Acceptance, p.15
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       Acceptance, p.15

           Jeff VanderMeer
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  There also was debate as to whether they sought “an object or a recordable phenomenon,” which seemed to return to the idea of linking the two lighthouses; if a “phenomenon,” then this linkage was important. If an “object,” then the linkage might not be important, and either the island or the lighthouse on the mainland would no longer be of interest. Further, the nature of these fragments was contradictory as to their organization and sophistication. Some S&SB members seemed to lack even a rudimentary understanding of science and wasted my time with scrawlings about ghosts and hauntings and copied-down passages from books about demonic possession. The listing of stages interested me only inasmuch as I could transfer it to the biological world of parasitic and symbiotic relationships. Others among them lay out under the stars at night and recorded their dreams as if they were transmissions from beyond. As a kind of fiction, it enlivened my reading but was otherwise worthless.

  Along with this ephemeral superstition, I would also group the lesser scientific observations, which reflected the involvement of third- or fourth-rate minds. Here, it was not so much the accuracy of the observations but the banality of the conclusions. Into this category fell extrapolations about “prebiotic” materials and “spooky action at a distance,” along with already debunked experiments from decades past.

  What stood out from what I tossed on the compost heap seemed to come from a different sort of intelligence entirely. This mind or these minds asked questions and did not seem interested in hasty answers, did not care if one question birthed six more and if, in the end, none of those six questions led to anything concrete. There was a patience that seemed imposed and not at all a part of the swirling quicksilver consciousness that surrounded it. If I understood the scraps correctly, my pathetic attempt at playing oracle, this second type not only kept tabs on people living on the mainland, but on certain of its own fellow S&SB members. It did not have only experimentation on its collective mind.

  Does the residue of a presence leave an identifiable trace? Although I could not be sure, I felt I had identified such a presence regardless—one that had infiltrated the S&SB late. A shift in command and control toward something more sophisticated, staring out at me from the pages I had found.

  In among this detritus, these feeble guesses, the word Found! Handwritten, triumphant. Found what? But with so little data, even Found!, even the awareness of some more intelligent entity peering out from among the fragments led nowhere. Someone, somewhere had additional information, but the elements—Area X?—had so accelerated the decay of the documents that I could not glean much more, even though this was enough. Enough to suggest that there had been a kind of tampering with this coast before the creation of Area X, and my own experience to tell me that the Southern Reach had deliberately excised knowledge of the island from our expedition maps and briefings. These two data points, although more to do with absence than with positive confirmation, made me redouble my efforts looking for S&SB scraps amid the rubble. But I never found anything more than what I uncovered on my first, thorough investigation.


  I never had a country, never had the choice; I was born into one. But over time, this island has become my country, and I need no other. I never thought to seek the way out, back into the world. As the years passed and no one else reached my island refuge, I began to wonder if the Southern Reach existed anymore—or if it had ever existed, that perhaps there had never been another world or an expedition, and I had suffered a delusion or trauma, a kind of memory loss. One day, perhaps, I would wake up and recall it all: some cataclysm that had left me the only person in this place, with just an owl to talk to.

  I survived storms that gusted in suddenly, and drought, and a nail through my foot when I wasn’t careful. I survived being bitten by many things, including a poisonous spider and a snake. I learned to become so attuned to my environment that after a time no animal, natural or unnatural, shied away at my presence, and for this reason I no longer hunted anything but fish unless forced to, relying more and more on vegetables and fruit. Although I thought I grew attuned to their messages as well.

  In the lengthening silence and solitude, Area X sometimes would reveal itself in unexpected ways. I began to perceive infinitesimal shifts in the sky, as if the pieces did not quite fit together … and to acquire from the habitat around me a sense of invisible things stitching through, phantoms that almost made me reconsider my antipathy for the S&SB’s emphasis on the supernatural.

  Standing in a clearing one evening, as still as possible, I felt a kind of breath or thickness of molecules from behind that I could not identify, and I willed my heartbeat to slow so that for every one of mine the hearts of the tree frogs throating out their song might beat twenty thousand times. Hoping to be so quiet that without turning I might hear or in some other way glimpse what regarded me. But to my relief it fled or withdrew into the ground a moment later.

  Once, the sky broke open with rain in an unnatural way, and through the murk an odd light burned at the limits of my vision. I imagined it was the far-off lighthouse, that other expeditions had been sent in after me. But the longer I stared the more the light appeared to be cracking open the darkness, through which I glimpsed for a moment dissipating shadows that could have been peculiar storm clouds or the reverse quickening of some type of vast organism. Such phenomena, experienced off and on these past thirty years, have also been accompanied by a changing of the night sky. On such nights, presaged only by a kind of tremor in the brightness within me, there is never a moon. There is never a moon, and the stars above are unfamiliar—they are foreign, belonging to a cosmology I cannot identify. On such nights, I wish I had decided to become an astronomer.

