Man of the World by Robert Gibson

13:  pjerl

Midax did not surrender to emotion without a struggle. He coldly, insistently repeated to himself that the Loller had been nothing but fluff – a vapid superficiality.

To no avail. His flammable inner nature, combined with the peculiar tension of these days, sapped his resistance. And the fact that all this was happening to him just when the world he knew was coming to an end, meant that something had to give; and what gave was his public spirit, his concentration on what was happening to the world.

Each morning, each trainee looked at his or her desktop indicator and saw a subtraction. “Day Minus Six”, “Day Minus Five”, “Day Minus Four”. But for Midax the heavy hints of this countdown, padlocking each passing day behind him, signalled a private and personal loss that was even more ominous than the steady public approach of Day Zero. The loss of a thing he had never had. As though he were urged to “retrieve” some blazing glory which in fact he had never possessed.

A loss so intense, it tugged every sensation into its orbit. What in Korm was going on? How could this Pjerl Lhared person do to him what she had done? How could such a churner-of-insides, merely by existing, issue a proclamation in his soul? How could her presence announce, you need me, and nothing else will suffice?

That soul-proclamation kept insisting that it was the right pattern to lodge in his life. It – the vision, the warm glory, whatever it was – kept demanding that it be confirmed in action, validated, proved; all the while threatening him with an aching void of eternal loss if this vague, incomprehensible demand were not fulfilled.

Up till now, the mystery of women – the fact that no scientist had succeeded in working out a plausible reason for their existence – had been, for Midax, merely a matter for intermittent curiosity. Some theories suggested that women would come into their own in Universe Seven, and that their appearance in Universe Six was a mere harbinger, a backward ripple of the main splash, an effect preceding its cause. Doubtless a vivid and serious question, but never, until now, imperative.

Now, however, bafflement had become torment. He had to do something.

To start with, he must achieve communication with Pjerl.

This was an absolute priority; he must make it happen. The snag was, it was also true that he must not make it happen! Why? Because, for some reason, in order to have any value the closeness must occur spontaneously.

Which was all very well if only he could trust the universe to play ball. Unfortunately, the thing which must happen, and which he must not make happen, could not be trusted to happen of itself, either; so it was down to him to make sure that it happened spontaneously, or in other words to make sure that it happened without him making it happen.

Small wonder that he was no longer concentrating properly on the training course.

Instead of behaving like an obedient student, analysing the cosmological concepts in the syllabus or speculating on the workings of the plan to defeat the Sparseworld threat, he found himself “playing back” his brief meeting with Pjerl on the wineshop threshold, again and again inside his head, wondering if he had not perhaps missed some fantastic opportunity, and blaming himself for not starting a proper conversation; yet how much more he might have blamed himself if he had tried to seize whatever chance might have existed – thus breaking the “law” which says, You must make things happen without making them happen.

Each time he forced his swimming head to think it through, he eventually bumped against the impossible. The fact was, that what he had encountered, going out of that wine-shop door, was none other than perfection. And perfection demands impossibilities. Nothing else will do, but for you and she to be melded in faultless rapport, abolishing distance, abolishing all difficulties, while retaining full individuality....

He thought grimly that it was probably just as well that he and she moved in different social circles. They needn’t run into each other often. He was a full member of the Institute, whereas she was just a member of the general public (albeit with the unusual status of observer, not only of the Institute but of the Splashers too). She was not attending the training course regularly or frequently, and anyhow the great separation loomed: when Hour Zero of Day Zero came for him, he would find himself cut off from her, on the other side of a mighty glassite wall.

Let him content himself, therefore, with the thought that he was fighting for her continued existence. It should be enough, that he was doing his duty in the struggle against Sparseworld, and therefore benefiting her. Let that be connection enough.

After all, it wasn’t as though any softer options existed. Time was running out for them all: the Winter of Simplicity loomed over the entire city of humankind. In these circumstances what was the point of making personal happiness a priority?

Even so, an irrational yearning, in occasional moments, enticed him with the thought that he might rush out the door again, and this time not come back but plunge into ordinary city life and swim around in that milieu until –

Until what? The glorious fuzz of wishful thinking had no real shape.

Musing on his erratic emotions, he remembered a phrase he had heard a few times among the smart young men of his old set. A phrase accompanied by sniggers and circular motions of the finger on the forehead.

The Great Complication.

He had never committed the gaucherie of asking what it was. It occurred to him now that he had discovered it for himself.

He took to watching – with a kind of relief – the digits on the training-calendar march towards zero. And they weren’t the only indication that this period of emotional torture was rushing to its close. Those senior trainees whom he knew by sight became fewer and fewer. Faces visible one day were gone the next, as intakes prior to his own reached their own Zero Hour and disappeared into the Luminarium.

