A Tale of Ung
Udi and I rose just at daybreak. An hour later we checked out of Escovralla Inn and hailed a taxicab to take us to 150 Dronder Lane, Ajinblambia’s address. Again the oaken door of her stone cottage stood ajar, and as we were walking from the taxi, we saw Ajinblambia emerging from within to meet us on the walk. We’d come rather early, as we’d promised, and Ajinblambia, seating us beneath the red-and-white umbrella, served a tray of buns and butter, sausages and tuco. Then she joined us for a cheerful little breakfast.
Dronder Lane, Ajinblambia remarked, leads into Elmatart Ring Drive, which circles Gwedbaj Station, half a mile distant from her house. Dronder Lane, of course, like every street in Psebol, has a bus line, and taxicabs are always plentiful around the station, but we might enjoy the walk, she added. It was a lovely stroll and we had time in any case. Udi and I, of course, agreed to walk. We finished eating breakfast, and Ajinblambia, assuring us her sister’d be there soon to take over at the cottage, merely fetched her shoulder bag of jet-black duck. We picked up our own bags and the three of us walked off together. A terra cotta sidewalk, overhung by boughs of tamarinds and sycamores, was hedged in by knee-high grass on either side, but here and there a lilac or acacia bloomed in contrast with this mass of green. We followed this for 10 or 15 minutes, glimpsing statues, founts and benches in several small rotundas on the way, till Gwedbaj Station was in sight.
In Motinia, my native country in the east of Eb, at six feet tall, I’m an ordinary man or perhaps a little taller than the average. Women in Motinia are five-feet-six or so. You can well imagine my amazement when I first came to Ung, where men stand seven feet or so and women usually measure six-feet-three. If I hadn’t met Queen Udi, Queen of Ung, herself a little short by the standards of Mecnita, and been fortunate enough to win her hand in marriage and the station of prime minister of Ung, I’d probably have come to feel inferior and so returned to my Motinia. But my great though unforeseen successes had given me self-confidence and self-respect. Udi was just a little taller than myself.
When I’d met Ajinblambia in year 388 in the city of Bihaka and also in a subsequent brief meeting, I’d observed of course that she was even taller than the average Ungi lady, but only now, as we were strolling in the half-wild paradise of Dronder Lane, did I realize that she was perfectly as tall as the average Ungi man, fully seven feet. You’d have thought that a grown woman was ushering two adolescents down the street, perhaps a teacher with two pupils, or a lady with her nephew and her niece. She towered over Udi and myself by 12 or 13 inches. I could scarce believe my eyes. I was terribly embarrassed.
Not only was she tall though, Ajinblambia was beautiful. Her complexion was as walnut and her hair a lustrous black. Bangs concealed her forehead, and tresses fell cascading past her shoulders to mid-back. She had a girlish look, innocent and sweet, with carmine lips and the suggestion of a pout. Her posture was erect, her shoulders level, her bosom full but just a little pendulous, her hips were wide and shapely. Her short-sleeved, short-skirted dress of creamy jersey, in lovely contrast with the color of her skin, revealed lissome, supple, well-formed limbs, powerful and graceful. Her scent was truly irresistible.
Gwedbaj Station is a giant crystal igloo. The radius of the hemisphere is 1500 feet. The tunnel is two miles long, as it must be to accommodate Ung’s longer trains. Inside are fifty tracks, all full of golden comets, and fifty platforms where the passengers detrain. As you look down upon the station from Elmatart Ring Drive, you’d say that you were looking at a lute lying in a recess of the selfsame shape, 500 feet below ground level. A spacious sidewalk goes all around the lute or igloo. Sheer walls of concrete circle the whole sidewalk, rising as precipitous high cliffs 500 feet up to the ground, where there’s another sidewalk with a rail all around. As you come up Dronder Lane and reach the rail, you can see the antlike multitudes down in this concrete chasm, but the igloo’s dome, which really is a million-faceted glass polyhedron on a framework of chrome-plated steel trusses, soars above the ground, reaching upward to the zenith. Udi, Ajinblambia and I came strolling up, stood a while admiring the breathtaking view below, and finally got on a spiral escalator, encapsulated in plate glass, that went down from Elmatart Ring Drive to the level of the lobby of the station. The lobby, vaster than a canyon, illumined by the gorgeous Psebol sun, held 10,000 people, overpowering and awesome. Luckily we still had time to find our way amongst the throngs of passengers surrounding us at every step.
