Chapter Two

I’ll never go to Earth.

The thought sustained and comforted Gretana as she waited in Vekrynn’s pearl-walled reception chamber, but it had the unfortunate effect of adding to her nervousness.

Warden Vekrynn’s visits to Karlth were very short and took place only a few times a century. That fact, combined with his absolute pre-eminence in Mollanian society, meant that few citizens could aspire even to set eyes on him, and far less had any hope of meeting him in person. His presence, however brief, at one of the glittering parties on Silver Island or Mount Elux was enough to elevate the fortunate host and hostess to a new pinnacle of respect. As a natural consequence of her physical shortcomings, Gretana was unable to attend any of the more prestigious social functions and, had she given the matter any thought, would have estimated her chances of ever being under the same roof as Vekrynn tye Orltha at less than one in a million.

Now she—of all people—was about to have a private audience with him, and furthermore was planning to give a flat refusal to any request he might make of her. The knowledge of what she had to do made Gretana both queasy and restless. She roamed about the large apartment inspecting its sparse furniture and ornaments while she strove to prepare herself for what was to come. In retrospect, the morning’s tour of the inner wards seemed a relatively minor incident and she longed to be back among the familiar surroundings and circumstances of the hostel.

She was returning to her chair for perhaps the tenth time when a courtesy bell chimed to announce that Warden Vekrynn was about to enter the room. Gretana whirled to face the door, standing as tall as possible while at the same time drawing in her upper lip, widening her eyes and turning her head a little to one side. Observing the little ritual, so essential to her self-esteem, added to the tensions that were racking her body and as the door opened she felt the blood tingle painfully away from her face.

Gretana’s first impression of Vekrynn as he entered the reception chamber was that he resembled a magnificent statue cast in various shades of gold. The darkest metal of all was represented by the tanned skin of his face and hands, a yellow gold had been used for the thick cap of closely waved hair, and something close to platinum for his embroidered tunic and trousers. His eyes, which were deep-set and alert, were cabochons of brown quartz radially needled with gold. Gretana knew him to be of great age—he had held the Wardenship of Earth for some thousands of years—but nothing in his appearance or manner revealed the fact. There had been no vertical compression of the body due to the millennial action of gravity, nor did his expression betray any of the morbid languor which sometimes troubled the faces of very old actives. Indeed it was his expression which had the most profound effect on Gretana, for his eyes regarded her with warmth and interest, and in doing so held perfectly steady. There had been no flicker to one side followed by that forced gleam of geniality which was meant to disguise pity or repugnance. She felt a positive and vital response to his presence, a reaction which was enhanced through being completely unexpected. I’ll never go to Earth, she reminded herself.

“Fair seasons, Gretana ty Iltha,” Vekrynn said in a resonant baritone, surprising her by using the commonplace form of greeting.

“Fair seasons, Warden.” She cleared her throat, resisting the temptation to try repeating the words more clearly.

“It was good of you to come to see me. Under normal circumstances I would have preferred to call at your home, but I am very short of time.”

“I understand.” Gretana had never heard anybody but the most pretentious of her acquaintances claim to be pressed for time, but in this case she accepted it as a statement of fact.

“If you would care to sit down we can talk in comfort,” Vekrynn said. “I’d like you to relax because I can see that Doctor Kallid has already told you why you are here.”

“I’m sure he was only…”

“It’s perfectly all right.” He silenced her by raising one hand. “He has done that sort of thing before, and in a way I’m quite glad because the very fact that you came here at all tells me a lot about your character. You could have gone into hiding.” Vekrynn’s smile was perfect, with a hint of ruefulness which suggested he was pleased to have met an intelligent person who could understand his problems.

Gretana was flattered and simultaneously made wary. “I couldn’t go to Earth,” she said, more forcefully than she had intended and immediately felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry, but I…”

“Your feelings are perfectly natural, perfectly understandable, and I appreciate your honesty.” Vekrynn again gestured towards a chair and this time waited until Gretana had sat down. “Now you’re asking yourself why, as you have made your position so clear, I want to prolong the discussion—especially as I have pretentions of being a very busy man with all the problems of the universe on his shoulders.”

