A Tale of Ung
The Museum of Mecnita
Fortunately, Dlivandor, Dyo’s fourth planet—Nya is third—has mass enough to hold an atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen with quantities of other gases, and flora there is plentiful but fauna scarce. A denizen of Nya would have no trouble acclimating to the air and would be slightly lighter. Temperatures are lower than on Nya, but altogether tolerable, warm in summer, cold in winter in the temperate zones, ever torrid at the equator, ever frigid at the poles. There are rivers, lakes and oceans, plains and mountains. Of people there are none, no cities, ships or highways, no farms, canals or dams. Swamps and quagmires are numerous throughout the planet, but there are many, many places with solid earth and stony fields. Clouds and rain are mostly moderate, but heavy in some areas and light in others, with both floods and droughts known to visit certain regions. Eruptions of volcanoes, hurricanes and earthquakes do occur of course, but just in scattered regions and sporadically. A party of Nyatic folk, with canny leadership, might easily select a spot to found a colony, provided that they had a lifeline to the planet metropolitan. And this is just what Udi, Ajinblambia and Usha were purposing to foster. Over a period of several years, many Photons would journey to Dlivandor, carrying explorers and technicians, supplies, equipment, instrument and tools. A uranium mine, it was envisioned, would be dug and outfitted, but prospecting for other valuable minerals would be carried on as well. Biologists and agronomists would study Dlian botany and soils, in search of new varieties of edible and elsewise useful plants and to consider the feasibility of agriculture there. The first settlement, on the edge of Mare Maximum, really a crater or rift valley visible by telescope from Nya, would be called Smelicvon (New Frontier). Dlivandor would be claimed as a territory of Ung.
Prior journeys to Dlivandor had been few and exploration superficial. The older Ungi Stars simply lacked the sophistication necessary for large-scale invasion of the mysterious planet. Moreover, they had been more costly than the economics-oriented rulers of the kingdom liked. There are better uses for a talent than a spaceflight. At least this had been their line of reasoning until the reclamation of the Ubbic wastes had made uranium so critical a resource.
Nya is not an overpopulated planet, with 7 billion people in 300-million-plus square miles, corresponding to a density approximately equal to Kazakhstan’s—to give an earthly standard of comparison. Nor does Nya know anything of an explosion of the population or a baby boom, except locally from time to time, as, for example, in the west of Ub in the mid-’390’s. Hence Queen Udi and her assistants in the exercise of power would not have reckoned cogent any argument that Ung would need new land for people, although the future proliferation of Nyatic civilization was certainly a distantly descried desideratum. Perhaps eventually, thought Udi, a few hundred or a thousand youth of pioneering spirit could form a semi-autonomous community on Dli, but this would likely not be profitable, serving rather as a source of pride and glory, and costing money instead of earning money in the long run.
In addition to Nya and Dli and Mli, there are 18 planets and 57 satellites in the Dyotic solar system, mostly uninhabitable, although the existence of rare minerals on some of them might make a settlement of sorts—in a highly sheltered artificial atmosphere—worthwhile. Space probes were still in talking stages as Ajinblambia made progress on her aerospace facility, but it seemed likely her attention would be turned in that direction in a year or two, and hence the idea of a transdyotic empire that was being mooted by Queen Udi and her faction. Our nearest other star is Gamma Zhrinx, just 2 light-years away, a voyage of some 50,000 years by spacecraft! It would certainly be centuries before the 50,000 dwindled to 100.
The foregoing facts were widely known around Mecnita and in Ung in general, especially in the latter part of year 393, as Obscont and the other periodicals of Ung carried articles and stories almost daily in anticipation of the flight of Photon I.
