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 mind-boggling thing 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 right now to focus upon the negociation of a peace with Yr.  And do it well; live up to your station in life.  If you make a hash of this one you're finished as a human being.

Three companion-adventurers walk beside me down an avenue of the City of Mists; three who have been willingly drawn into the current of my service.  I did right, I think, to command their attendance for my opening move.  Certainly the guidance of Abon Gnaa, and the support of Oreneg Vadon, both of whom in any case would have wished to be here, are resources to be garnered, and as for the youngster, Kusk - well, "happening to be at hand" is typical in the gyre of a Sunnoad: millions of bystanders in this planet's long history must have been swept into the purposes of whomever is wearing the golden cloak, and you don't hear of complaints by those so swept.

These three, anyhow, seem quietly proud to be here with me, and I don't sense any critical dubiety on their part, any reproach for my apparent rashness in walking through Yr without a proper military escort.  If this adventure were on Earth my followers would surely regard me as madly irresponsible.  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?  He knows that the ruler whom he's taking us to meet cannot be trusted, yet he has no plan!"

Well, my "plan" is (as it were) to "budget" in advance for the fact that Noad Rael Odiram 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.  Proud as Lucifer by all accounts, 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 therefore 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: he does not class himself as a Syoomean, and won't admit allegiance to the Noad of Noads.

To place myself in his 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 Noad Rael Odiram in person on his home ground.  Neither - admittedly - have I've detected any enthusiastic approval...  just matter-of-fact nods, respectful silences, expectant looks.

A subdued voice at my side, young Kusk remarks: "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, that the word was summed by the sight!  Abitger - it must have been shunted forth by the sight of the grey barrels, bristling up from roofs, and slanting between towers.  Abitger: compressed-air cannon.  I suppose this shows that 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 clink along the avenue's metal surface; our eye-balls swivel this way and that.  We're doing our best to keep watch on the geometric jungle that lines the way.  What surprises us most is that the famous Mists, which gave the city its sobriquet, are no longer on the prowl.  They appear to have all subsided, carpeting a few of the city squares and side-streets with what look like faintly luminous layers of slowly bubbling mud.  With an attitude of mind that's one-hundred-per-cent-correct Uranian, my attention glides past, letting them be.  So long as they let us alone they can mystify all they like.

Kusk and Oreneg sometimes turn to glance behind them, but Abon Gnaa and myself look straight forward.  It's futile to worry about ambush, and my main concern is to be sure I don't want to miss any signal from the palace 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, to impress his own people.  My hope is 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, yes, that would fit the bill to perfection!  If only, 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's 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 like 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 - to reveal a greyness beyond.  I discern a shuffling of interior lights: distant helmet lights, I guess, 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 the place of any Syoomean visiting this place of legend. 

I make no move to advance - I've turned against the idea.

"Wise, wise," rasps a voice.

At this ironic approval of my hesitation, I give what I hope is not too undignified a start, 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:  "I was actually born in there and yet I'm keeping out of it too."

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

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

I say, "But they're your people, aren't they?"

"Today," he nods.  As if to say, that's all I can count on.

I say formally: "I, Sunnoad 80438, have come to you, Rael Odiram, 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.  Don't imagine - my look says - that I shall risk any derogation of the sunnoadex.  I know my rank but I'm not pulling it on the Noad of Yr.

Meanwhile it seems that my choice of vocabulary has gratified the ruler of the City of Mists.  "A peace," he repeats.  "As equals."

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

Rael Odiram, with an acquiescent gesture, indicates the square stone block from which the nearby pillar rises. 

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

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

Inexcusable utterance of the unsayable truth!  I literally see him grinding his teeth at my fearful tactlessness.  Even on Earth it can be a hard thing to say, 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, 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 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, and I encourage him with more 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," say I; "to a remarkable degree you and I are in the same 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; but 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 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 make terrific demands, as yet unimagineable demands on me and on any force I can raise.  If, as seems probably, I am simply not up to the task, it will mean that I shall prove to be..."

