Issue 98 – November 2014

7800 words, novelette, REPRINT

The Vorkuta Event


Tentacles and Tomes

It was in 19--, that unforgettable year, that I first believed that I had unearthed the secret cause of the guilt and shame that so evidently burdened Dr. David Rigley Walker, Emeritus Professor of Zoology at the University of G-----. The occasion was casual enough. A module of the advanced class in Zoology dealt with the philosophical and historical aspects of the science. I had been assigned to write an essay on the history of our subject, with especial reference to the then not quite discredited notion of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Most of my fellow students, of a more practical cast of mind than my own, were inclined to regard this as an irrelevant chore. Not I.

With the arrogance of youth, I believed that our subject, Zoology, had the potential to assimilate a much wider field of knowledge than its current practice and exposition was inclined to assume. Is not Man an animal? Is not, therefore, all that is human within, in principle, the scope of Zoology? Such, at least, was my reasoning at the time, and my excuse for a wide and—in mature retrospect—less than profitable reading. Certain recent notorious and lucrative popularizations—as well as serious studies of sexual and social behavior, pioneered by, of all people, entomologists—were in my view a mere glimpse of the empire of thought open to the zoologist. In those days such fields as evolutionary psychology, Darwinian medicine and ecological economics still struggled in the shattered and noisome eggshell of their intellectually and—more importantly—militarily crushed progenitors. The great reversal of the mid-century’s verdict on this and other matters still slumbered in the womb of the future. These were, I may say, strange times, a moment of turbulent transition when the molecular doctrines were already established, but before they had become the very basis of biology. In the minds of older teachers and in the pages of obsolete textbooks certain questions now incontrovertible seemed novel and untried. The ghost of vitalism still walked the seminar room; plate tectonics was solid ground mainly to geologists; notions of intercontinental land bridges, and even fabled Lemuria, had not been altogether dispelled as worthy of at least serious dismissal. I deplored—nay, detested—all such vagaries.

So it was with a certain zeal, I confess, that I embarked on the background reading for my modest composition. I walked into the University library at noon, bounded up the stairs to the science floor, and alternated browsing the stacks and scribbling in my carrel for a good five hours. Unlike some of my colleagues, I had not afflicted myself with the nicotine vice, and was able to proceed uninterrupted save for a call of nature. I delved into Lamarck himself, in verbose Victorian translation; into successive editions of The Origin of Species; and into the Journal of the History of Biology. I had already encountered Koestler’s The Case of the Midwife Toad, that devastating but regretful demolition of the Lamarckian claims of the fellow-traveling biologist, fraud, and suicide Viktor Kammerer—the book, in well-thumbed paperback, was an underground classic among zoology undergraduates, alongside Lyall Watson’s Supernature. I read and wrote with a fury to discredit, for good and all, the long-exploded hypothesis that was the matter of my essay. But when I had completed the notes and outline, and the essay was as good as written, needing only some connecting phrases and a fair copy, a sense that the task was not quite finished nagged.

I leaned back in the plastic seat, and recollected of a sudden the very book I needed to deliver the coup de grace. But where had I seen it? I could almost smell it—and it was the sense of smell that brought back the memory of the volume’s location. I stuffed my notes in a duffel bag, placed my stack of borrowings on the Returns trolley, and hurried from the library. Late in the autumn term, late in the day, the University’s central building, facing me on the same hilltop as the tall and modern library, loomed black like a gothic mansion against the sunset sky. Against the same sky, bare trees stood like preparations of nerve-endings on an iodine-stained slide. I crossed the road and walked around the side of the edifice and down the slope to the Zoology Department, a granite and glass monument to the 1930s. Within: paved floors, tiled walls and hardwood balustrades, and the smell that had reminded me, a mingled pervasive waft of salt-water aquaria, of rat and rabbit droppings, of disinfectant and of beeswax polish. A porter smoked in his den, recognized me with a brief incurious glance. I nodded, turned and ascended the broad stone staircase. On the first landing a portrait of Darwin overhung the door to the top of the lecture hall; beneath the window lay a long glass case containing a dusty plastic model of Architeuthys, its two-meter tentacles outstretched to a painted prey. The scale of the model was not specified. At the top of the stairs, opposite the entrance to the library, stood another glass case, with the skeleton of a specimen of Canis dirus from Rancho La Brea. As I moved, the shadow and gleams of the dire wolf’s teeth presented a lifelike snarl.

Inside, the departmental library was empty, its long windows catching the sun’s last light. From the great table that occupied most of its space, the smell of beeswax rose like a hum, drowning out the air’s less salubrious notes save that of the books that lined the walls. Here I had skimmed Schrödinger’s neglected text on the nerves; here I had luxuriated in D’Arcy Thomson’s glorious prose, the outpoured, ecstatic precision of On Growth and Form; here, more productively, I had bent until my eyes had watered over Mayr and Simpson and Dobzhansky. It was the last, I think, who had first sent me to glance, with a shudder, at the book I now sought.

