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Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #sf

The Crystal World (3 page)

BOOK: The Crystal World
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"Doctor, you understand there is no boat, the service has been suspended. It will be cheaper for you if I charge you by the weekly tariff. But as you wish."
"All right." Dr. Sanders signed the register. As a precaution he gave as his address the university at Libreville. He had lectured several times at the medical school, and mail would be forwarded from there to Fort Isabelle. The deception might be useful at a later date.
"What about the railway?" he asked the clerk. "Or the bus service? There must be some transport to Mont Royal."
"There's no railway." The clerk snapped his fingers. "Diamonds, you know, Doctor, not difficult to transport. Perhaps you can make inquiries about the bus."
Dr. Sanders studied the man's thin, olive-skinned face. His liquid eyes roved around the doctor's suitcases and then out through the arcade to the forest canopy overtopping the roofs across the street. He seemed to be waiting for something to appear.
Dr. Sanders put away his pen. "Tell me, why is it so dark in Port Matarre? It's not overcast, and yet one can hardly see the sun."
The clerk shook his head. When he spoke, he seemed to be talking more to himself than to Sanders. "It's not dark, Doctor, it's the leaves. They're taking minerals from the ground, it makes everything look dark all the time."
This notion seemed to contain an element of truth. From the windows of his room overlooking the arcades, Dr. Sanders gazed out at the forest. The huge trees surrounded the port as if trying to crowd it back into the river. In the street the shadows were of the usual density, following at the heels of the few people who ventured out through the arcades, but the forest was without contrast of any kind. The leaves exposed to the sunlight were as dark as those below, almost as if the entire forest were draining all light from the sun in the same way that the river had emptied the town of its life and movement. The blackness of the canopy, the olive hues of the flat leaves, gave the forest a somber heaviness emphasized by the motes of light that flickered within its aerial galleries.
Preoccupied, Dr. Sanders almost failed to hear the knock on his door. He opened it to find Ventress standing in the corridor. His white-suited figure and sharp skull seemed to personify the bonelike colors of the deserted town.
"What is it?"
Ventress stepped forward. He held an envelope in his hand. "I found this in the cabin after you had gone, Doctor. I thought I should return it to you."
Dr. Sanders took the envelope, feeling in his pocket for Suzanne's letter. In his hurry he had evidently let it slip to the floor. He pushed the letter into the envelope, beckoning Ventress into the room. "Thank you, I didn't realize..."
Ventress glanced around the room. Since disembarking from the steamer he had changed noticeably. The laconic and offhand manner had given way to a marked restlessness. His compact figure, held together as if all the muscles were opposing each other, contained an intense nervous energy that Sanders found almost uncomfortable. His eyes roved about, searching the shabby alcoves for some hidden perspective.
"May I take something in return, Doctor?" Before Sanders could answer, Ventress had stepped over to the larger of the two suitcases on the slatted stand beside the wardrobe. With a brief nod, he released the catches and raised the lid. From beneath the folded dressing gown, he withdrew his automatic pistol wrapped in its shoulder holster harness. Before Dr. Sanders could protest, he had slipped it away inside his jacket.
"What the devil-?" Dr. Sanders crossed the room. He pulled the lid of the suitcase into place. "You've got a bloody nerve...!"
Ventress gave him a weak smile, then started to walk past Sanders to the door. Annoyed, Sanders caught his arm and pulled the man almost off his feet. Ventress's face shut like a trap. With an agile swerve he feinted sideways on his small feet and wrenched himself away from Sanders.
As Sanders came forward again, Ventress seemed to debate whether to use his pistol and then raised a hand to pacify the doctor. "Sanders, I apologize, of course. But there was no other way. Try to understand me, it was those idiots on board I was taking advantage of-"
"Rubbish! You were taking advantage of _me!_"
Ventress shook his head vigorously. "You're wrong, Sanders. I assure you, I have no prejudice against your particular calling... far from it. Believe me, Doctor, I understand you, your whole-"
"All right!" Sanders pulled back the door. "Now get out!"
Ventress, however, stood his ground. He seemed to be trying to bring himself to say something, as if aware that he had exposed some private weakness of Sanders's and was doing his best to repair it. Then he gave a small shrug and left the room, bored by the doctor's irritation.
