uranian throne
- episode twenty-three


on the eve

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;  22: The golden cloak.

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

ep23e-big

1

The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:

Stop tottering - and face the demands of the moment: this thing-to-boggle-the-mind really has happened to you.  And although you'd prefer to sit back and absorb fortune's wallop at your leisure, you have an immediate task: it's your role to focus, right now, upon the negotiation of a peace with Yr.  Do it well!  Live up to your station in life!  Else you're finished as a human being.

Three companion-adventurers are walking beside me.  We're going down an avenue of the City of Mists, we four, I the Sunnoad with three who have been drawn into the current of my service.  I believe I did right to command their attendance.  Certainly the experienced guidance of Abon Gnaa, and the support of Oreneg Vadon, both of whom in any case would have wished to participate, are resources to be garnered, and as for the youngster, Kusk - well, "happening to be at hand" is typical insofar as millions of bystanders in this planet's long history have been swept into the gyre of the golden cloak.  Do those so swept complain?  I haven't heard.  At any rate I don't sense any critical dubiety on the part of these three.  They seem quietly proud to be here with me.  I sense no reproach for my apparent rashness in walking through Yr without a proper military escort.

How different it would be if this sort of adventure were located on Earth!  Terran followers would surely regard me as madly irresponsible - whereas here my risk-taking appears to be accepted without question.

Even so, this little lot are perhaps the better for not being able to read my mind.  If they could they might wonder - loyal though they are - "What by all the skies is Sunnoad Yadon about?"  The truth is, I don't exactly know.  "What!" they might then protest, "you know that the ruler whom you're taking us to meet cannot be trusted, yet you have no plan!"

Well, my "plan" is (as it were) to "budget" in advance for the difficulties.  Noad Rael Odiram, proud as Lucifer by all accounts, shan't turn out to be well-disposed towards Syoom, despite the gratitude he owes us for having freed him from the thralldom of the rebels who had seized control of his city.  He must hate the idea that Yr got beaten by a Syoomean force even though the defeated were a faction hostile to himself.  To him, the pattern of events must represent a dire humiliation.  I can reliably assume that I shall find him in a bad mood.

Besides, even at the best of times I couldn't expect him to consider himself bound by loyalty to me: the sky-ranging history of nomadic Yr has not encouraged the folk of that city to regard themselves as Syoomean, and they don't admit allegiance to the Noad of Noads.

To place myself in Rael Odiram's power could thus be considered an act of lunacy.

Yet, during the past twenty minutes, since I voiced my intention to my followers, I've not heard a single attempt to dissuade me from trying to dicker a peace with Yr's Noad in person on his home ground.  Neither - admittedly - have I've detected any enthusiastic approval...  Matter-of-fact nods, respectful silences, expectant looks are all I get.

At my side I hear the subdued voice of young Kusk: "So far, it looks like a normal city, sponndar."

"Though the abitgers modify the picture."  What did I say then?  It's the first time I've ever pronounced "abitger".  I must have dredged it from my subconscious Uranian encyclopaedic dictionary.  Reassuring that I can do this, when a label is required to slap onto a sight!  Abitger - it must have been shunted forth by the sight of the bristles of grey barrels on roofs and between towers.  Abitger: compressed-air cannon.  My comment sounds apt; I'm talking like a knowledgeable Sunnoad should. 

Oreneg Vadon says, "Yes, the place is thick with them.  I've counted so far about thirty, just on this stretch."

"Defences against predatory clouds," I shrug with an air of wisdom.  "Accrual over the ages." 

Oreneg glances at me and I guess his flash of approval: this Sunnoad-with-an-Earthmind seems to understand what to expect in a skyborne Uranian city.

Our boots continue to clink along the avenue's metal surface; our eye-balls swivel this way and that as we do our best to keep watch on the geometric jungle that lines the way. 

What surprises us most is how crisp and clear it all seems.  The famous Mists, which gave the city its sobriquet, are no longer on the prowl.  They appear to have all subsided into a mere carpeting of a few of the city squares and side-streets with what seem like luminous layers of slowly bubbling mud.  We avert our eyes from those.  That shows, on our part, an attitude of mind that's one-hundred-per-cent-correct Uranian: let the attention glide past stuff which ought to be let be.  They can mystify all they like so long as they leave us alone.

Kusk and Oreneg sometimes turn to glance behind them but Abon Gnaa and myself look straight forward.  It's futile to worry about ambush.  My main concern is to be sure I don't miss any signal from the palace which must lie up ahead. 

Ah, that gold-and-orange arched door, there at the end of the avenue: that must be the entrance. 

My imagination races towards the meeting with the Noad of Yr.  He must be desperate to do something special!  His priority when we meet will be to recover his lost dignity, so that he can impress his own people.  Let's hope he'll have the sense to realize that treachery towards me won't do it.  A grand generous gesture, on the other hand, would suit his image nicely.  An agreement to an adventurous alliance of equals!  That would fit the bill to perfection!  It will be good if, when I put the idea into his mind, I can induce him to regard it as his own.

(Or if "alliance" is too much for Rael Odiram to swallow, maybe I could borrow a gag from Earth history and suggest that his city, like President Wilson's USA in World War One, could be called not an "ally" but an "Associated Power".)

Whatever terms he prefers to use will be fine with me, so long as he joins in the all-important fight against the common threat to all.

The bright door is much closer now.  It has not yet opened for us but already my speculations are zooming well past it, my thoughts busy with the further future.  I'm now picturing how I may distribute my attention between, on the one hand, the fleet of reliable Syoomean skyships which I'll have to gather for the task force to rescue Olhoav, and on the other hand the need to juggle the commitment of Yr, which I'm about to secure and which could amount, if all goes well, to a skyborne colossus sailing with us through the skies of Fyaym.  Yr is going to be a superb asset in the clash with the common enemy: won't Dempelath be aghast when he sees -

Stop daydreaming!  Get on with the job!  You haven't got the agreement yet!

I almost visibly shudder, so fierce is that reprimand from my more focused self.  It's sharpened by a flash of Terran memory.  A sports report on TV, of a football match back in 1967 in which a top-flight goal-keeper was thinking too far ahead (as he afterwards admitted) about where he would throw the ball after he'd caught it - such an obvious catch it seemed - and the result of this wandering of his mind, while the ball was still coming at him, was that he failed to catch it, it slipped through his hands and into the goal - so that "Careless Hands" he was dubbed from then on: an error which clouded all his achievements.  And now you, Sunnoad Yadon, you'd better watch what you're doing.  For goodness' sake NOTICE the obvious things -

For instance, the quietness of Abon Gnaa.  He hasn't said a word during the minutes we've been walking in Yr.  It's as if he wishes to efface himself.  I didn't quite expect that.  He's no automaton, after all, mouthpiece though he is when spokesman for Rael Odiram. 

I decide on a prompt:  "Any comments, Abon Gnaa?"

He mutters, "Things have changed."

"More than you expected?"

"Not more than I should have expected, no."  At the pique in his tone, my mind leaps at a guess - that his role has been abolished and that the Noad of Yr intends not to use a spokesman at all. 

We halt our march a few yards from the great arch-door.  Finally it has begun to open.  Slowly its two halves swing back.  In the greyness beyond, I discern a shuffling of interior lights.  I guess I'm seeing a glint of distant helmet lights, from people crowded back against a far wall. 

"What do we make of this?" say I. 

Abon Gnaa is wearing a sort of stuffed expression; Kusk looks overawed; even Oreneg Vadon seems subdued.  Hmm... this may be a good moment to put myself in their place, or in the place of any Syoomean treading the floor of legendary Yr. 

I make no move to advance -

"Wise, wise," rasps a voice.

At this ironic approval of my hesitation I give a start (oops, undignified) and turn to see a lean, stringy old man in a grey cloak who has emerged from behind one of the pillars next to the great door. 

White hair, white eyes blazing, the fellow adds sardonically:  "I was actually born in there and yet I, too, am keeping out of it."

I probe: "You don't like the look of your own people, Noad Rael?"

That was cheeky of me!  But he answers seriously, "I want to keep the distance between them and me."

I repetitively say, "But - your own people!"

"Today," he nods.  As if to say, that's not much to count on.

I say formally: "I, Sunnoad 80438, have come to you, Rael Odiram, Noad of Yr, to negotiate a peace.  A peace," I emphasize, "between equals."

Straight after that last word has left my lips I briskly turn to meet the eyes of Oreneg Vadon, to give him a don't worry, I know what I'm doing glance which orders him to trust me.  My expression is intended to convey: don't imagine that I shall risk any derogation of the sunnoadex.  I am quite aware of my rank but I'm not pulling it on the Noad of Yr.  It's a lot to put into an expression, I know.

Meanwhile it seems that my choice of vocabulary has gratified the ruler of the City of Mists.  "A peace between equals," he echoes, as though it were the title of a poem.

I seize the moment, "Therefore we must speak aside, the two of us alone." 

Rael Odiram gestures at the square stone block from which the nearby pillar rises. 

My companions watch, grimly, as I go to join the Yrian at that plinth.  It provides space enough for two to sit and bargain.  We settle, the Noad and I, and eye one another in half-profile.  I begin:

"Allow me to say it for you: you face... being made to disappear.  I know the prospect well, for it's the same for me."

Inexcusable utterance of the unsayable truth!  I literally see him grinding his teeth.  Even on Earth it's a hard thing to observe to any ruler, that in a case where no official mechanism of deposition exists he must, instead, risk disappearance

I reflect that not so long ago the German Kaiser and the Japanese tenno were, though revered, yet vulnerable to forcible removal by (in their case) the military: an unstated doom hung over the emperors, a doom which they must have known would take effect if they failed to perform their roles successfully.  It had to be that way in cultures where no other channel existed either in theory or in imagination for the rulers' replacement.  And whereas on Earth the theory can change, and politics evolve into laxer, less demanding forms, it's not so on the seventh planet. 

On Ooranye, eras may pass since a forcible disappearance and yet you don't ever think of talking about it; it's an outrage to say out loud what had to be done.

Now that I have said it out loud, what is Rael Odiram going to do?  Explode? 

I watch him choke it down.  With satisfaction I see the realization dawn on his face, of an understanding which I can encourage by softly spoken words:

"Noad, you must have worked out, having heard about me, that it's because I am not completely of this world that I can speak what otherwise is never spoken.  Also, that what I have said about the risk of your disappearance is likely to apply even more strongly to myself."

He raises his eyebrows at that.  "To you, Sunnoad Yadon?"

"Yes, to me," say I; "for you and I are in the same kind of situation.  Let me be blunt: you have suffered serious reverses.  You were overthrown by a faction that grounded your floating city.  It has been beaten in war by a Syoomean force to whom you owe your restoration.  Looks very, very bad for your image, doesn't it?  But now think - what about me?  Estimate how yet darker it must look for me.  A new Sunnoad, duly elected by the dying voice of Brem Tormalla 80437, but lent the golden cloak on one rather shaky condition: I'm where I am because it is believed that an Earthmind may be quirky enough to beat the abnormal threat of Dempelath.  A bit up-in-the-air, eh?  All sorts of things could go wrong, probably will, with my reign, and if they go too far wrong - something will happen."

Rael Odiram finds his voice.

"You need not be erased.  Instead, you could be admonished by a Corrector."

"I know that.  Sunnoads have been righted and saved by Correctors.  But not always.  And in my case it may not be enough.  I am pitted against an evil from Fyaym, resistance to whom will necessitate terrific demands, as yet unimagineable demands on me and on any force I can raise.  If, as seems probable, I am simply not up to the task, it will mean that I shall be judged as..."

"Uncorrectable."

"You've said it, Noad Rael."

"I must confess," he muses, "I have found it intriguing, the question of precisely what happens to rulers who disappear."

"Let's hope neither of us discovers the answer." 

My comment raises an ironically understanding smile on the face of the Noad of Yr, which shows me that the desperate phase of the colloquy has come to an end.  Plainer sailing from now on!  I next hear my own glib talk on a slide to success.  So rapidly do the minutes slip by, that almost before I realize it I find we've arranged, with no misunderstandings, the terms of peace.  It's a verbal commitment, clear and sufficient.  The Noad of Yr has given his word, and I believe him, that he will bring the majestic floating presence of Yr itself to join my fleet when the journey across Fyaym to Olhoav begins.

It's a strong agreement because of what's behind it.  I know, and he knows I know, that he needs the grand gesture.  In the eyes of his people he must live down the recent blow to his prestige, and restore that splendour of destiny which alone will enable him to survive; the alternative is the silent disappearance into tacit oblivion, the gulp down that nameless throat which a ruler who fails to make the grade on this world can quietly expect to happen.

I get up from the plinth, and we bow to each other, the Noad of Yr and the Sunnoad of Syoom.

...Back with my followers, I rub a hand across my sweaty brow and say, "That's done." 

"He is now our ally?" asks Oreneg Vadon in obvious amazement.

"Officially he will join the war effort as an Associated Power," I say with a trace of a grin.  "But yes: Rael Odiram will join my fleet when it is assembled for the voyage to Olhoav."

Abon Gnaa mutters, "I must believe it, I suppose."

Kusk says, "A great outcome, sponndar Sunnoad-Y."

"So it looks like I can go on to other things," I say, "and bow out of the detail-mongering here..."  Just in time I warn myself to refrain from actually pronouncing the word "delegate".  Although in war a Sunnoad may lead - and hence presume to delegate tasks - in peacetime it's different: the wearer of the golden cloak must then rely not on definable authority but on pure prestige, with no staff at nen's disposal.  And as to whether we are as yet at war with Dempelath: it's arguable.  It doesn't yet look like an open war, though, if both sides are preparing determinedly for one, to me it looks like a war.

My little group here, plus Rael Odiram himself who has stepped closer to listen, are waiting for me to open my mouth again.

