A Tale of Ung
My Dolphin Leapt Away Riderless
In days to come, I confined myself for hours to my study, where I loaded Barti’s books upon my rolltop desk in stacks so high the top would not roll down. I studied a variety of metals, the composition of fatigue-resistant steel, strain-hardening, case-hardening, cold-rolling and cold-working, forging, quenching, stress-relieving and heat-treating, carburizing and annealing. I designed and redesigned, remodeled, altered and improved my concepts, drew, redrew, corrected and perfected. For over 60 days, I focused my attention on my harvester, and by day 350 of the year 393, I had a thoroughly updated set of drawings and specifications and an entirely amended estimate in hand, ready for submittal for approval, with Barti still in Osh however. Good water had begun to flow in the Karamanta Desert and several outposts had sprung up there, like oases on the dunes. Soon Barti would be back in Ungia at Eldor Palace and I hoped to make a favorable impression with my engineering then.
Simultaneously, I had reviewed the maps of Ufzu’s yam plantations and collated them with Ufzu’s soil maps, deducing thus the identity of soils yams were demonstrated to grow best in. Equating Mlian and Nyatic soils, which differed fundamentally in some regards and, too, were grouped according to dissimilar classification systems owing to discrepant academic standards and traditions on the two celestial bodies, proved more difficult a task. Little by little though, I found Nyatic soils I could relate to Mli’s best soils for growing dioscoreaceous plants, a thitherto unknown botanic family. As Barti had foreseen, my maps could stand redrawing, but I still sited several experimental stations close to Fwascren, as before, even if some miles from their previous locations. My new maps I checked, rechecked and double-checked, and bound them all presentably in an atlas of stiff buckram.
Barti came on her penultimate return from Osh to buy some last few instruments she’d found she’d need for her canal. The next time, she’d be finished, leaving Jelbolalp in charge, as she rose to the newest challenge Udi might erect before her. She’d grown another inch or two, and was devastating in her sleeveless sheath of canary silk moiré, when she strode into Udi’s office, her charming visage animated by a big, red, kissable, sweet smile. She was as young at 25 as she’d been at 18, when first she’d kidnapped me in Gangawar. Who’d have thought one day she’d irrigate a desert? She reported with elation to Udi on the Ghasbi Project, obviously conscious of my admiration and the fixity of my attention. At last, the pretty tones of her excited voice came to a lull, so I spoke up and interjected I had redesigned my harvester and rearranged the maps of my plantations. Would she please check them over? She finished up with Udi, and bade me get my documents and join her in her office.
An hour later, after a preliminary glance, she said, "These maps and documents are very good. It looks as if you’ve done a splendid job. Still, let me keep them a few days, reviewing them minutely. I’m sure they’ll be just fine, dear Vocno. Don’t you worry about anything at all."
I wondered whether I should mention all the presages and portents I’d been having that bore out the prophecy she’d cast the day she’d levitated me. How did the religious destiny she’d said was in the cards for me jibe with her now-optimistic attitude about my farms? I decided to be silent unless she herself should broach the subject.
Later on, we walked arm in arm together round the palace grounds. I felt as if a shining era in our friendship were being ushered in. Though once I’d seen her as a simple, young, bucolic damsel I was kind enough to treat with egalitarian respect, I now adored her as a goddess whom to petition for approval was the greatest privilege and joy. We took our pleasure at the courts, and ordered apple muffins and hot tuco to be brought by robot waitress. Then we played some tennis, but she made easy work of me.
A few days later Barti called me on my wristphone and told me to come over. She’d checked the drawings and the maps and had some minor comments and corrections. I received the annotated documents, took them home, amended them and returned them to her office later. Producing her great seal and a block of scarlet sealing wax, she made a beautiful impression on each and every paper I’d submitted. On a line below the seal, she inscribed her signature in graceful flourishes that make her penmanship calligraphy. She hugged me, kissed me, wished me luck.
