Gordon R. Dickson

The boy was odd.

This much he knew for himself. This much he had heard his seniors--his mother, his father, his uncles, the officers at the Academy--mention to each other, nodding their heads confidentially, not once but many times during his short eighteen years of life, leading up to this day. Now, apart, wandering the empty rec fields in this long, amber twilight before returning to his home and the graduation supper awaiting him there, he admitted to the oddness--whether truly in himself, or only in what others thought of him.

"An odd boy," he had overheard the Commandant at the Academy saying once to the Mathematics Officer, "you never know which way he'll jump."

Back at his home right now, the family would be waiting his return--unsure of which way he would jump. They would be half expecting him to refuse his Outgoing. Why? He had never given them any cause to doubt....His courage was unquestioned, his word unblemished. He had headed his class. His very blood and bones were the heritage of a long line of great professional soldiers.... And yet, they doubted.

...In what way was he odd? he wondered into the wide glow of the sunset. How was he different?

...There was, of course, his temper. He had inherited, in full measure, those cold, sudden, utterly murderous Dorsai rages which had made his people such that no sane man cared to cross one of them without good reason. But that was a common trait; and if the Dorsai thought of Donal Graeme as odd, it could not be for that alone.

Was it, he wondered now, gazing into the sunset, that even in his rages he was a little too calculating--a little too controlled and remote? And as he thought that thought, all his strangeness, all his oddness came on him with a rush, together with that wierd sense of disembodiment that had afflicted him, now and again, ever since his birth.

It came always at moments like this, riding the shoulders of fatigue and some great emotion. He remembered it as a very young boy in the Academy... [listening to] the deep, solemn notes of the Recessional--that which was known as the Dorsai Hymn now, whereever man had gone, and which a man named Kipling had written the words of, over four centuries before.

...Far called, our navies melt away, On dune and headland sinks the fire. Lo! All our pomp of yesterday, Is one with Ninevah, and Tyre...

As he had remembered it being sung at the burial service when his youngest uncle's ashes had been brought back from the slagged battlefield...

...For heathen heart that puts her trust In reeking tube and iron shard, All valiant dust, that builds on dust And guarding, calls not thee to guard...

And he had sung with the rest, feeling then, as now, the final words in the innermost recesses of his heart.

...For frantic boast and foolish word-- Thy Mercy on Thy People, Lord!

A chill shiver ran down his back. The enchantment was complete. Far and wide about him the red and dying light flooded the level land. In the farther sky the black dot of a hawk circled. But here by the fence and the high hurdles, he stood removed and detached, enclosed by some clear, transparent wall that set him apart from all the universe, alone, untouchable and enraptured. The inhabited worlds and their suns sank and dwindled in his mind's eye; and he felt the siren, deadly pull of that ocean of some great, hidden purpose that promised him at once fulfillment and a final dissolution. He stood on its brink and its waves lapped at his feet; and, as always, he strove to lift his foot and step forward into its depths and be lost forever, but some small part of him cried out against the self-destruction and held him back.

Then suddenly--as suddenly as it had came--the spell was broken. He turned toward home.