  On at least two occasions, I would define this change as more significant, as a kind of celestial cataclysm, accompanied by what might be earthquakes, and cracks or rifts appearing in the fabric of the night, soon closing, and with nothing but a greater darkness seen shining through. Somewhere, out in the world or the universe, something must be happening to create these moments of dysfunction. At least, this is my belief. There is a sense of the world around me strengthened or thickened, the weight and waft of reality more focused or determined. As if the all-too-human dolphin eye I once glimpsed staring up at me is with each new phase further subsumed in the flesh that surrounds it.

  Beyond these observations, I have a single question: What is the nature of my delusion? Am I hallucinating when I see the night sky that I know? Or when I see the one that is strange? Which stars should I trust and navigate by? I stand in the ruined lighthouse some nights and look out to sea and realize that in this form, this body, I will never know.

  My survival has also, to put it bluntly, been predicated by hurting myself. By the time I stood on the shore opposite the island, about to swim over, I was using pain to push the brightness back. The ways were myriad and I was precise. You can find methods to almost drown, to almost suffocate, that are not as onerous as the thought might suggest. Ways to suggest the infliction of pain that can fool whatever lies within you. A rusty nail. A snake’s venom. As a result, pain does not much bother me anymore; it gives me evidence of my ongoing existence, has saved me from those times when, otherwise, I might have stared so long at wind and rain and sea as to become nothing, to just disappear.

  In a separate document, I have listed the best, least intrusive approaches, which I realize may seem morbid, even though I consider it an absurd method of chronicling my days. I have also noted the rotation of cycles that has proven most effective. Although, given the choice, I would not recommend this approach, you become acclimated to it, like doing the chores or foraging for food.

  After so much time, pain has become such a familiar and revisited friend that I wonder if I will notice him more now that I have stopped my regimen. Will an absence of pain be harder to get used to? I suspect that this concern will be forgotten amid so many other adjustments that must be made. For, having found so many ways to put
it off, I believe that my transformation will be more radical than it might have been, that I might indeed become something like the moaning creature. Will I see the real stars then?

  * * *

  Sometimes, too, pain comes at you unexpectedly; you don’t have to generate it, don’t have to will it consciously upon yourself. It’s just there. The owl that has been my companion these thirty years died a week ago, without my being able to help, without knowing until too late. He had become an old owl, and although his eyes were still enormous and bright, his colors had faded, his camouflage tattered; he slept more and did not go out to hunt as often. I fed him mice by hand in his redoubt at the top of the ruined lighthouse.

  I found him in the forest, after he had been missing for a few days, and I had finally gone out to search for him. From what I can reconstruct, he had become injured, perhaps from frailty or the onset of blindness, broken his wing, and settled on the forest floor. A fox or pair of foxes had probably gotten to him. He lay there splayed out in a mottled flurry of brown and dark red, eyes shut, head fallen to the side, all the life having left him.

  My microscope had long since been abandoned in a corner of the lighthouse grounds, overtaken by mold, half buried there by the simple passage of years. I had no heart to take samples, to discover what I already knew: that, in the end, there was nothing a microscope could tell me about the owl that I had not learned from my many years of close interactions and observation.

  What am I to say? That I do not miss him?



  0011: GHOST BIRD

  What kind of life was this, where you could read a letter from your own haunted twin? That you could live within the memories of another and think of them as real, a second skin, and yet so utterly false. This is who she had been. This is what she had thought, and how she had lived. Should that now be Ghost Bird’s life, too, her thoughts? Anger and awe warred within—and no one to push either emotion onto, except herself. She had to let them battle like a second heartbeat and trust that her reaction was not just the mirror reflecting what it saw. That even if she was a mistake, she had become a viable mistake—a mutation, not an anomaly like the moaning creature. Long-moldering bones trapped in the marshes.

  There were questions she did not want to ask, because if she did they would take on detail and weight and substance, flesh and skin reclothing the arch of ribs. Wonders and horrors alike she could compartmentalize, but Control, at least, might never be ready, and on some level it was wearying to push, to have that kind of purpose. It seemed to push against the reality of Area X, to say that even she had learned nothing from being her. Should she even try, knowing that it wasn’t fair, that they had all traveled too far, too fast, even Grace with her three-year head start?

  It was dusk now, almost nightfall, and into the silence and gathering shadows, Grace took the lead, said: “We’re astronauts. All of the expedition members have been astronauts.”

  That should have been comforting in its way, a kind of anchor, but Control’s face had become a resolute mask that said he didn’t want to deal with this, that, defiantly, he wanted only to bury his nose in what was comfortable. He clutched the yellowing pages of the biologist’s letter tight in his left hand, while the biologist’s journal, which Grace had rescued from the lighthouse, lay on his lap. It had interested Ghost Bird to read it, to fill in the final gaps, and yet what gaps remained despite it. The white light at the bottom of the tower. The manifestation of the lighthouse keeper within the Crawler. These were things she distrusted without seeing them for herself. But to Control she knew it would just register as new evidence, new hope—information that might provide a solution, a sudden fix. As if Grace’s scrutiny and thoughts about them were not enough.