"I reckon that you three," I point, "would do well to remain here a while to liaise with Noad Rael," I point again, and suddenly realize - my words have come out in a mixture of Uranian and English.  Uh... which words were in which tongue?  I can't remember a few seconds back.  But their eyes sparkle as they all swap looks; it seems my 'Nudge Quotient' is high.  Meaning what?  Oh shut up, brain.  Don't analyze how you skate over the moment or you'll fall over.  Now they're nodding at me; they're saying they'll do it.  I nod my thanks in turn.

"I leave you now," I say.  "I shall call the flagship to take me off the rim."  Whereupon, the four of them together (I am glad to note) standing in line to bid me farewell, I set off back along the avenue, with a metaphorical diploma in my pocket, confirming that I've jumped the first hurdle in my reign.  Not cause to swagger but enough for a swing in my stride. 


2

I keep sliding into a mood of wonder in which my muscular actions are left to themselves.  My legs bear me like an automaton, back along the avenue to Yr's rim.  Similarly without thought, I make the transceiver-call to the skyship. 

A couple of minutes' wait.  Now the great ovoid hovers close.  Hisss...  its pickup ayash lifts me.  I rise through the opening.  I step onto the floor of the hold. 

The captain and several officers are present; I graciously respond to their greetings, yet immediately afterwards I can hardly remember what I've said.  Not for the first or last time, a double-take-to-end-all-double-takes has slapped my consciousness, to cause the inner self to flinch and wail, "Has this actually happened to me?  Is that golden cloak really around my shoulders?"  Fortunately the mental stun stays private; a momentary catch in my throat, and a whispery grunt of amazement which nobody hears, are the only surface bubbles of my soul's ferment. 

Must listen!  The captain has taken it upon himself to ask: "Should we head back to Skyyon now, 80438?"

"Yes, do that."  I ought to have given the order right away.  I've let the moment drag. 

The captain's head inclines; his cloak sweeps as he turns.  His officers follow him, away to the ramp which leads to the control centre.  I tag along at a distance, brooding, pondering, cautiously pleased...  They are letting me be, they know I shouldn't be hemmed in by ceremonial.  And - no mention of a posh stateroom; good, a Sunnoad ought to be beyond such things  Nevertheless -

I reflect on how he addressed me: "80438".  Why such numeric terseness? 

Far too soon to understand.  I can hardly expect - despite my considerable experience with Brem Tormalla 80437 - to master all the nuances in the various forms of address straightaway after having become the focus of them. 

One route to speedier understanding occurs to me but it may come at too high a price: that is, if I were to let go of my Terran consciousness altogether, in a final submergence, a permanent and total surrender to my Uranian personality, then that would doubtless banish my perplexities forever - but I shrink from the cost of that step: it's surely better than I retain the perspective of Earth, for, in a way, it's why I'm here.  The people of Syoom, if they were consulted on the matter, would (I strongly suspect) not approve if I were to abandon the peculiar string-to-my-bow, the eccentric viewpoint which just may defend them against the even weirder enemy brewing trouble on Starside.

Here we come to the biggest question of all.

What sort of enemy do we face?

We're sleepwalking towards a state of war, a war to preserve our identity, yet nobody talks about it!  Such silence!  A stench of undefined peril wafts hither, while the fighting strength of Syoom is almost squashed into inaction by a heavy blanket of silence.

That, so I guess, is why Brem Tormalla chose me.  The idea is, let the Terran pollute his lips whenever it becomes necessary to mention the unmentionable.

Not a pleasant train of thought, this.  But then one would have to be a fool to hope this job will be easy.  All you can do, Yadon, is use your noggin as best you can. 

While ambling along a corridor towards my cabin I decide to hail an officer who crosses my path at an intersection ahead.  He stops at once, waits for me to speak, and I quickly ask myself why I have hailed him.  The answer: I've remembered that I wish to avoid arriving at the polar city at the wrong time of day.  The evening would not be a good idea. 

"Please ask the Captain," I say, "to drop me off at Melikon." 

"I'll see to it, 80438," says the officer smartly, and turns round.  That was all.  No explanation necessary.  I've done right: of course a Sunnoad must not spend the night in Skyyon.  I could tell that the officer approved of my request.  Ever since Tu Rim 78860, way back before the current era, tried to convert the sunnoadex into a despotic rule, wearers of the golden cloak have been banished by custom from sojourning overnight in the Sunward Polar City.  To accep the ban wholeheartedly is a way of distancing ourselves from the shameful example of Tu Rim.  It's a taboo so strong, that to flout it might well be sufficient grounds to activate the unrecordable... the wordless disappearance.

Therefore while I am Sunnoad I shall never inhabit quarters in the Zairm, the palace at Skyyon, but shall be content with the allotted "hut" at Melikon, ninety miles away, whenever I need to lodge within a half-hour's skimming distance of the polar hub.

I bet the crew are relieved that I remembered the rule.  How embarrassing if they'd had to remind me - though doubtless a useful talent in this job is that of brushing off embarrassments.

So far, so good, then.  I'm an apprentice nudger who needs to improve, and meanwhile I'm determined not to get lazy and take for granted the love which the people of Syoom bear towards the office I hold.  Theirs is so strong and deep a devotion, that I need only ask in order to get the help I want, at any rate as far as practicality allows; but though I can bask in the radiation of love, I must also tend it, take skilful care of it, making requests in the right style and for the right things.  For love itself exerts pressure, in the form of a challenge to live up to its expectation.  All is upon me, and the examples of precedent and the guidance of my predecessors can never be enough, never amount to the whole story...

...It seems that my Terran awareness has segued past some stretch of time.  It is as though it has just awoken from a doze.  I gaze around.  This, here, is no longer the skyship.  I must have alighted.  The glowing numerals on a blue clockface tell me that I've been in the "hut" for a while: "10,545,958 Ac" is now the date.  Six days since my accession!  What has filled that time?  What, in particular, have I been doing here at Melikon?

A rummage among snippety memories gives me the answer: I haven't been doing anything much.  I certainly am not in the middle of any action at this particular moment. 

Well, that's good.  It's a time of taking stock.  Of getting my bearings.  Learning to feel at home in this lodgement.  Wandering around the premises, outside and in. 

"Hut" is a misleading term.  True, from outside it's sort of a hut-shaped house, but inside it amounts to fairly a comfortable dwelling for a solitary person's needs.  It is spotlessly maintained by silent robot cleaners: one constant cleaner to each room, always inching, hand-sized and pad-shaped, at snail's pace over the floor, walls, furniture... 

Custom decrees that the Sunnoad lives here alone.  It doesn't feel lonely, however; I know that if I ever get to  feel overwhelmed with isolation I need only use the radio and video links provided.  Some of them connect directly with Skyyon; others, via relay, provide links with further cities. 

I have used some of these channels during the past few days, with mildly disappointing results.  In my efforts to get an overall picture of the state of Syoom, with particular regard to signs of trouble infiltrating from Fyaym, I have met with responses that sound cagey, though respectful. 

Was it unrealistic of me to expect more?  Perhaps it's not possible to get a full enough picture from this central but lonely vantage.  On this planet, you maybe have to go out and plunge: some answers can only be caught-on-the-toss amid waves of events. 

Anyhow, to familiarise myself with Melikon was a reasonable way of spending a restful few days.  So long as I don't start to act like I am on holiday...  No, "recuperation" would be a better word.

I have been able, imaginatively, to commune with my predecessors, by browsing in the hut's mellow-litten library-room.  It's marvellous to explore the notes left by numerous previous wearers of the golden cloak!  Not that such memoirs can tell me exactly what's the right thing to do, nor do they say what will happen if I don't do it: they don't make it possible to derive formulae for what happens to make failing Sunnoads "disappear".  But the voices from the past do cheer me on, lobbing at me their messages of comfort and support.  

If the worst happens, I'll want to disappear.  Still, best not to dwell on the possibility. 

Anyhow, let me stay here just a few hours more, a few hours in which the "Warlord of Uranus" (haha) can plan his moves.

Wait, what's that I see through the window? 

A slabby metal crawler has slid into view.  Oh, so some event has washed athwart me already!  I've perhaps delayed too long, so that, rather than take the plunge, I have been pushed into some kind of trouble: for nobody except me ought to be at Melikon, unless by my express permission.  The privacy of the hut is a Sunnoad's due, and is so regarded by all loyal Syoomeans; who, then, has driven this object here? 

Find out!  Go out and investigate!  Now!  To hesitate would be beneath me.  Rat-tat-tatting in my head as I move to the door is the notion that the second big example of wrongness during my watch over Syoom may be at hand.  The first one was the grounding of Yr; here now I can see what could be the second major shot in the barrage aimed at my reign.  A tradition-flouting trespass with a view to... what?  Assassination? 

Even if this is so, it needn't be part of the new Dempelath-inspired value-distortion; it could instead be something much more traditional, to do with that silent, traditional-style erasure of a Sunnoad who doesn't measure up. 

This would mean that I have been flattering myself with the hopeful assumption that my Earthmind might be a contribution to Uranian history.  For, equally, one might argue that it makes me unsuited... 

I open the hut door, I step out, ignoring the alarm bells of cowardice which keep shrilling their specious advice, Get protection first!  Hire a corps of guards before you go to meet strangers!  Yes all right it's against custom, but people know that things are changing, and they'd understand, surely; in fact, won't they think you irresponsible if you risk your person like this...?

Shushhh, be quiet, silly: if this is the occasion of my quiet disappearance, it's no use countering it with Terran thinking. The political dynamics of Ooranye are not those of Earth, and heaven forbid that they ever shall be. 

I walk straight at the intruder.  In front of the vehicle's bow window I halt, and stand tall with my golden cloak flapping about me.  If anyone wants to fire at me, let him.  I'm giving the event the benefit of the doubt. 

Inside, movement: a chunky man slumps back in his pilot chair, a look of stupefaction on his broad face  On his right, a woman gives him a furious shove, as if to way, wake up, do something!  Further back, against the cabin wall, a boy and girl aged about 3000 Uranian days (10 Earth years or so) stand very still.

Dismissing the notion that a middle-aged couple and their normal-looking children could possibly be assassins, I gesture Come out and talk

This brings a result: the port bow-door swings open; the man descends to the ground.  He almost stumbles, cringing before the Noad of Noads.  His hand pushes at his mop of hair; he struggles vainly for words, perhaps rummaging for an excuse for his presence here.  Nervous backgrounder is written all over him. 

I say, "Welcome to Melikon."

He straightens and pulls himself together.  I had spoken my words dryly, but he knows he can trust me to mean them.  His eyes brighten at the prize which fate has thrown at him.

"Sunnoad sponndar," says the man, and bobs his head.

"You are...?"

"I am Gureem, a xebbalshar."

"A well-laden one," I observe, for his xebbalsh or plains-paddler, evidently full of cargo, lies heavy on the gralm

To me it resembles a beached submarine (albeit with no conning tower), forty steely-blue yards from bow to stern.  It must hold ample capacity for provisions, goods and living space, since on their endless transects of Syoom xebbalsharou have no fixed abode, their mobile homes fulfilling all their needs.

I continue, "And you have come to pay me a visit?"

"Due to faulty navigational equipment on the Tseppuk - it seems I have."

He's recovering his poise.  His swift explanation efficiently counts as an apology for his trespass.  Though the gulf between our ranks is as wide as can be, the disparity infuses cost-free power into us both, a sort of two-way social heat-pump.

I wave at the face of the woman at the window, gesturing that she out and join us.  She obeys immediately, adopts a stance by her man, and takes his hand in hers.  The couple are fairly similar in looks, as though the xebbalshar over the aeons have evolved a definite racial type. 

"You are...?"

"Ehiv," she says, and adds: "Our home is yours, Sunnoad sponndar."

"That seems to work both ways," I remark, though I smile to take the sting out of it, so that, hesitantly, they smile too.  "Since you're making free with my space," I continue, "I shall ask you to do something for me."  And seeing that the children have inched forward to stand on the threshold of the bow door, I wave them forward too.  Careful not to make a sound, they come to stand between their parents. 

From the youngsters' grave expressions I sense how keen they are to drink the dignity of the occasion, and what a mistake it would be for me to "unbend" to them in the slightest, thus spoiling the grandness of it all.  Of course their gravity is merely an outward stiffness, hiding the fizz in its pipes, but it's not for me to knock a hole in it.

Still, they're in for a surprise.  My next move is unheard-of in the history of the Actinium Era.  I turn, beckoning the family to follow me, and lead the way into the Sunnoad's Hut!  I can hardly believe what I'm doing, and I guess they're finding it hard to credit, too, as they follow, gaze lowered until, overcome by irresistible curiosity, they raise their eyes to gawp at my workroom. 

I wave the man and woman to swivel chairs; I take one for myself.  In stunned co-operation they sit and swivel to face me, while the children stare around in rapture.  That invisible social pump is working at full tilt, to energize us mutually by the vitalising effect of its alternating current, up and down and up and down, drawing power from the vertical contrast of "highest" and "lowest" rank.

"Yes," relaxedly I muse out loud, "you may be able to help me - but first, do you know my name?"

Through his astonishment Gureem manages to squeeze out the words: "Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437." 

His wife jogs him with her elbow...

I smile, "Ehiv seems to know.  Listen to her." 

In a small voice the woman says, "I saw his picture once.  You, sponndar Sunnoad, are not he."

"Correct," say I.  "Brem Tormalla is dead.  I am his successor, Sunnoad Nyav Yuhlm 80438, otherwise known as Yadon." 

Gureem's mouth widens, "Yadon the slayer of Zyperan!"  Immediately after he has let out this hoarse cry, he looks aghast. 

"That's the one," I nod encouragingly.

Gureem, trembling, licks his lips and says, "Tales about you, Sunnoad sponndar, have... er... circulated."

"I bet they have," I say.  "I'm half alien: that much is true.  So my reign, if it lasts, may prove to be a race between the pros and cons of that.  By which I mean, the upside and the downside."