"Uncorrectable."

"You've said it, Noad Rael."

"I must confess," he admits, "I have found it intriguing, the question of precisely what happens to rulers who disappear.  I suppose we can only hope that neither of us discovers the answer."  With the ironic smile that forms on the face of the Noad of Yr, the desperate phase of the colloquy has, I see, come to an end, and it's going to be plainer sailing from now on.

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

It's done.  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, because, 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.

...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.

Well then, are we yet at war with Dempelath?  It's arguable, either way.  It doesn't yet look like an open war, though, if both sides are preparing for one, to me it looks like a war.

My little group here - including 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! 

Which words were in which tongue?  I can't remember a few seconds back!  But their eyes sparkle as they 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.

They nod 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, with a salute to my erstwhile companions and to the Noad, 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 an excuse to swagger but a means to keep up a swing in my stride.  Yes, better relax; Syoom doesn't need a twitchy Sunnoad.

2

I keep sliding into a mood of wonder, wherein my muscular actions are left to themselves.  My legs bear me like an automaton, back along the avenue to Yr's rim.  Similarly without thinking I make a 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 and step onto the floor of the hold. 

The captain and several officers are present.  I've graciously responded to their greetings, yet can hardly remember what I've said.  What seizes me now is the double-take-to-end-all-double-takes.  It's a slap at my consciousness, which flinches and wails, "Has this actually happened to me?  Is that golden cloak really around my shoulders?"  Fortunately the mental stun merely results in a momentary catch in my throat and a whispery grunt of amazement which nobody hears. 

The captain takes it upon himself to ask: "Should we head back to Skyyon now, 80438?"

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

The captain's head inclines and 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 at this first minute...  They are letting me be, they know I shouldn't be hemmed in by luxury or ceremonial; I've heard no mention of a posh stateroom - a Sunnoad ought to be beyond such things: so far, so good.  Nevertheless -

I reflect on how he addressed me: "80438".  Why such numeric terseness?  Ah, but I can hardly expect - despite my considerable experience with Brem Tormalla 80437 - to master all the nuances in the various forms of address, straightaway. 

A route to understanding, of this and much else, may exist, but the price could be too high.  For instance 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.  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 may, 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?

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

That, so I guess, is why Brem Tormalla chose me.  The idea is, "Since we Uranians are faced with the unmentionable, let the Terran pollute his lips when it becomes necessary to mention it."  Hmmm.....

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.  It was the right thing to do: of course a Sunnoad must not spend the night in Skyyon.  It's a taboo so strong, that to flout it might well be sufficient grounds to activate the unrecordable, wordless disappearance.

I, for my part, absolutely agree with the taboo and am proud to adhere to it.  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, and that's fine by me: we modern Sunnoads wholeheartedly accept the ban, it being our way of distancing ourselves from the shameful example of Tu Rim. 

Therefore instead of a berth in the Zairm, the palace at Skyyon, wearers of the golden cloak are content with being allotted a "hut" at Melikon, ninety miles away. 

That's where I must stay whenever I need to lodge closer than a half-hour's fast skim to the polar hub of Syoom.

I bet the crew are relieved that I remembered the rule!  How embarrassing it would have been if they had had to remind me - though no doubt a useful talent in this job is that of brushing off embarrassments; if I get stylish at that, it may even redound to my reputation...  Be that as it may, it's plain that the officer to whom I spoke approved of my words.

So far, so good, then.  I'm an apprentice nudger, determined not to get lazy and take for granted the love which the people of Syoom bear towards the office I hold.  This 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 not take it for granted, must take skilful care of it, making requests in the right style and for the right things; for love itself exerts pressure, the challenge to live up to its expectation: all is upon me, me, and the examples of precedent and the guidance of my predecessors can never amount to the whole story.

...Looks like my Terran awareness has segued past some stretches of time.  I have awoken from a considerable doze. 

I gaze around.  This, here, is no longer the skyship.  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 the 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. 

