide open behind him.

"Sponndar O-V," said a voice.

So much for peace; hardly a minute had gone by.  Oreneg turned to face the speaker: a stringy, bearded man younger than himself, who held in his arms a furry creature that bulged and squirmed.

"Skimmjard, Naldorn," replied Oreneg Vadon to his highly-pad pzak: assistant, trouble-shooter, steward.  "So you found him."

"Or he found me," shrugged the steward as he deposited the animal, who immediately ran to its master; "probably the latter, if when I saw him skittering about in Field 17 he was 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.  How his 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, the thing knew it was time for the dark-shape-on-the-wall game (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 had been amusing itself this very day at the expense of Oreneg Vadon?

He must review that daydreaming ambition which had irrupted into his awareness while he was approaching his house.  It was time to confront the notion rather than kick it downstairs into his subconscious.  Decision made, he dared the picture to re-surface in his mind.  Sure enough it came, and this time he allowed it to preen itself.  Like a display on a colourful animated map the great ring-way which divided the inner from the outer farm districts took imaginative form - but not just as a road on which movement could be seen; it itself was moving, as a vast enlargement of the urban Travelator, running not in the city but in the farm belt surrounding Grard. 

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 monster of an idea from which any Nenn must flinch to salve the guilty conscience that haunted the race. 

Given that the energy to build the twenty-five disk-on-stem cities of Syoom had been plundered from the Chelth dimension… likewise, the energy for another ruthless project could be seized likewise from another universe -

Let the bad thoughts flow; let them betray themselves:

I was born at the wrong timeIf I had lived in the Phosphorus Era -

Yes, then what?  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 which time, what remained of the Chelthan wealth was enough for a bit more than one extra city but not enough for two.  That was why 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 all sorts of extras could have been added to Grard, to make it the greatest city on the planet.

To compensate for that lost opportunity, wouldn't another cosmic power-transfer be handy?

Oreneg recoiled in horror from the inhumane contents of his own mind.  Still, the thought would not go away, playing with the excuses which might be made if the means could be found...

The plunder of Chelth had been so long ago, that no one could be sure about how it 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 a pilfering of a few minutes' worth of energy-output of a Sun-type star - instead of the exhaustion and wreck of a universe.

His thoughts wobbling towards the boundaries set by racial guilt, Oreneg Vadon just at that moment 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.  Awidoan it was 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 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.  Simply acknowledging his thanks with a nod, she 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 she 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?  Not much of one if, instead of lighting his way, he let himself bump into a stupid emotional trap. 

Misdirected love threatened to trap him.  What saved him from dishonour - the wrong reason, but save him it did - was that he simply did not have the guts to transgress two taboos at once: that is, he dared not envisage a repetition of the ancient crime whereby an out-of-sight universe had been plundered, PLUS stealing (or 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 his furry pet made a leap at him, whining in distress; the creature sensed that something was wrong.  "Come on, Foffix, tell me," he it, "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, all he had enjoyed was unearned luck.  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 hopeful "Who knows what might be possible for a man who stops at nothing?"  Rather, from the down-direction: "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 - no!  Back to the city, quick!  He strode and leaped to his skimmer and took off, ignoring paths, straight across fields in the direction of Grard, grimly determined to expunge the dirt from his mind.

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 and get his help in removing the excrescence! 

Oreneg would have preferred to tear into the city streets at top speed, but had to refrain lest he invite a crash: such an accident, especially if he survived it, would make things worse; it would pile more guilt upon his irresponsible self; nevertheless, grinding his teeth, 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. 

Having attained the city he lost no time in darting down Plandan Avenue and swerving around the Coigns of Xunnung to finish face-on to the Palace of the Noad.

Unsteadily he alighted; his sudden deceleration had caused his vision to blur.  He shook his head and gazed around, re-focusing his eyes to appreciate the plaza's unhurried, normal look.  Perhaps a couple of hundred people were in sight, nobody close to him, though his sudden arrival must have attracted some attention; well, folk who recognized him, more often than not, were apt to leave him alone when he was evidently busy.  Hah, not much longer would his reputation last...  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.  Even to Oreneg’s partially blurred eyes, that identified him as Bnurul Thazd, Noad of Grard.

