1:  The Welcome

    The giant crawler Uxtal, with its hold of cargo and its nomadic family crew, was moving at five miles per hour over the cork-textured plain.

     The vehicle's fortified superstructure, ten yards above ground, swayed in the winds which blow eternally over the vast expanses of the giant planet, but the three figures standing on the top deck kept their balance with unconscious skill, as the powerful gusts frequently changed direction.  Father and son had been born on the plains, and the new daughter-in-law was likewise an experienced wayfarer.

     Miokk Monray was in the prime of middle age, about 12,300 Uranian days old.  His son Gyan, and Gyan's wife Hevad, were half his age.  Both father and son were lean and handsome, but the black-bearded Miokk had the deeper tan, the more confident jaw, the slower yet more decisive speech.  Gyan, clean-shaven, had more the look of a poet or philosopher, combined with speedier bursts of excited speech whenever his pent-up ideas gushed forth.  He was as brave as his father but with the kind of courage which Miokk would never need: that of the lone revolutionary, or perhaps the martyr.

     Unaware of this ideological time-bomb, Miokk fairly overflowed with pride as he contemplated how well the youngsters had followed in his footsteps or rather (in Hevad's case) in the footsteps of tradition, which required all young Uranians, whatever their station in life, to become adept at survival in the untameable wilderness.  He had had some doubts about how well the girl might fit in to her new family's mode of life, for he knew that she came from Linnt, and the big cities bred some stay-at-home types; nevertheless he had trusted that every Uranian, even the most urban, will at some time in nen's life become a Wayfarer, risking nen's life to feed data into the statistical maws of the cartographers of Syoom, and in Hevad's case his trust had turned out to be well-founded.

     She was a lithe, regal beauty with pale gold hair and a gentle manner, slightly reserved yet warm and friendly to all.  She seemed calm and capable, without the creative demons of discontent and personal ambition.  At this moment she had drawn a little to the side, watching the two men conversing after their long separation.

     Miokk was saying, "Just as well you didn't ask my opinion about that exploit earlier, Gyan.  I'd have said you'd never do it.  And yet here you are.  Seems we have a navigational genius in the family."

     "I thought I'd try to justify the time I'd spent studying the subject," Gyan grinned, undeniably pleased with himself.  He and Hevad had set out from Linnt during pmetn, the starry morning twilight; after skimming over two thousand miles they had sighted Uxtal almost on the stroke of ayshine, with the air at its brightest, conveniently revealing the giant Crawler from many miles off.  It was indeed a remarkable feat.  All he'd had to help him fix the position and direction of Uxtal was information ten days old, relayed from a passing merchant convoy.  (The ultra-slow Crawler carried no homing signal, lest it attract foe as well as friend.  For similar safety reasons, ordinary radio was used sparingly out on the plains.)

     In other words without any up-to-date communications link Gyan had navigated successfully to a rendezvous with a moving target after a ten-hour journey by skimmer.  Impressed by this, Miokk felt naturally encouraged to involve his son more closely in the family business: he began discussing the state of affairs, summarising the items of cargo currently in Uxtal's hold (dried meats, seeds and nuts, rare weeds and some Tungsten Era glass books), and listing the towns and cities to which they were destined.  Finally he got round to a more immediate topic.  "I'm particularly glad to have you back with us, Gyan, not only because of the splendid recruit you have brought us" (with a bow to Hevad) "but also due to that," and he jerked his head in the direction of a thin line stretching across the forward-left horizon.

     They all gazed at the structure, towards which Uxtal was crawling on an oblique course.  An embankment without visible end, receding in both directions till it vanished in the distance, its nature was not in doubt - it had to be part of the ancient monoline rail network of Syoom.

     "Must be the Vlamanor-Yoon," remarked Hevad.

     The mighty Zinc Era network had left Syoom criss-crossed with embankments, on which the empty rails still ran, seemingly immune to the ravages of Time.  Every few thousand miles, wayfarers were apt to find it necessary to cross one of these artificial ridges.  On well-frequented routes this did not matter at all, but grim experience had taught that any stretch of embankment which had not been visited for a thousand days or so ought to be approached gingerly, preferably first by scouts who peer carefully over the rim.  The more lasers one had on one's side when contemplating such a crossing, the better.

     "Yes," said Miokk, "it's the Vlamanor-Yoon, but I don't see the ramp."

     No ramp, no crossing - there was no way Uxtal could scale a sixty-degree slope.

     He took a telescope from his cloak-pouch.  "Still don't see it....  We'll scout for it this evening.  We can decide after supper, whether to go left or right."

     Hevad then astonished her father-in-law by pointing straight up into the air with the index finger of her right hand, saying, "Maybe his girlfriend," and she tossed her head at Gyan, "will tell us which way to go."

     Miokk blinked, so baffled that he automatically held back from showing his ignorance of her meaning.  Obviously the word "girlfriend" could not possess its ordinary significance here; Hevad had not spoken with resentment, and besides, there was that vertical finger -

     We all have our puzzles.  He mentally shrugged it off for the moment.

