ballard’s terminal beach concluded

The Submarine Pens

 

This precarious existence continued for the following weeks. As he walked out to the blocks one evening, he again saw his wife and son, standing among the dunes below a solitary camera tower, their faces watching him expressionlessly. He realized that they had followed him across the island from their former haunt among the driedup lakes. At about this time he once again saw the distant light beckoning, and decided to continue his exploration of the island.

 

Half a mile further along the atoll he found a group of four submarine pens, built over an inlet, now drained, which wound through the dunes from the sea. The pens still contained several feet of water, filled with strange luminescent fish and plants. The warning light winked at intervals from the apex of a metal scaffold. The remains of a substantial camp, only recently vacated, stood on the pier outside. Greedily, Traven heaped his sledge with the provisions stored inside one of the metal shacks.

 

With this change of diet, the ben-ben receded, and during the next days he returned often to the camp. It appeared to be the site of a biological expedition. In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them. (Later, passing the aircraft dump on one of his forays, he found the half-buried juke-box, and tore the list of records from the selection panel, realizing that these were the most appropriate captions. Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of associations.)

 

 

Traven: In Parenthesis

 

Elements in a quantal world: The terminal beach.

 

The terminal bunker.

 

The blocks.

 

          ***

 

The landscape is coded.

 

Entry points into the future=Levels in a spinal landscape=zones of significant time.

 

August 5. Found the man Traven. A strange derelict figure, hiding in a bunker in the deserted interior of the island. He is suffering from severe exposure and malnutrition, but is unaware of this or, for that matter, of any other events in the world around him He maintains that he came to the island to carry out some scientific project – unstated – but I suspect that he understands his real motives and the unique role of the island… In some way its landscape seems to be involved with certain unconscious notions of time, and in particular with those that may be a repressed premonition of our own deaths. The attractions and dangers of such an architecture, as the past has shown, need no stressing.

 

August 6. He has the eyes of the possessed. I would guess that he is neither the first, nor the last, to visit the island.

 

—from Dr C. Osborne, ‘Eniwetok Diary.’

 

 

Traven lost within the Blocks

 

With the exhaustion of’his supplies, Traven remained within the perimeter of the blocks almost continuously, conserving what strength remained to him to walk slowly down their empty corridors. The infection in his right foot made it difficult for him to replenish his supplies from the stores left by the biologists, and as his strength ebbed he found progressively less incentive to make his way out of the blocks. The system of megaliths now provided a complete substitute for those functions of his mind which gave to it its sense of the sustained rational order of time and space. Without them, his awareness of reality shrank to little more than the few square inches of sand beneath his feet.

 

On one of his last ventures into the maze, he spent all night and much of the following morning in a futile attempt to escape. Dragging himself from one rectangle of shadow to another, his leg as heavy as a club and apparently inflamed to the knee, he realized that he must soon find an equivalent for the blocks or he would end his life within them, trapped inside this self-constructed mausoleum as surely as the retinue of Pharaoh.

 

He was sitting helplessly somewhere in the centre of the system, the faceless lines of tomb-booths receding from him, when the sky was slowly divided by the drone of a light aircraft. This passed overhead, and then returned five minutes later. Seizing his opportunity, Traven struggled to his feet and made his exit from the blocks, his head raised to follow the faintly glistening beacon of the exhaust trail.

 

As he lay in the bunker he dimly heard the aircraft return and carry out an inspection of the site.

 

 

A Belated Rescue

 

‘Who are you? Do you realize you’re on your last legs?’

 

‘Traven… I’ve had some sort of accident. I’m glad you flew over.’

 

‘I’m sure you are. But why didn’t you use our radio-telephone? Anyway, we’ll call the Navy and have you picked up.’

 

‘No…’ Traven sat up on one elbow and feltweakly in his hip pocket. ‘I have a pass somewhere. I’m carrying out research.’

 

‘Into what?’ The question assumed a complete understanding of Traven’s motives. He lay in the shade under the lee of the bunker, and drank weakly from a canteen as Dr Osborne dressed his foot. ‘You’ve also been stealing our stores.’

 

Traven shook his head. Fifty yards away the striped blue Cessna stood on the concrete apron like a brilliant dragonfly. ‘I didn’t realize you were coming back.’

 

‘You must be in a trance.’

 

The young woman sitting at the controls of the aircraft climbed out and walked over to them. She glanced at the grey bunkers and towers, and seemed uninterested in the decrepit figure of Traven. Osborne spoke to her and after a downward glance at Traven she went back to the aircraft. As she turned Traven rose involuntarily, recognizing the child in the photograph he had pinned to the wall of the bunker. Then he remembered that the magazine could not have been more than four or five years old.

 

The engine of the aircraft started. As Traven watched, it turned on to one of the roadways and took off into the wind.

 

Later that afternoon the young woman drove over to the blocks by jeep and unloaded a small camp-bed and a canvas awning. During the intervening hours Traven had slept. He woke refreshed when Osborne returned from his scrutiny of the surrounding dunes.

 

‘What are you doing here?’ the young woman asked as she secured the guy-ropes to the roof of the bunker.

 

Traven watched her move about. ‘I’m… searching for my wife and son.’

 

‘They’re on this island?’ Surprised, but taking the reply at face value, she looked around her. ‘Here?’

 

‘In a manner of speaking.’

 

After inspecting the bunker, Osborne joined them. ‘The child in the photograph – is she your daughter?’

 

Traven hesitated. ‘No. She’s adopted me.’

 

Unable to make any sense of his replies, but accepting his assurances that he would leave the island, Osborne and the young woman drove back to their camp. Each day Osborne returned to change the dressing, driven by the young woman, who seemed now to grasp the role cast for her by Traven. Osborne, when he learned of Traven’s previous career as a military pilot, appeared to suspect that he might be a latter-day martyr left high and dry by the moratorium on thermonuclear tests.

 

‘A guilt complex isn’t an indiscriminate supply of moral sanctions. I think you may be overstretching yours.’ When he mentioned the name Eatherly, Traven shook his head.

 

Undeterred, Osborne pressed: ‘Are you sure you’re not making similar use of the image of Eniwetok – waiting for your Pentecostal wind?’

 

‘Believe me, Doctor, no,’ Traven replied firmly. ‘For me the hydrogen bomb was a symbol of absolute freedom. I feel it’s given me the right the obligation, even – to do anything I want.’

 

‘That seems strange logic,’ Osborne commented. ‘Aren’t we at least responsible for our physical selves, if for nothing else?’

 

‘Not now, I think,’ Traven replied. ‘After all, in effect we are men raised from the dead.’

 

Often, however, he thought of Eatherly: the prototypal Pre-Third Man – dating the Pre-Third from August 6, 1945 carrying a full load of cosmic guilt.

 

Shortly after Traven was strong enough to walk, he had to be rescued from the blocks for a second time. Osborne became less conciliatory.

 

‘Our work is almost’ complete,’ he said warningly. ‘You’ll die here, Traven. What are you looking for among those blocks?’

 

To himself, Traven murmured: the tomb of the unknown civilian, Homo hydrogenensis, Eniwetok Man. ‘Doctor,’ he said, ‘your laboratory is at the wrong end of this island.’

 

Tartly, Osborne replied: ‘I’m aware of that, Traven. There are rarer fish swimming in your head than in any submarine pen.’

 

On the day before they left, the young woman drove Traven over to the lakes where he had first arrived. As a final present, an ironic gesture unexpected from the elderly biologist, she had brought from Osborne the correct list of legends for the chromosome charts. They stopped by the derelict juke-box and she pasted them on to the selection panel.

 

They wandered among the supine wrecks of the Superfortresses. Traven lost sight of her, and for the next ten minutes searched in and out of the dunes. He found her standing in a small amphitheatre formed by the sloping mirrors of a solar energy device built by one of the visiting expeditions. She smiled to Traven as he stepped through the scaffolding. A dozen fragmented images of herself were reflected in the broken panes – in some she was sans head, in others multiples of her arms circled about her like the serpent limbs of a Hindu goddess. Confused, Traven turned and walked back to the jeep.