Usha, now ministress of finance and directress of the Bank of Ung, often clad in ecru velvet, had changed to buff silk pongee when I saw her next, replacing her long robes with a less formal little tailored dress showing to advantage her full bosom and round hips. She too was 6’-7 more or less by now, taller than the average Ungian lady, almost Vrikshayan in stature. She’d held her high position as the ruler of the realm’s finances nearly two long years, and had developed confidence, aplomb, authority and savoir faire. Though most of her pecuniary affairs had to do with sums of billions, even trillions, of earth-dollars, some, of course, were smaller, as was mine, which she might easily have delegated to any of her numerous assistants. Since we were long-time friends and teammates, though, I got preferential treatment and was invited to her office in Ramdonia.
I had my documents in a valise of navy cowhide, and walked through the lobby of the Bank of Ung as if I’d been a magnate or tycoon. Usha met me at the door of her sumptuous, grand office, where I sat beside her at her desk in order to review my documents with her. Seeing Barti’s signature and seal on each drawing and each page of text, she nodded with apparent satisfaction.
Calling in a secretary, Usha ordered her to transfer fifteen talents to the Bank of Fwascren—one of the branches of the Bank of Ung—to establish an account there for my project, and bring back a booklet of demand drafts and withdrawal slips imprinted with my number and my name. She also furnished introduction letters, which would simplify my acquisition of the properties I needed and my recruitment of the people for my staff. I was pleased no end that I at last was ready to inaugurate my project. I put my drafts and introduction letters, signed by Usha in her own hand and carrying the Bank of Ung’s impressive letterhead—with a scutcheon of a lion rampant or upon a field of gules—in my valise, and I returned to Eldor Palace, where, detraining in the lilac, lavender and purple subway station, I rose in Udi’s elevator to her office. There I found her poring over heaps of books at her queensize walnut desk.
Of course, all along the queen had known I’d been working on my project, but I hadn’t kept her thoroughly apprised of all the details and minutiae. I was prouder than a peacock with my big valise, and Udi, seeing this, was pleased and smiled affably, if perhaps a trifle patronizingly. Pulling up an easy chair beside Queen Udi’s desk, I laid open my valise before her, showing her my drawings—ink on vellum—all projected orthographically, with perfect lettering and accurate dimensioning, each bearing Barti’s signature and seal. I showed her the thick booklet of especially imprinted checks and the blazoned letters empowering me to purchase land, even exercise the right of eminent domain, and authorizing me to hire personnel.
The queen, despite her usually utilitarian, pragmatic mind, was obviously impressed with all the seals, signatures, inked drawings and heraldic bearings, and, of course, the approval both of Barti and of Usha was tantamount to her approval.
"Vocno, this is all quite elegant and beautiful. I’m proud of you and see no let or hindrance to your project whatsoever. I think it’s an excellent idea. I find your plans most laudable. However, as you know, the coming 50th, we—that is, Ajinblambia and I—expect to launch her spaceship, Photon I, to make the voyage to Dlivandor to prospect for uranium, so vital to the irrigation projects under way in western Ub. Credit for the effort goes primarily to Ajinblambia, foundress of the aerospace facility, but I am monitoring the aerospace adventure also, if from afar of course, and it engrosses all my waking hours. I want to monitor your project too, but I simply won’t have time until around the 70th of year 394, when Photon I’s been launched. After all, the aerospace facility and the exploration project are of top priority. The yam-plantation, though important, is a secondary matter, at least for now. So what I’m asking you to do is wait 120 to 150 days. At that time, I’ll be able to involve myself in your plantation project intimately."
Udi asks when she might tell, requests when she might order. I was well aware of this, as were others, and I realized my project had been stalled, hopefully postponed and not altogether shelved. It was a blow. I bit my lip. I guessed I’d have to wait. I’d been hoping that my project would bid fair to rival Ajinblambia’s, not be considered a disruption of its progress. "Oh well, I can wait. Perhaps I’ll make improvements in the meantime." I put my drawings and my texts inside a chest and locked it, as if anyone would want to steal materials I couldn’t prevail on anyone to take free of all charge. I resumed my biographical endeavors, adding pages to the romance of the life of Ajinblambia.
I called Cocothrasp around that time to inquire when his anatomic survey would be ready. He continued to exclaim his great astonishment at all the tomograms, several thousand he had made, but said that he could give me a firm date: the 50th of year 394. This was a most remarkable coincidence. Cocothrasp would have his study ready on the very day that Ajinblambia would launch her Photon I.