There it was, black and thick as a Bible; its binding sturdy, its pages yellowing but sound, like a fine vellum. The Situation in Biological Science: Proceedings of the Lenin Academy of Agricultural Sciences of the U.S.S.R., July 31—August 7, 1948, Complete Stenographic Report. This verbatim account is one of the most sinister in the annals of science: it documents the conference at which the peasant charlatan Lysenko, who claimed that the genetic constitutions of organisms could be changed by environmental influences, defeated those of his opponents who still stood up for Mendelian genetics. Genetics in the Soviet Union took decades to recover.

I took the volume to the table, sat down and copied to my notebook Lysenko’s infamous, gloating remark toward the close of the conference: “The Central Committee of the CPSU has examined my report and approved it’; and a selection from the rush of hasty recantations—announcements, mostly, of an overnight repudiation of a lifetime’s study—that followed it and preceded the closing vote of thanks to Stalin. I felt pleased at having found—unfairly perhaps—something with which to sully further the heritage of Lamarck. At the same time I felt an urge to wash my hands. There was something incomprehensible about the book’s very existence: was it naivety or arrogance that made its publishers betray so shameful a demonstration of the political control of science? The charlatan’s empty victory was a thing that deserved to be done in the dark, not celebrated in a complete stenographic report.

But enough. As I stood to return the book to the shelf I opened it idly at the flyleaf, and noticed a queer thing. The sticker proclaiming it the property of the Department overlaid a handwritten inscription in broad black ink, the edges of which scrawl had escaped the bookplate’s obliteration. I recognized some of the fugitive lettering as Cyrillic script. Curious, I held the book up to the light and tried to read through the page, but the paper was too thick.

The books were for reference only. The rule was strict. I was alone in the library. I put the book in my duffel bag and carried it to my bedsit. There, with an electric kettle on a shaky table, I steamed the bookplate off. Then, cribbing from a battered second-hand copy of The Penguin Russian Course, I deciphered the inscription. The Russian original has faded from my mind. The translation remains indelible:

To my dear friend Dr. Dav. R. Walker,
in memory of our common endeavor,
Ac. T. D. Lysenko.

The feeling that this induced in me may be imagined. I started and trembled as though something monstrous had reached out a clammy tentacle from the darkness of its lair and touched the back of my neck. If the book had been inscribed to any other academic elder I might have been less shocked: many of them flaunted their liberal views, and hinted at an earlier radicalism, on the rare occasions when politics were discussed; but Walker was a true-blue conservative of the deepest dye, as well as a mathematically rigorous Darwinian.

The next morning I trawled the second-hand bookshops of the University district. The city had a long, though now mercifully diminishing, “Red” tradition; and sure enough, I found crumbling pamphlets and tedious journals of that persuasion from the time of the Lysenko affair. In them I found articles defending Lysenko’s views. The authors of some, the translators of others, variously appeared as: DRW, Dr. D. R. Walker, and (with a more proletarian swagger) Dave Walker. There was no room for doubt: my esteemed professor had been a Lysenkoist in his youth.

With a certain malice (forgivable in view of my shock and indeed dismay) I made a point of including these articles in my references when I typed up the essay and handed it in to my tutor, Dr. F------. A week passed before I received a summons to Professor Walker’s office.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Ultraviolet Radiation Exposure

The Emeritus Professor was, as his title suggests, semi-retired; he took little part in the administration, and devoted his intermittent visits to the Department to the occasional sparkling but well-worn lecture; to shuffling and annotating off-prints of papers from his more productive days with a view to an eventual collection; and to some desultory research of his own into the anatomy and relationships of a Jurassic marine crocodile. Paleontology had been his field. In his day he had led expeditions to the Kalahari and the Gobi. He had served in the Second World War. In some biographical note I had glimpsed the rank of Lieutenant, but no reference to the Service in which it had been attained: a matter on which rumor had not been reticent.

The professor’s office was at the end of one of the second story’s long corridors. Dust, cobwebs, and a statistically significant sample of desiccated invertebrates begrimed the frosted glass panel of the door. I tapped, dislodging a dead spider and a couple of woodlice.

“Come in!”

As I stepped through the door the professor rose behind his desk and leaned forward. Tall and stooping, very thin, with weathered skin, sunken cheeks and a steely spade of beard, he seemed a ruin of his adventurous youth—more Quatermass than Quartermain, so to speak—but an impressive ruin. He shook hands across his desk, motioned me to a seat, and resumed his own. I brushed tobacco ash from friction-furred leather and sat down. The room reeked of pipe smoke and of an acetone whiff that might have been formaldehyde or whisky breath. Shelves lined the walls, stacked with books and petrified bones. Great drifts of journals and off-prints cluttered the floor. A window overlooking the building’s drab courtyard sifted wan wintry light through a patina similar to that on the door. A fluorescent tube and an Anglepoise diminished even that effect of daylight.

