The Drowned World, p.1J. G. Ballard
Science Fiction Masterworks Volume 17
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Chapter 1 - On the Beach at the Ritz
Chapter 2 - The Coming of the Iguanas
Chapter 3 - Towards a New Psychology
Chapter 4 - The Causeways of the Sun
Chapter 5 - Descent into Deep Time
Chapter 6 - The Drowned Ark
Chapter 7 - Carnival of Alligators
Chapter 8 - The Man with the White Smile
Chapter 9 - The Pool of Thanatos
Chapter 10 - Surprise Party
Chapter 11 - "The Ballad of Mistah Bones"
Chapter 12 - The Feast of Skulls
Chapter 13 - Too Soon, Too Late
Chapter 14 - Grand Slam
Chapter 15 - The Paradises of the Sun
About the Author
ON THE BEACH AT THE RITZ
Soon it would be too hot. Looking out from the hotel balcony shortly after eight o'clock, Kerans watched the sun rise behind the dense groves of giant gymnosperms crowding over the roofs of the abandoned department stores four hundred yards away on the east side of the lagoon. Even through the massive olive-green fronds the relentless power of the sun was plainly tangible. The blunt refracted rays drummed against his bare chest and shoulders, drawing out the first sweat, and he put on a pair of heavy sunglasses to protect his eyes. The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball, its reflection turning the dead leaden surface of the lagoon into a brilliant copper shield. By noon, less than four hours away, the water would seem to burn.
Usually Kerans woke at five, and reached the biological testing station in time to do at least four or five hours' work before the heat became intolerable, but this morning he found himself reluctant to leave the cool, air-curtained haven of the hotel suite. He had spent a couple of hours over breakfast alone, and then completed a sixpage entry in his diary, deliberately delaying his departure until Colonel Riggs passed the hotel in his patrol boat, knowing that by then it would be too late to go to the station. The Colonel was always eager for an hour of conversation, particularly when sustained by a few rounds of aperitif, and it would be at least eleven-thirty before he left, his thoughts solely upon lunch at the base.
For some reason, however, Riggs had been delayed. Presumably he was carrying out a longer sweep than usual of the adjacent lagoons, or perhaps was waiting for Kerans to arrive at the testing station. For a moment Kerans wondered whether to try to reach him on the radio transmitter installed by the signals unit in the lounge, but the console was buried under a pile of books, its battery flat. The corporal in charge of the radio station at the base had protested to Riggs when his cheerful morning round-up of old pop songs and local news—an attack by two iguanas on the helicopter the previous night, the latest temperature and humidity readings—had been cut off abruptly half-way through the first instalment. But Riggs recognised Kerans' unconscious attempt to sever his links with the base—the careful haphazardness of the pyramid of books hiding the set contrasted too obviously with Kerans' otherwise meticulous neatness—and tolerantly accepted his need to isolate himself.
Leaning on the balcony rail, the slack water ten storeys below reflecting his thin angular shoulders and gaunt profile, Kerans watched one of the countless thermal storms rip through a dump of huge horse-tails lining the creek which led out of the lagoon. Trapped by the surrounding buildings and the inversion layers a hundred feet above the water, pockets of air would heat rapidly, then explode upwards like escaping balloons, leaving behind them a sudden detonating vacuum. For a few seconds the steam clouds hanging over the creek dispersed, and a vicious miniature tornado lashed across the 60-feet-high plants, toppling them like matchsticks. Then, as abruptly, the storm vanished and the great columnar trunks subsided among one another in the water like sluggish alligators.
Rationalising, Kerans told himself that he had been wise to remain in the hotel—the storms were erupting more and more frequently as the temperature rose—but he knew that his real motive was his acceptance that little now remained to be done. The biological mapping had become a pointless game, the new flora following exactly the emergent lines anticipated twenty years earlier, and he was sure that no-one at Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland bothered to file his reports, let alone read them.
In fact, old Dr. Bodkin, Kerans' assistant at the station, had slyly prepared what purported to be an eyewitness description by one of Colonel Riggs' sergeants of a large sail-backed lizard with a gigantic dorsal fin which had been seen cruising across one of the lagoons, in all respects indistinguishable from the Pelycosaur, an early Pennsylvanian reptile. Had the report been taken at its face value—heralding the momentous return of the age of the great reptiles—an army of ecologists would have descended on them immediately, backed by a tactical atomic weapons unit and orders to proceed south at a steady twenty knots. But apart from the routine acknowledgement signal nothing had been heard. Perhaps the specialists at Camp Byrd were too tired even to laugh.
