A dream of wessex, p.18
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       A Dream of Wessex, p.18

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  Harkman felt something akin to a jolt of electricity pass through his mind, like a short-circuit in the synapses, and his head jerked back involuntarily; reality blurred.

  He tried to be calm, tried to understand.

  According to the newspaper, a hundred and fifty years ago - a hundred and fifty-two, to be precise - a man called David Harkman had joined this mind-projection experiment. The chosen year was 2135. (How could they imagine it? On what did they base their information?)

  Julia, or a girl with her name and appearance, had also joined the project.

  And yet he, the real David Harkman, lived here in the year 2137. Julia lived here.

  He had been born in 2094 (he was 43, like his alter ego would be!) ... he had been born in 2094, had been educated at Bracknell State School, had studied at the London Collegiate, had graduated in Social History, had married ... this was what he knew!

  The year, the world, the people ... they were all around him. He was of this world, this real, uncomfortable and dangerous world.

  Was this the sort of world these twentieth-century academics could visualize?

  Harkman shook his head, disbelieving. No one could grapple with the innumerable subtleties of an entire social order.

  (1985: before the destruction of the British union, during the last years of the monarchy, before the collectivization of industry and agriculture, before the absorption into the Soviet bloc. No one who was alive then could have foreseen this society!)

  Extrapolation, in the social sense, meant the opposite of history. It implied the ability to draw inferences about the future from observations of the present. Harkman did not doubt the ability of these academics to speculate intelligently, but he knew as a certainty that any speculation about his world would be wrong. This history of the last century and a half, with all its complexities, was known to him almost as thoroughly as he knew the story of his own life.

  History was the critical order that the present imposed on the past; it could not be created forwards!

  This sudden urge to dispute the principles of the theory was his intellect’s way of evading the true emotional shock.

  Who was this David Harkman?

  He stared with renewed amazement at the photograph in the cutting, then reached into the back pocket of his trousers and found his Commission identity-card. He laid it next to the photograph, still disbelieving.

  The newspaper picture looked stiff and unnatural, as if it had been taken in a cold studio, and he seemed older than he looked in the identity-photograph. His face was fuller now, his hair was longer and he had greater poise.

  Nevertheless, the two photographs were indisputably of the same man.

  And he had only to look at the ancient photograph of the girl called Julia Stretton to know that it was her.

  Confronted with the impossible, Harkman found that he could not cope. His first impulse was to stand up and walk away from the desk, but he had gone no further than the nearest rack of old folders before he returned. He stumbled as he sat down, nearly fell off his chair.

  His hands were shaking, and he could feel his shirt clinging damply to his back.

  For a few minutes he sat quite still, holding the edge of the desk in each hand.

  At last he looked again at the text of the newspaper cutting, and reread the quoted words of Dr Williams: ‘... our minds, which will seem to experience the projected world, will in fact stay within the program…‘

  For a moment Harkman felt that in these words lay the clue: there had been a mistake, something had gone wrong. All that apparent sensationalism in the other newspapers was, after all, right: he had travelled in time!

  It seemed to be the only solution to the dilemma, and irrational and incomprehensible as it was it would explain...

  The notion took hold for a few seconds, then slackened its grip, fell away.

  It could not be so: he had no memory of the twentieth century, nor of any time before his own life. Forty-three years, perhaps thirty-eight of them remembered with any clarity. No more. An ordinary life.

  He looked again at Williams’s words: ‘... our minds will seem to experience ...’

  It was possible, just marginally possible, that this was the central statement.

  In effect, everything he saw, everything about him, what he ate, what he read, what he remembered ... was a mental illusion.

  Again, he kicked back his chair and walked in torment from the desk and along the nearest aisle.

  He paced agitatedly to and fro.

  All this was reality. He could touch it, smell it. He breathed the musty air of the vault, sweated in the unventilated room, kicked up clouds of ancient dust: this was the world of external reality, and it was necessarily so. As he strode past the seemingly endless rows of files and books, each of which contained its own fragments of remembered past, he concentrated on what he himself conceived as reality.

  Was there an inner reality of the mind which was more plausible than that of external sensations? Did the fact that he could touch something mean that it was as a consequence real? Could it not also be that the mind itself was able to create, to the last detail, every sensual experience? That he dreamed of this dust, that he hallucinated this heat?

  He halted in his fretful pacing, closed his eyes. He willed the vault to vanish ... let it be gone!

  He waited, but the dust he had kicked up was irritating his nose, and he spluttered a great and messy sneeze ... and the vault was still there.

  Wiping his eyes and nose, Harkman walked back to the desk.

  There was something else in the cutting, something that had left a barb that snagged at his memory.

  He scanned the faded newsprint once again, but couldn’t see it. Then he noticed the date. It was printed at the top: 4th August 1985.

  There was something incontestable about a date, an impartiality, a known and labelled event shared by all.

  The newspaper had described the initiation of the project as taking place ‘today’ ... presumably the same date. In which case the projected future would have begun on 4th August 2135.

  Where had he been on that day? What had he been doing?

