Midax slept soundly that first night in quarters in the Olamic building, and he awoke not only refreshed but with a sense of being anchored, without doubt or any further fuss, in the life he had chosen. The ups and downs of the previous day he now saw no longer as grand turns of Fortune’s wheel but as mere fiddlings with a focus-dial, sharpening his purpose. It had all been for the best.
From the window of his room he had an unobstructed view down the swale slope to the centre of the city, where a few buildings glowed all night long with proximity to the Fount. Now, as the last seconds of night ticked away, those buildings were shining more brightly; the power in their midst, the fount of raw reality, gathering itself in accordance with ancient routine for the flare of day.... the moment arrived.... the procedure of morning – the geyser erupted! Illuminating the city and, indirectly a moment later, the whole world, the wire of light shot up from the Fount to rekindle the sun. Daybreak then showed him Serenth the beautiful, Serenth the threatened; the entire social universe in which Midax as carefree Splasher roamed no more.
He shook his head at the beloved scene. The irony of it! The very day after turning his back on the town, he was going to be sent outside again.
But that was all right. Being sent out, obedient to a larger plan, would not by any means be a repetition of his own wilful and unsuccessful sortie to the banks of the Swenng.
First, however, the morning was taken up with seminars and instruction, in cosmology and in the physical lay-out of the Luminarium. This occupied a pleasant few hours. He always had plenty of curiosity about the way things are and the way things work, and since, among its many attributes, the Olamic Institute was the best college in town, its library was furnished with all the key works on cosmology; Midax hurried there during break and avidly absorbed the Alternating Universe Theory. He tried to imagine what life must be like in those great empty space universes where worlds just float in the void, as isolated globes, at immense distances from one another, on paths determined by “gravity”. Universes which were in a sense like a photographic negative of the matter-universes such as his own.
Like the beating of an eternal heart, in, out, in, out, each cosmos contrasts with the one before it. Mostly matter – mostly space – mostly matter – mostly space –
Midax was enthralled. And he experienced a stretch of soul, widening into objectivity; an enlargement of what he was able to regard as home. Someone from a space-universe, he thought, would regard my matter-universe as strange, where worlds like Korm are air-bubbles fizzed into being by levity amid an all-enclosing hardness.... But we would be comrades in awe, for either way, matter or space, we are lost in infinite marvel.
However, he couldn’t be sure that he really believed the stuff that he was reading. For the only universe that had actually been studied was his own. As was inevitable. How could one ever study another universe? It was all theory.
As they broke up for lunch, Lecturer Inellan sought him out.
“I’m delighted,” the Lecturer condescended to say, “with your preliminary score in the theory tests, Midax. You seem to have a flair for Luminarium optical dynamics.”
“Well, it’s a captivating topic.”
“Captivating!” frowned Inellan. As had happened more than once, the choice of a word became a stumbling-block between them.
“Yes indeed, amazing,” Midax continued, “what can be done with millions of mirrors! And in just seven days I’ll be finding out how the trick looks from the inside.”
Inellan regarded him stonily.
“‘Trick?’” he rasped. “No trick to them.”
“Them, and you – when you’re one of them. You’ll see – or rather you won’t – when your turn comes.”
You’re irritated with me, aren’t you, Inellan! You and I, for some reason, simply don’t get on. You suffer when you talk to me. Ah! You’ve grasped the solution to that! You’re turning away! Well done!
Those chosen for the afternoon patrol – presumably those trainees who’d progressed sufficiently to be allowed to skip the afternoon class – numbered four: Waretik Thanth, Davlr Braze, Pjerl Lhared and Midax Rale. They set out separately: but, before he left, Midax saw Waretik, who informed him that he had left messages for the others, suggesting that they all meet after hours at Csulp’s Wine-Shop. There they would compare notes in a relaxed atmosphere after the day’s work was over.
“Fine by me,” agreed Midax; “I’ll see you at Csulp’s, then.”
The instructions for those on patrol were simple. Start somewhere on the periphery of Serenth, and work your way inwards. Keep your eyes peeled for any signs of increased simplicity. It might take the form of simplicity in plant-life, in flesh or in buildings, or in the very ground. Or on a less specific level it might turn out to be a social thing – simplicity in the organization of the economy. Note carefully!