At the end of the month Colonel Riggs and his small holding unit would complete their survey of the city (had it once been Berlin, Paris or London?, Kerans asked himself) and set off northward, towing the testing station with them. Kerans found it difficult to believe that he would ever leave the penthouse suite where he had lived for the past six months. The Ritz's reputation, he gladly agreed, was richly deserved—the bathroom, for example, with its black marble basins and gold-plated taps and mirrors, was like the side-chapel of a cathedral. In a curious way it satisfied him to think that he was the last guest who would stay at the hotel, identifying what he realised was a concluding phase of his own life—the northward odyssey through the drowned cities in the south, soon to end with their return to Camp Byrd and its bracing disciplines—and this farewell sunset of the hotel's long splendid history.
He had commandeered the Ritz the day after their arriv
The suite had originally been designed for a Milanese financier, and was lavishly furnished and engineered. The heat curtains were still perfectly sealed, although the first six storeys of the hotel were below water level and the load walls were beginning to crack, and the 250-amp air-conditioning unit had worked without a halt. Although it had been unoccupied for ten years little dust had collected over the mantelpieces and gilt end-tables, and the triptych of photo graphic portraits on the crocodile-skin desk—financier, financier and sleek well-fed family, financier and even sleeker fifty-storey office block—revealed scarcely a blemish. Luckily for Kerans his predecessor had left in a hurry, and the cupboards and wardrobes were packed with treasure, ivory-handled squash rackets and handprinted dressing gowns, the cocktail bar stocked with an ample supply of what were now vintage whiskeys and brandies.
A giant Anopheles mosquito, the size of a dragon-fly, spat through the air past his face, then dived down towards the floating jetty where Kerans' catamaran was moored. The sun was still hidden behind the vegetation on the eastern side of the lagoon, but the mounting heat was bringing the huge vicious insects out of their lairs all over the moss-covered surface of the hotel. Kerans was reluctant to leave the balcony and retreat behind the wiremesh enclosure. In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the sombre green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders from the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-faced buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusion momentarily broken when a giant water spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.
In the distance, somewhere beyond the drowned bulk of a large Gothic building half a mile to the south, a diesel engine coughed and surged. Kerans left the balcony, closing the wire door behind him, and went into the bathroom to shave. Water had long ceased to flow through the taps, but Kerans maintained a reservoir in the plunge bath, carefully purified in a home-made still on the roof and piped in through the window.
Although he was only forty, Kerans' beard had been turned white by the radio-fluorine in the water, but his bleached crew-cut hair and deep amber tan made him appear at least ten years younger. A chronic lack of appetite, and the new malarias, had shrunk the dry leathery skin under his cheekbones, emphasising the ascetic cast of his face. As he shaved he examined his features critically, feeling the narrowing planes with his fingers, kneading the altered musculature which was slowly transforming its contours and revealing a personality that had remained latent during his previous adult life. Despite his introspective manner, he now seemed more relaxed and equable than he could remember, his cool blue eyes surveying himself with ironic detachment. The slightly self-conscious absorption in his own world, with its private rituals and observances, had passed. If he kept himself aloof from Riggs and his men this was simply a matter of convenience rather than of misanthropy.
On the way out he picked a monographed cream silk shirt from the stack left in the wardrobe by the financier, and slipped into a pair of neatly pressed slacks with a Zurich label. Sealing the double doors behind him—the suite was effectively a glass box inside the outer brick walls—he made his way down the staircase.
He reached the landing stage as Colonel Riggs' cutter, a converted landing craft, pulled in against the catamaran. Riggs stood in the bows, a trim dapper figure, one booted foot up on the ramp, surveying the winding creeks and hanging jungles like an old-time African explorer.
"Good morning, Robert," he greeted Kerans, jumping down on to the swaying platform of fifty-gallon drums lashed inside a wooden frame. "Glad you're still here. I've got a job on my hands you can help me with. Can you take the day off from the station?"
Kerans helped him on to the concrete balcony that had once jutted from a seventh-floor suite. "Of course, Colonel. As a matter of fact, I have already."
