Man of the World by Robert Gibson

16:  closest approach

Back to the schedule: Midax threw himself with single-minded zeal into the task of getting through the remaining hours in the Olamic Institute’s training time-table.

Whole-hearted participation was his sole wish. It was not the first time he had attained this frame of mind, but it would be the last time he would need to – for now he was fixed into it permanently. He had become truly reliable.

Although this moral shift had come rather late, at least he had the comfort of knowing, on the penultimate morn, that little time remained for any new upset – the training was largely complete. The business must be more or less over because less than one entire normal day remained.

For he couldn’t expect Day Minus One to be a normal day. Instead of lectures, seminars or laboratory demonstrations, the candidates were due to undergo a rehearsal – a “dry run” for the actual Entry of the morrow; or so the whispers went.

Then came an announcement, beginning with the words, “Candidates to await their instructions…” The whispers had turned out to be true.

Thus within minutes the Class of Minus One formed an edgy knot of fourteen people congregating at the back of Room L44.

Midax repeated to himself, “It must be meant to help.” However, he wished that the “rehearsal” were over, and he suspected that he was not the only one who felt this way. Crazily, he felt more jumpy at the thought of what might happen today, than he did at the thought of what might happen tomorrow. Or maybe it was not so crazy after all: not if a last-minute disqualification was what one feared.

A farewell celebration was planned for the evening, but the evening seemed a long way off. Meanwhile there was this dry-run to get over. Little pinching attacks of fear plucked at each of the candidates as they awaited their individual summons.

Davlr Braze asked throatily, “Anyone sense the onset?”

“Onset of what?” demanded Stid Orpen so quickly, it was obvious he was glad someone had spoken.

“Panic, of course. How about old Mezzy?”

Mezyf routinely blasted back: “Stop rolling your eyes, Davlr.”

Davlr chuckled, “All right, then how about Waretik?”

The tall Surveyor frowned. “Calm down, will you?”

Mezyf then jogged lightly on her feet and folded her empty arms as if for a moment she were dandling an object in them. She said impishly, “Hey, get Splasher Midax Rale to tell you the awful truth, Davlr.”

What was that bit of needling for? Midax shot a glance at Mezyf. She grinned back. He tossed the problem into the mental bin marked women’s behaviour and shrugged, replying, “Depends what type of panic you mean.”

“Oh, so there are brands of panic?” she asked.

“Quite so.” He put on a didactic tone. “For instance, there’s the ‘Help! I don’t know enough theory!’ sort, plumped for by the theory-swots. Then there’s the ‘Help! I haven’t learned enough topographical detail!’ sort, which the map-freaks flaunt.”

“Ah, tongue-twisting professor, declaim some more!” Mezyf implored; “tell us which you personally recommend.”

Midax, who by now had got the point of the double act, replied with pernickety hesitation, “Well, the topographical panic, according to some authorities, is necessarily the more curable – ”

“Curable, did you say?” grated Davlr with desperate seriousness.

Midax turned to him and said with authority, “Yes, at this late stage, yes.”

“Thank goodness – ’cause that’s the one I’ve got.”

The others understood: Davlr really was concerned that he might forget the layout of the inside of the Luminarium.

Davlr mused on: “Curable, you say… if I can bring oneself to believe, really believe that mere swotting up on the locations of Zard Pond and Dranl Green and Gonesh Walk and so on, will suffice…”

“You can stop sweating about that,” remarked Midax. “It’s this dry run that worries me, more than the real thing.”

They thought that interesting. The idea diverted them. They seemed to want more, so he went on to explain that he didn’t altogether trust the officials of the Institute not to “blung things up – to use a vulgarism.”

Since they weren’t acquainted with that vulgarism – not surprising, since he had invented it on the spur of the moment – he was able to divert the conversation further, into Splasher channels, by giving examples of the way Splashers sometimes swore. That got him some laughs; meanwhile he asked himself, in his inner quietness, was he the theory sort or the detail sort? Some candidates before the big test did review all the theories about the nature and purpose of the Luminarium, while others did pin their hopes upon having swotted up in detail on the various hills, valleys, rivers, settlements, roads and lakes and seas, learning all the names which observers had given to these features of the landscape inside the great glass box, just in case those names were still used inside… No, he wasn’t that. He truly was the theory kind.

And the theory wasn’t the kind of stuff you could cram at the last minute.

The only defence against that panic was not to have it.

As he pondered this, the calling began.

Each trainee was summoned individually to Inellan’s desk, to be given instructions on a slip of paper. A different departure time was written on each slip, for today’s Closest Approach was to be staggered – like tomorrow’s actual Entry – so that the candidates must walk down separately with no collusion.