 

As they drove away he recovered himself. He described his glimpses of his wife and son. ‘Their faces are always calm,’ he said. ‘My son’s particularly, though really he was always laughing. The only time his face was grave was when he was being born—then he seemed millions of years old.’

 

The young woman nodded. ‘I hope you find them.’ As an afterthought she added: ‘Dr Osborne is going to tell the Navy that you’re here. Hide somewhere.’

 

Traven thanked her.

 

From the centre of the blocks he waved to her the following day when she flew away for the last time.

 

 

The Naval Party

 

When the search party came for him Traven hid in the only logical place. Fortunately the search was perfunctory, and was called off after a few hours. The sailors had brought a supply of beer with them and the search soon turned into a drunken ramble.

 

On the walls of the recording towers Traven later found balloons of obscene dialogue chalked into the mouths of the shadowy figures, giving their postures the priapic gaiety of the dancers in cave drawings.

 

The climax of the party was the ignition of a store of gasoline in an underground tank near the airstrip. As he listened, first to the megaphones shouting his name, the echoes receding among the dunes like the forlorn calls of dying birds, then to the boom of the explosion and the laughter as the landing craft left, Traven felt a premonition that these were the last sounds he would hear.

 

He had hidden in oneof the target basins, lying among the broken bodies of the plastic models. In the hot sunlight their deformed faces gaped at him sightlessly from the tangle of limbs, their blurred smiles like those of the soundlessly laughing dead.

 

Their faces filled his mind as he climbed over the bodies and returned to his bunker. As he walked towards the blocks he saw the figures of his wife and son standing in his path. They were less than ten yards from him, their white faces watching him with a look of almost overwhelming expectancy. Never had Traven seen them so close to the blocks. His wife’s pale features seemed illuminated from within, her lips parted as if in greeting, one hand raised to take his own. His son’s face, with its curiously fixed expression, regarded him with the same enigmatic smile of the child in the photograph.

 

‘Judith! David!’ Startled, Traven ran forwards to them. Then, in a sudden movement of light, their clothes turned into shrouds, and he saw the wounds that disfigured their necks and chests. Appalled, he cried out. As they vanished, he ran off into the safety of the blocks.

 

 

The Catechism of Goodbye

 

This time he found himself, as Osborne had predicted, unable to leave the blocks.

 

Somewhere in the centre of the maze, he sat with his back against one of the concrete flanks, his eyes raised to the sun. Around him the lines of cubes formed the horizon of his world. At times they would appear to advance towards him, looming over him like cliffs, the intervals between them narrowing so that they were little more than an arm’s length apart, a labyrinth of corridors running between them. They then would recede from him, separating from each other like points in an expanding universe, until the nearest line formed an intermittent palisade along the horizon.

 

Time had become quantal. For hours it would be noon, the shadows contained within the blocks, the heat reflected off the concrete floor. Abruptly, he would find that it was early afternoon or evening, the shadows everywhere like pointing fingers.

 

‘Goodbye, Eniwetok,’ he murmured.

 

Somewhere there was a flicker of light, as if one of the blocks, like a counter on an abacus, had been plucked away.

 

Goodbye, Los Alamos. Again, a block seemed to vanish. The corridors around him remained intact, but somewhere in his mind had appeared a small interval of neutral space.

 

Goodbye, Hiroshima.

 

Goodbye, Alamagordo.

 

‘Goodbye, Moscow, London, Paris, New York…’

 

Shuttles flickered, a ripple of lost integers. He stopped, realizing the futility of this megathlon farewell. Such a leave-taking required him to fix his signature upon every one of the particles in the universe.

 

 

Total Noon: Eniwetok

 

The blocks now occupied positions on an endlessly revolving circus wheel. They carried him upwards into the sky, from where he could see the whole island and the sea, and then down again through the opaque disc of the concrete floor. From here he looked up at the under-surface of the concrete cap, an inverted landscape of rectilinear hollows, the dome-shaped mounds of the lake-system, the thousands of empty cubic pits of the blocks.

 

‘Goodbye, Traven.’

 

Near the end, he found to his disappointment that this ultimate rejection gained him nothing.

 

In the interval of lucidity, he looked down at his emaciated arms and legs, decorated with a lace-work of ulcers. To his right was a trail of disturbed dust, the wavering marks of slack heels.

 

To his left lay a long corridor between the blocks, joining an oblique series a hundred yards away. Among these, where a narrow interval revealed the open space beyond, was a crescent-shaped shadow, poised in the air above the ground.

 

During the next half an hour it moved slowly, turning as the sun swung, the profile of a dune.

 

 

The Crevice

 

Seizing on this cipher, which hung before him like a symbol on a shield, Traven pushed himself through the dust. He climbed precariously to his feet, and shielded his eyes from the blocks. He moved forward a few paces at a time.

 

Ten minutes later he emerged from the western perimeter of the blocks, like a tottering mendicant leaving behind a silent desert city. The dune lay fifty yards in front of him. Beyond it, bearing the shadow like a screen, was a ridge of limestone that ran away among the hillocks of the wasteland beyond this point of the atoll. The remains of an old bulldozer, bales of barbed wire and fifty-gallon drums lay half-buried in the sand. Traven approached the dune, reluctant to leave this anonymous swell of sand. He shuffled around its edges, and sat down in the mouth of a shallow crevice below the brow of the ridge.

 

After dusting his clothes, he gazed out patiently at the great circle of blocks.

 

Ten minutes later he noticed that someone was watching him.

 

 

The Marooned Japanese

 

This corpse, whose eyes stared up at Traven, lay to his left at the bottom of the crevice. That of a man of middle age and strong build, it rested on its back with its head on a pillow of stone, hands outstretched at its sides, as if surveying the window of the sky. The fabric of the clothes had rotted to a bleached grey vestment, but in the absence of any small animal predators on the island the skin and musculature of the corpse had been preserved. Here and there, at the angle of knee or wrist, a bony point glinted through the leathery integument of the skin, but the facial mask was still intact, and revealed a male Japanese of the professional classes. Looking down at the strong nose, high forehead and broad mouth, Traven guessed that the Japanese had been a doctor or lawyer.

 

Puzzled as to how the corpse had found itself here, Traven slid a few feet down the slope. There were no radiation burns on the skin, which indicated that the Japanese had been there for five years or less. Nor did he appear to be wearing a uniform, so had not been some unfortunate member of a military or scientific party.

 

To the left of the corpse, within reach of his left hand, was a frayed leather case, the remains of a map wallet. To the right was the husk of a haversack, open to reveal a canteen of water and a small mess-tin.

 

Traven slid down the slope until his feet touched the splitting soles of the corpse’s shoes, the reflex of starvation making him for the moment ignore that the Japanese had deliberately chosen to die in the crevice. He reached out and seized the canteen. A cupful of flat water swilled around the rusting bottom. Traven gulped down the water, the dissolved metal salts cloaking his lips and tongue with a bitter film. The mess-tin was empty except for a tacky coating of condensed syrup. Traven prised at this with the lid, and chewed at the tarry flakes, letting them dissolve in his mouth with an almost intoxicating sweetness. After a few moments he felt light-headed and sat back beside the corpse. Its sightless eyes regarded him with unmoving compassion.

 

 

The Fly

 

(A small fly, which Traven presumes has followed him into the fissure, now buzzes about the corpse’s face. Guiltily, Traven leans forward to kill it, then reflects that perhaps this minuscule sentry has been the corpse’s faithful companion, in return fed on the rich liqueurs and distillations of its pores. Carefully, to avoid injuring the fly, he encourages it to alight on his wrist.)

