Acceptance, p.1
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       Acceptance, p.1

           Jeff VanderMeer
 
Acceptance


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  For Ann

  CONTENTS

  Title Page

  Copyright Notice

  Dedication

  000X: The Director, Twelfth Expedition

  Part I: Range Light

  0001: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0002: Ghost Bird

  0003: The Director

  0004: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0005: Control

  0006: The Director

  0007: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0008: Ghost Bird

  0009: The Director

  0010: Control

  Part II: Fixed Light

  01: The Brightness

  02: The Moaning Creature

  03: The Island

  04: The Owl

  05: The Seeker & Surveillance Bandits

  06: The Passage of Time, and Pain

  Part III: Occulting Light

  0011: Ghost Bird

  0012: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0013: Control

  0014: The Director

  0015: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0016: Ghost Bird

  0017: The Director

  0018: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0019: Control

  0020: The Director

  0021: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0022: Ghost Bird

  0023: The Director

  0024: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0025: Control

  0026: The Director

  0027: The Lighthouse Keeper

  0028: Ghost Bird

  000X: The Director

  Acknowledgments

  Also by Jeff VanderMeer

  A Note About the Author

  Praise for the Southern Reach Trilogy

  Copyright

  000X: THE DIRECTOR, TWELFTH EXPEDITION

  Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries. An ordinary day in Area X, an extraordinary day—the day of your death—and there you are, propped up against a mound of sand, half sheltered by a crumbling wall. The warm sun against your face, and the dizzying view above of the lighthouse looming down through its own shadow. The sky has an intensity that admits to nothing beyond its blue prison. There’s sticky sand glittering across a gash in your forehead; there’s a tangy glottal something in your mouth, dripping out.

  You feel numb and you feel broken, but there’s a strange relief mixed in with the regret: to come such a long way, to come to a halt here, without knowing how it will turn out, and yet … to rest. To come to rest. Finally. All of your plans back at the Southern Reach, the agonizing and constant fear of failure or worse, the price of that … all of it leaking out into the sand beside you in gritty red pearls.

  The landscape surges toward you, curling over from behind to peer at you; it flares in places, or swirls or reduces itself to a pinprick, before coming back into focus. Your hearing isn’t what it once was, either—has weakened along with your balance. And yet there comes this impossible thing: a magician’s trick of a voice rising out of the landscape and the suggestion of eyes upon you. The whisper is familiar: Is your house in order? But you think whoever is asking might be a stranger, and you ignore it, don’t like what might be knocking at the door.

  The throbbing of your shoulder from the encounter in the tower is much worse. The wound betrayed you, made you leap out into that blazing blue expanse even though you hadn’t wanted to. Some communication, some trigger between the wound and the flame that came dancing across the reeds betrayed your sovereignty. Your house has rarely been in such disarray, and yet you know that no matter what leaves you in a few minutes something else will remain behind. Disappearing into the sky, the earth, the water, is no guarantee of death here.

  A shadow joins the shadow of the lighthouse.

  Soon after, there comes the crunch of boots, and, disoriented, you shout, “Annihilation! Annihilation!” and flail about until you realize the apparition kneeling before you is the one person impervious to the suggestion.

  “It’s just me, the biologist.”

  Just you. Just the biologist. Just your defiant weapon, hurled against the walls of Area X.

  She props you up, presses water to your mouth, clearing some of the blood as you cough.

  “Where is the surveyor?” you ask.

  “Back at the base camp,” she tells you.

  “Wouldn’t come with you?” Afraid of the biologist, afraid of the burgeoning flame, just like you. “A slow-burning flame, a will-o’-the-wisp, floating across the marsh and the dunes, floating and floating, like nothing human but something free and floating.” A hypnotic suggestion meant to calm her, even if it will have no more effect than a comforting nursery rhyme.

  As the conversation unspools, you keep faltering and losing track of it. You say things you don’t mean, trying to stay in character—the person the biologist knows you as, the construct you created for her. Maybe you shouldn’t care about roles now, but there’s still a role to play.

  She’s blaming you, but you can’t blame her. “If it was a disaster, you helped create it. You just panicked, and you gave up.” Not true—you never gave up—but you nod anyway, thinking of so many mistakes. “I did. I did. I should have recognized earlier that you had changed.” True. “I should have sent you back to the border.” Not true. “I shouldn’t have gone down there with the anthropologist.” Not true, not really. You had no choice, once she slipped away from base camp, intent on proving herself.

  You’re coughing up more blood, but it hardly matters now.

  “What does the border look like?” A child’s question. A question whose answer means nothing. There is nothing but border. There is no border.

  I’ll tell you when I get there.

  “What really happens when we cross over?”

  Not what you might expect.

  “What did you hide from us about Area X?”

  Nothing that would have helped you. Not really.

  The sun is a weak halo with no center and the biologist’s voice threads in and out, the sand both cold and hot in your clenched right hand. The pain that keeps returning in bursts is attacking every couple of microseconds, so present that it isn’t even there anymore.

