Man of the World by Robert Gibson

11:  the light-tank

He had no trouble getting back into the building. None of the staff, who were scattered about the entrance hall with its many alcoves, seemed even to notice his return, any more than they had noticed his departure.

Definitely, luck was with him, but he could not expect it to last forever – he must get some answers ready. Questions might be fired at him any second. And for a start he must face the issue himself. Why had he absconded?

He no longer knew – the impulse was gone. Though it had seized him less than two hours ago, the episode was burnt out, finished. Thus the reason for it had slipped from his mental grasp. If he wished to bring that reason back to mind, he must take a risk – he must re-evoke the impulse…

Like one who knocks insincerely on a door, hoping that no one will answer, he decided to run that creepy risk. Here goes, he thought – and tried to recover that frame of mind he’d been in, when he had rushed from the lecture room.

And nothing came of it. What a relief. He could only recall the effect of the sudden panicky oppression that had driven him out of the Institute – not its cause; not a whiff remained of the actual phenomenon which had capsized his purpose so abruptly.

He had a good hope now, that he was done with such aberration. Henceforth he would remain steadily locked onto his chosen destiny.

That had better be true, considering his reception among the Splashers. Yes, the old life, as far as he was concerned, was dead. No option remained other than to commit himself to the new.

He made his way to his room and lay down on his bed, hands behind his head, closed his eyes and concentrated, for he still had to use logic (since memory wouldn’t help him) to work out the mechanism of the trigger which had caused him to rush out of that session in Room L44.

For it wasn’t enough simply to vow that it must not happen again. He must understand himself, understand what might make him do such things.

Suddenly he was wise to it. Perfection is the enemy.

That was it; you could almost graph the pressure – the steepening towards disaster –

It happens thus: things go well – expectations soar – with them zoom demands – demands on himself, on his life and world – upping the price of failure (even the slightest failure) to infinity. Catastrophe awaits the slightest slip.

Consequently the actual trigger did not matter much in itself. If it had not been one thing it would soon have been another. His exalted state had had no safety-net between it and the abyss of exaggerated disillusion.

The only defence against plunging is not to soar in the first place.

Could he control his expectations? Could he stop his blood from rioting in his veins?

An encouraging whisper of memory: the girl lolling on the windscreen of the barge.

Think about that girl…

On reflection, he recognized the type – ah yes, that weirdly convincing type. Broadcasting her own infinite worth. What kind of worth? Never any answer to that. Just ‘Plop!’ and the notion lodged in his head for free. But this time it had not happened that way.

This time, he had been able to overcome the power of illusion.

He had not been wrenched – this time – into worship of her. No, this time, flick! he’d switched off the nonsense. Evidently he was becoming less impressionable. A cheering thought; a vital thought, strategically essential now.

He opened his eyes and looked at the clock in his room.

No use now trying to rejoin the class in L44; no use joining the other trainees in their break, either – since that interval, too, was past. He must join the next session.

Ah yes: the session in the Light-Tank Chamber. That was his next appointed goal.

Glancing at his printed plan of the building, he hurried through empty corridors amid a wash of rising and falling sounds that seeped variously through the walls, the sounds suggesting that he was being excluded from some great, urgent enterprise; but he had recovered his confidence, and rejected the smog of anxieties which might otherwise have obscured his determination. Never in his life had he succumbed to conclusions he did not like – a robust attitude which stood him in good stead when his swift stride brought him face to face with the Light-Tank Chamber entrance.

The grinding roar from within told him that the session had already begun. He must push his way into the Chamber as a latecomer. Very well: let the rest of his life begin with this.... He pushed the door and found himself staring into a pool of white fire.

The black silhouettes of his fellow-trainees wavered in front of the heaving brilliance. Some figures stood uncertainly, some were darting to right or left to snatch a look through tubes that were attached all along the railing that surrounded the lake, or pool, or tank of seething whiteness – which actually was not fire; he likened it, as he advanced, to a pit of trapped, incandescent worms, or to squirming lightning-bolts, slowed to speeds of only a few yards per second – speeds which the eye could follow – and emitting a sawtoothed grinding din, clash upon clash, from staccato to continuous roar and back.

No use complaining that he did not know what all this was about. It was his own fault that he had missed most of the background lesson which ought to have prepared him. He must now rely upon sheer aplomb (or blind arrogance) to see him through.

He reached the railing. Glancing to left and right, he saw trainees scribbling their notes with fervour. He smiled ruefully at that. I, Midax Rale, will not pretend to scribble. He just stood, receptive, while the writhing tangle of rays in the tank, in their zigging and zagging, blasted the chamber with wave after wave of drenching brilliance – which, however, he could look at without hurting his eyes, thanks no doubt to anti-actinic invisible shielding in the material of which the tank must be composed.

