Man of the World by Robert Gibson

chapter 6:  parting


Midax Rale walked homewards in the deepening darkness, sharply aware that this was the last night before his career began. The last few hours of leisured goodbye to his old lax aimless life, and then - purpose. An infinitely exciting thought, not merely marvellous but a true fist of a thought, to punch through the dry rot of old problems.

Better not let your excitement rampage all night, though. Better get some sleep.

His sense of direction guided him off the avenue and through a medley of lesser streets which meandered around small parks. The familiar trees, with their exact count of leaves, loomed vaguely, rustling as the darkness prickled around him, as his thoughts darted and churned. Some ideas he did not want, knowing as he did how vital it was to judge matters to a nicety when events were speeding him round a sharp corner: anything that threatened his balance must be rejected. Behold, here came a long-forgotten, juvenile belief in personal destiny, enticing him anew. Squash it back down, immediately! Shove it back into its grave, that mischief-maker “Destiny” which goes around laying tripwires for fools; no need for it anyway. He himself had taken all the action needed to change the direction of his life. A fresh start. A life no longer stale. Taking one’s own chances with one’s own wits and skills. All this was far more satisfying than subservience to some overarching destiny.

Turning the last corner, he entered his home street, which was now almost invisible, so dim was the light; a fact which hardly slowed him at all since he knew the area so well. He could almost guide his steps by the clunk of boot-sole on each individual cobblestone. Indeed he felt grateful towards the shrouding dimness, for it was allowing him a calm space in which to postpone his farewells.

He reached his front door and, as always, he sensed that the silent welcome, the greeting of home, embraced him invisibly in the hallway with its offer of comfort and familiarity, as though the house were an old friend or nurse who had never let him down, and who now advised him to give his overactive mind a firm nudge towards sleep. So he went straight upstairs, took his boots off on the landing, went into his bedroom and flopped heavily on the bed – in the hope that his buzzing brain would take the hint. He commanded his inner clock to allot him the right number of hours’ rest and no more.

Having thus set his mental alarm he knew that when he re-opened his eyes the sun would have brightened once more. Doubtless it would be at that point, with the sunlight bathing the view from the window, that nostalgia would hit him. But if he rode his emotions competently, in accordance with the Splasher code that you do not make a fuss, the nostalgia could be channelled. For although his life had taken a new direction he still followed the Splasher code, the urbane ethic of self-control.

Not that his former cronies had much of a name for self-restraint in their pursuit of pleasure; but to give them their due they abominated all forms of self-indulgent emotional display. They might allow themselves to be uproarious, but they never gushed, were never maudlin or hysterical. The perpetual commanding undertone in all their frolicking was, “you must be smooth”. And he, Midax Rale, would stay smooth tomorrow.

What a pity that his fellow Splashers invariably took their smoothness-ethic to mean that they must never talk about anything interesting, never go in for anything inspiring, never get really excited by an idea. That was why he had to quit the whole boring scene – retaining, however, Splasher self-possession in his mental luggage, so as not to break down and cry at the thought that he might never be idle and carefree again.

With that assurance he at last relaxed, allowing his thoughts to jostle weakly before they took their dive into exhaustion, popping like bubbles, down into a dreamless blank.

He woke with that bright pressure on his eyelids, the light of momentous morning, for which he had emotionally prepared. His wits at the ready, he opened his eyes, sat up and looked around his room. If any sneaking regret for the old free-and-easy days were to try to drag him back, now would be a likely moment for the attempt.

Lamp, table, shelf of books, a mantelpiece display of rare stones…. he wondered which of these would try a sneak raid on his mind.

To some people this simple immaculate room might have seemed bare and commonplace, but he regarded it all the more tenderly for that. Limitless “Splasher” wealth had not, in his case, ever been invested in a bulge of accumulated belongings. Why should it? The whole city was his home; he had free access to the treasury, access due to his status – which no one could revoke – as one who had been born within yards of the Time-Tree.

“Splashers” were the mostly-idle rich. The not always idle rich. The very occasional troubleshooters.

