Man of the World by Robert Gibson

9:  the trap

During the next few hours Midax’s thoughts repeatedly coiled back to what he had seen, as he brooded about what might have happened to that plane. Or to the space around the plane. Or maybe to his eyesight.

Not that he really expected to understand the event at this early stage. He wasn’t so naïf as to assume that the stuff thrown at him in the first few days of his training would make much sense.

What mostly concerned him was the choice he had made; roughly speaking, to “play along” rather than to “make a wave”. Courtesy and caution had restrained him from immediately spouting awkward questions; restrained him from the hot pursuit of the blatantly weird.

Nevertheless, lingering doubts about “playing along” made him wonder if his next snap decision might go the other way.

Two hours had been allotted to the trainees for their stint at the top of the tower. They would willingly have stayed longer. The experience of watching the Luminarium floor never palled; nobody consulted a watch during that timeless time, for one’s mind was too busy taking dives into the panorama – until, eventually, the humdrum recall bleated from a loudspeaker next to the elevator opening: “Time for lunch, you people!”

Overwhelmed by what they had seen, the trainees wandered back towards the lift. During the descent, Stid Orpen put the general relief into words:

“About time too! I hardly had a ‘What!’ left in me.”

Mezyf Tand agreed, “The mind can only boggle so much.”

“Until it’s recharged,” remarked Midax.

“Which is why we’re heading for the canteen,” opined Mezyf. “They must want us well-fed for the next bogglement.”

Re-entering the main building they were shown into a pillared hall, which gleamed white from the glossy ceiling and the immaculate cylinders which supported it. Here, again, was the perpetual newness of the very old. The canteen was so ancient that it had no style. Its clinky hubbub seemed more or less eternal. Midax’s wandering glance fell on a particular quartet of diners, who had wheeled their tables together and were arguing. One disputant held a board aloft; he was scribbling a diagram to illustrate his point. Midax, as he watched the gesticulation and sensed the joviality, rejoiced anew – this was what Splasher society should have been but wasn’t; this was the companionship of equals, amid the wit-studded brilliance of the life of the mind. And he was in it, he had found his real home at last, he was where he belonged – the assurance shone from all directions. But…

An inevitable fear took up its quiet position:

Never before had his hopes been raised so high, and therefore –

Never before had he had so much to lose.

Well, be it so! If the stakes were raised, his stature must grow with them! The alternative was not to play at all.

Ultrisk was saying, “Go and grab any free tables you like, they’re all well-stocked; and you’ll have an hour and a half till your next fixture, which is in Room L44. Be seeing you then.” The group scattered. Some in twos and threes, some alone, went to look for unoccupied tables. Midax found a table and sat alone.

What really is all this, he wondered; what exactly was he in?

No other organization on this scale had ever existed. So much was evident from the jangle and bustle of the canteen around him, never mind the sights and signs he’d seen earlier. The Olamic Institute stood absolutely alone in the history of Korm.

To be sure, there were other institutions of long duration, for example the Observatory; but the Observatory, though it had existed from time immemorial, was run more or less like a family, or like a club managed by a group of friends. Small enough, in other words, to bear the stamp of individuals. Contrast that with this:

This Olamic Institute, the constructor of the Luminarium; the defier of Sparseworld; the one true example, in aeons of Serenthian history, of the might of a corporation….

Precisely as he’d intended, he had let himself in for something big. The biggest there was. All of which was fine, provided he sniffed where he was going.

A whirr of wheels drew his attention to a table approaching his own.

Driving with his right palm on the control ball at the end of the chair-arm was the imposing figure of Waretik Thanth, tallest and gravest of the trainees.

At this moment Midax’s mood was unsuited to bright conversation; conversation, nevertheless, was imminent – Waretik was enquiring with a tilt of the head; Midax gestured his permission; the tables rolled together.

Observing the big man with exclusive attention for the first time, he noticed that his uniform seemed a few sizes bigger still; perhaps widened to allow for extra pockets and linings for storing surveyor’s gear. The uniform’s cloth was the standard Olamic silver, but in Waretik’s case its brightness had receded from notice, as if sunk in the extra folds; blurred into the undefined greyness of manner which robed the fellow. Perhaps here was someone who at heart was as determinedly serious as Midax himself.

“Nothing scribbled yet, I see,” said Waretik, nodding at the blank board swinging beside Midax’s table.

“And you?”

“I’m the same. Haven’t taken a single note.”

“Too much to scribble,” suggested Midax. “Our vapours need condensing first.”

“Quite so; it’s like trying to map a swirling fog. I want to check something, if you don’t mind.”

“Go on.”

“I want to check that you saw the same thing that I did. A phenomenon,” said Waretik, pronouncing his words with care, “apparently situated up on the Luminarium roof. In other words, in its sky. A detail only just visible, at the limit of the resolution of the binoculars….”

“Go on,” urged Midax.