A few days later, Ajinblambia was in Mecnita once again. Her business was to meet with Morcflanj, Boncfilj Steel Works’ director, about some of the final shipments from the Boncfilj Works to Mezquinc, and also to make use of his great expertise in steel-mill construction to apply it to her mill in Aoshneps. I myself had been to Boncfilj Steel Works a dozen times, and I knew Morcflanj personally. Of course, world-famous Ajinblambia, with introductory letters from Queen Udi, could just have gone to the steel-making plant at any time and been accorded the most deferential treatment you could think of, but she asked me to escort her as a friendly gesture.
The municipality of Boncfilj, a suburb of Mecnita 90 miles northwest of Eldor Palace, boasts a population of around 1,000,000, residing in an area of 310 square miles, of which 155 square miles constitutes the grounds of Boncfilj Steel Works. This is the largest steel-mill on Nya and probably the largest one in Ti, the local spiral galaxy with 500 billion stars. Boncfilj Steel Works extends along the Umzid River, receiving ships that carry iron ore from Buscobox, 600 miles north, on the Efna River just at its confluence with the Yug, whence flows the Umzid, and ships that carry coal from Ilgotranx upon the Yug, still farther north 250 miles. Manganese, vanadium, copper, nickel, chromium, titanium, tungsten, silicon, molybdenum and other elements used in the many grades of steel rolled in Boncfilj usually come by truck or rail, which explains the sprawling nervous system of railroads and roads converging on this ganglionic suburb. Twenty 1000-foot-high blast furnaces stand in a row beside a mammoth railroad trestle where 50-foot-wide flatcars carry ingots of 100,000 tons apiece. There is also a canal 100 feet in depth where 800-foot-long barges negotiate the miles separating furnaces and rolling mills. In addition to the blast furnaces, twelve 2000-foot-long open hearths and a dozen basic oxygen furnaces of equal length are juxtaposed like titans’ barracks in the plant. Ten coking batteries fire kilotons of coal brought in from Ilgotranx and heaped in mountains, providing fuel for furnaces and hearths. A monkey’s puzzle of conveyors boosts the sooty fossil into colossal bunkers that stand in massed formation in the works, a city of unwindowed skyscrapers of blue-gray steel. Some ingots go to the enormous plate mills, where foot-thick plates 250 feet in width are rolled in lengths to 1500 feet. Four such plates, when spliced together, make a girder web a mile long, like those in the girders in the Vunu Vunu Monorail near Fwascren. The giant slabcaster, receiving other ingots, produces slabs to twenty feet in thickness. I understand the base plates of the harbor cranes beside Port Crelf have thicknesses of fifteen feet or more, while the reactors in the power plant at Thlipso, a one-terawatt facility upon the River Zvan, were built of ten-foot slab. Other mills at Boncfilj produced rolled shapes—wide-flange beams and columns to fifteen feet in depth, massive rails, rounds, channels, angles, pipes and tees. Scrap iron is reclaimed by awesome skullcrushers that flatten out old military tanks and boxcars like so many matchboxes, and squash trucks into briquets in seconds.
Ajinblambia was dumbfounded by the scope and magnitude of the great mill. Of course, it hadn’t ever been envisioned that Aoshneps Steel Works would vie with Boncfilj for prestige. Its reason for existing was to satisfy the needs of the aerospace facility and other local enterprises. Still, for once, the great lady felt outdone and overshadowed. A twinge of genuine humility caused her to blush a lovely blush. We toured the plant together first and then appeared in Morcflanj’s reception room.
Morcflanj was a large and powerful-looking man, 7 feet, 300 pounds, a water-buffalo in human guise, who’d worked at Boncfilj 30 years, one of those rare individuals who choose to work year in, year out, when they might work one year in ten, as do most Ungians. His zealous attitude, his native talent and his fine education had won him his high place. He liked Ajinblambia, but was himself a married man, and therefore wouldn’t ask her to accompany him alone to dinner or elsewhere in that way, although it seemed he felt the pull of an instinctive magnetism he could resist with difficulty only.
