A Tale of Ung
The Hestadespa Mountains
While construction of the plants in Shornbanc, Aoshneps and Tlebscuc progressed by leaps and bounds, with electricity to flow from Shornbanc any day, the first bay of the aerospace facility was complete by day 270 of year 393, except that only temporary siding in the form of large tarpaulins covered the east side, the reason being that erection was proceeding eastward and ultimately this side would be interior and open. Little more than one year’s time had passed since conception of the project and now a pilot Ungo-Mlian spaceship was abuilding. It consisted of a single rocket engine, unlike the fivefold set of rockets that propel the Ungi Star. Ajinblambia had produced a porous, uninflammable, tough alloy of magnesium called atlantite-22, which was used to build the double-extra lightweight hull of Photon I, as Ajinblambia had dubbed her spaceship, developed principally from Ufzu’s Supermeteor, with features too from Ung’s Star. Ajinblambia had just returned to Dorgdid. Shandra still remained at Eldor Palace. Vinja was in Tuva. The other Geese were in Mecnita.
I myself had not yet seen the installations round the second city. In fact, I’d never been in that metropolis at all. Therefore, when Queen Shandra said she’d like to visit the facilities that Ajinblambia was building, I was delighted I could offer to escort her on a tour. We could fly the 1750 miles in one earth-hour or make the trip a sightseeing occasion by riding on a train for eight earth-hours. I left the choice to Shandra, my lovely guest, who opted for a golden comet. When I picked her up at her apartment, she had on a blouse of cream velour—perhaps you’d say it was a sweater—a black silk scarf around her neck and flowing pants almost like zouaves. She had a soft black kidskin totebag on her shoulder, with a matching purse suspended from her forearm. We got to Forgsha Station in a flash, reserving a compartment on a train that went cross-country. Half an hour later, we were on the train, which went the way that trains to Psebol go until we made New Ozgingd and crossed the Umzid River, where our line diverged and headed in a westerly direction, cutting through a jutting strip of Glozbanc Forest. We began to climb the Hestadespa Mountains, where Ung’s highest peak, Mount Oboglavd, rises to a height of 107,000 feet. According to catastrophistic theories of the orogenesis of Nya, Mount Oboglavd was long the vortex of a pool of molten stone that spun a billion years in very ancient times and cooled subsequently to become the great massif of this unrivaled range. Uniformitarian geologists have modified these visionary theories and postulate more gradual and tranquil metamorphosis. But all agree the Hestadespa Mountains are spectacular. Mount Oboglavd was known as ‘Tibotoibo’ 50,000 years ago, but nowadays the name of ‘Tibotoibo’ is preserved primarily as a brand name for pure bottled water, timber and other montane products. Ungians say only ‘Tibotoibo’, they never say ‘Mount Tibotoibo’ or ‘Tibotoibo Peak’, but they don’t realize the origin of this linguistic oddity lies in the fact that ‘tibo’ actually means ‘mount’, while ‘toibo’ is an archaism meaning ‘noon’. These aren’t really Ungi words at all, they’re Nori, a language now extinct, spoken many a millennium in this vicinity. Mount Noon was venerated by the Norians, now assimilated in the general population. To them it was the throne of Heaven’s greatest deity, whose name was also ‘Toibo’, that is, the ‘Sun’ in peerless glory at the zenith. It only was 100 years ago philologists established Nori was akin to Ungi, and identified an Ungo-Norian language group as a branch of the Vlas-Tobolian family of languages, which has dominated the continent of Eb for several hundred thousand years. Of course, the tree line on the Hestadespa Mountains is quite low, if you compare it with their height, so numerous bald peaks are capped in snow all year around and offer a magnificent display if you whiz by them in the comfort of your train but instantaneous death if you dare show your face anywhere upon those towering summits.
