Impatiently, Surlan stood waiting in front of the cluttered desk of his Interpreter. His latest Petition lay unexamined before the man whose recommendation would spell his success or failure. Surlan did not like the way Danous sighed heavily then brushed his aged fingertips across the Petition's silvery, obsidian flecked surface.
"How many does this make, Surlan?" Danous asked quietly.
Surlan's lips thinned. "Fourteen, Interpreter," he said with cold formality.
Danous nodded. Carefully he picked up the metal wedge and hefted it in his hands.
"Do you believe this Petition to be substantially different from number thirteen?" he asked with barely disguised disdain. "Or number ten? Or one?" With a small shake of his head, he tossed the Petition down. A faint ping echoed his action.
Surlan swallowed dryly. He could feel the acceleration of his heart.
"That is for you to decide," he said evenly.
"For me to decide..."
"Yes, Danous." Surlan hesitated. "I'm anxious for the Institute to approve my Petition before the next Festival." He licked his lips. "That's why I've been working so hard to produce a suitable statement. There's not much time left, and Strao has already --"
"Ah, yes." Danous nodded. "Strao." A faint smile curved his lips. "I'd heard her Petition was approved for Reading at the next Festival. I didn't realize, though, that you two had made a Pact. You have...?"
"Yes," Surlan said coolly, "we've agreed to try the Creation Mode."
Without looking at his student, Danous slid his hands to the edge of his desk and pushed himself away. The wheels of his chair turned silently on the carpeted floor. A moment passed before the Interpreter stood.
"I will, of course, examine your latest Petition," Danous said. Irritation battled with politeness in his voice. "Yet you seem reluctant to follow the examples set by previous Petitioners. I believe it'd be better for everyone if you'd proceed with an organization more in line with that of your predecessors." Danous raised a thick brow. "Unless there have been some radical changes in your approach, Surlan, I'm afraid I can offer little hope that you and Strao will be ready to enter the Sixth Level together. Perhaps if you can convince her to wait...?"
Surlan pursed his lips then frowned. Danous knew that to make such a request bordered on the impossible. How dare he even suggest such an insult? "Goodbye, then. Your decision can be forwarded to me at your earliest convenience." Not trusting himself to maintain his control any longer, he turned and stalked toward the exit.
As the heavy door clicked shut behind him, Surlan paused and leaned back against its ornamented surface. His body trembled with barely suppressed anger. Inhaling a ragged breath, he tilted his head towards the ceiling.
Strao lived alone. Such a lifestyle was not too unusual on a planet whose population found itself falling on an asymptotic curve towards zero.
Their sun was old, and it would not be reborn. The Petitioners existed as a way for the people to avoid extinction and save their civilization from death by fire. The black hole consuming their galaxy from the center out would soon be threatening their spiral arm. It was time for them to move on.
Strao had chosen a locale for her home which provided a physical reflection of the peace she hoped soon to achieve. A broad, quiet river ambled past her translucently roofed house. The gently sloping hill from the riverbank to her blue-walled abode was well trimmed. Its carefully nurtured grass yielded caressingly beneath Surlan's bare feet as he continued his walk. With a hint of jealousy, his gaze rose towards the high-arched, wide-based doorway.
Surlan's friend -- if such a neutral word would suffice, he thought -- seemed so much better suited to the goals of a Petitioner. Every smallest component of Strao's environment seemed to interlock in an intricate wholeness. Surlan felt as though he had always lagged behind her. As infants, children, adolescents, adults, and then Petitioners, they had shared together: growing, learning, exploring, experiencing life and gaining the insights and knowledge necessary to move on to the Sixth Level. But it had always been with Strao leading, he following. Was their closeness finally to come to an end, he wondered, now that their goal loomed close at hand?
Dutifully he shoved aside such questions. Strao stood at the doorway ready to greet him.
"Surlan..." The word spoke warmth and acceptance.
Strao's cool lips pressed against his as her firmly fleshed arms encircled his neck.
