The ground streaked beneath the speedsters, as the trainees skimmed along a route that undulated through Sycrest’s outer hills.
Midax had rarely ridden a speedster; travel at such speed was almost never required for any practical purpose, and its effect – to shrink the known world – was unwelcome under normal circumstances; people usually preferred to walk, to keep the known world satisfyingly large. Forty miles (from the centre to the periphery of Sycrest) is a respectable distance on foot, but a short way only if you ride the streamlined hover-boats at thirty miles per hour. Still, when time is short, when the hours must not be wasted, vehicles become necessary.
And when you have to use them, you do find a zest to them. The odd feeling that he was still alive possessed Midax. Logically he should still be awash with misery, since his heartache remained as far from solution as ever, but the ache was in suspension, in a wider sea. Colourful sun-drenched objects hurtled past him, a thin foam of life on this ocean of hills. Scraps of variety, bursting into view and falling astern, resolved into bridges and paths, houses and lawns and mineral beds, fields, woods and isolated factories. All gradually less frequent, the crowd of place-names likewise thinning from his mental map as richness of all kinds gradually diminished out towards the Blerdon.
Nerves became soothed – those of his companions as well as his own as he swayed along with them, anxiety subdued by the hypnotic swing of their vehicles as they sped along their invisible lines of force a yard and a half above the ground. The sinusoidal motion became mathematically smooth as the hills’ topography relaxed into more regular ripples amid the increasing gleam of kolv, the uncompounded substance, the absolute, universal, non-chemical rock, revealed in widening splotches from under the thinning, fading, rarefying patches of soils, minerals, plants and human artefacts. Steadily the kolv-gleams ran more and more together, merged into each other in smudges which grew purer, while the trainees skimmed along the leisurely scenic route towards their goal.
Simpler and simpler the landscape became, yet it never turned completely bland, because gentle colour-trends became discernible in the growing supremacy of kolv – swaths of never-finished pattern, blending away to infinity: for, surprisingly, kolv does vary in colour, despite being non-particulate and infinitely divisible without change of properties; in fact, as Midax had always known, the stuff varies as widely as – though more gently than – atom-built rocks. A lesson to us all, he thought dreamily. There exists a variety which is not bitty, but intrinsic. Otherwise the ultimate unspeakable unity would be boring.
Beyond some last local hills, he knew, the ground smoothed finally into one great everlasting curve that took it beyond the limits of visibility, up behind the blue haze of sky, up and up overhead, and eventually round behind the sun to arch back down in the opposite direction… No man would ever tread that multi-million-mile circumference. It existed for itself, lone and empty. But his skin could touch it at one remove, for the winds that must have blown across it filled his lungs with air that had traversed the cosmic immensities, and he could taste their chill purity with each deep breath.
In his adolescent days, in common with some other stupidly daring souls he had skated upon the kolv at Sycrest’s periphery. He heard of skaters who had never come back. They must have launched themselves in directions in which they then found no opportunity to decelerate. By the time belated air resistance or a chance-met island of roughness finally brought their bodies to a stop, they might be anywhere in the million-mile-diameter hollow of the known universe.
Yes, it was all too easy to ponder, as one lifted one’s eyes to the sky. What must it be like to hurtle on and on, till one’s life gave out somewhere on the frictionless surface of Outer Matter?
Midax sighed with astonishment – for several minutes, this minor outing had caused him to forget his own misery! Now, having caught himself feeling definitely alive, he found he was considering the possibility – nay the fact! – that his smashed ego had reassembled itself. Seriously, this looked like recovery! Perhaps he owed it, in part, to the forbearance, or the indifference, of his companions – the face-saving fact that not one of them behaved as though they had noticed the cataclysm of yesterday. What had seemed to him to be a complete disaster, on a par with the universe cracking asunder, had apparently been of no import to them.
That was fine by him! And today at least, I have made no catastrophic blunder; this day at least, considered in itself, is pure.
