Man of the World by Robert Gibson

3:  End of the open day


A day and a half later Midax was dawdling on the steps outside the stately double doors of the Olamic Institute, as he reflected upon what had again gone wrong.

The Open Day was over and the chattering flood of visitors was streaming away towards the bright terraces of the residential districts of town, on the other side of the gentle valley in which Serenth lay. Midax gazed over their heads, to the colourful roofs dotting the hillside, so bitingly clear in the eternal zenith light.

Freedom, his mind murmured, is like money. If you spend some, in making a decision, in acquiring a commitment, you are left with less of it than before. But that’s fair, since you get something in return for your purchase. Whereas I, having got nowhere, still possess my hoard. My useless idle hoard. I don’t want this kind of riches. I want the other!

That morning, the prospect of being accepted by, and belonging to, a project with an aim transcending everyday life, had beckoned to him with promise. His heart had developed a faster beat as he approached the elegant Olamic building, a seemingly eternal structure whose age extended beyond historical or even mythical memory. Midax had seen a few old buildings before. Not many; for most Serenthian edifices, when they showed signs of disrepair, were demolished and replaced; but there were some which had been allowed to grow old in appearance and so he knew about signs of age: dilapidation and the erosion caused by that rare thing, weather. But the Olamic Institute, being of an altogether different order of antiquity, was kept pristine. And it must logically be so; in order to survive cycles upon cycles of civilization the structure had to be maintained by instinct. That part of the human spirit which worked in its sleep, with unconscious willpower, continually ensured the Olamic’s upkeep. Midax noted, with as much reverence as a Splasher ever could, the inward-leaning outer walls which allowed the zenith sunlight to cascade down the stonework, a cheerful, welcoming glory for the queue shuffling up the drive.

Inside, he scanned the display stands in the lobby. They detailed the presentations on offer, and helped him decide which of them to attend. Soon he found himself sitting in a laboratory-classroom with about twenty other members of the public.

A lecturer began, “You have to understand, ladies and gentlemen, that the word light can mean many things….”

The audience enjoyed it when the lecturer held up some colourful, glowing, pretty jars and poured and mixed their contents to the accompaniment of technical patter, vastly oversimplified. It was a celebration of Light, that strange physical force, familiar yet ultimately mysterious like any other fundamental aspect of life. Flavours, textures of light; light at different speeds; light coiling and struggling against other light, in the shallow boxes on the demonstration bench. A fun show.

By the time the bell rang for the interval Midax could think of several criticisms to make, but he refrained. The presentation – well, it had been superficial, but so what? So what if the whole thing were only a tincture of truth? A truth far out of reach – and that great distance was nobody’s fault. Many a fantastic theme had to be introduced in homely ways, if no other method was available…. though his fellow-Splashers would be sure to sneer.

That last thought made Midax look round the other rows of seats….

Alas! A few rows further back, there lounged a man he recognized, in crackly broad-shouldered jacket, none other than the trend-spotter Harlei Dapron, writer for the news-sheet. Now slumped with arms folded across his chest, cheeks round with contempt, Harlei was almost the last person whom Midax would have wished to meet here.

It was the interval between presentations, when many of the staff and audience had drifted off to the canteen. Midax now wished he had done the same.

However, Harlei would have spotted him anyway, sooner or later. And although Harlei was not exactly a Splasher himself he was familiar with the aristocratic scene and would be sure to report Midax’s presence at this Olamic Open Day and to make a joke of it. Oh, well. The mood of enchantment was already spoiled. Just the sight of Harlei’s brimming white teeth as he returned the stare…

Midax decided, there’s nothing for it but to take the initiative. He sauntered over to Harlei and said, “Here I am. Another datum for you.”

“Having a good time?”

“Not only that. I intend to apply to join.”

As expected, Harlei bared his teeth anew at that statement. But then he replied with words that were not at all predictable:

“I have beaten you to it.”

“You what?

“I myself have joined the organization, already.” He grinned with no surprise. “I see you don’t believe me. Well, you’ll find out how very true it is. I am now an Olamic trainee and staff member, fully inscribed, and in fact I have been for four days. No more news-sheet reporting for me! And no more interviewing Splashers about trivia.”

“This,” said Midax frankly, “is hard to credit. I suppose,” he added, “that may not sound very polite.”

“It doesn’t need to be,” said Harlei, and now Midax noticed something else, something new about this man who had always been self-satisfaction incarnate: he had lost that odious quality; he looked shiningly happy.

That evening, looking back on his own failure, Midax kept asking himself, why oh why did they accept Harlei and not me? It was not that he resented the other fellow’s success; he wished him well, approved of his inner transformation and did not doubt that he deserved admittance to the Olamic. That, though, was the point. If he deserves it, I deserve it more. No one, surely, had ever yearned so longingly as Midax himself now did, to escape from idleness into purpose and meaning.