 

DR YASUDA: Thank you, Traven. In my position, you understand

 

TRAVEN: Of course, Doctor. I’m sorry I tried to kill it – these ingrained habits, you know, they’re not easy to shrug off. Your sister’s children in Osaka in ’44, the exigencies of war, I hate to plead them. Most known motives are so despicable, one searches the unknown in the hope that YASUDA: Please, Traven, do not be embarrassed. The fly is lucky to retain its identity for so long. ‘That son you mourn, not to mention my own two nieces and nephew, did they not die each day? Every parent in the world grieves for the lost sons and daughters of their earlier childhoods.

 

TRAVEN: You’re very tolerant, Doctor. I wouldn’t dare – YASUDA: Not at all, Traven. I make no apologies for you. Each of us is little more than the meagre residue of the infinite unrealized possibilities of our lives. But your son, and my nephew, are fixed in our minds forever, their identities as certain as the stars.

 

TRAVEN: (not entirely convinced) That may be so, Doctor, but it leads to a dangerous conclusion in the case of this island. For instance, the blocks – YASUDA: They are precisely what I refer to, Traven. Here among the blocks you at last find an image of yourself free of the hazards of time and space. This islandis an ontological Garden of Eden, why seek to expel yourself into a world of quantal flux?

 

TRAVEN: Excuse me (The fly has flown back to the corpse’s face and sits in one of the dried-up orbits, giving the good doctor an expression of quizzical beadiness. Reaching forward, Traven entices it on to his palm. He examines it carefully) Well, yes, these bunkers may be ontological objects, but whether this is the ontological fly is doubtful. It’s true that on this island it’s the only fly, which is the next best thing

 

YASUDA: You can’t accept the plurality of the universe – ask yourself why, Traven. Why should this obsess you? It seems to me that you are hunting for the white leviathan, zero. The beach is a dangerous zone. Avoid it. Have a proper humility, pursue a philosophy of acceptance.

 

TRAVEN: Then may I ask why you came here, Doctor?

 

YASUDA: To feed this fly. ‘What greater love – ?’

 

TRAVEN: (Still puzzling) It doesn’t really solve my problem. The blocks, you see

 

YASUDA: Very well, if you must have it that way

 

TRAVEN: But, Doctor

 

YASUDA: (Peremptorily) Kill that fly!

 

TRAVEN: That’s not an end, or a beginning.

 

(Hopelessly, he kills the fly. Exhausted, he falls asleep beside the corpse.)

 

 

The Terminal Beach

 

Searching for a piece of rope in the refuse dump behind the dunes, Traven found a bale of rusty wire. After unwinding it, he secured a harness around the corpse’s chest and dragged it from the crevice. The lid of a wooden crate made a crude sledge. Traven fastened the corpse to it in a sitting position, and set off along the perimeter of the blocks. Around him the island remained silent. The lines of palms hung in the sunlight, only his own motion varying the shifting ciphers of their criss-crossing trunks. The square turrets of the camera towers jutted from the dunes like forgotten obelisks.

 

An hour later, when Traven reached the awning by his bunker, he untied the wire cord he had fastened around his waist. He took the chair left for him by Dr Osborne and carried it to a point midway between the bunker and the blocks. Then he tied the body of the Japanese to the chair, arranging the hands so that they rested on the wooden arms giving the moribund figure a posture of calm repose.

 

This done to his satisfaction, Traven returned to the bunker and squatted under the awning.

 

As the next days passed into weeks, the dignified figure of the Japanese sat in his chair fifty yards from him, guarding Traven from the blocks. He now had sufficient strength to rouse himself at intervals and forage for food. In the hot sunlight the skin of the Japanese became more and more bleached, and Traven would wake at night and find the sepulchral figure sitting there, arms resting at its sides, in the shadows that crossed the concrete floor. At these moments he would often see his wife and son watching him from the dunes. As time passed they came closer, and he would sometimes find them only a few yards behind him.

 

Patiently Traven waited for them to speak to him, thinking of the great blocks whose entrance was guarded by the seated figure of the dead archangel, as the waves broke on the distant shore and the burning bombers fell through his dreams.

 

 

1964

ballard’s new wave & the terminal beach (part one)

j.g. ballard, the terminal beach


The Terminal Beach by monkeyiron. 

 

The Terminal Beach

 

At night, as he lay asleep on the floor of the ruined bunker, Traven heard the waves breaking along the shore of the lagoon, like the sounds of giant aircraft warming up at the ends of their runways. This memory of the great night raids against the Japanese mainland had filled his first months on the island with images of burning bombers falling through the air around him. Later, with the attacks of ben-ben, the nightmare passed and the waves began to remind him of the deep Atlantic rollers on the beach at Dakar, where he had been born, and of watching from the window in the evenings for his parents to drive home along the corniche road from the airport. Overcome by this long-forgotten memory, he woke uncertainly from the bed of old magazines on which he slept and went out to the dunes that screened the lagoon.

 

Through the cold night air he could see the abandoned Superfortresses lying among the palms beyond the perimeter of the emergency landing field three hundred yards away. Traven walked through the dark sand, already forgetting where the shore lay, although the atoll was little more than half a mile in width. Above him, along the crests of the dunes, the tall palms leaned into the dim air like the symbols of a cryptic alphabet. The landscape of the island was covered by strange ciphers.

 

Giving up the attempt to find the beach, Traven stumbled into a set of tracks left years earlier by a large caterpillar vehicle. The heat released by the weapons tests had fused the sand, and the double line of fossil imprints, uncovered by the evening air, wound its serpentine way among the hollows like the footfalls of an ancient saurian.

 

Too weak to walk any further, Traven sat down between the tracks. Hoping that they might lead him to the beach, he began to excavate the wedge-shaped grooves from a drift into which they disappeared. He returned to the bunker shortly before dawn, and slept through the hot silences of the following noon.

 

 

The Blocks

 

As usual on these enervating afternoons, when not even a breath of on-shore breeze disturbed the dust, Traven sat in the shadow of one of the blocks, lost somewhere within the centre of the maze. His back resting against the rough concrete surface, he gazed with a phlegmatic eye down the surrounding aisles and at the line of doors facing him. Each afternoon he left his cell in the abandoned camera bunker among the dunes and walked down into the blocks. For the first half an hour he restricted himself to the perimeter aisle, now and then trying one of the doors with the rusty key in his pocket – found among the litter of smashed bottles and cans in the isthmus of sand separating the testing ground from the air-strip – and then inevitably, with a sort of drugged stride, he set off into the centre of the blocks, breaking into a run and darting in and out of the corridors, as if trying to flush some invisible opponent from his hiding place. Soon he would be completely lost. Whatever his efforts to return to the perimeter, he always found himself once more in the centre.

 

Eventually he would abandon the task, and sit down in the dust, watching the shadows emerge from their crevices at the foot of the blocks. For some reason he invariably arranged to be trapped when the sun was at zenith – on Eniwetok, the thermonuclear noon.

 

One question in particular intrigued him: ‘What sort of people would inhabit this minimal concrete city?’

 

 

The Synthetic Landscape

 

‘This island is a state of mind,’ Osborne, one of the scientists working in the old submarine pens, was later to remark to Traven. The truth of this became obvious to Traven within two or three weeks of his arrival. Despite the sand and the few anaemic palms, the entire landscape of the island was synthetic, a man-made artefact with all the associations of a vast system of derelict concrete motorways. Since the moratorium on atomic tests, the island had been abandoned by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the wilderness of weapons aisles, towers and blockhouses ruled out any attempt to return it to its natural state. (There were also stronger unconscious motives, Traven recognized: if primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, 20th century man had reversed this process; by this Cartesian yardstick, the island at least existed, in a sense true of few other places.)

