Friday, 7 April 2017

The Second Men in the Moon (2017)



Bedford, by the time we found him, was in a poor way. He had aged greatly, seemed much more decrepit than his years, and there was something awry with his lungs. We thought it perhaps consumption—that is, a tubercular infection. We were wrong about that, though. We were wrong about a great many things.

He'd been holed-up for a while in Lisbon, until an especially angry creditor had tracked him there and he’d been forced to flee. He took passage on a liner for Southampton under an assumed name and with a forged letter of credit. He was rumbled mid-voyage and informed by the captain that he would be handed to the authorities as soon as the ship docked in England. But this, no doubt, upstanding naval officer did not stoop to locking him in irons, and so he slipped away—there were rumours of a stolen lifeboat, no less, in the Solent—and the world lost all knowledge of him for six more months. There were warrants for his arrest issued by the police forces of four different nations, and credit agents eager to apprehend him, so we were not alone in our inquiries.

We found him eventually, living in a run-down apartment in Marlow, eking a living by various dishonest shifts, and writing a column called ‘The Canny Investor’ for the Henley Advertiser under the name Albert G. Walls. We followed him out of the bar of the Fisherman’s Retreat and down St Peter’s Street, and at one point, as he noticed us following him, he even had a go at running off. But he lacked the breath to do more than fifty yards, and we easily apprehended him. ‘You know what, lads?’ he said, gasping. ‘It’s almost a relief. One gets fagged. One gets fagged, being constantly on the run. It’ll be nice not to have to worry, even inside a cell.’

But instead of a cell we took him to the restaurant at the Chequers hotel, near the bridge and overlooking the river. We treated him to steak, and a half-bottle of wine. He was suspicious of course, and then he was tearful and finally he shook our hands and looked deep into our eyes and proclaimed that he had at last found friends in a friendless world, and would never desert us. Then he excused himself on grounds of, as he put it, ‘a call of nature’, and staggered away towards the rest room. In fact he tried to dart out through the kitchens and give us the slip. But our third was waiting at the back, and he was armed. Bedford was returned to us, an expression on his face that combined annoyance, exhaustion and despair.

‘Come,’ we said to him. ‘There is no need for this pantomime. We can come to an arrangement that could keep you out of the way of the authorities altogether. Let us sit on the balcony and smoke cigars and look at the river.’

‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘by all means.’

And so he settled himself into a chair outside. Our third went down onto the street outside, and stood by the bridge, in case Bedford should think of hopping over the railing and trying to escape that way. The other two of us took up chairs on either side of him. The afternoon was pleasantly warm, and Bedford put his heels on the balcony rail, and lit up the cigar we offered him. ‘You won’t join me?’

‘It disagrees with our lungs,’ we told him.

‘Quite right. Listen to the rattle in mine!’ He coughed, and it sounded like a shovelful of gravel was being turned over in his ribcage. ‘I tell you, I sometimes wish I had never published that infernal volume,’ he said, staring past us at the freckling light on the slow-slowing Thames. ‘It made money, yes, that’s true. It made some money, at any rate. And a fellow needs money, in this world. But the bother! My creditors naturally assumed that all the money I earned belonged to them—as if a fellow doesn’t need to eat! And quite apart from that, and the complete failure of my successor volumes, a failure that encompasses the reviewers, the readers, the booksellers, the entire world of the Book—well: I will tell you. Do you know the worst?’

‘The worst?’

‘The worst are the true believers. The people who refused to read it as fiction.’

‘We are true believers,’ we told him. He scoffed in our faces, and waved his hand, and drew in a deep lungful of smoke, jetting it out like a lance. But when we persisted he looked first cross, and then so weary he looked almost as if he might fall asleep, there and then.

‘Tell us about your time with Cavor,’ we said.

‘There’s nothing to tell,’ he said. But the smoke was already beginning to have its effect. ‘Cavor wasn’t his real name, you know.’