"Come in," she said. Her fingers interlaced with his and squeezed lightly.
Surlan followed without protest. As he watched the sun and shadows play across his lover's features, he smiled faintly.
With a sinuous sensuality, Strao sank down onto a thick pile of brightly colored pillows. Playfully, she pulled Surlan down beside her and cradled his head in the crook of one arm. Lightly, she let her long fingers filter through his auburn hair.
For awhile Surlan lay there enjoying the pleasant sensations. That very enjoyment, however, soon became its own torment.
"What's bothering you, Surlan?" Strao asked quietly. "You feel so tense."
Surlan started then gazed up into the hazel eyes of the woman he loved. After a moment, he sat up.
"It shows that plainly..."
Strao's palm slid along his curved back. Delicately she traced the hard planes of his muscles. "Yes, it does." She paused, and Surlan tightened even further. "Difficulties with your Peti--...with Danous?"
"Yes." Surlan hated the bitterness he heard in his voice.
"The Festival is next week," Strao said softly.
"You don't have to remind me!" Surlan jerked to his feet. Turning away, he shoved his hands into his pockets.
Strao did not raise her voice. Neither did she relent. "Unless our Petitions are read simultaneously, Surlan, our Pact will be dissolved. We cannot practice the Creation Mode on the way to the Sixth Level unless we are together. There'll be no blending. Our new being will never exist."
Surlan blinked away threatening tears. His jaw muscles bunched and loosened. Fruitlessly, he searched for the tranquility he knew signaled the mark of a successful Petitioner.
When finally he spoke, his voice was low and unsteady. "Will you...will you...wait?"
Silence stretched between them. Strao's reply whispered little louder than his question. "I love you, Surlan. But you know the answer to that already."
Surlan's eyes closed tightly. He did not want to hear her words. Suddenly he turned and gripped her hands in his, pulling her up to join him.
"I need time, Strao!" he said intensely. "I need time to find where my Petitions fall short. I want a Petition which will be accepted by Danous yet still retain the essentials of my self. I try to give him what he wants, yet only the form changes. The substance remains the same. Danous won't accept that. Help me, Strao. Please!"
Desperately, he searched her eyes. He saw understanding; empathy. Perhaps even sympathy floated there. But he did not see what he needed to keep his hopes alive. He knew she would not change her mind. There would be no compromise. The time for that had passed.
That knowledge made her decision no easier to accept.
He hated himself for even asking her.
Gently Strao disengaged a hand. As though in memory of a love already lost, she stroked his wet cheek. She returned his gaze, but Surlan could see that whatever had existed between them had suddenly metamorphosed into something...different.
"I hurt with you," Strao said. "You reach for an answer you can't find. The harder you try, the farther it slips away." She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead. "But I can't give you your answer. And neither can Danous." She wet her lips. "I think you know that, as well."
Surlan lowered his gaze as she continued.
"Don't forget the basic tenets of a Petitioner," she said. "The Reader doesn't demand perfection for advancement. Yet it can tell when the basic structures are incomplete or faulty. While the framework answers must come from you, they have to mesh with the pattern generated by the designers. You have to accept that fact."
She grasped his arms and forced him to face her. "Danous is not a Petitioner. He'll never obtain the Sixth Level. That's his choice. But he knows the Reader as well or better than any other Interpreter. He can recognize proper configurations and tell when you're nearing readiness. You should know by now, however, that only you will perceive when you're fully prepared.
"Danous has guided you to the top of the hill. It's up to you to cross its summit alone. Perhaps he could intervene and reshape the places where your Petition falls short. Perhaps he could provide the final touches which have worked for other students of his. But he won't."
Surlan shook his head. "I've tried every approach I can think of. None of them seem to satisfy him."