"Downside?" whispers Gureem.

His wife again is quicker on the uptake.  "Sponndar," says Ehiv to me, her face ashine with pleading hope, "we, your people, are in the desperate dark about what is being sent us from Fyaym.  If you, 80438, get help from your Terran mind-stretch, then I say the stretchier the better!"

"That's a way to put it," I laugh in appreciation.  "Like you folk in your xebbalsh, I've travelled thousands of miles, yet I'd be willing to bet that the plentiful bogglings and stupefactions we've so far accumulated are nothing to what we're doomed to endure if we don't nip our enemy in the bud.  Let me tell you..." 

My tongue loosens as I get to talking about my wanderings before I became Sunnoad.  I encourage them to talk about their wanderings too.  This opens the buds of friendliness further.  In the softening mood our reminiscences spill and overlap in an intervolved recitative...  and in these strings of purely pleasant globe-trotting reminiscence I reckon that we really are well-matched friends; strain has disappeared apart from Gareem's little tics of astonishment when he not only realizes but really realizes where he is.  His wife talks less as time goes on, huddling knowingly in her chair while she clutches, in quiet joy, a sense of triumph.  I'm guessing she is busy thanking Fate for the fortunate outcome of their navigational error.

All of a sudden I understand why, during the past few days, I have not yet made a serious attempt to contact my fellow-Cinctees or go officially patrolling with my fleet.  The short answer is, I have been waiting for something like this.  A get-together with backgrounders. 

It's time to get down to business.

"Talking of adventure: today our adventures intersect.  You got here by accident," I say, "but now you're here you can help me bring the current situation in Syoom into better focus.  You can be my..." (I rummage for the phrase I want, one which means pipeline of significant reports...) "stalking stranth."

"Why us?" asks Ehiv.

"People like you are most likely to know."

"Know?" whispers Gareen.

"About the corruptions wafting into Syoom."

It's a hard sentence to speak.  But necessary...  He is nodding.  Yes, he knows, though naturally he doesn't like to hear it said.

I continue:  "You've heard the name Dempelath?"

"An ill-omened word," nods Gareem.  "From somewhere in Starside."

"He, without a doubt," say I, "is concocting for us a nasty brew.  The first ingredient of which was the recent grounding of Yr; heard something about that?"

"We have," they admit in small voices.

"Well, that problem is solved, but more such are surely on the way.  I need to be informed about them, preferably before they sprout into crises."

"And we - "

"You xebbalsharou as a class are the best on-the-ground observers and listeners in Syoom.  Start today; start now!"

"80438, can you..."

"No, it's no use trying to be specific!  This is what I need: if you, in your judgement, have heard news of any off-putting stuff, say so and give me my next target."

Ehiv and Gareem turn to each other.  "That'll be - " "It sounds like - "  "Narar!" they both say at once.

"What about Narar?" 

(I've not been to that city.  I check my knowledge.  I know something of the ancient history of Narar.  Nothing recent, though.)

Gareem explains, "It's where we heard that the Noad's son has been appointed Daon."

I almost don't get it.  Then my heart misses a beat.  Succession of the Noad's son.  A hereditary noadex.  I whistle and say, "Like something out of the Vanadium Era!"

"That's how it seems," nods Gareem.

I shake my head in doleful amazement, recognizing the style of the event, the Dempelathian flouting of taboo.  If the Nararans really have defied the profound Uranian antipathy to hereditary government - !

"You've made a good start," I say to my visitors.  "I need look no further for my next target." 

3

They take the hint; they bow their heads in farewell.  "May fate's paths lead you to victory, 80438," says Gareem. 

"Without too many wrong turnings, let's hope," I dryly agree, and to cap it with something more appreciative of the chat we've had, I add: "Conversation is one rich path."  However, all sorts of things may go wrong if these people get the notion that I now want to consume yet more time talking, so I decide to finish with a polite reciprocation of his good wishes.  How to do that?  A quick lore-rummage turns up the right phrase.  It's based on the fact that a xebbalsh mid-section has a big horizontally hinged door which swings down to form an access ramp for the plains-paddling vehicle's cargo hold: 

"May you find a good place to put the flap down," I say.

Hits the right note.  They're smiling.  I've said, in effect, May you find a good place in which to stop and trade.  For these folk, the idiom bids them farewell in proper style.

They're back in their vehicle now and it's moving off.  Underneath the hull, the sub-gralm paddles of the xebbalsh must be churning away. 

Well, that was a successful little brush for both sides.  Negativity sure has taken a fall.  How heartily I can jeer at my former doubts!  Assassination, my eye!  Should have realized that my gleaming body-suit of exalted rank would allow me to mirror these people's hopes right back in their faces.  Hence we're parting with the mutual uplift bestowed by our unblemished little encounter.  I'm not a target but an accepted service...  All right, fate may not always be as kind as this, but I bet I can reckon on some degree of leeway between me and disaster when I go forth with the prestige of the sunnoadex as my shield; maybe it's not an invincible shield, but it should prove strong enough to ensure that the threat of Disappearance won't loom at every turn -

Gazing at the vehicle's wake, I detect the isostacy of the plain, the grainy surface slowly but perceptibly beginning to even up once more as the xebbalsh recedes.  Within an hour or so the gralm will be level once more.  No trace will linger to reveal that a heavy plains-paddler came this way.  The thought brings a rush of melancholy. 

Oh come off it, Yadon: why feel lonely?  You're the Noad of Noads!  Anyone in Syoom will be honoured to give you companionship.  You can have it whenever you want it. 

But it was the sight of those family ties, that have made me wistful.  Those children remind me of my own: Tsritton and Idova Sganna, adults now.  They are all the family I possess, and they're a long distance away.  All right, I know very well why I cannot expect them to rush over to see me.  Pointless to complain about it, pointless to object, "If they'd dropped everything and skimmed in this direction they could have been here by now" - for, considering what I've become, it's really not hard to understand that they might be nervous at the idea of meeting me.  Especially nervous, that is, because of the look of things, the powerful Uranian taboo against hereditary succession to power. 

Which is why the news from Narar must be such a shock to society.  Anything that looks apt to lead to that particular political sin is viewed severely.  No wonder that civilized rulers on this planet have tended to distance themselves from their families...

I gaze back at the hut and that, too, wafts me some sorrow.  But that's inevitable: everybody knows the sound historical reason why Melikon is a lonely place.  The hut's very existence is a reminder of how Sunnoad Tu Rim 78860 went wrong.  If it had not been for him, no such structure would have been built here.  None would have been needed.  Again my thoughts circle round to the old story: that without the memory of Tu Rim's rise and fall I could have slept in the Zairm, the Palace of Skyyon; could have slept in it unquestioned, as of right.  That palace would have been my ex officio home.  Now it's at my disposal only as an office in the daylight hours... No overnight stays, for any Sunnoad any more, anywhere in the polar city.  But enough moping: I have a plan, and I must welcome and follow its shine. 

Yet as I seek to concentrate my mood still swings to and fro.  It's as though my inner eye were swivelling to follow the ball at a psychic tennis match.  The first swing tells me to appreciate my plan (which is based on the couple's mention of the doings at Narar), and tells me it promises the chance of a great success).  The second swing brings the worry: perhaps I was so rapt in all this brilliant thinking ahead that I failed to thank my visitors properly.  Ah no, scrub that.  If they noticed my absorption, they must have understood that it was a compliment to them.  It meant I'd listened; it was proof of the importance of what they'd told me.  Indeed, it's what enabled them to clear off so smartly, bearing the treasure, locked safely in their memories, of the knowledge of a successful brush with 80438. 

I return to the hut and I scribble a paragraph in the log.  I then radio a message to my office in Skyyon, to request that a skyship be allotted for my use in ten days' time.  Ten days should allow the fleet to re-arrange patrols without too much trouble.

The duty officer sounds on edge.  "Sunnoad Yadon, you can have a ship sooner than that.  You can have... let me see... the Lorodest today."

"That would be efficient," I say.  (Tactfully does it!)  "You, sponndar patrol-co-ordinator, are...?"

"Tham Mext is my name, sponndar 80438."

"Noted, sponndar, and thank you, but I'll stick to my schedule.  So, unless my route swerves, expect me in ten days."

"Taquotal, Sunnoad Yadon."

That's more like it.  Better than his initial response.  At first, for a duty-officer he'd definitely sounded not quite right, clumsy in style...  his renl wonky...  I sometimes wonder whether I may be getting more Uranian than the Uranians.  , the way I can feel so critical about the degree of renl which ought to govern public conduct on Ooranye; should I not simply put it down to the fellow's nervousness at speaking to the Sunnoad? 

Still, my view persists that he would not, in more normal times, have presumed to suggest a tightening of my schedule. 

Oh well, perhaps he was naturally curious as to why I wanted a ship not now but in ten days' time.  Perhaps indeed my plan - and not his reaction to it - is itself the peculiarity.  For, hmm, it's a valid question: what am I going to do with these ten intervening days?

Rather than face that thought, I mount my skimmer, and I'm off...  More Uranian than the Uranians, yes indeed, as with zeal I recline on the wave.  It's the side of life that still works well: never mind the "spilth" from Dempelath that has begun to trickle into Syoom - you can still trust to the wave, while it holds back its conclusions until that hour when the answer will appear.  A mere hunch suffices, meantime!  A hunch that induces me to steer my vehicle's bow, not towards distant Narar, but in the opposite direction, for certain special days. 

My decision rewards me with a flow of vigour in my veins.  With the racing plain below my keel and the cool wind that whistles past my glassite cowl, I'm braced with that trust in the wave which brings its own exhilarating reward: an embrace of "living in the moment" which makes utter sense on a world like this.  I therefore am quite free of worry about the detour I'm making.  I have no logical guarantee of how it will work, but postponed conclusions aren't a cheat, nor any kind of dodge.  Some books written on Earth, especially some detective stories, allow the authors' viewpoint characters to conceal what they perfectly well know, this being an artificial literary device to preserve the reader's surprise until all the suspects are lined up and the punch is delivered - but here it's honestly true that I myself really don't yet know.  Any reader of my life will just have to accept that the wave works this way.

…I come to myself after a skid of time.  The number on the pnal, or distance-indicator, shows that I have advanced over two thousand miles.

Though it's not towards Narar, yet in a practical sense I am “on the way” to that city, since my route deviates for a purpose that is intended to serve my mission.  But how well am I reading Destiny's script?  That's to say, have I not garbled it, have I stayed realistic in terms of how things actually work around here?  Ah, but hope pats me on the back and says, "Carry on as you are, old fellow, it's a waste of time to think about backing down." 

I note some expanding grey blocks up ahead: a town, looks like; an obscure surface-settlement, one of those islolated huddles of humanity, the plains-towns of Ooranye. 

Were it not for the invisible wave, my advice to myself would be to detour: go round them slowly, not rush at them, lest some trigger-happy watchman fail to note my golden cloak.  As things are, nevertheless, I go belting down their high-street, without hesitation. 

Waving back at those who see me - it seems the townsfolk, despite their astonishment, have (thank goodness) the presence of mind to recognize the Sunnoad, and not to fumble the moment but to catch it with arms raised in greeting - I speed through.  In less than a minute I'm out the other side.  Not once do I look back.  I did what I did because I didn't want to stop, or swerve, or decelerate. 

Hence, having sown who-knows-what legend, I've streaked through a place of which I didn't even note the name.  However the incident is not quite over: here's an outlying vheic-farm.  I spot somebody painting one of the storage barns.  What a nostalgically Earthly sight: a fellow putting a coat of paint on a wall!  (Although the glowing orange fields behind around us are extremely un-Earthly.)  And now I really about to leave all this habitation: my skimmer bullets once more into the world-plain, the infinite empty stretches of loneliness.  Whether or not I have any more occasional encounters with scattered folk, I'll only stop at my goal.

...What is that I now glimpse, that distant fuzzy spire?  More miles flow past and see it closer and sharper.  All of a sudden I know it: the solitary crown of Kafumabapsu, the wooden mountain-high peak of one of this planet's rare, giant trees.  And a dark line stretches at its base: the forest of Namrol.

Slow down, Yadon; think, why aren't you afraid?  Remember the Uranian proverb, "Life has teeth".  A phrase which could have acquired currency as an corrective to your lazy thoughts of riding on waves.

Yes, it's as well to remember that life can bite, right through the cushion of one's fate-wave, even while one lolls on it... but that piece of cautious folk-wisdom hasn't made me stop.  It has prompted me to decrease my speed to a hundred miles per hour, but that's yet quite a speed if life does choose to show its teeth.  Oh, hang the teeth, let them blunt themselves on me; now wait, that's excessive bravado.  Focus seriously: the destination looms.  Let some Terran caution get a look-in! 

I'm actually faced with the old Terran parenting dilemma: children are one's responsibility, but they aren't belongings, so - how far to mould one's progeny in in the image of one's own ideas of right and wrong, how far to bring them up to be whoever they are?

The problem mostly doesn't exist on this world - except for rulers.  But hey, I am a ruler.  So hadn't I better watch out? 

The answer lies in the fact that there's no heredity in souls: fortunately, even back on Earth I didn't need to be told that.  On both worlds, then, I can plump firmly for letting-souls-go.

It's what I firmly believe, and I don't have any excuse for failure here; I can and must do this right.  Never shall I be a Tu Rim.  Never shall I wish even in the slightest degree to turn the sunnoadex into a Yeadon dynasty.  The very thought is preposterous; I wouldn't have wanted that sort of arrangement even if I had been a King on Earth, for why should regal pride ever wish to dilute itself via multiplication of identical successors?  The vast ego of Louis XIV worked against itself, by naming his son another Louis, his grandson and great-grandson likewise Louis, so that if the line had gone on forever they'd all have indistinguishably blended in, drowning remembrance of his individuality in an unending stream of Louis Louis Louis...  What price ego then?