Many might have thought it odd, in view of his fortunate social position, that he should be afflicted with this restlessness. But he was not rejecting the vividness he had: far from it. Who in his right mind would reject the scene that was his to rove and relax in – this luminously lovable world? “Go back,” the Observatory man had said, “to your banquets and pleasure-boats” – in other words, go back to the rich social life that Splashers lived. Ah, but whenever he indulged in contemplation he possessed so much more, far beyond the habitable region of the people of Serenth: he sun-bathed his intellect in the wider grandeur of Korm.

Korm – the world – the entire globular hollow a million miles in radius, a world lit centrally by the suspended Sun. It was worth repeating the great dumb facts of existence, the wonderful reality which allowed him his life. Levitation kept that Sun suspended, which lit his day; kept the glowing orb fixed at the exact mid-point of the only known ball of space in infinite Matter, so as to shine in all directions onto Korm’s immense surface, including this tiny, habitable parch called Sycrest, the exquisite oasis of complexity and life, eighty miles in diameter, amidst which lay Serenth the eternal city; and at the centre of that little human settlement there spurted the luminous Fount, the Time-Tree, the source of Complexity itself. Endlessly, Midax mused on these great facts. With the temperament of a philosopher, he took nothing for granted, and marvelled at the familiar. He contemplated the mystery of the Fount, of how it sustained the biological and social efflorescence that rippled from that point and thinned and waned out to the Blerdon, Sycrest’s boundary forty miles away. Yes, forty miles from the Fount, atoms cease and matter becomes infinitely smooth… and that shows the local greatness of the Fount, by marking the limit of its strength and power.

The known cosmos – so caressable by the imagination – with its eighty-mile spot of history amid the wider eternal silence, invited endless pottering mind-play.

Yes, it would be easy to spend a lifetime in mental browsing of the produce of history and cosmology, the multi-million-day tale that ran on and on under a securely everlasting sky and a static zenith Sun.

So since he could not be bored, why was he dissatisfied?

The age-old wonders, the familiar mysteries, why weren’t they enough for him?

He knew why. They weren’t enough because they drew him on, to want more – to go beyond appreciation –

To do something personal to respond to their greatness.

He had tried to convince both the Observatory and the Institute that he would readily invest his life in whatever vocation they could provide, if only they’d admit him, if only they’d allow him the chance to show he was sincere. Unfortunately – as he now realized, several hours too late – his style was at variance with his aim. His manner seemed to cause an allergic reaction on the part of those whose support he was seeking.

He grimaced at the memory of unwise victories; of points which he would have done better not to score.

The afternoon presentation on “Institute Aims” had begun with a discussion that was open to the floor. Accustomed as he was to the verbal fencing of Splasher society, Midax had been slow to realize that here was not the place for it, here the organizers expected a more deferential audience.

His most unfortunate point-scoring occurred at the end of a talk by a certain Lecturer Inellan.

Inellan was an elderly, grey-garbed historian with a gravelly voice whose theme was entitled, “A Meditation upon Magnitude”.

It began with highly technical stuff: relative abundances of non-particulate and particulate matter. Inellan spoke without notes, which was a point in his favour. On the other hand he erm’d and ah’d in a vague and rambling manner which suggested that his mastery of the subject – or his confident belief in that mastery – had made him lazy.

Midax, for a while, restrained his own impatience. He reminded himself that Splasher standards of presentation did not apply here, and that the substance of the talk was interesting enough. What Inellan seemed to be saying, was that the matter-abundances (if some scanty bits of evidence from previous cycles were to be believed) might actually have altered, perceptibly, during the span of recorded history. From such dry crumbs of evidence, an awesome conclusion could perhaps be drawn, namely that the ever-lengthening time-frame of human experience was beginning to cover a noticeable fraction of the lifetime of the cosmos.

Quite a haunting idea, Midax conceded. He was unsure how far he believed it; could there really have been any perceptible general changes since records began? Then he became irritated, distracted by a trivial verbal thing: Inellan’s habit of using the adjective “chronic” in lieu of “chronological”. Chronic this, chronic that; an infuriating drip-drip. Midax winced every time the word came up. In the end he crazily allowed himself to spring his trap.

“Sir,” he had asked brightly from the floor, “in view of all this chronically vast antiquity, would it be plausible to assume that the Olamic Institute must have evolved so far, that its original Founders would no longer recognize its current purpose?”

Up on the dais, Inellan’s craggy face beamed. Evolved beyond was a phrase he liked. He clasped his hands behind his back, rocked slightly on his heels and replied, “Yes, I absolutely agree. I can well imagine that the Founders would feel quite lost in the Institute of today. An institution must evolve; just as an individual during the course of his life must change physically and mentally, eventually replacing every atom, so an organization may, given time, replace every attitude….”