Over millions of days, the regular economic functions of the citizens of Serenth had become as instinctive as breathing, but there still remained the occasional administrative decision, or the even rarer political one, which had to be made and carried out consciously. How to deal with that? Most of the population did their tasks in a trance during working hours, and as for those who did not – the “vividians” who stayed awake all day – the only serious ones among them, namely the scientists and artists, were uninterested in practical problems. But someone had to cope with practical problems. Infrequent though they were, they could not simply be ignored. Hence the enormous latitude granted to the non-vocational vividians, the “Splashers”, who stayed awake all day but ninety-nine per cent of the time had no work to do.

Well, it wasn’t their fault that society was the way it was, functioning with such efficiency as to run itself almost all the time without conscious human effort; and Midax had no moral objection to idleness anyway. It would have been easier if he had.

Regrets can lie in wait.

The stone was the first sneak. The polished stone on the left of the mantelpiece.

He had collected it on a picnic.

Sudden memory of that made him think of the Blerdon – the boundary region, idyllic for picnics, where the soil and rock of Sycrest fades out into the smooth substance of the universe: non-particulate kolv, bland and continuous for ever and ever. The stone on his mantelpiece was indeed pure kolv: tests on it had shown that its translucent variations from green to grey-green were not due to impurities but, instead, reflected some absolute trend within its nature. You could chip it but you couldn’t analyse it. Infinite subdivision makes no change to a substance which is not built up of atoms.

It seemed to be calling to him:

Me, I’m kolv, you can split me forever and I will stay the same. But you, Midax Rale, what are you? A jumble of atoms! You have to be careful; if you get rearranged, you’re different! A rearranged “you” would no longer be “you”, and aren’t the Olamic bound to try it, in their struggle against Sparseworld? Their anti-simplicity campaign will sprout new complexities inside yourself, as part of their plan to save Serenth. Then won’t your identity be gone? And even if part of your personality survives the processing, do you really want that mould growing inside you?

As if it really had been the stone speaking, rather than his inner fears, Midax hit back.

His first action was to stride to the window.

The bright street was already astir; the early shifts were allowing the work-trance to take hold of them, to ease them out of their front doors, to draw them along the streets towards their offices, farms, road-repairs or mills.

Midax watched as the tranced workers paraded unconsciously by. He saw folk across the entire range of complexity. At the lower limit were the most primitive simploids (or “Simplenns”), with their stiff walk, their neckless bullet-heads, their sketchy features. They could be quite fine-looking in their way, as a semi-abstract sculpture with a spare allowance of basic shapes might render a polished, general symbol of humanity. Yet though handsome, they were simploids. Physical and mental simpletons. No use trying by means of euphemism to hide the gulf between them and the opposite extreme – those who had been born close enough to the Fount, to emerge as fully distinct men and women.

Gotcha, he retorted to the mantelpiece stone.

He had moved to this district eighteen hundred days ago in the vague hope that living in such a location, mid-way between the city’s complex centre and its simple periphery, he just might find – perhaps in an atmosphere in which neither extreme was taken for granted – a clue to the mystery of human types. Or rather, the mystery of one type in particular.

Men he understood. Or at least he supposed he did, by analogy, since he was one himself. Simploids he also understood – as much, at any rate, as he felt he needed to. What baffled him always, was the third kind: the graceful kind, the curved elegances who seemed almost to glide rather than walk, and who, on occasion, wielded some kind of power that obeyed no known law, producing action-at-a-distance in the form of a sudden fireball of golden emotion in the guts. Well, you could give these people the generic name “women”, and you could describe them, but all this was merely labelling the problem. Why did women exist? No one had ever found a scientific reason for the phenomenon.

“High time,” he thought deliberately, “that my waste of days was compelled to disgorge some kind of profit.”

That stone on the mantelpiece had been the first sneak – and the last. No further attacks need be expected on his resolve to depart.

For the warning that the stone had uttered with its imaginary voice was…. laughable.

And he had dealt with it neatly by employing his usual tactic when faced with doubt. Twist defeat into victory.

Trying to scare him, that stone! Suggesting that he might not be able to cope with the complications of his new career! What a laugh – considering how totally he had already failed to fathom the bursts of blind vision and thoughtless belief, the tossed-off casual infinite worth, accompanying each throw-away fireball slung at him (invisibly, motivelessly, unconsciously) by so many of the beings who passed him in his street each day.

Compared with the mystery of women, what could possibly worry him about the Olamic’s complexification programme?

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