kingsley amis’ “something strange”—conclusion


[Continued from the post immediately above].

‘Of course I’m real.’ She was now thoroughly puzzled.

 

‘And it makes a difference, doesn’t it? It’s very important that you and everything else should be real, everything in the sphere. But tell me: whatever’s arranging these happenings must be pretty powerful if it can fool our instruments and our senses so completely and consistently, and yet it can’t do anything – anything we recognise as strange, that is – inside this puny little steel skin. Why not?’

 

‘Presumably it has its limitations. We should be pleased.’

 

‘Yes. All right, next point. You remember the time I tried to sit up in the lounge after midnight and stay awake?’

 

‘That was silly. Nobody can stay awake after midnight. Standing Orders were quite clear on that point.’

 

‘Yes, they were, weren’t they?’ Bruno seemed to be trying to grin. ‘Do you remember my telling you how I couldn’t account for being in my own bed as usual when the music woke us – you remember the big music? And – this is what I’m really after – do you remember how we all agreed at breakfast that life in space must have conditioned us in such a way that falling asleep at a fixed time had become an automatic mechanism? You remember that?’

 

‘Naturally I do.’

 

‘Right. Two questions, then. Does that strike you as a likely explanation? That sort of complete self-conditioning in all four of us after … just a number of months?’

 

‘Not when you put it like that,’

 

‘But we all agreed on it, didn’t we? Without hesitation.’

 

Myri, leaning against a side wall, fidgeted. He was being not pleasant in a new way, one that made her want to stop him talking even while he was thinking at his best. ‘What’s your other question, Bruno?’ Her voice sounded unusual to, her.

 

‘Ah, you’re feeling it too, are you?’

 

‘I don’t know what you mean.’

 

‘I think you will in a minute. Try my other question. The night of the music was a long time ago, soon after we arrived here, but you remember it clearly. So do I. And yet when I try to remember what I was doing only a couple of months earlier, on Earth, finishing up my life there, getting ready for this, it’s just a vague blur. Nothing stands out.’

 

‘It’s all so remote.’

 

‘Maybe. But I remember the trip clearly enough, don’t you?’

 

Myri caught her breath. I feel surprised, she told herself. Or something like that. I feel the way Bruno looked when he left the lunch table. She said nothing.

 

‘You’re feeling it now all right, aren’t you?’ He was watching her closely with his narrow eyes. ‘Let me try to describe, it. A surprise that goes on and on. Puzzlement. Symptoms of physical exertion or strain. And above all a … a sort of discomfort, only in the mind. Like having a sharp object pressed against a tender part of your body, except that this is in your mind.’

 

‘What are you talking about?’

 

‘A difficulty of vocabulary.’

 

The loudspeaker above the door clicked on and Clovis’s voice said: ‘Attention. Strange happening. Assemble in the lounge at once. Strange happening.’

 

Myri and Bruno stopped staring at each other and hurried out along the narrow corridor. Clovis and Lia were already in the lounge, looking out of the port.

 

Apparently only a few feet beyond the steelhard glass, and illuminated from some invisible source, were two floating figures. The detail was excellent, and the four inside the sphere could distinguish without difficulty every fold in the naked skin of the two caricatures of humanity presented, it seemed, for their thorough inspection, a presumption given added weight by the slow rotation of the pair that enabled their every portion to be scrutinised. Except for a scrubby growth at the base of the skull, they were hairless. The limbs were foreshortened, lacking the normal narrowing at the joints, and the bellies protuberant. One had male characteristics, the other female, yet in neither case were these complete. From each open, wet, quivering toothless mouth there came a loud, clearly audible yelling, higher in pitch than any those in the sphere could have produced, and of an unfamiliar emotional range.

 

‘Well, I wonder how long this will last,’ Clovis said.

 

‘Is it worth trying the repellers on them?’ Lia asked. ‘What does the radar say? Does it see them?’

 

‘I’ll go and have a look.’

