The Worm of Poleva
 
Prologue
 

     When Nature reclaims a ruin, crumbling it to an uninhabitable mound and overgrowing it with weeds, we can say that a formerly artificial object has become a natural feature of the landscape, so that Nature has won a battle by means of erosion.

     Occasionally, though, it can happen in a different way. 

     On the giant planet Ooranye there was one artificial structure so enormous that it could not be comprehended by any human economy.  It became an independent landscape feature.  That is to say, the culture that built it failed to assimilate it.  It was the architectural equivalent of an uncontrolled explosion.

     This was the Great Wall, older than recorded history, and never owned by any single power.

     Once in a while, when funds allowed, and other matters did not compete too strongly for the attention of the government, the city of Contahl achieved a temporary ascendancy over part of the length of the Great Wall.  Troops cleared its passages and rooms of Gedars, battling and driving the savage submen from their nests out into the plains of Fyaym beyond the Wall, and airships floated overhead, firing down to sweep these and other less humanoid foes from the Wall's wide summit.

     During most of Contahl's history its citizens have regarded the Great Wall not as an artifact but as something in the nature of a wild mountain range, no less perilous than the ocean of night which lay beyond it.  But during the occasional expansions of their control, their attitude to the awesome structure has changed.  It then begings to be seen as a possible defensive boundary.  Then, the city government remembers it has the right to occupy and garrison at least some of the ten-thousand-mile length of the Wall.

     This fortunate circumstance occurred during the reign of Noad Govasswa Hayt, in the middle of the Niobium Era, the forty-first era of civilization upon Ooranye.

     The Wall runs straight: an incongruous slash of order cutting through the chaotic borderlands of Fyaym.  On average six hundred yards high, and one hundred and sixty yards wide, it is porous with chambers, corridors and the ancient, pre-human luxury apartments adapted to comfort the modern exiles manning this rampart of civilization.  Along the often-jagged top runs a line of observation towers a little more than a mile apart.  They seem, and are, incongruous; their small addition of height hardly affects the vantage provided by the Wall itself.  Indeed they are not part of the original structure but were added by humans, in the course of an ancient power-struggle on the summit.

     A young wayfarer named Gengr Axtain had volunteered for service on the Wall.  Told that all the places in the garrison were taken up, he had nevertheless come to have a look around on his own.

     Leaving his skimmer parked on the plain, he approached the stairs set in the Wall's side.  He could see no one and nothing but the huge vertical structure itself and the contrasting flatness over which he had travelled, but he knew there were people nearby; people whose attention was fixed upon the Wall's further side.

     Confidently he began to climb, zigzagging upwards back and forth, till he came to an open door about fifty yards up, where he met his first members of the garrison.  One sponndar was standing with laser at the ready, and asked Gengr to give an account of himself.  The soldier then spoke into a transceiver, broadcasting Gengr's description, and waved him in.

     Gengr was surprised.  "You're not worried that I might be lying to you - that I might be a spy, an enemy?"

     Before the soldier could reply another voice spoke from further in; Gengr had been overheard by an officer seated writing at a desk.

     The officer turned and with a superior smile remarked, "Too much security is as dangerous as too little.  After all, what of the beings who built this huge thing?  Where are they now?"

     "You mean, they relied on the Wall too much.  But then, perhaps they were insufficiently vigilant," suggested Gengr, pointedly.

     "Well, we're vigilant enough.  If you turn out to be an enemy, you're welcome!  We'll thank you for the target practice."

     Gengr laughed, "I'll have to disappoint you there.  I'm just a citizen of Contahl, asking for a view from the top."

     He resumed his ascent.  No elevator shafts had been inserted into the structure of the Wall; it was like climbing a mountain.  Presumably, the pre-human Builders had not minded this; it was one possible clue as to their nature - they may have been winged beings, or, perhaps, controllers of gravity.

     Finally, after an interval spent in one of the garrison canteens, he reached the top floor and the last stair, and emerged onto the roof of the Wall.  He almost staggered with awe; he seemed to be standing on a cream-coloured road in the sky.  He was on one of the smooth and lengthy undamaged sections of the Wall.  Low battlemented parapets to either side were all that reminded him of the truth.  The observation towers were minor additions, hardly noticeable.

     A few sponndarou were in sight but he avoided them, wishing to commune with the vista alone.  He strode towards the far side, to look out over the sinister Fyayman plains, those outer immensities lapping against civilization.  Then he wandered back and gazed at the recently-pacified country on his own side, with its distantly-visible glowing fields and tended roads, stretching back five hundred miles to Contahl itself.

     It all added up to a vision which fired the nerves, and yet Gengr now knew that he was no longer interested in service on the Wall.  He would stride beyond....