Deliberately he clutched the thought that his own course, likewise, was hurtling towards its moment of truth; forcing himself to concentrate not on the passing banks of social life but on destiny’s white water foaming ahead. The roar of it must widen and deepen as it expanded beyond the personal scale. An unimaginable crunch was due to occur when the appalling greatness of the Sparseworld threat came face to face with the epic means which had been designed to counter it. Let this crisis drown the other! Let his Great Complication dissolve amidst the end of his world.

He developed some skill at this game, of dwelling upon one fear in order to dispel another. He could be quite sure that he was not going to abandon the course now. No more bolting from lessons. He’d had some excuse for the first time he’d absconded; that walk-out on the first day – it had sprung from his independence of mind. But repetition was out. Any further backsliding would betoken dishonesty and cowardice.

Day Minus Four. An increase in rumours. Walking the corridors between sessions. Overhearing conversation between seniors. Clipped phrases, forcedly hushed; this was their Day Minus Two.

“Revenants? You’re sure?”

“They had to admit it.”

“You saw them?”

“Saw; didn’t speak.”

“They won’t let us, that’s why.”

“Won’t tell us what death means.”

“More jargon.”

“Shush!” nudged one speaker as Midax’s presence was noted. Midax walked on past them. He was happy not to hear more, happy not to understand their twitchy dialogue; instinctively he agreed with the Institute’s policy which discouraged communication ahead of time. Good reasons must exist for the policy. Something terrific enough to save the world must have its own special procedure, to be imparted in correct order.

Besides, the course was confusing enough as it was; he didn’t want his mind boggled still further by premature inexpert revelations.

In any case his curiosity was going to be satisfied very soon. Maybe, to some extent, this very hour.

The conference in the Great Hall was billed as a gathering of the Institute’s entire personnel – the only such gathering which those trainees present were likely to see. And the staff had promised that the occasion was going to clarify something important. The meaning of a key term, jelling, which had been used frequently but without definition during the past few days, would be explained.

The Hall was three-quarters full. He sidled along one of the rows of seats. He wasn’t too far from the front; only four rows separated him from the dais. He took a place and listened to the chatter buzzing around him.

The word “jelling” kept being bandied about. Obviously it still wasn’t understood by most of the people who used it, though the old hands already talked as though they knew what it was. Midax looked forward to when he would join this select number. Academically he was once more keen; it was almost as if he had recovered from the Great Complication, or Perfection’s Knock (his sense of humour was re-surfacing too).

Then all of a sudden he saw, a few seats to the right, in the row in front of him, the back of Pjerl’s head. Memory socked his wits flat. His every other aim, his every other ambition or ideal, went into eclipse. No! they shouted as they were effaced, turn away from this force or you’re finished! Such advice was impossible to follow. He was going to have to approach her, or at any rate try. No. Turn away from this woman. Forge ahead with your own life. Forge ahead with his own life? Forget it. Any chance of a last-minute sortie to emotional freedom? Forget it. What was the use of trying to escape prison when the prison was greater than the outside? Oh but you must listen. We – the congregation of all your other principles – hereby launch this last appeal. Get out of the Pjerl current while you can. But his soul yearned to escape further into the current, so that appeal was no good.

Inellan had begun to speak from the lectern.


“....It is therefore appropriate that the Luminarium is shaped like a hothouse, if for ‘heat’ we read ‘complexity’....


(She’s just over there and how can I avoid spending this evening wondering what I should have done?)


“....though in the case of heat the excitation and movement is merely physical whereas in the case of complexity it is developmental....”


(How can one possibly balance the risk? The risk of doing something and the risk of doing nothing; the risk of doing something now which may cause such ruin as to ensure that I can do nothing later....)


“ is, therefore, appropriate to describe the functioning of the Luminarium using the simile of the hothouse. Heat, after all, implies....”


Inellan, thought Midax, you’re too fond of the word “appropriate”. It’s starting to annoy me. And I’m already on the edge; so you’d better cut the polysyllabic guff, or.... Midax passed a hand across his throat.

Then his fingers clenched as his flailing thoughts hit upon a plan. Pity to waste a healthy rage! And since he had to stick with the course insofar as he was so committed to it by now, that he no longer could leave of his own free will, and since, on the other hand, if he did not leave he was going to be irrevocably separated from Pjerl because in four days’ time he was due to enter the Luminarium whereas she as a mere observer wouldn’t go in –

He must arrange to leave not of his own free will.

He must get himself expelled.


“....In this way we can see that it is appropriate that all the so-called double-ell rays, the life-light rays which our engineering skill has trapped inside the Luminarium, should, in their zigging and zagging, trace waves in which the candidates will sink their perceptions, until the process becomes invisible and the vistas.... jell.”


Ignorant of impending doom, Inellan spouted on, while one brain in the sea of faces before him – the brain inside the head of Midax Rale – was drawing a cross-bow shaft of wit, tighter and tighter each time the word “appropriate” fell from the Lecturer’s lips.