 

But apart from a few scientific workers, no one yet felt any wish to visit the former testing ground, and the naval patrol boat anchored in the lagoon had been withdrawn three years before Traven’s arrival. Its ruined appearance, and the associations of the island with the period of the Cold War – what Traven had christened ‘The Pre-Third’ were profoundly depressing, an Auschwitz of the soul whose mausoleums contained the mass graves of the still undead. With the Russo-American détente this nightmarish chapter of history had been gladly forgotten.

 

The Pro- Third

The actual and potential destructiveness of the atomic bomb plays straight into the hands of the Unconscious. The most cursory study of the dream-life and fantasies of the insane shows that ideas of world-destruction are latent in the unconscious mind… Nagasaki destroyed by the magic of science is the nearest man has yet approached to the realization of dreams that even during the safe immobility of sleep are accustomed to develop into nightmares of anxiety.

 

Glover: ‘War, Sadism and Pacifism’

The Pre-Third: the period was characterized in Traven’s mind above all by its moral and psychological inversions, by its sense of the whole of history, and in particular of the immediate future – the two decades, 1945-65 – suspended from the quivering volcano’s lip of World War III. Even the death of his wife and six-year-old son in a motor accident seemed only part of this immense synthesis of the historical and psychic zero, the frantic highways where each morning they met their deaths the advance causeways to the global armageddon.

 

 

Third Beach

 

He had come ashore at midnight, after a hazardous search for an opening in the reef. The small motorboat he had hired from an Australian pearl-diver at Charlotte Island subsided into the shallows, its hull torn by the sharp coral. Exhausted, Traven walked through the darkness among the dunes, where the dim outlines of bunkers and concrete towers loomed between the palms.

 

He woke the next morning into bright sunlight, lying halfway down the slope of a wide concrete beach. This ringed an empty reservoir or target basin some two hundred feet in diameter, part of a system of artificial lakes built down the centre of the atoll. Leaves and dust choked the exit grilles, and a pool of warm water two feet deep lay below him, reflecting a distant line of palms.

 

Traven sat up and took stock of himself. This brief inventory, which merely confirmed his physical identity, was limited to little more than his thin body in its frayed cotton garments. In the context of the surrounding terrain, however, even this collection of tatters seemed to possess a unique vitality. The desolation and emptiness of the island, and the absence of any local fauna, were emphasized by the huge sculptural forms of the target basins set into its surface. Separated from each other by narrow isthmuses, the lakes stretched away along the curve of the atoll. On either side, sometimes shaded by the few palms that had gained a precarious purchase in the cracked cement, were roadways, camera towers and isolated blockhouses, together forming a continuous concrete cap upon the island, a functional, megalithic architecture as grey and minatory (and apparently as ancient, in its projection into, and from, time future) as any of Assyria and Babylon.

 

The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudogeological strata condensed the brief epochs, microseconds in duration, of thermonuclear time. Typically the island inverted the geologist’s maxim, ‘The key to the past lies in the present.’ Here, the key to the present lay in the future. This island was a fossil of time future, its bunkers and blockhouses illustrating the principle that the fossil record of life was one of armour and the exoskeleton.

 

Traven knelt in the warm pool, and splashed his shirt and trousers. The reflection revealed the watery image of gaunt shoulders and bearded face. He had come to the island with no supplies other than a small bar of chocolate, assuming that in some way the island would provide its own sustenance. Perhaps, too, he had identified the need for food with a forward motion in time, and that with his return to the past, or at most into a zone of non-time, this need would be eliminated. The privations of the previous six months, during his journey across the Pacific, had already reduced his always thin body to that of a migrant beggar, held together by little more than the preoccupied gaze in his eye. Yet this emaciation, by stripping away the superfluities of the flesh, revealed an inner sinewy toughness, an economy and directness of movement.

 

For several hours Traven wandered about, inspecting one bunker after another for a convenient place to sleep. He crossed the remains of a small landing field, next to a dump where a dozen B-29s lay across one another like dead reptile birds.

 

 

The Corpses

 

Once he entered a small street of metal shacks, containing a cafeteria, recreation rooms and shower stalls. A wrecked jukebox lay half-buried in the sand behind the cafeteria, its selection of records still in their rack.

 

Further along, flung into a small target lake fifty yards from the shacks, were the bodies of what at first he thought were the former inhabitants of this ghost town – a dozen life-size plastic models. Their half-melted faces, contorted into bleary grimaces, gazed up at him from the jumble of legs and torsoes.

 

On either side of him, muffled by the dunes, came the sounds of waves, the great rollers on the seaward side breaking over the reefs, and on to the beaches within the lagoon. However, he avoided the sea, hesitating before any rise or dune that might take him within its sight. Everywhere the camera towers offered him a convenient aerial view of the confused topography of the island, but he avoided their rusting ladders.

 

Traven soon realized that however random the blockhouses and towers might seem, their common focus dominated the landscape and gave to it a unique perspective. As he noticed when he sat down to rest in the window slit of one of the bunkers, all these observation posts occupied positions on a series of concentric perimeters, moving in tightening arcs towards the inmost sanctuary. This ultimate circle, below ground zero, remained hidden beyond a line of dunes a quarter of a mile to the west.

 

 

The Terminal Bunker

 

After sleeping for a few nights in the open, Traven returned to the concrete beach where he had woken on his first morning on the island, and made his home – if the term could be applied to that damp crumbling hovel – in a camera bunker fifty yards from the target lakes. The dark chamber between the thick canted walls, tomb-like though it might seem, gave him a sense of physical reassurance. Outside, the sand drifted against the sides, half-burying the narrow doorway, as if crystallizing the immense epoch of time that had elapsed since the bunker’s construction. The narrow rectangles of the five camera slits, their shapes and positions determined by the instruments, studded the west wall like runic ideograms. Variations on these ciphers decorated the walls of the other bunkers, the unique signature of the island. In the mornings, if Traven was awake, he would always find the sun divided into its five emblematic beacons.

 

Most of the time the chamber was filled only by a damp gloomy light. In the control tower at the landing field Traven found a collection of discarded magazines, and used these to make a bed. One day, lying in the bunker shortly after the first attack of ben-ben, he pulled out a magazine pressing into his back and found inside it a full-page photograph of a six-year-old girl. This blonde-haired child, with her composed expression and self-immersed eyes, filled him with a thousand painful memories of his son. He pinned the page to the wall and for days gazed at it through his reveries.

 

For the first few weeks Traven made little attempt to leave the bunker, and postponed any further exploration of the island. The symbolic journey through its inner circles set its own times of arrival and departure. He evolved no routine for himself. All sense of time soon vanished, and his life became completely existential, an absolute break separating one moment from the next like two quantal events. Too weak to forage for food, he lived on the old ration packs he found in the wrecked Superfortresses. Without any implement, it took him all day to open the cans. His physical decline continued, but he watched his spindling legs and arms with indifference.

 

By now he had forgotten the existence of the sea and vaguely assumed the atoll to be part of some continuous continental table. A hundred yards to the north and south of the bunker a line of dunes, topped by the palisade of enigmatic palms, screened the lagoon and sea, and the faint muffled drumming of the waves at night had fused with his memories of war and childhood. To the east was the emergency landing strip and the abandoned aircraft. In the afternoon light their shifting rectilinear shadows made them appear to writhe and pivot. In front of the bunker, where he would sit, was the system of target lakes, the shallow basins extending across the atoll.

 

Above him, the five apertures looked out upon this scene like the tutelary symbols of a futuristic myth.

 

 

The Lakes and the Spectres

 

The lakes had been designed to reveal any radiobiological changes in a selected range of fauna, but the specimens had long since bloomed into grotesque parodies of themselves and been destroyed.

 

Sometimes in the evenings, when a sepulchral light lay over the concrete bunkers and causeways, and the basins seemed like ornamental lakes in a city of deserted mausoleums, abandoned even by the dead, he would see the spectres of his wife and son standing on the opposite bank. Their solitary figures appeared to have been watching him for hours. Although they never moved, Traven was sure they were beckoning to him. Roused from his reverie, he would stumble forward across the dark sand to the edge of the lake and wade through the water, shouting soundlessly at the two figures as they moved away hand in hand among the lakes and disappeared across the distant causeways.