Areas of regularity sometimes appeared within the lunging tangle; pockets of law in the midst of chaos. Whenever these coalesced, whenever the wild rays were somehow combed into an orderly pattern, they immediately attracted the aim of scores of telescope tubes, swung round by students avid to get a bearing on the new patch.

Regularity bred regularity. Law and order – whenever a patch of it appeared – seemed to foster some clingy complexity which resisted the return of chaos for a while. Realizing that this must be what the students were competing to study, Midax likewise sought to use one of the little ’scopes.

He began, unawares, to draw ahead of the others, the moment he conceived the idea of trying to sight along rather than at the fat-light rays. He soon scored a “hit”, meaning that he sighted exactly along one of the rays. The immediate result of this was that the ray itself disappeared from his field of view; for now that he was no longer looking at it but by means of it, he was able to use it as one uses a torch, illuminating whatever lies at the end of the line of light.

Triumph thrilled his every nerve as the eyepiece now showed him the scene at the bottom of the tank, hidden before this moment by the morass of white-light bolts. The moment was strangely prolonged, as if the ray, while being looked along, wished to remain frozen with the observer, enabling the airlift of a supply of stability into a beleaguered patch of order. Midax was able to hold his aim for about two minutes, during which he was able to study the scene revealed.

It was a cruder equivalent of the kind of intensely varied landscape he’d seen from the top of the Surveillance Tower when gazing onto the floor of the gigantic Luminarium.

Here, in the far smaller Tank, not much trouble had been taken to perfect the details. Houses, trees and vehicles were but little models, and there was no life or motion in them, but Midax felt an excited suspicion as if he expected it all to awaken by magic.

Then a thing happened to Midax’s target ray: it corrugated. It went from straight to zig-zag in an instant as if its joints had suddenly buckled from pressure. Yet it reached the same distance as before. This implied a huge and abrupt increase in the line’s actual length. Midax saw this from the outside with his “free” eye, while with the other – the eye at the lens, looking along the expanded ray – he experienced a terrific leap forward in range of view.

Then the line went straight again; but Midax had already jerked back from the eyepiece, his head aching from that momentary greatness of vision.

Thoughtfully he searched for words to describe how those little model ships and houses and trees and trains, and all the land-types they rested on, had suddenly swum into a mightier, boundless configuration....

He tried it again. All the rays were corrugated in such a way as to allow him (when he looked along them) to expand his vision into a world; all of them, that is, except those that bounced all the way between the tank’s two ends – those rays stayed straight and instantaneous; the others, the intermediate ones, zigged and zagged.

While he reflected on this, one of the supervisors stepped quietly near.

Her sharp voice caused him to blink back out of realms of philosophic wonder.

“Well, Midax, so you’re back with us but not yet working?”

She was the lantern-jawed woman named Jaekel. Her eyes blazed with an intelligence that warned Midax not to try any unsuccessful tricks.

“I haven’t been writing notes, if that’s what you mean,” he shouted back over the din.

“Why not?” hissed Jaekel, her voice almost drowned out but her lips  readable.

Midax, amid all the grinding roar and the flashes in the Chamber, paused to take stock of his impertinence.  He judged it viable. “Because,” he replied, “I don’t think you care what we write. We’re not here to discover things. Rather the reverse.”

“Go on.” Jaekel was looking him full in the face, with an intensity of expression that would have been terrifying to any dithering student, and Midax was grateful for the boon of insight.

“We are being assessed, and sensitized,” he declared, “to that process which we shall meet when we cross through the Portal in eight days’ time. The right reflexes are being built into us.”

Jaekel drew closer with a measured smile. “It seems unnecessary, then, to force you to finish this exercise. But it could have been useful to have your verbal description of what you saw.”

Ah, yes. Find the right words – or invent the right word. Match the syllables to the idea, and, zing, a new vocable sees the light of day… Midax pushed his luck as he mused, holding back his punchline in Splasher style, “I was just getting round to it, using our word-forming rules, to invent a term for a thing I seemed to see when looking down that ray, and I find the word is – ‘horizon’.”

Jaekel for an instant froze agape. It was as if she were staring with her teeth. Then she muttered: “For you, eight days will be none too soon.”

Midax held his tongue; he sensed he had gone far enough.

Jaekel continued, “We shall put you through your paces nevertheless. Starting tomorrow we shall send you out on patrol.”  A pause.  “Out on patrol,” she repeated. “Eh?” 

She wanted him to react.

“Out?” queried Midax.

“Into town!” Jaekel peered at him and grinned. “I detect a certain consternation!”

He mumbled his reply:

“It so happens, I’ve just revisited my old haunts.... somewhat unsuccessfully.”

“And so you thought you were finished with town!” Jaekel laughed.

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