Boncfilj Steel Works produces upwards of a billion tons a year, while Aoshneps would yield 100 million tons at most, so many of the steel-making processes that Boncfilj utilized would be inapplicable at the smaller mill, but the two olympians, Ajinblambia and Morcflanj, still had much to talk about I only dimly comprehended. As we were winding up our visit, Morcflanj praised our vice queen and volunteered to visit Aoshneps and comment on the layout, which naturally delighted her. I wondered just how much of his keen interest was strictly patriotic or professional and just how much could be ascribed to the texture of her hair and skin, and the figure of her body, of which no one, however stoic, was oblivious.
On the next day after Ajinblambia and I had gone to Boncfilj, the queen invited Mlechi, Usha, Dhabbi, Ajinblambia and me on an excursion to the Anjmanj District. Vinja was in Tuva, Barti was in Osh, so there were just the six of us.
Anjmanj Park’s most memorable feature was its whale lagoon, a reservoir chockfull of smaller tame cetaceans—dolphins, porpoises, pilots and belugas—you could ride about in the large rectangular main pool or along the many channels that were its arteries and veins. Mlechi, Usha, Dhabbi and the queen all mounted small, adorable, young dolphins, and I followed suit, but characteristically the vice queen chose a big beluga, as if she’d been the skipper, we the crew. She proposed a game in which the Geese and Udi would defend me as she tried to catch me. She was wagering that in an hour she could capture me and hold me with her on her big beluga, with my poor dolphin left without a rider, regardless of anything the five of us might do, short of appealing to the authorities for protection. Of course we all had on our swimwear lest by chance we plunge into the water. Udi and the Geese took up the gauntlet merrily and I had little choice but be the game. The five of us rode off in quincunx fashion, I in the center, the ladies at the corners, poised to deal with Ajinblambia’s forays and sallies. Our clever dolphins understood the sport at once, and whenever the beluga swam up near, they’d all team up to ward it off, my dolphin serving as a linebacker but remaining safe behind the others. This game of tag went on amid hilarity and mirth, even though we all got dunked a time or two. At last, however, I guided my white dolphin down a channel in the labyrinth of waterways around, not realizing that it was a cul de sac. Mlechi, Dhabbi, Usha and Queen Udi all went sailing by the estuary of the channel, as if they hadn’t guessed I’d turn the way I turned. They overshot the mark, that is, but quickly turned about in order to catch up with me again. Before they could maneuver their aboutface though, Ajinblambia came harrying and chasing me like a torpedo, and her beluga cornered my hapless little dolphin easily. My mount, now floundering about in the dead end, tossed and turned, and pitched me in the water, then managed to dart off around the bigger whale. So I was treading water helplessly when Ajinblambia came up and rescued me, tugging at my wrists as she leant over gracefully, sure-footedly. Next she had me standing on the back of her beluga, her arm about my waist lest I jump off and swim away. She steered her gloating whale like a surfboard to a wooden pier, and I ascended on a ladder, crestfallen and marooned. I watched the demigoddesses gamboling and frolicking another 15 minutes, but finally they climbed the ladder too.
Ajinblambia was claiming that her victory in the whale fight entitled her to take me back to Dorgdid to help her with her wardrobe and her makeup till Photon I was launched, but Udi felt that she was asking far too much. They finally agreed Ajinblambia could have me whenever she was in Mecnita, at least until the 50th. However, she would be in town for only a few days before that time.
The six of us held an archery contest in the park, and later barbecued kebabs of mutton with red tomatoes and white onions, which we ate with pieces of sesame-seed bread and tall glasses of iced tuco. Anyone who’d seen us there would have said, not that the queen and I had guests, but rather Ajinblambia and Udi were hostessing the foursome of us Geese. Their friendship seemed to overrule our marriage. Such a thing would never happen in Motinia, my homeland, but this was Ung, and I must accept the customs of the land. Essentially, the queen was Ajinblambia’s beloved friend, of whom she was jealous justifiably, according to her lights. My presence was an accidental circumstance, our marriage a formality. I was a useful servitor, amanuensis, messenger. I should regard it as an honor I was writing her biography and could comb her hair at her election. I could only acquiesce in gratifying the vice queen’s whims and wishes, it would seem.