Eventually we left the Hestadespas, entering upon Ugresco Valley, where flows the Colocampa River, the Umzid’s greatest tributary. Here, melons big as barrels and grapes as large as lemons grow under the influence of a perennially warm sun and humid clouds, and orchards full of almonds, walnuts and pecans abound. For miles, the railroad runs along beside that navigable river, and from your window you can see the ships and boats that ply the waters with their timber, produce, cotton, wool and flax. Finally, the river and the railroad go different ways, in the area of Orboluc, city of a million. Queen Shandra knew but little of swift trains, and sat spellbound as the acres tumbled back behind us in limitless profusion. Then as afternoon was aging, we saw afar the flashing silver towers that reach skyward out of Dorgdid, pricking at the clouds. Anon a lovely voice announced our imminent arrival at Morgastant Station. As we pulled in, we saw a dozen golden comets departing and arriving, to and from the various regions of the realm. On the platforms, thousands—tens of thousands—of fashionably attired demigods and demigoddesses—the citizens of Ung—boarded and detrained, spilling from the platforms into the cavernous expanses of the waiting room, and vice versa. It was enough to overwhelm you, leave you speechless, fill you full of awe.
Estinorfs, an engineer who worked for Ajinblambia, was waiting for us in space 7307 of Morgastant Station, as agreed, and led us to an emerald-green bullet of a sports car with one long, graceful fender either side the body from the headlight to the tail, the doors conforming to the streamline of the fender so precisely that their seams were utterly invisible. The three of us got in, and Estinorfs, steering with a finger, tooled us onto Exolex Perimeter Expressway at a comfortable 200 miles an hour. Half an hour later, we had looped the vasty city and were on the exit ramp in Shornbanc, slowing to 100, then 70, 60, 50, 40, 30, as we got into the thick of the heavily industrial Cunugur District of that suburb. In a minute, we were at the building at 117 Jolaspo Street, where Ajinblambia had her current headquarters.
Across the street, Melvonorfanc Pharmaceuticals Incorporated had its main location. This was an enormous, long, high building of slate gray with continuous black windows forming horizontal bands on all four sides, with a spacious lawn in front. Melvonorfanc had developed a myriad of drugs instrumental in the realm’s well-being—drugs to greaten stamina and energy, drugs to sharpen memory and comprehension, drugs to quicken healing and correct poor vision, drugs to remedy psychoses, drugs to slow the aging process, drugs to counteract a host of ailments. They’d made empiric medicine quite obsolete. Having codified the human genome, they could invent with computerized procedures the formulae of compounds tailored to effect prescribed results, instead of having to process by trial and error naturally-existing substances derived from plants and animals. Having profiled a compound they needed to create, they could scan the catalog of compounds already in existence in case perchance the profiled compound was on record, or failing that, just synthesize it from inorganic and organic substances. Melvonorfanc was the company that had devised the serums of longevity that gave Ungians a lifespan of 150 years. One of their current projects was a drug enabling human eyes to see infrared and ultraviolet radiation. An initial version had been put together and was being tested on rodents, apes and dogs. As I explained all this, Queen Shandra smiled condescendingly, as if I’d been a wonder child, precocious but still juvenile, of course, till later on that evening, when the pharmaceutical importance of what I was revealing dawned on her. I promised we would tour the plant before we left the city, and she was happy as a lark, as if it were her turn to be the child.
Ajinblambia had rooms for us right by her office in the building on Jolaspo, and when we’d dined we all went to our beds. I wished I could have joined either of the ladies or better both of them, but ended up alone.
The morning was a perfect one for our tour of Shornbanc Station, 65% complete. It was bright and sunny. Everywhere the pleasing smell of armatures just wound and concrete freshly poured perked up our nostrils, and the hum of generators was almost as euphonious as concert music. Afterwards, we drove to nearby Tlebscuc to see the quarry and cement-producing plant. Tlebscuc Works was smaller than the one in Queshganc in Mecnita, but more modern, with more sophisticated quarrying towers, like gargantuan siege engines operated from a console full of pushbuttons and dials. A single teen-age girl could quarry 50,000 tons a day.