Walker leaned back in his chair and flicked a Zippo over the bowl of his Peterson. He tapped a yellow forefinger-nail on a sheaf of paper, which I recognized without surprise as my essay.

“Well, Cameron,” he said, through a gray-blue cloud, “you’ve done your homework.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

He jabbed the pipe-stem at me. “You’re not at school,” he said. “That is no way for one gentleman to address another.”

“OK, Walker,” I said, a little too lightly.

“Not,” he went on, “that your little trick here was gentlemanly. You’re expected to cite peer-reviewed articles, not dredge up political squibs and screeds from what you seized on as another chap’s youthful folly. These idiocies are no secret. If you’d asked me, I’d have told you all about them—the circumstances, you understand. And I could have pointed you to the later peer-reviewed article in which I tore these idiocies, which I claimed as my own, to shreds. You could have cited that too. That would have been polite.”

“I didn’t intend any discourtesy,” I said.

“You intended to embarrass me,” he said. “Did you not?”

I found myself scratching the back of my head, embarrassed myself. My attempt at an excuse came out as an accusation.

“I found the inscription from Lysenko,” I said.

Walker rocked back in his seat. “What?”

“ ‘To my dear friend Dr. David R. Walker, in memory of our common endeavor.’ ” Against my conscious will, the words came out in a jeering tone.

Walker planted his elbow-patches on his desk and cupped his chin in both hands, pipe jutting from his yellow teeth. He glared at me through a series of puffs.

“Ah, yes,” he said at last. “That common endeavor. Would it perhaps pique your curiosity to know what it was?”

“I had assumed it was on genetics,” I said.

“Hah!” snorted Walker. “You’re a worse fool than I was, Cameron. What could I have done on genetics?”

“You wrote about it,” I said, again sounding more accusing than I had meant to.

“I wrote rubbish for The Modern Quarterly,” he said, “but I think you would be hard pressed to find in it anything about original work on genetics.”

“I mean,” I said, “your defense of him.”

Walker narrowed his eyes. “These articles were written after I had received the book,” he said. “So they were not what old Trofim was remembering me for, no indeed.”

“So what was it?”

He straightened up. “A most disquieting experience,” he said. “One that weighs on me even now. If I were to tell you of it, it would weigh on you for the rest of your life. And the strange thing is, Cameron, that I need not swear you to secrecy. The tale is as unbelievable as it is horrible. For you to tell it would merely destroy whatever credibility you have. Not only would nobody believe the tale—nobody would believe that I had told it to you. The more you insisted on it, the more you would brand yourself a liar and a fantasist of the first water.”

“Then why should I believe it myself?”

His parchment skin and tombstone teeth grinned back his answer like a death’s head illuminated from within.

“You will believe it.”

I shrugged.

“You will wish you didn’t,” he added mildly. “You can walk out that door and forget about this, and I will forget your little jape. If you don’t, if you stay here and listen to me, let me assure you that I will have inflicted upon you a most satisfactory revenge.”

I squared to him from my seat. “Try me, Walker,” I said.

Walker’s Account

Stalin’s pipe was unlit—always a bad sign. Poskrebyshev, the General Secretary’s sepulchral amanuensis, closed the door silently behind me.  The only pool of light in the long, thickly curtained room was over Stalin’s desk. Outside that pool two figures sat on high-backed chairs. A double glint on pince-nez was enough to warn me that one of these figures was Beria. The other, as I approached, I identified at once by his black flop of hair, his hollow cheeks, and his bright fanatic eyes: Trofim Lysenko. My knees felt like rubber. I had met Stalin before, of course, during the war, but I had never been summoned to his presence.

It was the summer of ‘47. I’d been kicking my heels in Moscow for weeks, trying without success—and more frustratingly, without definite refusal—to get permission to mount another expedition to the Gobi. It was not, of course, the best of times to be a British citizen in the Soviet capital. (It was not the best of times to be a Soviet citizen, come to that.) My wartime work in liaison may have been both a positive and a negative factor: positive, in that I had contacts, and a degree of respect; negative, in that it put me under suspicion—ludicrous though it may seem, Cameron—of being a spy. I might, like so many others, have gone straight from the Kremlin to the Lubianka.

Stalin rose, stalked towards me, shook hands brusquely, pointed me to a low seat—he was notoriously sensitive about his height—and returned to his desk chair. I observed him closely but covertly. He had lost weight. His skin was loose. He seemed more burdened than he had at Yalta and Tehran.

“Lieutenant Walker—” he began. Then he paused, favored me with a yellow-eyed, yellow-toothed smile, and corrected himself. “Doctor Walker. Rest assured, you were not invited here in your capacity as a British officer.”

