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Authors: J. G. Ballard

Tags: #sf

The Crystal World (7 page)

BOOK: The Crystal World
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"I'm sure it is. What do you use it for? Diamond smuggling?"
Aragon turned his head, casting a sharp eye at Sanders. Despite the latter's reserved manner, Aragon seemed already to have made his own judgment of the doctor's character. He shrugged sadly. "So I hoped, Doctor, but too late now."
"Why do you say that?"
Aragon looked up at the dark forest draining all light from the air. "You'll see, Doctor. We'll soon be there."

 

"When were you last at Mont Royal, Captain?" Sanders asked. He glanced back at Louise. She leaned forward to catch Aragon 's replies, holding her hair against her cheek.
"Not for five weeks. The police took my old boat."
"Do you know what's going on up there? Have they found a new mine?"
Aragon gave a laugh at this, and then steered the boat at a large white bird sitting on a log in their path. With a cry it took off straight over their heads, its huge wings working like ungainly oars. "You could say that, Doctor. But not in the way you mean." He added before Sanders could question him further: "I really saw nothing. I was on the river, it was during the night."
"You saw the dead man in the harbor this morning?"
Aragon paused for half a minute before replying. At last he said: " El Dorado, the man of gold and jewels, in an armor of diamonds. There's an end many would wish for, Doctor."
"Perhaps. He was a friend of Mlle. Peret."
"Of Mlle.-?" With a grimace, Aragon sat forward over the helm.

 

Shortly after one thirty, when they were almost halfway to Mont Royal, they stopped by a derelict jetty that jutted out into the river from an abandoned plantation. Sitting on the soft beams over the water, they ate their lunch of ham and rolls followed by cafe royal. Nothing moved across the river or along the banks, and to Sanders it seemed that the entire area had been deserted.
Perhaps because of this, any conversation between them had lapsed. Aragon sat by himself, staring out at the water that swept past. The marked slope of his forehead, and his lean face with its pointed cheekbones, had given him a sharp piratical look along the waterfront at Port Matarre, but here, surrounded on all sides by the oppressive jungle, he seemed less sure of himself, more like some trigger-nerved forest guide. Why he had chosen to take Sanders and Louise to Mont Royal remained obscure, but Sanders guessed that he was drawn back to this focal area by motives as uncertain as his own.
Louise had also withdrawn into herself. As she smoked her cigarette after the meal she avoided Sanders's eyes. Deciding to leave her alone for the time being, Sanders walked away along the pier, picking his way across the broken boards until he reached the bank. The forest had re-entered the plantation, and the giant trees hung silently in lines, one dark cliff behind another.
In the distance he could see the ruined plantation house, creepers entwined through the rafters of the outbuildings. Ferns overgrew the garden of the house, running up to the doors and sprouting through the planks of the porch. Avoiding this mournful wreck, Sanders strolled around the perimeter of the garden, following the faded stones of a pathway. He passed the wire screen of a tennis court, the mesh covered by creepers and moss, and then reached the drained basin of an ornamental fountain.
Sanders sat down on the balustrade, and took out his cigarettes. He was looking across at the plantation house a few minutes later when he sat forward with a start. Watching him from an upstairs window of the house was a tall pale-skinned woman with a white mantilla covering her head and shoulders, the dark creepers clustering at the window around her.
Sanders threw away his cigarette and ran forward through the ferns. He reached the porch and kicked back the dusty frame of the door, then made his way toward the wide staircase. Here and there his shoes sank through the balsa-like boards, but the marble steps were still firm. The house had been stripped of its furniture and he crossed the landing upstairs to the bedroom in which he had seen the woman.
"Louise-!"
With a laugh she turned to face him, the puffy remains of an old lace curtain falling from one hand to the floor. Shaking her hair lightly, she smiled at Sanders.
"Did I frighten you? -I'm sorry."
"Louise-that was a damn silly thing to do-" With an effort Sanders controlled himself, his moment of recognition fading. "How the devil did you get up here?"
Louise sauntered around the room, looking at the patches left behind the pictures that had been removed, as if visiting some spectral gallery. "I walked, of course." She turned to face him, her eyes sharpening. "What's the matter-did I remind you of someone?"
Sanders went over to her. "Perhaps you did. Louise, it's difficult enough, without any practical jokes."
"It wasn't meant as a joke." She took his arm, her ironic smile gone. "Edward, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"
"Never mind." Sanders held her face to his shoulder, recovering himself in the physical contact with Louise. "For God's sake, Louise. All this will be over once we reach Mont Royal -before I had no choice."
"Of course-" She drew him away from the window. " Aragon -he can see us here."
The lace curtain lay on the floor at their feet, the mantilla Sanders had seen from the drained fountain in the garden. As Louise began to kneel down on it, holding his hands, he shook his head, then kicked it away into the corner.

