uranian throne
- episode twenty-three

on the eve

robert gibson

For the story so far, see:

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

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



The ego-track of Neville Yeadon:

You're going to have to take stock, you can't just adventure blithely down this road; something mind-bogglingly great has happened to you and you've got to pause and reflect and take stock - this undertone patters to and fro along the back-stage of my awareness; but its message must wait. 

Granted that at some point, soon, I shall have to sit back and try to absorb fortune's stupendous wallop, yet, with an urgent task before me, the big thoughts are a trap.  FOCUS, CONCENTRATE: NEGOTIATE A PEACE.

Three walk beside me down this avenue of Yr; three companion-adventurers who have been swept, not at all unwillingly, into the current of my opening move.  I reckon I did right to command their attendance.  The guidance of Abon Gnaa, and the support of Oreneg Vadon, both of whom would have wished to be here anyway, make a kind of rational sense, and as for the youngster, Kusk, "happening to be at hand" must (I expect) be a typical theme in the reign of a Sunnoad.  Many a bystander - many millions of bystanders in this planet's long history - must have been swept along by the purposes of the wearer of the golden cloak, and I have not heard of any complaints by those so swept.

Certainly this lot seem content, even quietly proud to be here with me, whereas Terrans in their place would surely regard me as madly rash and irresponsible for "putting my head in the lion's mouth".

Even so, my little entourage are perhaps the better for not being able to read my mind.  I wonder what their reaction would be if they could.  If they knew to what extremely small degree I am planning ahead... then, loyal Uranians though they are, they might well sensibly object (in their own minds at least), "What is Sunnoad Yadon about?  The ruler whom he's taking us to meet cannot be trusted!"

Indeed not.  Noad Rael Odiram may have some claim on the gratitude of those who released him from the thralldom of the rebels who had seized control of his city; on the other hand he's as proud as Lucifer by all accounts: he must hate the idea that Yr got beaten by a Syoomean force.  That pattern of events must represent a humiliation for him even though the defeated were a faction hostile to himself.  So, for a start, he'll have been put into a bad mood.  And certainly he won't consider himself bound by loyalty to me as Syoom's Sunnoad: he does not class himself as a Syoomean and therefore won't admit any allegiance to the Noad of Noads.

Thus, to place myself in his power could be considered an act of lunacy, and yet no one has tried to dissuade me from it; since twenty minutes ago, when I first voiced my inclination to negotiate a peace with Noad Rael Odiram of Yr in person on his home ground, I've not heard any voiced objection, though neither have I detected any enthusiastic approval for the idea...  all I got was matter-of-fact nods, respectful silences, expectant looks...

A subdued voice beside me, that of young Kusk, remarks: "It looks like a normal city, sponndar."

I reply: "But the abitgers modify the picture."

It's the first time I've had to dredge up the term "abitger" - compressed-air cannon - from my subconscious Uranian encyclopaedic dictionary.  Reassuring that it was there when my conversation needed it! The sight of the grey barrels, bristling up from roofs, and slanting between towers, must have shunted forth the right word.

"I've counted so far about thirty of them, just on this stretch," says Oreneg Vadon. 

"Accrual, over the ages," I shrug, "of defences against predatory clouds."

Oreneg's glances at me and I guess at his flash of approval: this Sunnoad-with-an-Earthmind nevertheless understands what one would expect in a skyborne Uranian city.

We fall silent once more while our boots clink along the avenue's metal surface.  Our eye-balls swivel this way and that, in an effort to keep watch on the geometric jungle that lines the way, and Kusk and Oreneg sometimes turn to glance behind them, but the wordless Abon Gnaa and myself only look straight forward.  It's futile to worry about ambush, and I, for one, don't want to miss the slightest signal from the palace up ahead. 