After he had gone Dr. Sanders sat down in the armchair with his back to the window. Ventress's ruse had annoyed him, not merely because of the assumption that the customs men would avoid contaminating themselves by touching his baggage. The smuggling of the pistol unknown to himself seemed to symbolize, in sexual terms as well, all his hidden motives for coming to Port Matarre in quest of Suzanne Clair. That Ventress, with his skeletal face and white suit, should have exposed his awareness of these still concealed motives was all the more irritating.
He ate an early lunch in the hotel restaurant. The tables were almost deserted, and the only other guest was the dark-haired young Frenchwoman who sat by herself, writing into a dictation pad beside her salad. Now and then she glanced at Sanders, who was struck once again by her marked resemblance to Suzanne Clair. Perhaps because of her raven hair, or the unusual light in Port Matarre, her smooth face seemed paler in tone than Sanders remembered Suzanne's, as if the two women were cousins separated by some darker blood on Suzanne's side. As he looked at the girl he could almost see Suzanne beside her, reflected within some half-screened mirror in his mind.
When she left the table she nodded to Sanders, picked up her pad and went out into the street, pausing in the lobby on the way.
After lunch, Sanders began his search for some form of transport to take him to Mont Royal. As the desk clerk has stated, there was no railway to the mining town. A bus service ran twice daily, but for some reason had been discontinued. At the depot, near the barracks on the eastern outskirts of the town, Dr. Sanders found the booking office closed. The timetables peeled off the notice boards in the sunlight, and a few natives slept on the benches in the shade. After ten minutes a ticket collector wandered in with a broom, sucking on a piece of sugar cane. He shrugged when Dr. Sanders asked him when the service would be resumed.
"Perhaps tomorrow, or the next day, sir. Who can tell? The bridge is down."
"Where's this?"
"Where? Myanga, ten kilometers from Mont Royal. Steep ravine, the bridge just slid away. Risky there, sir."
Dr. Sanders pointed to the compound of the military barracks, where half a dozen trucks were being loaded with supplies. Bales of barbed wire were stacked on the ground to one side, next to some sections of metal fencing. "They seem busy enough. How are they going to get through?"
"They, sir, are repairing the bridge."
"With barbed wire?" Dr. Sanders shook his head, tired of this evasiveness. "What exactly is going on up there? At Mont Royal?"
The ticket collecter sucked his sugar cane. "Going on?" he repeated dreamily. "Nothing's going on, sir."
Dr. Sanders strolled away, pausing by the barrack gates until the sentry gestured him on. Across the road the dark tiers of the forest canopy rose high into the air like an immense wave ready to fall across the empty town. Well over a hundred feet above his head, the great boughs hung like half-furled wings, the trunks leaning toward him. Dr. Sanders was tempted to cross the road and approach the forest, but there was something minatory and oppressive about its silence. He turned and made his way back to the hotel.
An hour later, after several fruitless inquiries, he called at the police prefecture near the harbor. The activity by the steamer had subsided, and most of the passengers were aboard. The speedboat was being swung out on a davit over the jetty.
Coming straight to the point, Dr. Sanders showed Suzanne's letter to the African charge captain. "Perhaps you could explain, Captain, why it was necessary to delete their address? These are close friends of mine and I wish to spend a fortnight's holiday with them. Now I find that there's no means of getting to Mont Royal, and an atmosphere of mystery surrounds the whole place."
The captain nodded, pondering over the letter on his desk. Occasionally he prodded the tissue with a steel ruler, as if he were examining the pressed petals of some rare and perhaps poisonous blossom. "I understand, Doctor. It's difficult for you."
"But why is the censorship in force at all?" Dr. Sanders pressed. "Is there some sort of political disturbance? Has a rebel group captured the mines? I'm naturally concerned for the well-being of Dr. and Madame Clair."
The captain shook his head. "I assure you, Doctor, there is no political trouble at Mont Royal -in fact, there is hardly anyone there at all. Most of the workers have left."
"Why? I've noticed that here. The town's empty."