Gretana eyed the Warden in silence and then, realising she had made the mistake of facing him directly, turned her head a little. The move did nothing to lessen the sheer impact of his physical presence.

“All right, Gretana! I’m going to be totally honest and admit that I intend to persuade you, before you leave this room, to join my personal staff and work for me on Earth for a short period of, say, five or six decades. Do you think I’ll succeed?”

“No.” She was persuaded to smile. “I don’t see how you could.”

“In that case you can be generous. You can afford to relax and hear what I have to say.” Vekrynn walked to one of the high windows and stood looking out, the intensified light glowing like a nimbus around his hair. “How old are you, Gretana?”

“I’m in my sixth decade.”

“Your life has hardly started, and if I’m not mistaken that ring on your left hand is a life recorder. Why do you wear it?”

Gretana was taken aback. “I…It’s the way.”

“Oh, I know all actives use them. They are part of the activist philosophy, a means of preserving a coherent memory and a single identity throughout a greatly extended lifespan—but how many entries have you made in your recorder in the past year?”

“I don’t know,” Gretana replied, trying to anticipate the point. “Several.”

“Several! And no doubt you’ll make several more next year, and in the following year, and in the year after that.”

“I expect so.”

“Why?” Vekrynn turned to look at her, his face hidden in a corona of reflected sunlight, and his voice was both sad and compassionate. “Why will you do that, Gretana?”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s so that you won’t forget, so that you won’t lose those years from your memory, from your life. Don’t you see what that means? What you are saying is that you are not really alive.” Vekrynn took one step away from the window, changing the light patterns on the nacreous walls of the room. “This is only your sixth decade—what’s it going to be like in your sixth century? Will you be like all the others? Growing coral sculptures and tree sculptures for excitement, and filling your recorder with notes of their progress?”

Echoes of her own early thoughts brought a return of the smothering sensation Gretana had experienced.

“I’m offering you the gift of your own life,” Vekrynn said. “Go to Earth for me and you’ll have material for a thousand entries a year in your recorder, but you won’t need to make them, because you can remember what happens to you when you’re really alive.”

Gretana drew a quavering breath. “I couldn’t go to Earth.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes.”

“Good! I’d have no use for you if you didn’t have sense enough to be afraid.” Vekrynn moved closer to her. “Is it the people, or the presence of the—?”

“It’s the people.” Gretana pressed the back of a hand to her lips. “I couldn’t face them.”

“Doctor Kallid says you could.”

Gretana strove to marshal her thoughts, to present an ordered and logical case which would bring the interview to a speedy conclusion. “It isn’t the physical aspect of the people,” she said quietly. “I know I could become reconciled to the presence of disease and deformity, perhaps even death. It isn’t even the fact that they only live for eleven or twelve decades…”

“Seven,” Vekrynn cut in.

“Seven?”

“The life expectancy of an individual living in one of the developed regions is a little over seven Earth decades. As the Earth year is slightly shorter than ours, that works out at almost exactly seven Mollanian decades.”

They begin to die from the moment they’re born, Gretana thought, chilled and distracted. “What I couldn’t ever cope with is…I mean, supposing I actually saw someone being…”

“Killed?” Vekrynn placed a chair in front of Gretana and sat down, bringing his face almost on a level with hers. “You won’t see anything like that. Believe me, you won’t. Any of my observers who finds himself in a zone which is threatened with war is immediately withdrawn from the planet.”

“That isn’t what I meant.” The concept of mass slaughter was so far beyond her comprehension as to be irrelevant. “I’m talking about murder.” Gretana felt she had defiled herself merely by uttering the word, and she was startled when Vekrynn began to laugh.

“My dear child, you really must forget any stories you have heard about the people of Earth being blood-soaked monsters.” He shook his head, obviously deeply amused. “They are uniquely handicapped, but they come from the same human stock as ourselves. The planet is hideously over-populated, and it didn’t get that way through the inhabitants going around killing each other. Some of our people have worked there for two or three centuries at a stretch without ever witnessing anything more violent than a lovers’ quarrel.”