And the thirty-mile-an-hour speed had its uses for once – it might not normally be good to make the human world so small, but amid the lurching emotions of farewell, it was exhilarating to ride in a group of speedsters: fifteen of them, one third of the forty-five such toys in existence, their spitting light-bars pushing the ground away from underneath and propelling them forward from behind as they zoomed out towards the Blerdon.
Pjerl’s voice drifted back from a few yards ahead.
Her speedster was skimming alongside that of Waretik as she said: “I vote we stop beyond the Last Swell.”
“You’re joking,” objected Waretik. “Let’s be sensible and head for Veed Lake.”
“But you can see a lot from there.”
“Now, look,” chided Pjerl, “we don’t want to be craning our necks during a picnic! A part-view of the Stain would be more tantalizing than no view at all! Besides, the lake would be no good. Don’t you know that it’s bound to be crawling with Splashers? And they wouldn’t care that this is our group’s last day out together – so you can stow that idea,” she added with a thrum in her voice which caused Midax’s heart to constrict.
“But,” insisted Waretik, “Veed Lake is where the supplies are.”
“We’ll obtain our own.”
“Why should we?”
“I mean, they’ll be brought to us.”
And so it went on, each fork in the track sparking off disagreement, so that they could not pass an outcrop, farm or signpost without slowing to argue. Midax himself did not mind which route was chosen. However, he sympathised with the attitudes of both Waretik and Pjerl: they were behaving as though this were their one and only chance to make the trip perfect, and that was true, it was the one and only half-holiday before the curtain of doom was drawn across their lives. In this spirit of understanding, he edged closer, daring to plan a contribution…
Waretik conceded, “Well, seeing as the farmers are willing to bring us the stuff for free… and after all we are saving them from Sparseworld…”
“We hope,” added Pjerl.
“So let’s compromise,” concluded Waretik, “and say we’ll stop just before the Last Swell. That’s actually the most comfortable spot.”
Grumbles still came from Pjerl, while Midax, intent upon preparing for the right moment to open his mouth, disguised his approach as a random adjustment in the traffic flow. The risk of rebuff was enormous, he knew. But so was the even greater risk of self-reproach should he allow this day to slip by with its final opportunity un-taken.
The optimum moment arrived and he spoke:
“You don’t really want to head past the Last Swell anyway, Pjerl.”
“What?” she snapped.
He did not blench.
Those stretched nerves of his, twanging their fiery tune! They were actually pulling his will like reins! Leading him – not panicking him. “You,” he explained, “might decide to settle out there. And you know what would happen then.”
Pjerl looked askance at him as their speedsters skimmed almost side by side. Midax returned her gaze bluffly.
Waretik latched on: “You’d crystallize! That’s what Midax is getting at.”
“Ugh!” shuddered Pjerl. For such things had happened.
“Not straightaway, of course,” Waretik added.
“No,” agreed Midax, marvelling that his wits had not died. “Maybe, after all, you could safely picnic there for an afternoon.”
All who were within earshot were now smiling. Pjerl included! It all goes to show, exulted Midax, that disaster does not always reign. It was possible, even in her presence, for him to take his place in the social game, to use his wits without being penalised.
As a bonus, there came a contrasting social blunder from someone else. A typical bit of droning from Lecturer Inellan. Midax had been surprised to find Inellan in the group at all; now he was glad that the dry-as-dust fellow had come with them.
“Crystallization,” pontificated Inellan, “is not strictly the correct term. In any case studies have shown… decomplexification process… requisite time…” Drone, drone, go on, go on, cheered Midax inwardly.
“Shop, shop!” cried Stid, and Inellan took the hint and quietened – having provided, by his ill-judged maundering, the most convenient contrast to Midax’s successful lines.
The hills had by now relaxed around them until only one final cluster of slopes stood in their way. This was the Last Swell, a lonely circular range surrounding a tarn of pure kolv, hard and smooth as ice, named Veed Lake. In accordance with the compromise that had been argued out by Pjerl and Waretik, the picnickers did not continue all the way round to the further edge of the Swell, as Pjerl had originally wanted to do. Instead they headed for the top of the ridge at a point about half way round. From this vantage they could enjoy magnificent views in every direction – Serenthwards, Lakewards, and out over the cosmic distance of Outer Matter towards its enigmatic interruption, the Silver Stain.