‘Indeed we know. He was the fourth of our Californian clade,’ we said. ‘We do not use names after the manner of your culture. What you must tell us is: where is he now?’

‘In the Moon!’ laughed Bedford. And then he stopped laughing, and instead sighed, and repeated in a low voice. ‘Inside the Moon. I left him there.’

‘You must tell us the truth.’

‘Rum barkers the lot of you,’ said Bedford, running his gaze from one to the other of us. ‘You seem different, but you’re all the same underneath, aren’t you. Cavor talked of his little nest, and it reeked—I mean, his talk reeked of …’ But the man was weeping now, holding his free hand directly in front of his face and weeping. ‘Nothing in my life has been,’ he sobbed. ‘Nothing has been whole since that damned trip!’

‘Tell us,’ we repeated, ‘about your time with Cavor.’

He stopped crying, and sniffed loudly. ‘He said how I miss them, Bedford. It’s like I’m a limb, cut from the body that is whole. I told him not to speak rot. Gold! We needed gold. Half the time he was full of these genius ideas that would make us rich, and half he was wandering like a senile old man, and knocking his chin against the walls, and weeping. He talked of anti-gravity. As if I know the deuce about any anti-gravity, or pro-gravity, or anything-gravity! I’m no partisan where your gravity is concerned, believe me.’

‘You know something about anti-gravity,’ we pointed out, ‘or you wouldn’t have spun that story about flying to the Moon.’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Bedford. ‘Sometimes I forget—it’s all an act, of course, and easy to overdo it. Easy to be too suspiciously obviously the mooncalf. So let’s say: gravity pulls us down. Towards the centre of the Earth. It stands to reason that anti-gravity would push us up. Stands to reason! And who’s to say it wouldn’t push us all the way up—to the Moon!’ He took another puff on his cigar. ‘I must say this smoke is calming my nerves wonderfully. Wonderfully!’

‘We augmented the tobacco in this particular cylinder,’ we said, ‘with a certain neuropharmacon. It will … help you. Help you to tell us the truth. And not to be anxious.’

‘Damnably similar.’ He looked from one to the other of us. ‘Damnably so. Though a sketch artist would show all the differences—moustaches, skin-colour, hair and so on. But just to look at you is … what? What-what? Neuro-cornucopia what-now?’

‘Please Mr Bedford,’ we said. ‘We have no desire to waste your time. It has taken us too long already to track you down. We would prefer to move swiftly along.’

‘It’s as if you’re saying I should, what, drop the act. Is that it? I tell you, though, you spend long enough and it becomes second nature. What-what? Feigned ignorance. A fake name that you use so often it begins to sound like your real name, even to you! The best sort of camouflage is to be considered beneath notice. You know? And you can’t blame me for wanting to hide away. Can you, now.’

‘We can pay your monetary debts,’ we said. ‘Settle all your financial affairs.’ But we were misunderstanding what he meant.

Bedford peered shrewdly at us. ‘What is it you want to know?’

‘We need to know where you went with CA-4. You were the last person to be with him. You are our best chance for recovering him.’ We added, to prompt him: ‘He told you he had invented an anti-gravity substance, yes?’

Bedford drew in another lungful of smoke, and breathed it—insolently enough—straight into our faces. Unused to this toxic habit, we coughed, and our eyes watered. ‘You two, though,’ he said, laughing at our distress, ‘and that other feller, down by the bridge. He’s to keep an eye on our balcony, in case I try to do another runner, I suppose.’

‘A tripod is not a stable walking frame,’ we said. ‘Whatever you implied in your other book. A three-legged horse would fall over, not win the Derby. Do you see?’

‘And Cavor is your fourth leg. Yes, yes. You’re all from the same place. Working on that Cavorite.’

‘Our Californian clade was exploring antigravity. What happened to CA-4 to separate him from the clade was—an accident. And it is imperative, it is most imperative, that we repair that accident. That we find him.’

‘It works both ways, don’t it?’ he said, admiring his cigar. ‘This neuropharmacon.’