The gold-and-orange arched door at the end of the avenue - that looks like it must be the entrance.  My imagination races towards the meeting with the Noad of Yr.  He's going to want, desperately, to do something special.  That's my reasonable guess - that above all he'll be concerned to recover his lost dignity, to impress his own people; and what I'm counting on is that he'll realize that treachery towards me won't do it, whereas a grand generous gesture would fit the bill.  Yes, an agreement to an adventurous alliance of equals would fit that bill to perfection!  If only I can put the idea into his mind and induce him to regard it as his own -

Or perhaps the term "alliance" may be too much for him and his people to swallow; in which case I could borrow a gag from Earth history and suggest that Yr, like President Wilson's USA in World War One, could be called not an "ally" but an "associated Power"...

That bright-coloured door's much closer now.  It has not yet opened for us but already I am zooming well past it in my speculations, as I busy my thoughts with the further future.  I consider how I may distribute my attention between the fleet of reliable Syoomean skyships which I must gather for the task force to rescue Olhoav, on the one hand, and on the other hand the need to juggle the commitment of Yr.  So long as it remains on our side, Yr, a skyborne colossus sailing with us through the skies of Fyaym, will be a superb asset in the clash with the common enemy; Dempelath will be aghast when he sees -

Stop daydreaming!  Get on with the job!

I almost visibly shudder, so fierce is that reprimand from my more focused self.  It's sharpened by a flash of Terran memory, from a TV sports report 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, he failed to catch it: it slipped through his hands and into the goal.  "Careless Hands" he was dubbed from then on.  The error clouded all his achievements.  And now you, Sunnoad Yadon, you'd better watch what you're doing and for goodness' sake NOTICE 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 like he wishes to efface himself utterly.  I didn't quite expect that, for he's no automaton, mouthpiece though he used to be in his role as the 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, I dare say."  Some pique in his tone causes my mind to leap at a guess - that he has been replaced, not just by another spokesman, but by an arrangement whereby 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 swinging back to reveal a greyness beyond, and a shuffling of distant interior lights.  I guess they are helmet lights from people crowded back toward a far wall.  I say, "Well, what do we make of this?" 

Abon Gnaa is wearing a sort of stuffed expression; Kusk looks overawed; Oreneg Vadon seems likewise subdued, which I would not have predicted from such a character, but I suppose I'd do well to forget my Terran identity for a moment and put myself in the place of any Uranian ground-dwelling citizen visiting this place of legend.  Really it's not surprising that they can't answer me.

I, meanwhile, make no move to advance.  The fact is, I have no wish to go enter this building.

"Wise, wise," rasps a voice, ironically applauding my hesitation.  I give what I hope is not too undignified a start and then I notice that a lean, stringy old man in a grey cloak has emerged from behind one of the pillars next to the great door. 

White hair, white eyes blazing, the fellow adds:  "I'm not going in there either."

I probe: "You don't like the look of it?"

"I want to keep the distance between them and me."

I say, "But they're your people, aren't they?  You are Noad Rael Odiram."

"Today," he nods, "I still am."

I say formally: "I, Sunnoad Nyav Yuhlm 80438, have come to you, Noad of Yr, to negotiate a peace between equals."

Straight after that last word equals has left my lips I briskly turn again to meet the eyes of Oreneg Vadon, to give him a don't worry, I know what I'm doing look which orders him to trust me and warns him not to imagine that I shall risk any derogation of the sunnoadex.

The barest flicker in the eyes of Yr's Noad meanwhile tells me that my choice of vocabulary has gratified him.  "As equals," I continue, seizing the moment, "we must speak aside, the two of us alone." 

Rael Odiram makes an acquiescent gesture, and indicates the square stone block from which the nearby pillar rises; space enough for two to sit and bargain. 

My companions watch as I go to join the Yrian at that plinth.  

We settle and eye one another, the Noad and I, in half-profile.

"Allow me to say it for you," I begin.  "You face the prospect of... being made to disappear."

Inexcusable utterance of the unsayable truth!  I literally see him grinding his teeth.  Even on Earth it can be a hard thing to say, a fearfully tactless observation to make to any ruler, that where no official mechanism of deposition exists, he must instead risk disappearance. 