Midax did as he was told and, on his patrol, did regretfully observe a rash of simplifications on the outskirts of town. He scrawled these results on a report-sheet: The frieze on Krellan cornice has got shallower.... Some formerly distinct rocks at the Xado corner of Vreem Park have blurred back into the shoulder off which they had split.... A notice-board has gone up outside Dlecom Factory and the shift rota has had to be printed to make it all simple and clear....
A sad one, that last. Once the situation deteriorates so that rotas have to be printed, it is obvious that the mind of man is slipping below the stage at which patterns of work are as instinctive as breathing. It’s as if the pictures in the mind are getting cruder, their pixel size swelling....
To his great relief Midax failed to discover any of these harbingers further inwards in the main part of town. It was going to happen, but not yet, not today. He was glad of that. But the day was passing quickly, and what he knew coloured what he saw, and so by the time he had finished his patrol the city itself as a whole did seem diminished, a blenched crowd of beloved, shrinking things, which used to seem not only great but big –
No going back to that.
Outside Csulp’s, a tall form appeared at his elbow. It was Waretik. “Here he is! Here’s Midax!”
Davlr also approached. “I vote we go in, rather than wait out here for Pjerl.”
Midax hesitated, not knowing nor caring who Pjerl was, but at the same time not wishing anyone to feel left out. Waretik assured him, “If you knew her, you’d realize how likely it is that she’ll be late.” So they went in and selected a table in the wine-shop’s spacious main room.
It was the popular evening hour, when it was the habit of citizens to emerge from their work-trance into the airy clink of drinking-glasses and the civilized murmur from surrounding tables.
Midax, as a Splasher, had never tranced. But he could borrow enough of the culture of those who did, to absorb the spirit of the hour, as well as to appreciate the unnecessary pleasures of drink and food, pleasures available thanks to that supplementary metabolism given to those born within a certain distance of the Fount. As mysterious and unexplained as gender, metabolism was a complication of their insides which allowed people like him to absorb extra energy during their lives, over and above the natal power which would have sufficed by itself to keep them functioning till the distant day when they merged back into the rock... These reflections had not occurred to him in the Olamic canteen, yet they came to him here. Was it because the true, hidden meaning of “food” and “drink” and “women” had inched closer?
He brushed superstitious thoughts aside, sat back and sipped – the drink and the situation – on the look-out for any impact created by the silver uniforms worn by himself and his companions.
It was hard to tell whether they had caused any stir. As Institute people – “glimmerers” – they must be brilliantly conspicuous, surely; yet not a lot of attention was being paid to them. Evidently, not even a reminder of the end of the world could spoil the evening hour here at Csulp’s.
Well, after all, the Olamic’s reputation, though so high as to be unrivalled, was naturally remote from quotidian chit-chat.
Ordinarily, that is. Yet now the recent news must saturate the talk of the city... us and our great project on every tongue…
Ah, but, thought Midax, the news is of a sort which shrinks us all.
Waretik was comparing notes with Davlr. “What did I find? The same as you: changes, yes, but only in the periphery of town. Not much further inward than Midax’s Discovery Trace....” Waretik went on to summarise his findings in detail, effortlessly listing them from memory. It was no shame to Midax to admit that the tall Surveyor’s acumen in this field was superior to his own; after all, Waretik, who was considerably older, and whose ascetic face crinkled with thousands of days of professional dedication, must have accumulated a huge head start on the technical side, deservedly drawing well ahead during all those thousands of days while Midax was being retarded by Splasher influence. Ah well, to be outpaced, to come second, for a change, was no bad thing; quite bracing, in a way. Like being given headroom by a much taller ceiling….
Midax’s nerves drew tight as a group of about a dozen Splashers entered the wine-shop.
Splashers! Former cronies! That problem again! How to mix the past and the future? His thoughts stuttered. What-what-what should I do? When they recognized him, how should he react? His shoulders gave a twitch as the Splashers sauntered by....
They ignored him. He slumped, gutted with relief.