"Skimjard, sponndar O-V," said the old man, smiling.  Then - an action which nonplussed Oreneg - he sat back down on the step.  So certain had Oreneg been that the Noad would lead the way into the palace for a private talk, that for a moment his visualisation took precedence over what he actually saw.  Thus he "saw" the Noad's hand press the button for the doors, "saw" 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.  Then it faded into sadness:  Evidently the answer is no.  Oh well, I already knew that anyway. 

Oreneg sat down on the step, on the Noad's left side, and 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 and, with finger and thumb, pinched a part of the hem of Oreneg's cloak.  A faint "click", with a minor tangible throb, occurred within the fabric.  "We can dispense with the tell-tale now.  You will have to forgive the impertinence.  Recently it had become necessary."

To keep track of me?  Oreneg was speechless.

"Observe how I trust you now," the Noad went on. 

With grim restraint, Oreneg Vadon replied: "I am prepared to listen."

"And withhold judgement.  I knew you would.  Your spirit has crash-landed," commented Bnurul Thazd.  "Give me in your own words, the reason for your despair."

Oreneg looked askance at the Noad.  "In my valuable words?" he said bitterly.

"It would seem," chuckled the Noad, "that you're not quite ready to do my job.  Otherwise you wouldn't sneer at yourself."

It came to Oreneg then, how multiple-layered was his own arrogance, his indignation at his own departure from the grandiose script he'd thought was his life.

He sighed:  "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!  Ever since that election..."

"Savagely hard, no doubt."  The sympathy seemed quite real.

"Yet," continued Oreneg, "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 in such a way that I can no longer trust myself not to do hideous things.  I actually 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, on a smaller but equally dishonourable scale.  Whatever you choose to do to me, I must accept, in order to rid Syoom of the danger I pose.  And by this confession I trust I have saved what can be saved of my honour."  Oreneg's mouth snapped shut.  He bowed his head and waited to hear the consequences, the pronouncement from the lips of the Noad, who would surely wield the sponnd of justice, not allowing compassion for an individual to deflect him from his duty: for 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.

"I understand you perfectly," said the Noad of Grard.  "You were enraged at a fate which had pretended to hold out the ultimate prize and then had snatched it back.  You felt betrayed."

"Quite!  That has been my attitude - one which could be used to justify any crime - and so I am too dangerous to be left loose: I am ready to relinquish this life and try my luck in a future age." 

"Seems familiar."

Uh?  That the reply?  Oreneg rolled his eyeballs confusedly.  Surely he had misunderstood.  What could "seem familiar" about his unique moral disaster? 

Must wait and listen, stripped of pride, trusting that it would become clear. 

He heard the Noad continue:  "Yes, it's an echo of similar news.  Nothing firm as yet; mere wafts from various parts of Syoom."

Sit still, Oreneg told himself, don't move from this spot.  Sit fatalistically hunched on the step.  Accept what's doled out.  Sit quiet meanwhile, in patient auscultation of the pulse of destiny. 

"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, let alone what it is.  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 plains, the garbage-dump of history."  Whereupon, to express his disdain, he threw the thing aside. 

It clattered down a step or two, while he shrugged at his own petulant gesture. 

"And you don't know why you brought it here?"

Oreneg truthfully said, "I haven't the faintest idea."

Fear was massing inside him.  It was truly 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 so pointless.  At least, he rather hoped it was pointless.  He preferred it that way.

The Noad 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."

Oh if only, thought Oreneg, if only I 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 didn't get as far as being performed?"

"Maybe it's not evil anyway, but something else," suggested the Noad.

"What, then?"


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 "Evil" might permit.  Not even a villain, he was a nobody!  And if garbage alone was all the status that remained to him, he could not muster the energy of rage, but sagged instead.  Moping dejection!  He caught himself and thought: no, this I will not be. This does not befit a man who, in a thuzolyr election for the sunnoadex, had advanced to within one step of the golden cloak.

The belated recovery began.  Oreneg Vadon commanded himself 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.  For a start he could say something sensible about the gun-thing he had been carrying.

"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."

