THE LAST HAMLET: or The Readiness Is All. - 5. LAST HOPE
5. LAST HOPE
If the Evening Gazette for the first day of 1066 ND* is anything to go by, the Coronation of the second of the Hamlets the First was a popular affair.
*This significant date is matched by one on Ee-arth, except that there the N stands not for 'New' but for 'Norman'. Norman was a mighty warrior who conquered Angloland at a time referred to by their historians as '1066 and all that.'
The Chief Reporter wrote:
This afternoon, the cold of the season was lit briefly by the Coronation of King Hamlet, of that name the First. The ceremony was performed in the Temple of Draxy.**
** Once the Museum of Nature, as it is again today.
His Majesty was escorted by the Regents - who are, with all of our most grateful thanks, to retire tomorrow - and the crowning was performed by Her Grace Phoebe, Archdraxite of All Steefax.
There was much rejoicing among the citizenry, who cheered the frost away with a display of emotion and joy the like of which has not be seen amongst us sice the onset of the bitter years.
Long live the King! Long live the Archdraxite! Long live Steefax!
Hamlet's State of Steefax Address - given, as tradition dictated, the day after the Coronation - had been written for him by Phoebe. In it he was to thank the retiring Regents for 'renewing the lives of our people in their adversity', to acknowledge their 'wisdom in inaugurating the Archdraxity', and to assure the Archdraxite of his determination to 'seek her guidance in all things'. This was the address which the new King did not quite deliver, and if Phoebe had known him just a little better she might not have been greatly surprised by a coda of his own devising.
Thirsius had had a passion for reading from infancy, and before he had left school he had read much of the significant history, philosophy, and literature, not only of his own world, but of the wider universe. He was an authority on our own Argons, as well as on Tarquin of Kryptos, Fillais de Burf of Ee-arth, and Moldan the Big of Bog. He was an advocate of the best of our own imaginative literature, being especially fond of the historical novels of Protax, and the mystical verse dramas of Calafon. He was familiar with Ee-arth's Whattha Dikkens, and his fellow country man, Rattlelance, whom Thirsius judged to be the best writer ever, anywhere. He loved in particular the blank verse plays, of which his favourites were Village, Son of Elizabeth, and Harry the Fifth, a new translation of which he had completed shortly before being called to the throne.
In his post-Coronation speech, Hamlet gave all the thanks and acknowledgments that had been written for him, before suddenly lurching away from the script. He said that whilst kings of Steefax had had always sought sound advice, in the end they had been used to making up their own minds about things. He concluded thus: "When Her Grace the Archdraxite advises, we will listen; but having listened, we alone shall rule." We may be sure that from that moment Phoebe would have been looking for a chance to cut the upstart down to size. She did not have very long to wait.
Lobina and Mendicop, old school pals of Thirsius and his bride Cecelia, had been taken by their moles and their talents to their respective positions of Royal Empiricist and Royal Asronomer when they were only twenty three years of age. One day, about six months into the new reign, probably at a Royal Tea - which institution was invented by Hamlet the First, and not inherited from the elder days as many still insist - the scientists told the King there was something they would like to discuss with him, in private. A meeting was duly arranged.
The scientists had been studying some data sent back half a century earlier by an unmanned probe to the Constellation of Vagos. Five planets, none of them fit to live on, had been discovered. The largest of them, which they named Inferno because of its 'foul and pestilential congrgation of vapours', had been found to have a distinctly irregular orbit around its sun. Now, there was nothing unusual about that, for the movements of all heavenly bodies are affected by the gravitational pull of neighbours near and far; but this particular orbit had such a pronounced 'hump' that the King's friends decided to investigate it. They concluded that as there was no other known body in the system large enough to account for the anomaly, there must be an uncharted, undetected mass of considerable size in the area.
What was said when the scientists met the King? Well, as there is no extant record of the conversation, it will be anyone's guess. So, I will do the guessing.
"It must be a planet," Mendikop said.
"Could we get to it?" Hamlet asked.
"We know the area," Lobina said. 'We could get close."
"What are the chances of there being Draxy on it?"
"Approximately nil," said Mendikop.
"Well, there's only one way to find out!"
Uncertain of his standing with the Archdraxite controlled Evening Gazette, Hamlet opted for a bit of old style news breaking. Eight criers, at key points in the City, proclaimed the following:
"Hear this! Hear this! By order of His Majesty King Hamlet, this is proclaimed:
"Royal Astronomer Lobina and Royal Empiricist Mendikop have found evidence of a previously undetected planet in the Constellation of Vagos, and they have marked its position as accurately as incomplete data may at this time allow.