 

Shivering with cold, Traven would return to the bunker and lie on the bed of old magazines, waiting for their return. The image of their faces, the pale lantern of his wife’s cheeks, floated on the river of his memory.

 

 

The Blocks (II)

 

It was not until he discovered the blocks that Traven realized he would never leave the island.

 

At this stage, some two months after his arrival, Traven had exhausted his small cache of food, and the symptoms of ben-ben had become more acute. The numbness in his hands and feet, and the gradual loss of strength, continued. Only by an immense effort, and the knowledge that the inner sanctum of the island still lay unexplored, did he manage to leave the palliasse of magazines and make his way from the bunker.

 

As he sat in the drift of sand by the doorway that evening, he noticed a light shining through the palms far into the distance around the atoll. Confusing this with the image of his wife and son, and visualizing them waiting for him at some warm hearth among the dunes, Traven set off towards the light. Within a hundred yards he lost his sense of direction. He blundered about for several hours on the edges of the landing strip, and succeeded only in cutting his foot on a broken coca-cola bottle in the sand.

 

After postponing his search for the night, he set out again in earnest the next morning. As he moved past the towers and blockhouses the heat lay over the island in an unbroken mantle. He had entered a zone devoid of time. Only the narrowing perimeters warned him that he was crossing the inner field of the fire-table.

 

He climbed the ridge which marked the furthest point in his previous exploration of the island. From the plain below it the recording towers rose into the air like obelisks. Traven walked down towards them. On their grey walls were the faint outlines of human forms in stylized poses, the flash-shadows of the target community burnt into the cement. Here and there, where the concrete apron had cracked, a line of palms hung in the motionless air. The target lakes were smaller, filled with the broken bodies of plastic models. Most of them lay in the inoffensive domestic postures into which they had been placed before the tests.

 

Beyond the furthest line of dunes, where the camera towers began to turn and face him, were the tops of what seemed to be a herd of square-backed elephants. They were drawn up in precise ranks in a hollow that formed a shallow corral, the sunlight reflected off their backs.

 

Traven advanced towards them, limping on his cut foot. On either side of him the loosening sand had excavated the dunes, and several of the blockhouses tilted on their sides. This plain of bunkers stretched for some quarter of a mile, the half-submerged hulks, bombed out onto the surface in some earlier test, like the abandoned wombs that had given birth to this herd of megaliths.

 

 

The Blocks (III)

 

To grasp something of the vast number and oppressive size of the blocks, and their impact upon Traven, one must try to visualize sitting in the shade of one of these concrete monsters, or walking about in the centre of this enormous labyrinth that extended across the central table of the island. There were two thousand of them, each a perfect cube 15 feet in height, regularly spaced at ten-yard intervals. They were arranged in a series of tracts, each composed of two hundred blocks, inclined to one another and to the direction of the blast. They had weathered only slightly in the years since they were first built, and their gaunt profiles were like the cutting faces of a gigantic dieplate, devised to stamp out rectilinear volumes of air the size of a house. Three of the sides were smooth and unbroken, but the fourth, facing away from the blast, contained a narrow inspection door.

 

It was this feature of the blocks that Traven found particularly disturbing. Despite the considerable number of doors, by some freak of perspective only those in a single aisle were visible at any point within the maze. As he walked from the perimeter line into the centre of the massif, line upon line of the small metal doors appeared and receded.

 

Approximately twenty of the blocks, those immediately below ground zero, were solid: the walls of the remainder were of varying thicknesses. From the outside they appeared to be of uniform solidity.

 

As he entered the first of the long aisles, Traven felt the sense of fatigue that had dogged him for so many months begin to lift. With their geometric regularity and finish, the blocks seemed to occupy more than their own volumes of space, imposing on him a mood of absolute calm and order. He walked on into the centre of the maze, eager to shut out the rest of the island. After a few random turns to left and right, he found himself alone, the vistas to the sea, lagoon and island closed.

 

Here he sat down with his back to one of the blocks, the quest for his wife and son forgotten. For the first time since his arrival at the island the sense of dissociation set off by its derelict landscape began to recede.

 

One development he did not expect. With dusk, and the need to leave the blocks and find food, he realized that he had lost himself. However he retraced his steps, struck out left or right at an oblique course, oriented himself around the sun and pressed on resolutely north or south, he found himself back again at his starting point. Only when darkness came did he manage to make his escape.

 

Abandoning his former home near the aircraft dump, Traven collected together what canned food he could find in the waist turret and cockpit lockers of the Superfortresses. He pulled them across the atoll on a crude sledge. Fifty yards from the perimeter of the blocks he took over a tilting bunker, and pinned the fading photograph of the blonde-haired child to the wall beside the door. The page was falling to pieces, like a fragmenting mirror of himself. Since the discovery of the blocks he had become a creature of reflexes, kindled from levels above those of his existing nervous system (if the autonomic system was dominated by the past, Traven sensed, the cerebro-spinal reached towards the future). Each evening when he woke he would eat without appetite and then wander among the blocks. Sometimes he took a canteen of water with him and remained there for two or three days on end.

 

 

j.g. ballard’s new wave science fiction

…from the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions:

 

‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’

 

Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’:

 

‘Narcissistic. Manythings preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’

 



 


Inner space

The first begetter of this heretical tradition, or at least most prominent, is often held to be James Ballard, whose account of an uprooted childhood in wartime Singapore, brought to a close by the distant science-fictional flash of a nuclear weapon bursting over Japan, would be filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987 as the movie Empire of the Sun.

 

J. G. Ballard was launched in an unlikely venue: the venerable, dull pages of John Carnell’s British magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy, which against the odds were also responsible for Brian W. Aldiss, John Brunner and several other brilliant autodidact harbingers of the revolution. Strictly, these few slick British innovators were fifties writers, but each came into his – or very, very rarely her – own during the ferment of the sixties’ New Wave. With his achingly dry surrealist wit, clarified prose and devotion to recurrent ‘properties’ (empty swimming pools, damaged astronauts, catastrophic and numinous landscapes), Ballard was from the outset a goad to traditionalists. By that very token, he was a gift to the quirky US anthologist Judith Merril, whose Year’s Best SF series featured his work, together with an increasingly agitated propaganda for new ways of writing something she dubbed ‘speculative fiction’ – new ways that were generally, in the larger literary world, rather old. Alongside unnerving tales by Aldiss, Ballard and Cordwainer Smith, Merril paraded pieces by Borges, Romain Gary, Dos Passos, Lawrence Durrell, plus the usual literate-to-brilliant sf suspects: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Zenna Henderson, Algis Budrys. In 1960, impeccably, she selected Daniel Keyes’s superb ‘Flowers for Algernon’, a gentle emergent superman story with a bittersweet twist; today, it seems scarcely sf at all, more like Norman Mailer’s account of the Apollo Moon landing. By 1965 Merril had Thomas M. Disch’s bleak, absurdist ‘Descending’, the louche poetry of Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ and Ballard’s paradigmatic ‘The Terminal Beach’: ‘In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them . . . Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of cryptic association.’6 As, indeed, did Ballard’s ever stranger body of work. When Carnell’s New Worlds expired of terminal blandness in 1964, a youthful Michael Moorcock tore to its rescue, changing the magazine utterly as its backlog cleared. Now, with Ballard as house patron saint, and under the sign of William Burroughs, the New Wave began to roll relentlessly toward sf’s crusted shores. Donald Wollheim found Norman Spinrad’s gonzo novel Bug Jack Barron, serialized in New Worlds, a ‘depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate parody of what was once a real SF theme’.7 Still, the undeniable detritus carried along with the New Wave was not necessarily welcome even to devoted surfers.8 Half the names on New World’s contents pages are now forgotten – Langdon Jones, Michael Butterworth, Roger Jones – and some were pseudonymous: ‘Joyce Churchill’ hid M. John Harrison, a fine artist who grew disenchanted with sf’s mode (although he released a new sf novel, Light, in 2002). What is striking in retrospect is how enduring, even so, the impact of the major New Wave writers has been, and the longevity of its biggest names: Ballard (although he has largely abandoned sf), Aldiss, Moorcock himself and sojourning Americans during the swinging sixties: brilliant funny, caustic John Sladek (d. 2000), Pamela Zoline, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Norman Spinrad. The work of Robert Silverberg, formerly a prodigious writing machine, deepened markedly in a New Wave direction after 1967, winning him a special Campbell Memorial award in 1973 ‘for excellence in writing’. Still, James Blish, another important writer-critic, was disenchanted by the hype and declared the Wave washed-up by the decade’s close.9