Even Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia would speak excitedly of the upcoming launching. Both were astonishingly knowledgeable in physics and astronomy. Apparently they’d taught them on the high-school level in convent schools. I was maybe not so knowledgeable, but still equally excited, as the three of us sat in three chairs upholstered in bargello in my study, over tea and crumpets, on the morning of the 362nd. Our conversation turned to the aerospace exhibits on display at the Museum of Mecnita. I confessed with some embarrassment I’d never visited the aerospace department, though I’d been assistant curator in geography at the museum once. I also complimented the ladies of the cloth on their conversancy in these scientific matters and said I’d love it if they’d tutor me informally. They’d be welcome any afternoon in my apartment, and, if instructing me took any of their time away from errands they were running for the convent, I’d be glad to compensate for this by helping with those errands. They were pleased with the idea and said they felt as if I were practically a member of their order. Sister Quequemenia agreed to help me with my physics and my mathematics, if only I’d instruct her in embroidery, and it seemed a little club was in the making, based on a great community of interests and tastes. I don’t think ‘triumvirate’ is exactly the right word, nor would I liken us to the ‘three musketeers’. Perhaps, ‘sorority’ would be more appropriate. At any rate, Sister Quequemenia said the museum would be a perfect place for her and me to get started with my science lessons.
Sister Lumidelfia said she thought it would be great if the three of us could visit the museum as a group, but that it would be accounted inappropriate for nuns to be seen on an excursion with a man. Then she added as a jest that if I’d just don a habit and a wimple, there wouldn’t be a problem. One joke led to another, and, finally, admitting that I owned some habits, I let myself be dared by Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia to put one on. With their encouragement, I at last agreed to go to the museum in nuns’ weeds so we could be together without provoking any critical remarks. When I was finally dressed in habit, wimple, mantle and the rest, I looked in my big mirror and only then appreciated how beautiful and elegant were these habiliments I’d donned. I felt a rush of pleasure and enthusiasm. Descending in an elevator—not Queen Udi’s—we exited inside the lilac, lavender and purple subway station. I looked around self-consciously fearing lest somebody recognize me or fathom my disguise, but no one seemed to think that anything about me was irregular, and I had the assurance of the sisters that I looked a perfect nun. Presently, the three of us glided with a swish of skirts and mantles onto a subway train, sitting in as triple seat parallel with the axis of the train, I in the middle. I recall remarking to myself that these black swans who were my two companions were not the stodgy sticklers I’d supposed, but rather, they were willing to take little liberties with canon for the sake of fun and friendship.
Museum Quadrangle, in the Clascar District, 20 miles northeast of Eldor Palace, is an area that measures a mile by a mile, bounded by four boulevards—Museum North, Museum East, Museum South, Museum West. This square is subdivided into a quarter-checkerboard by six inner avenues between the boulevards, three north-south and three east-west, so there are 16 blocks a quarter-mile square. On each block stands a museum, 750 x 750 feet in plan and 320 high. The whole complex is called a clasc, while each individual museum is called a flant, but English is so limited I use the word museum to render either clasc or flant. Each of the 16 museums comprised by the Museum of Mecnita is colonnaded on four sides, each with 13 columns with a 30-foot diameter at spans of 60 feet, and rising to 280 feet. Adjacent colonnades share a corner column. The stylobate supporting every colonnade lies underground, so that the shafts, perfectly cylindrical, seem to rest upon the pavement of the walkway circumscribed around the whole museum, without plinths or dadoes. Superincumbent on the capitals of every colonnade is an entablature—a recumbent right square prism, 50 feet by 50 feet and 750 long. The white columns and entablatures are marble. The entablature sticks inward from the colonnade and forms the roof and ceiling of the walkway. A window wall of black plate glass 20 feet behind each colonnade rises from the walkway to the underside of the entablature. The roof, edged by the four entablatures, and hidden, save from air, is a sheet of slate 650 x 650. Though the window walls look solid and immobile, they open up with sliding doors 30 feet across and 250 tall. Automatic meteorological devices open these huge doors when weather’s clement and close them when it’s not. When they’re closed, sophisticated air-conditioners are activated electronically. These air-conditioners are run by solar energy collected from the sheets of slate by ultra-thin metallic foil bonded to their lower surfaces, maintaining an unchanging 81 degrees inside. The solar energy supplies a wide variety of other things as well—computers, elevators, phototelegraphs, for instance.