So! Between himself and the old gang there now existed no pull. No embarrassing link, for the link was dead. I can now begin properly to enjoy being where I am.
“Tell me,” drawled a voice slyly, jerking his attention back to his own group, “what’s it like to stop being an aristocrat?” It was the voice of fellow-trainee Davlr Braze.
Midax, aware that the jibe was aimed at him, loosed his tongue in cheerful retaliation. “Let’s work out what we really mean by ‘aristocrat’, shall we? The Splashers are aristocrats because they are idle. They hang around waiting for the rare kind of work that a trancer cannot do. And what am I doing? Olamic training.... special work.... Come to think of it, I haven’t ‘stopped’ at all. On the contrary, in joining the Institute I am being an exceptionally consistent Splasher.”
Davlr grumbled, “Whatever you call yourself, isn’t it true that you slipped out yesterday?”
“Teetering on the brink,” Midax remarked, “doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t go over.”
Davlr laughed in spite of himself. Waretik, stretching lengthily back in his chair, intervened: “What are your old crowd interested in, Midax?”
“Anything, so long as it’s smooth and jugglable.”
Davlr said callously, “I wonder if they’ll juggle much in Sparseworld.”
Midax considered the doom awaiting his former friends. “I dare say they’ll make their own kind of success out of it,” he replied, passing tired sentence upon them. “As the hour draws near they’ll make a parade out of not panicking. And they’ll keep that up until the very end, when the emptiness hits them. Then – I can just picture it – their defence’ll give way, their suavity will be nothing.”
Davlr glanced over his shoulder. “Meanwhile they look quite happy, not knowing.”
“Whereas I prefer to know the worst.”
Davlr nodded, “You actually enjoy it. The timetable, the countdown, the pressure. It’s supposed to be exciting, and for you it is.”
Waretik brought him up sharp: “Come off it, Davlr, you’re not immune to the countdown spell, either.”
Waretik and Davlr began arguing about the merits and defects of the Institute’s dramatic timetable. Midax half-listened, identifying the source of his well-being: freedom, a physical tang in his nostrils and mouth. Even if terror lay ahead, at this moment he was content, in this warm evening’s gathering, in which spokes of wit radiated from each remark; content in being allowed to use his life for something that mattered.
“....Countdown? Crunch-down, more like!” Davlr was saying. “Eh, Midax?”
Midax offhandedly replied, “Yes, I can feel the monster has me in its jaws.”
“Well, don’t you think it’s a bit much, the way we’re being treated?”
“I’m in no position to judge Institute methods,” said Midax, forgetting that he had often done so. “Anyhow, life certainly isn’t dull.”
“While it lasts.”
“While it lasts!” echoed Midax incredulously. “Davlr, we’re small! Don’t expect to last.”
Changing the subject, Davlr said: “Where’s that girl, that Pjerl Lhared? Isn’t she ever going to turn up?”
Midax asked, “Who is she, anyway? I haven’t met her.”
“Surprised to hear that,” grunted Davlr.
Waretik explained, “She occupies a somewhat anomalous position in respect of our rules. She’s in the government department that liaises with the Institute and so she gets to attend our functions at will, just so she can report to Assigner Alsair on what kind of a job we’re doing.”
“Government department!” echoed Midax. “So she’s not a proper trainee at all.”
“Not proper, no,” Davlr put in, “in more ways that one.”
“I don’t feel easy about borderline categories of membership. I suppose I’m thinking of the crush that’ll hit us when Sparseworld becomes blatantly imminent and all sorts of panicky people start clamouring for admission to the Olamic. Using all sorts of excuses. How are we going to cope with that stampede?”
“Maybe we won’t have to.”
Waretik asked curiously, “What do you mean by that, Midax?”
“Oh, I just mean, maybe we can do something, or be something, on their behalf. Rescue them by proxy, so that letting them all in will be unnecessary, as well as impossible. How should I know? Something strange will have to happen, considering the numbers involved.”
Waretik was now staring at Midax with a narrow, searching expression. Davlr meanwhile almost wailed in irritation, “But I can never work out, what do our teachers want us to do?”