Sometime later, we’d reserved a double compartment for Queen Udi and myself and a single one for Ajinblambia, who’d be our next-door neighbor on the train, and we stood waiting at Gate 93.
Soon we had boarded and occupied our mahogany compartment with cordovan upholstery and tapestries of flowers. Each car is decorated differently in Ung. Later, we invited Ajinblambia, who’d retired to her own compartment, to come join us, and the three of us spent several hours in elated conversation.
It may be informative for me to outline the geography of Nya, our planet here in Ti. With a diameter of over 18,000 earthly miles, Nya has just two continents; their names are Ub and Eb. Ub, the larger, has an area of 190,000,000 miles square, eleven times the size of Asia. Eb, the smaller, covers 111,000,000 miles square, not counting the million-island archipelago of Ungonesia in the water to the south, and there are scattered islands elsewhere in the endless world ocean. Originally, Ung was just a kingdom on the continent of Eb, making up nine-tenths its area. The other ten percent consisted of a number of much smaller kingdoms like Motinia, my homeland. This Ung is now called Ungia. The continent of Eb is dominated by Qazudistan, with 90,000,000 square miles of territory, but there are also some 500 other small, once-independent countries, including kingdoms, duchies, principalities, republics, communes and the like. Among these smaller countries, many of which are provinces today, are the ones collaborating in the Turfant-Tuva Project and the Oirad Project I was overseeing. They are in the Ubbic west, on the east shore of the Eastern Ocean, some 20,000 miles across the ocean from the Psebol Project in northwestern Ungia, that is, northwestern Eb. Centrally located in Ungia is the capital, Mecnita, city of 100,000,000. Greater Mecnita boasts 350,000,000. Eb and Ub each number some three billion, while Ungonesia and Oceania together number just about a billion. Thus Nya enjoys a population exceeding seven billion.
Udi had been queen of Ung a good long while, that is, since childhood. Only recently, however, with the successful outcome of the Qazudi Revolution, had she crowned herself the queen of Nya, the entire planet, too, although perhaps a quarter of the lands of Nya remained outside the pale of her authority at that time, the 15th of year 103,390, to be precise. Eventually, of course, these extraterritorial domains also would be added to her realm, as it turned out, and no one would suggest her majesty was only titular, if anyone had thought so earlier.
Ungia, as all were well aware, was an ultramodern kingdom full of shining cities, with power stations rated by the terawatt, ships that carried two-mile trains a dozen at a time, thousand-story towers, mills that ladled steel ingots of 100,000 tons apiece, giganewton airplanes. Here were 20-lane expressways where you could drive 200 miles an hour. Here were reapers that could harvest 400 miles at a time. Here were plants that could produce cement in cubic kilometers, eating limestone mountains in rapacity. Here was a bakery that daily baked 600,000,000 loaves of bread. Here was the sprawling network of golden comet trains joining city to city throughout the country, and district to district within each of the cities. Here were computers that controlled entire regions, recording all transactions and events decade after decade. Here stood the Bank of Ung, with its assets of 200 trillion dollars, and here was Eldor Palace, the cerebrum of the realm, with its incomparable appointments and facilities, a superbrain revetted in white marble.
The Ubbic lands lagged far behind. Qazudistan had planes and trains and cities to be sure, as did some other Ubbic countries too, like Freigentlent and Tsumufuchi and Ong Pang, but there was no comparison with Ungia. Now that most of Ub belonged to Ung, Udi had a mind to develop and improve it, investing lavishly with money from the Bank of Ung. The two projects in the west of the mysterious continent, as Ub was often dubbed, were an example of the ventures she would sponsor. Wise and canny though she was, Queen Udi still relied on the assistance of counselors and experts in finance, engineering, languages, economy. This was where she thought she might make use of Ajinblambia’s experience. Few were the citizens of Ungia with first-hand knowledge of Qazudistan, even among the scholars of Mecnita’s many universities.