This was the point when we realised that Bedford was not so scientifically illiterate as he had been pretending, or as his popular novel had implied. It is fair to say that we experienced a sense of alarm. ‘Mr Bedford,’ we said. ‘If you help us, we can help you. Our meeting can be mutually advantageous. Surely you see that!’

‘I could go further,’ said Bedford, relaxing into his seat, ‘and say that this neuropharmacon doesn’t even work both ways. Let’s say that it works on you, but say also that I happen to have ingested a nanosealant to protect me against such vape-war strategies. When your fourth man popped off, you see, he left his lab behind. His box of tricks. I said it got blown to smithereens, in my novel, of course. But as you have grasped, the novel is not a wholly accurate representation of what happened.’

This was not an encouraging development. ‘It seems we have underestimated you, Mr Bedford,’ we said.

He blew more smoke into our faces. Naturally our third, by the bridge, was unaware that, to use a contemporary idiom, the tables had been turned.

‘It hasn’t done my lungs any good,’ Bedford said. ‘Coating them with that gunk, you know. Coughing and breathless. But it’s armour, isn’t it? A medieval knight doubtless complained about his metal waistcoat pinching. And I do need my as-it-were chain mail against your tricks. Don’t I, now? The sorts of tricks your people employ. You didn't think to protect yourselves, likewise?’

‘We didn't think we needed protection. Not against you.’

‘Didn't really understand who you were up against, I think. So what if you tell me about your … clade, did you say? Its researches in distant California. And we both know what manner of distance we’re talking about.’

‘Antigravity,’ we said. We couldn’t have kept silent if we’d wanted to. ‘Scientists here, in your own day, believe antigravity could be used to power dynamos, or lift great weights. This is a misprision of the terms of the scientific inquiry. In our time we understand gravity rather better.’ He breathed more smoke into our faces, and we relaxed further. ‘But even in your own day,’ we continued, ‘your scientists could have thought-through the implications of the thing better than they did. F = ma is well understood, is it not? Gravity accelerates mass. Antigravity must, logically, deaccelerate it. In the antigravitational situation, the greater force applied to a mass, the greater the inertial resistance to acceleration. So far from flying you to the Moon …’

‘Yes, yes,’ said Bedford, soothingly rather than impatiently. ‘I know all about that, of course. Your fourth explained that much!’

‘Your scientists are only just starting to understand about gravitational time dilation—here it is only a speculation, proposed by your Albert Einstein. Soon it will be confirmed experimentally. Gravity directly impacts time: a clock set close to a supermassive gravitational effect will run more slowly compared to one set far away. Or, we could say, from the point of view of the first clock, it will run at the normal time and the distant clock will race ahead. Orbit close to a black hole, and …’

‘Black hole,’ interrupted Bedford. ‘Your fourth member used that phrase, but he never was able to explain it to me in a way that made me understand it. So skip that part, my boys.’

‘The point,’ we said, ‘is that in an anti-gravitational logic the reverse must hold. The clock closer to the supermassive object will run faster than the one further away. In the normal course of things, to fly your spacecraft close to the black hole—to the cosmic phenomenon you won’t permit us to explain—would be a way of travelling through time into the future. But with anti-gravity, it becomes a way of travelling into the past.’

‘And so here you are,’ said Bedford, complacently.

‘Minus our fourth,’ we pointed out.

‘And you’ve come back in time all the way from … whenever it is, in amongst the centuries to-come. You’ve made it back, though. You invented your anti-gravity in order to travel back, and so you’ve come. Seeking your lost lamb. And here’s my question to you: why hasn’t he made his own way back to you, wagging his tail behind him? Eh? Best as I understand it, travelling forward in time is the easy part. Zoom over to one of these black suns and spin round it for a while. Yes?’

The smoke was making us feel more relaxed than we should have been, but our next statement was both true and the ground of our deepest anxiety. ‘We are fearful that you killed him.’