 

Its brief moment is displayed in raucous glory in several anthologies: Merril’s proselytizing England Swings SF (1968; in Britain, The Space-Time Journal), Harlan Ellison’s immensely ambitious fusion of New Wave and American can-do, Dangerous Visions (1967), Spinrad’s The New Tomorrows (1971) and Damon Knight’s important long-running not-quite-New Wave series of original anthologies, Orbit (1966 and later), showcasing such offbeat and consequential talents as R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois. The mood of bewildered antagonism from the old guard is caught perfectly in Isaac Asimov’s bitter remark, cited by Ace Book’s editor Donald Wollheim on the jacket of Merril’s showcase: ‘I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.’ Wollheim had already taken care to distance himself, to comic effect. On the back jacket, in bold red capitals, he shouted:

 

THIS MAY BE THE MOST IMPORTANT SF BOOK OF THE YEAR

 

and underneath, in black and a smaller font:

 

(or it may be the least. You must judge for yourself!)

 

By 1968, however, Wollheim had proved himself an editor of some courage, if little discrimination, publishing amid a constant drizzle of mediocre consumer product several exceptional novels at the margins of the NewWave: Delany’s romantic, flushed The Jewels of Aptor (1962), Babel-17 and Empire Star (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Ursula K. Le Guin’s first Hainish novels (Rocannon’s World, 1964; Planet of Exile, 1966; City of Illusion, 1967) appeared under the dubious Ace imprint. Le Guin’s triumph at the cusp of the seventies as the thoughtful, elegant anthropologist of sf and fantasy, begun with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), was established with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) under a revitalizing Ace Special imprint by New Wave-sympathetic editor Terry Carr and confirmed by The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974).

 

An error easily made when considering these several trajectories is to suppose that one literary movement follows another in a parable of progress, dinosaurs giving way to eager young mammals – or, in an allegory of regression, gains arduously accumulated are lost to the onrush of barbarians. Neither image is valid. Writers, publishers and readers are always somewhat out of step. By the time a ‘fashion’ is visible, built from the latest work available to readers, a year or more has passed since those texts were created and sold. Unless a movement is geographically concentrated – as the London New Wave scene largely was – mutual influence straggles.

 

Moreover, in a marginal mode like sf, read most enthusiastically by the penniless young, genre history is piled up indiscriminately in libraries and second-hand book stores. Near the start of the 1960s, fresh inductees to the sf mythos could read the latest coolly ironic Ballard slap at bourgeois prejudice or Zelazny MA-trained gutter poetry – ‘where the sun is a tarnished penny, the wind is a whip, where two moons play at hot-rod games, and a hell of sand gives you the incendiary itches’10 – then turn at once to a paperback of ‘Doc’ Smith’s tone-deaf Lensmen series from the Golden Age and earlier, meanwhile soaking up scads of Asimov, Heinlein, annual ‘Year’s Best’ gatherings and comic book adventures. We must apply Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary insight: in every era most species are simple life-forms, fitted almost from the outset to a range of environments and tremendously persistent. So the classics of sf, at least until fairly recently, have always remained alive in the humus. Certainly that was so in the 1960s and 1970s, when the backlists of many publishers formed a reliable backstop to their annual income.

 

Nor is the distinction between NewWave and Old as simple as pessimism versus triumphalism. Several sets of coordinates overlap, to some extent by accident. It is true that much of the ‘experimental’ sf of the 1960s took a gloomy cast, while the continuing mainstream of commercial sf was distinctly upbeat, constructing a universe in which technological salvation arrives through virtuous human efforts.Was that distinction necessarily echoed in the contrast between a disruptive textuality seeking to enact its ideas in richly modernist symbol and vocabulary, versus traditional sf’s adherence to a ‘clear windowpane’ theory of writing? It is more likely that stylistic differences derived from the filiations (and education) of its writers.

 

Even if the science of classic sf was often laughable or wholly invented, it did borrow something structurally important from the lab: scientific papers, after all, are meant to rid themselves of any taint of the subjective, uttering their reports in a disembodied, timeless Voice of Reason (even as those findings are acknowledged to be fallible, provisional, awaiting challenge). New Wave writers – and those signing up as established middle-aged veterans, such as Philip José Farmer – took, as their model, narratives drenched in artful subjectivity, even when, as in Ballard’s remote constructs, personality seemed wilfully denied. From the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions: ‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’11 Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’: ‘Narcissistic. Many things preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’12

 

The brilliantly iconoclastic Philip K. Dick was forging a powerful new vision from sf’s generic trash, which he dubbed ‘kipple’. Dick was driven by routine commercial urgencies, but something wonderful happened when his hilariously demented tales ran out of control inside the awful covers of pulp paperbacks. Australian critic Bruce Gillespie has posed the central quandary, not just of Dick’s oeuvre but for sf as a maturing yet weirdly shocking paraliterature: ‘how can a writer of pulpy, even careless, prose and melodramatic situations write books that also retain the power to move the reader, no matter how many times the works are re-read?’ Part of his answer is that Dick repeatedly takes us on an ‘abrupt journey from a false reality to a real reality’ or, in the extreme case, ‘a roller coaster ride down and down, leaving behind ordinary reality and falling into a totally paranoid alternate reality. By the book’s end, there is nothing trustworthy left in the world.’13

 

 

 

Notes

 

6. Ballard, reprinted in Judith Merril, ed. 10th Annual SF (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 259.

 

7. Cited in M. John Harrison, ‘A Literature of Comfort’, in New Worlds Quarterly 1 (London: Sphere Books, 1971), p. 170.

 

8. Colin Greenland’s usefully analytical and admirably waspish study, The Entropy Exhibition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), emphasizes Moorcock’s role.

 

9. Blish (writing as ‘William Atheling, Jr’), ‘Making Waves’, in Atheling, More Issues at Hand (Chicago: Advent, 1970), p. 146.

 

10. ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ [1963], in Merril, ed., 10th Annual SF, pp. 21148.

 

11. ‘The Voices of Time’, 1960, in Ballard, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 11.

 

12. ‘You and Me and the Continuum’, 1966, reprinted in Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) (London: Panther, 1972), p. 106.

 

13. Bruce Gillespie, 2001, interviewed by Frank Bertrand, ‘My Life and Philip K. Dick’: http://www.philipkdick.com.

 

 

—from Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2003

science fiction from sir kingsley amis


Sir Kingsley Amis’ interest in genre fiction spanned most of his writing career—indeed, at the ceremony in which he was knighted, he told the Queen that he only read Dick Francis novels.  Invited to give a series of lectures at Princeton University as part of the 1959 Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, Amis chose science fiction as his subject matter. The lectures were then reworked and published as New Maps of Hell in 1960. Amis considered science fiction a viable means for social commentary of the kind which couldn’t be made in other forms of literature.