Each museum was devoted to a special sphere or discipline: Astronomy, Geology, Geography, Zoology, Botany, Agriculture, Anthropology, Culture, Medicine, Energy, Science, Industry, Communications, Commerce, Electronics and Computers. Many of the exhibits were models of originals. Instead of jumbo jets half-a-mile long, painstaking models 50 feet in length were housed in a museum. The miniature of Thlipso Station, at 220 x 220, covered one full acre in the Energy Museum, sizable indeed, but nothing when compared with 305 square miles the facility itself sprawled over. Small exhibits, such as oak trees, dinosaurs and railroad cars were exhibited full size.
When Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia and I arrived at the Museum of Astronomy, it was midmorning, and our billion-exawatt-bright sun had flooded all the bluenesses of heaven with overpowering splendor.
In my mind’s eye, I saw three tiny wisps of black moving down the walk across the lawn that ringed the huge museum of white marble and black glass, wisps so tiny one would never see them but with very careful scrutiny. Then my imagination soared, as if my mind had risen in a spacecraft. The museum dwindled to a dot on a celestial body, which, in turn, just vanished in a galaxy of stars. Finally, the galaxy itself was but a point of light among a thousand other points. How important were those three black wisps? Would the cosmos crumble if it were a revealed a man was masquerading as a nun? No, no, of course not. I should just enjoy myself, oblivious of heavenly reprisals.
The three of us went in and immediately we noticed a facsimile of Photon I, reduced to 50 feet. Oohing and aahing, with hands folded as if praying, we all agreed we’d rather be in a museum than on a spaceflight to Dlivandor, where danger might be lurking. Sister Quequemenia said she’d be very happy drinking chocolate or tea, inspecting an illuminated book of hours or a relic. Art appreciation was a skill that might elude an astronaut, just as astronautics, she confessed, eluded her. In this we seemed to be of one accord, the three of us. Also we saw models of the Supermeteor and Star, and I impressed the pious ladies boasting of my flights to Mli. There were scores of star maps covering the walls, and we identified familiar constellations—Cnashca, Zhrinx, Fnothcerd, Dwadf, Pojolfs, Tletman, Gvalt, Plenfastol. Astrology is dead today in Ung, but the museum had exhibits on the ancient stargazers as well. A large observatory full of telescopes also captured our attention for some time. I liked the way the other visitors always yielded to us politely, as if we had been people of priority.
After lunch of salad julienne and iced limeade at an outdoor snack bar in the shade-and-sunshine pointillism of the foliage of trees-of-heaven and catalpas, my wimpled friends and I proceeded to the Museum of Electronics, where a special exhibition was in progress. Shavinarts Electronics Company, whose main location is in Shavinarts, a city in suburban Gautsma, Ung’s fourth city, on the Southern Ocean round the Bight of Meokoko from Port Crelf, had just perfected a color phototelegraph in three dimensions with a range above a million miles. With it, for example, one could fax the likeness of a cantaloupe to Ufzu’s National Museum in North Vavlu, far away on Mli, where one of these machines had been installed. The likeness was produced from vinyl, perfectly congruent geometrically—but variable in size, with reductions and enlargements both available—and now chromatically identical as well. Weight and composition were not duplicated by the new device, however, but insiders in the world of high technology predicted—some said over-optimistically—that in 50 years, these also would be faxable. If that should come to pass, wealth in any form could be manufactured and transmitted through the ether. However suchlike visionary forecasts might turn out, it was certain color solid astrofax was already on the market. The two ladies of the cloth and I tried faxing coins and flowers to North Vavlu, receiving Mlian icons in return from the operator there, whose smiling face seemed at our fingertips peering from the videophone connected to the fax.