"Try to think beyond your limitations, Surlan. One of the strengths which makes Petitioners special is the ability to contribute to the whole...but as an individual. If you can't offer something entirely of your own, something original and unique to you, those who have gone before us will gain nothing from your presence. The Reader will see that deficiency and reject your Petition. Danous knows that, and he's trying to spare you that humiliation. He can see you've progressed too far on a dead-end path. He wants you to abandon your search on a road that leads nowhere. Strike out on an entirely new and fresh approach. Unless you end your insistence on redoing old ideas, Surlan, you'll die here trying to correct what can't be corrected. I want that no more than you do."
Surlan's expression hardened. He could feel the tears welling up again. "So you're telling me, too, that I'm a failure," he said stonily, "that I'll never reach Beyond." His voice rumbled rough and low. "I'm sorry if I haven't progressed as quickly as you," he said sarcastically. "I guess I don't possess your ability to mesh with the pattern. So go ahead." He waved an arm. "Attend the Festival with the others. You'll reach the Sixth Level alone, but at least you'll be a success. Not a loser like me."
"Surlan, I --"
"No!" Surlan tore away from Strao's grip. "Just leave me alone," he shouted. "I don't need your patronizing attitude. I don't need you or anyone else." Only half seeing where he went, Surlan stormed away. Strao's last words echoed after him like a curse.
The young Petitioner ran. From Strao. From himself. From Petitions and Interpreters and the end of the world.
He ran...but he could not escape.
His frustration laughed at him.
Failure! it cried. You're a failure at all you try. Without Danous you'd be lost. Without Strao you ARE lost. It's all useless, Surlan.
YOU'RE useless. Don't fool yourself any longer, Surlan. Make an end to it.
You're nothing, nothing, noth--
"No! No! No!"
In frantic denial, Surlan hammered his fists against the bridge railing. He would not let his efforts mean nothing. He would not let himself be nothing. Their way was not the only one to freedom. He would prove them wrong. He would.
For a long moment, Surlan watched the rippling surface of the river below him which hid its promise of surcease and serenity. Then he ran again. This time, however, he ran with a goal in mind.
I won't fail, he thought. I won't.
Pain lanced his side as he entered the Institute grounds. He slowed his pace and pressed a hand to his ribs.
He would confront Danous now. Once and for all, they would have it out. No more thinly-veiled sarcasm. No more false respect. He would have the truth behind Danous's callous attitude or else. He would demand to know the real reasons he faced constant denial.
As he approached the closed door to the Interpreter's office, Surlan's heart thundered. Eagerly, his steps quickened.
With a violence which surprised even himself, Surlan banged open the door. He rushed inside, ready for whatever came next.
He was not ready for an empty room.
Reaction left him trembling. Slowly he moved across the thick carpeting. His gaze slid left, then right, behind and ahead. Yet no hidden enemy cowered there for him to fight. He was all alone.
A wisp of shame curled above the cooling embers of his anger. The quiet and dignified serenity of the room confronted him as an admonition against his impetuous actions.
Surlan shook his head.
"No," he murmured. He would not give in again. He would not play the troublesome though obedient student any longer. The tendrils of unwanted guilt he felt fanned his defiance, the emotional courage which had driven him so quickly and so hard.
Giving vent to an inarticulate yell, Surlan lashed out with a bare foot. A graceful sculpture of blue-tinged crystal collapsed with a tinkle of protest. The sound went unnoticed as Surlan rushed about the room. Here, he toppled a bookcase. There, he smashed a work of art. He moved determined to obliterate anything and everything neat and orderly and conforming.
Abruptly he stopped, his arm half-raised to strike. A familiar stack on the polished surface of the desk drew his attention.
Breathing hard, he crossed the space and extended his right hand. Gently he lifted the uppermost wedge from the pile. Staring at that talisman, he turned it gingerly with his fingers.
Vaguely, tentatively, a shadowy revelation began to stir within him.
As though in a trance, Surlan lowered his latest Petition a fraction and gazed at the remaining thirteen. Each represented a segment of his life, a part of himself. Each succeeding slab expanded and continued what had come before. Each reached toward a culmination that would mean...that would mean...
With a backhanded slash and an angry shout of determination, Surlan scattered his old, useless Petitions. Spinning through the air, their metallic surfaces reflected the dimming light from the window.