Not so long ago on Earth, the German Kaiser and the Japanese tenno were revered and yet vulnerable to forcible removal by (in their case) the military: an unstated doom hung over the emperors, a doom which they must have realized would take effect if they failed to perform their roles successfully.  It had to be that way, where no other channel existed, either in theory or in imagination, for their replacement.  But at least on Earth the theory can change.  Politics can quite quickly evolve into laxer, less demanding forms. 

Not so on the seventh planet.  On Ooranye, even after eras have passed since a forcible disappearance, you don't ever even think of saying out loud what has 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, and then with satisfaction I see the realization dawn, an insight which allows me to say to him softly:

"Congratulations, Noad, you've worked out, I'm sure - having heard about me - that it's because I am not completely of this world, that I can speak what otherwise is never spoken; and also, that what I have said about the risk of your disappearance is likely to apply, even more strongly, to me."

He raises his eyebrows at that.

"Yes," say I, "to a remarkable degree, you and I are in the same situation."

"Continue," he says incisively.  "Finish it."

This is my chance; it's shaping how I want...  I put it bluntly, "You have suffered serious reverses.  You were overthrown by a faction that grounded your floating city, which has now been beaten in war, by a Syoomean force to whom you owe your restoration.  Very, very bad!  But what about me?  Estimate how dark it looks for me.  I am a new Sunnoad, duly elected by the dying voice of Brem Tormalla 80437, but I wear the golden cloak only because it is believed that an Earthmind may be quirky enough to beat the abnormal threat of Dempelath.  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 could be admonished by a Corrector.  Sunnoads have often been righted and saved by their Correctors."

"That is not always the case, and here it may not be enough," I reply.  "Imagine the demands that could arise when I and my forces are pitted against an evil from Fyaym.  If, as seems probably, I am simply not up to the task, it will mean that I shall prove to be..."


"You have said it."

An ironic smile forms on the face of the Noad of Yr.  "I must confess," he admits, "I have found it intriguing, the question of precisely what happens to rulers who disappear.  Let us hope," he brightly adds, "that neither of us discover the answer."

...The next stuff I hear is my own glib talk on a slide to success, a slide so rapid that the minutes slip by with no misunderstandings or wrong turns, as we arrange the terms of peace... 

It's done.  The verbal commitment is 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, which nobody in public will mention: the gulp down the nameless throat which impends for a grade-failing ruler on this world.

...Back with my followers, I rub a hand across my sweaty brow and say, "That's that done.  Rael Odiram will join my fleet when it is assembled for the voyage to Olhoav."

"He is really our ally?" asks Oreneg Vadon, in amazement.

"Officially, he will join the war effort as an Associated Power," I say with a trace of a grin.

"Huh!" mutters Abon Gnaa.  "I'm amazed - amazed."

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

No dismay or appallment, then.  Looks like I can go on.  The way I judge it, the situation here has reached the point at which I can and should bow out of the detail-mongering and delegate the immediate practicalities to others... 

Oops, just in time I warn myself to refrain from actually pronouncing the word "delegate".  It's the wrong word, for although in war a Sunnoad may lead, and hence presume to delegate tasks, when peace comes he is back to relying not on definable authority but on pure prestige; on -

Nudging.  That's it.  But what word shall I use for it? 

Rael himself is approaching to listen, and the now the four of them are waiting for me to say something.  I open my mouth, in the hope that what comes out will do the business. 

"I reckon that you three," I point, "would do well to stay here a while and form a temporary team to liaise with Noad Rael," I point again, "to minimise friction..."

It's come out in a mixture of Uranian and English!  Which words are in which language?  I can't remember a few seconds back! 

From the interpretation of fleeting looks I guess they're loving it all; apparently what I could term my 'Nudge Quotient' is high and I have a wild urge to chuckle this out loud but I sternly tell myself to relax.  Must maintain the dignity of my exalted position.  Though in a sense I feel it's actually way beyond dignity.  Or at any rate, beyond the consideration of it, although I'm considering it even while thinking this -

Shut up and concentrate!  Say something coherent!

"I leave you now," I say.  "I shall call the flagship to take me off the rim."  Whereupon, with a salute to my erstwhile companions and to the Noad, the four of them (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 saying I've jumped the first hurdle in my reign.