An ideal picnic spot.
So the fifteen-strong stream of traffic halted and pooled into a congregation of parked speedsters, around the umbrella-shaped awning of one of the small refineries the size of coat-racks, which dotted the grassland at intervals of a mile or more.
It was standard for any complexifying refinery to be furnished with buttons to press, and Waretik pressed them, to alert the nearest farm that they had arrived, and to list their requirements.
After that it was simply a matter of choosing one’s own patch of grass and waiting for the victuals to arrive, while enjoying the pleasures of anticipation, the camaraderie of conversation and the bracing view out over the last of Sycrest to the far beyond.
Dismounting from his speedster, Midax – a trifle unsteady from the rocking flow of the journey – took careful steps in the direction of Pjerl.
It was vital that he choose a strategic place, for the arrangement of seating would be the principal factor in saving or wasting the afternoon. Placing and timing must be perfect. Two principles must (he told himself) be strictly observed. On the one hand he must end up sufficiently close to Pjerl. On the other hand he must achieve this without seeming to want to. He must deliberately, but accidentally, push himself forward into the charmed circle…
And somehow he did it – he actually found himself squatting down among Pjerl and her friends.
Pjerl herself, with her unfocussed smile, lounged on one elbow. She was the central fuzz of brilliance around which twinkled the lesser luminaries of her court – the array of talent whose fortunate tongues weren’t tied in her presence:
Bright young Davlr with his cynical, mocking tone; Waretik with his treasury of wisdom and his carapace of dignity; impenetrably dull old Inellan; vivacious Mezyf Tand; cheerful, uncomplicated, blunt Stid Orpen.
Midax Rale shifted into a comfortable position with his back to a great burr, a simplified bush, which had regressed to the appearance of a giant bud. He had placed himself in that part of the circle of friends which was closest to the lip of the Great Bowl – only about a yard from it: the grassy splendour which enclosed Veed Lake. If he turned he could see skaters down there, little moving spots on the lake.
In the opposite direction, ahead of him, some of his companions were twisting round to aim their binoculars at a narrow twinkling area, a carpet of glistening motion, which rolled down the flank of one of the facing hills. It was that rare thing, a stream. He’d heard that streams were the result of condensation, drop by drop sinking to accumulate in underground basins, up from which they spilled once or twice in a lifetime – often enough for their nature to be remembered. The strange thing, on this idyllic afternoon, was how warm he had started to feel, towards any scrap of information about his world, as well as towards all the people in his field of view: the skaters far below, the picnickers around him and then, by extension, all the people in the world, the ones he knew and the ones he did not know, the ones he liked and the ones he did not like, as if, in these wide and breezy spaces, all emotion was liable to be melted down into one simple vast contentment. Midax thus hopefully encouraged his personal troubles to fizzle out into the emptiness of the cosmos. Crammed-full emptiness; mystery-stuffed reality.
And more specifically –
Any bunch of picnickers in a place with a view as good as this was likely, sooner or later, to engage in whimsical cheerful about the nature of the Silver Stain.
The Stain was actually visible from almost any point within Sycrest – any point not blocked by tall buildings or trees – and its elevation hardly altered from one end of the country to the other: a fact which had enabled cosmographers to triangulate a lower limit of 437,000 miles for its distance. But out here, one’s view no longer distracted by hills, you could always see the thing with plentiful blue sky beneath it, and it got you thinking: perhaps it was a cosmic fissure, some kind of gap in the englobement of Outer Matter, in which case it might lead (if you could get there) to other world-sized cavities in the universe… and so the trainees began to chat in the time-honoured way of skeptics versus believers, except that here, this afternoon, they all seemed, to a varying extent, to be believers:
The Stain was “not exactly proof,” began Pjerl dreamily. Not exactly proof that there were other world-sized hollows beside Korm. “But it sure makes it easier to answer back” when skeptics tried to deny that there could be any large-scale crevice in the solid substance of the universe. For look, just raise your arm and point, as she then did, to that silver gash in the sky and ask: what else was it likely to be?
