A Tale of Ung
Queen Udi, Queen of Ung
This all began when one day Udi said, "Why don’t we go to Psebol for a week or two? I think a holiday will do us good."
"I’d love to go to Psebol," I agreed, "but don’t let’s go with hullabaloo and hoopla. Let’s just pretend that we’re a normal couple."
"If that’s what you prefer, of course, we’ll do it so. After all, I tell them what to do, they don’t tell me." She was referring to the throngs of courtiers, servitors and guests that always surrounded us at Eldor Palace.
"Let’s just pack a couple shoulder bags and ride the train incognito, just the two of us. Remember how we were before the revolution?" I continued. The revolution in Qazudistan had engrossed our energy and our attention nearly two long years. Now that a peace had been concluded and we’d been back some months in the capital, Mecnita, apparently Udi felt we’d earned a short vacation.
"Let’s!" she said, "Can you be ready in half an hour?" Of course, she meant half an Ungi hour, which amounts to an hour and a quarter on an earthly clock.
We were sitting in the sunny breakfast nook in Udi’s apartment in the palace. We had finished eating pancakes—she’d had blueberry and I’d had chocolate—and we were drinking ‘tuco’. Tuco is a rubiaceous beverage, Ung’s supercoffee, that has been developed by the kingdom’s botanists in their deep knowledge of genetics.
"Easily," said I, in answer to Queen Udi’s question, and I began to rise.
"Come to my office when you’re ready."
I did as she instructed, appearing presently upon the threshold of her office door. She was seated at her desk already, among the mounds of letters, documents and journals always heaped there, going over some last-minute business before we left. Her largish totebag of russet morocco was piled on her gold and satin boudoir chair. She was wearing casual attire, a summer dress with little yellow flowers and a scarf of white silk crepe, knotted on the left side of her slender neck of golden brown. Her wheaten hair was in an upsweep.
She rose, approached the chair and tossed her bag across her shoulder. A minute later we were off. We descended in Udi’s private elevator to the train stop in the subway of the palace. There, a so-called ‘golden comet’ was just coming to a stop. The doors slid open noiselessly, we boarded, the doors slid closed again and the train began to roll. Forgsha Station was so near us that the train had scarcely time to reach the speed—above 200 miles an hour—that is normal on the long runs.
Once in Forgsha Station, we walked to a reservation window to request a compartment on the Psebol train scheduled to depart anon. Passenger service on cross-country golden comets is completely free of charge—so great is the economy of Ung—but it’s still wisest to reserve, especially if it’s a compartment that you want. Soon we were boarding one of the long, sleek, splendid cars like bars of gold coupled as the segments in the body of a gorgeous dragon, and forthwith we found our room, wallpapered in cerulean, with black velvet seats embroidered with gold sunbursts. A mini-refrigerator and a microwave were among the furnishings, and I would judge the temperature of the compartment at 80, more or less, to speak in earthly figures. We Nyatics like it warm.
Udi seated her fine figure on the seat where she’d ride backwards—she always does—and I sat facing her. The train began its spirited advance. We would go northwest. The city of Mecnita is a square, 100 by 100 miles, and so from Forgsha Station to the northwest corner of the city, some 70 miles, it takes a golden comet fully 20 minutes. But what a ride! The monuments and towers, domes and malls, edifices, palaces and spires, the parks and sanctuaries, flowering groves and blooming gardens—it just bowls you over!
Then we entered the suburban sprawl, screaming through the nearby towns of Semuctorn, Andalut and Joprinx, at last arriving in New Ozgingd, where a bridge of stainless steel trusses spans the Umzid River. The Umzid’s fifteen miles wide when it flows by Mecnita. The train slowed down a little as we ascended on the upside of the parabolic arc the bridge describes flying high enough to let the kingdom’s tallest ships by. In minutes, we were racing landward on the downside of the bridge, hurtling into Transumzidia. Soon we’d be in the thick of Glozbanc Forest, whose towering conifers, thousand-foot old larch and cedars, are the pride of Ung. The forest stretches from the foothills of the Mairozufs almost to Mecnita.
