uranian throne
- episode twenty-two


the golden cloak

by
robert gibson


For the story so far, see:

volume I: the terran heir
1:
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;
21: the cincture.

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

 1

The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:

The past few dozen days I have been so windlashed by events, that every now and then moments occur during which I find it hard even to remember where I am. 

It must be because I am so buffeted by mighty impressions, that even during the rare hours of quiet I get the lingering judders, like an absurd cartoon character who continues to quiver, b-o-i-n-n-g-g-g, after the hammer has hit him on the head.

Right now, for instance, while I stand here with my left hand clutched around the lowest baluster of the grand staircase of the Zairm, the distraction comes upon me.  To be sensible about it, I ought to be deciding how best to use the bit of free time which chance has given me today, that is, whether to make the most of the fact that I have the run of the Noad's palace, or whether to wander elsewhere in the great polar city (which I hardly know, never having got round to visiting Skyyon in the days before the Cincture brought me to the centre of decision) - yet instead of concentrating on any of that -

I tighten my hold on the baluster to prevent myself from keeling over as a gob of memory plops into me.  It's a recollection of such potency, it interfuses with my awareness of the present, so as to paint over what's actually in front of my eyes.  Hence, instead of the palace staircase where I'm standing, I'm offered a panorama of the latest round trip, which I made with my fellow-organizers, via the cities of Jador and Hoog.  The skyship voyage finished yesterday morning, yet I might as well still be on tour, for my sight is taken and thrown amid the cloud-wrapped towers of Jador, the noble parks of Hoog, the jostling multitudes, waving cloaks, colourfully shifting perspectives; the orations, the enthusiasm! 

I myself didn't do much during the tour, and my impression is that I said very little.  Why my colleagues bothered to take me along, I can't imagine.  Oh but yes I can, though.  Must face it: as I tag along on these canvassing trips, I'm a sort of mascot for the gathering forces of Syoom.  This, so I reckon, works in two ways.  My status as a Starsider symbolises the projected expedition's aim to dare the wilds of Starside.  My status as a friendly Earthmind, meanwhile, is seen as a cute oddness that vaguely promises to turn out useful against the far more hostile strangeness of the enemy.  Given all that, I guess that my role is determined for the time being.

Today, anyhow, I can rest and mooch.  Sunnoad Brem Tormalla is in a military conference with some omzyrs.  He understands that I know less than nothing about that side of it.  Thus left free, I might go and look in the palace library, which is reputed to have a unique collection of galaggastom vumana - historic handwritten journals, composed in a kind of rhythmic style half way between prose and poetry.  I've come across a few of these unprinted, irreplaceable books in my wanderings across Syoom, and I've learned to admire and value them, while finding them hard to classify.  You can consider them as prose, yet their themes act like drawstrings to compress their style into something as punchily figurative as poetry.

I've been inclined for some time to try my hand at a galaggastom vuman myself.  Up till now I haven't had time, but today might be the day to start it.  I could get ideas for technique from others' examples...

No!  I can't resist the alternative which is to get out of the palace altogether, and wander through this Sunward polar city. 

I needn't go far.  If the Sunnoad or any of my colleagues want me, I can be reached on my wrist-transceiver.  But they shan't want me today...

...Memver Park!  Here I am, on the lower disc, the far more populous part of Skyyon; cut off from any view here of the city's rarefied upper reaches, including the flame-shaped Zairm which rears up from the higher disk, the underside of which is ceiling of iedleis metal half a mile above my head.

Memver Park itself is not crowded, however.  Here one finds nothing like the hum of activity pervading the mass of structures that bulges around the park boundary.  I stroll peacefully, contemplatively.  It seems good to restrict my attention to small things while I can.

All of a sudden I see, on a lush green lawn, a bizarre animal that is dragging itself along by its forearms.  It is about the size of a walrus, but with a larger head and a more definite neck.  Its eyes are so compellingly brilliant, that I am wary of looking into them, so instead I stare down at the curve of its thin-lipped mouth; then I look away, or try to.  This seems like a good occasion on which to practise the blinkered outlook necessary at times to avoid overwhelm on this world.  Yet as the thing wriggles along I can't help but stare intelligently enough to know what it must be: the "park oracle", the flac-flac undis, one of the sui generis Uranian creatures which great cities like to collect, and of which quite a few are said to be mind-readers.  I wish I had not come here.

"You haven't," it croaks at me. 

I put up my hands, I squeeze my eyeballs...

"Yes," says the flac-flac undis, "rouse yourself, Yadon!  You haven't come here; you're not here now!"

Hit by these words I am forced to admit that I'm not really in this scene at all, and that instead I'm remembering it.  It was fifteen days ago that I strolled in Memver Park. 

Fiercely do I hope that the truth is more, not less, comfortable than the fibs doled out by lurchy memory.  It will be particularly nice if I turn out to be in the snug little "axil" where I've been lodged at the junction between Tower Seventeen and Walkway Nine.  Those grounds reserved for honoured visitors are just what I like, so peaceful, comfortable and convenient.  But the truth, now: wherever I am, I must face it.  I glare at the false view of Memver Park and it wavers, it goes runny, yielding to -

Ah, so that's it.  I haven't descended to the lower city after all.  I'm still on the quieter, upper level.  All around me extends the open and rarified area comprising the palace, the skyship docks, and (just twenty yards from where I'm standing) the Pinnate Tower itself, the abode of the Wekkm.  That's where I'm headed - or perhaps where I've just been: to visit the Wekkm, the Ghepion of Skyyon. 

I pinch myself, like one is supposed to do, the idea being that one never dreams that one is pinching oneself, and almost I manage to shrug off the whole positional shock, and accept (as I must) the revelation that I'm up here and not (as I'd thought) down in the park. 

Actually the scariest aspect of it is that I'm not scared!  Talk about being 'left in the lurch': I'm being left with the ability to lurch! 

Well, get used to it, shrug at it, and figure what to do with the rest of my day.

A few bystanders are close to me and I see some chatterers' mouths moving.  Nevertheless the silence is absolute.  I realize what this means: I am in the muffler zone surrounding the Wekkm. 

Today its radius - which fluctuates according to the Ghepion's whim - must extend a bit further than when I was last here.

The question is, have I just had an interview, or was I about to have one?  I doubt that I entered this zone just for fun.  I pause to contemplate the Pinnate Tower, its serrations, its bristle of tines, its bladelike form knifing at the sky, and as I look up and down a voice rasps in my head -

"Well, whaddya skinnin' at me like that for?  Cat got yer tongue?"

Something is showing off its colloquial English.

"Get on with what you were saying!" it insists.

My mother tongue, ever since I let it loose in this world, has attracted a coterie of hobbyists.  Some are quite good at it, and total fluency is child's play for a great Evolved Machine. 

Anyhow, this answers one question.  My private interview with the Wekkm is, evidently, neither past nor future, but present: I am in the middle of it. 

"My apologies; I was distracted," I say, knowing that my interlocutor can hear me even though no one else can.  The muffled zone does not affect its originator. 

"I understand," the Wekkm replies, switching from a snappish to a lulling tone.  "From your face I can tell what happened to you just then.  It's just one of the ways you cope with overwhelm.  In fact..."

(The pause doesn't fool me, for it's common knowledge among humans on this world that when a Ghepion pauses in its speech, it's theatrical, done purely for effect.  So vast a brain never has any real need to take a measurable length of time to formulate its words.)

"In fact," the Wekkm continues, "in that direction, right now, lies your usefulness to Syoom."

"Are you kidding me?  My suffering bouts of not knowing where I really am - that's useful?"