His sidelong glance at Beria told me all I needed to know about where I stood in that regard. Stalin sucked on his empty pipe, frowned, and fumbled a packet of Dunhills from his tunic. To my surprise, he proffered the pack across the desk. I took one, with fingers that barely trembled. A match flared between us; and for a moment, in that light, I saw that Stalin was afraid. He was more afraid than I; and that thought terrified me. I sank back and drew hard.

“We need your help, Dr. Walker. In a scientific capacity.”

I hesitated, unsure how to address him. He was no comrade of mine, and to call him by his latest title, “Generalissimo,” would have seemed fawning. My small diplomatic experience came to my aid.

“You surprise me, Marshal Stalin,” I said. “My Soviet colleagues are more than capable.”

Lysenko cleared his throat, but it was Beria who spoke. “Let us say there are problems.”

“It is not,” said Stalin, “a question of capability. It is important to us that the task we wish you to take part in be accomplished by a British scientist who is also a . . . former . . . British officer, who has—let us say—certain connections with certain services, and who is not—again, let us say—one who might, at some future date, be suspected of being connected with the organs of Soviet state security.” Another sidelong glance at Beria.

“Let me be blunt, Marshal Stalin,” I said. “You want me because I’m a scientist and because I you think I might be a British agent, and because you can be certain I’m not one of yours?”

“Fairly certain,” said Stalin, with a dark chuckle.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Beria flinch. I was startled that Stalin should hint so broadly of Soviet penetration of British intelligence, as well as of his mistrust of Beria. If I survived to return to England, I would make a point of reporting it directly to that chap who—Whitehall rumor had it—was in charge of stopping that sort of thing. What was his name again? Oh, yes—Philby. A moment later I realized that, very likely, Stalin and Beria had cooked up this apparent indiscretion between them, perhaps to test my reaction, or so that my very reporting of it might circuitously advance their sinister aims. But there were more pressing puzzles on my mind.

“But I’m a paleontologist!” I said. “What could there possibly be in that field that could be of interest to any intelligence service?”

“A good question,” said Stalin. “An intriguing question, is it not? I see you are intrigued. All I can say at this point, Dr. Walker, is that you have only one way of finding the answer. If you choose not to help us, then I must say, with regret, that you must take the next flight for London. It may be impossible for you to return, or to dig again for the dinosaur bones of Outer Mongolia which appear to fascinate you so much. If you do choose to help us, not only will you find the answer to your question, but opportunities for further collaboration with our scientists might, one may imagine, open up.”

The threat, mercifully small as it would have seemed to some, was dire to me; the offer tempting; but neither was necessary. I was indeed intrigued.

“I’ll do it,” I said.

“Good,” said Stalin. “I now turn you over to the capable hands of . . . ”

He paused just long enough—a heartbeat—to scare me.

“ . . . Your esteemed colleague, Trofim Denisovich.”

But, as though in amends for that small, cat-like moment of sporting with my fear, or perhaps from that sentimental streak which so often characterizes his type, his parting handshake was accompanied by momentary wetness of his yellow eyes and a confidential murmur, the oddest thing I ever heard—or heard of or read of—him say:

“God go with you.”

Corridors, guards, stairs, the courtyard, more guards, then Red Square and the streets. Trofim walked fast beside me, hands jammed in his jacket pockets, his chin down; fifty-odd meters behind us, the pacing shadow of the man from the organs of state security. Beefy-faced women in kerchiefs mixed concrete by shovel, struggled with wheel-barrows, took bawled orders from loutish foremen. Above them, on the bare scaffolding of the building sites, huge red-bordered black-on-white banners flapped, vast magnifications of a flattering ink portrait of the face I had seen minutes before. There seemed to be no connection, the merest passing resemblance to the aged, pock-marked man. I recalled something he had, it was told, once snarled at his drunken, vainglorious son, who’d pleaded, “After all, I too am Stalin.’ He’d said:

You are not Stalin! I am not Stalin! Stalin is a banner . . . ”

At that moment I thought I could quite literally see what he’d meant.

“Well, David Rigley,” said Lysenko (evidently under the misapprehension that my second name was a patronymic), “the leading comrades have landed you and me in a fine mess.”

“You know what this is about?”

“I do, more’s the pity. We may be doomed men. Let us walk a little. It’s the safest way to talk.”

“But surely—”

“Nothing is ‘surely,’ here. You must know that. Even a direct order from the Boss may not be enough to protect us from the organs. Beria is building atomic bombs out on the tundra. Where he gets his labor force from, you can guess. Including engineers and scientists, alas. At one of their sites they have found something that . . . they want us to look into.”

“Atomic bombs? With respect, Trofim Denisovich—”

“I will not argue with you on that. But what Beria’s . . . men have found is more terrifying than an atomic bomb. That is what we have agreed to investigate, you and I.”

“Oh,” I said. “So that’s what I’ve agreed to. Thanks for clearing that up.”

The sarcasm was wasted on him.

“You are welcome, David Rigley.” He stopped at an intersection. A black car drew up beside us. He waved me to the side door. I hung back.