"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, surveying his inner ruin with a desolate inner eye.  The universal 'equality of uniqueness' meant that 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, for no direction remained to him apart from up.  In fact, why not 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 nodded at what he saw in the other's face, and 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.  It is about 4,000 miles from each.  Similarly the cities of Yoon and Jador stand about 3,500 miles each from Beown. 

It is thus one of Syoom's many thinly-populated regions; yet its few thousand square miles are much visited, popular with thoughtful explorers.  At any one time a scatter of savants and wayfarers from across Syoom are likely to be wandering over Beown.

They never reach firm conclusions about the history of its low-lying, frozen "Lake", or the meaning of the area's ghostly silver glint.  Agreement extends only as far as the proximate cause: evidently the gralm which covers most of the plains of Ooranye has here been swept away.  The process is unknown; the result is clear - it has revealed a glimmering patch of the planetary mantle of ice. 

Why, though, has much of it been whipped into jagged "waves" mixed with darker rock?  Again, we find no answers.  The beautiful, sinister spectacle of the ice-waves is admired and intellectually dismissed, as yet one more unknowable marvel dating from the previous Great Cycle of Ooranye.

Knowledge of the kind which Terran scientists would 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 toning of the imagination's reflexes; a regimen to build defences against assault from the unknown.

He felt it himself, that reflex-toning, tingling massage of the spirit, as he stood here on the edge of the glinting wildness.  It was proof that the Uranian part of his mind or personality was working as it was supposed to work.  But also, how the freshness and wonder of the place breezed into him to encourage his Terran side!  It was as though he were once more the newly arrived Earthman, goggling like an interplanetary tourist at a scene on this Seventh World.  Could he, in fact, be in for one of his strong bouts of outright Earthly consciousness? 

Maybe not, he decided.  Nowadays those old ego-tracks were quite rare.  Mostly his awareness had become accustomed to float in a stable amalgam of dual identity.  "Uranian-fused-with-Terran" more or less summarized his identity now.

Of course, minor gear-shifts in his personality were still to be expected.  They came with the little shocks, the wobbles in life's road.  Such variation might cause him to veer several times a day, like a car swerving close to a boundary between lanes... but actually to cross?  No, he didn't think so.  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.  What about the old woman who seems to keep this place: did she notice me give a start just then, at the moment I felt my identity flip? 

She says, "Cease your restless pacing, Yadon." 

"I just have."  My reply sounds a bit snappy in my own ears, but she merely seems amused, with 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 retort: "For that matter, even if it were the end of the world, it wouldn't be the end of the universe, so why should anyone worry?"

That slight head-shake of hers...  My satirical remark has gone for naught.  Well, so what?  Is this what bothers me most of all - not the chance of failure of the rendezvous, but my failure to impress one old woman? 

..."Old" is not really 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.  And yes, I do keep wishing I could convince her of the importance of the occasion. 

Only, that wish is itself unsettling.  It shows me the extent to which I now care what people think.  I didn't used to be like that.  The good old life I enjoyed on this world until fairly recently was free of any such obsession with image-projection; 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; ever since I was milked of the English language soon after my arrival on this most un-English planet, hobbyists have been learning it and spreading it with capacious enthusiasm and zero nous...

I am still 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?"

The answer, to my relief, issues from my lips.  "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."

Well spoken, me.  My political wits are about me.  But oh, shall they ever return, those old days of mine, those Yadon-the-free-wander days?  Perhaps they shall, once this job is over.  Well, that's a nice thought, and is certainly an incentive to get the job done!  But if the enterprise is to succeed, people must support it... they'd better come...

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

My gaze follows her finger and my heart misses a beat at the sight of the oval shape soaring 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.  Can a Sunnoad not keep his word?  How supremely satisfying it is, to watch the vessel as it swells in view.  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, is being bestowed.  I can forget my feeble efforts to convert people.  What need to sweat about persuasion when history is on your side?

Huger and huger looms the skyship, and the sight of it magics away the minutes...

The hull comes to a hovering rest at about the height of a church spire above my head.  My eyes follow the opening of the nadir-hatch and the descent of a platform.  A man rides it down to touch upon the ice close to where I and the Elder stand. 