“A line of steerable mirrors, moving so as to create a ripple of light that seemed to be traversing from one side of the Luminarium to the other.”

“Steerable mirrors… and you want me to confirm your sighting?” Midax was about to shake his head when in a revising flash it came to him that he had seen what Waretik was talking about. The memory – stored unnoticed at the time – now unwrapped itself startlingly fresh, recalling to him, crisp and clear, mirrors in a long line! Stretching all the way across the Luminarium roof and turning in their sequence, in such a way that one after another of them received light from the Time-Tree, one after another reflected that light down, onto the landscape, to create an effect as if a bright source, a kind of moving sun, were traversing that roof-sky….

“Yes, I saw it.”

Waretik’s brow cleared. “Good. It looks as though I was right to trust my eyes. Did you trust yours?”

“As a matter of fact the effect didn’t register with me at the time. I suppose when so many big things crowd the scene, some get missed.”

“Yes,” scowled Waretik. “Makes me wonder what I may have missed.”

“Now it’s my turn to tell you what I saw.” Midax grabbed this opportunity to disburden himself of the mystery of the aircraft that zigged and zagged “and then its path got somehow pulled (while I looked at it), pulled straight, pulled far – further, in fact, than the entire available space inside the Luminarium…. As if the whole set-up’s bigger inside than it is outside.”

Waretik muttered, “Remarkable.”

“You remember it, then?”

“Now that you have mentioned it,” said the surveyor disgustedly, “I saw what you saw without consciously observing it. I did what you did, in other words. You ‘saw-without-seeing’ the steerable mirrors; I ‘saw-without-seeing’ the movement of the plane. But my lapse had far less excuse – I’m supposed to be a qualified observer!”

Midax became more than ever conscious of a pressure steering every turn of the conversation like an intelligent breeze: even the monotony of Waretik’s voice and manner – for which Midax’s erstwhile Splasher set would have pronounced the fellow dull – counted here for a sinewy narrowness, a positive strength. What a day this is, each breath, each word conducive to adventure, and yet, he told himself, I don’t need to pinch myself, to know it’s real. No dream-magic, just a bunch of like-minded comrades at last.

More tables nearby were being vacated, soon creating enough free space for Stid, Sennwa, Mezyf and another trainee named Davlr Braze to come over and join Midax and Waretik. Davlr was a confident, chin-jutting youth with a flippant cast of speech. “To be sure, what we have seen is stunning, but when you really get down to it, what isn’t? Don’t you think so, smooth Splasher-fellow?”

“If I deserved that epithet smooth,” Midax replied, just ruefully enough to deflect any malice, “I would have thought up a crisp rejoinder by now. But I haven’t, so I don’t.” His expectations – confirmed (click!) by Davlr’s stumped expression and the others’ grins – ratcheted forward another notch.

Davlr moped, “You’ve refuted me by not refuting me.”

“You’d better give up,” advised Stid.

“Go on a long voyage, Davlr, to forget,” advised Mezyf.

“Go on Stid’s expedition!” suggested Sennwa.

Davlr asked what this was, whereupon they all started to play again with the idea of a voyage into the wilderness of Outer Matter.

That, in turn, led to another discussion of the possibility of finding intelligent life somewhere upon Outer Matter’s englobing surface.

This meant that “the wilderness lights” were argued over, yet again.

Were they mere storm-flashes, or could they be artificial? “But then,” said Midax, supporting the sceptical views of Davlr and Waretik against the “believers” Mezyf, Sennwa and Stid, “why haven’t these extra-Sycrestian intelligences made an effort to contact us? For instance why haven’t they built a giant lamp to signal across the wilderness?”

“Because they’re as lazy as we are,” suggested Sennwa.

“No civilization can stay lazy all the time,” Midax objected. “Consider our own cultural masterpiece: I mean, the big box we were gaping at this morning. It is surely visible at cosmic distances – or it would be, if there were an Observatory out there looking in our direction. The aliens might not know what our Luminarium is, but they’d see it as a rectangle of colour, and they’d know it was artificial. Since we can’t see anything equivalent….”

He left it there. On no previous day of his life would he have dared to do this. One of the basic principles of conversation among the Splashers was that you must always cap a witticism with another witticism, never with a serious note. Otherwise you risked being followed by a deadly silence, or worse, the word TURGIE, meaning boringly un-smooth. Here, though, one could trust in better things; here he was living as never before.

Davlr Braze seemed to be supporting Midax now:

“Besides, how would life exist without a Time-Tree? Let’s face it, ever since Icdon went dead, we Serenthians have been alone in the Universe. A universe,” – pause for effect – “as empty and smooth as a Splasher’s brain.”


“But not,” Davlr went on, “an ex-Splasher’s, I’ll concede.”

No insult after all.

“Score one-all,” acknowledged Midax, brows raised.

The others all smiled. Full circle, honours even. The end of the lunch-break chimed just then.