  Eventually, you recognize that you have lost the ability to speak. But you are still there, muffled and distant, as if you’re a kid lying on a blanket on this very beach, with a hat over your eyes. Lulled into drowsiness by the constant surging sound of the water and the sea breezes, balancing the heat that ripples over you, spreads through your limbs. The wind against your hair is a sensation as remote as the ruffling of weeds sprouting from a head-shaped rock.

  “I’m sorry, but I have to do this,” the biologist tells you, almost as if she knows you can still hear her. “I have no choice.”

  You feel the tug and pull on your skin, the brief incisive line, as the biologist takes a sample from your infected shoulder. From a great and insurmountable distance, searching hands descend as the biologist goes through your jacket pockets. She finds your journal. She finds your hidden gun. She finds your pathetic letter. What will she make of them? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe she’ll just throw the letter into the sea, and the gun with it. Maybe she’ll waste the rest of her life studying your journal.

  She’s still talking.

  “I don’t know what to say to you. I’m angry. I’m frightened. You put us here and you had a chance to tell me what you kn
ew, and you didn’t. You wouldn’t. I’d say rest in peace, but I don’t think you will.”

  Then she’s gone, and you miss her, that weight of a human being beside you, the perverse blessing of those words, but you don’t miss her for long because you are fading further still, fading into the landscape like a reluctant wraith, and you can hear a faint and delicate music in the distance, and something that whispered to you before is whispering again, and then you’re dissolving into the wind. A kind of alien regard has twinned itself to you, easily mistaken for the atoms of the air if it did not seem somehow concentrated, purposeful. Joyful?

  Taken up over the still lakes, rising up across the marsh, flickering up in green-glinting reflections against the sea and the shore in the late-afternoon sun … only to wheel and bank toward the interior and its cypress trees, its black water. Then sharply up into the sky again, taking aim for the sun, the lurch and spin of it, before free fall, twisting to stare down at the onrushing earth, stretched taut above the quick flash and slow wave of reeds. You half expect to see Lowry there, wounded survivor of the long-ago first expedition, crawling toward the safety of the border. But instead there is just the biologist trudging back down the darkening path … and waiting beyond her, mewling and in distress, the altered psychologist from the expedition before the twelfth. Your fault as much as anyone’s, your fault, and irrevocable. Unforgivable.

  As you curve back around, the lighthouse fast approaches. The air trembles as it pushes out from both sides of the lighthouse and then re-forms, ever questing, forever sampling, rising high only to come low yet again, and finally circling like a question mark so you can bear witness to your own immolation: a shape huddled there, leaking light. What a sad figure, sleeping there, dissolving there. A green flame, a distress signal, an opportunity. Are you still soaring? Are you still dying or dead? You can’t tell anymore.

  But the whisper isn’t done with you yet.

  You’re not down there.

  You’re up here.

  And there’s still an interrogation going on.

  One that will repeat until you have given up every answer.

  PART I

  RANGE LIGHT

  0001: THE LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER

  Overhauled the lens machinery and cleaned the lens. Fixed the water pipe in the garden. Small repair to the gate. Organized the tools and shovels etc. in the shed. S&SB visit. Need to requisition paint for daymark—black eroded on seaward side. Also need nails and to check the western siren again. Sighted: pelicans, moorhens, some kind of warbler, blackbirds beyond number, sanderlings, a royal tern, an osprey, flickers, cormorants, bluebirds, pigmy rattlesnake (at the fence—remember), rabbit or two, white-tailed deer, and near dawn, on the trail, many an armadillo.

  That winter morning, the wind was cold against the collar of Saul Evans’s coat as he trudged down the trail toward the lighthouse. There had been a storm the night before, and down and to his left, the ocean lay gray and roiling against the dull blue of the sky, seen through the rustle and sway of the sea oats. Driftwood and bottles and faded white buoys and a dead hammerhead shark had washed up in the aftermath, tangled among snarls of seaweed, but no real damage either here or in the village.

  At his feet lay bramble and the thick gray of thistles that would bloom purple in the spring and summer. To his right, the ponds were dark with the muttering complaints of grebes and buffleheads. Blackbirds plunged the thin branches of trees down, exploded upward in panic at his passage, settled back into garrulous communities. The brisk, fresh salt smell to the air had an edge of flame: a burning smell from some nearby house or still-smoldering bonfire.

  Saul had lived in the lighthouse for four years before he’d met Charlie, and he lived there still, but last night he’d stayed in the village a half mile away, in Charlie’s cottage. A new thing this, not agreed to with words, but with Charlie pulling him back to bed when he’d been about to put on his clothes and leave. A welcome thing that put an awkward half smile on Saul’s face.

  Charlie’d barely stirred as Saul had gotten up, dressed, made eggs for breakfast. He’d served Charlie a generous portion with a slice of orange, kept hot under a bowl, and left a little note beside the toaster, bread at the ready. As he’d left, he’d turned to look at the man sprawled on his back half in and half out of the sheets. Even into his late thirties, Charlie had the lean, muscular torso, strong shoulders, and stout legs of a man who had spent much of his adult life on boats, hauling in nets, and the flat belly of someone who didn’t spend too many nights out drinking.