No trace of swagger, but a relaxed swing in my stride.  Yes, you'd better relax; Syoom doesn't need a twitchy Sunnoad.


I keep sliding into a mood of wonder, so that my muscular actions are left to themselves and my legs bear me like an automaton on my walk back along the avenue to Yr's rim.  Similarly without thinking, I make the call to the skyship.  Only a couple of minutes' wait and then the great ovoid hovers close, its pickup ayash lifts me into it, and I step onto the floor of the hold.  The captain and several officers are present to greet me.  I respond graciously enough; yet I can hardly notice what I'm saying, because what seizes me now is the the double-take-to-end-all-double-takes.  It's a slap at the consciousness; it's the amazed delayed-reaction, "Has this actually happened to me?  Is that golden cloak really around my shoulders?" 

Fortunately, the blow to my mind is one which stuns my voice rather than raises it.  I remain so quiet, that the only sound from me which anyone might have heard, with an ear up close, would have been a whispery grunt: "huh?"

Perhaps because I let the moment drag, the captain takes it upon himself to ask: "Should we head back to Skyyon now, 80438?"

"Yes, do that," I say. 

His head inclines and his cloak sweeps as he turns.  His officers follow him, away to the ramp that leads to the control centre. 

I tag along at a distance, brooding as I ponder the dialogue, which was brief but  not so brief that I cannot extract from it an important point to do with what they aren't saying.  They are letting me go where I will, without any further ceremony, with no obsequious offers of more lavish quarters to occupy on this vessel.  They know I shouldn't be hemmed in by ceremonial or luxury; no posh stateroom for a Sunnoad, who is beyond such things.  So far, so good.  Nevertheless -

I'd like to know the reason for being tersely addressed as "80438".  Ah, patience!  Curb that hunger for understanding!  I can hardly expect - despite my considerable experience with Brem Tormalla 80437 - to master all the nuances in the various forms of address which are used towards a Sunnoad.  Not yet anyway; perhaps never.  A route to attain certainty may exist, but the price could be too high.  For instance: I might get to it if I were to let go of my Terran consciousness altogether, in a final submergence, a permanent surrender to my Uranian personality; that would doubtless banish my perplexities forever - but I shrink from the cost of that step.  I prefer to retain the perspective of Earth, rather than abandon it. 

I moreover strongly doubt that the people of Syoom would approve if I did abandon it.  If they were consulted on the matter they'd surely be unwilling for me to abandon the eccentric Terran viewpoint which, they seem to hope, is what will defend them against the even weirder enemy brewing trouble on Starside.

Here we come to the biggest question of all.

What sort of enemy?

So much silence on this issue...  the fighting strength of Syoom is almost squashed into inaction by the heavy blanket of silence.

...On what seems a whim, while I amble 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 is, it's because I've remembered that I wish to avoid arriving at Skyyon at the wrong time of day.  The evening would not be a good idea. 

"I prefer," I say, "to go to Melikon first." 

"I'll see to it, 80438," says the officer smartly, and turns round.  That was all.  No explanation necessary. 

No doubt he will tell the Captain first thing and my nudge will prevail without any trouble.  It was the right thing to do: of course a Sunnoad must not spend the night in Skyyon.  It's a strong taboo.  So strong, that I should not be surprised if to flout it were sufficient grounds to activate the procedure I must strive above all to avoid: the unrecordable, wordless disappearance-procedure.

Ever since Tu Rim 78860 tried, way back before the current era, 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.  Or to put it another way, a Sunnoad of the current era would disdain to sleep in Skyyon, it being a matter of pride to distance oneself symbolically in this manner from the example of Tu Rim.  

Instead of a berth in the Zairm, the palace at Skyyon, we Sunnoads have been allotted a "hut" at Melikon, ninety miles away, for our use whenever we need to lodge closer than a half-hour's fast skim to Syoom's polar hub.