“It is therefore similarly appropriate that....”


“APPROPRIATE GARBAGE,” Midax let fly, not with wit after all, but with direct insult.

Inellan stood blinking. The audience began to buzz, some in approval, some in indignation at the verbal custard pie which had been hurled in their lecturer’s face.

“Hear, hear,” someone cried.

“It’s that Splasher,” someone else spluttered; “throw him out!”

Midax, half-satisfied, peered around: he sensed that there might be a substantial number on his side. He certainly could hear some supporters. Not exactly what he wanted – not a help towards expulsion – and yet it was gratifying to have touched a common chord....

However, the voice of support was drowned in further blasts from the Lecturer’s microphone:


“Appropriate behaviour always consists, in this and other areas, of observing those patterns which facts make, and conforming our wants to them.


“WAFFLE!” shouted Midax. And definitely, this time, a sizeable fraction of the audience seemed to agree, as far as he could judge from other verbal missiles hurled from the floor: the hour for open criticism must have struck. Midax was obviously not the only trainee who had found the course to be lacking in logic and structural rigour. Maybe, with his shouted sarcasm, he had just nailed the whole mystery-mongering morass. He had issued a clear rallying call for those who were willing to insist upon proper underpinning of the course and proof of the Institute’s grandiose claims. And if the call was answered, what then would become of his plan to get expelled? Could he abandon his new following?

Next thing he noticed, was that he need not worry: despite the murmurs of approval and the hear-hears, not a single figure actually went so far as to stand up to second his rallying call.

The murmurs began to die down. Expecting censure, Midax watched the Lecturer, but the Lecturer instead of looking at him was recognizing someone at the back of the hall, another member of staff who had just stood up: a tall, stringy woman. Midax realized it was Examiner Jaekel as her charmless, leathery voice cracked out:

“Inellan, remind him that he was born a universe too soon!”

Teasing little outbreaks of laughter began to caper through the hall. Inellan blinked in relief, and took the cue:


“Yes, as my colleague the Examiner has just pointed out, and as I myself have pointed out before, a demand for explanations – stress laid upon causes and reasons – is (or rather will be) more appropriate to Universe Seven than to our Universe Six. For the concept of causation implies some step, some gap, between causer and caused. And such gaps are rare in a universe such as ours, sustained, as ours is, by immediate pulse of reality.”


Blast the man to shreds, fumed Midax. He’s got the very days and nights on his side, the thumping beat of the Time-Tree supporting our existence without the need for a single cause.

From another back corner of the hall, a thin male voice sounded.

“A little less exactitude, Lecturer Inellan.”

Help had come to Midax from a direction not previously imagined, yet instantly recognizable. For the words had been uttered by none other than the grey voice of Assigner Alsair, Sovereign of Serenth.  Prestige wrought its spell; heads silently turned to where the austere old Head of State sat in his corner, his mien an expression of freezing impartiality.

Midax was too astounded to feel relieved. Alsair, the rare-spoken, friendless legend, the remote and lofty co-ordinator of Serenth, had just supported him against Inellan.

Alsair was more than merely the Sovereign of Sycrest. Since the death of Icdon he was sovereign of all known people in existence. The audience hung on his words as he continued:

“We ought to take some notice of the concept of causation. After all, our land of Sycrest, the most complex known country in this universe, is so rare and special, we ought to consider the possibility that within it may lurk some fore-shadow of Universe Seven.”

Silence stretched awkwardly. The Lecturer, rebuked, bowed his head. Then he replied:


“Of course, Assigner.

“Actually, of course,” (turning the flank of the argument), “both views are right.

“In maintaining our Institute and in perfecting our plans, we have been following in the footsteps of our mighty predecessors. Carrying out their purposes, we form, with them, a duet of cause and effect. I admit this.

“I would merely add, nevertheless, that we obtain more by seeing than by delving; we have visions rather than analyses; our land of Sycrest may be special but there is no getting away from the fact that we live in a predominantly result-centred, teleological universe. Instead of seeking causes, which push from behind, we submit to destiny, which pulls from ahead.”


No comeback this time, from Head of State or anyone else. Inellan had triumphed.

The lecture resumed its interrupted course; Midax listened in a state of apathy. He had not succeeded in getting himself expelled from the Institute; he had merely made a fool of himself. His protest from the floor had been squashed. His one articulate supporter, Alsair himself, had been squashed too, though more respectfully. How to approach Pjerl after this?

Besides, wondered Midax, even had he triumphed as a heckler, how could that have helped him to devise a form of greeting which could do justice to the occasion – possibly the last time he would ever see her? (“Hello, I’m Midax Rale. You’re Pjerl Lhared, aren’t you?” What scintillating stuff.) He reviewed endless combinations of words.... tried guessing her replies.... previewing conversations as though the utmost caution were necessary even for saying Hello. It was as though he had lost all his courage. In fact, that was precisely the case.