You must leave at the stated time.

You must take the route indicated on the plan.

You must trace by eye the path of the reflected energy from the Time-Tree to the Luminarium roof-dish array.

So – an energy-path-tracing exercise. Alone with the Lecturer in his office, Midax shifted his gaze from the piece of paper to the impassive face of Inellan and was almost of a mind to remark, “This task could have been performed long before, and much better, from the vantage of the Surveillance Tower.” Just to let the authorities know that he was not fooled. But by this late stage, he could no longer derive any amusement from being awkward. In any case, in the heavy shadow of tomorrow, why pretend to misunderstand what the examiners were doing? He had murmured “Good luck” to each friend as they departed, and now it was his turn, and they had said “Good luck” to him, and that was all he needed.

At the stipulated hour and minute he went out by the Far Gate, alone.

He walked – as unselfconsciously as he consciously could – past the Surveillance Tower and onto the path that led across the mile between the Olamic building and the Luminarium.

He passed more outpost towers, some of which were manned; their staff were on the look-out and waved to him as he went by, and he waved back at them, while feeling almost as if he were in a play, which got him wondering about the vast saga of the Project’s history, wondering how it would feel to know all the things he did not know, and whether knew the story as a whole, and as soon as the question occurred to him he realized the answer must be no: it was far too big by now for any one person to achieve an overview.

Must concentrate on the task at hand!  Look out for the energy-reflectors on which he had been told to focus his attention. Extremely thin, they were hard to see until they were close. First he caught sight of their gleaming tops: collectively the duct which channelled the energy from Time-Tree to Luminarium. Then he discerned their stems: a line of giant glass sceptres frozen on the march.

Obedient to his instructions, he continued to gaze upwards and to trace by eye – as best he could in the golden downpour of vertical sunshine – those beams of energy which the ancient master engineers of Serenth had captured from the Fount and bent to their will.

Meanwhile the transparent wall of his destination drew near.

His eyes adjusted to ignore it, otherwise he might waste a good deal of time trying to see a thing so immense from so close. Nevertheless, he could not forget the presence of the wall. His intelligence kept him aware of the boundary; as long as you could see the ground you could tell where the glass wall stood, for beyond that dividing line the terrain was quite different. The multifarious parti-coloured landscapes of the Luminarium, and the inhabitants who could sometimes be seen, but who never seemed to see you – these all drew closer as he narrowed his inspection.

Not far beyond the glass, a cluster of houses nestled in a hollow between minor swells of ground. He thought of it as a village – he noted a shop and a little train station in addition to the score of dwellings. He could not help but spare some moments to examine the scene in more detail. What was that – a subway under the one main road? Strange and ridiculous, that unnecessary subway; think of the expense and effort which must have gone into constructing it, under a road that surely did not need it, a small quiet road which could easily be crossed above ground in a couple of moments. But an odd urge possessed him, to justify, to inflate his vocabulary, to call the village a city. Twenty houses, a city! He shrugged. These effects were known to tease observers.

For some more minutes he continued to watch, in case he might see signs of life. A kind of time-disparity existed, he knew, between outside and inside the Luminarium. Not a steady ratio: instead it was quantized, showing itself in gaps and slips. The inhabitants of the place were wont to pop in and out of visibility seemingly at random.

Remembering his first experience in the Light-Tank lab, he deduced that you see the Luminarium folk whenever you chance to look “along” one of their shifting lines of light. The “along” moments can last for seconds, minutes or hours, the longer ones clustering into coherent realms of explanation…

Straightaway – it must have been coincidence – sunlight flickered onto the bright coats and hats of a dozen people, on pavements and crossing the road. The village-city had come to life and was bustling peacefully.

The folk were just too far off for Midax to read their expressions. How long had those individuals been in there? Had any gone in while he had been training? Might he know any of them personally? If he could get close enough to see their faces…

He had been told that the population of the Luminarium was between one and two thousand. Not too many to search, given time… time which he did not have – yet.

Finally he stood within touching distance of the wall. He placed his hand against its cool surface. Then, leaning his weight against the glassy barrier, he turned his head and looked back, all way to the centre of Serenth, to the Time-Tree’s glow, and then back again the other way, carrying out the task he had been given, a neck-swivelling survey of the entire length of the line of force which he had traced on the way to the spot where he now stood. So, the duct of energy gets passed along from there to there, and thence (now looking up towards the glass roof, the Luminarium’s sky) gets scattered along that line of roof-dishes which Waretik spotted on our first day of training. Easy to see those dishes now, forming their faint ribbon across the box’s sky. Thence the energy must cascade down into the box itself, must bounce among the inner surfaces, multiplying, proliferating into who knows what.