The distance from Mecnita all the way to Psebol is 5316 miles, which we’d cover in somewhat less than one full day, but, of course, our day is 25 earth-hours. I’d been looking forward eagerly to this visit we’d been promising ourselves. I’d long wanted to tour Psebol, the great metropolis of Ung’s vast wheatlands. South of the city lay the immensities of Psebol Field, 1500 miles long, 1000 miles wide, a million and a half square miles. This land had been reclaimed from desert by King Zhwem 150 years before. The project was completed in the year 103,240—we usually just say ’240. Now the field produced a bumper crop of wheat, 2000 tons or more to the square mile, twice the yield of all the other fields. Of course, Psebol gets a good amount of sunshine, over 700 langleys every day throughout the growing season. Our special species, Triticum ungicum, or Ungian wheat, another source of pride to the kingdom’s botanists, thrives on sunshine from our sun, whose name is Dyo. Dyo is a yellow dwarf in Ti, the local galaxy, some megaparsecs from the earth. But it takes a plentiful supply of water too, and this supply of water flows in the Quanz Canal from the boilers and the wells thronging on our northern littoral. Two hundred nuclear boilers and two hundred geothermal wells combine in the desalination of 600 cubic miles of seawater every year. The Quanz Canal conveys the water from the Northern Ocean 1000 miles to Muzgwarf Delta, the fan of concrete aqueducts humecting Psebol Field.
I’d never been to Psebol, what with the persecution we had suffered, first from Plubac, then from Jilndij, to say nothing of the revolution, but I’d known about this empire of technology and had hoped to make the tour. Now our chance had come.
We rode a good long while through Glozbanc Forest, drenched in shadow, but at length were racing on the plains. We lunched on piping-hot spiced sausages and buns, with tall glasses of iced raspberry water, enjoying the cornucopia of sunshine illuminating our compartment. Here and there I saw a stand of poon as I gazed out the window, now and then a flock of ibises or herons. Ever and anon we crossed a creek or went shooting past a pond and, if luck served me, I could glimpse a herd of buffalo or eland come to drink. I even saw a crocodile.
Evening came and Udi fell asleep sitting in her seat. I watched the dance of the nocturnal sky, spellbound for an hour. I saw Zhrinx and Pojolfs, Dwadf and Cnashca, some of the constellations in our Northern Hemisphere. Yes, our Nyatic ancestors also played the game of naming constellations. ‘Pojolfs’ means ‘the Tankard’ and ‘Cnashca’ means ‘the Chevron’, while ‘Zhrinx’ and ‘Dwadf’ mean ‘the Dragon’ and ‘the Twins’ but, of course, have nothing at all to do with Gemini and Draco. In fact, we can’t even see the Milky Way, which we call ‘Zwafna’, except with our sophisticated telescopes, which bring that tiny wisp of cotton into view in the angle of the Chevron. Alpha Zhrinx, also known as Orobux, is our brightest star and functions as a north star. Legends about our Orobuctic origin are no longer taken seriously. We live just 150 years, so a voyage of 100 light-years is far-fetched, but the ancients didn’t know it.
On the horizon, I could see a darkling cloud, old silver on the inky ground of night. Mli, the moon, had risen in the east; it would be close to midnight. Udi still was sleeping in her seat. Should I wake her and help her to her berth, or should I leave her to her blissful dreams? She had such a lovely smile on her lips. The train was silent, the aisles were empty, but wait!—here came a figure. It was a very tall and very shapely lady with long black hair, approaching in the aisle.
"Ajinblambia," I called out, "Ajinblambia, is that you? Whatever in the world are you doing here?"
She put her head in the doorway of our compartment. My, how tall she was! "Oh you," she said, "you’re the Ungi tourist in Bihaka. Vocno? Wasn’t that your name? Yes, yes, of course, Vocno Ganven. How are you? What an astonishing coincidence meeting you here on the Mecnita-Psebol train!" We were a few minutes north of Jamblonc, one of the towns along the way.
"Come in. Come in," I said. There was a chair in our compartment, in addition to the seats, and it was upholstered in black velvet with a sunburst, like the seats. "Come in. Please join us. Yes, please just sit right here." I pushed the chair before her.
I’d met Ajinblambia originally in Bihaka, which was the capital of Jhibilli province and all Qazudistan as well. She’d been operating an export-import business there before the revolution. It was during an intelligence assignment that I chanced to meet her. She was Ungi, not Qazudi, one of the very few Ungians then on the continent of Ub. Now I recalled she’d said she was a Psebolite. Apparently, she was homeward bound to Psebol.