"Look at it generally," invites the Wekkm, "and you should see that you are more likely than ordinary Uranians to be more able to cope with some sorts of overwhelm, since you have already been forced to rise above the greatest shock of all: a transition between planets."

"What you're saying," I say sarcastically, "is that I'm really important; that in the coming war against Dempelath I'll be not just a mascot for Syoom but an effective doer."

"That's indeed the size of it," says the voice from inside the Pinnate Tower.  "Sorry, old man, you're not going to get the quiet life you want.  Now go to Zdinth Hall; the Sunnoad and a lot of top brass are waiting for you.  I was messaged a minute ago."

"I'm going," I say, "but please do me one favour?"

"What's that?" asks the Ghepion.

"Cut out the colloquial stuff.  You're not as good at it as you think."

Pleased (childishly or not) with that parting shot, I stalk off.

...And here I am, here I really am, about to climb the palace steps which lead shortly to Zdinth Hall.  The guards don't challenge me - on the contrary they're the mandibles of destiny's maw, actually waving me in.  Tut-tut, I should avoid off-putting metaphors like that.  After all, these folk are most respectful towards me.  All recognize me as Yadon the Cincturee who is here to help Syoom during the latest of its hours of need.  And the more I good-naturedly co-operate, the sooner that hour will be over. 

Through the double silver doors I go, then, and through the stunning vestibule with its pendent luminous mobiles kaleidoscopically projecting the history of Syoom onto each wall, and then through another imposing double door and into Zdinth Hall itself, or, as it's officially named, Norkoten Hall (most un-Uranian, that phenomenon of naming something after someone) stop chattering, mind of mine, and concentrate!

I'm facing down the long axis of an ellitical table.  About fifteen people are seated around in relaxed postures, apparently at a meeting that has not yet been formally called to order.  Some are snacking on plates of fruits and crispy meats.  My ears register a chattery hum.

The voices fall silent; faces turn to greet me.

"Take a seat, Yadon!" the Sunnoad calls.

I obey, and the chatter resumes.  My gaze roves around the company and I find I recognize almost all of these people.  Some are officials I know well, others I know by sight alone.  Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437 occupies a place close to the other end of the table, but not the actual head place which is taken, to my surprise, by the one personage I don't know at all - though during lulls in others' talk, when my ears catch a word or two of his, I sort of recognize the fellow's voice, despite never having seen him before.  How could this be?  I scrutinize him covertly, to no avail.  Whoever he is, the tones addressed to him are strongly suggestive of consideration and respect.  Some guest of honour, no doubt.

Presently, footsteps alert me that another person has entered the Hall the way I came.  I turn and see a very thin, somewhat attractive, mature lady, who takes the chair next to mine.  Though two thousand days and more have passed since I last saw her, I immediately recognize who she is, and I am surprised that people aren't more interested.  I detect nothing like the interruption in the chatter which had marked my own entrance.  Perhaps anonymity must shroud Indan Orliss, head of the Bostanga Fom.  Be that as it may, it seems odd to see her here at all.  From what I've understood till now, she and her organization like to keep their distance from the Sunnoad, the better to survey at long range any threat to him, and to deal with it likewise far from his presence.  You wouldn't normally expect to see her at a summit meeting. 

I pass her a plate of klasts and, as she takes one, she asks by name - showing she remembers me:  "Can you tell me, sponndar Yadon, what's going on?"

I say, "It's your job to know these things!" 

"Let me be the judge of my duties," she smiles.

"Sorry if I sounded snappish," I say.  "Fact is, I find your organization just a bit creepy."

"It does require us to creep around somewhat..."

Relieved that she's not offended, I continue, "I'm not questioning the goodness of it, of course, but, well, one of your minions, or rather a couple of them, did pull a laser on me, some time back."

"Who were they?" she asks briskly.

"I'll just say, they were good people - which is what made it weird." 

"But if you don't tell me their names," she sweetly smiles, "how can I commend them for their zeal?"

"Sol Ostobon and Zadrun Mok," I smile back, "since you insist." Those names strongly bring to mind that bivouac on the plain, the strange towers, the Bruised Cloud, and my interrogation by those agents of the Bostanga Fom.  A sinister experience; on the other hand, I find I am enjoying this chat with Indan Orliss.  My memory, thus encouraged, glides back further - and as luck would have it, during a random lull in the general hum of talk, I manage to identify the tone of the chap at the head of table.

"Got it!  I know where I've heard that fellow before!  It's Abon Gnaa, the Voice of Rael Odiram - "

With a murmur accopnanied only by a movement of her eyeballs, she says, "You're right: that's the one."

"So you knew!"

"No - but when you identified him, I remembered.  The day the recordings of Yr's pass over Vlamanor first became available, I watched and listened to them: both image and sound.  The picture we saw was his ruler's and only the voice was Abon Gnaa's but I should have known him straightaway from the voice; yet you got it first." 

Tickled by my point-scoring, I say: "I have a personal reason to remember the event.  You see, I almost witnessed it with my own eyes.  Almost!  Such a near miss!  I was at Vlamanor mere days before the pass."  

(How badly I timed my departure from that city!  If only I'd stayed a few days longer I would have been in the crowd when the aerial colossus floated overhead.)

"I see," she nods.  "Galling it must have been, for a Wayfarer to miss such an adventure."

"Which is why, as soon as I could, I, like you, but more keenly than you, made sure to study the records of it," I explain.  "I just felt I had to gauge the importance of the drama I'd missed, and so I played and re-played the recording of Abon Gnaa's 'speakership' on behalf of the dreaded Rael Odiram."

"Ah well," murmurs Indan, "for you it was curiosity, but for me it was professional.  Either way - better late recognition than never.  Today the man is here."

We both gaze towards the other end of the table, at Abon Gnaa consorting with the notables of Syoom.

"All friends together, looks like," I murmur.

"Indeed, but let's pay close attention, you and I, to what happens after they've finished the dish steyaz."

"Somewhat portentous, that term."  (Numerous as the proverbial variety of Terran Esquimaux terms for types of snow, are the phrases used on this planet for "diplomatic meal", and of these varieties, the one expressed by the dish steyaz is particularly laden with imminent oomph.)

"So, as I said, let us pay close heed," repeats Indan.

I nod, "We'll do our best to stay switched on."  And yet, as a mere figurehead on the prow of fortune's flagship, why should I worry whatever is decided here?

Nevertheless it's polite to look involved, and to say something intelligent if I'm called upon to do so.  It would look bad if the Sunnoad, for instance, were to ask me something and I fluffed it.  Unkind of me to embarrass those who, with the best of intentions, have over-promoted me this far.

With ears pricked I open a corridor of concentration in my mind, to sort out what’s being said at the other end of the table.  I find it’s not hard to clarify the voices into sentences which I can follow.

Abon Gnaa, the guest of honour, is declaiming:

“...My master seeks your aid, but on equal terms.”

Indignation stirs around the table, since one is not supposed to adopt a tone of that sort with the Sunnoad of Syoom. 

No whit abashed, the fellow continues in the same vein:  “Rael Odiram, Noad of the free city of Yr, sovereign of the skies, seeks reassurance from you, Sunnoad Brem Tormalla, that our agreement – should we reach one – will not be nullified in practice by a clash of interest."

Brem Tormalla raises a hand to quell the murmurs, while to the envoy he crisply responds, "Be specific."

"Specifically, that you will not consider yourself bound by your duty to your own people, to take advantage of our need.”