     Dinner that day was held in what Miokk grandiloquently called the "stateroom" of Uxtal.  Six yards by eight, and lit by spherical corner lamps, it was the Monray family's little haven of luxury within a structure forever on the move.  The shutters had been thrown back from the windows, and the vehicle's side-mirrors had been extended, so that the view ahead, including the rapidly approaching monorail embankment, remained at all times visible to the diners.  The family would soon face the challenge of that crossing.

     Miokk Monray did not seriously consider any other option; Uranian culture and etiquette strongly favoured the meeting of challenges.  The good of Syoom, the very definition of civilization required, generally speaking, that those on the spot should venture forward, daring to become another statistic in the eternal compilation of losses and gains, deaths and survivals, without which the cartographers of Ooranye could not do their work.

     The experience of many eras, of hundreds of millions of days, had shown that no other outlook was viable on this strange, enormous world, home not only to Man but to rival intelligences and the perpetual haze of distance and mystery.  None but the statistical approach - percentages of safe arrivals, drafted onto maps as safety contours - might quantify the unknowable, giving Man a chance.

     The other way would have been to try to understand the world.  Miokk knew enough history to realize that, from time to time, this other way had been tried.  Success, though, was too dearly bought: a man who understood Ooranye was likely to be made more vulnerable by his understanding - "if you get wise to the world, the world will get wise to you."

     So, untroubled by the danger they would face at close of day, the Monray family chatted happily over their bowls, crunching meat-crusts and sipping fiery liquor from the orchards of Ierax.  Zamena, wife of Miokk, presided as hostess while the two younger children, Plenndwa and Traru, who had helped her set out the banquet with artistic care, now sat listening to their elders' plans.  The children had decided to adore Hevad, delighted with her willingness to share their nomadic life.

     "Of course," Miokk had said to the newlyweds, "you will wish to purchase your own vehicle as soon as you can, but meanwhile there's room for you on Uxtal."

     "Certainly," Gyan replied, "we'll be happy to stay on Uxtal until we get rich or until Hevad yearns for city life again."

     "What makes you think I might do that?" she demanded.

     "It's in your blood," said Gyan.  "And maybe a bit of it in my head too.  I've talked to Father about this before.  He has heard me say, that I will someday take service under Ierax's Noad, or maybe Linnt's Noad."

     "And how about," ventured Miokk Monray, "the Noad of Noads?"

     Gyan studied his father's face to gauge the seriousness of this remark.

     "Yes, in fact I did go to Skyyon some few hundred days ago.  To tell the truth - " he gave an uneasy laugh - "I felt so small there....  hopelessly trying to make my mark against all that history."

     "That's not how it's supposed to work," chided the older man in an amused tone.  To Hevad he remarked, "Your husband is not usually as humble as this; is he in need of medical attention?"

     "Don't worry," said the girl quickly, "I'm sure he's just waiting for the opportunity to make the Skyyonians sit up and listen."

     Zamena was relieved at the general laugh which followed these words, as she doubted the wisdom of teasing her boy as Miokk had done: she was apt to fear that one day Gyan really would shoot off with the intention of measuring himself in some dramatic and disastrous way against the world.  She now pinned her hopes on Hevad's common sense, to curb the young man's restlessness.  Thank goodness the girl seemed pleased enough with her new home.  The talk had turned to Uxtal.  "....I like this slow, comfortable crawl," Hevad was saying; "you've got all the advantages of wayfaring, of a change of scene, plus those of a solid home.  I wouldn't want to live in a house that moved any faster, but five miles per hour is just right for me.  And the engine's so powerful, just think - you could add rooms here and there; you could enlarge a lot and the thing would still go.  In fact you could get more engines and end up with a moving city...."

     "Don't talk about living in cities - even moving ones - to Father," advised Gyan.  "He's determined to keep away from them."

     "No, let her speculate," Miokk intervened.  "She's the cement we need, between our life-styles."

     "Cement!" marvelled Gyan.  "Go on, pile on the flatter."

     "The myxe has flowed too freely," reproved Zamena.

     "Maybe not," Hevad reassured her.  "Maybe cement is a lucky nickname, seeing as we are about to attack a wall.  Er - do I hear silence?"

     Miokk Monray said quietly, "Don't be sorry.  We were simply uncertain as to you much you understood."

     She smiled.  She was not surprised; she had expected them to doubt her at first.  "City-dwellers know how to share risks," she assured them, "same as you people."

     The celebratory meal drew to a successful close.  Miokk ended it with a formal little welcoming speech for the new family member.  It had slipped his mind that he had meant to ask her the meaning of her cryptic allusion to Gyan's up-in-the-sky "girlfriend".  When he could, he would catch her alone, and put the question privately.

    However, in the hours that followed, other matters absorbed his attention.


2:  Battle at the Crossing


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