  He knew the general answer at once: for the last few years he had been in London, working at the Bureau. That would seem to be rejection enough of any but a coincidental link with this twentieth-century experiment, because his roots extended beyond or before the incident date. But he was still not satisfied.

  Why was August 2135 a significant month to him?

  Then he had it: that was the month he had applied to the Bureau for transfer to Dorchester. He remembered because his birthday was 7th August, and he had filed the application with a feeling of resolution and changed direction, a present to himself. It had felt then like the fulfilment of a long-felt need, but he knew that the decision had been a relatively sudden one. He had become obsessed with the idea three days before, when he had had the realization that until he was able to live and work in Wessex he would never be content.

  Three days before! That would be 4th August!

  His incomprehensible urge to go to Maiden Castle, feebly rationalized, had started on the very day the project began.

  The significance of it was awful, but for the life of him Harkman couldn’t see why. His memories before that date were his hold on reality; so long as they extended before then he knew that his identity was safe.

  The memories were there: education, career, marriage, career....

  Talking to Julia a few days ago he had had the same static memories. The events stood out like check-marks on a list.

  They had happened, and they had not happened. In precisely the same way that Julia had seemed for a time to be an illusion, so Harkman realized that his life until 4th August 2135 had been remembered into existence.

  And the newspaper photographs lay on the desk before him, and they told him who he was and where he had come from.

  An hour and a half later the door to the vault was opened from the other side, a
nd Cro arrived to let him out.

  Harkman barely noticed. He picked up the cutting and slipped it into his pocket, and followed the man to street level. As Cro went on up the stairs, Harkman walked out into the street. The buildings of the town seemed insubstantial, shifting, shadowy.

  He walked to the sea-front. While he had been inside the vault the wind and rain had increased, gusting in from the heaths behind the town. The smoke from the oil-refinery poured over the town, dark and depressing and greasy. There were very few people about and the trees along the front were dulled and dirty.

  The tide was going out, and for a moment Harkman had an hallucinatory image of some bottomless drain far out at sea, into which the water was emptying, drawing back from the shore and leaving the bay sodden and bare, the muddy remains of the twentieth century scattered like shipwrecks across the land.


  After introducing him to everyone present, and outlining the nature of the project, Paul Mason took Mander to see the Ridpath projection equipment. Mander, still bemused by the speed with which not only had he been accepted by the others, but also with which he himself had adapted to the project, followed the young director down a side-tunnel into a long, low-ceilinged hall, lit dimly by two electric bulbs.

  ‘We call this the mortuary, Don,’ Mason said, and turned on- more lights to illuminate the equipment.

  Mander winced mentally at the first-name familiarity; more than a quarter of a century in public service had made him unused to anything more personal than initials.

  Spotlights were grouped in clusters at both ends of the long room, and as they came on Mander looked without too great an interest at what appeared to be a row of large filing-cabinets set against one wall. Mason, and some of the others, were interested in the mechanical process by which the futurological projection would be achieved, but for Mander it was the psychological implications that were fascinating. His years in the Regional Service had left his early training behind, and all that he retained was an instinctive understanding of human mental processes - which, in his moments of greatest self-awareness, he knew he used best in interdepartmental politicking - and a rudimentary and probably out-dated vocabulary of psychologists’ jargon.

  He had joined the Regional Service in the naive belief that trained psychologists had a useful role to play in the sometimes delicate administration of State affairs; that, at least, had been the policy of the Regional Office in Westminster when he had taken the appointment, but successive changes of Party leadership - both in England and in Russia - and subtle reshadings of ideological colouring had progressively eroded any useful function he might once have had. Now, twenty-seven years later, routine promotions had provided him with a stable income and a position of authority, and the rather ambitious twenty-seven year old industrial psychologist had developed into a reliable fifty-four year old administrator.

  Paul Mason went to the nearest of the drawers and pulled it open, pressing one hand against the body of the machine for leverage. After initial resistance, the mechanism slid open smoothly enough, as if the roller-bearings of the drawer had stayed free over the years of disuse.

  ‘It’s inoperative at the moment,’ Mason said. ‘You can try it if you like.’

  ‘You mean I should climb on?’

  ‘Well, we normally refer to it as climbing in.’ Mason smiled at his own pedantry, and Mander felt again the instinctive liking he had had for the young man from the moment they met. The popularity Mason enjoyed was total; it was as if everyone involved in the project had become captivated by the young man’s good looks and personality. ‘Nothing can happen to you until the power is switched on,’ Mason went on, and to demonstrate he laid his hand across the bright metal points of the neural contacts.

  Mander said: ‘If I were to climb in, what would happen to me?’

  ‘Nothing at the moment. You don’t suffer from claustrophobia do you, Don?’

  ‘Not at all.’

  Mander shook his head at once, anxious to make it clear that not even a minor neurosis existed to prevent him from joining the team. In the short time he had been at the Castle he had developed a strong wish to be accepted.

  Until that man - what was his name, Nathan Williams? - had called on him at his office, Mander had had no notion that there was anything at all going on at the Castle. Now some inner voice urged him to join the others, become as one with them.

