Authors: John Brunner
In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:
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In writing this novel I have made extensive use of the
Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology
(the English version of
Larousse Mythologie Generale)
and am in consequence indebted to its compilers, editors and translators.
From the hag and hungry goblin
That into rags would rend ye
And the spirit that stands by the naked man
In the Book of Moons defend ye!
That of your five sound senses
You never be forsaken
Nor travel from yourselves with Tom
Abroad to beg your bacon.
Nor never sing, “Any food, any feeding,
Money, drink or clothing?
Come dame or maid, be not afraid—
Poor Tom will injure nothing.”
—Tom o’ Bedlam’s Song
Assailed by the presence of the gashed terrible reproving moon in the hysterical silence of the night Dennis Malone lay on his bed and writhed without waking, his spasms wasted because they could not break his shackles of exhaustion.
Set up on a monstrous peak towering infinite light-years above the bottomless abyss, he was the target in a cockshy where the balls came thick as hailstones, moon-huge, each gashed with that accusing mouth eloquent of disaster, and sometimes the mouth opened in the face of an avenging Jehovah, uttering curses upon him and all his seed.
Interstellar distances are God’s quarantine regulations.
At last anguish thrust down from the violent activity
of his cortex and made his whole spine a long shaft of pain. He jerked into awareness like a frog spiked with a hot poker. His eyelids snapped up and stayed pressed by muscular spasm at the limits of his orbits. To exclude the light of the moon he had fastened the door tightly and the shutter over the unglazed window. Some light, though, crept through the ventilation slots under the eaves, and his mad-hungry gaze secured glimpses of form, the outline of familiar furniture. But they were distant from him across a pool of total dark, the floor, and he might as well have been drifting in space where men are robbed of perspective by vacancy. He stifled a moan. Relying on the contact of his skin and his mattress, he gained sufficient control to swing his legs to the floor and tried not to realise that the smooth planks on which he placed his soles had been peeled from the layered bulk of a thing more like a vegetable carbuncle than an honest upright tree. It was wood … of a sort.
The shudders of horror which he had carried with him from nightmare subsided, little by little. His breathing eased, and the pounding of his heart. It was no good trying to switch on a light—to conserve their irreplaceable generators, power was withdrawn at midnight. He would have to make the voyage across the room to undo the shutter catch. Whereupon he would see—
He trembled again, but this time, he noted with relief, it was a shiver and not a shudder. He had lain down naked as usual, but since he retired the night had called a cool breeze off the sea. By touch he located the suit he had worn the day before and wriggled into it, then walked his toes like insects into the shelter of the shoes he would rather have gone without but which against the risk of as yet undiscovered parasites or infection were enjoined on everyone. If there were a creature like a chigger, for example, which could bore up through even the toughest skin of a human heel …
Am I sick?
He knew the answer to the question was affirmative even as he put it to himself, but he made no move towards the self-diagnosing medikit with which he and everyone else in the village was equipped. He had a contagious disease, certainly, which was why he slept alone, and it consisted in aloneness, and it could not be cured by company. He must sweat it out like a fever for which there was no specific, and he might for all his struggles fail to conquer.
Deliberately, like a suicide, he took the four long steps to the window, fumbled with the shutter catch, and drew back the frame of boards that blocked out the night. Beyond, the sky was black and deep as cat’s fur, speckled with stars like drops of fine rain. He felt his head rise and turn, seemingly in response to a programme, not a decision, and saw the damaged moon sliding towards the horizon.
It was just a chunk of barren rock, like Earth’s moon, with a straight slash across the lower part of its oblate disc.
Vaguely surprised that his subconscious had not instantly re-created the nightmare image and made it come hurtling at him like a hunting missile, he waited until he was sure it was stable. Then, because even now he dared not return to sleep where fresh horrors might ambush him, he made for the door and went out into the wrongly scented night.
Everyone else seemed to be enjoying peaceful slumber. He felt a stab of resentment, but knew the reason: their exhaustion, though as great as his, could be tempered by satisfaction. And they had good cause for it. They had a village to live in, with a street-or at least a winding track, surfaced with compacted broken shells, heat-fused, then roughened to a texture right for walking on a rainy day. From the inland peak on which the
rested like the egg of a roc, down to the natural harbour where small boats were secured among jutting boulders, it made two curves and formed
an S. Along it were disposed buildings that provided evidence—slim, but precious—of humanity. Nothing else here, that they had discovered, had conceived the straight line or the level plane surface.
Under dogmatically right-angled eaves, enclosed by shingles and planks they had cut themselves, his companions slept in peace. They had what they wanted. Whereas he, Dennis Malone …
His feet were carrying him in the usual direction, towards the spot where he had experienced that mad fit of lust and risked the loss of his life, the destruction of a billion hopes, on the gratification of a passing impulse. He went back to it again and again, as though some eventual visit would furnish him with explanations for it. The deed had been so foreign to his normal self-control that it was impossible to categorise in memory except by stuffing it into a grab-bag of other unique associations whose only common link was “being on another planet.”
Would it help to have Sigrid here, who at first had been rational while he was frenzied, so that he came close to raping her, then finally gave way as though swept along with him in a torrent of psychic need that made the anticipation of death negligible?
But she could not be here. She was on Earth. And if she could miraculously be transported to stand before him, it would be a meaningless event.
What armour do I wear against reason? We calculate, we analyse, we deduce, and think we have planned for all eventualities. But what impulses lurk below the surface of the mind, which never could be allowed for in advance because it took the impact of an alien planet to trigger them?
He turned aside from the track which he had been automatically following, and clambered up a slope carpeted with the juicy, moss-like growths which filled the ecological niche occupied on Earth by grasses. At the top of the rise he sat down on a convenient woodplant. To grow beyond a certain minimum size, to sustain its respiration which helped to keep the air oxygen-high,
this and all related species had adopted the same solution to the problem of surface versus volume as the human brain; it was convoluted like a walnut. By day it looked rather repulsive. But the outer, bark-like, layers were soft and made a good resting-place. Only the deeper tissues were hard and woody.
From here he had a clear view of the small natural harbour, the roofs of the village, the looming globe of the ship. To distract himself from that other globe, the moon, he began to employ the hard facts which one day would become the material of a historical record for the schoolchildren of the city which must succeed their new-built village.
If we survive …
But he blocked that out with verbalisations, treating the air as though it were a rather dull primary pupil in a distant generation.
“When they deciphered the reports of the first robot probe to return from Sigma Draconis—one of a fleet of hundreds which had been launched through the curious not-here-ness of qua-space towards nearby stars that astronomers held to be promising—the scientists of Earth were inclined to suspect malfunction in the recorders that had stored the information, even though Sigma Draconis was rather like Sol. After the disappointments of Tau Ceti, Alpha Centauri, Epsilon Eridani and other systems whose primaries had proved to mother mere barren balls of rock and gas, it was incredible to learn of a planet close in size to Earth, warmer so that its icecaps were seasonal and its oceans deeper, yet equally endowed with taller crustal deformities so that its surface was webbed with archipelagoes, the summits of submarine mountains, and possessing moreover a large, nearly Luna-sized, satellite whose tides had encouraged life to emerge from the sea and colonise the land.