I can sincerely reject the whole notion; and with that, my native Uranian wellness takes the helm.

4

My awareness has skidded.  Again.  I'm evidently addicted to skids, addict-ed-to-skids, to a sleepy slippage through time, so far as my Earthly awareness is concerned.  For it seems that when my Terran insights aren't needed, they sit back and let my Uranian self slide into the driving seat. 

Conversely, when the next moment arrives at which my Planet Three perspective may come in handy, the Earthly ego-track returns.  Well, such a moment has come once more.

Scarily, on the approach to the immigrant settlement my Uranian guts were already churning in panicky need for that extra Terran edge and as a result, on cue, when I saw my children, click! my Earth-self returned right into the cockpit of consciousness.

Outwardly I'm not disastrously discomposed even while we hug in greeting, Tsritton and Idova Sganna and I.  Now we've stepped back to arm's length to survey each other, while many others look on: in this village clearing in the forest of Namrol we are surrounded at a few yards' distance by a crowd of witnesses, the people of (what's that humorous-sounding name I learned from the sentry just now?) Nu Galodabbab. 

Yes, the population fo Nu Galodabbab are watching as my eyes and those of my children sparkle in the joy of reunion.  My attention is split; my awareness darts all over the place. 

This settlement's name, for instance, nags at me.  "To scurry to safety" - nu dabbarr; "trekking" - galodarr; add the perfect participle ending -ab and shake well to get Nu Galodabbab - "the haven to which one has scurried".  Ah, yes, if only...

Tsritton teases, "Crushed by the cares of office, Father?"

"Shush," says Idova Sganna.  "Don't mention the grey hair."

It's their way of complimenting me on how well I look.  I don a crooked smile.  "Despite how busy I am, neither of you seem surprised to see me."

"Oh, we wonder, all right," says Idova, "but we don't expect to know just yet."

"At any rate, not before you see fit to tell us," says her brother.  "Of course, they" - he glances around at the crowd of spectators - "are all trying to guess already." 

Idova adds, "The one thing we do know is, it's nothing to do with us."

"That," agrees Tsritton, "is the one certainty - that we're out of it."

They're implying: look how good we are, how far from trading on our relation with the Sunnoad.

"Your view," I smile, "needs revision."

A quiver of strange hope and alarm flicks over their expressions, as they wait for me to explain.

I continue, "The taboo against hereditary influence on power is, precisely, why I am here!"

Idova whispers, "What do you mean, Father?"

"Nothing dishonourable, I assure you.  The taboo is decent and orthodox.  It's also an item in my armoury of shockers.  A shocker which I intend quite soon to draw and fire."

...Once more I jerk into awareness of an interval of days, passed and gone, and Nu Galodabbab is no longer around me; instead it's the wide plain and, ahead, the city of Narar.  And: what, you back again, Earthy? exclaims my Uranian self, for once again the Terran personality has settled on me, light as a shawl, colouring every thought and viewing my Uranian plans from a critical stance - because what I'm about to do seems irresponsible according to Terran criteria.

A sort of argument, too fast for conversation, more like a chord of clashing notes, flares within me.  The after-echo sorts itself thus: "What, is the governor of a world about to indulge in knight-errantry?"  "Don't carp like that, Terran - this is is the way crises are faced on this world."  "Maybe, but think now, before you go blundering into Narar: what's the likeliest place on Syoom to cause me to disappear?  Answer, it's the approaching city that now towers ahead of my little skimmer procession.  And it's not as though I have a strong escort of guards with me.  Only my two children.  Noot a single one of the other fellow-exiles from the Namrol settlement has cared to come along."  "I told them not to come.  I chose thus to travel light."  "The more fool you!  Talk of putting all one's eggs in one basket!  Does the Sunnoad have the right to gamble in this way?  Facing the spilth in Narar with a mere trio?"

Cogent questions to ask myself; and no snappy answer arises from the bedrock of my native wisdom. 

In my memory's rearview mirror I check out the past couple of days.  In terms of mood, this latest "skid" has been a good one, as benign and efficient as they come.  If it were not so the undertow of anxiety would tug me back, whereas actually my onward impulse wins, for I'm looking forward to a triumph.

Here's the moment of no return: our skimmer-prows tip up as the ayash takes hold.  We start to climb the invisible entrance drive, the air-current onto Narar. 

If all goes well, as soon as I get a breather I'll unify my impressions, that's to say, sew it all together, that's to say, integrate the memory of the past few days with my Terran Neville Yeadon consciousness.  No reason why I shouldn't go on doing that same thing with skid after skid until I get to be one continuous person: something to look forward to, eventually!

Meanwhile our rise on the ayash has lifted us to where we can see over the rim of Narar.  We gaze down upon the city floor, where spectators are swarming onto the landing area.  Scores, hundreds of faces gawp at us as we begin our descent, despite the fact that I never made any public announcement of my arrival.

Our skimmers come to rest.  We dismount, and rest our elbows on our vehicles' floating hulls. 

"Quite a crowd," says Tsritton.

Idova Sganna adds, "Yet we didn't talk..."

"We must have been spotted on the approach," I reply. 

Can't avoid consideration of the holes in history, the unmentionable perforations in the social fabric through which many an unsuccessful Sunnoad has dropped out of all mention.  Nobody speaks or writes about those "cancelled" Sunnoads; only their names and numbers stay on the reign-lists, unadorned by any further information.  It's an issue I'm not even going to mention to my nearest and dearest.  In fact, especially not to them. 

Nevertheless the hush-hush syndrome makes it hard not to wonder: what might be the first warning-signs?  Clues that such an end is in store for me?

I can think of one.  An obvious one.  Overconfidence.  Like, for example, my coming here with almost no support.

"Here she comes," drawls Idova Sganna.

I know who 'She' is.  I direct my gaze at where the crowds are parting to make way for the new ruler of this city.  She... swaggers.  That's my disquieting first impression of Nwix Ezong, Noad of Narar.  She's a waddling amplitude, though only moderately hefty in Earth terms.  What on the Third Planet would be a hardly noticeable fleshiness is a gross plumpness here, where almost everyone, is svelte.  I choose to de-translate the sight: I prefer to see her in the laxer Earthly way, in which the higher Uranian physical standards don't apply, and in that mode I can find her quite attractive.

Unimportant, these observations - perhaps.  What's definitely important is the unmistakable family resemblance between her and her close escort: the earnest, gimlet-eyed young man who is accompanying her a bit further back and to her left.  Her other attendants are keeping out of earshot but this sharp-looking youth is the exception: he's evidently meant to listen in at top level.  And because he is wearing a blue cloak I can only conclude that he holds the rank of Daon.  All of which means: he is both the Noad's heir and her son.

That's the enormity.  The recrudescence of something long regarded as anathema on this world: hereditary power.

Moreover it's no accident that it is happening now.  The timing makes it a blatant instance of that social decay, the "Spilth" increasingly reported in varieties scattered over Syoom.  A multi-form moral plague is being wafted hither from Fyaym; we all mutely suspect it, and quietly many of us know it's surely the work of Dempelath, the hybrid human/Ghepion, the tyrant of Olhoav. 

My duty, both as Sunnoad and as an Olhoavan exile, with the added qualification of an Earthmind experienced in weirdness, is to combat the menace.  I can make a start here in Narar, and surely most people will support me.  It's just not done, in decent Uranian terms, to allow a dynasty to govern. 

Just a moment, though.  I'm not merely an Earthmind, I am, more particularly, a royalist aficionado of British history.  As such, am I not actually LESS qualified than anybody else on this planet to argue against the dynastic principle?

Well now, the contradiction is more apparent than real.  Although in favour of kingliness while on Earth, I was never very keen on its transmission by heredity.  I found it noticeable that the greatest kings tended to be those who did not succeed to their thrones by strict primogeniture.  Think of Alfred the Great, Robert the Bruce...

All very well, but what shall I do about it HERE? 

They come!  A sense of isolation overcomes me as the Noad of Narar stops within a distance of four yards and hails me.  No good just rebuking those responsible.  Telling people off is not how a Sunnoad works.  And just how is a Sunnoad supposed to work, for the matter of that?  No staff, no secretariat...

The woman is welcoming me to Narar.  She seems, as she speaks, to overflow with glee.  It feels as though she's expressing a gratification over and above what is due to a visit from the Noad of Noads.  I can guess why.  The reason is plain, from the way her glance flicks back and forth between me and my own son and daughter.  It's confirmation for this dynastic Noad of Narar that I, too, am that way inclined.  How could it look otherwise?  Behold, I have brought my family with me!  Oh dear me, this is a task I'm landed with...

...My progeny are having a good time, along with myself, being shown around the city by our good hosts, Noad Nwix and her son, Daon Ptem.  Nwix is chatting with them while Ptem withdraws from the conversation.  The young Daon touches my arm to draw me aside.  He says he wishes me to look at something.  My gaze follows his pointing finger towards a spindle-shaped colossus of dusty blue-grey.  Focusing on it, I see that it rises from a square a block away.

"The Tarck," he says.  He sees me nod but still he can't resist adding, "You recognise the building, Sunnoad Yadon?"

"By repute." 

"Even on Starside, you'd heard of it?"

"Even so," I confirm.  "You must realize, Daon Ptem, that the people of Olhoav, though they're so remote from here, are nevertheless keen to retain what they can of the history of Syoom."

"But it's the first time your naked eyes have met the structure?"

"Yes, it is only now that I can cross the dungeons of Tyoar Ixx off my must-see list," I dryly agree.

Ptem becomes aware of his own jaw-sagging concentration on my face.  "Sorry," he firms up with a chuckle, "I was staring rudely, Sunnoad Yadon, to, er, see whether you would feel urged to step towards it."

"You'd like me to be a tourist for the dungeons?"

"Well, we've had a craze for them... and you might help to figure out why."

"Some sightseers," I suggest, "must simply like to prove they're not scared of the Tarck." 

"Only - why?" wonders Ptem.  "The place is quaint now, nothing more.  One would think that it must long since have lost its capacity for inspiring fear.  After all, it's a couple of dozen lifetimes since the old tyrant fell."  Ptem's eyes have developed a mischievous sparkle.  "And yet, Sunnoad Yadon, what are a couple of dozen lifetimes, after all?"

"Ah, quite; we must not minimize the picturesque costume-evil image of Narar's notorious tyrant - who was a mini Tu Rim, by all accounts."

"Worse, far worse," remarks Ptem.  "Tyoar Ixx was a throwback to the most blood-soaked days of the Vanadium Era."

"Well then, you have it," I say.  "Our chat has produced the answer."

"But," says Ptem, still musing, "whole dynasties of evil flourished in the Vanadium Era, whereas Tyoar Ixx founded no lasting school of oppression."

"He's remembered as an outlier," I nod.

"And for the mystery of how, as a lone example, he got away with it."

"Don't sound so wistful," I say, but my easy laugh earns me a sharp look; was my flippancy inurbane?  Better apply some gloss of tact.  "It's a fair question for historians: what some people get away with, and how; like, in this case, how a Noad managed to maintain a tyranny of such awfulness in our Era 89." 

Silence from Ptem.  His look has become intense.  How odd that I suddenly feel vast issues hanging on our little chat.  I plough on: "I dare say if one made it one's life's work to study the man's methods... but no, let it be."  I conclude in English: "Ignorance is bliss."

"True, very true," says Ptem, suavely understanding.  "Sensible Terran dictum, to which I add: not only ignorance is bliss, but also ignorance's cousin, superficial knowledge."

"You're too clever for me," I cleverly sigh, but to myself I seriously note that although I came here to combat the theme of hereditary rule, I had better not assume that this youngster is unfit to be Daon of Narar.  In fact, rather than seek to argue with him on his chosen ground I had better mark out some ground of my own. 

I can well imagine that he'll relish showing off his fluency in English (that exotic fad which has spread like wildfire in Uranian society) and so I shall continue in that language - tempting him with an opportunity to match wits with the world's only native speaker of Terran lingo.

Nodding towards the spot, about ten yards away, where tall, pinnate vanes begin to flank the path to the Tarck, I begin: "I can believe that those signposts give voice to the commands I inscribed upon them.  Almost can I hear their cracked voices!  Funny how they help to allow the Tarck its patina of romantic horror, and funny how lovingly they're maintained."

Ptem chuckles, "It is odd, the way we Nararans are proud of our old evil."

"Reminds me, in some respects, of what you get in touristy places on Earth."

"Tell me more, I beg you."

"I've visited the dungeons of some old castles in England," I tell him.  "I've allowed myself - along with other sightseers - to be locked in, just for a few minutes, in the dark.  Just to experience the, you know, pretend-terror.  The de-fanged, second-hand thrill of that dark despair which the real captives must have felt."

"Pretending to know," nods Ptem, "must be the aim on both worlds, from what you say.  Here, though, the induction is a bit stronger."

"You mean the...Groor," I dredge up the name of the alley between the pinnate vanes. 

Ptem gives a more vigorous nod, "The Groor's teghestu," and he waves at the encouragers, the parallel lines of inscribed vanes.  "Now if you will just step a bit closer..."

I catch his features undergoing a cartoon-like vulpine stretch; it's a parcel of meaning that thumps onto my mat of awareness.  I try to unwrap it, and I find I can't, which is what you get when you're living a story like this.  Oh let me out, nightmare; leave me be, I don't need this.  But the nightmare's odour is telling me, that it will not let me go until I produce an answer to the problem I came to this city to solve.  Well then, let that be done, and smoothed away in the cushiony ride on my fate-wave; for after all my position could hardly be stronger - I am the Sunnoad of Syoom; I am, fantastically, the most favoured of beings on a world where no fiction ever needs to be written because real life, here, obeys and satisfies the best fictional laws.  Therefore teasy fate is welcome to hold back its conclusions like an Agatha Christie detective reserving the shocks for his summing-up: all that is required of me meanwhile, is that I stay sufficiently alert to receive the shock when it comes.  Then, and only then, shall I have to make my move, by some happy grasp of the moment.  That last-minute inspiration will be far better than the mangled mess I'd make if my conscious mind were given longer to chew it all over.  For really I don't feel all that bright; in fact, were it not for the cushiony wave, I might DESERVE to fall into oblivion - to plop through one of the holes in history, or else (far worse) live on, spotlit in the glare of ignominious failure.