Inspecting the invention and some of the untold variety of other gadgets and devices that were with it in the Museum of Electronics took all afternoon, so we decided to adjourn our tour until the morrow. My friends insisted they could find their own way to Piljandar, and I was left alone to take the subway back to Eldor. I was very shy among the crowds in the Museum Station, but somehow I got back to Eldor and into my apartment. It had taken all my nerve, but, now that I had done it, I was proud.
Later in the evening, when I’d put on my usual attire once again, glancing at the pendulum beside my rolltop desk, I opined the queen might still be in her study, playing, painting, reading. So I went unto her door and knocked, but Udi didn’t answer, and I proceeded to her bedchamber. I tapped lightly, turned the knob and entered without awaiting her response.
I was surprised, indeed a little shocked, when I saw Ajinblambia and Udi sitting on the counterpane of sapphire taffeta on Udi’s curtained bed. Both were dressed in rose chemises and burgundy peignoirs with handmade point de gaze in shades of ivory. I’d never have expected Ajinblambia to be in Udi’s bedchamber, especially in dishabille and at such a tardy hour.
Ajinblambia spoke first, addressing me directly, "Vocno, as you know, the queen and I have been collaborating in a number of important efforts, such as the reclamation projects and the aerospace facility. We also have some personal concerns in common. All these interests require a great deal of cooperation and communication between Queen Udi and myself. Considering all this, Queen Udi has invited me to live with her in her apartment and share her bed with her, and I’ve accepted her kind invitation. We feel that in an atmosphere of intimate companionship, our ongoing mutual objectives might be better served. Naturally, this new arrangement means new prerogatives and privileges, as well as rules of etiquette to be observed. Different opinions about these privileges and rules might conceivably arise, and in order to avoid disputes and quarrels, the queen has graciously consented to let me draw the guidelines that the three of us will follow. Vocno, you appreciate, of course, that under the new circumstances, I insist that you respect our privacy. I know you like to visit Udi, and you may do so in her study, but not her bedchamber, which henceforth you must consider a forbidden place. If, when you meet her in her study, I am also present, I’ll expect both of you to communicate through me. If you have a question to ask Udi, just ask me instead, and I’ll relay your question and her answer. Later on, I’ll likely make the rules stricter, but for now I have decided just to be magnanimous, vouchsafing you the liberties I’ve outlined. One further thing is that I want you to report to me each morning in my dressing room to see to my coiffure and to my clothes. For now, of course, I’ll often be in Mezquinc, often in Mecnita, commuting back and forth. Later though, I’ll probably reside here permanently. Just so you won’t think that I’m imposing rules that Udi disapproves of, I want her to tell you she agrees with me in my conditions. Darling Udi?…"
"Vocno, I sincerely feel that in the long run, this arrangement will be beneficial to everyone involved. Please try to see the higher interests at stake and don’t regard this as possessiveness or jealousy on the part of Ajinblambia. I know that our new relationship resembles marriage, but please don’t take the attitude that Ajinblambia has carried off your wife for her own pleasure. The welfare of the realm is in the balance. In Ajinblambia, we have a gifted ruler and must help her every way we can."
"But, Udi, after all these years…," I started to protest and plead.
"Vocno, please don’t speak directly to Queen Udi when I’m present. I’ll convey your questions," said Ajinblambia with mild annoyance.
"Ask her if she means just to discard me after all these years."
"I find your question churlish and provocative," said Ajinblambia, "Please rephrase it to omit the word ‘discard’."
"Never mind. Tell Queen Udi I’ll see her in her study tomorrow in the evening."
"She has a previous engagement."
"Tell her that I’ll see her soon."
"He’ll see you soon," said Ajinblambia to Udi. Then without awaiting Udi’s answer, she continued, "Let me take the liberty of wishing you good-night on her behalf. She’ll meet you when she can I’m sure."
Apparently the queen and I would have a chaperone forevermore. Glumly, bleakly, drearily, I went to my apartment.