I bet they'll be relieved that I remembered.  How embarrassing it would have been if they had had to remind me!  Though no doubt a good Sunnoad may get good at brushing off embarrassments.  If it's done stylishly, it may even redound to one's reputation.  Be that as it may, that officer, I think, approved of the way I expressed myself.  I framed my request as the statement of a preference... and that's the right way for an apprentice nudger to improve. 

It's important not to get lazy and take for granted the love which the people of Syoom bear towards the office I hold, a love which means I need only ask in order to get the help I want.  I can bask in that love's radiation, and yet my skill ought to lie in taking good care of it, in making requests in the right style and for the right things.  For the love exerts pressure.  It creates a challenge.  I must live up to expectation: all is upon me, and the guidance of my predecessors can never be the whole story; I must discover my own.

...I gently notice that my Terran awareness has segued past some stretches of time.  I have awoken from a considerable doze.  This, here, is no longer the skyship.  I gaze about me.  I've been in the "hut" at Melikon for a while, as I can tell from the glowing date on a blue clockface.  It says "10,545,958 Ac" - six days since my accession.  Questions pop at me: what has filled the time?  What, in particular, have I been doing?

A rummage in a clutter of snippety memories gives me the answer that I haven't been doing anything much.  I certainly don't feel I'm in the middle of any action at this particular moment.  Perhaps, then, it's just been a time of taking stock...

I've felt gratifyingly at home in this lodgement.  "Hut" is a misleading term.  True, from outside the house is sort of hut-shaped, but inside, for a solitary person's needs, it amounts to a comfortable dwelling, spotlessly maintained by silent robot cleaners, hand-sized and pad-shaped, that move at snail's pace over the floor, walls, furniture; one constant cleaner to each room. 

Custom decrees that the Sunnoad lives here alone, but, lest one feel overwhelmed with isolation, the place is lavishly provided with communication equipment.  I have direct radio and video links with Skyyon, and some indirect (relayed) links with further cities. 

I have used some of these links.  So far, the results have been mildly disappointing.  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 sounded cagey, though respectful.  Was it unrealistic of me to expect that I might obtain a starting picture from this central but lonely vantage?  Perhaps things don't work that way on this planet.  You maybe have to go out and plunge.  The answers can only be pursued and caught in waves of events.  I had better pack up and go fairly soon.  It has been a restful few days.  To familiarise myself with Melikon was a reasonable way of spending the past few days, so long as I don't start to act like I am on holiday...

To have had this short time can be justified, most of all, in that I have been able, imaginatively, to commune with my predecessors while I browse in the hut's mellow-litten library among the notes left by numerous previous wearers of the golden cloak.  Admittedly, none of the memoirs can tell me exactly what to do.  Nor do they say what will happen if I don't do the right thing: what happens to "make disappear" those Sunnoads who turn out not to be good enough for their role.  Nevertheless the voices from the past cheer me on.  They distantly waft their comfort and support, and I, in gratitude to their example, must ready myself for the risks.  

Perhaps if it does so happen that I do fall short, might I at least ask Fate to permit me to cause myself to disappear?

No, it's probably best not to think of failure at all.  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 or, at any rate, pose his stance, before he takes the plunge.

Wait, what's that I see through the window?  A slabby metal crawler has slid into view.  Has some event washed athwart me already?  Have I delayed too long? 

It looks as though my isolation is over.  Yet nobody ought to be at Melikon except me, except by my express word.  The privacy of the hut is regarded as a Sunnoad's due.  Who, then, has driven this object here?  Find out!  To hesitate would be beneath me.  Go out and investigate.  Now.

Even as I move to the door the notion rat-a-tat-tats in my head that this may be the second big example I meet of things going wrong in Syoom.  That's to say, it could be the second major shot at me in the barrage of weirdness which - it is widely sensed - is being directed by Dempelath from Starside.  The first shot was the grounding of Yr; could the next one be this invasion of my sanctum with a view to... assassination? 

Or could the reason for the assassination be nothing to do with Dempelath but rather a manifestation of that older, traditional-style trend, whereby a Sunnoad who doesn't fit the picture is wiped off it?  In other words, could this be the occasion of my quiet disappearance, as an Earthmind unsuited to the sunnoadex?