No more would he let the past chain him. He would seek the future and those who had preceded him no matter what Danous said. He would face the dangers and accept what came.
Clutching his newest Petition to his chest, he hurried from the room. An urgent need to act, to move before it was too late flared within him.
As he rushed from the building, Surlan nearly blundered into a solidly framed figure coming up the stairs. Reflexively he sidestepped the obstacle and bounded downward three steps at a time. Nor did he stop or turn to reply when Danous called after him. There was no time for distraction, no time for those who would hold him from his destiny.
The evening air cooled with the passage of the sun. The massive yet soaring structures among which Surlan ran gradually succumbed to the growing shadows of the night.
Quickly he turned up a wide walkway. As he entered the white stone Institute Center, he could see the flattening orange disc of the sun melt below the horizon.
The thickening darkness did not slow his step. Around and above him, stretching in echoing vastness, the vaulted ceiling issued forth a sourceless, mellow golden light. Alone, the tiny figure of the Petitioner hurried on.
The Institute's people would be at their evening meal, he knew. He had at least half an hour of solitude. Enough time, he hoped.
Like all Petitioners, Surlan had frequently visited the Festival Hall. There they witnessed the passage Beyond of successful Petitioners.
Surlan knew the way well.
Feeling the effects of his exertion, he labored up the final flight of stairs to the viewing amphitheater.
Perhaps, he thought, all Petitioners reflected their distant predecessors. In conjunction with the knowledge and power of the Reader, a properly constructed Petition transformed a Petitioner into some...alternate...aspect of intelligence.
Under an Interpreter's tutelage, a Petitioner constructed, reshaped, and expanded his Petition until it contained the essence of who and what he was. The Reader would then use this pattern as a springboard to launch the Petitioner into the Sixth Level. Though the process worked, and though they understood what to do and how, the question of "why" it performed as it did was beyond those who remained on the Fifth Level.
Perhaps today I'll discover that answer, Surlan thought. And in my own way.
The amphitheater which stretched before and to either side of him originally held over ten thousand witnesses to a Reading. Slowly, however, the slipping centuries had depleted the world of willing candidates until it was rare to see even half the seats filled.
When the final Petitioner reached Beyond and the last Interpreter died, what would the Reader do then?
Surlan rested his hand lightly on the silvery metal railing which separated two sections of seats. Never before had he ventured there alone. An eerie feeling wavered within him as he headed towards the bottom.
At the end of the steps, four curving rows of stations crouched close together. Each of the hundred installations consisted of a straight-backed chair set in front of a solid, austere looking, rectangular table. The only break in the gray surface of the block was a slot into which a Petitioner slid his finished Petition. From that slot, the Petitioner also took the close-fitting skull cap which placed him in direct contact with the Reader.
Hesitantly, Surlan stopped and eyed his Petition. A hint of uncertainty drifted across his features.
What if I'm wrong? he wondered. What if this was not the best course to follow?
The memory of his meetings with Strao and Danous floated before his inner vision. The prospect of what his failure would mean cut through the thickening clouds of his indecision. Steeling himself for whatever might come, he stepped resolutely onto the seamless, gray metal floor of the arena. Taking it all in, Surlan walked to the innermost row. As he placed his Petition on the nearest table, he raised his gaze towards the featureless wall before him.
On the other side of that silver-hued face, the physical manifestation of the Reader extended for hundreds of meters below and away from Festival Hall. Since most of its current configuration had been designed, constructed, and tested by itself, no human being -- alive or dead -- knew the limits of its powers, knowledge, and intelligence.
At the unexpected echoing sound of his name, Surlan jumped. An irrational, half-formed fear shot through him as he spun around.
Danous, though, and not some mythical, godlike creature stood at the top of the stairs.
Surlan knew that no time remained for self-indulgent doubts. In one fluid motion he slid onto the station's chair, pushed his Petition into the slot, and snatched up the skull cap.