All of a sudden, he stopped. He heard laughter rustling through the auditorium. Awareness of Midax’s real manoeuvre had just popped into every head that had been in attendance during the other long session, the late-morning one, where the Splasher had prepared the ground; for the fact was that Midax had asked the same lecturer the same question on that other occasion, except he’d asked it much more crudely, receiving the hot denial, “Of course we haven’t ‘forgotten what we’re up to’….”

And now he’d been tricked into saying more or less the opposite of that. Midax hardly bothered to smile. It had been so easy.

But it would have been better not to have done it.

Why had he done it, anyway? Why in the name of the Fount must he stupidly offend those whose favour he wished to gain? He supposed, on reflection, that in some way he must have been staking out emotional ground, seeking reassurance that, in the new life he wished to lead, his old attitudes could be allowed to persist.

Well, they wouldn’t be. He couldn’t bring that sort of baggage with him if he came to lodge here.

The decisive blow fell in the last session. Efficiently, swiftly, applications were processed from members of the public who were interested in becoming Olamic trainees. Midax was rejected on the spot. He was turned away without even being given a form to fill in.

“We’ll get in touch – if we should ever need a Splasher,” said the official at the desk, with a far-too-straight face.

….Now the crowd of visitors was dwindling down the hill and behind him he heard the main doors scraping shut. He refused to turn his head. No point in looking back at those who had rejected him. Continuing for a while to lean his back against one of the fat columns of the portico, he commanded himself to face the truth. Two failures in a row. Yesterday he had applied to join the Observatory and failed. Today he had applied to join the Institute and failed.

….Shoving himself erect, he began to walk, telling himself sardonically that he might as well follow the rest of the general public. Down the sloping avenue he strode, he drifted… The useful part of the day was almost over. The sky was as usual cloudless, but it held a lot less light than an hour ago. The colours of the city were becoming muted as the zenith sun grew fainter, like a ceiling light with a dimmer switch that is gradually being turned to “off”. In this analogy the Fount is the “switch”, meaning that the overhead change of brightness in Korm’s sun is driven by the change at ground level in the Serenthian Fount, or Time-Tree.

Like any Serenthian citizen Midax could tell the time of day instinctively from the quality of scattered light, without even having to look directly at the sparkling geyser which aimed upwards to power the sun. It would not be safe, in any case, to look directly at the Time-Tree. A source of energy which could daily rekindle the sun, and which could, via that central orb, distribute light throughout the whole of space, was unlikely to be safe for the naked eye at close quarters; and besides, the sight of such solid power would make an observer feel himself to be, in comparison, disturbingly tenuous, like a ghost.

In any case, you didn’t have to see it; the closer you approached the centre of the city the more easily you could sense the pulse of the Fount, or Time-Tree, even with your eyes shut. Midax’s perceptions were keen, and though about a mile away from it he soon detected the throb of that cosmic shaft of force. Its background beat was ever subtle and pervasive, albeit reduced at present due to the lateness of the hour. He began, in his depressed state, to toy with the idea of plunging into the Fount’s transcendent flame. Seeking oblivion; or perhaps something greater than oblivion? After all, it was nothing like ordinary fire. The flame and the light of the Fount were mere by-products of a higher dimensional impingement on the world. It did not deal out death; its progeny was Life. Inevitably so, for its true nature was a geyser of REALITY – an outbreak, a link to the source, of Complexification itself. That was why people born closest to it were Splashers… So, if he jumped into it, might he not find, though his body were instantly vapourised, that his soul (that is to say, the qualitative aspect of Midax Rale) was promptly recycled elsewhere and elsewhen, perhaps into a properly fulfilling role? Or maybe it would be eternal oblivion but at least it would count as a donation – he’d be giving one unused spark of complexity back to the Source. Refund himself. Cast himself back into the treasury of the universe.

What a grand gesture that would be, he thought with a sudden sneer.

No – he did not wish, after all, to be a man of gestures.

Far better simply to carry on, to allow the weary heart and soul to ride the mood of the hour, trusting the day to die and be reborn, as it has done a million million times.

His self-mockery and self-knowledge having saved him from suicide, Midax ambled homewards, focusing his mind away from his woes, switching his attention to the majestic visual music of the day’s decline.

Gradually as the cosmic fount abated towards midnight all hues would fade, wakeful people’s minds would blur, and the shapes of bodies would lose some definition – less or more according to their distance from the Time-Tree, the ones most affected being the simpletons who lived in the outlying farms, the ones least affected being the aristocratic Splashers like Midax who owed their sharp vividness to an accident of birth: that is, birth close to the Fount.

The fade into night and stillness would continue for hours until, with an upward surge of the Fount, a new day dawned, and full complexity was restored.

Meanwhile most of the citizens of Serenth had entered their homes for supper; Midax found he had the street to himself. Consequently, there were no witnesses to the shocked manner in which he halted his stride and stared at a patch of lawn.


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