The main double door was shut, but the small door, set inside the left frame, was ajar. Haste propelled him towards it, far more urgently than the caution which plucked at him as he stepped across the threshold.
The thoughts that tramped through his head were shouting contradictions – this should be the opportunity of my life yelled one inner voice; not at all – this is a historic crisis, not a personal one, yelled another. My own needs? Forget them! They are of no importance at such a time. Above all I must avoid another personality clash –
The reception hall appeared empty at first. Not quite silent, though. One of the ventilators purred in an alcove. And around that little corner, some lamplight spilled.
Midax advanced a step or two.
From the alcove emerged a young man carrying a folder. His pale abstracted features glimmered in profile as he carried the folder to the desk; only then – squarely behind his rampart – did the official turn to face Midax.
Recognition sparked between them: this was the very same official, the offhand clerk who had refused to hand Midax an application form earlier that day.
Now a smugness spread over the man’s face as if to say, Back for another try? Get past me if you can. I am in, and you are out.
Out loud the man spoke heartily:
“Good evening, Splasher! What can I do for you this time?” His mouth, by now, had sagged into an outright gloat as he went on, “Did you leave something behind? Unfortunately, the lost property office – ”
“ – Is now closed,” Midax finished for him, leaning forward. He balled his fists, placed his knuckles on the desk and pronounced the syllables: “I – have – some – in – for – ma – tion – for – you.”
“Oh really, let’s have it then.”
“Sparseworld is on its way,” said Midax.
Ever so slight was the start the man gave, hardly losing his equilibrium for more than a split second.
“Of course it is,” he replied; “we all know that some day – ”
“Careful now,” said Midax. “Listen again: Sparseworld is on its way. And I mean perceptibly.”
The official could do nought but stare.
Midax added, “I found the first trace.”
The words rolled around in the silence. The official seemed paralyzed except for his jerking eyeballs.
Midax’s nerves drew tighter until he cried out, “I know you don’t want this, but so what? Move! Get somebody higher up! Aren’t you lot supposed to be the greatest organization in existence? Somebody should be interested!”
As soon as the words had left his mouth Midax would have recalled them had he been able, since he immediately saw that by his vehemence he had given the official some sort of handle. The young fellow a moment ago had been frantically evasive; now his face once more displayed a comfortable grin.
“Don’t get so excited, Splasher. Your case will be dealt with when its turn comes up, I promise. We get heaps of anomalies reported by members of the public, amateur naturalists or amateur cosmographers who are often quite emotionally exercised by what they think they have found. In every case so far, we have been able to reassure them. Now, I’ll just give you an Observation Form, you can go home and fill it in at your leisure, and next time you happen to pass this way, simply hand it in. All-rightee?”
“You know,” said Midax slowly, in a voice that seemed to himself to be coming from an extremely great distance, “you have just lost an opportunity.” Inside him some vast greyness far beyond anger was gathering itself into an implacable wave. Without counting the cost, he prepared to walk forward.
As if the opposition were no more than smoke – as if he could will it to be smoke – he did step forward, at this moment no longer worried that to cause a scuffle here would outrage the dignity of the Institute and get him banned from its hallowed halls forever.
Quite unaware, in that instant of blind determination, of the terrible expression which had appeared on his face, he was mildly astonished when he noticed that the official had staggered back several yards. What was the clown doing, tottering like that?
At that moment a slit of light appeared further up the hall.
Midax’s heart sank at the thought that he had caused some kind of commotion. He wasn’t sure – had he actually struck the idiot who had barred his way?
The silhouette of a second official increased in sharpness as more light came on in the further reaches of the hall. The figure padded forward, to reveal itself as a large, untidily-dressed man with a craggy, lantern-jawed face.
Midax cursed silently: this was going from bad to worse – this fellow whom he had shown up and mocked, reappearing now of all moments, as fat-headed Fate again mismanaged the way stuff happened.
“Well, Ervar,” said Inellan to the shaken clerk, “do we shut up shop, or is there a little matter to clear up here?” And the Lecturer gazed equably from face to face.
“The Splasher has come back,” mumbled Ervar.
“The one whose application we turned down – yes, I see.” Inellan’s voice sounded different from earlier in the day; its lazy imprecision was gone. He locked eyes with Midax. “And he’s smirking at us again….”
