The Worm of Poleva
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"You mean, they relied on the Wall
too much. But then, perhaps they were insufficiently vigilant,"
suggested Gengr, pointedly.
vigilant enough. If you
turn out to be an enemy, you're welcome! We'll thank you for the
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
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
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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