Midax stepped into the street, pulling shut his front door behind him.
Without looking back he set off, glad that he had a bit of distance to walk in this unique transitional hour when Purpose beckoned, Freedom lingered… He reached the end of his street and entered the succession of crescent ways which curled alongside the parks. This was an area in which he was likely to come across some people he knew: ex-comrades, the fitter ones, sauntering in the crisp morning air. Mile-droppers he was wont to call them in friendly mockery, from the care they took to bring into conversation the extent, in miles, of their morning exercise. His joke was harmless, yet now he was tired of it, tired of cleverness in general…. he hoped he would not meet any of that bunch. Not on this day which meant so much to him. Though if he did, he’d deal with them effectively, using the flippant arrogance which went with the title of Splasher…
He probably would not be able to avoid a glimpse of one massive pear-shaped saunterer, full of inexhaustible physical energy, name of Arrepleed, who was fond of organising hikes that began about here…. Sure enough, on the other side of the road Midax glimpsed this particular “mile-dropper”, apparently about to veer towards a route that led through the suburbs to the hills.
Swinging a cane (which he did not need), Arrepleed flourished it at Midax and shouted across:
“And where are you off to today, M.R.?”
Midax spread out his hands and yelled back, “Oh – saving the world, perhaps.”
“Sounds like work!” roared Arrepleed, following the first rule of Splasher conversation, which was: never admit that you do not understand.
Midax roared back carelessly:
“So I’ll join the Olamic and get ’em to show me how!”
The other man’s options were limited. He had a split second in which to decide whether to appreciate Midax’s far-fetched wit. Indeed there was nothing else to be done, without breaking one’s stride, if one wished to look smooth. So, Arrepleed’s head rocked back with a laugh and he waved again as he turned away.
End of that problem, thought Midax with grey satisfaction.
A minute or so later he encountered another ex-crony and dealt with him the same way: telling the truth as if it were a joke.
It was natural for them to suspect nothing. Midax’s shoulders still flaunted the same rich cloak as usual, and his manner the same flippant veneer. In no way did he visibly offer any sign of his new life. Thus he avoided delays, explanations, justifications; he let the bubbling chatter of town life sink out of earshot as he reached Rheddon Avenue and the long gradual climb towards the Olamic building.
Now, with mind cleansed of distraction, he could enjoy the tingling silence in which abstract beams of Promise and of Memory poured their spiritual cones from fore and aft, to bathe him in their glows of greeting and farewell as he hiked across their common frontier, the exquisite, transient Present: a blossom of awareness, its short-lived petals of unspecified hope blooming between fixed Past and committed Future. And others walked the same road, as quietly as he. Increasing numbers of them turned into it from their branching roads. Uniting himself with this early stream of pedestrians, he thought to himself: I am one fleck among the many private mysteries pushing past me; but it is possible, for these few minutes, that I am the only spark of conscious freedom among them, the only person who does not yet possess responsibilities, worries, or any precise knowledge of what is to come; but then again, perhaps not... Either way, it can’t last… The Institute looms, the bulk of Purpose shifts the balance… and Freedom must bow under the weight of the occasion.
With a sudden flight of fancy he pictured the Olamic’s magnificent double doors as a ticket window, and himself as walking up to it with the shiny coin of freedom held out in his hand.
Here it comes, the coin is paid over; or rather, the threshold is crossed, the action taken.
Midax shook his head and gathered his wits.
The entrance hall seemed brighter now than yesterday. At first he did not understand why.
It was the uniforms. A dozen people were in the hall and they were wearing bright silver. Midax realized, guiltily: I caused this. The famous silver suits – worn in the past only on rare state occasions – must be worn continuously by all Institute personnel once the coming of Sparseworld had been authenticated.
And I made the discovery. And now heads are turning. They are staring at me already.
Suppressing the riot in his skull he strode to the reception desk.
That feckless young Ervar was again at the desk. Well, the boot was on the other foot now, but should he, Midax, gloat in his hour of victory? Of course not – but on the other hand, if that fantastic idiot should try any further obstruction….
But the smile which spread on the youngster’s face seemed wholly positive.
“Good morning to you, Discoverer Midax Rale!” Spoken ironically? No – obsequiously, and the flow of words continued in respectful murmur. “If you would care to wait just a few moments, guides will be here to show you to your quarters. Then you will be taken to meet your fellow-trainees, and after that you will be taken on various introductory tours. Would you care to be seated meanwhile? You will not have to wait long, I promise you. Perhaps you may care to examine some of our new publicity material. Some images of your discovery site have already been laid out….”