“It is my own car,” he said mildly. “It will take us to my farm. Tomorrow, it will take us to the airport.”

Lysenko’s private collective farm—so to speak—in the Gorki-Leninskie hills south of Moscow was of course a showcase, and was certainly a testimony more to Lysenko’s enthusiasm than to his rigor, but I must admit that it was a hospitable place, and that I spent a pleasant enough afternoon there being shown its remarkable experiments, and a very pleasant evening eating some of the results. For that night, Trofim and I could pretend to have not a care in the world—and in that pretence alone, I was of one mind with the charlatan.

The following morning we flew to the east and north. It was not a civilian flight. Aeroflot’s reputation is deservedly bad enough; but it is in the armed forces that Aeroflot pilots learn their trade. This flight in an LI-2 transport was courtesy of the Army. Even now, the memory of that flight brings me out in a cold sweat. So you will forgive me if I pass over it. Suffice it to say that we touched down on a remote military airfield that evening to refuel and to change pilots, and continued through a night during which I think I slept in my cramped bucket seat from sheer despair. We landed—by sideslip and steep, tight spiral, as if under fire—just after dawn the following morning on a bumpy, unpaved strip in the midst of a flat, green plain. A shack served as a terminal building, before which a welcoming committee of a dozen or so uniformed men stood. Through a small porthole, as the plane juddered to a halt, I glimpsed some more distant structures: a tower on stilts, long low barracks, a mine-head, and great heaps of spoil. There may have been a railway line. I’m not sure.

Trofim and I unkinked our backs, rubbed grit from our eyes, and made our stooping way to the hatch. I jumped the meter drop to the ground. Trofim sat and swung his long legs over and slid off more carefully. The air was fine and fresh, unbelievably so after Moscow, and quite warm. One of the men detached himself from the line-up and hurried over. He was stocky, blue-jowled, with a look of forced joviality on his chubby, deep-lined face. He wore a cap with the deep blue band of the security organs. Shaking hands, he introduced himself as Colonel Viktor A. Marchenko. He led us to the shack, where he gave us glasses of tea and chunks of sour black bread, accompanied by small talk and no information, while his men remained at attention outside—they didn’t smoke or shuffle—then took us around the back of the shack to a Studebaker flat-bed truck. To my surprise, the colonel took the driver’s seat. Trofim and I squeezed in beside him. The rest of the unit piled perilously on the back.

We associate Russia’s far north with snow and ice. Its brief summer is almost pleasant, apart from the mosquitoes and the landslides. Small flowers carpet the tundra. Its flat appearance is deceptive, concealing from a distance the many hollows and rises of the landscape. The truck went up and down, its tires chewing the unstable soil. At the crest of each successive rise the distant buildings loomed closer. The early-morning sun glinted on long horizontal lines in front of them: barbed wire, no doubt, and not yet rusty. It became obvious, as I had of course suspected, that this was a labor camp. I looked at Lysenko. He stared straight ahead, sweat beading his face. I braced my legs in the foot-well and gripped my knees hard.

At the top of a rise the truck halted. The colonel nodded forward, and made a helpless gesture with his hand. Trofim and I stared in shock at what lay in front of us. At the bottom of the declivity, just a few meters down the grassy slope from the nose of the truck, the ground seemed to have given way. The hole was about fifteen meters across and four deep. Scores of brown corpses, contorted and skeletal, protruded at all angles from the ragged black earth. From the bottom of the hole, an edged metallic point stood up like the tip of a pyramid or the corner of an enormous box. Not a speck of dirt marred the reflective sheen of its blue-tinted, silvery surfaces.

My first thought was that some experimental device, perhaps one of Beria’s atomic bombs, had crashed here among some of the camp’s occupants, killing and half-burying the poor fellows. My second thought was that it had exposed the mass grave of an earlier batch of similar unfortunates. I kept these thoughts to myself and stepped down from the cab, followed by Lysenko. The colonel jumped out the other side and barked an order. Within seconds his men had formed a widely spaced cordon around the hole, each standing well back, with his Kalashnikov leveled.

“Take a walk around it,” said Marchenko.

We did, keeping a few steps away from the raw edge of the circular gash. About three meters of each edge of the object was exposed. Lysenko stopped and walked to the brink. I followed, to peer at a corpse just below our feet. Head, torso and one outflung arm poked out of the soil. Leathery skin, a tuft of hair, empty sockets and a lipless grin.

“From the . . . Yezhovschina?” I asked, alluding to the massacres of a decade earlier.

Trofim leaned forward and pointed down. “I doubt,” he said dryly, “that any such died with bronze swords in their hands.”

I squatted and examined the body more closely. Almost hidden by a fall of dirt was the other hand, clutching a hilt that did indeed, between the threads of a rotten tassel, have a brassy gleam. I looked again at what shock had made me overlook on the others: stubs of blades, scraps of gear, leather belts and studs, here and there around withered necks a torc of a dull metal that might have been pewter.