The second day, we toured the steel works in Aoshneps, and on the third day we found ourselves at the facility in Mezquinc. Photon I was now in lay-down in Bay A. All around were cranes and scaffolds, scissors-lifts and hoists, with a hundred workers fitting, bolting, welding, finishing, inspecting. The tarpaulins had been raised like curtains in a playhouse, letting in the light of day. Shandra and I just followed Ajinblambia abashedly and meekly, as she explained the activities that we were witnessing. Photon I was scheduled to be launched on the 50th of year 394, just six earth-months away. The launching tower and pad were being built at the facility already. The destination of its maiden voyage was Dlivandor, reachable in those days with a 50,000,000-mile flight. Queen Shandra, newly made a queen, was familiar only vaguely with Ufzu’s aerospace endeavors, and all of this was as astonishing to her as to myself. Photon I lay at the north end of the mile-long Bay A. All along the bay, south of the ship, pieces and parts were being fabricated one by one. As they were readied, they were carried overhead by crane, to be assembled. Ascending in an elevator to a platform high above the floor, we stepped into the cabin of the crane, and there, the operator worked a panel of controls as complicated as an airplane’s. From the panel, he could automatically position and manipulate his load to any orientation and location the bay’s geometry made possible. Supposedly, he could not drop the load or strike a person or a stationary object. Sensors and detectors ruled such mishaps out. This was a foolproof mechanism, engineered for safety and precision under the exacting supervision of Ajinblambia herself. Visiting this installation and remembering my efforts with my harvester, I blushed a blush of inadequacy or inferiority. The prophecy of nunhood, which had nearly slipped my mind, came back to haunt me. We finished touring the facility at Mezquinc in late afternoon and took our leave of Ajinblambia, who was too busy to devote more time to Shandra and myself. So I suggested to Queen Shandra that we lionize the city some few days before returning to Mecnita. She agreed.
I touched my wrist computer to a registration slip presented me by someone at the desk in the lobby of the Pendagart Hotel to authorize a suite for two. This sharing of a room was not unusual in Ung. What I didn’t know was Ajinblambia had told Queen Shandra she’d have no trouble making me assume the role of her beautician, and hardly had we gained the privacy of our apartment when Shandra had me brushing her long hair and giving her a facial and a manicure. "Oh well, it is a lot of fun," I thought.
Senesto Hills is famous both in Dorgdid and all over Ungia for its theater. Here in a valley like a crater surrounded by low hills, lifelike robot actresses and actors, 30 meters tall and electronically controlled, enact the greatest tragedies and comedies of Ung. The audience, which often numbers tens of thousands, spills over the well-tended gentle slopes, seated, standing, lying, even walking, as they watch the plays, the players’ voices being reproduced by amplifiers and loudspeakers, which are mounted everywhere about on poles and columns. When I invited Shandra the next day to go see Imia and Porflinj, one of Ung’s great tragic plays, she delightedly accepted.
In the play, whose plot was set in the Ung of many centuries ago, when Ung was still a little kingdom, there lived in Iv a pair of lovers, Imia and Porflinj, both exceedingly good-looking, noble, gracious, incorruptible. They were engaged to marry, much in love, true and loyal to each other. One day, Porflinj had to sail to the distant land of Eth on business for his family, who were merchants. In Eth, he was arrested and imprisoned, by judicial error, for kidnapping and robbery. The real felon, Jonobarb, had managed to escape. Imia remained completely faithful to the memory of Porflinj, the rumors of whose fate did not return at once. Porflinj spent 10 years in prison and expected to serve 15 more. But by a fortunate reversal of events, Jonobarb was apprehended and shown guilty of the crimes. Porflinj was exonerated and won a handsome compensation. He was rich. While, in Eth, proceedings were in progress, word came at last to Iv that Porflinj was returning to find Imia. Imia was in raptures, and when she’d learned the day the ship that carried Porflinj would arrive, she sent her servant, Adglaf, to meet Porflinj at the quay and bring him to her. However, Adglaf, whom Imia had trusted absolutely, was after all perfidious, and understanding Porflinj would be carrying great sums of money, robbed and murdered him, absconding with the spoils. Later, though, this Adglaf was arrested, but to extenuate his guilt, he bribed witnesses to testify that Imia had ordered him to rob and murder Porflinj. So Imia was imprisoned too, along with Adglaf. Subsequently, Adglaf managed to escape, and he remained at large until the day he died, prosperous and wealthy. Imia spent her life in prison, where she nursed her boundless grief and hatred in a dank and dreary cell.
In the production at Senesto Hills, you could see the towering figures of Imia, Porflinj, Jonobarb and Adglaf, dressed in realistic costumes. You could see the dungeon in a great gray cliff where Imia lived out her days. You could see the faithless Adglaf, lurking in the woods, counting out his gold ecstatically. You could see the corpse of Porflinj rotting in the grave.