“That was a problem yesterday, wasn’t it,” remarked Midax.
They had gone quiet. He went on:
“When senior staff came snooping around the Light-Tank. Not telling us much. But, you know, I reckon the process is the whole thing. A mould for our minds to pour into.”
“Ah,” said Davlr. “Then we just sit back and wait.”
“And fume and fret a bit.”
Waretik cut in, “All this is very well, but we were meant to learn things in that Light-Tank. We were meant to, and we did, spot how living light under controlled conditions can reach a point of complexity at which it passes a law and keeps to it, creating a pocket of reality.... Have you ever tranced?” he demanded abruptly.
Midax checked swiftly among his memories.
“No. Never. I’ve been conscious every day of my life. Why?”
“I have.... for a few days, in my youth, when I obtained a routine job for a temporary purpose.... You, Davlr?”
“Same. A few days.”
“Not I, I’m afraid,” reiterated Midax. “Sorry, but I’ve never done a stroke of work.”
“Listen,” said Waretik, “this is a hunch: perhaps we’re going somewhere where there’s no escape into trance. Where all deeds have to be performed consciously. Remember our instructions today: we were told to observe not only the structures but the work-patterns and economic motions of Serenth. I give the hint for what it is worth.”
“Worth a headache,” gloomed Davlr. “Relentless consciousness!”
Midax opined, “Waretik might be onto something here. My observations at Dlecom Factory bolster the idea in a small way – I mean the fact that the workers’ instincts no longer guide their rota; that they’re having to have it printed.”
Davlr snorted, “I hope we’re being trained to do more than merely adapt to Sparseworld. You don’t defeat something by adapting to it.”
“Maybe not. The truth is, we don’t yet know enough to tell.” But during this comfortable conversation Midax did not care one way or the other, so braced was he by being given a definite, urgent, public event to focus on. Sparseworld: crisis for humanity and a splendid goodbye to all the plaguey old private questions, clearing away the emotional litter of the past and leaving the future a level turf for sprinting....
“I’ll stay on a bit,” he said to the others, when the hour had struck at which they had agreed to depart.
“Early start tomorrow, remember!” Davlr warned him.
“I know. Day Minus Six. I won’t forget.”
“See you then.” Waretik and Davlr got up and went.
What am I doing, sitting here alone? wondered Midax a few minutes later. He, too, rose to go. He reached the door, and was about to pass through when he noticed a young woman of his own age approaching to enter. Instinctively he drew aside to let her pass.
She, apparently, had not expected this courtesy, for she had halted, waiting for him to push past first. Her eyes popped a bit when she saw he was waiting for her, and her full lips murmured, “Thank you.”
He was left, as she went on in, with an impression of a peaky face, and of modest hair done up in a bun. A pleasant, good-looking young woman, a trifle shy. What a contrast with that previous girl, that vapid lolling one yesterday, limbs outflung and hair streaming on the windscreen of the barge!
And how encouraging that neither of these beings – neither the Loller nor Peaky – possessed the gut-churning power. He must be getting saner. Two encounters, two days in a row, and he was still unscathed. Must have achieved immunity somehow, since two such disparate emotion-bombs had failed to go off.
He rather liked this one, and, though the idea was difficult to bring into focus, might it not be possible that he might bump into her, or someone like her, in the vague far-future era after Sparseworld? (If there was an “after Sparseworld”.)
Next, he himself went out through the doorway, but as he did so he heard one of the Splashers say loudly, “There you are, Pjerl! Your glimmerers have gone; come and sit with us!” Midax turned.
Looking back into the bright interior framed by the door, like a ghost looking back at life, he watched the girl sit down with them. She sat right back and laughed....
Peaky and the Loller were one.
A minute ago he had been congratulating himself on his new-found immunity from emotion-bombs. Now, the hottest such bomb he had ever known exploded its fuzz inside him. His defences disintegrated. Gone – the immunity that never was. I am in the presence of infinite value. But on the wrong side of the door.
Sagging with defeat, he turned away. The gut-crumpling vision had stabbed home. Sardonic grimth was his only defence: Ah well, add one more to the list of life’s complications.