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1033 ... and all that

The bland grey monitor blinked wearily back. Too many nights, too many days of pin-bright pupils, scored with infinitesmal calculations.

NORMAN stared vacantly on at the screen, a motionless meer-cat figure but, inside the dome of his skull, his brain was coping, switching and sending quick-fire messages from his increasing thought processes, transferring logical information from one cerebral hemisphere to the other.

"Quark!" said the duck. At least, NORMAN thought he could hear it. Its rasping voice had new depth this time. If he could only reach in far enough, hunt deep enough, he might grasp it...

He could almost feel the dome of his skull expanding with the effort, but the bland computer face, full of mocking, dancing figures, was refusing to make them intelligible, dissolving and fragmenting his calculations into a whirling mass of meaningless snowflakes...

NORMAN stared on determinedly - he knew he was at the edge now. But he had to empower himself and crack on; speed up those tortuous axons, which were delaying his discovery and break through the ceiling of the dome. Behind his eyes, which stared and did not see, lay a familiar field of pain. The precise points he had stuck on and struggled with day after day, were piercing his sight. And year after year. Could his brain stand interminably?

He raised his mouse-hand and knocked against his throbbing skull in frustration... He could hear it again.

"Quark." Its cartilage beak was tapping his nose. He was that near. NORMAN felt the heat of its energy, which was his also. He was blundering blindly about on the fringe, all the time trying to grasp the refracted gleam of light from the dark, seething ocean of mind.

"Quark," it repeated, swimming in random circles. But the physicist had no answer; he was mustering his intellectual strength, summoning Logic, the only response to the madness of an internal ocean of ducks...

"Scientists!" quarked KCUD irritably, his silent K making Logic a probability. Here was a human mind again; on the brink of his pulsating ocean - but just as blind. Maybe probing so deep had rendered this one impotent too. He had seen so many tries - and falls.

"Quark!" swore KCUD, wondering if things would ever be any different, if they'd ever progress; if they'd ever find him. He was the special one. The leader. They were just children! And his kind had been brought in so far - and all for nothing again.

Disgusted, he disengaged. Withdrew his beak from the point of contact; from that cold, naked promontory of a nose, poking into his very self. KCUD signalled, "Stand-off for the Time being" to his infinite, unlimited number of brothers, who were doomed like him to swim eternally at random...

"God," groaned NORMAN, leaning back. He didn't believe in Him anyway, but it was something to say. "What went wrong this time? I was so near. I just can't get past this point." He was cold too, his brain numb from the loss of the leaping, rippling darkness and its tantalising glimpse of the light of understanding. NORMAN hunched himself miserably, his only companion the bland, unsympathetic face of his monitor.

"Quit moaning!" It was a stern voice. NORMAN recognised it immediately - staccato, precise, academic. "Are you a man? What are you? Buck up. You're worth a lot more!"

"Worth?" shivered NORMAN. The research programme had always been a question of cash - but never for him personally. He did it for love. He blinked. It was extremely dark outside. Was he really going blind?

"Certainly it's worth it." The voice was stentorian. The faint and friendly quarks had disappeared, drowned in his arrogance. He could have summed up those crazy ducks tonight. He had the ability but he was too exhausted. And their voices had been so damned attractive.

"It's just a question of calculation. Correct it. Everything will be okay. It's logical," chided the voice. There was no escape. NORMAN exhaled air like a swimmer coming up to the surface, straightened his aching spine and stared again at his figures. And the ocean rolled near by his nose.

"Do I know you?" NORMAN asked. He was talking to himself now! The answering laugh was a sneer reminding NORMAN of too many mornings after.

"Do I know you rather? You're a physicist remember - and a damn good one." Immediately, things seemed brighter, prismatic rays glimpsed from behind the strange, gigantic outline he'd created for himself.

"Funny," said NORMAN, "a few minutes ago I thought I'd cracked it!" He looked up, shading his eyes against the glare. "Who are you?" he repeated.

"I am OGE," boomed the voice.

"A giant?"

"No, not ogre - OGE," reassured the shadow.

"I see," replied NORMAN with relief.

"That's right. You can lean on me. I'll be your eyes. You just had a shock, that's all."

"But you're only a shadow," said NORMAN bravely, collecting himself. "I can carry on by myself, thank you!"

"You need me," bumbled OGE.

"I'm better now," said NORMAN firmly, pulling himself to his full height. "I just needed space, that's all. Breathing space to collect my thoughts."

OGE was chortling and the ocean had completely disappeared - not a duck in sight. NORMAN felt flat; horribly disappointed at his lack of concentration. OGE should be shrunk. It would do him good. His gestures were too familiar. He was wagging his finger now.

"Calculations, remember. No more of these big bangs. They're so bourgeois!" Wheedling still.

"I suppose you're right," uttered NORMAN uncertainly.