“Twenty degrees up,” affirmed Midax: at that elevation nothing that wasn’t great could possibly be seen by the naked eye. The haze of air extending between the observer and the upward curving surface of the world must block from sight any lesser thing.
“Drastic,” agreed Davlr, accepting that its visibility at cosmic distance was proof that it must be something tremendous: a genuine jaggedness of cosmic proportions, possibly a rent in the universe. “Though as Pjerl says, this isn’t something you can prove. The Stain could be just a drastic surface feature. A Stain and no more.”
“No way exists,” droned Inellan in agreement, “in which to ascertain whether the phenomenon possesses topographical depth.”
And what now? wondered Midax all of a sudden, now that he was here on this perfect afternoon, amid pleasant argument for argument’s sake, in the very position he had looked forward to occupying, with Pjerl listening to him as she listened to everyone, right there where she glittered on the sward –
One thing was abruptly certain:
His great success, in placing himself in this circle, meant absolutely nothing.
This useless social dance was no substitute for being with her alone.
And yet being with her alone would have been no good either.
Nothing was any good.
For he still had no idea how to match her infinite-value effect.
Here came the woe once more, the stupid, gibbering emotional cry of incomprehensible longing.
The whole business was impossible.
He heard Davlr yell, “Hey, ladies and gentlemen, the comestibles have arrived!”
Approaching from a direction at right angles to the lake, a solitary figure could be seen stumping along, carrying an enormous load.
All the company turned to look at the creature.
Its head was hardly more than a hemisphere atop a cylindrical torso. Its face was likewise crude, as though its features had been hastily chipped in rudimentary bas-relief. It was altogether a cursory mock-up of a human being. Definitely an extreme simploid: one of the outermost primitives, the farmers and providers whose gifts to peckish travellers were always welcome. The tube-like arms carried a hamper towards the picnickers, who scrambled to their feet and surged forward to meet it.
While they were tearing the hamper open Midax stood aside from them and returned the grave salute which the simploid had given after setting its load down on the grass.
Then when the rudimentary being had departed, Midax seized the opportunity which had at last provided a vent for his anger.
He let it rip out of him. He shouted at his companions, who were already pitching into the food and drink, “Why didn’t you ask him to sit and eat with us?”
They looked up at him, puzzled.
“Sit down, Midax,” suggested Waretik.
“Is that what you call an answer?” Let them be puzzled, let them be shocked, let it all burst forth; it was something to fling, something he could hurl at them. “Is it because he’s just a farmer? Do you despise those beings just because they live by instinct? You had better not – our entire economy runs on instinct!”
Davlr called out, “Steady, Midax! You know the being was not expecting to be invited.”
“Irrelevant. Our honour is at stake.”
Awkward silence reigned.
What a relief it was to have said his piece; to have sprayed angry words around this washout of a picnic. Thus satisfied by the unease he was causing, Midax walked with slow deliberation to the hamper, took his portion, withdrew to an isolated spot on the grass and began to munch. Leave it to them to decide how to react now.
After a minute, conversation among the others resumed, in lowered tones. Then, as might have been predicted, Waretik Thanth was the one to make the move, to cross the grassy gap, approach Midax and drop down beside him.
“You,” began Waretik quietly, “were born within actual stone’s-throw of the Time-Tree, were you not?
“That’s correct,” exhaled Midax, his anger now burning low, guttering into tired blankness. Deflated, he looked up at the older man. “Yes, I was born within sight-of-root, as the saying goes. You couldn’t ask for more stemmage than mine. Funny, isn’t it?” Exhausted irony alone remained. “The most socially prestigious birthplace you could ask for was mine; the most complex spot in the known universe. The well-spring of sophisticated folk.” He produced a kind of shuddering cough and added with bitterest irony, “Er – did you deduce this from my behaviour just now?”