Lecturer Inellan carried on quite a while longer before he ran out of voice, but presently the booming from the dais ceased and chatter broke out on all sides. People rose for the interval or leaned over to make comments to their neighbours. Taking an anxious look around, Midax saw that Pjerl appeared to be sitting quietly. It’s now or never. He stood up, feeling sick, and began edging into her field of view.

At that moment a young straight-backed fellow strode up and buttonholed Midax. “You’re the ex-Splasher, aren’t you? My name is Jolld, Jolld Tontrar. I’d like a word with you. I’m from an earlier class but I had to repeat some of the course, so I’m in your class now.”

“So you are. I recognize you,” said Midax politely while his blood fizzed with impatience.

The youngster continued to speak, illustrating his every point with a finger-stabbing gesture. “I think that although you’re wrong” (stab) “in what you say, you had a jolly good try” (stab), “shaking up old Inellan with your notions of the importance of caus-ay-” (stab) “-tion, and there’s definitely no harm in giving ’em a whirl (stab), “since your own background gives you the wherewithal to get off that road any time you like – d’you see? Aristocratic dilettantism” (stab), “with its concept of style” (prolonged stab), “always brings us back to seeing that what emerges is more important than what causes a thing. D’you see?”

I don’t care enough to try, thought Midax. “You quite approve of the Splashers, it seems.”

“I do, in fact I admire them,” admitted Jolld. “They’ve got style, but then so have we. That Light-Tank, for instance! Wow. Jumping the gun a bit, if you ask me – creating pockets of U7 style in a U6 medium – but then – ”

“Jolld, excuse me a minute. I have got to go and sort something out. Thanks for sharing your insights with me.”

His smile became bitter as the satisfied Jolld moved off. It was no joke, it was the truth, that style was winning out over substance all along the line.

For instance, right at this moment, as Midax edged towards Pjerl, he must forbid his feelings to show. In fact, in his effort to “make it happen spontaneously” he was even manoeuvring so as deliberately not to be the first to make eye contact –

Yes, he was gazing past her and waiting for her to notice him before he himself took the risk of seeming to notice her.

Which, of course, might turn out to be a self-defeating mistake: if he edged so far, he was making it happen. And that being so, then her recognition of him would be thus robbed of value by the spontaneity-rule. Fount take it all! Why not just speak and take the consequences?

Too late – it was she who spoke –

“Hello Midax,” her greeting hit him with gut-liquefying impact.

As when one looked into the blinding sun, the experience was not anything to which he could give any form, outline or proper perspective.

He heard himself say, “Hello Pjerl...”

She spoke again, pelting him with further golden syllables:

“It’s a long way from the wine-shop, isn’t it?”

“A long way from the boat, too,” he responded, grabbing the only association of ideas that was ready to hand. Hastily he then explained, “I saw you on a barge the other day, with my former crowd.”

“My former crowd too,” Pjerl said.

What was that? What had The Power said then?

“‘Former’? Aren’t you going back to them?” he gulped.

“No,” said Pjerl, and the word opened the floodgates of hope.

“But, I thought,” he sought to control his clogged-up voice, “when I saw you here, that you were – um – just here for the occasion – in your capacity as observer – ”

“Not any more. I’ve joined the Institute properly; in fact I’m in your class now, Midax.”

Life was suddenly as sweet as it could be. He fervently renewed his dedication to the training course. He was so happy, at this moment, that his one thought was to retire and gloat safely over his winnings –

“Good! Welcome!” he said to her. “And now – I must go – please excuse me as I need to make some preparations for the next session – for reasons too boring to explain.” Too boring indeed for a real gambler, who might instead have had the guts to pursue a winning streak.

Pjerl smiled, “See you.” The copper gleams of her hair inclined in acknowledgement of his welcome. For an instant, then, he saw her face as a face instead of as an overpowering fuzz of beauty. Just for a moment – objectively – Pjerl Lhared was, to him, a personable young lady, with a good figure, good looks, warm and lively mind, and vivacious attractive manner. Then the moment fled into the past and the opportunity for saner joy was lost as his vision dug blind-deep once more into the well of glory.

He wandered to his room, lay down and let his head swim among the weeds of recollection. Every word he had uttered chugged past in review, for checking and re-checking in case of gaffes. Her words re-eddied all the while, shimmering around him in repeating waves, in case they might reveal (on second or third or millionth glance) any cause for hope or despair. Each word a headache, but never mind – at the price of some headaches, his luck had come cheap! Fantastic luck! Oh, the disaster that might have been! Suppose he had succeeded in getting himself expelled from the Institute.... he would have lost his only reason for existence.

Whereas now – in mystery and in baffled wonder – his whole heart lived.

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