I glance around and note that my children are chatting with Noad Nwix some way off.  "Looks like there's no rush," I remark to Ptem.  "So, yes, I might as well go like a tourist for a minute or two." 

Doing what he wants, therefore, I wander towards the Groor.

After a few steps I can say: this counts as having gone far enough - counts as having visited where the vanes line the path on either side; perhaps, then, honour is satisfied, and nothing prevents me from turning back, for the bewildering nightmare mood is gone.

Anyhow, it was worth coming this far.  Interesting to look at those vanes, shaped like fins, or right-angled triangular sails, the tips of which look down on me from their seven-foot height.  The vanes' surfaces - I see when I peer up close - are covered with curlicues, decorative arabesques; but that's all.  No message; nothing formidable here.  Yet in the reign of Tyoar Ixx this approach-slot was regarded as more scary than the interior of the dungeon itself: hence the proverb, "The Groor is worse than the Tarck".  I've heard some blah about how it was done.  The thought-mirroring stuff, which is usually employed in thuzolyr-elections to the sunnoadex, was scraped off and re-used on these teghestu vanesWhy, though?  I mean - what for?  Oh well, you can count yourself unusually lucky, on this reticent planet, if you hear any attempt at a real explanation of anything, and this is not one of those rare days...  Still, what can you expect?  It's understandable that these people don't want themselves whipped up into a frenzy of knowledge.  They'd soon drown in the giant planet's immensity if that were to happen.  Why then am I sniffing around here at all?

Because of who I am.  That's the reason for my sudden snatch at a core sample of facts.  It's as if I were some paleoecologist taking a sampler drill to the Greenland ice cap.  All part of how I lurch to and fro between a Uranian and a Terran habit of mind. 

The thought then comes to me, that I may have over-lurched this time.  I don't really think so, but I suppose the thought ought to be faced, that down this particular alley I may have taken one step too far.  As the Noad of Noads, I'm a unique target.  And even if assassination is not the idea, why put temptation in somebody's way?  Somebody with an interest - like Ptem, the poor kloop.  Hey, that's a nasty word.  Worse insult even than "flunnd".

Wait: do I mean that?  Yes!  "Flunnd" is bad enough.  But while it literally denotes a backgrounder who arrogates the status of a foregrounder, it is far more often used as a mere cuss-word.  Admittedly the offensiveness of "flunnd" arises from the link to its literal meaning - because, of course, one isn't supposed to mention out loud the categories of "foregrounder" and "backgrounder" at all - it can't get as offensive as "kloop": for a "kloop" - so says my squirming thought - means someone who abuses the wave

That is what clever young Ptem is doing!  He's urging me right now to wander further among the teghestu vanes in the alley of the Groor - because he knows - I get it all now - he knows, or senses, the real danger here.

Getting mixed up with the past, am I?  The vanes pointed the way to something terrible in the bad old days of Tyoar Ixx, tyrant of Narar, but that regime is long dead and gone, the dungeons empty and un-staffed; yes but the trouble is, since then, over millions of stagnant days during which the teghestu have had nothing to do, their poison has grown stronger.  Therefore, the shapes on which my eyes are now fixed do not need to tempt me towards any prison building.  Instead, they are able to construct a prison out of my own fears.

In particular my fear of failure.

What after all can I hope to achieve in Narar if my authority is defied?  The golden cloak has infinite prestige, but the Sunnoad who wears it has neither retinue, nor secretariat, nor any armed force except when open war is being waged.  I, part-stranger on this world, feel like some teacher who has to keep order in the class by sheer personality.  Like the unfortunate teacher, I have no real sanction of any kind to back me up.  In this situation the fear of disgrace rears up like a wave that threatens to swamp me. 

But it doesn't - because I have the answer.  It came so fast, I haven't even verbalized it yet, but already I wield it to shake off the mood that encloses me in this alley, and as I do, the mind-traps all dissolve like a bad dream. 

(Perhaps the trap was for Ptem too, poor kloop, in which case the answer I'm seeking should extricate him as well.  Or perhaps his urge towards "child succeeds parent in power" is too guiltily strong.  If so, he cannot be saved; we shall see.)

In my mind's eye I sight the answer, as a smudgy figure, a humanoid nucleus amid a swathing white light; and armed with this vision - which I do not yet understand - I swivel on my boot-heel and with a snap in my stride I turn the situation around.

"All this is very interesting, Ptem, but I have something to say."

"I'm listening, Sunnoad Yadon," says the lad, striding to keep up.  "I'm keen, always, to learn."

"The moment is at hand, for me to tell both you and the Noad."

He shrugs, "We cannot oppose a moment."

That makes me chuckle, "The moment was never going to come unless I made it come."

We reach Nwix Ezong, Noad of Narar, who turns her face to me with a look of inquiry on her ample features.  My son and daughter likewise turn, to smile with affectionate attention.  I, quite recovered from the psychic headache of the Groor, nevertheless understand that a price will eventually have to be paid for my deliverance - for the answer I am about to speak, and which will give me triumph in Narar.

"Noad Nwix, and Daon Ptem," I say, and then for a second I pause because I don't know of any word for nepotism in any of the Uranian tongues.  "A thing may look bad," I continue, "and yet this needn't matter all that much, so long as it isn't, in actual fact,  bad.  Still, it's important to stop it looking bad, too.  I've just decided whom I shall voice as my successor, and it is somebody who is definitely no close blood relation to Nyav Yuhlm of Olhoav."

They all stare, engrossed with the need to hang on every syllable, and I take full advantage of the suspense I have caused:

"Now as the news gets around that I have made this decision, people will therefore know whom I have not chosen.  That's the vital consequence.  They'll know, from the assurance I give, that it is not my son or daughter, who, therefore, will be able to remain involved in my projects without scandal.

"And this ought also to help you, eh, Noad Nwix and Daon Ptem!  Accidents will happen - accidental resemblances of good to bad - but in your case as in mine, the matter can be cleared up."

My speech snaps shut and in the ensuing silence I watch the Nararans' faces with the utmost care - and so do Idova and Tsritton, commendably quick to grasp what I'm doing.  It's up to the Noad and Daon now: I'm gambling that they can adjust, that they can see I'm giving them an out - but if not, what will they do? 

"Accidents, as you say, will happen," says Nwix slowly... and she heaves a sigh which makes me wonder whether she and Ptem are deciding to arrange an accident of the type I did not mean: but no - like a sudden sunny spell on Earth their expressions brighten, the mood thaws and I clearly sense that these folk want to do the decent thing, they want to resist being part of the Spilth, and hence they welcome the chance I'm offering them to save face on my terms.

Reasons, explanations, set the seal on the outcome:

"...And this particular accident," Nwix continues, "could hardly have been avoided.  Ptem, when alread Daon, was lost, presumed killed, on a Wayfaring mission in the forest of Yyyodihid, at the time when I his mother for an entirely separate reason was elected Noad.  Then before the opportunity arose for me to appoint another Daon, he came back alive."

"I see," I put encouragement into my tone, "and thus Narar found itself with a closely-related Noad and Daon without anyone being to blame." 

She takes the cue.

"Exactly, 80438!  The outcome was unplanned, and against all expectation!  I ask you, what could I have done but accept the arrangement as a...."

"A one-off," I nod, and she smiles in gratitude for the snuffing of the problem.  "No harm done, if it is viewed that way.  No harm at all in a mere contingent concatenation of appointments!"  Mingled with that soothing carpet of words, my mind's ear catches the breezy sigh of a relaxing wave.

5

...Another skid of time - and up pops my part-Terran consciousness again.  My brain quickly tells me where I am: this is Norkoten Hall at Skyyon.  I'm at the table with seventeen other people.  What's the date?  A glance at the figure on the history-clock on the wall - 10,546,009 Ac - informs me that I've been Sunnoad for fifty-seven days.  What has been going on? 

Native awareness again quickly “fills me in”.  First, it assures me of what I immediately need to know, to wit, the general viability of my reign so far: no boulders of trouble appear to be rolling to crush me just yet. 

To get more of my bearings I gaze round at the folk gathered at the table here with me.  Some of them I recognize but not all – but I do know that they’re all notables of Syoom or they wouldn’t be here.  They are in three or four chatting groups.  Rarely do they glance at me; it looks as though they expect me to supervise rather than to contribute.  They're taking it for granted that I am here primarily to listen.  That’s because (my memory fills me in some more) it has become a habit of mine to listen in Norkoten Hall.  Absolutely nothing unusual about it therefore; but still, something must have recalled my Earthmind to its post of alertness. 

It can only be that my Terran perspective is about to be again in demand.  Nowadays my survival instinct thus switches on my Earth-nous only when some crux amenable to Terran style troubleshooting has once more arisen.

What, though?  I expect I'll know soon enough.  No point in looking for trouble.  Speculation nevertheless tempts me to doodle mentally.  A more specific early-warning system might prove handy!  How convenient if I were to set up a tight headquarters here in Norkoten Hall: a permanent set-up, properly staffed, with me at the apex of a chain of command. 

It’s easy to slide into such a mode of daydream in which that Earth-style practical approach is brought to bear on my Uranian regime; except that, as I swish the idea about, I don’t really care for the taste of it: seemingly, not even my Earth-self wants that kind of power-play here. 

After all, what I am here, explicitly, officially, is a Uranian Sunnoad, a super-focus Noad of Noads, which in practical terms is (from what I can understand) a nudger.  That's how I ought to work: as an inspirational fount of nudging. 

Put that way, it sounds like a quite feeble leadership structure.  Could my Earthmind have awakened to stiffen it?  Ah, but that thought is immediately rejected by my sense of what is fitting.  Taking realistic account of where I am, I revise the argument as follows: the institution of the sunnoadex would be flimsy and feeble were it not for the vast fund of good-will on which a Sunnoad can draw.  So stupendous is that heritage, that so long as he surfs the fate-waves in the right style a Sunnoad can actually rule with something far stronger than a rod of iron. 

That's a good Uranian thought, but my Earth self butts in with an irrelevant irritation.  My old "me" is getting a bit bored by the sight of these uniformly photogenic men and women, who occupy this hall in nonchalant fashion like a blandly handsome bunch of movie stars, shirt-ad models and beauty queens gathered for a celebrity fund-raiser. 

Yet before this mood takes hold my attitude-pendulum swiftly swings to a finer Uranian view whereby tiny differences in people's appearances are accentuated to magnify the individuality of each face and form.  Boredome dies away and the scene leaps into life.  For example that marginally-thickset gentleman with the grey eyebrows which meet above his nose: he, in his own terms, would be instantly recognizable even without the grey cloak that proclaims his status.  He is Nonanng Seej, Noad of Skyyon, this sunward-polar city’s immediate ruler.  I must be extra tactful with him.  I next focus my attention on the occupant of the chair just next to his –

Hey, it's remiss of me that only now have I come properly awake to the fact that I’m in the same room with a member of the Cincture.  The sight of her is a summons to my conscience.  I should have done more, in the days since my accession, to guide and nudge the nine Cinctees.  This one whom I see here is the extrovert Pjourthan woman, Lemedet Tanek.  Nowadays she calls herself Yozazel though in my prissy Uranian disapproval of name-changes I have continued to call her Lemedet.  Come to think of it, isn't the de-stabilising of nomenclature an aspect of the Spilth?  If so, it has splashed right to the top.  I reserve judgement.  Urgent catch-up is my priority.  Now, what about the others?  No, none of them are here.  Oh, yes, I do see one other: Tarl Ezart of Skyyon, the courier who joined the Cincture at the last moment.  

Well, that makes three of the nine – including myself – who happen this morning to be here in Norkoten Hall.  After the meeting is over I must not let Tarl or Lemedet get away.  In fact, why wait till then?  I wear the golden cloak – I can collar them whenever I like –

I start to rise from my chair.  However some words spoken by the Noad of Skyyon make me hesitate.

"...contribution of skyships," he's saying - (and that's all right, it's good, he's talking about the allocation of naval contributions.  Only, his tone alerts me to an impending 'but' - )

"...but war is not yet official," he continues, confirming my prediction of an antithetical follow-up.  It's a wrong tone, I sense, and his word official drops on me like a bombshell.  He goes on:  "How much easier the assemblage of a fleet would be, if only war were officially declared and underway - "

"Whoa there, Noad Nonnang," I interrupt.  "Are you trying to impress me with this Terran talk?"

Laughter spins round the table and Nonnang Seej looks a trifle sheepish.  "I thought it sounded good, Sunnoad Yadon, but if it's inauthentic, I stand corrected."

It's a successful bantering reply, but I sense a counter-mine being dug, since "to stand corrected" is something I myself may have to do.  The words Correction, Corrector, evoke an ancient and profound tradition of which the historical precedents are laden with doom for Sunnoads and their Correctors.

Still, the immediate point is the one I have scored.  By pointing out his usage of fashionable Terran vocabulary ("declaring war") I've positioned myself as the guardian and judge of authentic Uranian procedure.  After all, they all know that )only I can really understand to what (small degree any English phrase or pattern of thought can be appropriately used on Ooranye.  Who other than I, after all, has straddled the worlds? 

Declarations of war, indeed!

On the other hand (always the other hand shows up)...

"It's authentic to some degree," I concede.  "Which is to say, insofar as a fan base for Terran styles has established itself on this planet, we can't afford to ignore it.  But we need to remember that it's superficial at best, and playing the enemy's game at worst."