I, who’d ever been a realist and atheist, began to think perhaps the ineluctable ‘divorce’ that Ajinblambia’d decreed between Queen Udi and myself was heaven’s retribution for my having made a mockery of sanctity by masquerading as a nun, and this idea frightened me, but it was superseded by the even more insidious idea the ‘divorce’ was a divinely prompted stimulus to prod me to seek refuge in the nunhood foreordained for me, according to the cards and all the other omens.
I tossed and turned that night, but since I’d been up all night the night before, I got some sleep eventually. I rose early, breakfasted alone, returned to my apartment and put on my habit and my wimple in preparation for the outing with Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia to the Museums of Geography and Medicine, and perhaps to others too if we had time.
The cardinal exhibit in the Museum of Geography, a map of Eb, filled up the central well that made mezzanines of several floors. Because this was an older map, it represented Ung as it had been before the recent annexations, with a length of 15,650 miles, east to west, and a width of 11,730. The total length of Eb was 16,750, the excess being due to the presence east and west of other, smaller kingdoms, like Motinia, Zundania, Hahar and Bamsh. South of Eb, the million-island archipelago of Ungonesia specked the Southern Ocean near and far. Ung with Ungonesia stretched 15,720 miles north to south. The scale of the map was about 1:530,000, so it measured 167 x 157 feet. Though the well was large enough to let you see the map in its entirety, you had to stand so far away you couldn’t see the details. However, small suspension scaffolds, like those of window washers, were provided. You need only step aboard and press buttons on a console. Though I had never been an acrophobe, apparently both Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia were very nervous as we rose, and either their anxiety infected me or the peer-pressure they exerted overpowered me, but I got frightened too, and the three of us clung close together for dear life. In more robust or virile company, I’d have been ashamed of my timidity, but with the nuns, it was natural enough, so I didn’t try suppressing it, but rather sighed and gasped in unison with them.
Psebol Field was 10 x 15 feet upon the map, perhaps its most outstanding feature. This brought back fond memories of the excursion that the queen and I had made there three years earlier. My, how things had changed between us! A tear formed in my eye and trickled down my cheek. On the map, you could distinguish Quanz Canal, the Glozbanc Forest, the Hoixud and the Hestadespa Mountains. You could see the mighty cities of the kingdom—Mecnita, Dorgdid, Fwascren, Gautsma, Paneblu—and many of the lesser cities I had visited—Tsediagdirg, Bogolrog, Orboluc, Port Crelf, Badako, Toa. Once I’d felt as if I’d been a partner in their condominium. Now I’d been ejected and deforced. Another tear ran down my cheek and dripped upon my guimpe.
The nuns and I rode up and down, right and left, and overcoming our anxieties, we made a game of it. The jolly sport dispelled my grief and merrily we went on to tour the halls where the terrains of Nya—deserts, forests, jungles, glaciers, tundra, mountains, steppes and swamps—were very realistically displayed. It was a great deal easier to appreciate a desert by walking in an exhibition hall than going at expense and peril to the sandy quarter. As forenoon climaxed, we three nunnish figures lunched on cottage cheese and coho salmon, with glasses of mock ale. Then we headed towards the Medicine Museum.
In year 387, I’d undergone some surgery and therapy that would supposedly increase my life-expectancy from 70 or so, which is normal in Motinia, to 150 more or less, as usual in Ung. Millennial genetic research had enabled innovators to create new enzymes, hormones, antibodies and such substances that would protract longevity, and to develop surgical techniques to overcome congenital irregularities and defects. Numerous exhibits were devoted to this kind of research, and my friends and I enjoyed them thoroughly.
We also found exhibits on the transplantation of kidneys, livers, hearts and other parts and organs of the body. There was a special section on genital reform and sex change, a subject free of superstition here on Nya. Pragmatism is our strong suit and primitive taboos have long since been forgotten. Nonetheless, the nuns showed some embarrassment, not only on account of their own chastity and amatory inexperience, but too because of my impersonation, which came dangerously close to the subject we were dealing with. So we hurried by with blushing faces, nor did I get a chance to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps one day I’d find out more about it.
