There can be no more worthwhile objective, no loftier ideal.

…the knowledge was born in Gretana’s mind. Most of it had been familiar to Gretana from her general studies, but it had never occurred to her that the placid and mellow civilisation of which she was a part could ever suffer a reverse, nor had she ever viewed the Bureau of Wardens as its cornerstone.

“Did you say that was without bias?” she murmured, hoping the query would not sound too bold, as Vekrynn removed the medallions and returned them to his pocket.

Hidden bias. I’d say that for a recruitment imprint it’s very restrained.” Vekrynn remained seated close to her, adding a distracting hint of intimacy to the exchange. “It doesn’t even refer to the fact that the social credit rating for an observer is at least four times what you’re getting now.”

“I’m sorry—it doesn’t make any difference to me,” Gretana said doggedly, wishing the Warden would move away and give her the chance to compose herself. “I don’t want…I couldn’t go to a place like Earth.”

She forced her eyes to meet his, expecting to see the beginnings of anger or disappointment, but Vekrynn’s expression was still amiable, sympathetic.

“Tell me, Gretana,” he said, “do you know what the natives of Earth look like?”

“No.” She tilted her head thoughtfully. “I presumed they were just like us.”

“Not quite—there has been a certain amount of divergence. Look here.” Vekrynn touched his wrist console and the solid image of a woman appeared in the room several paces away from where they were seated. She was small and was wearing a crimson blouse and a knee-length grey skirt, garments which had a certain kind of style to them, but which appeared crude to Gretana because of the coarseness of the weave and the fact that the seams were easily visible. The woman’s shoes, which were blatantly designed to add to her stature, drew a glance from Gretana, but it was the head and face which held her attention. They were incredibly narrow by Mollanian standards, creating a disproportion of the features which both repelled and fascinated Gretana. She stood up to get a better look at the simulated face and was almost overcome with a curious blend of pity for the woman’s ugliness and relief that she herself, for all her physical imperfections, had been spared imprisonment behind such a countenance.

“I…I’ve never seen anything so…” Gretana checked herself, remembering the pain a single word had inflicted on her that morning. “Is she normal?”

“On Earth she would be considered so, perhaps even beautiful. The Lucent Ideal is a parochial concept.” As Vekrynn made an adjustment on his console the image of the woman vanished and was replaced by a series of representations of women and men, each persisting for only a few seconds. The men were generally smaller than Gretana would have expected, and she was also struck by the great variety in colorations, bodily shapes and proportions, and the actual arrangements of features. Virtually the only thing the images had in common was the small narrow head which gave their eyes the appearance of being much too close together. Ugliness was the common denominator.

“Were a native of Earth to arrive here on Mollan he would see the people as being tall, large-headed and very much alike,” Vekrynn commented. “We would all be brothers and sisters in his eyes.”

“I must have misunderstood something,” Gretana said, unable to turn away from the constantly merging image. “I don’t know much about the work of the Bureau, but I thought observers had to live as part of the societies under study.”

“Oh, they do. In your case you would have to go to Earth and live in one of their communities as one of them, and it would be essential that you did so without being noticed. If they were to discover that visitors from another world were living among them the data would be invalidated.”

“But…” She gave Vekrynn a perplexed smile. “How could they fail to notice us?”

“Surgery, of course.” Vekrynn leaned back in his chair and spoke in casual tones. “It’s a matter of cutting some sections out of the cranium and facial bones, then reassembling the skull to Earth proportions. The brain has to be shrunk a little to suit the reduced volume of the cranium, but oddly enough that’s one of the easiest parts of the operation. I’m told the surgeons simply spray it with chemicals.”

The idea of saws cutting into her head made Gretana feel that the floor was tilting under her. “Warden, are you making fun of me?”

“No. What I’m describing is standard practice.”

“But nobody would…”

“The process is reversible, of course. The excised bone sections are preserved, and at the conclusion of an observer’s tour of duty the skull is rebuilt. The whole process is quite rapid, it’s painless, and the end result is always perfect.”

Gretana stared at the Warden in disbelief. “Are you trying to tell me that all the people who work for you on Earth—perhaps hundreds of them—have voluntarily submitted…?”