 

Later, when they returned to the motor-boat, Aragon met them halfway down the pier. "We should leave, Doctor," he said, "the boat is exposed here-sometimes they patrol the river."
"Of course. How many soldiers are there in the Mont Royal area?" Sanders asked.
"Four or five hundred. Perhaps more."
"A battalion? That's a lot of men, Captain." He offered Aragon a cigarette from his case as Louise walked on ahead. "That incident in the native harbor last night-did you see it?"
"No, I heard this morning-those market boats are always catching fire."
"Perhaps. There was an attack on a man I know-a European called Ventress." He looked up at Aragon. "There was a large motor-cruiser with a cannon on the deck-you may have seen it on the river?"
Aragon 's face gave nothing away. He shrugged vaguely. "It could belong to one of the mining companies. I haven't met this Ventress." Before Sanders could move on he added: "Remember, Doctor, there are many interests in Mont Royal that wish to stop people from going into the forest-or leaving it."
"I can see that. By the way, that drowned man in the harbor this morning-when you saw him, was he lying on a raft, by any chance?"
Aragon inhaled slowly on the cigarette, watching Sanders with some respect. "That's a good guess, Doctor."
"And as for this armor of light, was he covered with the crystals from head to foot?"
Aragon gave him a grimace of a smile, revealing a gold eye-tooth. He tapped it with his forefinger. "'Covered'-is that the right word? My tooth is the whole gold, Doctor."
"I take the point." Sanders gazed down at the brown water sweeping past the polished timbers of the jetty. Louise waved to him from her place in the boat, but he was too preoccupied to reply. "You see, Captain, I'm wondering whether this man, Matthieu he was called, was dead in the absolute sense when you saw him. If, say, in the choppy open water of the harbor he had been knocked from the raft, but still held on in some way with one hand-that would explain a lot. It might have very important consequences. You see what I mean?"
Aragon smoked his cigarette, watching the crocodiles that lay in the shallows below the opposite bank. Then he threw the half-smoked cigarette into the water. "I think we should set off for Mont Royal now. The army here is not very intelligent."
"They have other things to think about, but you may well be right. Mile. Peret thinks there is a physicist on the way. If so, he should be able to prevent any more tragic accidents."
Just before they started off Aragon turned to Dr. Sanders and said: "I was wondering, Doctor, why you were so eager to go to Mont Royal."
The remark seemed by way of apology for earlier suspicions, but Sanders found himself laughing defensively. With a shrug he said: "Two of my closest friends are in the affected zone, as well as Louise's American colleague. Naturally we're worried about them. The automatic temptation of the army will be to seal off the entire area and see what happens. They were loading barbed wire and fencing in the barracks at Port Matarre yesterday. For anyone trapped within the cordon it could be like being frozen solid inside a glacier."
5 The crystallized forest
Five miles from Mont Royal the river narrowed to little more than a hundred yards in width. Aragon reduced the speed of their craft to a few knots, steering between the islands of rubbish that drifted by, and avoiding the creepers that hung far out over the water from the high jungle walls on either side. Sitting forward, Dr. Sanders searched the forest, but the great trees were still dark and motionless.
They emerged into a more open stretch, where part of the undergrowth along the right-hand bank had been cut back to provide a small clearing. As Dr. Sanders pointed to a collection of derelict outbuildings, there was a tremendous blare of noise from the forest canopy above them, as if a huge engine had been mounted in the top-most branches, and a moment later a helicopter soared past above the trees.
It disappeared from view, its noise reverberating off the foliage. The few birds around them flickered away into the darkness of the forest, and the idling crocodiles submerged into the bark-stained water. As the helicopter hovered into view again a quarter of a mile ahead of them, Aragon cut the throttle and began to turn the craft toward the bank, but Sanders shook his head.
"We might as well carry on, Captain. We can't make it on foot through the forest. The farther we can go upriver the better."