“I could have, yes, if I had not known it already.”
“You sound as though you mean that seriously.”
“Why should I not?”
“I’ll spell it out for you,” said Midax. “Sophistication is not quite the term you would ideally choose to describe the way in which during these past few days I have lurched from one blabber-mouthed blunder to another.”
He scowled at the ground.
Waretik, however, gazed serenely off into the distance. “Only a sophisticated person,” he assured, “can suffer the Great Complication.”
“So!” uttered Midax with a sickly smile. “The secret is out.”
Come on, thought Waretik, it’s been out for days, but aloud he merely said, “Out – but not too far.”
With a trace of a chuckle, Midax said: “I perhaps don’t mind if it goes no further than you.” He darted an inquiring glance at the other.
“Truth is one,” said Waretik, “but not all big truths are close allies. Otherwise, that bunch – ” (he waved at the others) “would score as high as I do in the course tests.”
“Waretik, I say this for you: you get full marks for tact,” said Midax, wry-mouthed. “Let’s hope that the others’ intelligence is of a different stripe than yours.” He turned his head as he gazed around the grass-strewn immensity, the hills and the blue glint of Veed Lake. “Anyhow, I suppose that the business of damage limitation is up to me. I assure you, I shan’t make any more scenes.”
No further point in desperate manoeuvres. Live without all these impossible calculations. Live, please, without striving to say ‘hello’ to Pjerl quietly enough to leave open the possibility of telling myself that she didn’t hear me and thus to avoid the risk of feeling snubbed if the hello is ignored yet at the very same time to say it loud enough to be heard… An end to all that stuff. AN END.
He raised his voice almost cheerfully:
“Anyhow, the problem cannot last longer than two more days.”
Waretik smiled back. “That kind of coolness will come in handy.” It was a compliment, a kindness. Standing up, the older man added: “I see some of us are going to watch the skating. You coming along?”
“I might wander down there later,” nodded Midax.
After a minute he sauntered back to the group by the hamper. He settled and began chatting amongst them as though nothing whatsoever had happened since before he had stalked away. Amazingly, they co-operated, in tolerant forgetfulness, despite all the irritation he must have caused. Yet he was merely shallowly amazed. His mood had swung again. He was now on a positive-thinking spree. His instincts sought alliance with bright, sunny facts, drew strength from fresh breezes and the daylight, and allowed them to melt his mind into a pool of simple gladness. If his companions believed, or pretended to believe, that his recent oddities did not matter at all, why not go along with them? He was only a crazy Splasher in any case. An armistice between all egos had, it appeared, been tacitly agreed at this ford in their lives, two days before the critical crossing.
…Pjerl’s voice was ringing out, “Let’s make it official?”
“Hear that, everybody?” cried Stid Orpen.
“Hear what?” murmured Midax.
Stid explained, “We’re plotting that we’re all going to meet here again, after we come back. A reunion after Life. Perhaps even after Sparseworld!”
Davlr Braze wanted to know, “How soon after? We need to fix a date! We’ve got to be practical about this, or it won’t happen.”
Soaking in almost inert contentment, Midax listened to the others’ conversation as it flowed around this quaint idea that they could meet up “after”… Plans were lazily projected. No one scoffed. Nobody said, “Come on, this is not going to happen.” It was the intention of all to pretend that it could and would happen. Evidently, such pretence was necessary for them.
Necessary for them; but not for him. A man who is finished can find it easier than most to be brave. He, lucky man, had stumbled upon a moral jackpot. A treasure-trove of courage that only he could use, for it worked by comparison:
Compared to what Pjerl has done to me, how can the Luminarium scare me now?
Some people can only do the right things for the wrong reasons, and the Great Complication must be his wrong reason.
Now he could take the courage it had given him and use it – bestowing no further attention on the daft phenomenon itself… use it for other things.
So here goes. Laugh inside!
The GC had cut every other mystery down to size, and so had made it easier for him than for anyone else, to face the thought of what was about to happen in two days’ time.