"Except when you take charge of it, Sunnoad Yadon."

I look at Nonnang sharply.  He's not being sarcastic.  He means it. 

I allow his words to hang in the air.  By this time I'm strolling round the table.  I eventually respond, "I don't suppose we have much chance of mounting a surprise attack on Dempelath anyway.  So, yes, perhaps we have nothing to lose if we decide to send him some sort of official defiance before our fleet sets out.  However, before we do that, we need to muster that fleet.  And we need to keep our options open as regards timing.  For, although a declaration might help our sense of purpose, it might backfire if we then unexpectedly encounter a reason for delay."

"Such as?" asked a skyship commander, Tyol Leth, one of Noad Nonnang's fleet officers.

I employ a Terran idiom in my reply (so as not to back-track too far from my status as a trove of alien savvy):

"If it turns out that we have our hands full here in Syoom, it's no use pretending that we don't."  I turn to eye them all.  A shame, that dragging silence.  Do they want to be spoonfed?  "Unwise to leave additional enemies at our back, you see." 

"Like the Noo Wallang," Lemedet - bless her - dares to specify.

Those words aren't welcome, but I firmly approve them.  The words "Noo Wallang" - signifying one of the most dismal social pests of the day - are pronounced at a cost in distaste, but it's a cost which needs to be paid.  "Yes, quite," I say.  "Lemedet has reminded us of an enemy here in Syoom.  Think about it.  Can we afford to launch a fleet into Fyaym before we've mobilized decent society against The Mockers of Fate?"

Argument follows; I listen to them talk:  "...alert the people..."  "...but not panic..."  "...The Noo Wallang?  Who are those jokers...?"

I get the impression that the meeting is about to break up.  I circle round to Lemedet and, even as I move to give her a sign, she (with excellent lremd) divines my intention.  She steps aside so as to make it easier for us to exchange a bit of private speech.

"80438," she says in a low tone, judging that I won't mind if she gets the first word in, "this has been an odd meeting."  The look I give her says, go on.  "It's as though - " she watches my face - "you wish to slow them down."

"You're not wrong."

"Ah."  She dares the next stepping-stone:  "And yet you must be as keen as any, and more anxious than most, to launch the expedition to rescue Olhoav.  It is, after all, your home city."

I hope I'm looking as though I am pondering, but actually I'm admiring.  What a wonderful woman, says a long-ago side to my life; what a bright, athletic specimen of mens sana in corpore sano

However, healthy minds in healthy bodies are to be expected on this world, are they not?  Still, her impact on me right now is special enough, unusual enough, ridiculous enough, that a warning voice sounds inside me, ordering my defences to be brought into play.  My feelings accordingly must adjust: must recede into that distant sharpness (the reversed telescope of rank) which tells me not to forget my responsibilities on the eve of war.  This is no time to embark on an emotional roller-coaster. 

Thus admonished, I find words to speak.  "As you say, Lemedet, I'm keen to get the mission started.  But it's no good whipping up artificial determination... the impetus for the drall must grow from the commitment we already have.  Otherwise – well, just imagine us the way we all might jump in panicky zeal to 'get it all over with'.  And you can guess how a mission into Fyaym conducted on that basis is likely to end!"

She casts her eyes down, inevitably reminded of the disastrous end of the Phosphorus Era.

"True, sponndar Sunnoad," she says in a small voice.

"Therefore, firstly," continues my authoritative flow, "we must stamp out the enemy infiltration in our own country.  Now, you mentioned the Noo Wallang...  Any ideas?"

She shakes her head.  "Dealing with them, 80438, is like hitting empty air."

"We haven't pinpointed their organization - true.  But we can tackle the problem at the branches instead of at the root.  And with that in mind, Lemedet, here's something you might help me with: I have agents among the xebbalshar and I hear that their next tryst is being held in Oam.  That's your home district - you're a Pjourthan, aren't you?"

"I am that."

"Then find out for me as soon as you can, the exact location of the event.  My agents may have found some enemy branches for me to lop off."

She looks keen to be useful... keen to leave my presence as they all usually are, saying to herself, I got away with a plus score...

For my part I can conclude that I've nudged her successfully; yet suddenly I feel exhausted, and a yearning comes over me to revert entirely to my Uranian consciousness.  Please let me relax into it, I plead, wordlessly.  I know I need my Terran mind sometimes, but not all the time.  Sink down, O Earthly me.  Rest.  And yes, here goes - 

6

…The inner “wakey wakey Earth-me!” bell rings.  I know, straightaway, that it’s been only a short while for the latest skid.  I know it because some thready awareness tells me that just two or three days have gone by since my conversation in Skyyon's Norkoten Hall. 

Moreover, in that short time I have travelled thousands of miles across Syoom.

I see around me a huge encampment.  Skimmers are parked on the plain in their hundreds; among them, in chaotic variety, are interspersed scores of the submarine-shaped xebbalshou from which colourful stuff has been unloaded and heaped on the gralm. 

It's a vast bring-and-buy sale, or xebbalsh plains-paddler and skimmer-locker sale - so I gather from my Uranian memory which, unlike the Terran, has not slept away the event-crowded interval since my attendance at Skyyon.

The trade fair proceeds around me, its participants courteously aware that they must behave naturally and normally despite the wearer of the golden cloak who stands in their midst.  They cannot avoid casting sidelong glances every so often, but otherwise they leave me alone.  I meanwhile blink groggily at a flavourful item of thought, an “Aha! I might have guessed!” but without any grasp of the contents.  Come, this is annoying; what exactly is it that I “might have guessed”? 

A heavy moody hint, I suppose; warning of the next wave.  I wait patiently for the issue to be clarified.  Meanwhile my good friend Lemedet (such a staunch support she has been during the past few days) is fairly popping with vitality.  She circulates, chatting amiably, at a middle distance from me, on the look-out for… for whatever it is. 

It’s to my advantage that she is so keen, so eager to amass that currency of personal credit which accrues to those who are of practical use to the Sunnoad.  How much she thereby cares for Yadon the man is another question.  The answer to that is hidden in the future’s bright fog.  For the nonce I’m simply grateful that anyone chooses to give up time to assist me on a personal basis.  Friendship must supply my want of a secretariat; for I must have support of some kind - not even the highest degree of renl can enable me to perform my sunnoadly nugdings everywhere at once!  The idea, of course, is that a wise Sunnoad's influence cascades with a multiplier effect.  Yet in consideration of the size of Syoom, overwhelm lies in wait for me, and already, as I gaze around at this encampment which sprawls for miles, I myself am nudged.  The culprit is the continual low mutter of fear within me.  Most of the time I can ignore it but now it rears up to remind me of a certain light-headedness to which I am prone.  Manageable so far, it's nonetheless a worry to me, that as I look at this scene of buyers, sellers, vehicles and heaped bric-a-brac I’m tempted to juggle with words like “peddlers” and “plains paddlers” and “peddlers on their paddlers”, as though I were sloshed.  Fortunately the idiocy is all internal.  To all appearances (I hope) I have so far succeeded in maintaining the dignity of my office…

Here's a tempting get-out option: when the awareness of my situation gets too overwhelming I could throw off the tell-tale golden cloak and go around in disguise.  Indeed, why not? 

Well, perhaps some Sunnoads have done it in the past but for me, at least, a quiet inner voice warns that it would not be a good idea; that in some sense it would be not playing the game...  Perhaps – suggests dream-logic (of the sort unsafe to ignore) - I would not be able, afterwards, to put the cloak back on my shoulders.  I would become a permanent deserter. 

So, instead, face it all!  Smile at those who glance or stare!  Accept that I’m at the vortex of an event-gyre which at this very moment has begun an in-fall of stuff: for look what Lemedet has begun to do - she's leading some half-dozen adults, accompanied by an assortment of children, out of the crowd to advance upon the open space where I'm standing.

She herself is an aspect of the whirlpool, and she's bringing with her the other arms of the whirlpool to fall on me.  Well, that’s what I’m here for…  Now, who are this lot?  Ah - Gareem and Ehiv, my agents among the xebbalsharou, I recognize and am glad to see again.  Looks like they’ve done their job well, if the folk accompanying them can count as results of their search for evidence.  I commissioned them in the vaguest terms to look for examples of the “off-putting stuff” which Dempelath is trickling into Syoom.  Not that these others look off-putting, but then, I don’t suppose you can tell from looks.

Gareem bows. “Sponndar Lemedet informed us that you would be here today, 80438.”  (I'll give her credit for finding them amid the vast gathering.)  “I have told her about these… umuc and submic”.

"Uh?" say I with an un-sunnoadly ejaculation.  "Those are words which I do not know, either in a Uranian or a Terran tongue."

No reply from Gareem or Ehiv: they are withdrawing from me!  And though I regret the fact, I know why they want to leave.  It’s the moment-hugging urge to keep one’s winnings and quit the spotlight while one’s ahead.  My agents may be proud to be my agents, but they don’t want to wallow so long in my presence that they risk a development that might mar the perfection of their wave.  Oh well.  I had been looking forward to another chat, to deepening our acquaintance.  But here’s something that makes me feel less lonely.  Waveless children!  While the umuc and the submic – whoever or whatever they are, these two rather moon-faced women and their taciturn husbands – stand expectantly before me, with Lemedet slightly to one side, the couples’ little ones toddle up to me wide-eyed.  They reach up to finger the hem of the golden cloak.

I imitate their action.  “Yes, it’s real,” I gently say to them. 

“Stop that, now,” says one of the mothers.  Flinching back at the sharp voice, the children withdraw with downcast mien.

I don’t interfere with her discipline but I resolve to take the sting out of it by bestowing an understanding wink on the child who next catches my eye, while, a trifle stiffly, I put the question to the adults: “What can I do for you people?” 

The two women start speaking at once.  For some reason they're glaring at once another.  I hold up my hand and turn to Lemedet.

She takes my glance as her cue to speak.  “This,” she points at the woman who rebuked the children, “is Djatanat, secretary of SUBMIC, and this,” pointing to the other lady, “is Wylit Thirr, secretary of UMUC.”

“I’m not greatly the wiser.”

Lemedet smiles.  “They are Unions.”

"Of what?"

Between my question and the answer, a greater answer spurts and surges up within me, for I feel certain that whatever I'm about to hear is a coda to that flavourful mood that came with the predicted label "I might have guessed".

A welcome consequence is that I'm suddenly sure I am not, after all, solely responsible for the Terran influence on Ooranye.  It can't possibly all have stemmed from the involuntary info-dump from my unconscious self during some hours in Olhoav, soon after my arrival on this world.  I had assumed that it alone provided enough for Uranian talent to work on, to accomplish all the rest including all the fashionable spread of the English language as an exotic hobby on this planet.  But no.  That just isn't enough to explain it all.  I simply can no longer believe that it all came through me.  And thank goodness for that.  What a weight off my conscience!

Well then, are other Earthminds at work on this planet, spreading their influence?

I very much doubt it.  Considering how famous I have become, without deserving it all that much, any other transplanted Terran mind would probably have made an equal splash.  No - it is Dempelath at work, for sure. 

Dempelath must have found some other trans-spatial link between the worlds.  Who knows what poison he may be sucking at this very moment from Planet Three to Planet Seven? 

“…This,” the voice of Lemedet meanwhile accompanies the flourish of her hand-wave, ever so slightly arch, “is Wylit Thirr, secretary of the Union of Minor Uranian Characters” (one of the women bows stiffly); “and this here is Djatanat, secretary of the Syoomean Union of Backgrounders and Minor Characters,”  and the other woman also bows, while I strive to restrain an appalling surge of mirth within me.  I must be very, very careful here.

The two Secretaries might be twin sisters; the only ways I can tell them apart is, firstly, that Djatanat is wearing a plain white top while Wylit’s top is purplish black and sequined; secondly, Wylit looks rather contemptuously smug while Djatanat frowns at her intensely.  They're rivals, obviously.  This gives me an idea of what to say.

“Two rather overlapping titles,” I suggest.

Djatanat breaks out with, “You may well say so, Sunnoad Yadon!  And the overlap is a completely redundant superfluity!"

"Perhaps you'd better amalgamate, then," I suggest, knowing they won't.

Sure enough, Djatanat and Wylit both snort.  Djatanat, perhaps the more eloquent of the two, says: "We have here sponndar Wylit Thirr, whose very double name proclaims her unfitness to represent backgrounders.  What true backgrounder ever sports a pair of names?  You wouldn't catch me flaunting a second name!  I can speak for my members as one of themselves.”

The other Secretary hits back:  "A cheap shot, sponndar!  You know very well that my so-called second name was a mistake made at my birth..."

Meanwhile my mind races ahead to frame the event as a Sunnoad should:

We have an import from Earth in the form of a union demarcation-dispute, further trivialised and thinned by distance from the origin of such things, but nonetheless strong evidence that a Terran theme can trickle into this world, can flaunt itself in a Uranian guise.  The question is, what, if anything, ought I to do about this here manifestation?  The question rolls about in my head.  I actually do roll my head a bit.  I then chance to notice in the crowd a watching figure and face which I have not seen for a long time.  It's none other than Indan Orliss, head of the Bostanga Fom, the freelance secret service. 

Her presence here can hardly be coincidence. 

Meanwhile the indignant Wylit continues to justify herself.  "...Wylit is my one true name and the ‘Thirr’ is merely the addition of a baby’s sound which was taken in error for an added word.  I am thus as much of a backgrounder as you are, Djatamat, or any one-namer.  You should have done your homework on me before opening your big mouth."

“I should not be required to check on such things,” Djatanat retorts.  “You allowed the second name to stand, so you’re stuck with the implications.  If you don’t wish folk to assume you’re Wylit Thirr, foregrounder, why haven’t you repudiated the ‘Thirr’?”