  ‘You see,’ Paul Mason was saying, ‘the inside of each projection unit is cramped, and although the person inside will be unconscious, some people might find the idea disturbing.’

  ‘Let me try it,’ Mander said, sensing a trace of doubt in Mason’s voice. He was anxious to prove his worth in the eyes of the project director.

  There was also the matter of his age; during the introductions someone had pointedly asked him about this, and although the reactions had been civil he had been left with the impression that some might think him too old.

  Willingness to show interest, keenness to participate, these were the qualities he was hoping to communicate.

  Mason helped him to lie down on the drawer, and showed him how to rest his shoulders in the supports. Mander felt the neural contacts pressing against him, blunted by the fabric of his clothes.

  ‘It will be uncomfortable,’ Mason said, ‘but don’t struggle if you get an attack of claustrophobia. I’ll pull you out again after a few seconds. Now, are you ready?’


  ‘There’s no air circulating inside. That’s because the fans are off. And it will be dark.’

  Mason put his weight against the drawer, and Mander felt himself sliding. He passed into the darkness of the interior, and moments later the drawer halted against spring-loaded clamps. He raised his head instinctively, to try to look around, but at once his forehead struck something smooth and cold and hard directly above him. He felt with his hands, moving them out from his body, but they hit the metal sides of the drawer and he realized that with only a few millimetres leeway he was all but confined. It was cold and airless inside the machine. He had not lied about the claustrophobia, but when he had been inside for several seconds it occurred to him that he had only Mason’s word to trust, and that if he chose to leave him here he would be trapped.

  To his relief, before he was put to further test, he felt the drawer move, and grey light shone in around the end of the drawer by his feet. He looked to each side of him and saw a wire-mesh grid, some metal tubes extending the length of the tiny cubicle, grey paintwork slightly tarnished.

  Looking up he saw, fleetingly, a reflection of his own face ... but then the drawer was pulled right out and he was staring up at Paul Mason. He felt foolish lying there, like a body on a slab awaiting dissection, and he remembered the wry nickname given to this place.

  ‘Well? Do you feel up to it?’

  Mason helped him down from the drawer, and as his feet touched the ground a slight dizziness came over him. He concealed it by turning round, banging a hand expressively against the cool metal. ‘It’s an odd experience.’

  ‘You’re with us then?’

  ‘Of course.’

  His dizziness had been caused by something quite other than the containment in the dark. There had been that glimpsed reflection of his own face ... an instant of self-recognition, a face in a circular mirror.

  Mason slid the drawer back into place, and the line of grey- painted cabinets became uniform again. There was a cool surgical efficiency to this machine, lying unused beneath the Castle for a century and a half; a legacy from a richer age.

  They walked slowly down the row of cabinets, Mason occasionally reaching out to brush his fingers lightly against the metal handles of the drawers.

  ‘How many are there in all?’ Mander said.

  ‘Thirty-nine. This gives us an effective limit to the number of people involved.’

  ‘Do you have a full complement yet?’

  ‘Thirty-six so far. Thirty-eight, including you and me.’ Mander was
on the point of remarking on the obvious, that there was still one more person to find, when he detected the subtle emphasis on the thirty-six confirmed participants. He was still not quite accepted.

  He brooded on this as they reached the end of the long line of cabinets, and turned back.

  ‘Paul ... are you not concerned that I work for the Commission? Someone in the conference room said - ’

  ‘It makes no difference. I’m for you.’

  ‘Your decision alone?’

  ‘No, there was a vote. If you wish to take part in this, you may. Do you have any reservations?’

  ‘Not at all.’

  ‘Then what were you thinking?’ Mason said.

  Mander looked guardedly at the other man, but his gaze was met with a frankness that disarmed him.

  ‘The dissident nature of this project,’ he said. ‘I know Party policy about research projects as well as anyone. I have only to go back to Dorchester and telegraph to Westminster a list of the names of all the people I’ve met today, and within a couple of hours you’ll all be under arrest.’

  ‘But you wouldn’t do that, would you, Don?’

  Said by anyone else there would have been an undertone of threat in the words, but because it was Mason saying them it became a straightforward question. It was one to which Mander had a straightforward answer.

  ‘No, I wouldn’t. But I wondered if you were aware of the possibility.’

  ‘It was discussed.’

  ‘And ...?’

  ‘I’ve told you. You have been accepted, without reservation.’ They left the mortuary, and Paul Mason switched off all the lights but for the two embedded in the concrete ceiling. They walked back towards the conference room.

  Mander was thinking: I am accepted, as I have accepted them.

  Now that he had made a break with his life at the Commission it felt an absolutely right thing to have done. He recognized the people here. Even the strangers, the people he was told had come from other parts of the country, behaved in a friendly, familiar way towards him, as if he was already a colleague. Then there were the others: the people he had often seen around Dorchester, whose names he did not know but whose faces were known to him. The girl on the stall, for instance; he had spoken to her for the first time and learned her name: Julia Stretton. Inexplicably, she seemed to be one of those most in favour of his inclusion in the project, and while some of the others had been questioning him about his career at the Commission, she had sometimes offered a spontaneous defence on his behalf.

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