 

Bruno turned his back on the port. ‘I don’t like them.’

 

‘Why not?’Myri saw he was sweating again.

 

‘They remind me of something.’

 

‘What?’

 

‘I’m trying to think.’

 

But although Bruno went on trying to think for the rest of that day, with such obvious seriousness that even Clovis did his best to help with suggestions, he was no nearer a solution when they parted, as was their habit, at five minutes to midnight. And when, several times in the next couple of days, Myri mentioned the afternoon of the caricatures to him, he showed little interest.

 

‘Bruno, you are extraordinary,’ she said one evening. ‘What happened to those odd feelings of yours you were so eager to describe to me just before Clovis called us into the lounge?’

 

He shrugged his narrow shoulders in the almost girlish way he had. ‘Oh, I don’t know what could have got into me,’ he said. ‘I expect I was just angry with the confounded analyser and the way it kept breaking down. It’s been much better recently.’

 

‘And all that thinking you used to do.’

 

‘That was a complete waste of time.’

 

‘Surely not.’

 

‘Yes, I agree with Clovis, let Base do all the thinking.’

 

Myri was disappointed. To hear Bruno resigning the task of thought seemed like the end of something. This feeling was powerfully underlined for her when, a little later, the announcement came over the loudspeaker in the lounge. Without any preamble at all, other than the usual click on, a strange voice said: ‘Your attention, please. This is Base calling over your intercom.’

 

They all looked up in great surprise, especially Clovis, who said quickly to Bruno: ‘Is that possible?’

 

‘Oh yes, they’ve been experimenting,’ Bruno replied as quickly.

 

‘It is perhaps ironical,’ the voice went on, ‘that the first transmission we have been able to make to you by the present means is also the last you will receive by any. For some time the maintenance of space stations has been uneconomic, and the decision has just been taken to discontinue them altogether. You will therefore make no further reports of any kind, or rather you may of course continue to do on the understanding that nobody will be listening. In many cases it has fortunately been found possible to arrange for the collection of station staffs and their return to Earth: in others, those involving a journey to the remoter parts of the galaxy, a prohibitive expenditure of time and effort would be entailed. I am sorry to have to tell you that your own station is one of these. Accordingly, you will never be relieved. All of us here are confident that you will respond to this new situation with dignity and resource.

 

‘Before we sever communication for the last time, I have one more point to make. It involves a revelation which may prove so unwelcome that only with the greatest reluctance can I bring myself to utter it. My colleagues, however, insisted that those in your predicament deserve, in your own interests, to hear the whole truth about it. I must tell you, then, that contrary to your earlier information we have had no reports from any other station whose content resembles in the slightest degree your accounts of the strange happenings you claim to have witnessed. The deception was considered necessary so that your morale might be maintained, but the time for deceptions is over. You are unique, and in the variety of mankind that is no small distinction. Be proud of it. Good-bye for ever.’

 

They sat without speaking until five minutes to midnight. Try as she would, Myri found it impossible to conceive their future, and the next morning she had no more success. That was as long as any of them had leisure to come to terms with their permanent isolation, for by midday, a quite new phase of strange happenings had begun. Myri and Lia were preparing lunch in the kitchen when Myri, opening the cupboard where the dishes were kept, was confronted by a flattish, reddish creature with many legs and a pair of unequally sized pincers. She gave a gasp, almost a shriek, of astonishment.

 

‘What is it?’ Lia said, hurrying over, and then in a high voice: ‘Is it alive?’

 

‘It’s moving. Call the men.’

 

Until the others came, Myri simply stared. She found her lower lip shaking in a curious way. Inside now, she kept thinking. Not just outside. Inside.

 

‘Let’s have a look,’ Clovis said. ‘I see. Pass me a knife or something.’ He rapped at the creature, making a dry, bony sound. ‘Well, it works for tactile and aural, as well as visual, anyway. A thorough illusion. If it is one.’

 

‘It must be,’ Bruno said. ‘Don’t you recognize it?’