Technically Riggs had overall authority for the testing station and Kerans should have asked his permission, but the relationship between the two men was without ceremony. They had worked together for over three years, as the testing station and its military escort moved slowly northward through the European lagoons, and Riggs was content to let Kerans and Bodkin get on with their work in their own fashion, sufficiently busy himself with the jobs of mapping the shifting keys and harbours and evacuating the last inhabitants. In the latter task he often needed Kerans' help, for most of the people still living on in the sinking cities were either psychopaths or suffering from malnutrition and radiation sickness.
In addition to running the testing station, Kerans served as the unit's medical officer. Many of the people they came across required immediate hospitalisation before being flown out in the helicopter to one of the large tank-landing craft ferrying refugees up to Camp Byrd. Injured military personnel marooned on an office block in a deserted swamp, dying recluses unable to separate their own identities from the cities where they had spent their lives, disheartened freebooters who had stayed behind to dive for loot—all these Riggs good-humouredly but firmly helped back to safety, Kerans ready at his elbow to administer an analgesic or tranquilliser. Despite his brisk military front, Kerans found the Colonel intelligent and sympathetic, and with a concealed reserve of droll humour. Sometimes he wondered whether to test this by telling the Colonel about Bodkin's Pelycosaur, but on the whole decided against it.
The sergeant concerned in the hoax, a dour conscientious Scotsman called Macready, had climbed up onto the wire cage that enclosed the deck of the cutter and was carefully sweeping away the heavy fronds and vines strewn across it. None of the three other men tried to help him; under their heavy tans their faces looked pinched and drawn, and they sat inertly in a row against a bulkhead. The continuous heat and the massive daily doses of antibiotics drained all energy from them.
As the sun rose over the lagoon, driving clouds of steam into the great golden pall, Kerans felt the terrible stench of the water-line, the sweet compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcases. Huge flies spun by, bouncing off the wire cage of the cutter, and giant bats raced across the heating water towards their eyries in the ruined buildings. Beautiful and serene from his balcony a few minutes earlier, Kerans realised that the lagoon was nothing more than a garbage-filled swamp.
"Let's go up onto the deck," he suggested to Riggs, lowering his voice so that the others would not hear. "I'll buy you a drink."
"Good man. I'm glad to see you've really caught on to the grand manner." Riggs shouted at Macready: "Sergeant, I'm going up to see if I can get the Doctor's distillation unit to work." He winked at Kerans as Macready acknowledged this with a sceptical nod, but the subterfuge was harmless. Most of the men carried hip-flasks, and once they secured the sergeant's grudging approval they would bring them out and settle down placidly until the Colonel returned.
Kerans climbed over the window-sill into the bedroom overlooking the jetty. 'What's your problem, Colonel?"
"It's not my problem. If anything, in fact, it's yours."
They trudged up the staircase, Riggs slapping with his baton at the vines entwined around the rail. "Haven't you got the elevator working yet? I always thought this place was over-rated." However, be smiled appreciatively when they stepped into the clear ivorycool air of the
Kerans shook his head, pressing a tab in the wall and waiting as the cocktail bar disgorged itself from a fake bookcase. "Try the Hilton. The service is better."
The reply was jocular, but much as he liked Riggs he preferred to see as little of him as possible. At present they were separated by the intervening lagoons, and the constant clatter of the galley and armoury at the base were safely muffled by the jungle. Although he had known each of the twenty men in the unit for at least a couple of years, with the exception of Riggs and Sergeant Macready, and a few terse grunts and questions in the sickbay, he had spoken to none of them for six months. Even his contacts with Bodkin he kept to a minimum. By mutual consent the two biologists had dispensed with the usual pleasantries and small-talk that had sustained them for the first two years during their sessions of cataloguing and slide preparation at the laboratory.
This growing isolation and self-containment, exhibited by the other members of the unit and from which only the buoyant Riggs seemed immune, reminded Kerans of the slackening metabolism and biological withdrawal of all animal forms about to undergo a major metamorphosis. Sometimes he wondered what zone of transit he himself was entering, sure that his own withdrawal was symptomatic not of a dormant schizophrenia, but 0f a careful preparation for a radically new environment, with its own internal landscape and logic, where old categories of thought would merely be an encumbrance.
The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes