Man of the World by Robert Gibson

4:  the harbinger


As lawns went in Serenth it was reasonably luxuriant. It averaged perhaps one blade of grass per square inch, enough to give the ground a fuzzy green tinge. Normally, a passer-by would do no more than appreciate that general effect.

Midax, however, had noticed something else, something he had never expected to see, but which he straightaway understood.

It meant goodbye to all previous days. It was a cut-away point in history, screening off all moments up to and including the moment before. On the past side of that barrier, he had been living a life which, despite all its discontents, shone now in a sudden retrospect of pearly light, out of reach, idyllic – replaced by the new knowledge which slithered against him.

Alas, I cannot un-see what I see –

Midax’s ability to register detail was what had put him at this spot of destiny. Every Serenthian was born with the photographic ability to recognize, individually, every stalk, petal or leaf of each separate plant in the known and visited world: literally every single separate thing that grew in Serenth itself and in the surrounding hills of Sycrest. But this awareness of detail was perhaps keener in Midax than in most. At any rate it was he who made the discovery, here on Rheddon Avenue, on this quiet evening of Day 143,206,645:

Two blades of grass had fused into one. That was all. Two separate clean-lined blades had ceased to be. And where the pair of blades had formerly stood, just one rather coarse and smudgy blade existed. One tiny change.

As of this instant, the world will never be the same.

Midax had never thought that he would ever happen to live through one of those rare vertiginous moments called “historic”. Now his skin prickled with the truth while his mind’s eye soared to picture the implications of that truth for the world he knew: all of Sycrest out as far as the Blerdon, the vague boundary, about forty miles distant, where the diminishing influence of the Time-Tree fell below the level necessary to nurture the complexity called “life”. How tiny and helpless the entire oasis appeared! He reeled at the perspective, at the coldly implacable fate in store.

Sycrest lay powerless as it awaited its doom. Nothing could prevent the onset of the Winter of Simplicity, of which the grass-blade fusion was the first sign – the Winter of Simplicity, which folklore had named, in brutal accuracy, Sparseworld.

A mythical condition, said skeptics whose disbelief had grown with the ages. A mere bogey to frighten simpletons –

Until this evening. Now, proof had appeared. Now Midax must bear the news to the authorities.

Why? Why must he believe?

Just a pair of grass-blades fused! Must the implication be so dire?

No room for doubt, nor indeed for any surprise at the rapidity of his own understanding. He had no choice but to understand. The deeper the truth, the more adapted it was to one’s deep self; and complexity was the most fundamental topic of all.

Complexity. An affinity for it, a knack for gauging its precise degree, and a warning instinct for changes in its trend, were natural talents for a people who dwelt in one isolated life-spangled patch surrounded by millions of miles of smoothness. Sparseworld is on its way. Midax set his limbs in motion.

He must force himself first of all to carry out a check. A few minutes could be spared for this. Briskly he wandered up and down and across this section of avenue, examining his surroundings while repressing a pit-of-the-stomach disorder that sent him paging through his mental dictionary for the obscure word fear.

Finally assured that the rest of the lawn was normal, he next gazed at the trees which lined its border. He examined them in dread lest he see any of them devolved into crude lollipop shapes.

No, thank the Fount, the trees still had twigs and leaves, complex as ever.

Not that this was any real comfort. According to all the legends, Sparseworld was destined to approach stealthily, and furthermore the Olamic Institute, which had always known that this nightmare was no legend, had always taught that it would start with a deceptive trickle of minor changes.

Midax began loping back up the avenue, back towards the Institute building. His eyes swept the scene like searchlights as he ran a weaving route, examining structures on both sides, noting with relief the unimpaired complexity of cornices and façades. Further up the hill he took the time to jog round in a full loop, to face back for one last comfortable view over the city. Anything peculiar? Distant spots of reassuring motion: airmills’ giant propellers, spinning with stroboscopic verve, furnishing the breezes for bright-coloured sails, scudding along frictionless canals. Thank the Fount, the same old kaleidoscopic pattern as of yore. It would be a while before Sparseworld smudged all this.

If only his glance could have rested there. Unfortunately, to be realistic, he must continue to lift his eyes. Above the city’s far edge, into the up-curving dimness beyond, his spirit was quelled by the sad fact that perspective is not to blame for the blurring of far-off things, here in this world of Korm. Not mere distance but a real lessening of detail is what turns those clouds into mere round bubbles, and, as for the ground beyond the Blerdon, milky smoothness reigns, save for rare mineral discolourations where the universal pre-atomic kolv is alloyed with occasional drifts of more advanced matter. Or save for the even rarer fissures or cracks in the englobing surface, such as the oft-studied Silver Stain is supposed to be; or, saddest of all – some thirty thousand miles away – the dull patch called Icdon, which, millions of days ago, used to be a city.

Midax could visualize the Icdonians sprawled like crude abandoned dolls among the sagging waxlike lumps that used to be buildings: people, or rather former people, eyes half-closed showing an occasional flicker from the embers of their souls, all fine detail of personality lost as if a novel were abridged to a paragraph.

He shook his senses free of these horrors, refusing to shudder at the fate of Icdon, the impending fate of Serenth. Instead, in defiance and irony, he actually found reason to smile.

For he was once again approaching the Olamic Institute threshold and he still had that coin of freedom jingling in his pocket.

This time they would have to let him buy.

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