Oh-oh, that’s blunt, even for a dish steyaz

Of course the point of such a meeting is to allow blunt things to be said without starting a quarrel; nevertheless I hear hisses of anger and some under-breath growls that sound very much like “flunnd!”  The social temperature has dropped several degrees.  

Ah, but wait, it’s recovering: folk have noticed that the Sunnoad himself has sat back with a smile.

“I congratulate you, envoy Abon Gnaa, on your loyalty to him who sent you,” Brem Tormalla says, “and I like your timing, inasmuch as we had reached a point which required us, like you, to become more explicit. With regard to the reassurance you demand: will my word be enough?”

“Sunnoad 80437 – it will.”

Slackening of tension all round.  I suppose that Yr, though not strictly part of Syoom (since an aerial city can drift anywhere), shares much of the Syoomean respect for the Noad of Noads.  Beautifully unlike what you get on Earth, this level of trust!  Brem Tormalla’s expression, however, remains a trifle quizzical.

“I should like to know," he remarks, "why your Noad did not come here himself to state his case.  I would have thought it likely he would have met me in person, given that his need is great enough to prompt his unprecedented request for co-operation with Syoom.”

The envoy grimaces.

“You are determined,” he replies, “to make me say it.  Very well: I shall.  Know then, O notables of Syoom, that consequent upon what I have told you about the threat posed by the Grounder faction, Yr is divided against itself to the point of civil war.  Our Noad, Rael Odiram, dares not leave the city.  In fact by this time he may not be able to."  Suddenly the envoy darts a piercing look down the table.  " – Does this sort of thing sound familiar to you, Earthman?”

Earthman!  All heads turn to face me!  Brem Tormalla’s too.

Well, if they want me to talk back –

“I don’t know what stories you hear up in Yr,” I say to Abon Gnaa, “but I’m no ‘Earthman’.  I was born in Olhoav, on Starside." 

It's not enough.  I draw a breath and continue: 

"It’s true that I have a partially Terran mind, because my lives run concurrently instead of being separated by historical ages, and one of them is, or was, Terran.  BUT - when you look at me, what you see is a man of Uranian flesh and blood.”

Isn’t that enough now?  They still all look as though they’re waiting for more.  As though Abon Gnaa’s point remains unanswered; as though they expect me, from my Terran experience, to give some unique pronouncement upon the troubles of Yr!  Ridiculous.  I didn’t even hear what was said earlier about that city’s 'Grounder faction'.

No - but on the other hand, I can guess, can’t I?  In fact my ideas are galloping ahead with the fated ease of one whose ride hurdles assumption after assumption, nimbly guessing and figuring that Grounder Faction of Yr and the atrocious plan on which they have set their sights.  The faction's aim - far worse than the aerial piracy of which the Yrians over the ages have been intermittently accused - is now to end the floating city’s age-long drift through the skies; to pick a settlement to land upon and conquer –

Yes, that must be it; but I'm also sure that the Yrian political illness exists in the context of a more widespread plague.  I've paid insufficient attention to recent news but, from snippets I've heard, Syoom has suffered a recent rash of partisan politics.  I don't wish to hear more of such smelly outbreaks which remind me of Earth; my instinctive reaction to their denial of all that delights me about human society on this world is to bury the evidence in silence.  That way, I'm not encouraging the phenomenon by paying it heed.  Only, that's no use.  It can't be buried.  It's all out, and what's more, I've been elected expert on this sort of thing because the English language has leaked onto Ooranye.  It has leaked so far and wide, that even this Abon Gnaa fellow picked on me to comment.

I look for support towards the folds of the golden cloak, the fount of fairness.  However, he, too, is inexorable.  “Your special circumstances, Yadon, are well known," the Sunnoad pronounces, "but we nevertheless await your fuller answer to Abon Gnaa.”

Fuller answer – that’s to say, not one which fobs him off!

Under the pressure to say what I don’t want to say, my lip gets to curl.  I become arch and sardonic.

“I confess, that I am Earthman enough to voice an elastic suspicion, one that may stretch far enough to wrap that world’s evil with this.”

“Out with it then, Yadon,” says Abon Gnaa.

He's speaking Jommdan with an English idomatic construction, which brings it home to me that there’s no escape, and yet help comes (as it does so often when I get desperate) for a powerful picture flashes into my mind to give me a clear idea of what to say.

“Imagine someone with a stick, stirring a - an ant's nest," I say.  "None of you  know what an ants’ nest is, since your knowledge of English is merely analogical at best, but never mind, just choose whatever equivalents you like.

“Dempelath, tyrant of Olhoav, has the stick,” I continue, authoritatively.  “We’re the ants, and the stick is his connection with the Snaddy-Galomm..."

"The what?" interjects Abon Gnaa.

"You can ask the Sunnoad, for he knows what I mean by the Snaddy-Galomm; he has experienced the crystal-message which I brought all the way from Starside to Syoom; but do any of the rest of you know?”

“No!” they all say, or shake their heads.

“Well, if he sees fit, he can let you know of it,” I drily remark.  “Suffice it for me to say that Dempelath has used it to stir the world.  His intention is to bring the evil of Earth across the void to Ooranye.”

I've blurted it now.  Until this moment, I myself had shied from the truth.

With a slow nod, the Sunnoad says heavily, “Show him the crystal, Yadon.”

I take from my blue Daon’s cloak the object from which, nowadays, I am never parted.  I hold it up to Abon Gnaa.

The envoy stares at it, his features frozen, as though he would back-track if he could, but the Sunnoad gently commands, "Shunt it over."

I do so.  It slides down the table.

Now it is Abon Gnaa who is on the spot.  All eyes are on him rather than on me, which makes a change I like. 

Morally the fellow has no choice but to put the crystal to his forehead and endure the mental pounding which, for a few dire seconds, always accompanies the input of Dynoom’s fateful message. Then it’s over and the recipient does not wait to be told to return the crystal to me: he fairly throws it back along the table, so that I have to put out my right arm to make a catch; not that it would have mattered if the unbreakable, unscratchable thing had dropped to the floor.

I indulge a rascally pleasure, now that I sense the initiative has passed to me: “Takes some getting used to, does it not?"

"But what does it mean?" croaks Abon Gnaa.

"What you're really asking," I continue remorselessly, "is not what it means but how are you going to cope with what it means?  I sympathise; it's not an easy brew to swallow.  Never, during all my days in Olhoav, did I comprehend the scope of Dempelath’s maleficence.  It was left to the city-brain, Dynoom, to figure out that the tyrant has achieved some sort of pulling-power with the fates’ meshed cyclone, the spinning-top, the Snaddy-Galomm.  The result is, that Dempelath has been able to introduce to this world [I experience a FLASH of metaphor] some invasive species of ideas that shouldn’t live here, ideas as unsuitable as [FLASH] kudzu being brought from Japan to the West or as [FLASH] measles and smallpox being brought by Europeans to the Americas; you don’t know what I’m talking about – but I do.”

Whew - got carried away - sweat on my forehead – I needed to find an answer but didn't expect to set off a deluge –

Silence drags, and for the sake of the subdued company around the table I must finish off my contribution more gently.

“We can be sure of our common ground,” I say, “in the troubles which have recently begun to afflict Syoom.  A sudden plague of plagues can only result from one master plague that’s propelling them to the fore; and we its victims must rally together, as brothers in arms.”

A sigh of approval from all sides…

“Well spoken, Yadon,” said Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437.

General conversation resumes, much to my relief.  I hunch in my chair and sneak a glance at my neighbour Indan Orliss, wishing for the nonce to confine my conversation to her, who I feel has become a friend. 