Amis also wrote his own speculative fiction, with novels like The Anti-Death League (1966), The Green Man (1971), The Alteration (1976)—described by Philip K. Dick as the best alternative history novel ever written, and Russian Hide-and-Seek (1980), a dystopic portrayal of a future Great Britain which has been conquered by Russia.

The following short story first appeared in The Spectator in 1960, ran in Fantasy & Science Fiction in July 1961, and was later collectd in Possible Tomorrows (1973) and other anthologies.

book cover of 

Possible Tomorrows 

by

Groff Conklin
 

 

 

“Something Strange”

By Kingsley Amis

 

 

Something strange happened every day. It might happen during the morning, while the two men were taking their readings and observations and the two women busy with the domestic routine: the big faces had come during the morning. Or, as with the little faces and the coloured fires, the strange thing would happen in the afternoon, in the middle of Bruno’s maintenance programme and Clovis’s transmission to Base, Lia’s rounds of the garden and Myri’s work on her story. The evening was often undisturbed, the night less often.                               

 

They all understood that ordinary temporal expressions had no meaning for people confined indefinitely, as they were, to a motionless steel sphere hanging in a region of space so empty that the light of the nearest star took some hundreds of years to reach them. The Standing Orders devised by Base, however, recommended that they adopt a twenty-four-hour unit of time, as was the rule on the Earth they had not seen for many months. The arrangement suited them well: their work, recreation and rest seemed to fall naturally into the periods provided. It was only the prospect of year after year of the same routine, stretching further into the future than they could see, that was a source of strain.

 

Bruno commented on this to Clovis after a morning spent repairing a fault in the spectrum analyser they used for investigating and classifying the nearer stars. They were sitting at the main observation port in the lounge, drinking the midday cocktail and waiting for the women to join them.

 

‘I’d say we stood up to it extremely well,’ Clovis said in answer to Bruno. ‘Perhaps too well.’

 

Bruno hunched his fat figure upright. ‘How do you mean?’

 

‘We may be hindering our chances of being relieved.’

 

‘Base has never said a word about our relief.’

 

‘Exactly. With half a million stations to staff, it’ll be a long time before they get round to one like this, where everything runs smoothly. You and I are a perfect team, and you have Lia and I have Myri, and they’re all right together – no real conflict at all. Hence ho reason for a relief.’

 

Myri had heard all this as she laid the table in the alcove. She wondered how Clovis could not know that Bruno wanted to have her instead of Lia, or perhaps as well as Lia. If Clovis did know, and was teasing Bruno, then that would be a silly thing to do, because Bruno was not a pleasant man. With his thick neck and pale fat face he would not be pleasant to be had by, either, quite unlike Clovis, who was no taller but whose straight, hard body and soft skin were always pleasant. He could not think as well as Bruno, but on the other hand many of the things Bruno thought were not pleasant. She poured herself a drink and went over to them.

 

Bruno had said something about its being a pity they could not fake their personnel report by inventing a few quarrels, and Clovis had immediately agreed that that was impossible. She kissed him and sat down at his side. ‘What do you think about the idea of being relieved?’ he asked her.

 

‘I never think about it.’

 

‘Quite right,’ Bruno said, grinning. ‘You’re doing very nicely here. Fairly nicely, anyway.’

 

‘What are you getting at?’ Clovis asked him with a different kind of grin.

 

‘It’s not a very complete life, is it? For any of us. I could do with a change, anyway. A different kind of job, something that isn’t testing and using and repairing apparatus. We do seem to have a lot of repairing to do, don’t we? That analyser breaks down almost every day. And yet -‘

 

His voice tailed off and he looked out of the port, as if to assure himself that all that lay beyond it was the familiar starscape of points and smudges of light. ‘And yet what?’ Clovis asked, irritably this time.

 

‘I was just thinking that we really ought to be thankful for having plenty to do. There’s the routine and the fruits and vegetables to look after, and Myri’s story…. How’s that going, by the way? Won’t you read us some of it? This evening, perhaps?’

 

‘Not until it’s finished, if you don’t mind.’

 

‘Oh, but I do mind. It’s part of our duty to entertain one another. And I’m very interested in it personally.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Because you’re an interesting girl. Bright brown eyes and a healthy glowing skin – how do you manage it after all this time in space? And you’ve more energy than any of us.’

 

Myri said nothing. Bruno was good at making remarks there was nothing to say to.

 

‘What’s it about, this story of yours?’ he pursued. ‘At least you can tell us that.’

 

‘I have told you. It’s about normal life. Life on Earth before there were any space stations, lots of different people doing different things, not this -‘

 

‘That’s normal life, is it, different people doing different things? I can’t wait to hear what the things are. Who’s the hero, Myri? Our dear Clovis?’

 

Myri put her hand on Clovis’s shoulder. ‘No more, please, Bruno. Let’s go back to your point about the routine. I couldn’t understand why you left out the most important part, the part that keeps us busiest of all.’

 

‘Ah, the strange happenings.’ Bruno dipped his head in a characteristic gesture, half laugh, half nervous tremor. ‘And the hours we spend discussing them. Oh yes. How could I have failed to mention all that?’

 

‘If you’ve got any sense you’ll go on not mentioning it,’ Clovis snapped. ‘We’re all fed up with the whole business.’

 

‘You may be, but I’m not. I want to discuss it. So does Myri, don’t you, Myri?’

 

‘I do think perhaps it’s time we made another attempt to find a pattern,’ Myri said. This was a case of Bruno not being pleasant but being right.

 

‘Oh, not again.’ Clovis bounded up and went over to the drinks table. ‘Ah, hallo, Lia,’ he said to the tall, thin, blonde woman who had just entered with a tray of cold dishes. ‘Let me get you a drink. Bruno and Myri are getting philosophical – looking for patterns. What do you think? I’ll tell you what I think. I think we’re doing enough already. I think patterns are Base’s job.’

 

‘We can make it ours, too,’ Bruno said. ‘You agree, Lia?’

 

‘Of course,’ Lia said in the deep voice that seemed to Myri to carry so much more firmness and individuality in its tone than any of its owner’s words or actions.

 

‘Very well. You can stay out of this if you like, Clovis. We start from the fact that what we see and hear need not be illusions, although they may be.’

 

‘At least that they’re illusions that any human being might have, they’re not special to us, as we know from Base’s reports of what happens to other stations.’

 

‘Correct, Myri. In any event, illusions or not, they are being directed at us by an intelligence and for a purpose.’

 

‘We don’t know that,’ Myri objected. ‘They may be natural phenomena, or the by-product of some intelligent activity not directed at us.’

 

‘Correct again, but let us reserve these less probable possibilities until later. Now, as a sample, consider the last week’s strange happenings. I’ll fetch the log so that there can be no dispute.’

 

‘I wish you’d stop it,’ Clovis said when Bruno had gone out to the apparatus room. ‘It’s a waste of time.’

 

‘Time’s the only thing we’re not short of.’

 

‘I’m not short of anything,’ he said, touching her thigh. ‘Come with me for a little while.’

 

‘Later.’

 

‘Lia always goes with Bruno when he asks her.’

 

‘Oh yes, but that’s my choice,’ Lia said. ‘She doesn’t want to now. Wait until she wants to.’

 

‘I don’t like waiting.’

 

‘Waiting can make it better.’

 

‘Here we are,’ Bruno said briskly, returning. ‘Right…. Monday. Within a few seconds the sphere became encased in a thick brownish damp substance that tests revealed to be both impermeable and infinitely thick. No action by the staff suggested itself. After three hours and eleven minutes the substance disappeared. It’s the infinitely thick thing that’s interesting. That must have been an illusion, or something would have happened’ to all the other stations at the same time, not to speak of the stars and planets. A total or partial illusion, then. Agreed?’

 

‘Go on.’

 

‘Tuesday. Metallic object of size comparable to that of the sphere approaching on collision course at 500 kilometres per second. No countermeasures available. Object appeared instantaneously at 35 million kilometres’ distance and disappeared instantaneously at 1500 kilometres’. What about that?’