Some of the very same machines I’d seen in the University of Mecnita’s Neurosciences Department were on display in the Medicine Museum too, but there were many others not related to neurology I hadn’t seen before.
The Museum of Culture was next on our itinerary, and in it was a fascinating, beautiful and moving section on religion. In Ung, at least until the annexation of Qazudistan and Ufzu, religion had been always exclusively a feminine profession, wholly in the hands of nuns, who also served as priestesses, baptizing, confirming, marrying, ordaining, crowning and performing other sacred offices, though, as I’ve mentioned, modern Ungians tend to be of a realistic, irreligious turn of mind, relegating pious practices to a ceremonial or sentimental role. I too had been of this tough-minded attitude till Tufiatani’s proven psychic powers opened up new vistas of experience. Too, my friendship with Piljandar’s nuns had been awakening within me visions of celestial mansions that had eluded me before. As we wandered from exhibit to exhibit, Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia told me all about the icons, relics, portraits, statues, letters, books and habits on display, the materials that they were made of, the craftsmanship and care that had been exercised in making them, the rites and ceremonies that employed them. I found it very, very interesting and listened raptly to their mellifluous, melodious descriptions. A mellow aura seemed to limn each artifact they mentioned, an otherworldly or supernatural enhancement that imparted depth of which formerly I’d been absolutely unaware. It was as if I had transcended a domain of two dimensions and entered one of three. It was an enlightened afternoon and transfigured evening that ensued. As, now and again, one or the other of the nuns took me by my hand or tugged upon the black sleeve of my habit to capture my attention or to underscore a comment, surging ecstasy suffused me and overwhelmed my being. My heaviness, fatigue and pain were banished, and I was wafted on the breeze as weightless as excelsior, in a sort of hypnagogic trance. Was this an access to nirvana, a glimpse of paradise?
Again the sun stood on the west horizon, tingeing gold and purple the motionless long strands of clouds attending its departure. The pair of lovely sisters took their leave, assuring me they’d reach the chapel in Piljandar safely. I returned to Eldor, full of confidence, as if I’d always been a nun.
Remembering my banishment from Udi’s bedchamber, I couldn’t think of any reason to change clothes when I got back to my apartment. So I sat up in my conventual apparel with my embroidery till midnight found me dozing. Then I reluctantly undressed and went to bed, dreaming dreams exalted and sublime, sleeping soundly until morning.
A few days passed. Sister Quequemenia and Sister Lumidelfia and I went to all 16 museums, often eating lunch at restaurants and kiosks with tables on the sidewalk. During all these days, no one had acted as if anything had been amiss, and I was gaining faith in the gracefulness of my impersonation. I hadn’t said a word to Udi, Ajinblambia or any other person at the palace, and I was careful to slip surreptitiously to my apartment from the elevator, lest anyone ask why a nun had come to see me, though naturally I had a likely story ready if anyone observed my movements in spite of all my caution.
In that period, I didn’t see Queen Udi in the evenings, because her study was always empty when I came. I’d talk to Toto, perhaps glance at a book or admire one of Udi’s fine collections or works of art. I wanted to talk privately with her about the new ménage-a-trois. I hadn’t had a chance since that sad evening when I’d found the royal ladies on the bed. But the queen would not appear. Maybe she was dreading the inevitable encounter, or maybe she and Ajinblambia had forgotten everything except each other.
Finally, though, reginal Udi was sitting on the sofa of crushed avocado velvet in a corner of her study, of an evening. I was in my secular attire, and as I entered, Udi rose to greet me, and embraced me tenderly, almost as if nothing had transpired to change our marriage or our love. Inwardly I wept a tear or two, and merely whispered, "Why, dear Udi?"
"This will be the best thing for all three of us, you’ll see. Just try to understand not only private loyalties and loves, but also the well-being of the realm and the politics of power. I’m doing this not only out of love for Ajinblambia, though I do love her dearly, but too because I think that with her hand upon the helm, the argosy of Ung will reach the port of call that destiny appoints."
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