Bedford grinned at us. But then he shook his head. ‘I didn’t. But, look: he had this craft, this rather fine sphere, big enough for two men to fit comfortably inside.’

‘Big enough for four,’ we interjected.

‘Oh, quite. And the way he explained it: it was a simple matter of flying close to one of these black sun, circling at unimaginable speed, for exactly the right period, and then when you flew back home it would be however-many centuries into the future, such he could meet and greet you all again. All he needed to do was what he had already done, to come back to this age, but without the antigravitational kick. Yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘And yet he didn’t do this. Maybe he didn’t want to go back to your future. Did you ever think of that?’

‘Inconceivable. Something must have gone wrong. And you are certain he is not dead?’

‘Sure as pudding.’

It was not clear to us if this was reassurance or not. ‘But why did he take you with him at all?’ we asked. ‘This is something we do not understand. Why take a passenger at all?’

Bedford’s eyes twinkled. ‘A man must make a living,’ he said. But this, surely, was a non-sequitur. ‘So yes, I wrote my book, under its pseudonym. And I put your fourth-party into it, under the name of Cavor. And I gave the impression that we flew to the Moon. In point of fact, we flew past the Moon on our way to deep-space—very barren and dead it looked, too, as we rolled by. But as I say in my book, it’s perfectly possible to see how barren and dusty the Moon is with Earthly telescopes; and all the things I describe—the lunar dawn melting the frozen atmosphere, the explosive growth of moon-plants, gigantic slug-like mooncalves, well it contradicts itself! If such things happened, then we would have seen them, on Earth. And yet the true believers kept pestering me about the reality of that book! I could say, as with the tripod book you mention, and the other one, about the bicycle and the Eloi—I could say: a man must earn a living in this age. It’s not like the utopia whence you have come!’

‘And yet there is a truth in your novel,’ we pressed. ‘Is there not?’

He leaned forward in his chair, twirling the cigar—now almost burned away—between his nimble fingers. ‘I can see past the disguises you’ve adopted, you know. So I shall call you CA-1 and you CA-3. Let that fellow by the bridge be CA-2.’

We said nothing. The neuropharmacon was relaxing our responses, or we would have been much more agitated.

‘You are proud of your science, in your future world, ain’t you? Flying craft the size of small houses that can slip through the folds of space. Antigravitational pulses that can send you back in time! Mirabile! But you still think of time as linear, don’t you? You think the cosmos started, long ago, and has trundled along the tramline-grooves of its being and at some point, in the far future, will end. Yes?’ Bedford took a last, long draw on the cigar and blew the smoke straight into our faces yet again. Then he tossed the end of the thing over the balcony and into the smoothly flowing Thames. ‘But you’re wrong. Imagine me lecturing you on such a thing! But here it is, and here you are, and that’s the way it is. You’re wrong.’

‘Wrong?’

‘Time is a sphere. The end is the beginning, like a snake with its fangs in its own tail. Except that the manifold is all possible realities, so it is not a simple line circling round on itself. It is a globe. So to speak. That’s the world we left, CA-4 and I. And the Moon we visited was not our humble Earthly satellite—it was a wholly different, though admittedly subaltern, mode of time, one that is positioned in … well, we might as well call it an orbit around our mode of time. That was where CA-4 had wanted to go in the first place, you know. Arriving here, in 1899, on the South Kent coast … that was a false-start.’

‘This orbiting mode of time,’ we said, struggling through the torpor of the neuropharmacon to grasp what he was saying. ‘This Time-Moon, orbiting our Temporal Cosmos … you both visited it?’

‘The first men from this temporal logic ever to enter it! That’s quite the boast, yes? The very first.’

‘And that is where our fourth is? Right now?’

‘Oho,’ said Bedford, shaking his head. ‘Come come: you know better than to use such terms where meta-time-travel is concerned. “Right now”? My dear fellows.’

‘But …’ we urged, struggling against our own drugged states. ‘But … you both went, yet only you returned! Why did you abandon him there? Why did he even take you in the first place?’