He steps off the platform; I see he is not the Sunnoad.  My mind begins a recoil from confidence.  I glance at Hedjel; she wears a look on her face that says 'no comment'.  Meanwhile the man from the ship walks up to me, stops and greets me:

"Skimjard, sponndar Yadon.  I am Tarl Ezart of Skyyon.  I bring 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 of the message's words can possible contain."

Heavens above, that's a rebuke, I realize; but I couldn't stop myself from uttering it.  I wonder whether the whole mission has been cancelled.  For a moment only does that wild thought blow coldly through my mind.  Then - No!  The mission can't have been cancelled, surely!  Yet if the support of the Sunnoad's presence is lacking, the occasion has been dealt a serious wound. 

I nevertheless owe it to myself and to my mission to show myself no less cool than this Tarl Ezart courier-bloke.

As a matter of fact, I recollect having heard his name before.  He’s a native of Skyyon, and as such he's a more centrally based adventurer than I.  Doubtless he often sees Brem Tormalla at work in the Zairm during the hours of day.  Well-placed, therefore, for awards of missions, quests, tasks – including the conveyance of me the great man’s apologies for absence.

Something forthwith emboldens me, fuels me with a capacity for resistance to the facts.  Or at any rate a preference for some facts over others.  Favourite fact: the earlier hours of today were preferable to the present; more faithful to hope’s script; I want those attitudes back, I beckon them via the memories of them and they muscle forward,  like minders who shoulder into dominance, to form a protective circle.  That is to ensure that no enemy fact dares to disturb my mind’s eye; it is to ensure that priority is accorded where it is deserved; it is to ensure that what I want to see is what I do see, far more vividly than what is shown to my bodily eyes.  I am thus allowed to cancel the present disappointment and focus instead upon those splendid earlier hours -

For example the hour of the first arrival here: that of a fine athletic woman who zoomed up to halt by the icy lake shore.  The sight of her roused me to glad greeting: “Skimjard, Lemedet Tanek, Availer of Pjourth!”

I recall that she replied, “Skimjard, Yadon!  I call myself Yozazel now."

"Why the name-change, if you don't mind me asking?"

"You, of all people, ask me that?" she retorted with an ebullient smile; "you, Nyav Yuhlm alias Yadon?  You've started something, Earthmind!"

"Oh... you reckon?" I murmured, dubious at the idea of having splashed so much me onto this world.   

"But where are all the others?" continued Lemedet breezily.  "I see no one else here; am I the first, or maybe the last?  Whichever it be, it's good to see you again, Yadon."

"You are indeed the first, 'Yozazel'."  Realizing that this word was close to yozazar, 'Quester', I added: "How perfect a sobriquet for the first arrival for the Cincture!" - and I gave her a Terran-style hug.

"Yeeeee," and she squeezed me in return.  "You are bold!"

"Only with an extrovert Pjourthan," I replied.  "Not something I should have dared with anyone else."

I was right in sensing that this was a good line to take: she was proud of having learned so much English that she knew the meaning of "extrovert", a word which so far as I knew did not exist in the Uranian languages.  Whether she grasped the meaning was another matter.  But anyhow, I had made a friend of the first arrival.

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 now 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, as concise as Yozazel is expansive, said: "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 ago I had managed to lure him from his eyrie on the ridge of the Krokkembar.  I had written him a letter full of appeals to his professional skills, hoping it would do the trick, and it had. 

Upon arrival here at Beown the Logician 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 had arrived 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".  I didn't want that sombre topic to dampen my satisfaction at the way things were going.  Yet in a way the reference to it added to my sense of triumph.  Such exceptional talent had been attracted here!  Such support for the historic enterprise for which I had been honoured to gather the personnel...

Laro Hing went off to wait with the rest of them, while I remained by the lake shore.

The fourth arrival further increased my elation still further: 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. 

Be that as it may, this formidable character arrived, modest in demeanour, and greeted me soft-spoken.  He appeared more withdrawn and tired than I had seen him before, and seemed disinclined to converse.  I suggested he relax with the others in the village nearby, while I continued to wait 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 during 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 sake of speed I have allowed my hunches to "call the shots".  That amounts to enlisting the gifted and the reliable on the basis of reputation rather than personal knowledge. 