Afterwards, as evening was descending, we all drove back in Udi’s white V30. Pelfingbo, one of the latest wave of chauffeurs, had been spared the chore of driving us, as Dhabbi, in a little summer dress of baby-blue georgette with a ribbon, royal blue, crisscrossed like sandal thongs around her waist-length ponytail, took over at the wheel. When the aerospace facility was finished, she would supervise its operation as well as Ung’s new outer-space adventures. But at this time, she was vacationing and studying around the palace. She too had grown tremendously in the seven years I’d known her, and was as tall as Barti or as Usha. The evening lights shone softly round the oval domes of Eldor Palace, like aurora borealis, against the inky black of night that overdraped Mecnita. The domes themselves took on an alabastrine glow, almost otherworldly, as if we’d magically transcended space and landed in a distant galaxy. A minute later, Dhabbi’d parked the limousine on the parking level underneath the oval on the north. We rose in Udi’s elevator, and Udi, flinging wide her office doors, invited us to drink a nightcap. Hidden speakers played a symphony of chimes and carillons and bells, delightful music of gold and silver harmonies that rang and echoed regally throughout the royal office.
"Shandra, Barti, Ajinblambia and Udi all have Vocno coming to their beck and call, and answering every question that they ask," said Dhabbi, pouting coyly, "When do I get my chance?"
Flattered Dhabbi wanted my attentions, I promised I would visit her within a day or two, so we could go together, wandering around Mecnita, just she and I alone.
After two or three delicious cocktails, we all decided to retire for the evening. The ladies went to their apartments and I to Udi’s, where I lay behind the taffeta and platinum of the curtains of her bed. We slept in fond embraces until solar gold made crystals of our windowpanes.
We breakfasted on spicy buns and warm sweet butter, milk and tuco. Then I betook myself to my apartment, as Udi’d said she’d be busy as a bee. I took up my pen and wrote a page or two by noon, but Dhabbi came dressed in a white knit body-shirt and yellow shorts, ready for our outing. She said she’d drive the limousine, giving Pelfingbo a half-day off, if I agreed. I just proposed we go to Managutsa Pines, a gorgeous forest near suburban Managutsa. Minutes later, we were in the white V30, the newest model in the series of replacements constituting Udi’s standing order with Atdo-on-the-Etdo Auto Works.
We spun down Pongdoir Expressway till we reached the exit at Managutsa Road, a six-lane divided highway, with rhododendrons shedding petals pink and white, and towering eucalyptus, in the median strip and right beside the shoulders. This part of the metropolis was sparsely populated, with brakes and thickets, stands of oak and pine, everywhere about. Now and then a chapel or a fane was seen clinging to a hillside, like mementos of a bygone age, and here and there you could deduce the progress of benign white clouds by following the movement of their shadows in the trees or noting how a splendid little church would dim a moment and then resplend again. We passed by the shores of Lake Penocbar, for all the world an ocean in the woods, with breezes, fresh and cool, fanned inland by the rolling waves. We came at last to the town of Managutsa, where our road became a street along a cliffside that divided the high town from the low town. Down below, a clutch of chic boutiques filled a dozen acres; up above cafés and bars were numerous, and patrons sat at tables on the sidewalk, listening to violins, eating, drinking, chatting, playing chess. Declining wistfully the standing invitation that they posed, we drove out of Managutsa as suddenly as we’d come in. The reddish, clayey soil began to rise and fall in gentle hills and dales, which meant that we had now arrived in Managutsa Pines, the only place on Nya where Pinus managutsina is known to grow. Dhabbi parked the auto in a clearing, and noting that a stable stood nearby, tugged my arm, and said, "Why don’t we ride?"
We got a pair of horses, powerful and large, and starting at a nearby trailhead, we rode at a walk through hilly woods, where little ponds and brooks abounded. In clearings, we saw sunflowers, hollyhocks and goldenrod in mad profusion, eventually selecting a quiet little spot to rest and talk.
Complimenting Dhabbi on her new promotion to the ministry of exploration, I asked whether Ajinblambia and Udi had given her complete instructions or simply left decisions up to her.