She gives me a light punch on the arm.  “You have brought here some qualities which Syoom needs,” she murmurs.  “But you have a lonely task ahead of you."

I grimace at her words.  "How lonely?"

"You have the responsibility which accrues to the one who understands.  I see you don't like the sound of this.”

“Those who have heard me just now,” I object, “have not shut their ears or their brains; they've joined in with the understanding...”

“At second hand, yes,” she replies.

At second hand – meaning not immediate enough, not fast enough.  Meaning that as far as emergency decision-making is concerned, it'll end up in my lap –

Ah, no.  “I don’t have it in me to command.”  Yet while I say this I nevertheless foresee the scenario whereby (for reasons of superstition and morale) the Sunnoad may put me in nominal charge of an expedition against the Grounders of Yr.  Oh boy.

2

The Journal of Neville Yeadon, 10,545,951 Ac:

It's easier than expected, this business of deciding what to resist and what to accept.

I only have to stand back and look.

Look at it and ask myself, have I, de facto, accepted it? 

Answer: apparently so.

I did tell them (the Sunnoad and his omzyrs and all the "top brass") not to put me in command of this expedition.  I put it to them as strongly as I could, and yet here I am, living like a lord in the special zarromzyr ("grand admiral"?) cabin in the flag-skyship Ruuzna Ptorrai, headed for a confrontation with Yr.

So much has happened during the past four days, I’d have felt crass trying to interrupt with my objections, and so I have stood meekly by while Brem Tormalla collected a force of four great skyships - two from Skyyon and one each from Ao and Vyanth - summoning together to form an aerial flotilla above the Aelv-Ej boundary this morning, with myself supposedly in charge.

Fortunately, the set-up makes only modest demands on my belief, and I've studied enough Earth-history for helpful analogies to come to the aid of my peace of mind.  The legendary "commander" need only preside.  As the German, Max Hoffman, sardonically told a group of touring officers, ‘See – this is where Hindenburg slept before the battle, this is where he slept after the battle, and this is where he slept during the battle...’ and similarly if all goes well my name will impress those who later visit the field of glory, whatever I do or don't do.

At least I am not such a fool as to be unaware of my role as figurehead, for I know who the real commander is.

A sort of diffidence restrains me from writing his name here, even though his identity is obvious enough and, besides, I don’t expect anyone to read this Journal of mine.  Somehow it would be in poor taste to ‘jump the gun’, for he is more than just the effective commander of our flotilla of skyships; he is the Sunnoad’s inevitable successor. 

I have heard from more than one source, and indeed I have lately noticed for myself, that Brem Tormalla is ailing.  It’s no wonder he isn’t leading this task force: he has enough other problems to juggle.  All over Syoom, unrest has erupted, as Dempelath “stirs the ants’ nest” from afar. 

The least I can do is to try to be helpful any way I can.  Must play the game.  Must try to be what they call 'renl'.

Still, the higher the political level, the greater the strain on my credulity as I strive to keep a grasp on this world's principles of government, and especially the Heir Question (as I call it) keeps needling me.  I marvel at how the institution of the Sunnoad seems to function so well, although it couldn’t possibly work on Earth; in fact the sunnoadex is even more fantastic than the noadex, for a city’s Noad usually does at least have an official heir, namely a Daon, the recognized next-in-line, whereas a Sunnoad, the Noad of Noads, the focus and co-ordinator of all Syoom, has no equivalent “Sundaon”.  Madness, it seems to me.  I’ve never asked about it, because, I suppose, I don’t like to seem critical or stupid... but I do keep wondering.

How, in actual fact, are successors to Sunnoads chosen?  So far as I’ve been able to figure it, only two ways exist.

One of them is the manner in which the current wearer of the golden cloak had it passed on to him from his bedridden predecessor.  Arad Thastu 80436 was unconscious and sinking fast but there was sufficient time, during her final days, to organize a thuzolyr-election: that knock-out affair with the mind-mirrors whereby a convincing successor was selected from the entire Syoomean population.  The land was at peace then, and such a procedure was practicable.  Brem Tormalla, by his merits, won, and thus became the 80437th Sunnoad, having beaten all-comers in a test of ability. 

You’d think that would be the natural way of doing it, preferably in good time, but no!  On the majority of occasions, a new Sunnoad is simply named by the old one on the verge of the last possible moment.  Probably that’s what Arad Thastu would have done, had she been lucid.  And then all of Syoom would simply have accepted whomever was nominated by her “dying voice”.

Bizarre!  A procedure which might (one would think) have been designed to invite chaos and disaster.  And yet in the judgement of Uranian history, it seems to work!

Better shut the notebook.  Put it in the drawer.

[A bit later:]  More to write.  A big (though expected) event.

The door buzzed and I let it open to admit the man himself, my fellow-Cinctee, the one who’s due to go far, and whom I would fear if my life's aim rivalled his.  Fortunately, as things are, I can afford to be more relaxed than he.  I know what my niche is; my ambition is merely to regain it.  Oreneg Vadon, by contrast, is a younger man in a hurry to get a lot further.

In a formal tone he announced:  “Reports confirm, zarromzyr Yadon, that Yr has grounded.  The appropriate set of sealed orders has been selected.  Here they are,” and he passed me a packet. His arm then dropped back to his side.  He stood respectfully motionless but I sensed that his stiffness of demeanour was quite illusory; at any moment he might explode into action.  Lankily uncoiled, he seemed to stand taller than I, though physically we’re about the same. 

“Wait – don’t go,” I said, seeing him begin to turn.  “You must read them too.”

"After you, then, zarromzyr," he nodded.  In his face I saw not exactly a smirk, more fierce than that, almost a glare of satisfaction, suggesting to me that he knows that I know that he’s the real boss, the real "zarromzyr" of this jaunt.

How long, I idly wondered, would it take him to realize that as far as I’m concerned he can prove all he likes?  He’ll certainly get ample scope when the Sunnoad accords him his “dying voice” – a virtual certainty, I reckon.

Here and now, though, I knew I must go through the motions of command, and so I opened the packet, unfolded the paper and scanned the text. 

Oreneg’s eyes were on me as I read one snippet aloud:

“…The achromatic zone will be used to blank the intercommunication of the nemaean allies of Yr…”

Possibly “incomprehensible” is an exaggerated term for it, but what I do need is a word like “dyslexic”, only applied to when my two sets of mental gears, Terran and Uranian, crunch clumsily together.  Perhaps "dyscosmic"?

“The secrecy baffles me, I confess,” I told him - glad, as I spoke, that the cabin was soundproofed.  “It seems unlike the way things are usually done on Ooranye.  Here, you read this,” and I handed the orders to him.  “It appears to be the complete plan of campaign.  You may give orders as you see fit, though you may route them through me if that helps keep everybody happy."

That was telling him!  Making it clear that I was perfectly well aware and quite content to know how things stand; happy, moreover, to continue with the charade of calling him my chief “adviser”. 

He took from me the no-longer-sealed orders and read rapidly down the page.

Then he looked me in the eye and spoke: “But, sponndar Yadon, it is you who have been appointed by the Sunnoad as this task force’s zarromzyr.  None other.”

Was he saying, “So don’t try to get out of it?”  I wasn’t sure, and therefore I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I caused the conversation to sprout a new shoot by saying, “Pity that the Sunnoad could not appoint himself commander.”

This, for some reason, went down well enough. Oreneg equably replied, “Indeed, but the latest I heard, he has his attention taken up with the Noo Wallang.” 

I had not heard of these “mockers of fate”.  I said as much.