“Thank you,” said Midax gruffly, almost overwhelmed by this deference. He headed for the waiting area, an alcove occupied by three leathery armchairs around a low table; but before he got there, he heard his name pronounced by another voice. Turning, he saw an older man and woman who were approaching him: two more faces on which to read excited welcome! This pair were similar to each other in middle age and stocky shape; the man he recognized as Ultrisk, the thickset fellow with a tanned skull, who had seemed so dour the evening before. Now he projected calm and satisfaction – as smooth as a Splasher, with purpose thrown in. The woman walked close beside him, as if to emphasize that they were partners. Midax found himself immediately trusting both of them.
“Bright and early, Midax Rale?”
“Early, at any rate.”
But the woman interjected:
“We wondered, we wondered… whether you had had second thoughts and had come just to cancel.”
“This lady,” remarked Ultrisk, “is Kmee, my colleague from Admissions.”
Midax felt straightaway drawn to Kmee as though to a cushiony cloud of gentleness and kindness, a personified projector of warm rays. He was baffled by her relevance, her link to him. He could not comprehend this sudden bonding; after all, he had never seen her before, never heard of her. What sort of emotional event was this? Certainly not the usual disturbing woman-effect. The warmth in which her voice and manner enveloped him was an entirely reassuring thing, extraordinarily protective. It gave him – for the first time in his life – the sense of being a small, snug, sheltered and valued being.
Remarkable! If the Institute are this good, they may be right about all sorts of stuff. They may know what I’m good for. If so, I hope they tell me what it is.
“No, I’m certainly not backing out,” he said aloud. “The reason I came early, Kmee, was to get some help with this.” He extracted the application form from his pocket.
Ultrisk took the papers from him.
They settled in the armchairs.
“Well, is it all in order?” asked Midax.
Kmee leant over to watch as Ultrisk unfolded the sheets of the form. Mildly she commented, “You’ve left all of it blank.”
Midax nodded, “That’s what I mean – is it all in order? Seeing as I’m being admitted only as the great Discoverer – not for my own sweet self, which was rejected a few hours before – is it all right for me to treat the form as a joke?” His tone was bright, powered, however, by a burst of severity. This is telling them. Right now, this moment, is the best time to find out how much I can trust them to get along with me.
Ultrisk stretched back in his chair. “You’re determined to start off on your chosen footing, aren’t you?”
“Absolutely,” agreed Midax, coldly riding the flare within him, and hardening his heart against the others’ charm. For it was vital to find out once and for all whether he was here just as some token publicity mascot, or whether he would be valued for himself.
“All right,” Ultrisk’s smile was brisk and unperturbed, “I get the picture. Your previous application was rejected, and then suddenly you become the Discoverer and we immediately change our minds about you; we want you in here for all sorts of prestige reasons – whereas you are wishing you were valued for your talents. Right?”
“Wrong,” Ultrisk pronounced. “You’d have got in eventually, discovery or no discovery – provided that your Splasher pride allowed you to persist in the attempt.”
“I want to believe you,” was Midax’s muttered concession.
“Besides,” continued Ultrisk, “think: what is talent?”
“Uh…” blinked Midax.
“Talent is a characteristic, an attribute, not an achievement! Of course it can lead to achievement, but did you, Discoverer Midax Rale, really deserve to be at the right place at the right time yesterday evening? Any more than I deserve to possess my consummate ability to deal with difficult people?”
The fury within the Discoverer was dying, dispersed in the infinite promise of this special day.
“So….?” and Midax matched the twinkle in the older man’s eye.
“So, the application form is quite in order, Midax the Mascot Rale. Now let’s go and have a look at your room.” Ultrisk heaved himself up.
Kmee rose likewise, handing the form back to Midax, saying, “Keep it as a souvenir!” He smiled back with the feeling that the contest had been won by all sides. In amazed contentment, he followed the pair as they set off down the hall. That strong sense he had of being protected, as though it were Kmee’s function or destiny to be his shield: what a strangely groundless feeling! Supposing he ever did need a shield – what could this woman do?
They passed through a checkpoint into a grid of corridors.
Kmee looked round, dropped back a bit to walk beside Midax and laid a hand on his arm.
She said: “I expect it must have been hard for you to say good-bye to your friends.”
“I haven’t told my friends where I have gone.”
“Ah,” she nodded, “so you’ve bid no fond farewells.”
With an edge to his voice he replied, “What matters more, is that I’ve said goodbye to my enemies: that’s to say the annoyances, the discontents, the texture of purposeless life…”
She laughed, “Congratulations. It’s good, I know, to give all that the final slip. And do you know what you’ve gained instead?”
