Man of the World by Robert Gibson

8:  Vantage

The trainees filed out through the door, each clutching his or her printed plan of the building and its grounds. Midax was happily aware that his companions’ minds were all boiling with speculation, the same as his. They were determined to miss nothing, the same as he. Fingers traced routes on diagrams while Ultrisk led the group towards that section of the wall which faced away from the city.

The names which were marked on the map sounded plain and simple, worn smooth by vast ages of everyday use – Middle Corridor, Back Wall, Far Gate. It was through the Far Gate that they emerged.

They found themselves looking down into a small dry gorge – perhaps in ancient times a defensive moat. Over this they clattered along a metal bridge, Midax’s senses blazing with clarity to grasp each rap of boot on steel, each shine of rivet, each alertly-peering companion’s head: all proofs that this procession was no dream, that here were comrades, people who actually shared his urge to browse among great things. And this comradeship extended even to the women, the word “women” being sufficient now, with no further need to label them “the curved elegances” or “the graceful gut-churners”, terms coined so often by his puzzled mind as he tried to cope with the creatures’ remote-control unbalancing power. Here that trouble seemed not to exist, or if it did exist, it was in abeyance: no wrenching emotion marred the occasion; pleasant, trustworthy fellow-voyagers, that’s what these women were.

The path’s destination, the Surveillance Tower, was a black metal colossus of diagonal struts. Its spine consisted of an elevator shaft which soared two hundred yards into the sky; the elevator cage awaited the company at the end of the short road from the bridge.

Ultrisk lounged at the cage door, his finger on the starter button, till all fifteen trainees had squeezed inside.

The cage jerked into motion; the trainees stared upwards through the open cage roof at the down-rushing perspectives of the struts and girders.

“A bit of a squash,” apologised Ultrisk during the ascent. “Schedules, you know, have had to be adjusted today. Blame our discoverer friend here.”

Midax refused to show he had heard. I won’t play up to this. I won’t grin back. Although logic suggested he might do well to capitalize on his reputation, instinct warned him to shy away from any privilege which distanced him from his companions.

Mezyf Tand, standing close behind his right shoulder, said: “You’ve started things buzzing, apparently.”

From her tone he could picture the twinkle in her eye. So he matched her dryness:

“I promise not to do it again.”

There, he willed, theme dismissed, smiles all round. Mezyf, however, had not yet finished with him.

“Ah,” she objected, “but maybe you’ll be forced into a repeat performance. Your talent is Institute property now, you know.”

The lift-cage, approaching its summit, decelerated abruptly, but this did not spoil the group’s spectator sport of watching Mezyf tease the Discoverer. All eyes were on him, so he knew he had to bounce a sentence back.

“They’re welcome to call it talent,” he muttered, “so long as they keep me on.”

The lift came to a stop. The passengers were looking happy – as they turned towards the opening door – happy that this Splasher fellow, this Discoverer, was not burdening them either with arrogance or with fussy modesty. Having tested his temper they had found that a bit of pressure made no difference to him. After all, his kind were supposed to be easy-going –

The trainees followed Ultrisk out of the cage and onto a square roof space. The summit of the Surveillance Tower was about ten yards on a side, surrounded by a waist-high wall. A breeze blew, flapping the cloaks of three silent observers who were seated with their backs to the arrivals. Each observer was maintaining his vigil at one of a trio of massive binoculars mounted on pillars, aligned along the wall most distant from the elevator. To one side were some large objects on wheels, covered with tarpaulin; Midax guessed that they were the automatic monitoring instruments, now disused, as fashion had come full circle during the current cycle of history, to replace machine by man.

Ultrisk waved the trainees forward. “On you go.”

The other view – backward – out over the Olamic building and over the city which spread beyond – was great enough. Normally, it would have enthralled them. But today, “backward” was given hardly a glance. Eagerly, though gingerly, the trainees advanced, awe-struck by what they were beginning to see in the direction that faced away from Serenth.

Midax had thought the Surveillance Tower stupendous while approaching it at ground level, yet beyond it reared a structure so vastly greater that it was never hidden, because it never could be hidden; a structure therefore as familiar as the sky; a structure, indeed, sometimes referred to as the “skymark”; a thing you would normally never bother to call “colossal” any more than you would call the sky itself “colossal”.

Until, that is, you were given the shock of seeing it from a drastically different angle – which is what their current vantage gave them.

Silently they paced to the tower’s further wall, leaned their elbows on it, and stared from on high at –

The floorscape of the Luminarium.

That was the novelty: from up here they could see down onto that enclosed mini-world’s variegated floor.

The floor it was, the floor that drew their eyes! Not the silver corner-pillars, each half a mile high (over four times the height of the Surveillance Tower itself) supporting the glassite roof and walls of a structure designed to be huge enough to allow entire weather-systems to form within; nor the familiar, taken-for-granted cuboidal ghost or skymark created by those walls and roof and by the compressed and dappled weathers inside; not these, but the panoramic view of the landscaped floor, three miles long by two miles wide, was what staggered the wits of any citizen who had never previously seen it from a height. Something insistent about the view, began to haunt the candidates from this moment on.

The six square miles of enclosed terrain contained the ultimate achievement in landscaping. So much variety of topography, of settlements and infrastructure, was intermeshed, that the onlooker’s eye was led around until it was an effort to tear one’s attention away from – for instance – a vale where nestled a village, where a railway branched a line that ran on, past a patch of irrigated desert, and onto grassland before disappearing into a wedge of forest, and almost immediately reappearing winding up into a rocky jumble, onto a little plateau, threading then through hamlets, its bridges spanning streams.