She sat in the chair I offered her, and we continued our little conversation, exchanging salutations and exclaiming our amazement. Finally she said, "You know, now that I see you once again, it strikes me you look just like Abilai Kabarkaev. Do you know who he is?"
I feigned ignorance, but indeed I knew who Abilai Kabarkaev was. He had been the leader of the Qazudi Revolution. Of course, everyone in Ung knew there’d been a revolution and the continent of Ub had come under Ungi rule, but most Ungians didn’t know the faces and the names. And that was all quite well, for we hadn’t wanted anyone to realize that I, Vocno Ganven, the husband of Queen Udi and prime minister of Ung, was one and the same person as Abilai Kabarkaev, the supposedly Qazudi spearhead of the Qazudi Revolution. This had been our secret. Abilai had merely disappeared and, later, Vocno had appeared in another, distant country. There was little communication between the continents of Ub and Eb in those dark days, so no one seemed to have an inkling of the impersonation I had managed. Of course, now it was no longer an important secret.
So when Ajinblambia again remarked, "You look just like Abilai," I put my finger to my lips, with a silent "Shh", as if I’d been owning to a little secret I wanted her to keep, but she didn’t seem to understand my gesture. At any rate, Queen Udi was awake by now.
"Udi, this is Ajinblambia. Ajinblambia, this is my wife, Udi."
"Udi? Just like the queen?" The name betrayed her. Every Ungian has a unique name. There simply aren’t two Udis in the kingdom. "Are you the queen? Queen Udi and Abilai Kabarkaev? Can it really be? Are you Queen Udi, Queen of Ung?"
"Yes, yes," said Udi, apparently feeling frustrated in our desire to be anonymous, "but please don’t bother with obeisances or titles. We’re getting away from all the pomp and circumstance just for a while. Please just call me Udi. Won’t you join us for a glass of hot mulled wine or two?"
"Why, yes, of course, I’d love to. This is quite an honor."
"Now, now, Ajinblambia, no honorifics please," smiled Udi as she heated spiced red wine in the microwave and began decanting glassfuls for the three of us. "You’re on your way to Psebol?"
"Yes, I’m returning home after several years of living in Qazudistan."
"Vocno and I are on our way to tour the facilities and farmlands of Psebol Wheat Company," said Udi, comparing notes with her new friend.
" How is your business in Bihaka?" I interposed.
"I’ve given up the business. It hadn’t done so well since the revolution."
"Oh, I’m very sorry, Ajinblambia. I hope you don’t blame me."
"Then you are Abilai after all. But no, I don’t blame you. I suppose that it’s all for the best," Ajinblambia philosophized.
"What are you going to do in Psebol, Ajinblambia?" asked Udi.
"I have a pretty cottage there. I think I’ll just retire to my flowers and my books, at least for now."
"Books?" asked Udi with surprise and curiosity.
"Yes, I’m writing a series of books about Qazudistan."
"How very interesting!" the queen observed. This was not an idle pleasantry. It’s just not like Udi to utter empty phrases. Besides, I knew her newfound interest in everything Qazudi. "I’d like to talk about it further with you," she continued. "No doubt you also speak Qazudi."
"Yes, I do. In fact, I’m writing in Qazudi for publication in Bihaka."
"I’d like to meet with you sometime very soon. Will you give us your address and let us ask you to invite us by while we’re in town?"
"Of course, of course, I’m honored," said the lady, as she wrote out her address on a little slip of paper and gave it to the queen. "Come anytime you like. My house is yours."
We chatted for a few more minutes, then Ajinblambia took her leave. The queen and I soon lay upon our berths and I turned off the lights. All night long we sped along, almost silently, with just the faintest clacking of the wheels on the splices. Before we knew it, the sun, the golden orb of heaven, was poised upon the far horizon in the east. Soon we’d be getting off the train in Gwedbaj Station in the heart of Psebol.