 

‘There is something familiar about it, I suppose.’

 

‘You suppose? You mean you don’t know a crab when you see one?’

 

‘Oh, of course,’ Clovis looked slightly sheepish. ‘I remember now. A terrestrial animal, isn’t it? Lives in the water. And so it must be an illusion. Crabs don’t cross space as far as I know, and even if they could they’d have a tough time carving their way through the skin of the sphere.’

 

His sensible manner and tone helped Myri to get over her astonishment, and it was she who suggested that the crab be disposed of down the waste chute. At lunch, she said: ‘It was a remarkably specific illusion, don’t you think? I wonder how it was projected.’

 

‘No point in wondering about that,’ Bruno told her. ‘How can we ever know? And what use would the knowledge be to us if we did know?’

 

‘Knowing the truth has its own value.’

 

‘I don’t understand you.’

 

Lia came in with the coffee just then. ‘The crab’s back,’ she said. ‘Or there’s another one there, I can’t tell.’

 

More crabs, or simulacra thereof, appeared at intervals for the rest of the day, eleven of them in all. It seemed, as Clovis put it, that the illusion-producing technique had its limitations, inasmuch as none of them saw a crab actually materialize: the new arrival would be ‘discovered’ under a bed or behind a bank of apparatus. On the other hand, the depth of illusion produced was very great, as they all agreed when Myri, putting the eighth crab down the chute, was nipped in the finger, suffered pain and exuded a few drops of blood.

 

‘Another new departure,’ Clovis said. ‘An illusory physical process brought about on the actual person of one of us. They’re improving.’

 

Next morning there were the insects. Their main apparatus room was found to be infested with what, again on Bruno’s prompting, they recognized as cockroaches. By lunch-time there were moths and flying beetles in all the main rooms, and a number of large flies became noticeable towards the evening. The whole of their attention became concentrated upon avoiding these creatures as far as possible. The day passed without Clovis asking Myri to go with him. This had never happened before.

 

The following afternoon a fresh problem was raised by Lia’s announcement that the garden now contained no fruits or vegetables – none, at any rate, that were accessible to her senses. In this the other three concurred. Clovis put the feelings of all of them when he said: ‘If this is an illusion, it’s as efficient as the reality, because fruits and vegetables you can never find are the same as no fruits and vegetables.’

 

The evening meal used up all the food they had. Soon after two o’clock in the morning Myri was aroused by Clovis’s voice saying over the loudspeaker: ‘Attention, everyone. Strange happening. Assemble in the lounge immediately.’

 

She was still on her way when she became aware of a new quality in the background of silence she had grown used to. It was a deeper silence, as if some sound at the very threshold of audibility had ceased. There were unfamiliar vibrations underfoot.

 

Clovis was standing by the port, gazing through it with interest. ‘Look at this, Myri,’ he said.

 

At a distance impossible to gauge, an oblong of light had become visible, a degree or so in breadth and perhaps two and a half times as high. The light was of comparable quality to that illuminating the inside of the sphere. Now and then it flickered.                                               

 

‘What is it?’ Myri asked.

 

‘I don’t know, it’s only just appeared.’ The floor beneath them shuddered violently. ‘That was what woke me, one of those tremors. Ah, here you are, Bruno. What do you make of it?’

 

Bruno’s large eyes widened further, but he said nothing. A moment later Lia arrived and joined the silent group by the port. Another vibration shook the sphere. Some vessel in i the kitchen fell to the floor and smashed. Then Myri said: ‘I can see what looks like a flight of steps leading down from the lower edge of the light. Three or four of them, perhaps more.’

 

She had barely finished speaking when a shadow appeared before them, cast by the rectangle of light on to a surface none of them could identify. The shadow seemed to them of a stupefying vastness, but it was beyond question that of a man. A moment later the man came into view, outlined by the light, and descended the steps. Another moment or two and he was evidently a few feet from the port, looking in on them, their own lights bright on the upper half of him. He was a well-built man wearing a grey uniform jacket and a metal helmet. An object recognizable as a gun of some sort was slung over his shoulder. While he watched them, two other figures, similarly accoutred, came down the steps and joined him. There was a brief interval, then he moved out of view to their right, doing so with the demeanour of one walking on a level surface.