Oreneg shrugged.  “I know scarcely more than you do, and neither of us can afford to fall into any starraflenk right now.  With your permission, zarromzyr, I return to my post.”

“Permission granted,” I said with a straight face, thinking: avoiding the starraflenk, the grip-trap, the trap of trying to understand too much, is a big thing with Uranians, and it certainly suits me.

:3

I wake, and stare at the ceiling of my cabin, feeling uncomfortable, not exactly with a headache, but aware of having spent a disturbed night. The dream didn’t help.  I usually forget my dreams, but no such luck with this one -

Rivers and streams are rare on this world; nevertheless I was standing beside a foggy stream bed, having just fought a duel with an antagonist who had been standing on the channel’s other side.

My laser bolt got him in the chest and he fell flat on his back and then slid forward, down the bank and into the mists, which closed over him.  I waited, just in case despite appearances he might be still alive.  He was a bad enemy; I didn’t want him alive.  Anyhow, after some minutes, with no sign of him rising from the stream bed, I went home, to a big house, somewhere or other.

Later, expecting a guest, I waited, dithering, on the first-floor landing.  For some reason I didn’t have the light on although evenshine had deepened towards night.  Presently, though I heard no knock on the front door, I sensed that somebody had come in, and suddenly I saw a head-shape in silhouette rising above the parapet of the stairwell, whereupon, terrified, I fumbled for the light-switch – and woke up.

Now what the heck was all that supposed to mean?  Perhaps nothing.  Dreams are full of randomness, like listening in on the babbling thought-exchange of the Universe.  Therefore, naught to do with me.   

I rise, I breakfast, and through the hours I drift, now wide awake yet still unable to shake off a continuing dream-like sensation, perhaps because my duties on board this ship are only vaguely defined, with the result that I envy the officers and sponndarou who are expected to plan how we'll fight when we reach our destination, as we shall in a few hours more. 

We are headed for Oirr, that region of cities which are built on the ground, cities which pre-date the dominant disc-on-stem Great Twenty-Five.  Soolm, Arn, Vus and Contahl were constructed before the energy-grab of the Phosphorus Era enabled Uranians to construct the disc-on-stem colossi out of iedleis, the ultimate metal; Soolm, Arn, Vus and Contahl are therefore more ancient in design although rebuilt many times since their origin, like a human body renews its cells. 

I count myself fortunate that at last I shall visit Oirr.  Though the circumstances are not ideal - for it is in Oirr that our present quarry, the City of Mists, has grounded under enemy control - I indulge in daydreams of wandering among those most-ancient cities, which so far I have never got round to exploring. 

Not that this is a good time even to think about sightseeing.  The news from Skyyon is bad.  Oreneg Vadon finds time to keep me posted about the Sunnoad's health.  Brem Tormalla is sinking fast, "burning himself out” in Oreneg’s phrase, “in the pressures of the Drall,” or, as I would put it in Terran terms, in the hassle of organizing a crusade. 

Well, one thing’s for sure, the succession won’t be like the last one: Syoomean society has no time for a thuzolyr-election at this juncture.  Instead it will be the “dying voice”.  I can only hope that Brem Tormalla, if he really is dying, has officially recorded his choice.  We don’t want fate to disappoint Oreneg Vadon a second time.

…Estimated arrival time: round about now-ish.  I know I’m important to these people, yet they don’t seem to mind where I am.  I could stick to my cabin all day, if I so wished: my value as a symbol is valid wherever I happen to be, or whithersoever I wander, in this floating ovoid hive.  Pleasing myself, I mooch into the control room.  Here, at the very centre of the skyship, large telescreens, thrice man-high, give views of the outside in all directions.

Besides those window-equivalents the walls have arrays of smaller screens to link us with the other ships and with some bases in Syoom.  Every so often my glance sweeps these and I'm always relieved to see no image of Brem Tormalla.  According to the current arrangement, if he dies while we’re on this campaign the image of him will be transmitted to us immediately, to appear "in the box" as they call it, together with a recording of his last words.

Nobody talks to me; they all get on with their tasks.  Under no pressure, I nevertheless cannot afford to get woolly and inattentive.  I tell myself I must fix my juddery mind which keeps darting to and fro between dreams and memories and Uranian and Terran ideas.  I need another 'outsidery' sort of person to talk to.  Hey – how about Abon Gnaa? 

I need only take a couple of strides to approach the nervy, mettlesome Yrian envoy.  He, like me, is standing around uselessly in the largest space he can find, equidistant between four banks of controls. 

For something to say, I say: “This is an epochal alliance, that you have made with us.”

Abon Gnaa turns to stare at me.  “Perhaps,” he murmurs.

“Only ‘perhaps’?”

“Only if we win."

I’d better hurry if I’m to thrash anything out with him, because since he's our essential Yrian expert he’s going to be in demand during the attack.  In fact I don’t understand why he isn’t already in consultation with the captain and with Oreneg Vadon. 

For look, here we are!  Finally our flight is bringing us into sight of the distinctive landscape chosen by the enemy for his descent from the sky. 

I see what looks like a pair of mountain ranges and a flat gap between them.  Names which I've learned now come to my mind.  A horse-shoe range – as I'll call it – or the Toomsut Solyairn as the Uranians call it - has peaks called the Rnung Tror, the “Crying Mountains”, at each end of the horseshoe, facing across the gap that leads into the land called the Glank, which our flotilla looks to be on the point of entering.

We’re currently at about fifteen hundred yards’ altitude, level with the Crying Mountain summits, but we’re steadily dropping.  Slowing, too.  We aren’t so stupid as to rush into a trap.  Or are we? 

Why is this Yrian envoy looking so gloomy?

Abon Gnaa and I have one of the big screens to ourselves.  We stare avidly into it for the first glimpse of the enemy – I think of it as "the enemy" though for the Yrian it is his home, albeit regrettably under enemy control.

I glance again at Abon Gnaa just when his mouth purses into a moue of distaste.  I follow his gaze; it would seem he’s now focused upon the closer of the two fortresses that are each perched on one of the Rnung Tror.  Its name is Therrold; we're currently drifting past it at a distance of about five miles.  The other one, Kyaptha, is about seven or eight miles off. Well, why the repugnance?

Abon Gnaa murmurs, “They shouldn’t have settled here.”

“Who's 'they'?” says I, but I don’t speak firmly enough to get an answer and anyhow I can guess what he must mean: the people who settled this area.  In his view, they ought to have kept away. 

The flotilla is going so slowly now that I decide I may have time to learn more before the crunch comes.  More loudly I ask:

“Was it their fault that Yr picked this spot?”

Abon Gnaa utters a derisive pfufff.  He’s a short man, I notice; perhaps Yrians breed short, to save skyborne weight.  Oddly it seems to give him a certain posture of authority among so many taller men.

“Yr has passed over this and many other areas, more times than your histories will ever know,” he says, ignoring my ill-considered remark.  “We have seen much that they and other ground-dwellers missed.  Many times, we saw nemaeans fly here to lay their eggs.  Eras ago, when Nenns settled in the Glank, it had long become secretly infested.”  He glances at me, notes my startlement, and adds: “I have told the captain.”

I echo: “Settled in the Glank?”