“Not yet, but I’m sure it can’t be worse.”
She gave his arm a sympathetic squeeze.
Busy sounds came at them through the walls of the corridor, walls which, according to signs on doors, concealed offices, lecture theatres, laboratories… One door was ajar, and as they strode past it Midax glimpsed pulses of light through the jamb.
He probed, “I seem to remember, this area was sealed off during the Open Day.”
“We don’t want tourists gaping into the main tank,” replied Ultrisk.
“Because it interrupts your research?”
“ – And besides,” Ultrisk added to finish his statement, “some tourists are such cowards.”
Patience, thought Midax, is something I can afford, now that I am safely in; so let all cryptic remarks rain down on me as they will. A downpour of omens is all right with me. All that matters is that I’m in, I’m safely in...
They reached the trainees’ living quarters. Ultrisk and Kmee showed Midax into a compact study-bedsit, neat and plain, with curtains open to reveal a fine view over Serenth and the hills beyond. Just outside the window, tilted mirrors – operable by levers from inside – directed the zenith sunlight into the room and onto the bed, where it sparkled upon a silver uniform laid out.
“We’ll leave you to get ready,” Ultrisk said.
They gave him a plan of the building. They instructed him that when he had got changed he was to go to the room marked A143 where he would meet his fellow-trainees.
Midax asked, “Ah – how many are they?”
“Fifteen in the current intake, including yourself. You’re naturally wondering what they’re like, aren’t you? Nine are ex-trancers who broke trance yesterday to join us. The rest have transferred here from other institutions or from private vividian concerns. Quite a mixture. You’re the only Splasher among them. So that’s something they’ve all got that you haven’t – to whit, a solid work-record!” He gave Midax a jovial slap on the back. “See you soon.”
Kmee echoed warmly, “See you soon. And don’t look nonplussed, Midax –”
They left him standing in the middle of the room.
He remained for some seconds gazing at the silver jacket and trousers which he must now put on. He thought of how carefully it and all the other uniforms must have been stored in readiness for this historic day. Long-planned, the counterstroke against Sparseworld! An age-long project, the defence against the Winter of Being! But considering a doom which could not be escaped, this raised the question, what could such a defence entail? He was as yet in no position to guess any possible answer to this huge question, but he felt the size and weight of it on his soul. Certainly he had already contributed something, he had discovered the harbinger, and had given the great warning, but henceforth what could he be but a cog in some mighty defence? Well, he had wanted meaning in his life. Here was meaning.
He dressed himself in the silver gear. Now uniformed, and keyed-up, his sophisticated poise no more than a thin screen against palpitating excitement, Midax considered how vital it was that he make adequate first contact with those who were going to be his companions in the days ahead. He must channel his tension positively, into clarity and alertness. That was what tension was for.
If he could do that, he’d make a good enough impression.
Taking his own advice, by the time he reached the entrance of Room A143 he had slid into the best manner of approach: outward ease, trust, optimism based on the knowledge that these people (fortunately) weren’t going to resemble his former set at all. And as he came in sight of the group that stood conversing around a low drinks-table, his hopes were encouraged by the first fragments of chit-chat which he overheard. No trivia-minded Splashers here. Here, idle talk was meant to be interesting rather than “smooth”. He heard stuff which at first he didn’t understand but which definitely held a tone of promise. A woman was saying, “Relevance is irrelevant. Static-fed discharge, too far off to affect our bodies, can still inspire our artists,” and a man reply, “At a time like this, we’ve got closer stuff to focus on, than pretty atmospheric phenomena.” The apparent gibberish became comprehensible when he guessed that they were discussing the “wilderness lights”, the transient glows or brief flashing points occasionally seen at cosmic distances against the upward curving surface of Korm. A civilized topic. Like a hungry desert wanderer who at last comes upon a feast, Midax crossed the threshold of Room A143, avid to join a debate.
Quick, pick the right trajectory! Mustn’t acquire that fatal hovering look.
Of the three chatting groups, he chose to head for the standing group of four in the centre, which included those who had been discussing the wilderness lights, and he walked forward in a style which signalled to them: open up, I want to join you; without a doubt you’re going to let me in.
“Have you no soul, Waretik?” the woman was saying.
“Certainly, Sennwa, I have a soul. Else I would not wonder if I had.”
“Well, then! Poem after poem has been written about those lights, and all you lot do is ascribe them to atmospheric phenomena.”
“What – the lights or the poems?” asked a third voice.