I've just now been 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, for a solitary person's needs, it amounts to fairly a comfortable dwelling, spotlessly maintained by silent robot cleaners.  One constant cleaner to each room, they're 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 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, as it were, 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...

"Recuperation" would be a better word.

Moreover my use of the time can be strongly justified in that I have been able, imaginatively, to commune with my predecessors.  I do this in the hut's mellow-litten library-room.  It's marvellous to browse among the notes left by numerous previous wearers of the golden cloak!  Not that such memoirs can tell me exactly what to do, nor do they say what will happen if I don't do the right thing: I can't derive formulae for what happens to make short-falling Sunnoads "disappear".  But the voices from the past do cheer me on.  From their varied distances they lob at me their messages of comfort and support.  

If the worst happens, I'll want to disappear. 

Still, it's best not to think at all of FAILURE.  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.  Seems, then, that I've delayed too long.  Rather than take the plunge, I have been pushed.  Nobody ought to be at Melikon except me, unless by my express permission.  The privacy of the hut is a Sunnoad's due.  It's 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.  And pay attention, as I move to the door, to the notion that rat-a-tat-tats in my head, that the second big example of wrongness during my watch over Syoom may be at hand.  The first one being the grounding of Yr - and here now I can see what could turn out to be the second major shot in the barrage of weirdness aimed at my reign: an invasion of my sanctum: a tradition-flouting trespass with a view to... assassination? 

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

This would mean that I have been flattering myself, that my Earthmind might be a contribution to Uranian history.  For, equally, one might argue that it made me 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!  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.  It brings a result: the port bow-door swings open; the man descends to the ground. 

He almost stumbles, cringingly a-tremble before the Noad of Noads.  His hand pushes at a mop of hair; he struggles vainly for words, perhaps trying to find 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 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, cargo 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 giving identity through contrast.

I wave at the face of the woman at the window, gesturing that she out and join us.  She obeys immediately, adopts her 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'm sure, neither can they.  Gaze lowered, they follow - 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 and in stunned co-operation they swivel theirs to face mine.  The children, staring around in rapture, stand by their parents.  That pump of rank-difference is operating at full tilt.  I can feel its vitalising effect, its alternating current up and down, up and down, drawing power from the vertical contrast of "highest" and "lowest", to energize us mutually.

Next, a relaxed utterance, and a question to get them over their speechlessness.

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

The man Gureem speaks through his astonishment: "Sunnoad Brem Tormalla 80437." 

His wife jogs him with her elbow...

I smile suggestively at Gureem.  "Ehiv seems to know.  Listen to her." 

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

"Correct," say I.  "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!" 

Immediately after he has let out this hoarse cry, he looks aghast.  I must devote my next move to encouragement.  

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

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, however, grasps the point at once. 

"Sponndar," says Ehiv, her face newly ashine with pleading hope, "we, your people, are all in the dark about much that happens, even in Syoom, let alone Fyaym.  If you, 80438, get help from your Terran mind-stretch, then I say the stretchier the better!"

I laugh in appreciation.  "Like you folk in your xebbalsh, I've travelled thousands of miles, and I confess to you that the plentiful bogglings and stupefactions we's so far accumulated are nothing to what we're going to have to put up with in the near future, if we don't nip our enemy in the bud.  Let me tell you..."  I talk about my wanderings before I became Sunnoad.  I encourage them to talk about theirs.  This opens the buds of friendliness further, and in the softening mood of our meeting Gareem's and Ehiv's tongues are loosened.  Our reminiscences spill and overlap in an intervolved recitative of globe-trotters' tales...  and in these strings of purely pleasant moments, I reckon that we really are well-matched as wanderers; I haven't just been jollying them.  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, I suppose, 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."

(So keep that brew metaphorical and vague... but we'll have to pinpoint the ingredients - )

"...The first ingredient of which," I continue, "was the recent grounding of Yr.  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!  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 but not anything recent about it.)