As they continued down the center of the channel the helicopter continued to circle overhead, sometimes swinging up to a height of eight or nine hundred feet, as if to take a better look at the winding river, at other times soaring low over the water fifty yards in front of them, the wheels almost touching the surface. Then, abruptly, it zoomed away and carried out a wide circuit of the forest.
Rounding the next bend, where the river widened into a small harbor, they found that a pontoon barrage stretched across the channel from one bank to the next. On the right, along the wharves, were the warehouses bearing the names of the mining companies. Two landing craft and several military launches were tied up, and native soldiers moved about unloading equipment and drums of fuel. In the clearing beyond, a substantial military camp had been set up. The lines of tents ran off between the trees, partly hidden by the gray festoons of moss. Large piles of metal fencing lay about, and a squad of men were painting a number of black signs with luminous paint.
Halfway across the pontoon barrage a French sergeant with an electric megaphone called to them, pointing to the wharves. "A droite! A droite!" A group of soldiers waited by the jetty, leaning on their rifles.
Aragon hesitated, turning the boat in a slow spiral. "What now, Doctor?"
Sanders shrugged. "We'll have to go in. There's no point in trying to cut and run for it. If I'm going to find the Clairs, and Louise is to get her story, we'll have to do it on the army's terms."
They coasted in toward the wharf between the two landing craft, and Aragon threw the lines up to the waiting soldiers. As they climbed up on to the wooden deck the sergeant with the megaphone walked down the barrage.
"You made good time, Doctor. The helicopter only just caught up with you." He pointed between the warehouses to a small landing field by the camp. With a roar of noise, throwing up a tremendous fountain of dust, the helicopter was coming in to land.
"You knew we were coming? I thought the telephone line was down."
"Correct. But we have a radio, you know, Doctor." The sergeant smiled amiably. His relaxed good humor, uncharacteristic of the military in its dealings with civilinns, suggested to Sanders that perhaps the events in the forest near by for once had made these soldiers only too glad to see their fellow men, whether in uniform or out.
The sergeant greeted Louise and Aragon, consulting a slip of paper. "Mile. Peret? Monsieur Aragon? Would you come this way? Captain Radek would like a word with you, Doctor."
"Certainly. Tell me, Sergeant, if you have a radio how is it that the police at Port Matarre have no idea what's going on?"
"What _is_ going on, Doctor? That's a question many people are trying to solve at this moment. As for the police at Port Matarre, we tell them as little as we think good for them. We're not eager to spread rumors, you know."
They set off toward a large metal hut that formed the battalion's headquarters. Dr. Sanders looked back at the river. Along the barrage across the channel two young soldiers walked to and fro with large butterfly nets in their hands, fishing methodically at the water that ran through the wire mesh hanging from the pontoons. More amphibious craft were moored against the wharf on the upstream side of the barrage, their crews sitting at the ready. The two landing craft sat low in the water, loaded almost to capacity with huge crates and bales, a random selection of household effects-refrigerators, airconditioners and the like-and units of machinery and office cabinets.
As they reached the edge of the landing strip Dr. Sanders saw that the main runway consisted of a section of the Port Matarre- Mont Royal highway. Half a mile away the road had been sealed off by lines of fiftygallon drums painted with black-and-white stripes. Beyond this point the forest sloped slowly upwards, giving way to the blue hills of the mining area. Lower down, by the river, the white roof-tops of the town shone in the sunlight above the jungle.
Two other aircraft, high-wing military monoplanes, were parked off the runway. The rotors of the helicopter had stopped and drooped downwards over the heads of a group of four or five civilians stepping unsteadily out of the cabin. As he reached the door of the hut Dr. Sanders recognized the black-garbed figure walking across the dusty ground.
BOOK: The Crystal World
13.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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