I open the hut door, I step out, ignoring the alarm bells of cowardice which keep shrilling their specious advice, "Get protection first!  People know that things are changing; so they'd understand you'd be within your rights to hire a corps of adjutants/guards, eh? - before risking your person like this, eh?"  I shut off those thoughts: I can recognize excessively Terran thinking on my part.  All right, Syoom is doubtless suffering corrupting influences right now, but the political dynamics of Ooranye are not those of Earth, and may heaven forbid that they ever shall be.  The impulse which directs me is the proper one for this world: I walk straight at the intruder, halt in front of the vehicle's bow window, and stand tall with my golden cloak flapping about me.  I must give the event the benefit of the doubt. 

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

These folk aren't assassins!  I step back and make an affable gesture, as if to say, come out and talk. 

The port bow-door swings open and the man descends to the ground.  He's a bit short for a Uranian; his stunted smile is frozen; he struggles for words while pushing aside a lopsided mop of hair.  Nervous backgrounder is written all over him.  Backgrounder a-tremble before the Noad of Noads. 

I say dryly, "Welcome to Melikon."

The way he straightens and pulls himself together wins me an insight with a "heat pump" metaphor.  It's thermal transfer in a social sense: two-way, with mutual gain.  The gulf between my rank and his is as wide as can be, yet nowhere approaches arrogance on one side or servility on the other.  Instead, the disparity pumps power, cost-free power into us both.  And he feels it as I do!  His eyes brighten at 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, referring to the way his vehicle, a xebbalsh or plains-paddler, lies heavy on the gralm

To me it resembles a beached steely-blue submarine (albeit with no conning tower), forty yards from bow to stern.  It must hold ample capacity for provisions, cargo and living space.  On their endless transects of Syoom, xebbalsharou have no fixed abode, but their mobile homes fulfil 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 words explain his intrusion and constitute an implied apology while allowing the conversation to continue without rebuke, should I so wish - and I do. 

I take a side-step and gesture at the face of the woman at the window, waving at her to come out and join us.  She does so immediately, and comes to stand by her man, taking his hand in hers.  They are quite similar in looks, as though the xebbalshar over the aeons have evolved a definite racial type. 

"You are...?"

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

"That seems to work both ways," I smile.  Hesitantly, they smile too.  Next, 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.  I instantly understand from the youngsters' grave expressions, what a mistake it would be for me to "unbend" to them in the slightest, for they are keen above all to drink the dignity of the occasion.  Of course their gravity is merely assumed - an edifice of outward stiffness with fizz in its pipes - but it's not for me to knock it down.

"Since you're here," I continue, "I shall ask you to do something for me."

My next move is unheard-of: I turn, beckoning the pair to follow, and lead the way into the Sunnoad's Hut!  I can hardly believe what I'm doing; and perhaps neither can they.  Eyes lowered at first, they follow, but when I wave the man and woman to swivel chairs in my workroom, they cannot help but gawp.

Their chairs are each placed by one of the four walls; I take a chair for myself and in stunned co-operation they swivel theirs to face mine. As for the children, they stand by their parents' chairs, while their eyes raptly wander.

The pump, the rank-difference-pump, is operating at full tilt, stoking a sort of alternating current of vitality up and down, up and down this vertical meeting of the "highest" and the "lowest", energizing us mutually.

"Yes," my thought continues aloud, "you may be able to help me, but first - do you know my name?"

The man Gureem, looking more puzzled than the woman, says: "Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437." 

Ehiv jogs him with her elbow...

"Ehiv seems to know," I smile crookedly. 

In a small voice she says, "I saw his picture once.  He is dead?" she half-asks.

"Brem Tormalla is dead, and I am Sunnoad Nyav Yuhlm 80438, otherwise known as Yadon." 

Gureem's mouth goes excitedly wide.  "Yadon the slayer of Zyperan!" he cries hoarsely aside to his wife - and then looks aghast.

"Reputed half alien," I nod firmly.

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

"They are true," I say.  "So my reign, if it lasts, may prove to be a race between the upside and the downside of that truth."