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 give a low whistle and say, "Like something out of the Vanadium Era!"

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

I shake my head in doleful amazement.  No doubt at all about the style of the event, the Dempelathian flouting of taboo.  If the Nararans really have defied the profound Uranian antipathy to hereditary government - !

"I'm grateful that you told me about this," 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.  Gareem says, "May fate's paths lead you to victory, 80438." 

"Without too many wrong turnings, let's hope," I dryly agree.  To cap that with something more appreciative, I add: "No path so rich as conversation."  However, all sorts of things may go wrong if these people get the notion that I now want yet more conversation with all its time-consuming paths, so I decide to end by politely reciprocating his good wishes.  A quick lore-rummage turns up the right phrase, based on the fact that a xebbalsh has a big horizontally hinged door on its side 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."  The idiom bids these folk farewell in proper style.

They're back in their vehicle.  Ah, 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!  My gleaming body-suit of exalted rank has allowed me to mirror these people's hopes right back in their faces, so that we're parting with the mutual uplift bestowed by our unblemished little encounter, demonstrating that I'm not a target but a 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 not an invincible shield.  But strong enough that Disappearance won't loom at every turn -

Gazing at the vehicle's wake, I can just about detect the isostacy of the plain, the grainy surface perceptibly beginning to even up once more as the xebbalsh recedes.  Within an hour or so the gralm will be level, without a trace 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 would be honoured to give you companionship.  You can have it whenever you want it. 

But...  It must have been the sight of those family ties, that have made me wistful.  Those children remind me of my own.  Tsritton and Idova Sganna, adults now, are all the family I possess, and they're a long way 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 say, "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 taboo on this planet against hereditary succession to power. 

Which is why the news from Narar must be such a shock to society.  Anything that looks likely to lead to that particular political sin is viewed severely.  No wonder that civilized rulers on this planet have, for many eras, distanced themselves from their families.

Alone once more, I gaze back at the hut.  That, too, wafts me some sorrow.  A sound reason exists for that: an excellent historical reason why Melikon should be 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.  Without the memory of Tu Rim's rise and fall I could have slept in the Zairm, the Palace of Skyyon.  I'd have slept in it unquestioned, as of right, for that palace would have been my ex officio home.  Now it's at my disposal only as an office... No overnight stays in the polar city for any Sunnoad any more.

Enough moping: I have a plan.  Concentrate, man!  Wellcome the plan's shine and shape. 

Yet my mood still swings to and fro as though my inner eye were swivelling to follow the ball at a psychic tennis match, the first swing telling me to appreciate the plan that I've formed (it's based on the couple's mention of the doings at Narar, and it seems to promise the possibility of a great success), but the second swing brings the worry (was I so rapt in all this brilliant thinking ahead that I failed to thank my visitors properly?  Ah no, if they noticed my absorption, they must have understood that it was a compliment to them: proof of the importance of what they'd told me, so that they were able to clear off bearing their successful brush with 80438 locked safe in their memories). 

I return to the hut.  I scribble a paragraph in the log.  I then radio a message to my office in Skyyon, to fix up a skyship 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.  At first, the duty-officer's responses had sounded not quite right.  A bit clumsy in style.  I sometimes wonder whether I may be getting more Uranian than the Uranians, the way I can sense a wonkiness in the renl which ought to govern public life on Ooranye.  But perhaps the fellow was just nervous at speaking to the Sunnoad. 

Still, 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 indeed my plan - and not his reaction to it - is itself the peculiarity.  For it's a valid question: what am I going to do with these ten days?

Rather than face that thought, I mount my skimmer, and I'm off...

More Uranian than the Uranians, yes indeed, with zeal I recline on the wave.  It's that side of life that still works well: no matter that "spilth" from Dempelath has begun to trickle into Syoom. 

I trust to the wave, while it, in typical style, holds back its conclusions; I trust to it, sure that the answer will appear.  A mere hunch suffices, therefore, for me to permit my vehicle's bow to turn, not towards distant Narar, but in the opposite direction. 