 

‘We’ve had ones like that before,’ Lia put in. ‘Only this was the longest time it’s taken to approach and the nearest it’s come before disappearing.’

 

‘Incomprehensible or illusion,’ Myri suggested.

 

‘Yes, I think that’s the best we can do at the moment. Wednesday: a very trivial one, not worth discussing. A being apparently constructed entirely of bone approached the main port and made beckoning motions. Whoever’s doing this must be running out of ideas. Thursday. All bodies external to the sphere vanished to all instruments simultaneously, reappearing to all instruments simultaneously two hours later. That’s not a new one either, I seem to remember. Illusion? Good. Friday. Beings resembling terrestrial reptiles covered the sphere, fighting ceaselessly and eating portions of one another. Loud rustling and slithering’ sounds. The sounds at least must have been, an illusion, with no air out there, and I never heard of a reptile that didn’t breathe. The same sort of thing applies to yesterday’s performance. Human screams of pain and extreme astonishment approaching and receding. No visual or other accompaniment.’ He paused and looked round at them. ‘Well? Any uniformities suggest themselves?’

 

‘No,’ Clovis said, helping himself to salad, for they sat now at the lunch table. ‘And I defy any human brain to devise any. The whole thing’s arbitrary.’

 

‘On the contrary, the very next happening – today’s when it comes – might reveal an unmistakable pattern.’

 

‘The one to concentrate on,’ Myri said, ‘is the approaching object. Why did it vanish before striking the sphere?’

 

Bruno stared at her. ‘It had to, if it was an illusion.’

 

‘Not at all. Why couldn’t we have had an illusion of the sphere being struck? And supposing it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

‘Next time there’s an object, perhaps it will strike,’ Lia said.

 

Clovis laughed. ‘That’s a good one. What would happen if it did, I wonder? And it wasn’t an illusion?’

 

They all looked at Bruno for an answer. After a moment or two, he said: ‘I presume the sphere would shatter and we’d all be thrown into space. I simply can’t imagine what that would be like. We should be … Never to see one another again, or anybody or anything else, to be nothing more than a senseless lump floating in space for ever. The chances of -‘

 

‘It would be worth something to be rid of your conversation,’ Clovis said, amiable again now that Bruno was discomfited. ‘Let’s be practical for a change. How long will it take you to run off your analyses this afternoon? There’s a lot of stuff to go out to Base and I shan’t be able to give you a hand.’

 

‘An hour, perhaps, after I’ve run the final tests.’

 

‘Why run tests at all? She was lined up perfectly when we finished this morning.’

 

‘Fortunately.’

 

‘Fortunately indeed. One more variable and we might have found it impossible.’

 

‘Yes,’ Bruno said abstractedly. Then he got to his feet so abruptly that the other three started. ‘But we didn’t, did we? There wasn’t one more variable, was there? It didn’t quite happen, you see, the thing we couldn’t handle.’

 

Nobody spoke.

 

‘Excuse me, I must be by myself.’

 

‘If Bruno keeps this up,’ Clovis said to the two women, ‘Base will send up a relief sooner than we think.’

 

Myri tried to drive the thought of Bruno’s strange behaviour out of her. head when, half an hour later, she sat down to work on her story. The expression on his face as he left the table had been one she could not name. Excitement? Dislike? Surprise? That was the nearest – a kind of persistent surprise. Well, he was certain, being Bruno, to set about explaining it at dinner. She wished he were more pleasant, because he did think well.

 

Finally expelling the image of Bruno’s face, she began re-reading the page of manuscript she had been working on when the screams had interrupted her the previous afternoon. It was part of a difficult scene, one in which a woman met by chance a man who had been haVing her ten years earlier, with the complication that she was at the time in the company of the man who was currently having her. The scene was an eating alcove in a large city.

 

‘Go away,’ Volsci said, ‘or I’ll hit you.’

 

Norbu smiled in a not-pleasant way. What good would that do? Irmy likes me better than she likes you. You are more pleasant, no doubt, but she likes me better. She remembers me having her ten years ago more clearly than she remembers you having her last night. I am good at thinking, which is better than any amount of being pleasant.’

 

‘She’s having her meal with me,’ Volsci said, pointing to the cold food and drinks in front of them. ‘Aren’t you, Irmy?’

 

‘Yes, Irmy,’ Norbu said. ‘You must choose. If you can’t let both of us have you, you must say which of us you like better.’

 

Irmy looked from one man to the other. There was so much difference between them that she could hardly begin to choose: The one more pleasant, the other better at thinking, the one slim, the other plump. She decided being pleasant was better. It was more important and more significant – better in every way that made a real difference. She said: ‘I’ll have Volsci.’

 

Norbu looked surprised and sorry. ‘I think you’re wrong.’

 

You might as well go now,’ Volsci said. ‘Ila will be waiting.’

 

Yes,’ Norbu said. He looked extremely sorry now.

 

Irmy felt quite sorry too. ‘Good-bye, Norbu,’ she said.

 

Myri smiled to herself. It was good, even better than she had remembered – there was no point in being modest inside one’s own mind. She must be a real writer in spite of Bruno’s scoffing, or how could she have invented these characters, who were so utterly unlike anybody she knew, and then put them into a situation that was so completely outside her experience? The only thing she was not sure about was whether she might not have overplayed the part about feeling or dwelt on it at too great length. Perhaps extremely sorry was a little heavy; she replaced it by sorrier than before. Excellent: now there was just the right touch of restraint in the middle of all the feeling. She decided she could finish off the scene in a few lines.

 

‘Probably see you at some cocktail hour,’ Volsci said, she wrote, then looked up with a frown as the buzzer sounded at her door. She crossed her tiny wedge-shaped room – its rear wall was part of the outer wall of the sphere, but it had no port – threw the lock and found Bruno on the threshold. He was breathing fast, as if he had been hurrying or lifting a heavy weight, and she saw with distaste that there were drops of sweat on his thick skin. He pushed past her and sat down on her bed, his mouth open.

 

‘What is it?’ she asked, displeased. The afternoon was a private time unless some other arrangement were made at lunch.

 

‘I don’t know what it is. I think I must be ill.’

 

‘Ill? But you can’t be. Only people on Earth get ill. Nobody on a station is ever ill: Base told us that. Illness is caused by -‘

 

‘I don’t think I believe some of the things that Base says.’

 

‘But who can we believe if we don’t believe Base?’

 

Bruno evidently did not hear her question. He said: ‘I had to come to you – Lia’s no good for this. Please let me stay with you, I’ve got so much to say.’

 

‘It’s no use, Bruno. Clovis is the one who has me. I thought you understood that I didn’t -‘

 

‘That’s not what I mean,’ he said impatiently. ‘Where I need you is in thinking. Though that’s connected with the other, the having. I don’t expect you to see that. I’ve only just begun to see it myself.’                                                 

 

Myri could make nothing of this last part. ‘Thinking? Thinking about what?’

 

He bit his lip and shut his eyes for a moment. ‘Listen to this,’ he said. ‘It was the analyser that set my mind going. Almost every other day it breaks down. And the computer, the counters, the repellers, the scanners and the rest of them – they’re always breaking down too, and so are their power supplies. But not the purifier or the fluid-reconstitutor or the fruit and vegetable growers or the heaters or the main power source. Why not?’                                                             

 

‘Well, they’re less complicated. How can a fruit grower go wrong? A chemical tank and a water tank is all there is to it. You ask Lia about that.’

 

‘All right. Try answering this, then. The strange happenings. If they’re illusions, why are they always outside the sphere? Why are there never any inside?’

 

‘Perhaps there are,’ Myri said.

 

‘Don’t. I don’t want that. I shouldn’t like that. I want everything in here to be real. Are you real? I must believe you are.’

[The story concludes in the post immediately below].

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.