Midax, with a rueful head-shake, replied: “No, Inellan, I was just chiding myself. I seem to have gone about things the wrong way. Trouble is, I don’t quite know what I should have done. Can you tell me what’s the procedure, if one has to bring the news that the thing which you people have been warning the world against for millions of days has finally come in sight?” He shrugged, “Just curious, you know…”
“Go on,” said Inellan, voice now stony. “Repeat your message.”
“Sparseworld is approaching. I spotted a trace,” announced Midax in his most factual tone. “Want to come and look? It’s about two hundred yards down the road.”
For a stiff moment the lecturer glared, then his shoulders drooped. He muttered, “We must assume that you may know what you are talking about.” Seeing the stricken look on Ervar’s face he added, “You have to give the Splashers their due, they do keep their eyes open.”
Ervar whispered, “So what do we do now, sir?”
“We’re going to need witnesses,” sighed Inellan. “Find who’s left in the building. I think you’ll get the Judge, and possibly Ultrisk. And get Rersh if you can.”
Ervar darted away. He was gone for a couple of minutes, during which Inellan brooded at the floor, Midax could think of nothing to say, and each idle instant was a limbo for the wafting seeds of fear.
Voices grew audible further down the hall. Back into sight came Ervar, followed by three others. Ultrisk was a shaggy-fringed, dome-headed, portly man of middle age, shorter than Inellan. Jaekel was a middle-aged woman, lean and rangy, with a long face and thin humourless mouth. A third official, male, heavily muscled, only slightly older than Midax, was the enforcer named Rersh.
To all of them Inellan said, “Midax Rale – whom some of you have met earlier in the day – has claimed a sighting.”
“You really mean – ” began Jaekel.
Inellan held up his hand. Turning to Midax he said: “I haven’t even asked you what type of manifestation you claim to have seen. This is no time to rely upon subjective descriptions. Lead us to the spot.”
Out through the Institute door, down the steps between the columns, and onto the rougher surface of the avenue, Midax strode while the others kept up, their hard silence causing him to wonder what they would do if it turned out that he was bringing them on a fool’s errand.
Logic told him that they must be used to false alarms. Therefore the penalties for getting it wrong would not be too severe. Imagination, however, refused to listen to logic. A cartoon built up in Midax’s mind, of him being surrounded and squeezed flat as paper and slid into an envelope marked unrecorded punishment. However, he repeated to himself, his was not a fool’s errand. He glanced at the muscle-bound figure of Rersh jogging beside him, and thought: I know why they brought you, my chunky friend, but you aren’t making any arrest tonight.
“This is the spot,” said Midax and pointed exactly at the fused grass-blades, still visible in the twilight.
The others gathered round, saw, and bowed their heads at this herald of a doom that towered above all personal concerns.
Midax’s sense of triumphant vindication was scattered away on the breeze that moaned over the grass. Down there at their feet grew the little trembling portent of that no-longer-mythical condition, Sparseworld, and no one could think of point-scoring in front of that sign.
Inellan broke the silence. “We had better get to work.”
Ultrisk remarked, “Final Stage Plan One, looks like.”
Jaekel’s lips stretched wider and thinner and the words cracked out of her: “So we padlock the past, by broadcasting the truth we hoped never to see… Brrr,” she shivered. “Sorry,” she added.
Ultrisk growled, “So long as it’s planned out...”
Inellan made a gesture of irritation. “It is. Don’t doubt that. The work has been done. The plans are all made; we just have to make sure we implement them... Let’s get back inside. I’m starting to freeze out here.”
Ultrisk said, “And by the by, we haven’t yet congratulated our young discoverer friend.”
Inellan slid a hand inside his coat. “I intend to do more than congratulate him.” He said to Midax, “I brought something along for you, Discoverer, thinking you’d want it.”
“I do,” said Midax, watching for the hand to re-emerge.
“Sure of yourself, aren’t you?”
“In some things, yes.”
“Here you are.” The hand came out holding sheets of folded paper. Midax took them, glanced at them. The application form.
“Report to reception in the morning.” Inellan turned to go, then half-turned back. “How much do you actually know about what you’re letting yourself in for?”
“Only that it’s big – that big,” said Midax, pointing at the faint structural outline which loomed a mile beyond the Olamic building.
Inellan’s lip quirked: “A box big enough for a Splasher, maybe?”
Bleak chuckles from the other officials faded into a wry silence.
Rersh chipped in with, “That’ll be the day.”
“That’s the point,” commented Inellan. “When you get in the box, that is the day.”