As we got comfortable in our compartment, again we started with a conversation in Qazudi. My own fluency in Qazudi had enabled me to impersonate a disgruntled Qazudistani named Abilai Kabarkaev and thus precipitate and lead the revolution that made Ub a part of Ung, but of course I’d been instructed thoroughly for the very purpose, whereas Queen Udi had learnt to speak Qazudi only as an incidental to her administration of the whole affair, so her less than perfect knowledge of the language constituted no reflection on the breadth of her intelligence. Quite the contrary, she was Ung’s best mind, and I say this not because she was a queen I feel bound to heap with praises, but because throughout her years of school, she’d always scored Mecnita’s highest scores. Yes, she was a prodigy and could have managed my proficiency in a fraction of the time I’d had to study. Ajinblambia, of course, had resided in Bihaka several years, and spoke the language faultlessly.
From the conversation, Udi and I found out, much to the queen’s approval, that Ajinblambia spoke several other Ubbic languages as well, including Oiradi, one of the nomadic dialects spoken at the irrigation projects. She spoke some sample sentences and even wrote some specimens for us to look at.
As midday drew upon us, we ate a lunch of little cutlets and green salad with dessert of chocolate ice cream and profiteroles, naturally with cups of fragrant tuco. Again the sun was shining, throwing slanting rays that intersected with the standing stalks of wheat in the eastern reaches of Psebol Field, where we angled through southeastward at meteoric speed. In the hazy distance, we could see the lofty peaks of the western cordilleras of the Mairozufs, a never-never land of glacial ridges and crevasses and seracs, whose summits tower 100,000 feet above the level of the sea. This is where the Umzid River springs, formed from the thaw of alpine snows. We all looked out the window for a while in silent awe and wonder.
Then taking up our conversation once again, Queen Udi asked, "Ajinblambia, are you familiar with the Ghasbi Swamps?" She was speaking of the watery wastes of Memleket Ghasb, lately a kingdom now become an Ungi province, formed from the union of Alyafilah and Sagha’a on Ub’s east coast, with its capital at Osh.
"Why, yes, of course. That’s a very famous area."
"North of the Ghasbi Swamps is the Karamanta Desert, as doubtless you’re aware. One of the projects that I have in mind is the drainage of the swamps to provide the water to irrigate the desert."
"Strange that you should mention that," Ajinblambia replied, "I’ve often wondered why the Jvashnas didn’t undertake the project. It seems so natural to do."
The Jvashnas were the rulers of Qazudistan whom the Qazudi Revolution had deposed. Ajinblambia’s reply met the obvious approval of the queen, as if her friend’s agreement with her own idea was proof of her acumen, the quality she most admired.
"I’ll have to have a study made," said Udi, "It all depends on how much everything will cost."
"The total cost, in absolute figures, regardless of how great, shouldn’t be a problem or deterrent. I know it will be steep, but the entire project, as I see it, can be done in self-financing stages."
Udi was astonished, not only by the fact that Ajinblambia had already thought of such a project, but also by what seemed to be very definite ideas in her mind on how to carry out the project. "Self-financing stages?" asked the queen, "Please tell us what you mean by self-financing stages."
"Yes, of course," said Ajinblambia, "the whole complex of facilities necessary for the project can be built in pieces or divisions, each segment of the work producing an enabling profit to finance the next, much in the manner of a long-term plant expansion project."
She then proceeded to make statements and remarks revealing an uncommon knowledge of engineering, agriculture and geology. One might easily awe me with half a dozen technical expressions scattered in a conversation, but not so was it with Queen Udi, with her peerless mind and thorough education, and I could see that she was favorably impressed to say the least.
The two lovely ladies chatted with increasing animation, as it emerged the taller lady had depth of understanding in both law and finance too. It looked as if the queen had found someone she could look up to, someone who possessed more knowledge than she herself possessed, something that I’m sure had seldom or never happened in her life.
From the subject of the draining of the Ghasbi Swamps to that of building a transcontinental railroad in Ub from Bihaka all the way to Qizilot, and from that subject to the subject of Ceveristan’s leviathan petroleum refineries, and then to that of the construction of a fleet of ultrasupertankers, the sparkling conversation went, with never a sign of apathy or ignorance on the part of Ajinblambia. Needless to say, Queen Udi, as the Queen of Ung, was justifiably profoundly interested in all these undertakings and activities. These were her lifeblood and the lifeblood of the realm.