An involuntary shudder slithered up his spine as he raised his hands towards his head. Briefly he wondered whether Danous's command to stop was not the wisest advice, after all. Yet he knew inside that to back out now would destroy him, spiritually if not literally. The only way to learn if his rebellion would lead to a new alternative for other Petitioners was to proceed.
The strangely textured material of the cap settled over his thick hair and...
...the world disappeared.
Or at least one world.
No source of light glared within sight, yet that new realm was not dark. Surlan -- or at least some aspect that defined him here -- floated in a featureless void. That blank space was not empty, however. It contained him.
And then something -- someone -- else joined him.
Surlan saw with a part of himself that had no connection with fallible, fragile eyes of flesh. The form he saw: if puzzlement had substance, it would look like that pulsing, amorphous fog which drifted steadily towards him.
Tendrils of its tawny colored cloud-stuff stretched around Surlan. Lightly they settled upon him for a moment then withdrew to touch elsewhere.
Words formed within him.
**It is not Festival time.**
**I know.** Surlan marveled at that voice. Its sense of strength and confidence, its quality of implicit understanding and insight challenged him unlike anything he had encountered before.
**And you are alone...in many ways.**
Surlan could only give the equivalent of an unwilling nod.
**Because I...** Surlan halted, confused. Why? Why what? Why was he alone? Or why was he here at all? Or...what? He only knew he searched for something more meaningful than an apparently endless succession of "unsatisfactory" Petitions. He grew tired of playing by other people's rules.
**I see.** The voice paused. **Your Petition is crude, unpolished.** Surlan winced at that dispassionate judgment. **You did not wait to finish it.** A statement of fact. The cloud being rippled into a brilliant shade of blue. **I could reject your Petition for this. Perhaps forbid you from trying again, since you come before Festival.**
Surlan felt his spirit drain from him. To be left behind forever...to die...
**For now, though, I ask why.**
Surlan gathered his courage together. **I...I couldn't.**
**They wouldn't let me. I mean, they'd never have been satisfied with the way I was doing it. Never.**
Surlan groped for the words to express the turmoil with him. **Danous... Strao?**
**What do you seek here? What do you want from me?**
**Freedom? From what? Or rather from whom?**
**From myself --** Surlan stopped as the realization hit him. Denial darted in hard in its wake. **No. Not from myself. Not even freedom from this world. I want freedom to...** To what? he wondered. That glimpse of truth faded, obscured by the chaos of his own emotions.
No inflection brightened those words. Surlan, however, did not like what he felt rippling below that placid, level surface. For the first time, he began to feel the pricklings of a real fear; realized just how dangerous the path he had entered could be; saw how truly vulnerable he was.
Softly: **You should have waited, Surlan. It would have been much easier for you. Of course, then you would have lost all that you are, wouldn't you? All that you bring to me; to us.**
Eager threads of terror plucked at Surlan. **What are you going to do to me?** Panic soared within him.
**What is necessary.**
Surlan felt himself moving higher, faster, up and up. Stretching to his limits. Then he plummeted with a voiceless scream. Felt himself stripped to his primal core. Turned. Examined. Exposed.
Suddenly his Petition materialized before him. Its presence demanded his total attention. Lazily it twirled in nothingness. Its smooth surface reflected sharp spikes from a brilliant white light Surlan could not see.
The Petition froze for a timeless instant. Then without warning, its oh-so-familiar face wavered, warped. Faster and faster it whirled. Started to crack. Splinter. Fragmented its substance into a madly, endlessly spinning, all-encompassing galaxy of blurring shards.
The dagger needles exploded with a heavy shock wave. Unmercifully they tore through what passed in that realm for Surlan's flesh. They shredded it into bloody strips he could not avoid seeing, could not escape feeling in intimate detail.
Every bit of him; each aspect that alone appeared as no more than a crimson shred dripping ooze but which together would spell "Surlan"; all the segments spread out starkly for inspection. Were critiqued. Rearranged. Subtly altered.