“Gretana, you weren’t giving me your full attention.” Vekrynn rose to his feet, majestic and radiant as he breasted a slanting prism of sunlight. “I told you the end result is always perfect.”

“I must go now,” she said faintly. She tried to move past Vekrynn, but he put an arm around her shoulders and drew her to him with the ease of an adult constraining a small child. He turned her to face the centre of the room again and her resistance faded as she saw that the image at the focus of the hidden projector had steadied and changed.

It was now in the form of a Mollanian woman, possibly the most beautiful Gretana had ever seen. The woman had the same upswept hair-style as Gretana, but there all resemblance ended, because the simulated creature had a face which matched the Lucent Ideal so closely, so perfectly, that looking at her filled Gretana with joy shaded with an obscure anguish which had something to do with the realisation that even fifty centuries was too brief a time for such loveliness to exist. She allowed the vision to fill her eyes, drawing in to herself every detail of the ideally proportioned features and then, incredibly, as her cognizance of the beautiful, blind, immobile face increased there came a stirring of something like familiarity. The woman’s eyes could almost have been those of Gretana’s mother, and there was something about the curve of the chin where it merged with the neck…

“This is a simulation based on just one scan of your bone structure, but I can assure you of its accuracy,” Vekrynn said. “That’s how you would look after returning from Earth.”

There was a prolonged silence during which the air of the room seemed to pulse in time with Gretana’s heart. Across a murmurous distance she heard herself say, “Cosmetic surgery is illegal.”

“The Bureau is allowed certain indulgences,” Vekrynn said, beginning a lengthy reply which Gretana heard only in part. “The law prevents the disguise of what are almost regarded as genetic defects…idea being to ensure that no partner in a marriage can be deceived, especially with regard to the probable appearance of future offspring…observers returning from Earth…special category…amassed social credits…with the proviso that sterilisation is accepted…won’t worry too much if the Bureau’s surgeons ‘accidentally’ fail to restore an observer’s exact former appearance…whole new life before you…my consort at Silver Island…future is yours…”

The words flitted through Gretana’s consciousness like windblown leaves, making brief brittle contacts, tumbling on their way again without having left any real impression. There was room for nothing in her mind but the vision of the face that could be hers, the face that was so perfect, so still, so painfully beautiful.

Chapter Three

The ground began to tremble as the huge nuclear-powered prime mover approached the Carsewell pick-up point. It had left Montreal nine hours earlier, lightly loaded because not many people wanted to travel through the night, and for the greater part of the long haul southwards through the Champlain and Lake George Valleys its twin traction cables had been quite empty. Dawn had been breaking as it rumbled nonstop through the string of towns between Whitehall and Albany, and from that stage onwards transfer modules—many of them bound for New York—had attached themselves to it with increasing frequency. By the time the engine reached Carsewell it was trailing upwards of eighty modules in a double row and the cables were full almost to the point of overcrowding.

The situation was made worse by the fact that a number of the module drivers, having successfully clamped on to the cables, were not closing up to the regulation separation of twenty metres. This was because the automatic points on the southern stretches of the line were badly in need of maintenance and had become tardy in operation, with the result that modules sometimes missed their turn-offs and were carried inexorably onwards to later exits.

Hargate kept those factors in mind as the massive grey hull of the 8.30 nuke rolled past the Carsewell pick-up station and it became increasingly apparent that there would be very little room left on the west cable. He and his wheelchair were in the baggage section at the rear of the module, and from that vantage point he could note the growing restlessness of the passengers as the seemingly endless succession of carriages rolled by.

“Move up closer,” one man shouted at the tense, hunch-shouldered figure of the driver. “How d’you expect to grab on from here?”

“I don’t know why we aren’t on the east side,” a plump woman just in front of Hargate said resignedly. “The east cable always got more room since the fire up at Cohoes. You’d think the driver would know that much, wouldn’t you? That’s not too much to expect even these days, for God’s sake.”