Midax, edging closer, saw Sennwa, a plump woman with orange hair, look up accusingly at Waretik, an immensely tall, serious-faced man. The third speaker was a younger, thinner woman with a lopsidedly attractive twist of the mouth, who shifted her slight weight once or twice with an impatient dancing motion.
This was the sort of scene he was meant for. Here was not the empty wit of the Splashers. Here was the right interplay between lightness and depth.
Waretik knit his heavy brows and began to reply to the original charge. “Not merely atmospheric phenomena, no. My bet would be on some kind of reciprocal action between meteorological disturbance and traces of volatiles on the ground….”
“Well, you’re the surveyor, Waretik,” spoke up a stockier man, in a cocksure tone; “you should organize an expedition to find out.”
Waretik took the comment seriously, Midax could tell. It was as though it really were up to him, Surveyor Waretik, to find a way to traverse the cosmic distances. With a cornered downward look like a giant at bay, the big man retorted: “Well now, Stid, before venturing that far, we’d first better check with Sennwa, as to what effect that intrusion might have.”
“He means,” said Sennwa, the orange-haired woman, “the literary scene.” She persisted amid the smiles, “Maybe it’d hardly matter; there’d always be the next light further on, still un-debunked, still imaginable as a beacon – Waretik could hardly reach them all, to spoil their romance with his Survey reports.”
“I couldn’t live long enough to reach one,” Waretik remarked. “Not even if I needed no sleep or breaks for meals. But some of you younger ones might make it. Let’s see…. Stid, how about you? You look like a strong young fellow; you could manage twenty miles a day easily enough, assuming you could carry enough ration pills…. That would mean…. hmm…. 22,500 days or so to the closest ‘beacon’…. well, maybe you’d better make it thirty miles a day – when you start considering the size of the universe…”
Midax chose this moment for the last half-step to nudge him into the ring.
Would he be let in? Yes! The others edged round – space was made for him! The group had shifted without strain to accommodate him! He had not even had to say, “Excuse me”. This was so wonderful, this sense of belonging. I’m home. I’m home. Casually he remarked: “Sounds like an expedition is being planned.”
“Not quite,” replied Waretik dryly, “as I suspect that Stid Orpen here” – he indicated the stocky man – “may not have all the logistical problems ironed out.”
“Yep,” admitted Stid, “maybe the dawn of the Matter Age will have to be postponed awhile.”
“Besides,” the younger of the two women intervened again, “available resources are probably tied up right now.” She uttered this understatement with a grimace, rolling her eyes. “But don’t worry, Stid, as soon as we’ve sorted this little Sparseworld business out, we’ll see if we can find backers for your Matter Programme.”
“Trust you, Mezyf Tand, to remind me why I’m here,” Stid grumbled. He turned to Midax. “Mean of her, don’t you think?”
“Sounds as though she’s a realist.”
Stid nodded at that and said to Mezyf, “Let’s face it, you’re a mere realist, whereas I am a visionary.”
Midax – really in his element now – suggested, “Why not combine the two concerns?”
Waretik said, “How could that be?”
“I mean, for example, we could arrange for an expedition to take us all far Out There, out of range, while we let Sparseworld do its worst to an empty city; and then we come back when it’s all over.”
“I see,” nodded Waretik. “Use a Matter Exploration Programme to evade Sparseworld.”
“Great!” gasped Stid.
“It just popped into my head,” shrugged Midax modestly.
“I know who you are,” cut in Mezyf Tand, her voice suddenly sharp.
Midax’s heart prepared to sink. “Oh?”
“This lot,” Mezyf continued, with a jerk of her head at her companions, “made straight for the drinks, but I,” and she waved at a stack of leaflets, “saw what was on the newsletter.”
Sennwa said: “Ah.” Whereupon she, too, went to fetch a leaflet. She stared at it and then at Midax. “You’re the Discoverer. The Splasher.”
“Ex-Splasher, if you don’t mind – ”
As the Discoverer, I’m level with them, despite my idle background. I’m accepted by them; absolutely equal, they and I. That’s what their gazes seem to be saying. ‘Midax Rale, Olamic trainee’. At last.
The other introductions were made.
Sennwa Axan, ex-teacher. Mezyf Tand, ex-econometrist. Stid Orpen, ex-courier, ex-trancer. Waretik Thanth, ex-Surveyor.
“Or maybe not ‘ex’,” Midax suggested.
Waretik murmured, “Perhaps,” glancing around the suddenly silent group, all of whom faced the uncharted territory of the future.
Then a voice at the door; Ultrisk calling them, interrupting all the conversations in the room:
“All right, you people! We can grab some minutes in the Surveillance Tower.”
Midax could not imagine any other day ever being as good as this.