Poor Shandra knew but little of classic tragedy and was terribly distraught when Imia and Porflinj ended, but assuring her that it was just a story that never really happened, I dried her tears and returned a smile to her lips.
I presume the town of Porflinj, a southern suburb of Mecnita, next to Blumbo, was named in honor of the tragic hero of the play.
There was an ancient church in Dorgdid that was regarded as a wonder of the world. Even Shandra knew of Holy Algetha’s, with its rising spires, its spacious naves, its sprawling lawn. Attached to Holy Algetha’s were chapels, schools, a museum, a monastery and a convent, and thither pilgrims came from near and far. Nowadays, however, tourists are more numerous than pilgrims, but even they are worshipful and awestruck before the great august cathedral. Queen Shandra expressed a wish to see the shrine, but I was hesitant. I could see in my mind’s eye how, as I strolled the grounds, I’d be accosted by a company of nuns as if I’d been their colleague. I wasn’t seeking further evidence of the future that awaited me according to the indications I’d received like omens from the sky. But Shandra, far from fathoming the reason for my shyness, seemed to think that I’d be eager to mingle with my ‘sisters’, as she called them. I’d never been a man to strut and swagger, pretending to a bluff and bold machismo, but having Shandra act as if I’d already donned a habit and a wimple was another matter altogether. Finally, however, I agreed to go with her to see the ancient church, and things would happen just as I’d foreseen.
A thousand saints in carven marble, a thousand angels cast in gold, thronged in the apse, the narthex, the transepts and the nave of Holy Algetha’s, with heavenly paintings and celestial tapestries hanging on the walls, with icons, relics, manuscripts and implements filling every niche. The scent of frankincense and myrrh, of lighted waxen candles, of polished oaken pews, of freshly gathered flowers drew you in. The silvery soprano of the choir, the resounding bass of the liturgy below, the echoes in the aisles appealed to you. The vestments red and black and purple, the embroidery and lace, the monstrances and chalices of gold all fetched you. They summoned you and bade you enter. They arrested you and held you captive. They grasped your heart and soul.
The queen and I were deeply moved, awed by the sanctity and beauty of the place. We were intimidated, overpowered and impassioned.
As we were leaving, walking down the steps, back again within the light of day, a company of 20 nuns caught sight of me, alone among a thousand visitors, hurried over, habits fluttering, and gathered all around me.
"See? They like you, Vocno," said Shandra, as the ladies of the cloth, encircling me, separated me from Shandra, as if claiming me as one of them. I wondered what it would be like to be a member of their order, habited and wimpled all day long, day in, day out. "It won’t be long," said Shandra from the distance.
"I know," I said, but I don’t know what powerful unconscious force welled up inside of me and prompted me to utter this acknowledgment, but I repeated thrice again, "I know, I know, I know," with conviction and finality. I forefelt that it would happen. The question: "When and how?"
Later in the afternoon, back at the Pendagart Hotel, when I’d seen to her makeup and her hair, I invited Shandra to accompany me to the Bilzo District of the city, where theaters and nightclubs crowd one upon another on either side of many and many a street threading through a glittering maze of billboards and marquees in brilliant lights at night. In Ung in general and in Dorgdid in particular, you needn’t go into the auditorium of a theater to see a play, but rather every theater has a window on the sidewalk. There, passers-by can glimpse the action on the stage and get a preview, then decide if they should enter and take seats or just keep walking to see what else is offered. The theaters make up a public park, free to one and all, provided by the city.
It was a summery, warm evening in the tropical metropolis and Shandra wore a strapless gown of jet-black satin, with a stole or scarf in hand to toss about her shoulders should it get cooler later. I wore a smock and hose, with a beret, a cummerbund and buskins.
In the window of the first theater we came to, we could see an aerial fantasia. The performers were young ladies dressed as birds—swans, flamingoes, herons, egrets, geese and ibises. They leapt and flew about the stage, but nothing intimated precisely how they were supported. They grouped in beautiful formations, echeloning, spiraling, queuing, gliding, towering and stooping all in faultless rhythmic motion, to the music of an orchestra or harps and lyres and a gong.