My decision rewards me with a flow of vigour in my veins while the plain speeds below my keel and the cool wind whistles past my skimmer's cowl, bracing me with its exhilarating reward for my trust in the wave, my trust the mood, my embrace of that form of "living in the moment" which makes sense on a world like this.  I don't worry at all about the detour I'm making.  I have no logical guarantee of how it will work: but postponed conclusions aren't a cheat; they beckon with promise.  Nor is it 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, and 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.

Admittedly not towards Narar, and yet, in the deepest sense, I am “on the way” to that city, since my route deviates for a purpose intended to serve my mission.  But how well am I reading and not garbling Destiny's script?  That's to say, How well am I managing to stay realistic in terms of how things actually work around here?  Ah, that's always the question, is it not?  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.  It's a town, an obscure surface-settlement.  The blocky buildings look typical 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 go round slowly, not to rush at them, not to scare them lest some trigger-happy watchman fail to note my golden cloak; whereas, as things are, I don't hesitate to go belting down their high-street. 

Waving back at those who see me - seems the townsfolk, despite their astonishment, have (thank goodness) the presence of mind to recognize the Sunnoad, and not to fumble as they catch the moment but to raise their arms in greeting - I speed through.  In less than a minute I'm out the other side, and don't even look back once.  I did what I did because I didn't want to stop, 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 yet: here's an outlying vheic-farm and 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 am bulleting on to leave all this habitation, and speeding once more into empty stretches of loneliness.  I expect I'll have more occasional encounters with scattered folk, more potential acquaintances if I chose to give them my individual attention, but 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 peak, mountain-high, of one of this planet's rare, giant trees. 

Plus, a dark line that stretches at its base: the forest of Namrol.

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

Yes, it's as well to remember that life can bite through the cushion of one's fate-wave even while one lolls on it... but right now that piece of cautious folk-wisdom hasn't made me stop, though I've decreased my speed to a hundred miles per hour.  If life does show its teeth, let them blunt themselves on me!  Now hang on, that's excessive bravado.  Time to focus seriously - the destination looms - let some Terran caution get a look-in! 

I'm actually faced with the old Terran parenting dilemma: how far to mould one's progeny in one's own image, 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? 

Children aren't belongings.  And there's no heredity in souls: fortunately, even back on Earth I didn't need to be told that.  On both worlds, therefore, 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 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. 

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, the moment has come, scarily.  On the approach to the immigrant settlement my Uranian guts were already churning in panicky need for that extra Terran edge and, on cue, when I saw my children, click! my Earth-self returned to 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.  Meanwhile in this village clearing in the forest of Namrol we are surrounded, at a few yards' distance, by witnesses from the population of (what's that humorous-sounding name for the settlement which I learned from the sentry just now?) Nu Galodabbab. 

Our eyes sparkle in the joy of reunion.  My awareness darts all over the place.  (I deconstruct this settlement's name: "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".)  Tsritton teases, "You don't seem crushed by the cares of office, Father.  Except..."

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

"Ah yes," says Tsritton, "we won't allow that issue to supervene..."

I don a crooked smile.  "Despite how busy I am, neither of you, I can see, are wondering at all wondering why I'm here."

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

"At any rate, not before you see fit to tell us," says her brother.  He glances around at the crowd of spectators.  "Of course, they're all trying to guess already.  But all we know is, it can't be anything to do with us."

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

"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, but it's an item in my armoury of shockers, which I intend quite soon to draw and fire..."

...Once more I jerk into awareness of an interval of days, passed and gone: 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 somewhat critical stance - because what I'm about to do seems highly irresponsible according to Terran criteria.

A sort of argument develops within me; I say "sort of" because it's too fast for conversation; it's more like a simultaneous clash of colours.  But the after-echo sorts itself into a dispute: "What, is the governor of a world intending to indulge in knight-errantry at a time of crisis?"  "Don't carp like that, Terran - this is is the way things are done on this world."  "Maybe, sometimes, but is today an occasion for it?  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; no one else; not 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 just a couple of companions?  A mere trio against an opposition not yet weighed?"