"Hear this! Hear this! His Majesty declares: I have commissioned a ship and a volunteer crew. The Draxy in the Royal Urn is sufficient for a one way trip to attempt to discover the mystery planet. If we reach it, we may even find Draxy on it. Anyway, we mean to give it a go. We expect nothing, but we hope for everything! Long live Steefax and its brave people!"
Perhaps to Hamlet's surprise, the Gazette published his proclamation the same day. Opposition from the Archdraxite was strangely muted: she contented herself with pieces in the paper on such themes as 'priorities' and 'learning from the sins and errors of the past'. But why did she not use her newly established power of summoning the Guardians? She couild have asked them to forbid the expedition. Well, for what my opinion may be worth, I think she was probably frightened to do so! Supposing the Wise Ones had sided with the King? Then where would she have been?
I actually think that Phoebe was quite happy for Hamlet to do what he wanted. After all, what better chance would she have of getting rid of a troublesome monarch, and a troublesome consort who insisted on going with him? And the scientists were going too. So, get them all out of the way, for good; for it was plainly obvious that the expedition would fail, even if they reached this hypothetical planet. After all, in two hundred years Draxy had been found nowhere but on Steefax.
A month after the expdition had been announced, the Gaxette ran the following:
Yesterday, just before noon, the spaceship Proteus, bearing King Hamlet, Queen Cecelia, Atronomer Lobina, Empiricist Mendikop, Commander Vimosa, and members of thr space fleet, left Steefax in search of the so-called 'mystery' planet. We wish them all well, and hope for their safe return, even though we cannot, in all reason, expect it.
Archdraxite Phoebe was in no hurry to replace the rash, adventuring monarch; and neither had she any immediate need to do so. Hamlet had left Steefax in a sound ship, with enough Draxy to end up at least somwhere! Give him five years, presume him dead, then look for a successor.
Hamlet, of that name the First, had been the worst of sinners,. He had exploited the pathetic hopes of a demoralised people. He had offered lies in the guise of hope. He had encoraged the sort of reckless, feckless adventurism that had spawned the Catstrophe in the first place. He was the man of sin, the great sinner, the corrupter of youth, the man most hated and despised, the foulest creature ever to have issued from the loins of Steefax! Five years of this sort of stuff in the daily newspaper preceded the accession to the throne of Hamlet the Seond, of whom nothing is known, not even his given name. He may have been grateful for his anonimity.
Phoebe's first major reform was enacted in 1068, when she was just seventeen. She decreed that within two years no one would live more than a day's ride, nor a three days' walk, from Steefax City. She said that with our drastically reduced population it was not sensible to have it too thinly spread. Most people, even those in the far flung remnants of the fishing communities of the east coast, moved without coercion; there was abundant accommodation - much of it of superior kind - in and around the City, and jobs were easy to find. For most of the migrants, the journey to the central area was their last to be made anywhere - by train
The so called 'permanent way' - most of it is still there, covered by those raised grass tracks which still make great foot paths - had been comprised of thee lines, two fanning out to the coastal plains, and the third winding its way to the mineral mining grounds in the Wilderness. Someone asked me the other day what happened to all the steam engines, carriages, and freight wagons. Well, I had to admit that I had no idea! Some little research later, I can reveal to my fellow ignoramuses that they all lie under tons of rock and rubble at the bottom of quaries in the Wilderness. Special line extensions were laid to take the redundant hardware to the very brinks of cliffs.
With the railways gone, why was space travel - the root of all our troubles - retained? The answer lies in our geography, and in the common sense of Archdraxite Phoebe.
Take away the twenty miles or so around Steefax City, and the once highly productive coastal plains, and we are left with ancient forests bordering the northern and southern tundras, inhospitable mountain ranges, a few fertile but very narrow valleys, and vast ares of the Wilderness. Before the migration towards the City we had reaped a splendid harvest from the sea, and those days are now beginning to return; but the eating of herring and haddock, mackerel and mullet, bobsters and grabs, was, in post-Catastrophe Steefax, the preserve of intrepid holiday makers who put to sea in increasingly leaky and creey remnants of a once great fleet.
With the migration had come the slaughter of thousands of cattle, sheep, and pigs, and the abandonment of huge areas of arable land. By the end of resettlement, there was actually less food per mouth grown on the planet than before the Catstrophe. If widespread hunger was to be avoided, then the Moon had to produce more food not less. For many centuries the artificially controlled climate of Moon Dome had produced four harvests a year from its two thousand acres. It was the breadbasket of Steefax, and Phoebe, to her eternal credit, gave it her blessing,