In another theater, a lady in a flowing gown of white adored before an altar in a sea of flames enveloping the stage. She was a priestess of the fire-god, Orgalazd, once worshiped as the patron god of Dorgdid. In bygone days, her rite was seriously regarded as a sacred act. In latter days, however, it’s come to be considered a fine art. In either case, just how she manages her glissades in blazes is her secret, one that no one shares. It was an elegant performance and we watched for quite a while.
Much to our surprise, we happened on a theater presenting a performance of The Vrikshayas in Ung, a newly-written history in drama form, in which the missing details of Dvadcashcu’s victories in Uswia on Mli had been invented with considerable artistry by the noted Ungi playwright, Heobact. Of course, Queen Shandra was delighted, but we were somewhat late, so we reserved seats for the following afternoon.
We saw many a theater of marionettes and puppets, some lifesize or a little larger, some like dolls a foot or two in height, some wee as beans or buttons you’d have to view with powerful lorgnettes. I recall one of the tiny shows, where lilliputian boys and girls rode on real bees and butterflies that played among the roses on the stage. With electronic super-magnifiers, we could see their merry faces and the movements of their limbs.
Some of the theaters in the Bilzo District offered presentations of the royal plays—the dramas that concerned the lives and loves of Ung’s half-myriad of monarchs. Of course, in all those centuries in which the House of Ung had ruled part or all of Eb, language had evolved, customs had developed and fashions changed, even the anatomy of men and beasts had been affected, and while a play about Queen Yuni might star a lovely lady in stylish clothes in a long sleek sports car of glossy cobalt blue talking in a wristphone, a play about the ancient King Opuk was little more than a troglodytic bloodbath fought with clubs and stones. Here and there, we stopped to watch a moment before strolling down the avenue again.
Singing and dancing were plentiful in Bilzo. If you like stately choirs or gorgeous lady vocalists, if you like dancers with clicking castanets and fluttering flounces, or figure skating, if you like dancing dragons, or tutu’d ballerinas, if you liked viol or piano, flute or clarinet—whatever you preferred, you’d find it all in Bilzo. As we walked sidewalk after sidewalk, we ate little tidbits—cashews, chestnuts, sausages and shashlik, oysters, popcorn, chocolate and wafers—just a bite or two of each, pausing here and there to see a pirouette or pas de chat, an entrechat or arabesque, to watch a minuet, a waltz or a fandango. Queen Shandra, who really loved to dance, promised she would dance with me, when we returned to our hotel. I wondered if a future nun should dance, and then dismissed the thought entirely.
As midnight settled on the Bilzo District and the crowds thinned out, Queen Shandra let me lead her home to the Pendagart Hotel. There, we laid ourselves on the capacious curtained bed of rose and ivory that was the crowning glory of our suite—after we’d had sparkling burgundy and danced a dance or two.
In the morning, we were back in Shornbanc for the visit we had planned to Melvonorfanc Pharmaceuticals Incorporated. One of the most intriguing things we saw was a hugely magnified enlargement of a photograph of DNA unwound. This was not a diagram a draftsman had designed, it was a real photographic likeness of tremendous length rolled on one of a million microscopic reels like motion picture reels that could be unreeled at supersonic speed for quasi-random access. You could see the sugar-phosphate backbones of thymine, guanine, adenine and cytosine clinging to the strands tenaciously. Other reels showed a template during synthesis of messenger-type RNA, and ribosomes affixing amino-acid molecules for producing proteins and other similar related processes. Not only could the rolls be scrolled up and down providing photographs at different sites along a chain of DNA all synchronized to a specific point in time, but they could also be laterally displaced—a whole roll of reels like an endless roll of coins could be moved sideways right and left—providing pictures at the same site at different points in time, in other words a movie at each site among the myriads of sites. Of course studying the photographs would be the business of a lifetime, but an informative little demonstration was given me and Shandra.
Then we continued to the chemical-compound bank, where quantities of literally millions of synthetic inorganic and organic compounds were on file. This was not a warehouse where pharmacists climbed ladders to reach little jars on shelves up to the ceiling, measuring grains and grams of powder into little envelopes or tubes. No, all the compounds and the pharmaceuticals were accessed by a thoroughly computerized array of ultrahigh-speed belt conveyors putting everything right at their fingertips. Of course, some substances were stored in kilotons, others in mere grams, so the compound bank took up one-half of the 500-acre, 20-story building at 116 Jolaspo Street. We found it all immaculate, with vinyl-tiled concrete, stainless steel and glass everywhere we looked.