“But I’ve heard that…”

“Gretana!” Vekrynn leaned forward and gripped her shoulders. “Are you trying to tell me about Earth?”

The realisation that Warden Vekrynn was actually holding her, that he was looking into her face with a kind of humorous amiability and no trace of revulsion, obliterated Gretana’s thoughts in a cascade of whirling emotional shards. The surge of pleasure, confusion, timidity and awe was so intense as to produce a moment of actual giddiness. She stared in Vekrynn’s gold-needled eyes, breathless, floating, unable to speak as his psychic aura enveloped her. And it was almost as an act of self-preservation, an attempt to stave off the complete submergence of her own identity, that she began the silent avowal. I’ll never go to Earth. I’ll never go to Earth.

Vekrynn released her immediately, as though telepathically aware of her reaction. “It occurs to me that I have gone about this thing in completely the wrong way,” he said, smiling apologetically. “I’ve spent most of my life away from Mollan, you see, and the Wardenship is so much a part of me that I tend to forget how strange and perhaps disconcerting it must seem to a person who leads a normal existence here on the home world. For instance, I have blithely assumed that you—in spite of being so young—are familiar with the history of the Preservationist movement and that you believe in its ideals.”

“I do, of course.” Gretana wondered uneasily if, in an abrupt change of tactics, Vekrynn had hinted that her refusal to work for him indicated disloyalty or lack of responsibility.

“I wasn’t implying anything to the contrary,” Vekrynn said reassuringly. “I was merely wondering if you appreciated the historical origins of Preservationism and how vital it is to the future of Mollan.”

Gretana’s uneasiness increased. “My parents included some politics when they were designing my tutorial programme, but…”

Vekrynn shook his head. “Please don’t use the word politics in this context—it implies there can be more than one approach to the central issue. Look, Gretana, will you allow me to make one imprint? It’s a straightforward educational outline, very simple and guaranteed to be without hidden bias. Do you mind?”

“I don’t mind.” Gretana inclined her head forward as Vekrynn reached into a pocket of his tunic and withdrew two small gold medallions linked by a short length of metallic braid. He laid the braid laterally on the crown of her head, working it down through the upswept hair, and positioned one golden disc above each ear. He moved a disc slightly to bring it into perfect alignment with its counterpart, and in that instant…

Just as the position of a single particle is governed by probability density in the form of an asymptotic curve racing to infinity, so may the position of a conglomerate of particles—a human body—be altered by conscious adjustment of probabilities. A gifted individual should be able to position himself at any location in the cosmos, but that would require assessment of infinite probabilities. There is, however, a way of bringing the number of possibilities within our mathematical scope.

The cosmos is permeated with influence lines which link star to star, galaxy to galaxy. Where two or more of these lines intersect they form nodes. Knowledge of the relationship between any two nodes enables us to make a conscious selection of probabilities, to exist at one point or the other.

There is no conclusive evidence that Mollan was the world upon which the human species originated, but the likelihood is high. In Mollan’s distant past philosophical awareness rose to a pitch at which some individuals became capable of teleportation, probably from one local minor node to another at first. Expansion into space must have begun later and continued until the radial impetus failed, establishing the human species on a known total of 172 worlds.

The significant point is that there is not one example of a civilisation having survived continuously since its establishment. Furthermore, there is no example of a civilisation which has survived as long as 20,000 years.

The implications for our own culture are obvious.

We have extended our life expectancy from the six centuries which is normal for the species to an average of fifty centuries, we have complete control of our environment—but the message from the stars is that all we have attained will some day be lost to us. The indications are that there is a latent instability in all human civilisations which, sooner or later, destroys them.

But Preservationism is not a philosophy of despair.

It is our belief that we can and will break free of the cyclic pattern of history which has characterised all other human social organisations.

Many measures have been taken towards the attainment of the Preservationist goal—one of the most positive being the founding, at the beginning of the Third Epoch, of the Bureau of Wardens. It is the continuing task of the Bureau to gather sociological data on one hundred selected human civilisations; to centralise, organise and interpret that data; and to forge from it a practical philosophical tool for the use of the World Government in its guidance of our social evolution.