“Because to do so would be as much an affectation as to have added it on if I hadn’t had it – I’d have been a reverse flunnd, like several in your outfit that I could name,” Wylit jeers. 

I watch the approach of Indan Orliss, who now lifts an arm to hail me and gives a jerk of the head.  “Wait here if you please,” I say to the union secretaries.  “I must weigh what you say with what I hear from the Bostanga Fom.”  Hoping that that impresses them, I step over to Indan. 

In actually fact, though, I feel quite determined not to take anybody’s advice at this particular juncture.  I reckon it's up to me to imagine what to do.

“My urgent recommendation, Sunnoad Yadon,” Indan says in a hushed tone, “is to stamp on all this without delay.”

“How?”

“I don’t know – but I’m hoping you will be able.”

I smile, “You’re nudging me, in the hope that I for my part will nudge these Dempelath stooges out of existence.  Well, perhaps I can go some distance towards that.  But not by stamping.” 

I turn back to the UMUC and SUBMIC secretaries, and I raise my voice.

“It’s clear why you have come to see me,” I say; “but I can do more than sort out your dispute for you.  I can point you towards the solution to a far bigger problem.  Are you listening carefully?”

What a question for a Sunnoad to ask!  Yet here, today, it’s a necessary one.  These people’s awareness is twitchy.  Their cultural heritage has been unbalanced and clouded by input from an alien source.  What they need is to be re-swamped by sanity, and, to get help in this, I tilt my head and raise my eyes and wave at the crowd beyond to beckon them to approach, for I want as many people as possible to listen to what I have to say.  The crowd’s edges begin to move forward, for the people are sensing my wish.

The secretaries of UMUC and SUBMIC assure me in unison that they undertake to listen to every word.  In saying so they put an ever so slight emphasis on “listen”.  It's as if they reserve the right to do no more than listen, and not to obey or agree.  However it's too late for such insolence to be effective.  Enough of the people are now close enough to overhear, that I know the words I speak will be passed on, and that their message shall ripple from this point outward across Syoom.  Indeed as I speak them they already seem to echo back at me in chorus.

“…The more you succeed the more you fail, because a backgrounder movement can never win; “minor” characters can never retain their identity if they move up to “major”; try to step into the foreground and you cease to be the background, so you have “won” by ceasing to be yourself, so it is not you who have won, it is somebody else, an identity who has replaced you, so what is the point?  Strive, by all means, but make no mistake about what you are: if you win any position of renown, such as the secretaryship of a Syoom-wide union who confers with the Sunnoad, the spotlight is on you and you are not and have never been backgrounders, sponndar Djatanat and sponndar Wylit Thirr…”

I hear outbreaks of laughter, and though I am glad I have carried my point successfully, I certainly do not wish to humiliate the union leaders, for I am wary of any act that would leave such a sour taste in so many mouths including my own.  They look confounded, they stoop and wilt in defeat, but I must focus their morale – with a different nudge.

“Most of you know,” I address as many of the wider crowd as can hear my raised voice, “that part of me comes from the Third Planet, and the hobbyists among you may have gleaned from the English tongue various flavours and whiffs of the adversarial habits widespread on that unfortunate globe.  If so, you’ll perhaps note that I could have played the divide-and-rule game here.  Shown initial favour to UMUC at the expense of SUBMIC, or vice versa.  Then picked off the other one.  That kind of thing!  Luckily, though, not all the stuff in my head consists of dismal Terran dodges… though I shan’t dismiss the necessity, on occasion, of fighting a dodge with a dodge…”  (I take a deep breath and prepare to nudge for all I’m worth.)  “But for the moment,” I declare with force in my tone, “I shall focus on a brighter prospect by announcing a more positive idea.  A few hundred yards from my lodge at Melikon, I propose to found a small settlement which I shall call Thion.  Its principal feature will be a Round Table.” (That’s it, kicked off.  I ask myself, while I pronounce the syllables, how much these people know the legends of Earth.  If they have other sources of Terran lore apart from what Uranians have gleaned from my sleep-talk, the amount could be limitless.  On the other hand I surely would have known if it had spread any more thickly than a veneer.  Fairly obviously, that isn't the case so far; currently the Uranian mind-set receives things Terran with no more than a fashionable superficiality.  Anyhow, the die is cast: a Round Table it will be…)

7

I rap my knuckles on the solid rim before me as I settle myself in the chair.  The notables whom I have invited, and who have been waiting around the polished circumference for my move, seat themselves likewise. 

We sit, breeze-blown, under the open sky.  Around us extends the brown and liver-coloured plain, with, close by, the grove whose name, Thion, is now extended to cover a settlement which I have called into being.  As yet its facilities are rudimentary: a few sheds for supplies; a map-room; and nothing much else - apart from the Table, whose use now begins. 

Dramatically new, its polished workmanship avows our solemn moment.  The gleaming surface is clear of paperwork; the breeze would immediately have blown any papers away, of course.  What am I thinking?  This is not a bureaucratic culture: this world is not Earth.  Ah, but the legend that inspired this Round Table did come from Earth, so yes, to that degree it's a transportable legend... but here is no equivalent of palatial Camelot: here we are exposed to the elements of a giant planet where those old Knights would have been out of their league.

I shan't put it quite that way to my followers.  Seeing the expectancy in their looks, I realize I had better sprinkle my oration peppered with Terran catch-phrases which, no matter how stale they seem to me, may sound fresh and inspiring to them.

"Notables of Syoom," I say, my eye roving from face to face, "the muster of the drall fleet proceeds apace.  Each one of the twenty-five great cities of Syoom has undertaken to provide a skyship.  I have furthermore made agreements for the larger towns and settlements to club together to provide fifteen more.  A total of forty skyships should give us the edge over Dempelath. 

"Not all the ships will be ready at the same time; much will depend on the various local patrol requirements.  So we must be patient while our forces gather.  It would be the height of folly to denude our homeland of defence while we conduct an expedition to Starside. 

"Now, the enemy will not be idle while we prepare.  We should allow for the possibility of actual raids, that's to say, enemy action more deliberate than the mere Spilth we have endured so far.  Or perhaps the Spilth itself will be so intensified due to its own dynamic that it will count as the major threat.  Either way, we must be prepared to fight a holding action against the degradation of Syoom..."

I pause, and one of the group (Niom Rax of Jaax) dares to say, "Sunnoad 80438, you speculate about 'raids'.  Can you envisage their nature; the kinds of battles they may draw us into?"

"We may make some guesses.  But first let me emphasize, that broadly speaking, until we are ready to go over to the attack, we must be reactive rather than proactive - we must take what comes.  And if that means being caught on the back foot or taking some hits, well, look on it as a lesson in resilience, a course of education offered by our enemy for free!"

(Some hesitant nods, some uneasy chuckles around the table.)

"That said," I continue, "while we're here let's try to answer Niom Rax's question.  Let's have a shot at prophecy.

"We'll do well to start off by extrapolating the data that have trickled our way so far.  We have acquired many clues about how the mind of Dempelath works.  From my time in Olhoav, and from what has happened in Syoom in more recent times, we can be sure that his main strategy will be to nurture resentments against the fate-wave; to cultivate thwarted hopes; to exploit backgrounder dissatisfaction as a lever... and so, we can be sure we’ll see more of that kind of thing as time goes on.  It has begun, in a small way, already.  Djatanat and Wylit, you can vouch for this.”

My remark gives rise to some dry amusement.  The union leaders return glance for glance quite happily and are not a bit put out by the good-natured laughter that ripples through the meeting.  If this were a political gathering on Earth, one of my urgent concerns would be to massage the egos of that pair; whereas here, now that they are onside, they really are onside, wholeheartedly; I don’t need to worry about them at all.  Here, more likely, the risk centres on me, insofar as I’d better take care not to get into some kind of state of stunned inebriation at the amazing, euphoric concept of heading a civilization of grown-ups.

“My guess is, it’s too early to assign much importance to the ‘backgrounder unions’.  If they are deliberate attempts at subversion and not mere Spilth, they represent a premature move on the part of Dempelath.  Look at what has happened during the past few days to the membership of Djatanat’s SUBMIC and Wylit’s UMUC.  They’ve mostly collapsed, like burst bubbles.  They did not have enough self-belief to weather the loss of their leaders.  Nevertheless they, or equivalents, will reappear and get stronger.  And when they do, we must be ready to debate our options realistically, which means being prepared, amongst oursevles, to use some dirty words.  Backgrounder.  Foregrounder.  Flunnd.  I make no apology, sponndarou, for these pronouncements.  It is not a question of being foul-mouthed, but of a need to face a practical truth.  Tell me, notables of the Round Table, do I have your agreement in this?”

A moment of sombre consideration, and then: “You do, 80438” – “Yes, Sunnoad Yadon” – the voices murmured in support.

Next, to lighten the mood a bit.  “However, let’s not be too eager to meet trouble before we’re forced to; for as I suggested a minute ago, the wirrip-bubble is apt to burst when its inflation is premature.  For the time being we must quest in various other directions.  We shall keep our ears and eyes open for lesser creepies to stamp on, while our fleet prepares.  And we had better make a good job of stamping.  To go and defeat Dempelath on Starside only to return to a Syoom that had suffered plok in the meantime, would be rather a shame.”

They appear to like what I’ve said.  If that’s what it takes to stay on top of the job until it’s time to launch our forty skyships against Dempelath, they’re most willing to maintain vigilance against the “lesser creepies”.

I conclude: “At this moment, history appoints you as the questers.  Any targets?  Raise your hands if you know of one.  Ah, speak up, Hevad Quafroa of Jador.”

Hesitantly the woman stands.  Tall and serious, she sighs and bites her lip, then speaks:

“I hardly dare repeat the rumour; it is so absurd.”

“Absurdity is to be expected in this business,” I say.  “Go on, tell us!”

“Very well,” says Hevad, wincing.  “The stories emanate from my home city.  Large numbers of people all at once are throwing their clothes away…”  She looks round.  “Go on, laugh!”

Quite a few of us do look to be on the verge of laughter.  “Bit cool on this planet, to start a nudist colony,” I allow myself to say in English; whether or not they understand the sentence, they’re used to my alien mutterings.

Hevad, apparently, does understand me.  She says, “It makes even less sense than that, 80438.  If what I hear is true, many people in Jador have adopted the notion that clothing ought to change in style according to the date on the calendar.  A perfectly good outfit one day might be sklung the next day.  ‘Sklung’ meaning not the right match for the date.

Someone else asks, “What do they say the date has to do with it, Hevad?”

“Skies above – I don’t know.  Fact is, I don’t think any reason is given.  It’s supposed to be self-evident that one does not wish to be sklung.  I’m sorry, Sunnoad Yadon, it’s just that you did ask… I know it’s incredible.”

For a few minutes I remain with impassive mien while they discuss the insane news from Jador.  They can’t believe it as it stands; they think it’s a smokescreen of some kind.  At length I put up my hand.

“My own background,” I say, “tells me, those tidings sound all too true.”

That’s my contribution: to nudge them, where necessary, towards the serious consideration of laughable news… and it works because they can see that I’m not joking.  The phenomenon has occurred for real, in Jador and perhaps elsewhere, though the actual phrase “fashion conscious” seems not to have yet come into use. 

“Come on,” I say; “who else is prepared to be as brave as Hevad Quafroa?  The more embarrassingly idiotic the rumour the more urgent your duty to stand up and report it.”

But they’re slow.  I need to nudge some more.

“I know it’s distasteful,” I say.  “Indeed, here is where I myself would be subject to the greatest deluge of shame, for having brought such stuff from my world to this, except that by now we all know that most of it can’t be my doing: it is Dempelath our enemy who has somehow opened the principal conduit from the Third Planet to the Seventh, and my role is to use my Terran insights to counter the Terran mind-set.  But to offer that kind of leadership I must be informed of what’s going on.”

Lemedet stands up.  Looks like in this lot the women are the bravest, says I to myself, not out loud.  “I’ve heard,” she says in a carefully even tone, “from my home region of Oam, that the Noad of Pjourth has been asked to appoint a Fairness Allocator, to ensure that Wayfarers undertake their journeys with regard to…” she coughs… “safety-regulations.”

At this, the floodgates of confession groan open.  Minutes roar by in a deluge of crazy anecdotes, giving me the information I asked for in a quantity which more than satisfies my requirements.  The variety is superficially colourful but in a deeper sense it’s all the same sort of stuff: misapplication of ideas, inappropriate standards, logic so lame that it lacks all point.

I give suggestions in each case and then, one by one, I send them off, armed with the Sunnoad’s authority, to deal with what they’ve told me about.  I get less apprehensive about my decisions as I find no awkward issues whenever I hastily check over what I’ve said.  Lemedet, for instance, I advised thus: “Tell your Noad to tell his critics that to hobble his Wayfarers with ‘fair’ rules and standards while they do their dangerous work is the most unfair imposition of all.”  Obvious enough, but the message is enhanced if I, the semi-Terran, say it.

It has been a long day, but finally the questers are all gone on their missions.

Except one.

Oh brother, here we go again: life on Uranus in heavy-hint mode.  Sometimes – maybe not often but sometimes – I kind of wish I was back on Earth.  Well, not really.  But it can get a bit hard, these double-takes, these dramatic deferments in noticing.  Now, only now after the other Round Table 'knights' are all gone, I recognize the way, during the previous few minutes, that they performed little half-turns, as they looked back to watch how Oreneg Vadon determinedly remained behind.  I’m so clearly reminded that they all know about the bone he has to pick with me.

Is it any use, my regret that I had not immediately absorbed what I saw?  I suppose such alertness is too much to expect.  My present delayed-reaction absorption, of what my eyes had so recently seen, is par for my course.

Anyhow, here comes a test of my Terran insights.  The impending confrontation will furnish proof one way or the other, as to how useful my Earthly experience can aid my attempt to deal with the mistake I made in Narar.  For surely a Terran ought to have some idea how to cope with Oreneg’s ego, his ambition, his embarrassment.