What a terrible mistake it would have been, to point out that Splashers weren’t stupid, just flippant, idle and mostly purposeless; that they must have brain, to carry out their very-occasional duties. If he had said that, he would have told the truth but missed the point. Far better to stay quiet and appreciate the greater truth, that purpose is the real breath of life.

They found their way to Room L44. Lecturer Inellan, sitting on a corner of the desk up front, and eyeing the ceiling as the trainees entered, had made a point of freezing his posture in the act of reaching for a light-switch. He was very obviously staying his hand until all of them had found seats. It was a hint at the importance of not being late, and/or the importance of Lecturer Inellan. Fair enough, thought Midax as he found a place at the end of the second row just as Inellan’s finger twitched.

A holographic show began. One moment the class saw, filling the room, inch-sized globes of light suspended in the dark; but a second later the pattern swapped over into a reversed blaze: dark globules suspended in bright air.

The light and the dark continued to alternate. Meanwhile the voice of Inellan droned:

“This diagram depicts the alternating sequence of matter-universes and space-universes.

“Ours, which in the cycle counts as Universe Six, is, of course, overwhelmingly a matter-universe, reaching solidly to infinity, only rarely interrupted by globes of space like Korm. Indeed we cannot prove that there are any spatial globes apart from Korm in our universe, though the isotropic principle makes it overwhelmingly likely….”

Midax had to admit to himself, he was impressed by the presentation. He had never heard anything so concisely or so confidently explained. When the holograms were switched off he was eager and impatient for whatever might come next.

“Any questions? Or comments?” asked Inellan.

Midax leaped in with, “If we know this much, then surely we’re bound to win the fight against Sparseworld?” He spoke eagerly, his mind racing; then he saw that Inellan’s face was bearing an odd look.

“Why?” the lecturer asked.

The rest of the class had gone still.

“Why?” echoed Midax. “Because, simply going by how much you’ve already found out (though Fount knows how you discovered the pattern that whole universes make) surely there can’t be any problem which you can’t solve!”

He had no presentiments to warn him; sure-footedly he was leaping and swinging from topical branch to branch, trusting his weight to the rope which Fate had braided for him. After all there should be a reason for one’s possession of a leaping mind. One should be able to use it to swing from theory to observations to conclusions… But from a completely different direction, and with total command of his subject, Inellan replied easily:

“The Fount does know how. That’s the point. We acquire our knowledge of all this through psychology, looking back into our noumenal selves, revealing the latent truths which our minds were born with. (Some of us are better at doing it than others!) Apart from that we don’t do anything. Cosmology isn’t an experimental science, you know! How could we go poking around the universe to obtain our facts? And why should we? We’re born with what we need inside ourselves – due to the fortunate fact that we’re born in the light of the Fount, and the Fount does, as you and I both put it, know.”

“But all this….” began Midax.

The special silence, which had fallen so heavily on the class, suddenly suggested something to him.

They were humouring him.

Mentally he squared his shoulders. He couldn’t just let it all go, couldn’t accept mere introspection as a method of exploring the cosmos. “Doesn’t the Observatory – ”

“Forget the Observatory,” said Inellan. “Their work is just cosmography, not cosmology. Just descriptive science.”

“Then do you mean to say that we don’t actually study our world, we do not even look at it, when constructing our theories?”

“Exactly,” smiled Inellan. It was rare to see him smile. “The inhabitants of Universe Seven will be more your type. They’ll do like you say. They’ll have no choice but to study and rely on observation for data with which to construct their theories, since they’ll be so much further from the Fount. Midax, I think you’ve been born a universe too soon!”

Chuckles from several quarters. Incredible how fast the whole thing was turning sour. Though in practical terms Midax was in no trouble, a dire mood was germinating fast inside him. And at that moment his eyes registered the luminous logo on the desktop in front of him.


That’s what it said today. Minus Eight. Eight days to go.

But not if he escaped.

Could he get up and leave? All of a sudden nothing but this urgent question remained. His sense of proportion was gone. His mad Splasher desire for smoothness and perfection had been thwarted. This time, he had not perceived the chuckles from the class as good-natured; the stakes had been raised too high – raised right up into the “all or nothing” trap, the perfectionist trap, where the first setback (those little laughs, those misunderstandings about research) swung him right over from the “all” to the “nothing”. The amazing result being, he would get out while he could (if he could), throwing away the entire position he had yearned so long to gain.

Meanwhile the lesson had resumed and Inellan was saying, “The points raised by Midax Rale may be covered in more detail later on, as I intend to return to the topic of comparative cosmology if we have time. For now, let us turn to the physics of light….” but Midax was no longer listening. He had risen from his chair, ignoring startled looks. Still scarcely able to believe what he was doing, he was making for the door. Mere minutes ago his hopes had been soaring, his nature trusting, his commitment spiking up to infinity; now he was back to walking alone – provided that they let him out.

<<<previous chapter<<<  ..........  >>>next chapter>>>