There was a host of other laboratories, offices and workshops, which we couldn’t really tour as comprehensively as we should have in the day we spent at Melvonorfanc, but Ung is vast, and no one can see everything.
We returned late in the afternoon to Bilzo to see Heobact’s new play, The Vrikshayas of Ung, and the morning after we caught a golden comet to Mecnita.
Once back at Eldor Palace, Shandra went to her own suite, while I went to Queen Udi’s office. Queen Udi was inside with Barti, and the ladies greeted me congenially, asking me about the trip in general and the aerospace facility especially. I gave a full accounting and a travelogue, over tuco and date cobbler; then we turned to chattering and jabbering about the goings-on around the palace and other suchlike pleasant little subjects. Finally, though, Queen Udi said she had some work to do, and we adjourned our merrymaking.
As Barti left the royal lady, I behind her, she took me by my wrists and led me to her office saying, "Come, I’d like to talk about your project with you." We entered and we sat upon the coffee-colored chairs we always sat upon, with Barti never letting go my wrists.
"Vocno, I’ve reviewed you harvesting machine and noticed in the troughing blades of your design as well as in some other, perhaps less critical, reciprocating parts, you haven’t taken in account fatigue and wear-and-tear. Too, the stresses you have cited as allowable are just allowable for static loads and not dynamic. In this engineering handbook, you’ll find a lot of SN diagrams, which plot allowables against the number of reversals in the lifetime of the members. For example, here is one fatigue-resistant steel rich in molybdenum and manganese, and quenched and tempered at low temperature, useful when reversals number in the tens of millions. Perhaps, however, there are even better choices. Please consult the manual and revise your drawings, with an eye to cost, of course. Initial cost must be considered, naturally, but you must think of maintenance, replacement and other corollary costs as well, especially since you’re designing legions of machines. Recalculate your stresses and show me the results.
"Another point I’d like to make is that you’ve chosen sites for yam plantations with regard to rain and insolation only, with no attention to the kind of soil you will need. I have here a handbook on the soil taxonomy of Mli and a map of Ufzu’s major yam plantations. What you must do is figure out which Mlian soils best accommodate this crop and then equate them with the taxa of Nyatic soils, such as chernozemic, cinnamonic, kaolinitic and the rest. This chore will be complex, but the University of Mecnita’s Agricultural Department probably can help you. Then site your farms again. It may be your choices are not entirely amiss, but nothing in your work indicates that you’ve considered soil-types at all. Look over these materials and correct your maps, if need be.
"In addition, I’ve discovered some errors and omissions on your drawings. I’ve marked them in red pencil on the blueprints. Please don’t just accept my changes though. Give them a thorough backcheck, making sure they’re right, before you start revising the originals. If you have any questions, come see me if I’m here, or call me up if I’m in Osh."
In other words, just let me start all over. My materials and sizes had to change, which would devastate all my dimensions, even those that were correct to start with, however few they may have been. So let me redesign the harvester entirely. Then, having made a study of comparative interplanetary soil taxonomy, just let me draw my maps once more. Then maybe, then just maybe, Barti would affix the seal of her approval so that Usha would grant me the funds. "Well," I thought, "let me get right to work. I have several months of figuring and drawing still."
Soon after that, however, Barti finished in Mecnita, having bought computers for the Ghasbi Project along with tailored software, and she returned to Osh to oversee the installation. By year-end, the project would be done. At approximately the time when Barti left, Queen Shandra flew back home to Mli. At Eldor Palace, things returned to normal, except I was often free in afternoon, working on the yam plantations and the book on Ajinblambia in the morning. Evenings I enjoyed with Udi in her study. She was busy days.
One day at noon, quite unexpectedly, Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia came to my apartment, where I gave them tea and crumpets. We got along most excellently, spending the whole afternoon together. We seemed to have quite similar philosophies and attitudes, so I invited them to come as often as they liked. I loved their elegant and thoughtful conversation.
The Hestadespa Mountains:
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