"Basically, they have left everything to me. They’re planning a new colony on Dlivandor called ‘Smelicvon’ and want a fleet of Photons to transport materials and people. Logistics will be my domain. Also they’ve commissioned me to organize intelligence on Mli, compiling maps, and ethnological and geological reports, anything and everything they’ll need for the dissemination of Ungian ideas and influence."
"That all sounds so exciting!" I exclaimed, "Perhaps you would consider me to play a role in your great trailblazing efforts."
"But aren’t you entering upon a new career?"
"New career? What new career?" I asked surprisedly.
"Aren’t you entering religion?"
"Religion? What religion? Who said that?"
"I don’t remember. Maybe I’m imagining it all. Aren’t you thinking of the cloth? You’d be perfect. But it’ll be some time before there’ll be a need for cosmic missionaries."
"Missionaries? I’m supposed to be a missionary?" I asked with incredulity and irony.
"What’s wrong with missionaries? Look at Sister Mevandolia." She was referring to the foundress of Defdefa Convent, who flourished 20,000 years ago. According to tradition, she endured great hardships in establishing the convent, and was duly canonized therefor.
"Are you comparing me with Sister Mevandolia?"
"She was quite courageous and tenacious. You could do worse than emulating her."
She was seated on the ground and I was lying next to her, nearly overpowered by the natural musk or otto she exuded. She ran her fingers through my hair. "Too bad you’re not a girl. You’d make a perfect nun."
We both laughed at the idea, as if it had been very funny, when in reality we both could see how apposite it was. Little by little, this notion was obsessing me. I couldn’t seem to feint or parry with the specter prophesying nunhood.
We chatted quite a while, but hadn’t brought a lunch, so we got on our horses, returning to the stable. Dhabbi took the wheel of the limousine and drove to Tmercov Road, another road to get us back to Eldor Palace with new scenery to see. Tmercov Road both falls and rises, winds and twists, mostly in ruralia, but here and there a cluster of half-hidden mansions peeps from out the leaves. I wondered who would live there in such secluded places, where sunshine scarcely penetrated, when I was so accustomed to the hubbub of the palace. We spied a little restaurant, off the road 100 feet or so, and stopped for sandwiches and juleps. It looked as if the youngest of the five Qazudi girls and I would become the best of friends, as we spent a couple hours eating our impromptu lunch. At last we rose, got in the car and headed back to Eldor. Evening was approaching and I appeared in Udi’s study to visit with the queen.
She was at her harpsichord with a fugue, ambiguous, equivocal, for no sooner could you choose and chase a single melody, than it would vanish to be superseded by another just as evanescent, and before you knew, the first one had returned. Toto was warbling merrily. Presently she finished playing.
"Where have you been, dear Vocno?" asked the bird.
"To the woods," I answered.
"Whatever in the world for?" the bird continued.
"Toto, don’t ask so many questions," said Queen Udi as if to a naughty child.
"Very well, Queen Udi, you’re the queen," said Toto.
Udi took up her brushes and began a watercolor of yellow roses in a dark blue vase. I sat down with linen in a hoop. An hour or two went by. The glittering lights of the Comargash District, visible from Udi’s study, began to die like candles being snuffed, and Cnashca, the celestial chevron, had spangled the horizon in their stead. It was midnight. Seldom were we up at such an hour. An apparently refreshing little rain was falling, and we decided on a stroll about the grounds. We got drenched but found a refuge in a pagoda-shaped gazebo near the courts. We hugged each other to keep warm and it looked as if our marriage would endure forever. This was reassuring but illusory, as later happenings attested. We stayed in the pagoda till the clouds ran dry, just as the sun was tincturing the east.
It was day 362 of year 393. By and large, I’d finished my biography of Ajinblambia, except for the appendix I would base on Cocothrasp’s report. I’d faxed a copy to Ajinblambia herself, but she’d videophoned to say she couldn’t read it till she’d launched her Photon I.
Though I was very tired, I was pleased when Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia appeared upon my threshold for the tea and crumpets I had made a feature of my standing invitation. We got along most jovially and I began to wonder why I’d failed for so long to cultivate such friends. We three discussed both history and politics, and then the arts, philosophy, psychology, cosmology and science, the very subjects that intrigued me most. The entire afternoon slipped through our fingers like sand inside an hourglass.
My Dolphin Leapt Away Riderless:
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