     For the time being, this stretch of Wall has been won, he told himself.  And I know something of the expense; I've seen official figures quoted, and I can tell that Contahl hasn't the resources to keep it forever.  As for mounting operations in the land beyond - to extend our empire deeper into Fyaym - that would be a futile project, doomed to costly failure.

     He guessed that a few attempts would be made, and soon abandoned, defeated by the numbing infinity of the task.  Meanwhile he, Gengr Axtain, would enhance the empire in another fashion.

     Slowly he descended, enjoying his new sense of purpose.  He left the ancient Wall, his boots once more crunching the grainy gralm as he walked across to his skimmer; he mounted it and sped away in the direction of his city.

     He got home in two and a half hours, but it then took him as many days to obtain an audience with the Noad.  In view of the many duties devolving upon her as Head of a State that had just expanded to its natural frontier, Govasswa Hayt was an extremely busy woman.  Gengr knew this, yet he was simple-mindedly confident that soon he would become one of the matters she was busy with - and he was right in this; like many another simple man who has allowed an idea to get lodged in his head, he was too na´ve to fail.

     "Brrrmph.... I like your idea, young man," said Govasswa Hayt, pacing the audience chamber, her grey cloak swirling around her stocky frame.  "Not that I'm keen on the cost to the Treasury," she added sternly.  "But," she continued half to herself, "I can think of no excuse to turn it down...."  She swung round to face Gengr Axtain, who was patiently standing by, waiting for her inevitable verdict.  Her sharp glance swept his pleasant face, his easy stance, the deportment of one whose ambition burns steady and serene as a main-sequence sun.  She nodded, deciding.

     Noad in all three Uranian tongues means focus.  Govasswa Hayt was a middle-of-the-road Focus of her city.  She avoided both extremes of political style; she had not arelk (the rigidity of a despot) and nor was she a Fyffy, that legendary buffoon who (if the story can be believed) actually went around soliciting for votes.  And because she was instinctively in focus with the lines of political force, she voted in her mind for Gengr.  She was old, he was young; she a wily Head of State, he an innocent adventurer; but the patriotic flame burned equally brightly in both their souls.

     "Return to the palace in five days," she said, "and, barring emergencies, you shall have your authorization."

     No emergency intervened.  These being heady days for the Contahlans, a mood of heroic generosity infected the people's hearts; their pride swelled at the vast expenditure proposed.  Yes, let us send comfort to long-lost Poleva, although we shall never get anything in return for the fare, except for the glory of the deed.

     The name "Poleva" resounded with the glamour of past catastrophes.  While Contahl was a frontier city, close to the boundary between the light of Syoomean civilization and the darkness of Fyayman chaos, Poleva was in a different case, far beyond the frontier; an outpost lost in the actual midst of Fyaym.  Lost, that is, apart from one tenuous link - the matter-transmission Portal, one of the mighty works of the Phosphorus Era, the period when builders notoriously drew upon limitless supplies of energy by looting another dimension.

     No Uranian would dare try that game again, but the artifacts which were its legacy still endured, twenty-six eras later: notably the disc-on-stem cities, and the Portals.

     And just as the cities still lived, so, likewise, it was still possible to power the Portals.  If Contahl were to pay the price, it could flash a living body to Poleva, 18,000 miles distant, instantaneously attaining an objective that lies so deep in Fyaym, that no one tries to reach it overland.

     Gengr, and the government officials he talked to, thought the chances were good of finding people alive at the other end.  Records in the Contahlan vaults alleged that the Portal network had been used in the Phosphorus Era for quite significant movements of population, in what was perhaps a serious attempt to tame the vastness of Ooranye, webbing the globe in a grid of cities which was meant finally to bring about the triumph of Syoom over Fyaym.  That attempt had of course been doomed; the plan could never have succeeded: first of all because Ooranye was too big and four fifths of it was Fyaym; secondly, because right at the start of that Era the fire-power for the matter-transmitters had ceased to be free of charge on the cataclysmic Day of Reckoning when Chelth, the exploited dimension, had swiftly retaliated against the plunderers; and thirdly, with the destruction of the Great Fleet in the global nightmare which ran down the curtain upon the Era and all its glory, no one had any spare energy for aught but survival.  Whole populations thus found themselves stranded in the Fyayman wilds; but the backwash of history left some achievements in its wake: outposts such as Poleva, Olhoav, Nusun and Koar.

     On very rare occasions the Portals had been reanimated to keep in touch with the outposts.  No private individual was rich enough to activate the transmitters, but governments - when flush with resources - might send news, supplies, or even an emissary.

     The generous Contahlans approved their Noad's decision to transmit Gengr Axtain to Poleva. 

>>To obtain the rest of this story

 

[Return to top of this page]

[Return to front page]