“So who are they?” I asked.

Lysenko shrugged.

“Tartars, Mongols . . . ”

His knowledge of history was more dubious than his biology. These peoples had never migrated so far north, and no Bronze Age people was native to the area. The identity and origin of the dead barbarians puzzles me to this day.

Around the other side of the pit, the side that faced the camp, things were very different. The upper two meters of that  face of the pyramid was missing, as if it was the opened top of that hypothetical box’s corner. And the bodies—I counted ten—scattered before it were definitely those of camp laborers: thin men in thin clothes, among flung shovels. The corpses looked quite fresh. Only their terrible rictus faces were like those of the other and more ancient dead.

“What is this?” I asked Lysenko. “One of Beria’s infernal machines?”

He shot me an amused, impatient glance.

“You overestimate us,” he said. “This is not a product of our technology. Nor, I venture to suggest, is it one of yours.”

“Then whose?”

“If it is not from some lost civilization of deep antiquity, then it is not of this world.”

We gazed for a while at the black empty triangle and then completed our circuit of the pit and returned to Marchenko, who still stood in front of the truck.

“What happened here?” Lysenko asked.

Marchenko pointed towards the camp, then down at the ground.

“This is a mining camp,” he said. “The mine’s galleries extend beneath our feet. Some days ago, there was a cave-in. It resulted in a rapid subsidence on the surface, and exposed the object, and the slain warriors. A small squad of prisoners was sent into the pit to investigate, and to dig out the bodies and artifacts. To be quite frank, I suspect that they were sent to dig for valuables, gold and what not. One of them, for reasons we can only speculate, tried to enter the aperture in the object. Within moments, they were all dead.”

“Tell us plainly,” said Lysenko. “Do you mean they were shot by the guards?”

The colonel shook his head. “They could have been,” he said, “for disobeying orders. But as it happens, they were not. Something from the object killed them without leaving a mark. Perhaps a poisonous gas—I don’t know. That is for you to find out.”

His story struck as improbable, or at least incomplete, but this was no time to dispute it.

“For heaven’s sake, man!” I cried out. “And get killed ourselves?”

Marchenko bared a gold incisor.

“That is the problem, yes? You are scientists. Solve it.”

This insouciance for a moment infuriated us, but solve it we did. An hour or two later, after the truck had returned from the camp with the simple equipment we’d demanded, Lysenko and I were standing in the pit a couple of meters from the black aperture. Behind us the truck chugged, its engine powering a searchlight aimed at the dark triangle. Trofim guided a long pole, on the end of which one of the truck’s wing mirrors was lashed. I stood in front of him, the pole resting on my shoulder, and peered at the mirror with a pair of binoculars requisitioned from (no doubt) a camp guard. Nothing happened as our crude apparatus inched above the dark threshold. We moved about, Trofim turning the mirror this way and that. The magnified mirror image filled a large part of the close-focus view.

“What do you see?” Lysenko asked.

“Nothing,” I said. “Well, the joins of the edges. They go as far as I can see. Below it there’s just darkness. It’s very deep.”

We backed out and scrambled up.

“How big is this thing?” I asked Marchenko.

He shifted and looked sideways, then jabbed a finger downward.

“A similar apex,” he said, “pokes down into the gallery beneath us.”

“How far beneath us?”

His tongue flicked between his lips for a moment.

“About a hundred meters”

“If this is a cube,” I said, “four hundred feet diagonally—my God!”

“We have reason to think it is a cube,” said Marchenko.

“Take us to the lower apex,” said Lysenko.

“Do you agree?” Marchenko asked me.

“Yes,” I said.

A sign arched over the camp entrance read:

“Work in the USSR is a matter of honor and glory.’ For all that we could see as the truck drove in, nobody in the camp sought honor and glory that day. Guards stood outside every barracks door. Three scrawny men were summoned to work the hoist. Marchenko’s squad took up positions around the mine-head. Lysenko, Marchenko and I—with one of Marchenko’s sergeants carrying the pole and mirror—descended the shaft in a lift cage to the gallery. Pitchblende glittered in the beams from our helmet lamps. We walked forward for what seemed like many hours, but according to my watch was only fifty-five minutes. The cave-in had been cleared. Down like the point of a dagger came the lower apex of the cube, its tip a few inches above the floor. Its open face was not black but bright. It cast a blue light along the cavern.

“Well,” said Lysenko, with a forced laugh, “this looks more promising.”