Little sips of understanding like these, nourished his confidence. Nice to think he wasn’t totally in the dark.

Just goes to show, he thought, that the authorities must have their own good reasons for everything they do. And since it was their job to train him, and since he wanted and needed to be trained, he must continue to co-operate –

So he resumed walking, and continued to scrutinise the box-world. Never had its sights seemed so real as now. As he strolled, past shifting perspectives of the hills, an approaching trio of grove-clad summits like crested helmets loomed closer to reveal three, perhaps four, upland villages – knots of houses in proud arrangement, like tiny cities. And because the transparent wall which separated him from all this was too huge to see, the result was that, if he kept his head turned to the left, he seemed already to be inside. Once more he raised his eyes to the Luminarium sky and his excitement mounted still further, for a tingly sensation goaded him into a flash of daydream, a suggestion that powerful revelations lurked in the nearby dapple of clouds, and in alternating sheets of rain and sunlight like laminated curtains of peculiar rippling weather further off, plus the yet further murky cushions of heavier cloud that must be sailing along the opposite upper corner of the box. Fantastic thrills gripped him: inexplicable emotions. After the stresses and the heart-anguish of the past few days he felt renewed by the prospect of the colossal adventure to which he must submit tomorrow; indeed he considered himself, at that moment, to be a fantastically lucky man.

He turned, tearing his gaze away from the giant glass box, and surveyed a very different scene: the normal peaceful weather of Sycrest; the big real sky, where the most that could be produced (from evaporation of the few canals and lakes) was the occasional wisp of cirrus cloud. What a marvellous difference, between in and out of the box-world. But why wonder at it? Energy was being concentrated in there, deliberately. Of course the weather must become more agitated in there.

Turning again, to look once more into the Luminarium sky, he saw a solid flying shape.

It was weaving its way among those dense boxed-in clouds, negotiating the buffets of wind. It was a propeller-driven plane, there was no mistaking it: a plane zig-zagging downwards, coming in to land.

He watched it touch down upon a tarmac runway outside one of the villages – a village of fifteen houses, with its own airport – and his eyes stayed glued to the sight while six passengers disembarked. Another six, similarly carrying suitcases, climbed in to take their places. In a few minutes the plane took off again. Midax stood motionless, his spellbound eyes still following the plane as it flew in more zig-zags for another whole hour.

At last it landed again, at the next village, only a few hundred yards from where it had taken off.

The passengers disembarked, carrying their cases. They were replaced by a fresh half dozen…

Something vast and hidden was going on, something to do with the mis-match between style and arena. Grandiose transportation between sites which in fact were within walking distance of each other –

Was the plane trip just a sporting jaunt? But then why the luggage? And in any case what could they have been doing on such a flight – touring? No, that wasn’t it; couldn’t be it; they had a business-like air… air… flying by air… to a place they could have reached far sooner by walking… Planes could only make stupidly short journeys, inside the box-world, for the Luminarium’s longest diagonal was less than four miles. These physical facts compelled Midax’s mind to rove among deep doubts. Why did anyone bother to build planes, in there? The insistent question was an arm of unease that reached him through the wall. What was the point of flying three miles? Let alone three hundred yards!

It was not surprising that the technology existed to build aircrarft – Serenthians now and then built them, out of curiosity, and flew them across the eighty miles of Sycrest, and occasionally some little way beyond before banking and swerving to turn back because no fliers dared to venture too far across the Blerdon, because if you had to make a forced landing upon the universal frictionless kolv you might never return… all of which went to show that nowhere was there any urgent demand for these flying toys. Since the death of Icdon, that is. Things had been a bit different while Icdon had been alive.  Then, there had been that one other city-realm which Serenthians might have flown towards, if long-distance aircraft had been designed. Perhaps that had actually been done, at some ancient period or other, but mostly Serenth’s industries were small-scale, aimed at the manufacture of labour-saving devices to eliminate home chores; transport was restricted to skates, barges and one-man speedsters… This being true of Serenth in its entirety, all the more should it apply to the inside of a glass box within the boundaries of that land.

He must be missing something. All at once he trembled, gripped by an urge to buy assurance, buy it at whatever cost. You had better do something fool-proof, this last evening, Midax Rale! Bone up on the lists of names till you’re word perfect on the topography of the entire box-realm. That way you’re sure to orient yourself, in whatever part of it you end up.