I sat listening with less comprehension than I’d have liked to have, all the while gazing out the window at the sunny plains, where here and there a grove of sandalwood or eucalyptus could be seen. Waves of heat shimmered and undulated in the distance, dancing in the dazzling light, while high above I saw great towering white clouds. It was a perfect summer day.
Eventually, the conversation turned to sports, with Udi prompting Ajinblambia to talk about herself. Ajinblambia said she liked to ride and hike and swim and ski. Also, she climbed mountains, lifted weights, played volleyball and tennis. She produced a photograph that showed her mounted on a thoroughbred black stallion, clearing a high hurdle in the races in Bihaka, then another one that showed her climbing up a rope suspended a mile above a valley in the Mahaghats of Ub.
Udi was indeed impressed, even overwhelmed, as was I as well. Who wouldn’t be impressed by so statuesque a lady with a brilliant mind and an epic talent for athletics? And yet so lovely and so charming!
Later, Udi asked her new acquaintance about her pastimes, and Ajinblambia explained she did embroidery, played the trumpet and painted watercolors. There was no end to the diversity of her talents and her aptitudes, it seemed. Nor did I for a moment think she was exaggerating her abilities. She was manifestly candid and sincere in all she said.
Still, there was something puzzling me. Recalling how, back in ’386, when first I’d met her in Bihaka, Ajinblambia had said she’d been in business there some 20 years, I now began to study the features of her face more carefully. Even then, in year 386, I had been puzzled, but the thing had slipped my mind completely. Now I was remembering. Ajinblambia’s achievements and abilities pointed to an age past 40, as did the 20 years she’d said she’d been in business. The only difficulty was she looked no more then 30. She was youthful, lovely, shapely and vivacious. I’d have said she was more like 25. But how could she be so young? I certainly didn’t want to mention this to Udi. I had no grounds to doubt the words of Ajinblambia. Everything she said rang absolutely true. I didn’t want to question her about her age; perhaps she was a little sensitive about it. Still, this was very curious indeed. Eventually, however, it slipped my mind again.
When the conversation momentarily abated just a bit, Udi, opening her bag, withdrew a large metallic band. This bracelet, just two inches wide, housed a cell phone and a minifax, a microcomputer in the gigabytes and audio and video as well. It told the time, the temperature, the latitude and longitude and who could even guess what else? To use the phone, you needn’t hold the bracelet to your ear or mouth. Just lay your hand upon a table or in your lap, and speak as if you were conversing with a person facing you.
Udi snapped the bracelet open and put it on her wrist, resting her forearm on her leg. "Redenorb," she said. Redenorb was one of the chauffeurs who lived at Eldor Palace. The bracelet translated Udi’s spoken word into a signal that would become a ringing of Redenorb’s receiver in Mecnita.
"Yes, Queen Udi," the three of us heard Redenorb as if he’d spoken right in our compartment in the train.
"Bring a limousine to Forgsha Station to meet the train from Psebol in the morning. Vocno and I will be arriving with an important guest."
"Yes, Queen Udi," we could hear again, and then a click.
Ordinarily, we’d just have transferred at Forgsha Station in Mecnita to an intracity train, in other words, the metro. Nothing could be easier or faster. The car would be a courtesy to Ajinblambia, unaccustomed to such luxury, no doubt. Redenorb often fetched arriving dignitaries.
Finally, the afternoon gave way to evening, and Ajinblambia went back to her compartment. Udi and I supped together silently and then retired early.
Daybreak found us back in Glozbanc Forest and by late morning we’d whizzed o’er the Umzid River, racing through New Ozgingd, and then into Mecnita, right into the heart of town, where stood the towers of Ramdonia and, near them, Forgsha Station. Detraining, we found Redenorb awaiting us. Five minutes later we were at the white V30 limousine, the finest auto Atdo-on-the-Etdo Auto Works produces. With a thermal efficiency of 75%, the 30-cylinder engine is built of ungotite, a special alloy combining an exceptionally low diffusivity and first-rate tribological properties with the tensile strength of a maraging steel. The car can do 200 miles an hour or more, and gets upwards of 50 miles to the gallon. Of course, acceleration due to gravity and aerodynamic drag as they occur on Nya are not what they are on Earth, nor are our petroleums identical to tellurian petroleums, but most of the credit for our superautos is due our engineers, who draw on millennia of technical experience.