Cogent questions, admittedly.  No snappy answer arises out of the bedrock of my native wisdom. 

I'm evidently doing without an answer, so far.  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 I'd right now be feeling tugged by some ominous undertow of anxiety, whereas in fact I'm actually looking forward to a triumph...

Here's the moment of no return: our skimmer-prows tip up as the ayash takes hold, and we start to climb the invisible drive-way, 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.  And - 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 -

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 are 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.  "Pros and cons to that..."

Can't avoid consideration of the holes in history, the unmentioned, 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; their names and numbers stay on the reign-lists, but that's all.  I'm not even going to mention the issue to my nearest and dearest.  In fact, especially not to them.  But the hush-hush syndrome makes it hard not to wonder: what might be the first warning-signs 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!  Of course I say nothing...

"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: 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, on a world where everyone, or almost everyone, is svelte.  I choose to de-translate the sight so as to see her in the laxer Earthly way, in which the higher Uranian physical standards don't apply, and in that way I can even manage to find her quite attractive.

[revised to here 25.4.2024]

Unimportant, perhaps.  What's definitely far more important issue is the unmistakable facial resemblance between her and the earnest, gimlet-eyed young man who is accompanying her a bit further back and to her left.  While her other attendants are keeping out of earshot, this sharp-looking youth is 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.  He is the Noad's heir and her son.

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

Moreover the fact that it is happening right now makes it a blatant instance of that social decay, increasingly reported in varieties scattered over Syoom, which is silently and widely suspected to be a multi-form plague wafted hither from Fyaym; and whenever we think about it we are drawn to conclude that it surely originates from the malevolence of Dempelath, hybrid human/Ghepion tyrant of Olhoav. 

My duty 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.  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.  So am I not actually less qualified than anybody else on this planet to argue against the dynastic principle?

Well now, it's not quite like that.  Though in favour of kingliness, while on Earth, I was never very keen on transmitting it 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...

Yes but I've still got to do something about it HERE. 

I've got to, but I don't know how to.  No good just rebuking those responsible.  Telling people off is not how a Sunnoad works -

Here they come.  She stops at a distance of four yards and hails me.  She's welcoming me to Narar; and as she speaks she seems to overflow with some extra gratification over and above what is due to a visit from the Noad of Noads.  The reason is plain, from the way her glance flicks back and forth between me and my son and daughter.  For this dynastic Noad, it's gleeful confirmation that I've brought my family.

...Must admit they're good hosts, Noad Nwix and her son, Daon Ptem.  Not only am I enjoying being shown around their city, but my progeny likewise are having a good time.  Nwix is chatting with them while Ptem takes me aside.

The young Daon touches my arm to indicate he wishes me to look at some sight or other.  I direct my gaze where he's pointing: to a spindle-shaped colossus of dusty blue-grey, rising from a square, a block away.

"The Tarck," he says.  "You know it, Sunnoad Yadon."

In truth, I do, and he sees I do.  "By repute," I nod. 

"Even on Starside?"

I say, "Even so.  Though they're so remote from here, the people of Olhoav are keen to retain what they can of the history of Syoom.  That means we've all heard of the dungeons of Tyoar Ixx, though not surprisingly it's the first time I have seen the building with my own naked eyes.  Ah well, now I can cross it off my list of sights." But then, as I notice the jaw-sag of concentration on Ptem's face, I add in some some amused irritation: "It seems you're scrutinising my reaction."

"Sorry," he lets out an embarrassed chuckle, "I admit I was staring, Sunnoad Yadon, to watch, er, to see whether you would feel urged to step towards it, like there was a craze for doing, some while back."