Psebol is much more than just the wheat metropolis of Nya, our planet here in Ti. It’s a shining city of some twenty million, Ung’s fifth largest. Here there are stately avenues and esplanades, peaceful lanes and quiet little corners, grand emporiums and elegant boutiques, renowned academies and institutes of note, a host of galleries and monuments. There’s a network of bridle paths in cypress-shaded parks where you can ride right up to a secluded pond or little waterfall, past stony windmills and over rocky ridges, glimpsing now and then, beyond a brake, a massive stadium or theater in the distance. Here are fine museums and conservatories, an opera house, a score of universities. Daily, in some district or another of the city, festivals and carnivals are held, and there are pageants and parades galore.
Of course, we’d come primarily to see the wheatlands and facilities, but later on we’d see the city sights as well.
With our Nyatic year of 418 days, it takes a 10-gigawatt nuclear station to desalinize a cubic mile of seawater in a year. Gigantic multistage flash evaporation structures solve the problem posed by the enthalpy of vaporization, long a barrier to such projects. The upshot is that the 200 stations make 200 cubic miles of water every year. As for the geothermal wells, they’re massive cauldrons suspended in cavernous, deep shafts dug down from one to fifteen miles. These shafts were dug back in the days of Zhwem, mind you, when the largest drills in Ung were 30 feet in diameter and about a mile long. Nonetheless, our engineers contrived to bore them in successive drilling operations lasting years. From these 200 wells, great clouds of steam rise to condensers at ground level, which spill cataracts of water into the big canal, 400 cubic miles every year. In cross-section, Quanz Canal is semicircular, with a width of 1800 feet. The water from the stations and the wells is pumped 1000 miles to the wheatlands. Psebol’s million-and-a-half square miles thus receives the equivalent of two good feet of rain each year.
Two thousand gigawatts of power, which cost us half a talent for each megawatt, explain the million-talent price tag of the stations. Our Nyatic talent’s worth a million earthly dollars, in round figures, so the stations cost us just a trillion dollars, to put it in plain English. Of course, building a 10-gigawatt facility for less than 50 cents per watt of capability requires a masterful, exacting kind of management. Mismanaged projects often cost ten times that figure, but running an efficient operation was what King Zhwem was famous for. Zhwem spent another trillion dollars on the wells. The third trillion of the total bill was spent on steel and cement works, ploughs and harvesters, the granaries, the railroads and bakeries.
King Zhwem, though, didn’t bankroll the construction of the municipality of Psebol. This was beyond the pale of the project. Investment bankers oversaw flotation of a series of sizable and lucrative bond issues. The bonds, maturing in 100 years, were amortized by levying new taxes and by selling bread. Bread sales in a kingdom of three billion bring very handsome revenues indeed, but when the issues were retired, the perpetual-motion machine called Psebol Wheat Company was running smoothly. And that was when the Ungians started getting their bread free.
Upon the conquest of the continent of Ub in the Qazudi Revolution, nine once-independent countries in the Ubbic west that had become new provinces of Ung were chosen from among 100 likely places for the siting of another wheat conglomerate like Psebol’s. The nine new provinces—Jongaria, Qidan, Tensan, Kazgar, Gergez, Turfant, Tuva, Oirad and Kokan—cover 2,750,000 square miles, nearly twice as much as Psebol Field. Queen Udi had the Bank of Ung allocate four trillion dollars to found the Bank of Qizilot, in Qizilot, the capital of Tuva, to finance the reclamation. She is depending on advances in technology to enable her to reclaim desert more economically than Zhwem. Still, she really faces a tough challenge if she’s to outperform the brilliant king. Queen Udi chose me to run the projects despite my obvious inadequacies. Although I once did farm work in Motinia, my native country, we tilled the land with ox-drawn ploughs and offered prayers for rain. I knew nothing of titanic reclamation projects and even less of high technology. But I’d been trying hard to compensate for my deficiencies and Udi had been patient as a saint. I got to thinking it would be both edifying and inspiring to tour the Psebol Project. So Udi had proposed this trip, which therefore was for business and for pleasure. And here we were.
We toured the Quanz Canal, but this is more than a canal—it’s a realm within a realm, a nation in itself. Villages and cities have sprung up like mushrooms on both sides, joined by railroads and highways. There are orchards, farms and gardens all along its thousand miles. In its waters, clear and blue, there are boating, skiing, swimming. The canal traverses Psebol on its way to Muzgwarf Delta, where the water is divided into 1500 small canals ramifying from the big one. These 1500 small canals together irrigate the wheatlands.