This time it was I who advanced with the pole and angled the mirror in; Lysenko who looked through the Zeiss. I saw a reflected flash, as though something had moved inside the object. Blue light, strangely delimited, strangely slow, like some luminous fluid, licked along the wooden pole. With a half-second’s warning, I could have dropped it. But as that gelid lightning flowed over my hands, my fingers clamped to the wood. I felt a forward tug. I could not let go. My whole body spasmed as if in electric shock, and just as painfully. My feet rose off the ground, and my legs kicked out behind me. At the same moment I found myself flying forward like a witch clinging to a wayward broom. With a sudden flexure that almost cracked my spine, I was jerked through the inverted triangular aperture and upward into the blue-lit space above. That space was not empty. Great blocks of blue, distinct but curiously insubstantial, floated about me. I was borne upwards, then brought to a halt. I could see, far above, a small triangle of daylight, in equally vivid contrast to the darkness immediately beneath it and the unnatural light around me. Apart from my hands, still clutched around the pole, my muscles returned to voluntary control. I hung there, staring, mouth open, writhing like a fish on a hook. My throat felt raw, my gasps sounded ragged. I realized that I had been screaming. The echoes of my screams rang for a second or two in the vast cubical space.

Before my eyes, some of the blocky shapes took on a new arrangement: a cubist caricature of a human face, in every detail down to the teeth. Eyes like cogwheels, ears like coffins. From somewhere came an impression, nay, a conviction, that this representation was meant to be reassuring. It was not.

What happened next is as difficult to describe as a half-remembered dream: a sound of pictures, a taste of words. I had a vision of freezing space, of burning suns, of infinite blackness shot through with stars that were not eternal: stars that I might outlive. I heard the clash of an enormous conflict, remote in origin, endless in prospect, and pointless in issue. It was not a war of ideals, but an ideal war: what Plato might have called the Form of War. Our wars of interests and ideologies can give only the faintest foretaste of it. But a foretaste they are. I was given to understand—how, I do not know—that joining in such a war is what the future holds for our descendants, and for all intelligent species. It is conducted by machines that carry in themselves the memories, and are themselves the only monuments, of the races that built them and that they have subsumed. This is a war with infinite casualties, infinite woundings, and no death that is not followed—after no matter what lapse of time—by a resurrection and a further plunge into that unending welter. No death save that of the universe itself can release the combatants, and only at that terminus will it have meaning, and then only for a moment, the infinitesimal moment of contemplating a victory that is final because it precedes, by that infinitesimal moment, the end of all things: victory pure and undefiled, victory for its own sake, the victory of the last mind left.

This hellish vision was held out to me as an inducement! Yes, Cameron—I was being offered the rare and unthinkable privilege of joining the ranks of warriors in this conflict that even now shakes the universe; of joining it centuries or millennia before the human race rises to that challenge itself. I would join it as a mind: my brain patterns copied and transmitted across space to some fearsome new embodiment, my present body discarded as a husk. And if I refused, I would be cast aside with contempt. The picture that came before me—whether from my own mind, or from that of the bizarre visage before me—was of the scattered bodies in the pit.

With every fiber of my being, and regardless of consequence, I screamed my refusal. Death itself was infinitely preferable to that infinite conflict.

I was pulled upward so violently that my arms almost dislocated. The blue light faded, blackness enveloped me, and then the bright triangle loomed. I hurtled through it and fell with great force, face down in the mud. The wind was knocked out of me. I gasped, choked, and lifted my head painfully up, to find myself staring into the sightless eyes of one of the recent dead, the camp laborers. I screamed again, scrambled to my feet, and clawed my way up the crumbling side of the pit. For a minute I stood quite alone.

Then another body hurtled from the aperture, and behaved exactly as I had done, including the scream. But Lysenko had my outstretched hand to grasp his wrist as he struggled up.

“Were you pulled in after me?” I asked.

Lysenko shook his head.

“I rushed to try to pull you back.”

“You’re a brave man,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Not brave enough for what I found in there.”

“You saw it?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. He shuddered. “Before that Valhalla, I would choose the hell of the priests.”

“What we saw,” I said, “is entirely compatible with materialism. That’s what’s so terrifying.”

Lysenko clutched at my lapels. “No, not materialism! Mechanism! Man must fight that!”

“Fight it . . . endlessly?”

His lips narrowed. He turned away.

“Marchenko lied to us,” he said.


Lysenko nodded downward at the nearest bodies. “That tale of his—these men were not sent into this pit here, and killed by something lashing out from the . . . device. These men are miners. They entered it exactly as we did, from below.”

“So why are they dead, and we’re alive?” As soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer. Only their bodies were dead. Their minds were on their way to becoming alive somewhere else.

“You remember the choice you were given,” said Lysenko. “They chose differently.”

“They chose that—over—?” I jerked a backward thumb.

“Yes,” said Lysenko. “A different hell.”

We waited. After a while the truck returned from the camp.

Fallout Patterns

Walker fell silent in the lengthened shadows and thickened smoke.

“And then what happened?” I asked.

He knocked out his pipe. “Nothing,” he said. “Truck, plane, Moscow, Aeroflot, London. My feet barely touched the ground. I never went back.”

“I mean, what happened to the thing you found?”

“A year or two later, the site was used for an atomic test.”

“Over a uranium mine?”