"I am! You don't want to hurt yourself again like last time. You'll only be disappointed. There are other things in life besides counting ducks!" Cajoling too.

"Certainly are," replied NORMAN, rubbing his eyes. He'd needed to pull himself together, but he wasn't giving in. "Go away, will you!"

"Well, there's nothing here for me any more, is there?" replied OGE. Cheerfully furtive. "We managed to get rid of those stupid ducks, didn't we?"

NORMAN nodded miserably. Why he pandered to that giant ego, he'd never know. It was like splitting oneself in half. OGE and himself against them and the warm ocean of darkness. How many times had the mighty figure convinced him the answer must come logically?

"See you," called OGE. He was shrinking. NORMAN panicked.

"Hey, what about my last calculations?" he shouted faintly.

"I'll mail you." OGE's voice was even fainter when he wasn't working. "Mail you, mail you, Mail-liw..."

"Whew, he's gone!" NORMAN was relieved. He wiped his face with his handkerchief. OGE was all right, but only in small doses. And NORMAN was already changing his mind...

NORMAN shut his eyes, hoping for inspirational return. He concentrated. The pieces of his dome needed re-fixing like a jigsaw. All he had to do was find the missing shapes. Calculations, the giant had warned. No more big bangs... But NORMAN had learned not to trust himself and OGE.

Then his heart was pumping with excitement. The figures were dancing on the screen. They were in his blood; always had been really; even as a child; in thrown-away scraps on scribbled news columns; a teenager's scrawl on an ancient canvas shoe in the lobby; on the wall of a university cloakroom. He could hear those figures drumming him on in every quickened heartbeat, marching upwards through his ears.

And if he tried just once more, he might create the right equation; make some new discovery; it was only a matter of time and more calculations. He remembered OGE again; but it was a bad move because even the memory blinded him. His dome was one aching, threatening band of steel and he needed more than an ego...

"Equation, please?" prayed NORMAN, sweaty, mouse-finger trembling, over wrought, conscious of mistakes. "Think!" He was so near. He knew it. Theoretical physicists hardly ever panic. "Think! What else? What else do I need?" He must set himself free of numeric conventions. Turning sightless eyes inwards, he searched for guidance - and pure inspiration ...

... The chink of light was a big surprise - was becoming a wide crack - it must be an opening... then it came flying through, as aerial as any fancy; as insubstantial as imagination; as elusive as belief...

"Remember you're a scientist," breathed NORMAN, afraid he would frighten it off, "none of that Fancy stuff." But the equation was offering itself at his feet like Ariel.

"Identify yourself," he said bravely. And all around it was brightness which made him blink.

"MAILLIW, master."

"Did he send you?" asked NORMAN softly. OGE was a queer fish. You could never trust him.

MAILLIW fluttered his wings, which drooped like a top-heavy flag. The equation was not offended. NORMAN took it by the hand firmly. Its grasp was somehow familiar, but he hardly recognised it. A delicate butterfly of a thought, which could hardly last. He mustn't crush it. He had to have faith in it. It appeared as tired as he was, but he needed to try. He had to try!

"How far shall we fly this time?" he asked tenderly. He knew it was just a question of stretching himself more. NORMAN stood on tiptoe inside the dome of his head, his arms outstretched, waving the equation...

At the edge of the ocean, KCUD swam at random through the shifting tapestry of figures. "Think, human, think!" he muttered hopefully, while the dizzy outlines of his brothers hovered in the buzzing, energetic dark. "Dive damn you, dive!"

And, above, the dome of steel was fractionally yielding to millions of waving dendrites. Firefly lights flickered at the synapses. The mad race of neuro-transmitting accelerated as white-hot nerve fibres connected the cerebral hemispheres in those brilliant, frantic particles of seconds.

And NORMAN hung on desperately to that beckoning, flitting figure of fancy as it swam through the fluid surface of his brain; from his ever-swelling pia mater, on to the lighted bulbs of the nuclei and through the corpus callosum...

But the dome was still holding, its cranial structure concrete... and the lights, which had blinded NORMAN in his constant struggle with insubstantial MAILLIW, were dimming so soon.

As NORMAN plummeted, he could hear the mocking quarks. "You're human after all." He and MAILLIW had gone as far as they could this time. The equation was wilting - a limp rag - not a flag at all.

As he and his constant companion were falling, NORMAN thought fleetingly and without emotion that it might take another thousand years. That was his disappointment talking. They had not been strong enough this time - but he still possessed the power...

Seconds later, the dome shut down into eternal night, blocking out the light. In the effervescent darkness, KCUD and his brothers were waiting. They'd been at the edge so long. And this last explosion had been dull, minute and insignificant in the eternal span of things.

KCUD turned impatiently, "No Norman conquest today, Quarks." And he and his brothers swam randomly away into the energetic, rippling darkness.

The Price of Beauty

The Price Of Beauty