He gestures at the vista of plain which slowly widens before us as we float through the opening in the range.  I’m learning fast; I hadn’t even known that the Glank, the area enclosed by the Toomsut Solyairn, had been long inhabited by ordinary folk.  Its lack of cities had made me assume otherwise, for no good reason.  Why is it that I have got so far while learning so little?  The terrifying answer is, that the connective tissue of cause and effect appears to be even weaker in my case than it is for most Uranian life – and that its alternative, the pull of fate, which works from effect to cause, is all the stronger.  What I deserve, and what I get, are stretching further apart than ever…  Let it be so, if only the skin of dreaminess is not peeled to reveal a nightmare.  Be useful, Yadon, if you possibly can.  Look hard and intelligently, Yadon, if you dare.  You never know, you might get the chance to be useful after all.  Something is up already.  Skimmer-swarms are headed this way.  They're zeroing on our skyship from both Therrold and Kyaptha, and they shall catch up in a minute or so. 

…It didn't take them long: representatives from the personnel of the two forts have been conducted from the reception hold up to the control room and are even now conferring with Oreneg Vadon and the captain and his officers.  They’re standing not far off and I reckon that if I were to walk in amongst them no one would object.  That’s the crazy dreamlike thing: whatever I do, or don’t do, no one objects. 

I want to retain the view from "my" screen and the chance of quizzing Abon Gnaa, so I take no more than a couple of steps closer to the dialogue with the local Glankers from the forts.  They sound rather shrilly apologetic under sharp questioning by Oreneg Vadon, whose eyes cloud as he frowns at them.  These hicks with their piping raspy voices (as per my prejudicial Uranian self) seem to be admitting that Yr has made some sort of alliance with the nemaean pests; my opinion leaps to side with Oreneg so that I condemn them for having settled in this insectoid-infested region.  Wait, though, objects my Terran self; perhaps I should look to my own guilt in not having done my homework to learn more the basic facts of this scene before we arrived here.  But - scrub that!  This is not a homeworky world! 

The men, I learn, are called Tyogh and Cojild; the woman, apparently their boss, is Op Flallik.  Presently my irritation at their accents fades and before long I detect nothing wrong with them or their tones.

It says somewhere in the Good Book that when you’re hauled up before the authorities, you should take no thought about what you should speak, for the words to speak will be given to you when the moment comes.  Now why did that thought come to me just then?  And who are “the authorities” for me?  A tiny shiver accompanies that question.

Here on the Seventh Planet "the authorities" is or are whatever crux, crunch, zero hour or moment of truth may await you at the next crossroads of your life.

…If only it would be done with the “awaiting” so that I could know the worst and get it over with.  But at least a stream of information is flowing at me now.

...Information quickly succeeded by sight.  No sooner do I hear of the Xombs, the cold-volcanoes strewn in mid-plain, than I begin to see them ahead as they emerge from the haze of distance. 

The scene has opened out; the Toomsut Solyairn has receded on all sides into invisibility (though somehow one does not forget for a moment that that the broken ring of mountains surrounds the entire region), and smaller shapes claim notice, the ice-cones perhaps seven hundred yards high poking up out of the ground, with the colours - mottling their flanks - of human habitation.

Nobody shouts, or even curses sotto voce, but breath hisses out of our lungs as the viewscreens reveal which of the Xombs has suffered the descent of Yr.

“It is Addra,” I hear Op Flallik say; “woe to Addra.” 

Abon Gnaa mutters, “The others are not thereby reprieved: subjection equally awaits Suyit, Kuzub, Morch, Pummun and Umst, if I know my people.”

I can see, across the diminishing miles, that Addra is the middle-placed cone of a group of six.  Unlike its fellows it is now topped by a point of brilliance.  That intruding glint is our enemy.  I watch for detail as, slowly growing in our viewplates, it develops a sparkle, a coruscating, many-coloured belt which must be a wall around Yr’s middle. 

At another order from the captain one of the officers presses a stud.  Cross-hairs appear on the viewscreens, preparatory to the aim of cannon.  I wonder whether the people of Addra, the unfortunate town which has been elected as the footstool of grounded Yr, will escape collateral damage if and when we fire at the oppressor who now sits atop their cone.  Then that doubt shrinks beside a worse: can we win at all?

Our altitude has lessened to the level of our enemy and I sense the menace and power that seems to radiate from every portion of the structure of Yr, from the bowl-shaped keel lined with strakes, up to the scintillating belt-wall, and higher to the summit complexity of interlacing skimways and helical towers.  That urban crown is the part that looks most normal, but it is not very ordinary at that, for, nebulously prowling like dinosaurian ghosts, blurry patches of fog are on the move in the thoroughfares of Yr.  It is, after all, the City of Mists, reputed to possess a long-standing symbiosis with certain species of cloud.

Yet more dire is the vagueness that begins to smoke from the gun-ports in the scintillating wall.  These must be the nemaeans.  We know that their individual motions are random, but that does not reassure us, for every Uranian knows from the saga of his race that the insectoid swarms have a hideous power of combination.  I too, Starsider though I be, have instincts no less educated by history, no less apt to utter the warning shriek, This is what created the anti-fleet that doomed Fiarr Fosn and brought down the curtain on the Phosphorus Era.

I hear restless murmurs from some officers who are dismayed, I imagine, at what looks like our drift towards disaster, but the voice of Oreneg Vadon rises above the uncertainty:

"Achromatic Zone - on!"

Instantly the scene on the viewplates becomes monochrome, and I remind myself of what I have been told about it, that it's not a change in our sensors alone, it's an actual field-effect, a chromatic suppressant which truly blanks out all colour for miles around.  The range of the effect includes Yr itself.   

"Our plan remains unchanged," Oreneg declares to all of us in the control room and, by video link, to the corresponding centres in the other ships of the squadron.  "The nemaeans must now be thrown into confusion.  They communicate through colour-codes and should therefore lose the power of combination in a monochromatic environment.  Shortly we shall attack Yr from above.  All ranks above ordinary sponndar must don special cloaks with colour-free identification."  As he speaks he himself throws off his usual cloak and takes one from an orderly.  Other orderlies are going round the control room handing out replacement cloaks.  One is proferred to me.  Acting again with the sense of being in a dream, I obediently throw aside my old Daon's cloak and put one on which seems grey to me; not because it is a real grey (as worn by a Noad) but because everything is now grey in the Achromatic Zone.  What does it matter?  We'll all soon be dead, for the plan to attack Yr from above is suicidal.

Not that I have any right to criticize Oreneg for thus tobogganing down his chute of destiny – who am I to object?  On this monster of a world, it’s all too easy to get pelted into idiocy by a hail of fate-charged facts, and right now I’m failing to get enough of the picture just as he is, as we flounder in our different attempts to trade between wide supervision and narrowed insight.  Even as this realization occurs to me, a watch-officer cries out: “Stolon outbreak, sponndar O-V!”

The warning refers to an amazing change that has suddenly spread over the plain – and Oreneg Vadon ignores it! 

He's ignoring that the ground, all around the Xombs and as far as the eye can see, has abruptly come alive with a nightmare rumpling, evidence of subsurface wrigglings as if a horde of giant worms had arrived to add to the coalition of dread.  Here's the stage at which I drop the reins of rationality, giving up all attempts to guess my way to make sense of things, and, averting my eyes from the viewscreens, I instead scrutinize people's faces.

The locals – Op Flallik and her companions – look sick but acquiescent.  It's as though they were saying, “Typical, ain’t it; as if it weren’t not enough to have to face the nemaean insectoids that await us at Yr, we have to be plagued by these animated roots too.” 

My crew-mates, though, are less defeatist and more censorious.  The mood around me is compressed with recrimination directed at the folk of Glank, expressed out loud in a few edgy phrases which suggest to me a lot more than is said.  "How could you do it?" - spreads out on wings of commentary in my mind to mean "You must have done a deal with the nemaeans in order to settle here; how could you thus betray your humanity?"  And similarly, "You hoped not to pay the score," spreads to mean, "Payment deferred, it seems, till now."  