"Downside?" whispers Gureem.

His wife, however, grasps the point at once. 

"Sponndar," says Ehiv, "we are all uncomprehending of much that happens even in Syoom, let alone Fyaym, and if you, Sunnoad 80438, get help from your Terran mind-stretch, then, good, I say!  The stretchier the better; we're the last to deny it!"

I laugh in appreciation.  "Like you xebbalsharou, I've travelled thousands of miles, accumulating plentiful bogglings and stupefactions."

The mood is softening.  I can sense the opening buds of friendliness, we are so well-matched as wanderers. 

...Strings of purely pleasant moments...  Exchanges of anecdotes in which Gareem for the most part gets into an easy style of talk...  Apart from his little tics of astonishment when he not only realizes but really realizes where he is, we get along without strain as our reminiscences spill and overlap in an intervolved recitative of globe-trotters' tales.  His wife meanwhile stays uninterruptedly calm, 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 this helps me to see why, during the past few days, I have not yet made a serious attempt to contact my fellow-Cinctees.  The short answer is, I have been waiting for this.  This get-together is the main reason why I chose to rest here in my hut rather than immediately go patrolling with my fleet.  As for why - that I don't yet know.  But that's because I haven't yet introduced my request.

I heave a sigh.  It's time to get "down to business" - now that this couple aren't any longer overawed by the sight of me.

"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.  People like you are most likely to know."

"Know?" whispers Gareen.

"About the corruptions wafting into Syoom."

Yes, he knows.  He is nodding.  Naturally he doesn't like to say it.

I continue:  "You've heard, I suppose, of our enemy Dempelath?"

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

"He, without a doubt," say I, "is concocting for us some nasty brew.  You have heard of the recent grounding of Yr?  That problem is solved, but more such are surely on the way as we speak.  I need to be informed about them, preferably before they sprout into full-blown crises.  You xebbalsharou as a class are the best on-the-ground observers and listeners in Syoom.  If you, in your judgement, have heard news of any off-putting stuff of which I should be told, say so and give me a starting-point for my action today."

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

"What about Narar?"  I know something of the ancient history of that great city, but not anything recent about it.

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

I almost don't get it.  Then my heart misses a beat.  A hereditary noadex!

"Like something out of the Vanadium Era!"

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

"Well, well," I say, and give a low whistle.  "I need look no further for my next target."

No doubt at all about the style, the Dempelath-type flouting of taboo, if the Nararans really are defying the profound Uranian antipathy to hereditary government - !

"I'm very grateful that you told me about this," I say.  "I shall now prepare to go to Narar." 


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

"Without too many wrong turnings, let's hope," I agree. 

To express my appreciation of their visit, I almost cap his "infinite paths" phrase with some epigram on how nothing's so infinite as a conversation; however I'd better not clog the wave and spoil the fragile prize we've won.  All sorts of things may go wrong if they think I'm hinting I want more conversation right now. 

A better phrase comes to mind:

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

Hits the right note!  They're smiling!  My quick rummage in heaps of knowledge has turned up for my use that fact that a xebbalsh, or plains-paddling vehicle, has a big flap, a horizontally hinged door on its side, which swings down to form a ramp for the loading and off-loading of cargo.  I've thus said, in effect, "May you find a good place in which to stop and trade," and by my choice of idiom I've bidden farewell in proper style to this unblemished little encounter. 

Negativity sure has taken a fall; how heartily I can jeer at my former doubts!  Assassination, my eye!  My rank is a gleaming armour, a body-suit reflecting people's hopes right back in their faces, so that we part with mutual uplift.  All right, fate may not always be as kind as this, but I can reckon on some leeway between me and disaster as I go forth in life's battle, with the prestige of the sunnoadex as my shield, maybe not an invincible shield but strong enough that the Disappearers won't move against me lightly -

Ah, the xebbalsh begins to move off.  Underneath the hull, its sub-gralm paddles must be churning away.  I find myself staring at the wake they are forming, steadily revealed behind the departing vehicle.  I can just about detect the isostacy as the plain's grainy surface begins slowly to even up once more.  Within an hour or so it will be as level as before.  The thought brings a rush of melancholy. 