"Oh?  I think I understand.  Some tourists, I expect, used to feel the need to prove that they're not scared of it, so they approached right up close; that's what you mean?"  Without waiting for an answer I continue: "That kind of thing doesn't last forever.  The place is quaint now, nothing more; it must have long lost its capacity for inspiring fear.  After all, it's a couple of dozen lifetimes now since the old tyrant fell."

I review my words as I speak them, for I do not wish to sound as though I am minimising the picturesque costume-evil image of Narar's notorious tyrant.  A mini Tu Rim, only worse, Tyoar Ixx was a throwback to the most blood-soaked days of the Vanadium Era, but fortunately he founded no lasting school of oppression.

The young Daon remarks reflectively: "I wonder how he got away with it."

"Don't sound so wistful," I say, but my easy laugh gets a sharp look in return.  I review my minor flippancy: have I been inurbane?  The tremor of doubt is very small, but I'd better apply some gloss of tact anyway.  "Still, it's a fair question: how did that Noad manage to maintain a tyranny of such awfulness in our advanced Era 89?  Anomalies do happen, and they naturally rouse one's curiosity." 

Silence from Ptem.  His look has become intense.  How odd; it's as though vast issues hang on my every word.  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...  Ignorance is bliss," I conclude with an English phrase.  

"True, very true," says Ptem.  Ah, he knows enough English, that fashionable, suave young man.  "Sensible dictum of the Terrans!  Ignorance is bliss.  And equally blissful is ignorance's cousin, superficial knowledge."

What he's driving at, I'm not yet aware, but I get the strong impression that he's either dangerously close to being too clever for me, or that he has actually attained that state.  In either case I had better not assume that he is unfit to be Daon, despite my purpose here being to combat the theme of hereditary rule.  Deeming it best not to try to play the game of arguing with him on his chosen ground, whatever that ground may be, I shall therefore mark out some ground of my own.

I make a rapid decision to continue in English.  He's probably well into the exotic fad which has spread like wildfire in Uranian society, and I can imagine he'll relish showing off his fluency.  In fact I can hope he'll be unable to resist the opportunity to match wits with the world's only "native speaker" of the lingo.  And since no one on Ooranye can possibly be as fluent in it as I am, the advantage will rest with me.

"I can play along with the view," I say, and I nod towards the tall, pinnate vanes which begin, about ten yards away, to flank the path to the Tarck, "that those signposts give quaint, cracked, antiquated voice to the commands I see inscribed upon them.  It's the way they allow the Tarck its patina of romantic horror.  Reminds me, in some respects, of what you get in touristy places on Earth: I've visited the dungeons of some old castles in England, and allowed myself - along with other sightseers - to be locked in, just for a few minutes, just to experience the de-fanged, second-hand thrill of that dark despair.  To pretend to know it."

"That fascinates me, Sunnoad Yadon," says Ptem; "yes, the basic idea is the same, I dare say.  But, as you have (I think) noticed, here the... induction procedure is a bit stronger."

"You mean the..." and a specialized term for alley pops from my mouth, "the Groor?"

Ptem gives a vigorous nod, "Precisely!  You spotted the Groor's teghestu.  Now if you will just step over," he waves at the alley of inscribed vanes, the encouragers, "and look at closer range..."

I see or rather, perhaps, my imagination constructs, some cartoonist's exaggeration on his face, whereby his features undergo a "vulpine stretch", meaningful as hell.  Such frustration for me, being unable to unwrap that parcel of meaning!  Thumped right on the mat of my consciousness, yet useless!  But that's what you get when you're living a story like this; a truth which I ought to have learned to recognize by now.  Well then, I recognize it forthwith, and thus the frustration is only momentary, swallowed up by a sense of a pleasant, cushiony ride on my fate-wave.  My position, after all, 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.  That should suit me fine; let teasy fate hold back its conclusions like an Agatha Christie detective reserving the shocks for his summing-up!  All that is required of me is that I stay sufficiently alert to receive the shock when it comes.  Then my move will be to make the best of it by some happy grasp of the moment; surely far better than the mangled mess I'd make of it all if my conscious mind were given longer to chew.  For in some ways I don't feel all that bright, in fact I fear that were it not for the cushiony wave I might DESERVE to fall into oblivion, plopping through one of the holes in history, certainly a better way out than having to live on in the spotlight of ignominious failure...