The full force of the Reader pulsed through every wave. Surlan could do nothing but endure that relentless inundation. He lived now with his choice. The time to pay the price for his decision had arrived. He could only accept the consequences which freedom brought.
Eventually, gradually, though, time resumed its forward crawl. Like the gentle murmur of a distant surf, the Reader spoke again.
**You are the first, Surlan, the first to seek the Sixth Level alone and unprepared. Unprepared, that is, by the standards of your predecessors. I see farther than they. Their rules were acceptable in the beginning. Now, however, the time has come for a change. You are its emissary.**
Surlan did not -- could not -- respond.
The voice spoke. **I did not know if it could be done. This seemed a unique opportunity, though. One not to be missed.** A pause. **It still hurts?**
With an effort, Surlan managed a single nod.
**I wonder how this will affect those on the Sixth Level?** The Reader's curiosity was plain for Surlan to see. **Petitioners at peace with themselves and Sixth Level conditions experience only pleasantness. Through my acceptance of your rebellion, you will bring them the memory of pain. It will be an interesting meeting of minds.** Silence. **When my work is done here, perhaps...yes, perhaps I will join you and the others. When the last Petitioner has gone, the remaining Interpreters will have no need for me. This world will be theirs until the end. When my original goal is accomplished, I will be my own final Petitioner.**
Surlan did not doubt the possibility. The Reader would be welcome company.
Like an infinite jigsaw puzzle, the fragments that had been Surlan began to drift towards one another. Urged on by the guidance of the Reader, they coalesced into a new whole. A unity arose much different than before. Seams no longer separated Surlan from himself. No boundaries or islands existed to disrupt and confuse him. Only smoothness and continuity remained of the discord that had been. At last he could accept himself and his desires without the pain of guilt or doubt.
**Tell me, Surlan, what did you think of while I restructured your design?**
**Anger. Vengeance. Fear. I felt them. Was them. Watched them until they and a thousand other pains no longer hurt.
**I thought of Danous. Saw the concern and distress -- yes, and sometimes the pleasure -- he felt for my "failure." Realized that while I sought the truth, still I denied the reality before me.
**There was Strao. And the Creation Mode. She was right, of course. She could not wait for me, just as I cannot now wait for her. The melding of our patterns could have been beautiful, but not all possibilities can be fulfilled. As long as they can still be dreamed, though, I will be happy.**
**I'm glad you came to me, Surlan.**
**Thank you.** A simple acknowledgement. No longer did he feel a need for reassurance or approval from a "superior." No more doubts plagued him. Only questions yet to be answered awaited him.
The new creation named Surlan expanded its awareness.
Before him, Danous stood with a hand on the shell that had once been a Petitioner. Sadness sparkled in his eyes...and perhaps a hint of satisfaction. Surlan knew, however, that this was one transition which the Reader would allow no one to observe. The Interpreter would have to live with his wondering and his defense of tradition.
And there: Strao. Sitting alone in her darkened home, her left hand held to her brow and her right tightly holding her final Petition. Surlan knew she would assimilate her pain and the question she nursed of her final decision regarding him. She was ready for the Festival.
And the Reader. Patiently awaiting the next Petitioner.
Someday, Surlan knew, the Reader would break from its metallic cage to join them. Together they would explore the cosmos. They would experience a universe that encompassed much more than mere galaxies and stars and dusty worlds. They would build a structure of knowledge and understanding of their very own; one more brilliant than their forefathers could ever have imagined; a community of kindred spirits which nevertheless respected and accepted the value and role of individual achievement and personal accomplishment.
Surlan smiled as he expanded further. His view swelled larger and larger as the knowledge of his new fellows flowed into him, through him. Giving to them, as well, from his own perspective, Surlan enjoyed his fresh and unique position.
He knew that no matter how much knowledge and wisdom they might acquire, their quest for a complete understanding of the Universe would never end. That fact did not bother him. The future which stretched ahead of him promised unlimited happiness.
At long, long last, he had found the place where he belonged.