But all Oreneg says is, “Prepare for ejection, everyone.  Down to the hold.”

More dreamy, dreamy movement as we troop in pre-organized formation down the ramps toward the skyship’s hold.  I am slipping so far, failing to grasp so many things, I wince in advance at the thought that I am thereby setting myself up for the nastiest of jolts, should the dream’s smoothness turn rough; but what can I do? 

We pass a holocubicle where, I see, a life-size image of Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437 has flicked on, with a meaning that is clear to all of us; as we file past it, we all bow our heads, and that’s all; no time right now for fitting words, except that Oreneg alone says out loud, "He was a great Sunnoad, but this is not a moment in which to praise what is gone or to acclaim the new.  Remember, as we limber for the fight, we must forget rank, we must address each other as plain sponndar.  The insectoids' hearing faculty remains unimpaired, though we have struck a blow at their colour vision; they understand our languages, so we must take care not to give them targets by our use of titles.  What do titles matter anyway?  Victory is all; nothing else counts, for without victory we cannot survive.”  I, however, reflect that such Churchillian rhetoric is misplaced, since we are sure to lose.

Quietly, obediently, in the cavernous hold, we mount our skimmers in rows.  Nothing to do now, but wait for the hatches below us to open.  Wait, in other words, to get tipped onto the streets of Yr.

Meanwhile here too are viewscreens for us to watch, not that a sight of what’s reserved for us will help matters at all.

I look around at my fellows in the grey-dappled, colourless light.  One thing this Achromatic Field has accomplished: it has made it easier for us to regard each other as plain warriors, without distinction of rank, just as Oreneg has required us to do.  Our replacement cloaks, stitched with the initials of our names, plus facial recognition, will either suffice or not, in the short time left to us, for purposes of command.    

Eyeing the screenscape once more, I reckon we have about five minutes left before our course brings us directly above the enemy...  What is there to say?  Dempelath would gloat if he could see us now.

It’s funny – I can see the odds against us, so why can’t Oreneg?  Perhaps because the current pulling him along is blinkered in a different way from the one that swaddles my brain.  So for him it’s acceptable that we are due to plummet - that the nether hatches are about to open and drop us onto the streets of Yr.  So what if we immediately shall have to engage all the overwhelming multitudes of human Yrians and their insectoid allies… the track of his life says do this, so we must do it.

I could protest.  I could raise my voice.  I could shout that all this is stupid.  What have I to lose?  Nothing - so why does my mouth stay closed?  Now I discover an interesting fact, which is that rather than contradict the experts and make a fuss, it is easier just to go ahead and die.

Except – hey – what’s this inside me?  In despite of everything, a force pushing me at the last possible moment to say what I think!  I stand up, astride my vehicle, and my mouth opens after all!

“Pilots of the squadron, this is Yadon speaking!” cries the voice from my throat,  "reduce altitude, and aim for the base of the Xomb.  Sponndarou of Syoom, prepare to exit sooner, and follow me when I give the word.  We shall not drown in an ocean of enemies; we shall fight upwards with their boundary at our backs.”

That’s that then – I’ve just gone against the Sunnoad.  For of course Oreneg is now Sunnoad, albeit as yet un-proclaimed.  I, using my authority as zarromzyr to contradict his plan, am guilty of the unthinkable.

But wait, not quite.  Uranian history allows for Correctors!

Yes, it looks like I’m in the tradition of those who stand up to the wearer of the golden cloak and tell him he’s wrong and – by force if necessary – set him right.  Corrector Yadon, that’s who I am!  The drawback is, death is the penalty for trying and failing at this game.  On the other hand, right now, death faces us all anyway, and while each second parades past me I glimpse, in the balance of forces, a scintillant justification of my leap from figurehead to actual leader.   

The thread of a definite chance has emerged from the ooze of despair.  I can arrogate that Sherlock Holmes crack, that whatever remains after you have eliminated the impossible must, however improbable, be the truth.  Here my version declares that what’s impossible is to suppose my fate-wave to be a liar.  Therefore, since it can't be a liar, what remains, however improbable, is the truth - is victory.  - And the means of victory?  The thin clue, the one which everybody else appears determined to ignore.  That could make it hard, but at least nobody  has so far interrupted me, which is a good sign; nobody has put me under restraint or shot me, which are even better signs; and now for the peroration as the last moments tick away.

“Not being subject to your Uranian phobias (you've all heard, I know, of my Earth-tinge), I can, if necessary, order the unspeakable.  And because you will allow me this, we are going to win.  You'll soon see what I mean when we make a wide-beam attack at the join between the opposed forces of the stolons and the nemaeans; watch me and follow my example!  Pilot, head exactly for the base of Addra Xomb.  Yes – keep that course – keep it exact – on a count of three – two – one – eject!”

The floor falls away from under us all, and my necessary skills awaken.  Despite pitching trajectory and buffeting winds I manage with hand on throttle to achieve the vital minimum of control during the plunge to normal skimming altitude, and so I get down without a crash.  Not all my followers are so fortunate – I see some dozens lie wrecked on the gralm – but most of them are hovering in readiness to follow the lead I shall give them.  I must give it without delay: my choice of landing will have surprised the enemy but has equally amazed my own side.  So far they’ve opted to be glued to my fate, committed by having jumped with me, but they would never have thought of it themselves, not here, not onto a plain writhing with the tips of stolons.  Those root-tips, even as we watch, greet our arrival by extruding from the ground: frightful sting-shapes, venomous to the imagination: a hideous sight on which I'm pinning all my hopes. 

Meanwhile our Yrian foes and their allies the nemaean insectoids appear in a dark grey swarm, spilling down towards us from over the conical mountain's rim.  Our change of approach has surely delighted them; rather than defend against assault from above, all they need now do is swoop to meet our attack from below.  The fools - doing what I want them to do.

Not that the numbers look good for us. Certainly we’ll match, one to one at least, the human fighters from Yr.  We could, in fact, spit large numbers of them before their balance recovers from their downward rush – but we won’t be allowed to.  They’re not plunging alone.  Each one of them is accompanied by at least a dozen dark, buzzing cranial nightmares.

To have seen nemaeans in pictures is scant preparation for being in the way of their hurtling advance.  They are the size of human heads but their three lidless eyes, one in front and one to either side, stare blankly as stones, while their back-hairs quiver at propeller speed with a Doppler whine pitched high as they approach and low as they recede.    One of these creatures drones at me so close that I feel stabbed by the mere sight of it; my mind wobbles towards insanity but luckily my laser spits the thing faster than thought and I realize I've been let off lightly.  Then another attack, another escape.  It's the greyness of everything in this Achromatic Zone that robs them of their power of combination.  Still, the disorganized threat is dire enough, the threat from sheer numbers raining chaotically down on us, while the human Yrians have now joined the fight too.  I find my sponnd-arm almost wrenched in a laser duel with a warrior who comes at me on my right, his skimmer slicing the air as I dodge, and again I out-fence and kill my foe while my conscious thought lags: by the time I understand I have killed him, his fourfold escort are hurtling at me, gnashing. This looks like it.  I can cleave two of them, at most, before my curtain falls.  I brace myself to find out what death is like.  ...Yet for some reason my time continues.  Why?  Some fluke has caused two of the creatures to collide with each other, while I dispose of the other pair.  A relief, but it occurs to me that I’m supposed to be leading, not merely staying alive. 

Now, nothing's coming at me at this particular moment but I hesitate to make use of the breather to issue orders or even to whisper to myself: the nemaeans' superlative hearing (it is believed) can even catch our subvocalizations...