“I believe that was part of the object. To maximize fallout. That particular region is still off limits, I understand.”

“How do you know this?”

“You should know better than to ask,” said Walker.

“So Stalin had your number!”

He frowned. “What do you mean?”

“He guessed correctly,” I said. “About your connections.”

“Oh yes. But leave it at that.” He waved a hand, and began to refill his pipe. “It’s not important.”

“Why did he send a possible enemy agent, and a charlatan like Lysenko? Why not one of his atomic scientists, like Sakharov?”

“Sakharov and his colleagues were otherwise engaged,” Walker said. “As for sending me and Lysenko . . . I’ve often wondered about that myself. I suspect he sent me because he wanted the British to know. Perhaps he wanted us worried about worse threats than any that might come from him, and at the same time worried that his scientists could exploit the strange device. Lysenko—well, he was reliable, in his way, and expendable, unlike the real scientists.”

“Why did you write what you did, about Lysenko?”

“One.” Walker used his pipe as a gavel on the desk. “I felt some gratitude to him. Two.” He tapped again. “I appreciated the damage he was doing.”

“To Soviet science?”

“Yes, and to science generally.” He grinned. “I was what they would call an enemy of progress. I still am. Progress is progress towards the future I saw in that thing. Let it be delayed as long as possible.”

“But you’ve contributed so much!”

Walker glanced around at his laden shelves. “To paleontology. A delightfully useless science. But you may be right. Even the struggle against progress is futile. Natural selection eliminates it. It eliminated Lysenkoism, and it will eliminate my efforts. The process is ineluctable. Don’t you see, Cameron? It is not the failure of progress, the setbacks, that are to be feared. It is progress itself. The most efficient system will win in the end. The most advanced machines. And the machines, when they come into their own, will face the struggle against the other machines that are already out there in the universe. And in that struggle, anything that does not contribute to the struggle—all beauty, all knowledge, all scruple—will be discarded or eliminated. There will be nothing left but the bare will, the will to win, and the means to that end.” He sighed. “In his own mad way, Lysenko understood that. There was a sort of quixotic nobility in his struggle against the logic of evolution, in his belief that man could humanize nature. No. Man is a brief interlude between the prehuman and the posthuman. To protract that interlude is the most we can hope for.”

He said nothing more, except to tell me that he had recommended my essay for an A++.

The gesture was kind, considering how I had provoked him, but it did me little good. I failed that year’s examinations. In the summer I worked as a laborer in a nearby botanic garden, and studied hard in the evenings. In this way I made up for lost time in the areas of zoology in which I had been negligent, and re-sat the examination with success. But I maintained my interest in those theoretical areas which I’d always found most fascinating, and specialized in my final year in evolutionary genetics, to eventually graduate with First Class Honors.

I told no one of Walker’s story. I did not believe it at the time, and I do not believe it now. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many new facts have been revealed. No nuclear test ever took place at Vorkuta. There was no uranium mine at the place whose location can be deduced from Walker’s account. There is no evidence that Lysenko made any unexplained trips, however brief, to the region. No rumors about a mysterious object found near a labor camp circulate even in that rumor-ridden land. As for Walker himself, his Lysenkoism was indeed about as genuine (“let us say,” as Stalin might have put it) as his Marxism. There is evidence, from other and even more obscure articles of his, and from certain published and unpublished memoirs and reminiscences that I have come across over the years, that he was a Communist between 1948 and 1956. Just how this is connected with his inclusion in the New Year Honors List for 1983 (“For services to knowledge”) I leave for others to speculate. The man is dead.

I owe to him, however, the interest which I developed in the relationship between, if you like, Darwinian and Lamarckian forms of inheritance. This exists, of course, not in biology but in artificial constructions. More particularly, the possibility of combining genetic algorithms with learned behavior in neural networks suggested to me some immensely fertile possibilities. Rather to the surprise of my colleagues, I chose for my postgraduate research the then newly established field of computer science. There I found my niche, and eventually obtained a lectureship at the University of E--------, in the Department of Artificial Intelligence.

The work is slow, with many setbacks and false starts, but we’re making progress.


Originally published in The New and Perfect Man (Postscripts #24/25),
edited by Peter Crowther and Nick Gevers.

Author profile

Ken MacLeod was born in Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland and lives in Inverclyde. He has Honours and Masters degrees in biological subjects and worked for some years in the IT industry. Since 1997 he has been a full-time writer. He is the author of seventeen novels, from The Star Fraction (1995) to The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Orbit, Sept 2017), and many articles and short stories. His novels and stories have received three BSFA awards and three Prometheus Awards, and several have been short-listed for the Clarke and Hugo Awards.

In 2009 he was Writer in Residence at the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum at Edinburgh University,
and in 2013 and 2014 was Writer in Residence at the MA Creative Writing course at Edinburgh Napier University. He was Guest Selector for the science fiction strand at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival. His twitter feed is @amendlocke

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