Redenorb, who like most citizens of Ung was required to work but one year in ten, was finishing his tour of duty as a royal chauffeur. Soon there’d be a new man in his stead. He helped us in, got in himself and tooled the limousine onto Pongdoir Expressway. No sooner were we bulleting along that superhighway than we spotted Flenjculd Hill. Once we’d attained the summit of the hill, we beheld our Eldor Palace in all its loveliness and glory.
Nine alabastrine hemispheroid--we just call them ‘ovals’--one central, eight peripheral, constitute the palace. The central oval, like half a great, long, slender egg, has at its base a 1000-foot diameter and stands 2000 feet. The eight encircling ovals, on points cardinal and intercardinal, 1200 feet away, are half as big around and half as tall. Eight halls, like naves of churches, inverted U’s, lie on radial lines, connecting the lesser ovals to the greater. The whole edifice consists of whitest marble, save the lofty opalescent windows barely to be distinguished from the stone surrounding them. From the inside of the palace, though, the windows are transparent and afford a panoramic view of the world capital below. A massive door of tracery of gold and garnet, 200 feet in height, 100 feet in width, and operated by electronic eyes, opens on the outside of each lesser oval. The palace is set in a landscape of lush gardens and magnificent preserves.
The entrance to the southern oval overlooks the eightsome of the thousand-story towers along Ramdonia Circle that stand five miles south. The northern oval is the royal residence, with a myriad of rooms of every kind—drawing rooms and ballrooms, banquet halls and auditoriums, apartments, workshops, libraries and guest rooms—one can’t even find them all. Queen Udi’s beautiful apartment with 15 gorgeous rooms is the latest word in elegance and opulence. My own 10-room apartment, next to hers, is also very fine indeed, though I used just three rooms for quite some time, preferring to spend my time with Udi, when she let me.
Udi’s office, adjacent to her own apartment, was a spacious room, with abundant daylight. In it stood a dozen oaken tables and a hundred oaken chairs, extensive bookshelves lined with volumes bound in leather dyed in shades of crimson, purple, wine and navy, and a veritable museum of instruments and implements that only Udi knew. If she sought quotations on the market, oceanographic data, photostats of archived documents, spectrograms of distant stars, reference material on Ungi history, actuarial statistics or any other thing at all, she had it in her office or could get in a minute by pressing buttons or uttering commands aloud. Her massive walnut desk, six feet wide and thirty long, dominated everything. A glance would tell you that a queen sat there.
Redenorb deposited Udi, Ajinblambia and me inside the northern oval in an underground garage punctuated by intersecting colonnades of concrete columns with a twenty-foot diameter pillaring the superjacent palace. A bank of stainless elevators stood nearby as we issued from the limousine, and Udi said, "Queen Udi here," as we approached. No voice but hers would open up the doors; others had to punch in numbers. The three of us stepped in and Udi said, "My office." The car ascended in a second and the three of us stepped out, right in front of Udi’s office. The queen flung wide her doors, and she and Ajinblambia and I went in. The opulent appointments of her office, all brocade and gold, shone splendid in the sunshine streaming through the curtains of organza hanging at the lofty windows. You could hear the gentle clacking and the purring of machines that processed information for the queen. A massive globe of Nya on brazen gimbals stood behind the desk, and would begin to rotate at a touch. Maps filled up whatever walls the bookcases left empty. Noble statues and sumptuous oil paintings added style to the furnishings. Ajinblambia was awed. Regalia like these she’d never seen.
We three took seats around a long low table of handsome craftsmanship. Udi pressed a button and ordered us refreshments, which would appear in just a moment. Soon someone spread before us a selection of choice meats—salmon, quail, pork and venison—and little loaves of wheat and rye, along with lettuce, olives, peppers, mushrooms. There were icy drinks of strawberry and peppermint and apple, with hot tuco afterwards. There were cakes and muffins for dessert.