Yet it looks as though the scales have tipped - we have begun to advance up the slope of the Xomb!  That can only mean that the stolons have played the part I hoped they’d play. Thanks to their subsonic interference, they have degraded sound for the insectoids, as much as our Achromatic zone has degraded colour; and sure enough the pervasive nemaean hum has blurred into a rougher roar.  The stolons have thus given vital momentum to our attack.  Satisfied, they're now retracting, disappearing back into the ground, having splurged their crucial, once-in-an-era blast at their ancient enemies the insectoids.  Ah, the pressure of my wave, force-feeding me with the insight that plant-life can borrow energy from its future!  How dared I count on this?  No one will dare to ask me, for fate-surfing is not for talk -

Unless, that is, Dempelath wins.  In which case all the unspoken elegance of events must shrivel in the glare of exposure.

…Our upward surge has brought us at last into the streets of the town of Addra.  We skim among buildings which appear not too different from Earthly houses.  Faces, wan with fear or shock, stare at us from windows as we zoom past.  Not one of these townsfolk comes out to help us in our fight to liberate them from the Yrians; I guess a phobic horror of the awakened stolons has kept the entire population indoors.  Well, that’s their business; I am too busy to be interested.

Despite the buildings around us, visibility has improved as the swarms of nemaeans have thinned out, more of my followers recognize me or recognize the initials dyed onto my cloak, and I'm more effectively leading: arm-waving gestures are of some use at least.  We still meet with some resistance when insectoids buzz at us from round corners with indifferent accuracy, sometimes accompanied by Yrians: the killing in the greyness is a solemn but not a dreadful thing, a job that has to be done, the remains of a sad dream which might have grown far worse.

The slope lessens; we’re almost at the volcano’s rim.  When we get to it, we’ll be in sight of Yr nesting on the crater.  If anywhere is the place for a final enemy counter-attack, it is here.

It comes.  The human foes are few, but the nemaeans are still numerous.  They storm around us mindlessly.  No cleverer than the lifeless rebound of molecules in an excited gas, they are, or were, dangerous only because of their numbers, and now it seems they'll never recover in time from the debilities of their damaged sight and hearing, and that means... minutes of lessening... followed at last by a quietness, the sudden blank silence of victory.

The slope and the town of Addra lie below us; from here on the rim we can look back and see the battlefield clear.  The enemy has exhausted his force: if any foes are left, they are lying low. Meanwhile, ahead -

The subdued might of Yr, balanced in its crater-cradle, towers before us.  Pale splotches round the lower edge of its hull suggest that its descent has squashed Addra's crop: fields of crenth, the most concentrated and valuable strain of vheic.  Damage that's serious enough; but, because we have won, Yr will not similarly squash the liberty of this land.

Around me gather a small knot of my men; not more than a few, for we are still under orders not to reveal the identity of the officers amongst us - for some of the insectoids remain doubtless on the loose, and until we’ve been given the all-clear for communication (that is, until the Achromatic Zone is switched off) we shall guard our words.

A young fighter whose name I know to be Kusk smoothes his torn cloak amd remarks, “This was my first battle, sponndar."

"Mine too," I say.

"I killed,” he says.

“Death,” I remark, “is a solemn but not a dreadful thing – on this world.”

He turns me a sharp look - he knows who I am - and says to check on my meaning: “Because on this world we have other lives to come?”

“Yes,” I say.  “On the other hand – ”

“Yes?”  Young, interested, eager for truth, he's seizing the chance to converse with the Earthmind.

I improve on my earlier statement: “What I said is true only if we refer to the deaths of people.  Other things can die.  Things bigger than individual people.  Causes.  Whole civilizations.  And though a person may reincarnate, when a civilization dies it’s dead for ever.”

“That," Kusk nods slowly, "is what we are right to fear.”

I wonder what kinds of disturbances have filtered down as news to the common people of Syoom.  In other words, what damage Dempelath is doing, long-range.  It’s all so vague as yet but I have a strong hunch it will get more precise as time goes on, unless we stop it.  And stop it we must and will.  Brem Tormalla is no more, but Oreneg Vadon is no fool either and with him as Sunnoad the great mission against the tyrant of Olhoav must have a likelihood of success.

The thought of Oreneg is accompanied by the sight: he has just appeared from among a group of fighters some fifty yards away on the rim; he is walking towards me.

The men around me withdraw a short, token distance to allow a conference between myself and the Grardesh hero.  By now, they too must know who he has become, but because the landscape is still grey, and secrecy still in force, they are careful not to show too much respect – yet. 

As the man approaches I feel that this is like being inside an old black-and-while film epic.

He holds out a telescope:  "Look," is his first word to me, and he points.

I train the instrument towards the summit of Yr.  “What am I supposed to see?”

“The Dangling Rag.  Sign of surrender.  You were right, sponndar.”

After a couple of sweeps I spot it: a pole with a downcurved top from which a sheet flutters.

“So that is that,” I say inanely, handing the telescope back.  “Er... in which case, although I, er, Corrected you somewhat high-handedly, the outcome has justified my insubordination, would you agree?”

Oreneg firms his lips.  "You class yourself then as... a Corrector?" 

I can’t read his expression at all.  Something ruthless in that poker face of his – is the new Sunnoad really going to punish me for my intervention which after all did win the battle?  Quick: check: did I not do right?  Yes it certainly was right!  Our unexpectedly redirected landing was a valid and vital Correction to his strategy!  I don’t know how I had the cheek to carry it through but I did so and here we are, the victors.  Yet he seems slow to admit my status as Corrector; or rather, worse than that, he looks about to deny it!  Perhaps he can’t stand the idea of it, so soon in his reign.  But a Sunnoad ought to be big enough to accept that, surely.

He's shaking his head; he's wearing a quite ruthless grin.

“Oh no,” he muses, “you’re not a Corrector.  In fact you’re the one person on the planet who cannot be a Corrector.”

"That's plok," I say, feebly awash with indignation.  “You mean an Earthmind cannot participate in your institutions?  It didn't bar me from the dayonnad of Olhoav – “

Now he has tilted his head on one side and his grin has mellowed into a sadder smile.

"Wait just a moment," he says.  "I'm getting the signal from the Ruuzna-Ptorrai."

"What signal?" says I, feeling crossly obtuse and annoyed with myself for speaking.  I should not interrupt his communication with our flagship.  Not surprisingly, he doesn't answer for some seconds.  Then -

"Ah, the surrender has been confirmed.  The skyship has received a formal message from the rightful Noad of Yr, Rael Odiram himself, who has now been released from imprisonment.  He says that Langhebli Dostomon, the leader of the Grounder Faction, in other words our main Yrian enemy, has been killed in the battle, and that the Faction’s entire organization is dissolved.  So our victory is complete."

Click!  No more greyness!  A never-to-be-forgotten moment of return to colour, a shock of dazzle and splendour, and the sky, the volcano’s surface, the city of Yr, the plains of the Glank stretching away below – are all clad in their hues once more!  Us, our clothes, and, God help me, that cloak they put on me before we left the skyship –

Golden, the cloak.  I have never felt so small.  It is not Oreneg Vadon after all, it is none other than Neville Yeadon of London / Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav / Yadon the wanderer of Syoom, otherwise known as “me”, who has been chosen to make the current guest appearance in that variable spark that now flickers in Uranian history as 80438.

"So it's all up to you now, Sunnoad Yadon," says Oreneg Vadon.

golden-cloak

CONTINUED IN

Uranian Throne Episode 23:   

On the Eve