And if your eye did break away from that sequence it soon found itself recaptured by some different linkage such as a line of buildings (like the profile of a town) facing another line (of different architecture) on the opposite shore of a mini-lake, or tarn, which cut across the quasi-chequered scene.

Everything was there. And the impression was intensified after Ultrisk opened a locker and handed out field-glasses. Sheer size alone could not explain the splendour of this microcosm. It was size and stunning detail. You could think of it either as a stupendous enclosure, or as a tiny world. The enthralling, masterly composition, amended and rearranged from aeon to aeon with ever-improved compression of ever more variety within a strictly finite space, was what ranked the Luminarium as the mightiest artefact of history.

Midax panned with the glasses to and fro, across the inexhaustible sight. After some while, the view seemed to quiver, teetering between park-like and world-like. That locomotive crawling along a hillside, did it look like a mere toy? Yes, in a way, but only because of its distance and brightness. If you looked at it under sufficient magnification, it suddenly became dirtier and more powerful… despite the playful, unnecessary loops and bends of the track. Then again, that steamship tacking across the lake – why was it tacking as though it were under sail?

“Something odd….” began Midax aloud.

Ultrisk moved over to him. “What have you noticed?”

“Everything that moves,” muttered Midax, twiddling the focus, “seems to be moving in a zig-zag.”

Murmurs of agreement from his fellow-trainees.

Ultrisk raised both arms in a gesture of congratulation. “Well spotted, so soon.”

“Look at the roads,” added Stid Orpen. “See how they wind – much more than they need.”

“The railways too,” added Mezyf Tand. “Look, over there, that one doubles back on itself for no apparent reason.”

“Good, good!” said Ultrisk. “Anything else?”

Waretik spoke for the first time since he had arrived on the platform.

“Those vehicles which I can see,” he said, “are, considering their type, moving much too slowly, besides seeming to weave about as much as they can. It’s as though….” he hesitated, “as though they were trying to prolong their journeys as much as possible.”

Ultrisk laughed with appreciative gusto. “You’re a heck of a good bunch of observers, I’m glad to see. Only, don’t expect answers at this stage.”

Midax meanwhile stood in a strange, mellow calm. It was as if, contrary to the laws of time, it were possible to sense nostalgia for the present moment. Every move he had made had gone well so far. The social introductions, the chat in the lift, had passed without a slip. And then, up here, he had volunteered an acceptable remark, which had set off others in the same vein. He might now coast in silence for a while, letting others take their turn in steering the conversation. How intensely he had desired a spotless beginning, and how wonderful that he had it now, safely on record, in his memory for evermore! Admittedly, the matchless purity of this hour brought with it a kind of sadness. Partly this was because (of course) such perfection could not last, but also the very reason it was so important for him to cope, was that his position here was a shallow accident, insofar as he was a mere mascot, brought into the elite Institute simply because chance had made him the Discoverer: a useful publicity-symbol for a new age.

Well, perhaps he had entered by the only possible route. He must – he did – count himself lucky. That childish voice inside him that kept asking for more: he’d best merely smile at its perfectionist demands. All he wanted was for everything to happen right, all the time! He would always be like this. He must tolerate himself.

While these thoughts were running through his mind he had continued with his field-glasses to follow the odd zig-zags of the occasional vehicle which appeared in motion on land or water in the Luminarium.

It was then, under high magnification, that he spotted a cruciform shape gaining speed along a white strip. As he focused on it he saw the object rise into the air. No mistaking it! He had just witnessed the take-off of an aeroplane, a small propeller-driven bi-plane, from a sandy runway in the giant glass box. The current economic cycle in Serenth had no use for aeroplanes – but the word, the picture, the idea remained as part of the common language, ready should the demand for the thing itself return; so if he had called out “Plane taking off!”, his companions would have known what he meant. But he did not, at first, call out; he was too absorbed in the sight of the thing’s weaving motion through the air as it climbed; why did everything in there move like that? – and then – something else about its motion –

The scene rippled anew. Midax caught his breath and froze. For a nerve-twisting moment the zig-zags were pulled out like an expanding accordion - not only those of the flying plane in his binoculars’ field of view, but also the motions of every object throughout the whole volume of space inside the Luminarium…

Then the scene snapped back to normal and the illusion was over.

“There’s a plane,” he started to say, struggling for words.

“We’ve seen it too,” said Waretik.

“Yes?” Ulstrisk again stepped close to Midax; the others meanwhile were following the plane’s path with silent concentration.

Lowering his glasses, Midax rubbed his eyes and said, “For some moments, just then, I thought I saw it suddenly fly…. straight.”

Stid guffawed, and some of the others likewise showed appreciation of what they thought was Midax’s humorous dig at the Luminarium’s regime of crooked motion.

Ultrisk, however, darted a sharp, almost panicky glance into Midax’s face, prompting the Discoverer to think, Well, well, perhaps I’m more than just a mascot after all. I wonder what has rattled him. Better not to ask. Why push my luck? They must know what they are doing. Must show them I can wait; no begging for explanations!

Midax Rale stood back, enjoying the breeze of fate that had wafted him to this spot, where the whole of life seemed to be opening out in front of him. Whatever might happen, he would always have had these moments on the tower.

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