  A quiet click of the door, then whistling into the wind like an idiot as soon as he’d taken a few steps—thanking the God who’d made him, in the end, so lucky, even if in such a delayed and unexpected way. Some things came to you late, but late was better than never.

  Soon the lighthouse rose solid and tall above him. It served as a daymark so boats could navigate the shallows, but also was lit at night half the week, corresponding to the schedules of commercial traffic farther out to sea. He knew every step of its stairs, every room inside its stone-and-brick walls, every crack and bit of spackle. The spectacular four-ton lens, or beacon, at the top had its own unique signature, and he had hundreds of ways to adjust its light. A first-order lens, over a century old.

  As a preacher he thought he had known a kind of peace, a kind of calling, but only after his self-exile, giving all of that up, had Saul truly found what he was looking for. It had taken more than a year for him to understand why: Preaching had been projecting out, imposing himself on the world, with the world then projecting onto him. But tending to the lighthouse—that was a way of looking inward and it felt less arrogant. Here, he knew nothing but the practical, learned from his predecessor: how to maintain the lens, the precise workings of the ventilator and the lens-access panel, how to maintain the grounds, how to fix all the things that broke—scores of daily tasks. He welcomed each part of the routine, relished how it gave him no time to think about the past, and didn’t mind sometimes working long hours—especially now, in the afterglow of Charlie’s embrace.

  But that afterglow faded when he saw what awaited him in the gravel parking lot, inside the crisp white fence that surrounded the lighthouse and the grounds. A familiar beat-up station wagon stood there, and beside it the usual two Séance & Science Brigade recruits. They’d snuck up on him again, crept in to ruin his good mood, and even piled their equipment beside the car already—no doubt in a hurry to start. He waved to them from afar in a halfhearted way.

  They were always present now, taking measurements and photographs, dictating statements into their bulky tape recorders, making their amateur movies. Intent on finding … what? He knew the history of the coast here, the way that distance and silence magnified the mundane. How into those spaces and the fog and the empty line of the beach thoughts could turn to the uncanny and begin to create a story out of nothing.

  Saul took his time because he found them tiresome and increasingly predictable. They traveled in pairs, so they could have their séance and their science both, and he sometimes wondered about their conversations—how full of contradictions they must be, like the arguments going on inside his head toward the end of his ministry. Lately the same two had come by: a man and a woman, both in their twenties, although sometimes they seemed more like teenagers, a boy and girl who’d run away from home dragging a store-bought chemistry set and a Ouija board behind them.

  Henry and Suzanne. Although Saul had assumed the woman was the superstitious one, it turned out she was the scientist—of what?—and the man was the investigator of the uncanny. Henry spoke with a slight accent, one Saul couldn’t place, that put an emphatic stamp of authority on everything he said. He was plump, as clean-shaven as Saul was bearded, with shadows under his pale blue eyes, black hair in a modified bowl cut with bangs that obscured a pale, unusually long forehead. Henry didn’t seem to care about worldly things, like the winter weather, because he always wore some variation on a delicate blue button-down silk
shirt with dress slacks. The shiny black boots with zippers down the side weren’t for trails but for city streets.

  Suzanne seemed more like what people today called a hippie but would’ve called a communist or bohemian when Saul was growing up. She had blond hair and wore a white embroidered peasant blouse and a brown suede skirt down below the knee, to meet the calf-high tan boots that completed her uniform. A few like her had wandered into his ministry from time to time—lost, living in their own heads, waiting for something to ignite them. The frailty of her form made her somehow more Henry’s twin, not less.

  The two had never given him their last names, although one or the other had said something that sounded like “Serum-list” once, which made no sense. Saul didn’t really want to know them better, if he was honest, had taken to calling them “the Light Brigade” behind their backs, as in “lightweights.”

  When he finally stood in front of them, Saul greeted them with a nod and a gruff hello, and they acted, as they often did, like he was a clerk in the village grocery store and the lighthouse a business that offered some service to the public. Without the twins’ permit from the parks service, he would have shut the door in their faces.

  “Saul, you don’t look very happy even though it is a beautiful day,” Henry said.

  “Saul, it’s a beautiful day,” Suzanne added.

  He managed a nod and a sour smile, which set them both off into paroxysms of laughter. He ignored that.

  But they continued to talk as Saul unlocked the door. They always wanted to talk, even though he’d have preferred that they just got on with their business. This time it was about something called “necromantic doubling,” which had to do with building a room of mirrors and darkness as far as he could tell. It was a strange term and he ignored their explanations, saw no way in which it had any relationship to the beacon or his life at the lighthouse.

  People weren’t ignorant here, but they were superstitious, and given that the sea could claim lives, who could blame them. What was the harm of a good-luck charm worn on a necklace, or saying a few words in prayer to keep a loved one safe? Interlopers trying to make sense of things, trying to “analyze and survey” as Suzanne had put it, turned people off because it trivialized the tragedies to come. But like those annoying rats of the sky, the seagulls, you got used to the Light Brigade after a while. On dreary days he had almost learned not to begrudge the company. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but not notice the log in your own eye?

 
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