She half-turned in the seat, seeking approval for her comments, and her expression changed as she got her first good look at Hargate. He smiled maliciously, knowing that the paralysis affecting the left side of his face would make him look deformed and idiotic. The woman’s gaze wavered and she quickly turned away, nudging the red-coated woman seated next to her by the window. There was a whispered exchange and Hargate watched intently, maintaining his smile in case he would need to use it against the second woman, but she did not look back. Got one of them anyway, he thought. And I’ll watch out for the other one.

The lateral procession of modules came to a sudden end, giving way to multiple catenaries of unoccupied cable strung out on their support bogies, and a short distance away to the north the flashing red lights of the rear-frame came into view. A sputtering whine and a tang of ozone rose from the module’s electric engine, positioned somewhere beneath Hargate’s feet, but there was no accompanying movement of the vehicle. The driver appeared to be struggling with a floor-mounted lever.

“Go, go, go!” An elderly man halfway along the car rose up and shook his fist at the driver’s back. “Move it out, fella, or we’re gonna be here till Christmas!” The module lurched forward, turning at the same time and causing the man’s legs to buckle. He sat down suddenly, half-spilled into the aisle and had to drag himself back to an upright position, muttering disconsolately as he brushed grime from his hands.

Serves the old puke right, Hargate thought, deeply amused. The module converged on the main railway line and there was a forward surge as its magnetic clutch locked on to the moving cable. Points clacked noisily beneath the wheels. The vehicle gave a yawing shudder, creaked a little, then it was part of the train, settling down for the leisurely journey to Poughkeepsie. At a nominal forty kilometres an hour the trip was going to take almost three hours, and Hargate had plenty of time to ponder on why his quarterly visit to the Dutchess County neurology clinic had been brought forward by several weeks.

There were two possibilities, one of which he did not dare to think about. During his last visit he had received confirmation of something he had intuitively known for some time, that the polyneuritis had seriously affected his heart. The official verdict was that there were only three or four years left to him. It could be that Foerster wanted to see him because the prognosis had been drastically revised, but if that was the case—had the figures been pushed up or down? Was he not even going to make it to his mid-thirties, or had he a chance of reaching the grand old age of forty?

Abandoning speculation, he unlocked the wheels of his chair, moved a little closer to the window so that he could look out. The transporter module was a veteran of many passes through urban Bomber Alleys, with the result that its armoured glass was liberally flowered by impact of rocks and occasional sniper bullets. Hargate found a relatively clear area and began staring nostalgically at the slow-drifting scenery which reminded him of the countryside near his boyhood home in Carsewell.

Twenty years had gone by since the spring morning on which he had struggled all the way up to Cotter’s Edge and there, in the secret place, had seen a beautiful girl who had scribed a sign in the air and had vanished. He knew that the event had happened, although he had never mentioned it to anyone. He had no trouble distinguishing between memories of dreams and memories of reality—his illness had not progressed as far as the Korsakoff syndrome—but the fact remained that his “reality” did not totally correspond with that of other people. One element he knew to be factual would be classed by anybody else as fictional or illusionary, so where should he draw the line?

The generally accepted reality of AD 2024 was one which contained and also was bounded by things like energy crises, the third world war which seemed both inevitable and imminent, attritive strikes, terrorism, failing resources, social decay, famine, and advertising campaigns for children’s knife-proof undergarments. Hargate’s composite picture was like a grainy, black-and-white photograph, but with one particle of colour in it—a bright-hued fleck representing his memory of the lovely and mysterious girl who could cast spells and make herself disappear.

Hargate shook his head in annoyance as he realised the extent to which he was still allowing childhood memories to occupy his mind. He turned away from the window and concentrated his attention on the other passengers, passing the time by trying to make Holmesian deductions about their occupations and reasons for travelling. In particular he kept an eye on the plump woman and her red-coated companion in the seat immediately ahead, half-smiling every now and then in preparation for one of them turning to look at him. Getting up at 6.30 to catch the early train had cost him some sleep, and before long—encouraged by the muggy atmosphere and the swaying of the module—he was drifting into a light doze. The feeling was pleasant, and he surrendered to it for the rest of the journey to Poughkeepsie, occasionally rousing himself with an extra-loud snore and almost at once sinking back into unconsciousness.