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

I wander, therefore, towards the Groor.  After a few steps I can say: this counts as being in it; for I've reached where the vanes line the path on either side.  They're shaped like fins, or right-angled triangular sails, about seven feet tall, and when I peer from close up I see that they're covered with decorative curlicues.  And that's all.  Nothing formidable here.

Yet in the reign of Tyoar Ixx this approach-slot was, I'm told, 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 - about how the thought-mirroring stuff which is usually employed in elections to the sunnoadex was scraped off the thuzolyrs and re-used on these teghestu vanes.

Clear as mud; in fact you can count yourself lucky, on this reticent planet, if you hear any attempt at a real explanation of anything. 

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 Uranian 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, as if I were some paleoecologist taking a core-sampler drill to the Greenland ice cap.  Part of the manner in which I lurch to and fro between a Uranian and a Terran habit of mind. 

Understandable; but the thought comes to me that I may have over-lurched this time.  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 was not the idea, why put temptation in somebody's way?  Somebody with an interest -

Ah, poor Ptem.  Poor kloop

Hey, that's a nasty word, a far worse insult even than "flunnd", which is bad enough!  "Flunnd", so experience has taught me, while it literally denotes a backgrounder who arrogates the status of a foregrounder, is far more often used merely as an expletive cuss-word.  Admittedly the offence deliberately caused by "flunnd" arises from the embarrassing link to its literal meaning - because, of course, one isn't supposed to mention out loud the categories of "foregrounder" and "backgrounder" at all - but "kloop" is so much more embarrassing that I've never once heard it spoken; it just lurks in the mind.  Kloop - so says my squirming thought - means someone who abuses the wave

That is what clever young Ptem is doing, as he urges me to wander further among the teghestu vanes in the alley of the Groor.

He knows - I get it all now - he knows, or senses, the real danger here.

Not what it used to be.  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.  The trouble is, since then, over millions of stagnant days during which the teghestu have had nothing to do, their poison has grown stronger.  The shapes on which my eyes are now fixed do not need to tempt me towards any building.  Instead, they are busily 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.  I, part-stranger on this world, feel like some teacher who has to keep order in the class by sheer personality with no sanction of any kind to back him up.  The fear of disgrace rears up like a wave that threatens to swamp me.  The only answer is that I must find an answer, and quick, for with an answer to wield I can shake off the mood that encloses me in this alley; can make the mind-trap dissolve like a bad dream.  (Perhaps the trap is for Ptem too, poor kloop, in which case the answer I'm seeking should extricate him as well as me, or perhaps his urge to shape the wave into "child succeeds parent in power" is too guiltily strong, in which case he cannot be saved; we'll see.)

I sight the answer.  My brain does not verbalize it, but pictures it as a smudgy humanoid nucleus amid a swathing white light.

I swivel on my boot-heel and with a snap in my stride I turn the situation around by means of a physical reversal of direction, backed up by the words:

"All this is very interesting, Ptem, but right now I have something to tell you and the Noad, because the right moment to do so has just become clear."

"In that case," the lad shrugs, "we must gather to hear you."  He adds as we walk, in a tone that is respectful enough but in words that could be considered pert, "I wish the thing that has happened were clear to me too, Sunnoad Yadon, as I am always keen to learn."

I chuckle, "The event that caused the clarity is my sudden awareness that the right moment was never going to come unless I made it come. - Here we are..."

Nwix Ezong, Noad of Narar, looks up at me, with a look of inquiry on her ample features.  My son and daughter likewise turn to acknowledge that I have re-joined their grouping.  I am full of confidence now.  Quite recovered from the psychic hang-over of the Groor, I am ready to speak the answer and pay its price for my deliverance.  (For a price must be paid, I know...)