Oh come off it, Yadon, why feel lonely?  You're the Noad of Noads, and anyone in Syoom would be honoured to give you companionship whenever you want it.  But...  it must have been the family ties I saw that have made me wistful.  The children remind me of my own children, who, though adults now, are all the family I possess.  Yes, all right, I know very well why I cannot expect them to rush over to see me.  Pointless to complain, "If they'd dropped everything and skimmed in this direction they could have been here by now."  It's really not hard to understand (considering what I've become) that they might be nervous at the idea of meeting me, nervous, that is, at the look of things.  The strongest political taboo on this planet is against hereditary succession to power.  That's why Noads and Sunnoads have customarily distanced themselves from their families.

Alone once more, I gaze back at the hut.  That, too, wafts sorrow at me: Melikon is a lonely place for a good historical reason.  The hut's very existence is a reminder of how Sunnoad Tu Rim 78860 went wrong.  If it had not been for him, no hut would have been built here, because none would have been needed, and I could have slept in the Zairm, the Palace of Skyyon; could have slept in it unquestioned, as of right, as one sleeps at home.  It would in fact have been my home.  Now it's at my disposal only as an office... no overnight stays in Skyyon for any Sunnoad any more.

Enough moping: I have a plan!  Concentrate, man!  But my mood swings to and fro as though my inner eye were swivelling to follow the ball at a psychic tennis match.  First swing reminds me to appreciate the plan that I've formed, based on the couple's mention of the doings at Narar; second swing brings the worry, was I too rapt in thinking ahead, did I thus fail to thank them properly...? 

Ah no, they must have understood I was absorbed by what they themselves had told me; and that absorption's a compliment to the news they gave me.  So they were able to clear off successfully, their brush with 80438 locked safe in their memories.  Time now for me to act in that same positive, aquisitive spirit.

I return to the hut; scribble a paragraph in the log, and radio a message to my office in Skyyon, to fix up a skyship for my use in ten days' time.  I add, "That should give the fleet's organisers leeway to re-arrange their patrols without too much trouble."

The duty officer sounds a bit on edge, he's so eager to be helpful.  "Sunnoad Yadon, you can have a ship sooner than that.  You can have... let me see... the Lorodest today."

The style of his response is, in my view, not quite right.  It's one among many tiny indications that, the way things are going, in some ways I may be more Uranian than the Uranians. 

Tactfully does it...  "That would be efficient," I say.  "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.  Unless my route swerves, expect me in ten days."

"Taquotal, Sunnoad Yadon."

That's more like it, but before the sign-off I did definitely note a little wonkiness in the normal renl which governs, or should govern, public life on Ooranye.  Perhaps the fellow was just nervous at speaking to the Sunnoad, but even so he would not, in more normal times, have presumed to suggest a tightening of my schedule. 

Oh well, perhaps he was curious as to why I wanted a ship not now but in ten days' time.  Perhaps that - and not his reaction - was the peculiarity.

Come to that, why have I decided on this delay?  What am I going to do with these ten days?

Instead of persisting with that question, I go and mount my skimmer, and I'm off... yes indeed, more Uranian than the Uranians, I recline on the wave; here's to that side of life that still works well.  And the wave holds back its conclusions, but I know that the answer will appear, and so I trust to the wave.

At six yards' altitude I turn my bow, not towards distant Narar, but in the opposide direction.  The plain speeds below my keel; I gaze ahead with new keenness as the wind whistles past my skimmer's cowl; the wave of decision rewards me with a flow of vigour in my veins; I trust the wave, the mood, because "living in the moment" makes sense, as does not knowing how it will exactly work.  More than just a cheat like the dodge of the author whose viewpoint character conceals what he perfectly well knows, in order to preserve the reader's surprise until all the suspects are lined up and, after the summing up, pow, the punch is delivered - more than that, for in my case I really don't know.  Yet.

It's not my doing; not my fault that the wave works this way.