Bedford didn’t reply. He was gazing at the river. The afternoon was drawing to a close and the light was sweetening, giving a red-gold tint to the profusion of ripples and speckles of brightness, as if the burning cigar-end had propagated prodigiously and was floating amongst the myriad purple-blue wavelets.

‘What you have to understand,’ he said, still gazing past us, ‘is that this Time-Moon is only the start. Our entire cosmos, with its trillions of galaxies, and trillions of interwoven timelines, rolls itself about into one mighty Temporal Globe. So! And we discover that it is orbited by a smaller Time Sphere—but enter into that and you discover it is nonetheless a cosmos of billions of galaxies and billions of timelines, all folded and woven into one self-logical entity. We barely scratched the surface of that new mode of existing: the Grand Lunar, the alien life, the strange logics of this reality, partly the same as ours and partly different—a new physics of light, for instance, which I render in my novel as a kind of blue luminescence, a darkness visible. It’s hard to express. But here’s the thing, here’s the thing you have to understand—our vast Temporal Sphere, and its orbiting Time Moon, are only the start. There is a meta-cosmos out there, uncountable globes that wrap-about entire alternate physics, some incomparably larger than our own. Here are you, from your tiny corner of this Earthly future, toying with a pebble on the beach, and the entire ocean stretches away, and you barely notice it …’ He stopped. ‘Here we are at the beginning of the twentieth-century, and here are you, travelled from centuries hence, and both of us as like sand-mites from grains of sand an inch apart. Can you not see how trivial and petty all your concerns about this fourth-member of your little clade are?’

‘There is nothing trivial,’ we said, ‘about what binds us. There is nothing trivial about the pain of separation we experience. If CA-4 is in this—this Time-Moon of which you speak, then we must go there and recover him.’

‘Why not?’ laughed Bedford, getting to his feet. ‘Become the second men in the Moon. Be my guest. But I’ll not go with you. I’ve taken a liking to my life in this place, at this time.’

‘Why,’ we asked, ‘would we even want you to come?’ But realisation was starting to dawn on us. Painfully, and slowly. Perhaps we would have understood sooner if the neuropharmacon hadn’t been working in our systems.

‘You’re struck by how much older I look than my chronological age,’ said Bedford, buttoning his coat. ‘That’s because I returned from my time-jaunt to an earlier moment. Then, under a pseudonym, I wrote my early books—naturally, my first was about time travel, because that was so very prominently on my mind. My imagination is not so fertile as to invent all that, you know! But, as I say: a man must live. And although the separation was painful at first, do you know, I have come to savour it. Can you believe it? It’s true. A sort of escape, we might say. An escape from the enforced virtue of the clade.’

‘No,’ we groaned.

‘Of course I went alone. Why would I collect a random stranger from this time period? Why would I want a passenger? It was just me. But things are … things are different inside the Time-Moon. It altered me. The gold in my novel is code for a kind of knowledge, and the Grand Lunar is … well, I haven’t time to go into all the details. But the tiresome utopian moralities of the clade are behind me now. Four I may still be, but a wicked recreation of myself. So I call myself BAD-4, and the locals hear it as Bedford and that’s good enough for me. Oh, and I am having the time of my life, my old friends! I am using this epoch as my stage, and exploring all the wickednesses. Eventually I shall have to leave, of course, and go elsewhere. But there’s no hurry. And when I do, I shall have not only all the possible pasts and futures of this universe in which to hide, but all the possible pasts and futures in all the Time-Spheres in all the Oververse too. Do you really think you could find me, my little sand-ticks, in such a vastness?’

With that he left us, and strolled into the main building of the hotel. CA-2, by the bridge, saw him move, and hurried up to the balcony. ‘Why did you let him go?’ he demanded. ‘Why not use our weaponry? Did he …?’ But CA-2 could see that we were weeping, weeping, weeping, and so he stopped, and sat down beside us, and soon enough he understood as we understood.

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