 

None of the four inside spoke or moved, not even at the sound of heavy bolts being drawn in the section of outer wall directly in front of them, not even when that entire section swung away from them like a door opening outwards and the three men stepped through into the sphere. Two of them had unslung the guns from their shoulders.

 

Myri remembered an occasion, weeks ago, when she had risen from a stooping position in the kitchen and struck her head violently on the bottom edge of a cupboard door Lia had happened to leave open. The feeling Myri now experienced was similar, except that she had no particular physical sensations. Another memory, a much fainter one, passed across the far background of her mind: somebody had once tried to explain to her the likeness between a certain mental state and the bodily sensation of discomfort, and she had not understood. The memory faded sharply.

 

The man they had first seen said: ‘All roll up your sleeves.’                       

 

Clovis looked at him with less curiosity than he had been showing when Myri first joined him at the port, a few minutes earlier. ‘You’re an illusion,’ he said,

 

‘No I’m not. Roll up your sleeves, all of you.’

 

He watched them closely while they obeyed, becoming impatient at the slowness with which they moved. The other man whose gun was unslung, a younger man, said: ‘Don’t be hard on them, Allen. We’ve no idea what they’ve been through.’

 

‘I’m not taking any chances,’ Allen said. ‘Not after that crowd in the trees. Now this is for your own good,’ he went on, addressing the four. ‘Keep quite still. All right, Douglas.’

 

The third man came forward, holding what Myri knew to be a hypodermic syringe. He took her firmly by her bare arm and gave her an injection. At once her feelings altered, in the sense that, although there was still discomfort in her mind, neither this nor anything else seemed to matter.

 

After a time she heard the young man say: ‘You can roll your sleeves down now. You can be quite sure that nothing bad will happen to you.’

 

‘Come with us,’ Allen said.

 

Myri and the others followed the three men out of the sphere, across a gritty floor that might have been concrete and up the steps, a distance of perhaps thirty feet. They entered a corridor with artificial lighting and then a room into which the sun was streaming. There were twenty or thirty people in the room, some of them wearing the grey uniform. Now and then the walls shook as the sphere had done, but to the accompaniment of distant explosions. A faint shouting could also be heard from time to time.

 

Allen’s voice said loudly: ‘Let’s try and get a bit of order going. Douglas, they’ll be wanting you to deal with the people in the tank. They’ve been conditioned to believe they’re congenially aquatic; so you’d better give them a shot that’ll knock them out straight away. Holmes is draining the tank now. Off you go. Now you, James, you watch this lot while I find out some more about them. I wish those psycho chaps would turn up – we’re just working in the dark.’ His voice moved farther away. ‘Sergeant – get these five out of here.’

 

‘Where to, sir?’

 

‘I don’t mind where – Just out of here. And watch them.’

 

‘They’ve all been given shots, sir.’

 

‘I know, but look at them, they’re not human any more. And it’s no use talking to them, they’ve been deprived of language. That’s how they got the way they are. Now get them out right away.’

 

Myri looked slowly at the young man who stood near them: James. ‘Where are we?’ she asked.

 

James hesitated, ‘I was ordered to tell you nothing,’ he said. ‘You’re supposed to wait for the psychological team to get to you and treat you.’

 

‘Please.’

 

‘All right. This much can’t hurt you, I suppose. You four and a number of other groups have been the subject of various experiments. This building is part of Special Wefare Research Station No. Four. Or rather it was. The government that set it up no longer exists. It has been removed by the revolutionary army of which I’m a member. We had to shoot our way in here and there’s fighting still going on.’

 

‘Then we weren’t in space at all.’

 

‘No.’

 

‘Why did they make us believe we were?’

 

‘We don’t know yet.’