The captain stood up and went over to the window. He pointed to the dark fringe of the jungle crowding over the rooftops of the native quarter beyond the warehouses. "The forest, Doctor, do you see? It frightens them, it's so black and heavy all the time." He went back to his desk and fiddled with the ruler. Sanders waited for him to make up his mind what to say. "In confidence, I can explain that there is a new kind of plant disease beginning in the forest near Mont Royal- "
"What do you mean?" Sanders cut in. "A virus disease, like tobacco mosaic?"
"Yes, that's it-" The captain nodded encouragingly, although he seemed to have little idea of what he was talking about. However, he kept a quiet eye on the rim of jungle in the window. "Anyway, it's not poisonous, but we have to take precautions. Some experts will look at the forest, send samples to Libreville -you understand, it takes time-" He handed back Suzanne's letter. "I will find out your friends' address. You come back in another day. All right?"
"Will I be able to go to Mont Royal?" Dr. Sanders asked. "The army hasn't closed off the area?"
"No-" the captain insisted. "You are quite free." He gestured with his hands, enclosing little parcels of air. "Just small areas, you see. It's not _dangerous_, your friends are all right. We don't want people rushing there, trying to make trouble."
At the door, Dr. Sanders asked: "How long has this been going on?" He pointed to the window. "The forest is very dark here."
The captain scratched his forehead. For a moment he looked tired and withdrawn. "About one year. Longer, perhaps. At first no one bothered..."
2 The jeweled orchid
On the steps outside, Dr. Sanders saw the young Frenchwoman who had taken lunch at the hotel. She carried a businesslike handbag and wore a pair of dark glasses that failed to disguise the inquisitive look in her intelligent face. She watched Dr. Sanders as he walked past her.
"Any news?"
Sanders stopped. "What about?"
"The emergency."
"Is that what they call it? You're luckier than I. I haven't heard that term."
The young woman brushed this aside. She eyed Sanders up and down, as if unsure who he might be. "You can call it what you like," she said matter-offactly. "If it isn't an emergency now, it soon will be." She came over to Sanders, lowering her voice. "Do you want to go to Mont Royal, Doctor?"
Sanders began to walk off, the young woman following him. "Are you a police spy?" he asked. "Or running an underground bus service? Or both, perhaps?"
"Neither. Listen." She stopped him when they had crossed the road to the first of the curio shops that ran down to the jetties between the warehouses. She took off her sunglasses and gave him a frank smile. "I'm sorry to pry-the clerk at the hotel told me who you were-but I'm stuck here myself and I thought you might know something. I've been in Port Matarre since the last boat."
"I can believe it." Dr. Sanders strolled on, eyeing the stands with their cheap ivory ornaments, small statuettes in an imitation Oceanic style the native carvers had somehow picked up at many removes from European magazines. "Port Matarre has more than a passing resemblance to purgatory."
"Tell me, are you on official business?" The young woman touched his arm. She had replaced her sunglasses, as if this gave her some sort of advantage in her interrogation. "You gave your address as the university at Libreville. In the hotel register."
"The medical school," Dr. Sanders said. "To put your curiosity at rest, if that's possible, I'm simply here on holiday. What about you?"
In a quieter voice, after a confirmatory glance at Sanders, she said: "I'm a journalist. I work free-lance for a bureau that sells material to the French illustrated weeklies."
"A journalist?" Dr. Sanders looked at her with more interest. During their brief conversation he had avoided looking at her, put off partly by her sunglasses, which seemed to emphasize the strange contrasts of light and dark in Port Matarre, and partly by her echoes of Suzanne Clair. "I didn't realize... I'm sorry I was offhand, but I've been getting nowhere today. Can you tell me about this emergency-I'll accept your term for it."
The young woman pointed to a bar at the next corner. "We'll go there, it's quieter-I've been making a nuisance of myself all week with the police."
As they settled themselves in a booth by the window, she introduced herself as Louise Peret. Although prepared to accept Dr. Sanders as a fellow conspirator, she still wore her sunglasses, screening off some inner sanctum of herself. Her masked face and cool manner seemed to Sanders as typical in their way of Port Matarre as Ventress's strange garb, but already he sensed from the slight movement of her hands across the table toward him that she was searching for some point of contact.
BOOK: The Crystal World
11.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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