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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
the Vlamanor-Yoon," remarked Hevad.
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.
said Miokk, "it's the Vlamanor-Yoon, but I don't see the
no crossing - there was no way Uxtal could scale a sixty-degree
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."
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."
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 -
have our puzzles. He mentally shrugged it off for the
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.
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
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.
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."
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
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
"Certainly," Gyan replied, "we'll be happy to stay on Uxtal
until we get rich or until Hevad yearns for city life again."
makes you think I might do that?" she demanded.
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
about," ventured Miokk Monray, "the Noad of Noads?"
studied his father's face to gauge the seriousness of this
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."
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?"
worry," said the girl quickly, "I'm sure he's just waiting for the
opportunity to make the Skyyonians sit up and listen."
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...."
talk about living in cities - even moving ones - to Father," advised
Gyan. "He's determined to keep away from them."
her speculate," Miokk intervened. "She's the cement we need,
between our life-styles."
marvelled Gyan. "Go on, pile on the flatter."
myxe has flowed too freely," reproved Zamena.
not," Hevad reassured her. "Maybe cement is a lucky
nickname, seeing as we are about to attack a wall. Er - do I hear
Monray said quietly, "Don't be sorry. We were simply uncertain as
to you much you understood."
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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