 

‘And how did they do it?’

 

‘Some new form of deep-level hypnosis, it seems, probably renewed at regular intervals. Plus various apparatus for producing illusions. We’re still working on that. Now, I think that’s enough questions for the moment. The best thing you can do is sit down and rest.’

 

‘Thank you. What’s hypnosis?’

 

‘Oh, of course they’d have removed knowledge of that. It’ll all be explained to you later.’

 

‘James, come and have a look at this, will you?’ Allen’s voice called. ‘I can’t make much of it.’

 

Myri followed James a little way. Among the clamour of voices, some speaking languages unfamiliar to her, others speaking none, she heard James ask: ‘Is this the right file? Fear Elimination?’

 

‘Must be,’ Allen answered. ‘Here’s the last entry. Removal of Bruno V and substitution of Bruno VI accomplished, together with memory-adjustment of other three subjects. Memo to Preparation Centre: avoid repetition of Bruno V personality-type with strong curiosity-drives. Started catching on to the set-up, eh? Wonder what they did with him.’

 

‘There’s that psycho hospital across the way they’re still investigating; perhaps he’s in there.’

 

‘With Brunos I to IV, no doubt. Never mind that for the moment. Now. Procedures: penultimate phase. Removal of all ultimate confidence: severance of communication, total denial of prospective change, inculcation of "uniqueness" syndrome, environment shown to be violable, unknowable crisis in prospect (food deprivation). I can understand that last bit. They don’t look starved, though.’

 

‘Perhaps they’ve only just started them on it.’

 

‘We’ll get them fed in a minute. Well, all this still beats me, James. Reactions. Little change. Responses poor. Accelerating impoverishment of emotional life and its vocabulary: compare portion of novel written by Myri VII with contributions of predecessors. Prognosis: further affective deterioration: catatonic apathy: failure of experiment. That’s comfort, anyway. But what has all this got to do with fear elimination?’

 

They stopped talking suddenly and Myri followed the direction of their gaze. A door had been opened and the man called Douglas was supervising the entry of a number of others, each supporting or carrying a human form wrapped in a blanket.

 

‘This must be the lot from the tank,’ Allen or James said.

 

Myri watched while those in the blankets were made as comfortable as possible on benches or on the floor. One of them, however, remained totally wrapped in his blanket and was paid no attention.

 

‘He’s had it, has he?’

 

‘Shock, I’m afraid.’ Douglas’s voice was unsteady. ‘There was nothing we could do. Perhaps we shouldn’t have -‘

 

Myristooped and turned back the edge of the blanket. What she saw was much stranger than anything she had experienced in the sphere. ‘What’s the matter with him?’ she asked James.

 

‘Matter with him? You can die of shock, you know.’

 

‘I can do what?’

 

Myri, staring at James, was aware that his face had become distorted by a mixture of expressions. One of them was understanding: all the others were painful to look at. They were renderings of what she herself was feeling. Her vision darkened and she ran from the room, back the way they had come, down the steps, across the floor, back into the sphere.

 

James was unfamiliar with the arrangement of the rooms there and did not reach her until she had picked up the manuscript of the novel, hugged it to her chest with crossed arms and fallen on to her bed, her knees drawn up as far as they would go, her head lowered as it had been before her birth, an event of which she knew nothing.

 

She was still in the same position when, days later, somebody sat heavily down beside her. ‘Myri. You must know who this is. Open your eyes, Myri. Come out of there.’

 

After he had said this, in the same gentle voice, some hundreds of times, she did open her eyes a little. She was in a long, high room, and near her was a fat man with a pale skin. He reminded her of something to do with space and thinking. She screwed her eyes shut.

 

‘Myri. I know you remember me. Open your eyes again.’

 

She kept them shut while he went on talking.

 

‘Open your eyes. Straighten your body.’

 

She did not move.

 

‘Straighten your body, Myri. I love you.’

 

Slowly her feet crept down the bed and her head lifted.

 

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