The tenor of our conversation was much the same as earlier—Ung’s future and the projects that secured it. Eventually, the queen brought up the subject of the Turfant-Tuva Project and the Oirad Project I was managing. Surprisingly enough though, Ajinblambia remarked she’d visited the area some years before ground had been broken for the projects. She’d recognized the great potential of the region, she recalled, but there’d been nothing she could do to bring this to the attention of the authorities in the mosaic of kingdoms then in power there. Queen Udi asked me to describe the projects—at last I’d have a chance to try to look intelligent—and mention to our guest some of the challenges and problems I was facing.
Of course, the projects had been started some time before the conclusion of the Qazudi Revolution. The leaders of the nine collaborating provinces, foreseeing Ung would win the war, had opted to anticipate the victory by joining Ung beforehand. Queen Udi had proposed the reclamation projects, the nine new provinces had all agreed enthusiastically and I’d been put in charge. Surveys and reports had been prepared. A staff of engineers had drawn up a schedule and a budget. The Bank of Qizilot had been chartered and endowed, with Dzegnent as its governor. Dzegnent was an Ungi-speaking Oiradi with whom I’d have to deal often, a man of prudence and integrity. Equipment had been purchased—cranes and power shovels, trucks and backhoes, graders, pile-drivers, bulldozers and rollers—all on a mammoth scale, and work had gotten under way. Later, concrete batch plants and cement mixers, with endless piles of rebars, woven wire fabric, forms and decking had been brought, and foundations had been poured. The design of the containment structures followed standardized construction drawings and specifications already tried and tested, with only minor modifications due to the configuration of the soil and the bedrock at each site.
Now, I explained to Ajinblambia, the projects had been under way a year or so. Endless quantities of manpower and material were being used, and you could see results. The concrete shells, like fortresses of inexpugnability, were rising in the desert next the sea. Hordes of pylons marched upon the dunes. Titanic reels of aluminum-and-steel cable rested on the trailers of enormous rigs. Electric power would be transmitted at 10,000,000-volt potential. Twenty-foot-round concrete pipes a quarter-mile long were being cast at several locations in the region, ready to be articulated end to end to form the arteries of western Ub. Tremendous locomotives drew them to the site of their emplacement on extrawide-gauge tracks.
Many people would probably have listened in disguised indifference to my descriptions of the irrigation project, but Ajinblambia seemed genuinely interested, a whole array of beautiful expressions appearing on her lovely, childlike face. She would smile as if she pictured to herself just perfectly the towering reactors being raised by giant derricks. Or she’d interpose a technical remark or question evincing an intelligence I’d never have expected her to have if I had seen her walking down the street. She didn’t seem to tire of my tale.
Eventually, though, I felt I’d given an elaborate enough account in view of the informal nature of our little get-together in the royal office. Udi then proposed a final glass of wine, seeing I was finishing my story.
"Ajinblambia," she said, "I have an empty suite of three darling little rooms right on this floor, nearby, not a hundred feet away. I’m sure you’ll want to freshen up a little and relax a while after our long ride from Psebol. Let me show you the apartment, if dear Vocno will excuse us for a moment. I’d like for you to be our guest here in the palace for a good long time, a month or two at least. I hope this little suite will meet with your approval. If not, please don’t be bashful, I can find another. In any case, accept it for tonight at least. Tomorrow, we can move you, if you like."
Udi’s suite of ‘three darling little rooms’ was sumptuous and spacious in such a great degree that her description was a total understatement, but of course that is Udi’s manner.
I sat back in my big chair, an imposing piece of ebony and purple plush, as the ladies, still conversing, rose and smiled at me and exited the royal office, Queen Udi ushering her new friend into the regal corridor without. I heard them walk away, then ate another bite or two of food and drank another sip of wine and waited.
Before long, Queen Udi had returned. I stood to greet her, put my arm around her slender waist, drew her near and kissed her on the cheek. We sat down together on a couch, she leant her head back on my shoulder. I put my hand into her lap and there she took it in her own. We sat in silence for a goodly while, but finally I rose. My imploring eyes looked into Udi’s flattered eyes and, assenting to the implicit question of my gaze, she led me to her bedchamber of violet, cerulean and white.
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