Already you know a lot. Surely you’ll be all right, anywhere along the shore-path by Zard Pond, with Dranl Village on one side, Heism Village on the other, the Kalbeck Copse, Gonesh Walk… all those familiar names coined by observers over the ages; the subject of countless sketches, monographs… names presumably remembered and used by those who then get to use them in place…

Hang on.  No.  Be honest.  It wouldn’t work.  He couldn’t assure himself that way. He was not a details man and never would be. It was not his style.

He was the theory kind.

So, although he liked to look at Zard Pond, it was not to learn the topography for an exam. He quite simply appreciated the Pond’s perfect setting, a glinting jewel between the villages on either side of it, villages almost within a stone’s throw of each other, so neatly and tightly was all the detail packed, so brilliant the design of that enclosed world that made use of every square inch of space. An insight almost surfaced… but he must not stare too long. Action! Internal action. That’s what was needed. He must work out what was bothering him and then, by means of intelligence, by sheer mental force, smash the worry.

The worry came from the evidence of mass production in there – those standardized vehicles, those clothes, plus a building which might be a small factory – all of which raised again the question, What need of this in such a small area? Even the whole of Serenth, for most of its history, did without such stuff.

Definitely, something special must be growing in the hothouse.

Well, that was the idea, was it not?

It must be so. The great purpose, the plan, could hardly not be special. But just what was being born in there? What effect, he wondered, did the increased complexity inside the box produce?

Well, he’d find out soon enough. Perhaps nobody guessed beforehand. Rumours galore, theories, speculations, must buzz in each candidate’s head, to be dashed or confirmed only as they went in. Meanwhile, it was no use asking anyone. The technicians who had built the Luminarium had all died aeons ago. Those who still serviced it today had been at it so long that they had smoothed their work to an unconscious degree. In other words, they were trancers who did not remember what they did during the hours of their working day. So even if he had known where to find them, it would have been a waste of his time to ask them.

Now he saw some people close by, on his side of the glass wall. They must have emerged from behind a copse, or up from an underground tunnel – never mind, what mattered was that the three were there, standing still, waiting for him as he began to walk towards them. (But they were not going to tell him anything, either.)

One of them was none other than Alsair himself, the Assigner, the Head of State; his two guards kept steady watch on Midax as he drew near.

The Assigner’s jaw cracked open and he rasped, “Greetings, Midax Rale. By all accounts you have done well in your studies. You are quite ready.”

“Thank you, sir, I suppose I am.” Midax felt an insolent mood coming on. “So ready am I, that I’m not even surprised to see you waiting here.”

Alsair’s night-black button eyes searched the Splasher’s face. “You have absorbed what you have been told?”


“You know how the Luminarium works?”

“Oh yes.” But not the effect…

“And the purpose?”

Midax ached to ask about the zig-zagging plane. But he was determined not to weaken. No pleading for insights now.

“The purpose?” repeated Alsair.

“To squeeze the most out of each ray,” said Midax, listening with surprise to the words which popped out of his mouth. Hey, that sounded fluent – I must be on to it. He shivered and continued, “To eke out our allowance from the Time-Tree. Ultimately – to survive Sparseworld.”

“Glibly spoken. Remember, when you’re in, you can’t turn back. You will not re-emerge of your own volition. You will have to be fetched. That is the process called death. And you will be fetched only when conditions permit. Clear?”

“As clear as it can be, sir.  But so far it’s just words.”

“Inevitable.  Now go and have a good evening in town. And if you find that your mind is still made up, appear at the main gate of the Luminarium at the seventh hour tomorrow. Any questions?”

Midax threw back his head and laughed aloud. “Any questions now?” he sputtered, eyes swimming. “Sir, it’s brilliant – congratulations on the timing – I should write a brochure on it.”

Alsair grimaced; his guards scowled. Gruffly, the Head of State then said: “It is a fact that questions at this late stage may have a distorting effect, so perhaps I should not have asked you. It is why candidates are discouraged from conferring on their eve-of-entry with the revenants.”

Midax gasped on, “More than discouraged, sir. Prevented. The way the Institute has kept quiet about the revenants – kept them totally out of sight, so that no candidate has ever spoken to anyone who has completed his or her time in there – again I say, brilliant!”

“What do you know about what has ever happened?” chided Alsair. “But in the shorter term, you speak truth. You are expressing your scorn and your understanding in the same breath. Quite efficient of you, Midax Rale. Now go.”

Controlling his temper with an effort, Midax sensed that he had been grudgingly approved as well as dismissed, and he strode away from the relentless brow of the ruler of Serenth, telling himself that one thing, the most important thing, was clear.

The authorities knew what they were doing.

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