  “We’re not on Earth,” Ghost Bird said. We cannot be on Earth. “Not with that much distortion of time. Not with the things the biologist saw.” Not if they wanted to pretend that there were rules in place, even if the rules had been obscured, made unclear, withheld. But was that true? Or had time just become irrational, inconsistent?

  Still that reluctance, and the distance it created between her and them, until Grace finally said, “That was my conclusion, one of the theories put forward by the science division.”

  “A kind of wormhole,” Control said. The limit of how far he could go; anything more would be pulled out of him by the brightness.

  A disbelieving stare from Grace. “Do you think Area X builds spaceships, too? Do you think Area X traverses interstellar space? Wormholes? Think of something more subtle, something peering through what we think of as reality.”

  Flat, clipped words, stripped of the awe that should have animated them. Because she’d had those extra three years? Because she was thinking of loved ones back home?

  Control, so slowly, almost as if in a hypnotized state: “Everything in Area X that we thought was degrading too rapidly … most of it was just getting old.”

  Some things were very old indeed—the remnants of the village and the various sedimentary layers of those journals under the trapdoor in the lighthouse. So much more time had passed in Area X after the border came down, before the first expedition had gone in. People could have lived in Area X for much, much longer after the border came down than anyone had thought.

  “How was this not known before,” Control said. “How was this not clear before.” As if some elemental force of repetition might bring about a swift justice against those who had obstructed his access to the truth. Instead, repetition just underscored their ignorance.

  “Corrupted data,” Grace said. “Skewed samples. Incomplete information.”

  “I don’t know how—”

  “She means,” Ghost Bird said, “that so many expeditions came back disoriented, damaged, or not at all, that the SR had no reliable samples.” She meant that the time dilation must be more severe when Area X shifted or underwent a change, and otherwise must be almost unmeasurable.

  “She’s right,” Grace said. “We never had anyone who lived long enough in Area X or saw so clearly and managed to write down their observations.” Conflicting data, conflicting purposes. An opponent that didn’t make it easy.

  “But do we believe the biologist?” Control asked. Because the theories of the biologist’s copy might be suspect? Because he wasn’t built for this and Ghost Bird was.

  “Do you believe me?” Grace said. “I’ve seen strange stars in the sky at night, too. I have seen the rifts in the sky. I have lived here three years.”

  “Then tell me—how can the sun shine, the stars, the moon? If we are not on Earth?”

  “That’s not the critical question,” Ghost Bird said. “Not for organisms that are so masterful at camouflage.”

  “Then what is?” Control frustrated, trying to take in the enormity of the idea, and Ghost Bird found it painful to watch.

  “The critical question,” Grace said, “is what is the purpose of this organism or organisms. And how do we survive.”

  “We know its purpose,” Control said. “Which is to kill us, to transform us, to get rid of us. Isn’t that what we try to avoid thinking about? What the director, you”—pointing at Grace—“and Cheney and all the rest had to keep suppressing? The thought that it just wants to kill us all.”

  “You think we didn’t have these conversations a thousand times?” Grace said. “You think we didn’t go around and around trying to get out of our circles?”

  “People make patterns all the time without realizing it,” Ghost Bird said. “An organism can have a purpose and yet also make patterns that have little to do with that purpose.”

  “So fucking what,” Control snarled, a trapped animal. “So fucking what?”

  Ghost Bird exchanged a stare with Grace, who looked away. Control wasn’t prepared to receive this knowledge. It was eating him from the inside out. Maybe something specific would distract him.

  “There’s a lot of energy being generated and discharged,” she said. “If the
border is a kind of membrane, it could be a case of dumping it somewhere else—think of how things disappear when they come into contact with the border.”

  “But they don’t disappear, do they?” Grace said.

  “I don’t think so. I think they get sent somewhere.”

  “Where?” Control asked.

  Ghost Bird shrugged, thinking about the journey into Area X, and the devastation and destruction she had seen. The ruined cities. Was that real? Something that gave them a clue? Or just a delusion?

  Membranes and dimensions. Limitless amounts of space. Limitless amounts of energy. Effortless manipulation of molecules. Continual attempts to transform the human into the non-human. The ability to move an entire biosphere to another place. Right now, if the outside world existed, it would still be sending radio-wave messages into space and monitoring radio-wave frequencies to seek out other intelligent life in the universe. But Ghost Bird didn’t think those messages were being received. Another way people were bound by their own view of consciousness. What if an infection was a message, a brightness a kind of symphony? As a defense? An odd form of communication? If so, the message had not been received, would probably never be received, the message buried in the transformation itself. Having to reach for such banal answers because of a lack of imagination, because human beings couldn’t even put themselves in the mind of a cormorant or an owl or a whale or a bumblebee.

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