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."

"Rumbling what?"

"Bidding me reconsider."

I grinned, "All they achieved was to time your arrival to maximum effect."

"What do you mean by that?" asked Dezagan gruffly.

"I mean 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 left me.  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.  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.  They are ceremonious in their stride, as they walk from the village to gather here for the Cincture at last.

Awareness clicks like a camera in my brain, so that I sharply register the scene which I shall never forget.  Beyond the 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.  They emphasize the loneliness of this spot.  How perfect, this venue, chosen by the Sunnoad because it is bound to be free from the pull of all distraction from the mission: a fitting place from which to launch Syoom’s campaign against Dempelath's evil darkness. 

Our hard-sought band gathers at the lake-side 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 situation grips my mind once more.  "If only" - what rubbish is that...  The event will go ahead regardless; we shall make sure of it.  Here they come close, the recruits.  Their line curves as they co-operate with me to form a ring, one which leaves a space for messenger Tarl Ezart, for he too steps forth to join the Cincture. 

Their eyes turn to me.  They all see that I am holding the packet Tarl has given me; the packet with the gold emblem.  Except for Tarl Ezart (who has watched me not reading it) they probably assume that I have read the Sunnoad’s message.  No matter.  The procedure begins.

The ceremony of the Cincture is of a rare, uninterruptable design, known to every educated Uranian.  I too (since my days in Olhoav’s great library) know all about it.  Yet wonderment seizes me when the round green glow begins to form in the centre of our circle. 

It reminds me of a circular radar screen, though 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; then it fades. 

I blink as I realize it’s gone.  It has glimmered away, back to whatever slurry of the racial subconscious it may inhabit.  I hear sighs from all round.  We are standing with eyes downcast, bowed in subdued awareness.  None of us are stupid enough to wonder out loud how far the vision was “real”. 

Presently we look up to meet each other's eyes. 

We have a shared understanding, that we are bound together by a memory that will never let go.  Nothing will bring back what was before. 

Well, that's what was needed!  Henceforth on our trek into the future we can carry a purpose and commitment that, in these moments, fastened itself around us with the click of a belt that cannot be undone. 

So far, the achievement has been a quiet one.  However, some spoken words from me would, I feel, now be appropriate. 

Therefore before the circle breaks up I give a short speech:

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

A rag has wiped across my awareness, ridding me of the smudges of doubt.  I glance down at the packet which is still in my hand.  It's time to open the thing.  Not only that, but I must read it out loud.  That's what this assemblage is expecting. 

They watch me as I open it; nohow can I disappoint them.  Go ahead, Yadon, I tell myself; go ahead as though you trust 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 with the Sunnoad's trust in them, for the wording is proof he'd had no doubt that they would go through with the ceremony.)  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 to?  I look up to scan the faces of my audience and they look back at me, leaning at me with a readiness to swallow the promise held out.  I too - I then realize - am hungry to gulp the fate-wave.  What then of my fear of being exposed as a fool?  It seems that, far from blundering, I am doing well.  In particular I did right to reserve the Sunnoad’s letter for 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...'"  I hesitate over the word and repeat it, "'a spilth of his power into Syoom...'"

I glance again at my audience, half expecting questions expressive of bewilderment, but it seems that on some level they already know what the Sunnoad is talking about.  I continue to read out his words:

"'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 today have made sure of that.  Even if our path to victory turns out to be less straight than expected, the momentum of your deed will see us through.  The next step will be for us to meet in order to concert measures.  I hope you will be able to join me in Skyyon, three days from now.’”

I pause and look them over once more.  To apply the “tree of purpose” figure of speech, these certainly 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. 

"What else can you propose?" asked Tarl Ezart.

"An overland force, mounted on skimmers.  We don’t want another Phosphorus Era disaster.”

Laro Hing interposes, “We’re not intending to conquer Fyaym, so we can’t be compared with Fiarr Fosn.  However, in one sense Hrezin's suggestion could have a point: 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, all the flows of fate must eventually average out, and this one too will end up as one of history's minor ripples. 

Doubtless a preferable belief. 


Uranian Throne Episode 22:   

The Golden Cloak