A tractor-driven disc-plough of Ungian design, which measures 50 feet from front to back, is 300 feet across. Driven by a 20,000-horsepower engine, it advances day and night, nine miles an hour, furrowing a 264-foot width over 1500 miles in a week. Actually, we don’t use ‘weeks’ or ‘months’ on Nya, though Mli, our largest satellite, is very much a moon. I just use such words to make it easy for my earthly readers. Our tractors are completely automatic, giant robot tractors, but there are a few inspectors in the field who ride now one and then another tractor just to monitor the mighty mechanisms. Psebol has 5000 tractors of this kind, just enough to plough the field in a month. The tractors were relatively inexpensive—some 15 billion dollars. So Udi didn’t consider savings in the manufacture of new tractors an item of significance.
But harvesters were another matter altogether! A standard Ungi harvester, which is actually a combine that both reaps and threshes, also has a width of some 300 feet. Each harvester reaps 375 miles at a time, harvesting nonstop to quarterpoints along the 1500 miles of the field, and therefore must transport as much as 37,500 tons of wheat in the 150-foot sphere of stainless steel mounted on the top. Power is provided by an engine rated at 200,000 horsepower—150 megawatts—and the juggernaut has tires with a hundred-foot diameter. Where the ploughs and harvesters go over the canals that irrigate the field, pairs of ultrahigh-strength steel girders, spaced to match the tread width of the engines, form the bridges. Five thousand harvesters cost half a trillion dollars. Here Udi hoped to realize economies in Ub, taking advantage of its later frosts to cut the number of machines we’d need.
We flew over Psebol field in helicopters, viewing the whole wheaten panorama, then put down to board the harvesters and ploughs ourselves, joining the inspectors of the corporation. Later too, we toured the mammoth steel mill with its furnaces 1000 feet in height and its hearths half-a-mile long, with its plate mill rolling plates 200 feet in width and its slab caster casting 36-inch slabs. We saw mountains of ore ready to be smelted and countless piles of coal ready to be coked. Here you could see a bolt bigger than a pillar with a nut just like the tire of a truck. Here they build the engines for the harvesters, which were comparable in size to the engines of Ung’s ocean-going tankers.
The most awesome sight of all, though, was the army of 3,000,000 elevators, 1500 rows of 2000 silos each, standing in massed formation in the Unbrab District of the city, a district of 110 square miles. Each elevator has a 27-foot diameter and rises to more than 100 feet in height, with a thouand-ton capacity. The entire battery of concrete elevators holds three billion tons of wheat, equal to the annual crop of Psebol Field. Seven hundred fifty railroads serve the elevators, each with its junction to the trunk lines that supply the major cities of the country. Eleven million regulation coverable highside railroad gondola cars, 12 x 12 x 90, leave the Unbrab Distict every year, 100,000 trains of 110 cars each, bound for every quarter of the realm. Grain receipt and discharge, carried out according to the FIFO method of inventory control, as well as silo humidity and temperature, are entirely computerized. Hardly a worker can be seen there in the Unbrab District, although of course, there’s an occasional superintendent or troubleshooter in one of the lookout towers among the silos, keeping an eye on operations. Now and then a security officer comes strolling by. Once in a while there’s a tour guide with his party.
Queen Udi and I reviewed all this and more, much too much for the few days that we spent there. We saw the mills, the silos, the stations and the wells. We sailed the Quanz Canal and rode the rails in Unbrab. You can well imagine our astonishment and awe.
Then we saw the sights of the metropolis itself. We rode, we walked, we trained, we cabbed, we cycled. We attended concerts, visited museums, took little window-shopping strolls. What an exhilarating holiday! What an unforgettable experience!
Finally one day, as our vacation was drawing to a close, the queen and I had cycled to a park in the Preljenx District of the city, and were lying on the grassy margin of a small lagoon. Withes of weeping willows trailed the water of the little lake, while crowds of cattail rushes stood like spectators all around. Butterflies played tag amid the bluebells and hydrangeas just nearby, and dragonflies were shimmering in the sun. I could hear the grumpy croaking of the frogs, as they hopped the lilies floating on the water. I could see the bulbuls, hummingbirds and white-eyes in the pink and purple blossoms of the rhododendrons.
"Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could be like this forever, free and footloose, just the two of us?" asked Udi, "But I’m afraid we must get back to Eldor Palace. I hate to think of all the work that’s piling up there. Shall we return tomorrow? You decide."
"Don’t forget we promised Ajinblambia we’d visit her before we leave the city," I reminded royal Udi.
"Oh, yes, I’d almost let it slip my mind."
I had a little leather pouch suspended by a drawstring from my sash. From it, I withdrew a map of Psebol and, glancing at it for a second, said to Udi, "We’re just a couple miles from her house. Why don’t we ride over now?"
Fifteen minutes later, we cycled up to a tidy little gray stone cottage with a shingled roof. On one side the cottage stood a row of poplars, all around were blooming roses, ivy climbed two walls. The bright red shutters on the windows in the front were open and the heavy oaken door ajar, declaring that the resident was present. You could see behind a hedge of oleander a white table shaded by a red-and-white umbrella.
"This must be her place," I ventured.
We stopped our bicycles and were getting off, when beautiful, tall Ajinblambia appeared upon the threshold of her door. She had on a soft white sweater with a black suede miniskirt and boots. She held a copper watering-can lightly in her hand.
"What a pleasure seeing you," she said, "I’m so glad that you remembered, Udi, Vocno."
"How are you, Ajinblambia?" said the queen and I together.
Setting the copper can upon a stone retaining wall, she came up to greet us, obviously delighted. "Come, come, sit down," she said, leading us to two white chairs at the table with the red-and-white umbrella. "Are you hungry?" she inquired, disappearing without waiting for an answer. Five minutes later, she returned with a big tray just loaded with refreshments, rolls and cakes, sandwiches and salad, fruit and nuts, along with a little urn of tuco. We were hungry and helped ourselves to very ample portions, to Ajinblambia’s apparent satisfaction.
While we were eating, since Udi began by querying Ajinblambia about Qazudistan, the three of us began conversing in Qazudi. But Udi didn’t have a perfect knowledge of the language, so we lapsed later to our normal Ungi. Udi was quite impressed, not only with Ajinblambia’s command of the Qazudi language, but also with her familiarity with the history, geography and economics of Qazudistan. This was hardly passing curiosity. The royal lady had of late been making plans for the development of that backward land beyond the sea that had been annexed to Ung. After all, she was the ruler of that land, as of almost all the lands on the Nyatic planet.
Udi questioned our new friend on many a subject associated with Qazudistan, from the organization of the Bank of Bihaka to the hexatonic scale of classical Qazudi music, from statistics on nickel mining there to the proper way to make Qazudi crumpets. Ajinblambia seemed conversant on the topics that arose and the ladies chatted merrily in mutual respect, while I just sat and listened, wincing at my meager understanding of so many things they talked about.
"Ajinblambia," said Udi finally, "I’m much impressed with your great insight into the affairs of Ub. I’d like to have you be our guest at Eldor Palace. Come stay with us for several weeks. I want to explore these matters with your further, informally at any rate. Later, perhaps I can appoint you to some post within the government of Ung, provided, naturally, you find this quite agreeable. We’ll arrange a comfortable apartment for you at the palace."
"This is quite an honor. Of course I’d love to come, but I wonder if I can justify your interest."
"I think you can. Vocno and I are returning to the capital tomorrow morning. Doubtless you will need a week or two to conclude your business here in Psebol. When you’re ready, call me. We can provide an escort if you like."
"Actually," said Ajinblambia, "I’ve really almost nothing to conclude in Psebol. I could well be ready as early as tomorrow morning also." She seemed to be hinting she’d come with us if invited.
"Why don’t you join us then? In midmorning, we’ll be training back. We love to view the scenery. Shall we come fetch you then, say fourish?" In Ung, four o’clock is 9:36 A.M.
"That would be perfect. I’ll be ready."
We sipped another demitasse of tuco, chatting enthusiastically about her visit. Then we said, "So long," and got upon our cycles. As we rode off, we saw Ajinblambia start picking up the dishes. Half an hour later, we reached Escovralla Inn, in the Dlapstong District just nearby. It was a charming, cozy little inn where we’d checked in a week or so before. After a relaxing evening, we retired just a little earlier than usual.
Queen Udi, Queen of Ung:
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