However, a fog rises in my brain as he walks towards he and I’m no longer sure why my mistake was so bad.  What did I do but merely let out a hint that I had tagged him as my successor?  On planet Earth this would be good news for an ambitious man.  Even on Ooranye it’s good news for someone chosen as Daon of a city. 

Yes but for some reason the sunnoadex has always been different, special, unique; the same rules don’t apply for the choice of heir to a Sunnoad, as those for the choice of heir to a Noad.

Well then, what can I do about it?  Suddenly a sunburst of an idea explodes in my head: brilliant, perfect, stunning!  And the beauty of it is, it would mean that I wouldn’t need even to try to understand anything at all…

Here he is, halted to glower a couple of yards from me, which gives me a moment I can use to suggest my idea to him, quick, before he opens his mouth to complain.

I cut in with, “I know what you’re going to say, Oreneg Vadon, Notable of Grard.”  Put thus formally, my words disconcert that haughty aquiline look of his, and I can continue with a slight edge on him: “Allow me to forestall your utterance with the good news, that the problem which you were about to mention is one which need not be dragged out any longer.”

“How so, 80438?” he asks.

“Because, very simply, I can put an end to it now.  You’re going to like this, Oreneg.  So fast and easily did the truth appear today, the day that the successful start of the Round Table announced it to me, that I find it quite irresistible.  Hey, says the voice of obviousness, here is a thought: I, Yadon, can simply let go of it all; yes, really, I can just go!”

“I don’t know that I like the sound of this, 80438.”

“You ought to.  The change-over should be painless, smoothly feasible, and to the benefit of us both.  After all, if my reign ends today, history will regard it as quite creditable.  Most importantly I’ve set the drall in motion, and perhaps in accomplishing that aim I have also done some other good things.  Why should I not quit while I’m ahead?  That kind of quitting takes judgement, of a kind which, I've noticed, is recognized as a particular virtue on this world.  And really it should be for the best, for I doubt that I have the ballast for the longer haul.”

He's listening, he’s letting me speak without trying to interrupt; plainly I have him hooked, and while the words pour from my mouth they’re seconded by the formation of a mental picture in the “how it might work out” genre, a pleasant panorama which includes a picture of me in a skyship accompanying the new Sunnoad 80439.  No longer transfixed by the supreme spotlight, I’ll still be at hand as a sort of retired elder statesman to give advice if needed, in case Oreneg should need any Terran insights during the great drall.

“To summarize,” I conclude, “it would solve our problem if we were to go gather some witnesses right now so that I can, without more ado, abdicate in your favour.”

“WHAT?  Resign the sunnoadex?  For the Skies’ sake, why?”

He looks and sounds stunned and appalled – No, surely, my suggested plan must be what he wants. To prompt a right response from him, to help him over the shock, my next words must put an immediate stopper on his dismay.

“It’s not hard to say why.  The reason, Oreneg, should be evident to both of us.  I made a big mistake in Narar when I let slip that I had decided upon a successor.  It seemed a good idea at the time, but I now see that I’ve made it too easy for people to guess that I had you in mind, so that you naturally fear your image will get stale as people get accustomed to the notion of you as the Sunnoad-in-waiting. I still believe you ought to be 80439, but I ought to have understood that the leak of my intention gravely flouts the venerable, lurchy tradition whereby a Sunnoad names his successor at the last moment, and that I have thus sadly deprived your future of all the proper dazzle of an unexpected succession such as has launched successive wearers of the golden cloak into their reigns throughout history.  The one way I can retrieve the boon of public surprise is to make it happen a lot sooner than people expect.”

(I listen to my own words with that rapt astonishment one feels upon hearing wisdom issue forth from the lips of a person previously assumed to be far too dense for such a performance.  Ah but, Yadon old man, don’t do yourself down – you don’t get to the top if you’re dense.  Ah but you do (flashes the retort), for density is precisely what propels you to the top in a world governed by dramatic irony where idiot-driven plots are the threads from which sagas are woven.)

Pay close attention to Oreneg’s face, now.  It should show him becoming mollified, reassured…

Oh no, what’s this sullen look?  What have I done now?

“You just don’t get it, Earthman.”

Contempt in the voice!  I’m not about to accept that.

“Don’t tell me,” I say, “that you have no wish to become Sunnoad after me.  For a man of your abilities it would be the perfect destiny.  If fate-waves point true, you must wish to wear the golden cloak, sooner or later.”

“But not by that route!  Not by your voice in the matter, either now or when you are dying!  The one thing I have always dreamed of is to WIN it, WIN the golden cloak by my renl ability; win it via thuzolyr!

At long last I understand.

Oreneg Vadon exemplifies the phenomenon, rare but not unknown on Oorenye, of one whose renl ability is not merely part of his standing as a citizen, but is also a kind of super-sport, the centre of his interest in life.

It’s an extreme, but a thoroughly Uranian one, and I have at last comprehended it by means of my native knowledge. 

Yes, it’s to my native knowledge-store that I owe my belated realization.  Not one bit were my Terran insights of any help to me in this matter.

A fuzzy feeling in my head suggests that my Earthly consciousness is about to drowse once more, given this demonstration that it is no longer needed…

*

"Come on, 80438," said Oreneg Vadon.  "Time we left.  The day is advancing and it would be as well not to delay."

Yadon blinked and said, "What?  Where now?"

"It is still necessary to gather witnesses, albeit not for an abdication."

With a sign Yadon blearily nodded, his native consciousness rising towards sufficiency.  "I think I know what you mean.  Yes – of course, I am bound to know what you mean."

“You look a bit glum, but don’t worry!” said the Grardesh Cinctee, in a tone that struck a new, better-natured note than his usual grimth.  “It will benefit both of us.  Off we go, to Skyyon.”

“The sensible choice,” the Sunnoad agreed.  Minutes later they had mounted their skimmers and were speeding towards the polar city.

Less than an hour later they stood in the palace, on a podium in front of a hastily summoned crowd of notables and others who had drifted in from the city streets, having heard rumours of some mighty impending event.  Oreneg said in a low tone to Yadon:

“Take heart.  It’s interaction.  Prod the wave and the wave prods back.  How else can things be?”

“That,” nodded the Sunnoad, “sounds about right.”  He took a deep breath and addressed the multitude.

“I stand here, as Sunnoad of Syoom, explicitly to confess what seems to be widely known, namely that I had come to a decision with regard to the succession to the sunnoadex; that I now realize I ought not to have allowed the fact of that decision to become known, nor its content to be guessed; and therefore – I stand corrected!    

After that last phrase Yadon’s mouth shut like a trap.

The awed silence was broken only by the boot-steps of an aide who, by arrangement, brought a red cloak for Oreneg, who donned it – the red cloak of a Corrector.

The cheers that then erupted were not for Yadon, not for Oreneg, but – as was apparent in the enveloping surge of emotion – for the combination of both, and for a moment of history that plainly had worked as it should.

For it was an instant in which they all realized the power of Yadon’s coup as well as Oreneg’s.  Oreneg had objected, had Corrected; and Yadon for his part had left them all to guess as to the precise scope of his avowal. 

Thus, the thought went the rounds, “Has he merely repented of his loose talk, or has he actually changed his mind about Oreneg Vadon’s suitability for the succession?”  That was the point of his disclosure: that which it disclosed, or rather recreated, was the value of the unknown.  His speech had unshackled the rightful uncertainty, releasing its vigour to circulate healthfully once more in the veins of saga throughout Syoom.

Amid the gale of enthusiasm Yadon muttered to Oreneg on the podium:

“I remember that old woman, the Elder of Beown, at the time of the Cincture.”

“Ah yes?” smiled the Corrector.

“Yes.  She seemed to think that nothing much would be achieved by our collective efforts.  I think we’re going to prove her wrong.”

"I think we shall," the Corrector agreed.  "This is the kind of day that shows we are all more than we think we are.”

“Not just the menials of Fate, then,” nodded the Sunnoad.

8

History then offered up a surprise treat, a sort of golden age on borrowed time, which came to be known as the “Golden Deferral”.  It is defined as the stretch between Day 10,546,013 of Era Y – the momentous day which saw both the founding of the Round Table at Thion and the acclamation of the Corrector – and, 3,717 days later, the shock of the Forokkadand on Day 10,549,730 which, as we shall see, brought the Deferral to an abrupt close.

It was a strange, poignant time.  Its “on the eve” aura stretched until it became limp and yet did not die.  During those 3,717 days (Terran readers note that the period is equivalent to 4,646.25 of your days, that’s to say, getting on for 13 Earth years) the sense of urgency ebbed, but gradually, imperceptibly.  On no occasion during the protracted hiatus did anyone publicly suggest that the drall against Dempelath should be abandoned.  The threat which the Olhoavan tyrant posed was not forgotten.  The forty Syoomean skyships destined for the voyage to Starside were duly built, armed, and maintained at the ready. But…  always, delays arose.

This was not because of doubts about the eventual aim.  It was a consequence, rather, of dispersion of effort.  The little spots of trouble, the local pinpricks of hostile influence at one location after another throughout Syoom’s four-hundred-million-square-mile expanse, required the attention of Yadon the Sunnoad and of the enlarged Cincture of the Round Table, who became expert at dealing with this rash of nuisances without any need to summon the Terran side of Yadon’s mind into full control: for his native Uranian consciousness, by now, had developed a good enough working knowledge of Terran cultural foibles, to be able to advise how to stamp them out while relying entirely on Uranian competence.  After all, Ooranye was already so mysterious that it forced its people to adapt to strangeness in order to survive; Terran input was merely one more crazy influence among many.

Thus the days rolled by, with a peculiar sense of present nostalgia, as though already viewed in retrospect.  Yadon’s repute grew ever more majestic as his hair greyed and his face grew more lined and his skills accumulated in the role of Noad of Noads, though he never altogether ceased to hanker for the life of a freely reckless adventurer: that irresponsible life which, for a period after his arrival in Syoom, he had actually lived.

Yet in part that reckless aura still clung to him, insofar as, despite his condensing elder-statesman image, 80438 retained some waft of unpredictability.  Part of this stemmed from the paradox that the greatness of a Sunnoad is enhanced by the rectifying action of a Corrector: the humiliation of having to stand up and say in public, “I stand Corrected”, soon brings compensation whereby, with a mutual reflection of storied fame and honour, both Sunnoad and Corrector brighten one another.  And part also stemmed from a hopeful suspicion, “This man may dare to take big risks” – a capability which, so folk sensed, might eventually prove vital.

The people, in short, were glad to have Yadon as their Sunnoad, while nevertheless they felt no need to hurry themselves or him towards the looming destiny which in their heart of hearts they knew would not be delayed as long as a generation.  When the time came, he should lead them to victory, and that hope sufficed meanwhile; it sufficed for Yadon too, especially as after thousands of days as a widower his outlook was softened by an unlooked-for return to domestic bliss.

*

The ego-track of Neville Yeadon (resumed):

…what – what – what – it’s all been piling up while I drowsed – and the soak of certainty, deep-clear, shows me I cannot expect to evade what “it” is –

Like suddenly realizing that water coming through the ceiling means you’ve left the bath-tap on too long –

And what marked the moment of overflow?  What exact event has jogged my solely Terran mind awake?

I’ll know soon enough, but though I cringe in anticipation of the knowledge, which I bet will be something I’d rather not learn, what's far worse is the thought of how much time is sure to have passed… my hand looks older, and Lemedet my wife, still beautiful beside me as we ride the breezy slideways of Toolv, looks somewhat older too.  Guilt!  Such guilt at the delay of my mission!

My first reaction is to turn my head from her, lest she see a sick look on my face.  But then I turn back because it’s no use hoping to avoid explanation.

My eyes drink in the sight of her.

“You’ve seen me before, you know,” she says, impishly.

“Likewise you, chremn,” I say, “must recognize from what’s often happened before, what’s happened to me again just now.”

Eyes sparkling, she slips her arm through mine.  Tenderly she says, “I know.  You don’t need to pull such a long face.”

Ha - Terran idiom - a skilful attempt to put me at my ease – and I suppose I’m thankful, for it’s better than to hear her say, what took you so long to wake up, Earthman? 

Maybe, following her kind example, I ought to go easier on myself…  at least postpone my contrition and my excuses, assuming Lemedet ever wishes to hear them.  Other, far more practical urgencies than my guilt, push to the forefront.  The radioed warning still rings in my ears.  Must share the gist of it. 

“Lemedet,” say I, “listen.  Yr has reverted to rogue.  Rael Odiram has repudiated our alliance.”

“Skies!” she blanches.  “In public?”

I nod.  “The message was from Oreneg, who adds that the news is being relayed all over Syoom.”

“The grutt!  Rael, that is.  The flunndy grutt!”

“Oh well,” I shrug, “at least he was decent enough to send an open defiance.”

“Hmm… and as to why he’s chosen to administer this shock at this moment in particular – while you’re on your way to inspect some factories in Toolv…?”

“That is a question indeed.  Hard to believe it’s coincidence.  But if I’m going to take him by surprise, as he has taken me – I may not have time to work it all out before I act.  We’ll get off the slideway here.  See, just beyond that pedestrian, a short-cut to the factory…”

“You mean you’re going straight there?  No courtesy call on Byndin?“

“She had better understand after the event, like everybody else more often than has to do,” I drily observe, for, truth to tell, I’m in no mood for a confab with the superlative Noad Byndin Ghelanver of Toolv.  “I suspect that time presses, that Rael Odiram is interested in the same thing as I, and that Yr may already have floated into Toolvan air-space… oh look,” I add, pointing at a white spot in the sky around declination sixty and perceptibly moving, “if I mistake not, here it is already.”  All sense of on-the-Eve has vanished; rather, the mood I sense is one of accelerated nightfall.