There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Hawksbill Station by Robert Silverberg (1967)

"Hawksbill Station" (1967) is a lovely prose novella by Robert Silverberg. It creates an entire world-rationale and then reverses it, all in about fifty pages.


Plot: Rulers in the early 2020s get rid of their incorrigible political agitators by sending them on a one-way trip to 1 Billion B.C.


....There were no harmful physiological effects to time-travel, but it could be a jolt to the consciousness. The last moments before the Hammer descended were very much like the final moments beneath the guillotine. 

     The departing prisoner took his last look at the world of rocket transport and artificial organs, at the world in which he had lived and loved and agitated for a political cause, and then he was rammed into the inconceivably remote past on a one-way journey. It was a gloomy business, and it was not very surprising that the newcomers arrived in a state of emotional shock. 

     Barrett elbowed his way through the crowd. Automatically, the others made way for him. He reached the lip of the Anvil and leaned over it, extending a hand to the new man. His broad smile was met by a look of blank bewilderment. 

     "I'm Jim Barrett. Welcome to Hawksbill Station. Here —get off that thing before a load of groceries lands on top of you." Wincing a little as he shifted his weight, Barrett pulled the new man down from the Anvil. 

     Barrett beckoned to Mel Rudiger, and the plump anarchist handed the new man an alcohol capsule. He took it and pressed it to his arm without a word. Charley Norton offered him a candy bar. The man shook it off. He looked groggy. A real case of temporal shock, Barrett thought, possibly the worst he had ever seen. The newcomer hadn't even spoken yet. 

     Barrett said, "We'll go to the infirmary and check you out. Then I'll assign you your quarters. There's time for you to find your way around and meet everybody later on. What's your name?" 

     "Hahn. Lew Hahn." 

     "I can't hear you." 

     "Hahn," the man repeated, still only barely audible. 

     "When are you from, Lew?" 

     "2029." 

     "You feel pretty sick?" 

     "I feel awful. I don't even believe this is happening to me. There's no such place as Hawksbill Station, is there?" 

     "I'm afraid there is," Barrett said. "At least, for most of us. A few of the boys think it's all an illusion induced by drugs. But I have my doubts of that. If it's an illusion, it's a damned good one. Look." 

     

     He put one arm around Hahn's shoulders and guided him through the press of prisoners, out of the Hammer chamber and toward the nearby infirmary. Although Hahn looked thin, even fragile, Barrett was surprised to feel the rippling muscles in those shoulders. He suspected that this man was a lot less helpless and ineffectual than he seemed to be right now. He had to be, in order to merit banishment to Hawksbill Station. 

     They passed the door of the building. "Look out there," Barrett commanded. 

     Hahn looked. He passed a hand across his eyes as though to clear away unseen cobwebs and looked again. 

     "A late Cambrian landscape," said Barrett quietly. "This would be a geologist's dream, except that geologists don't tend to become political prisoners, it seems. Out in front is Appalachia. It's a strip of rock a few hundred miles wide and a few thousand miles long, from the Gulf of Mexico to Newfoundland. To the east we've got the Atlantic. A little way to the west we've got the Inland Sea. Somewhere two thousand miles to the west there's Cascadia; that's going to be California and Washington and Oregon someday. Don't hold your breath. I hope you like seafood." 

     Hahn stared, and Barrett, standing beside him at the doorway, stared also. You never got used to the alienness of this place, not even after you lived here twenty years, as Barrett had. It was Earth, and yet it was not really Earth at all, because it was somber and empty and unreal. The gray oceans swarmed with life, of course. But there was nothing on land except occasional patches of moss in the occasional patches of soil that had formed on the bare rock. Even a few cockroaches would be welcome; but insects, it seemed, were still a couple of geological periods in the future. To land-dwellers, this was a dead world, a world unborn. 

     Shaking his head, Hahn moved away from the door. 

     Barrett led him down the corridor and into the small, brightly lit room that served as the infirmary. Doc Quesada was waiting. Quesada wasn't really a doctor, but he had been a medical technician once, and that was good enough. He was a compact, swarthy man with a look of complete self-assurance. He hadn't lost too many patients, all things considered. 

     Barrett had watched him removing appendices with total aplomb. In his white smock, Quesada looked sufficiently medical to fit his role. 

     Barrett said, "Doc, this is Lew Hahn. He's in temporal shock. Fix him up." 

     Quesada nudged the newcomer onto a webfoam cradle and unzipped his blue jersey. Then he reached for his medical kit. Hawksbill Station was well equipped for most medical emergencies, now. The people Up Front had no wish to be inhumane, and they sent back all sorts of useful things, like anesthetics and surgical clamps and medicines and dermal probes. 

     Barrett could remember a time at the beginning when there had been nothing much here but the empty huts, and a man who hurt himself was in real trouble. 

     "He's had a drink already," said Barrett. 

     "I see that," Quesada murmured. He scratched at his short-cropped, bristly moustache. The little diagnostat in the cradle had gone rapidly to work, flashing information about Harm's blood pressure, potassium count, dilation index, and much else. Quesada seemed to comprehend the barrage of facts. After a moment he said to Hahn, "You aren't really sick, are you? Just shaken up a little. I don't blame you. Here—I'll give you a quick jolt to calm your nerves, and you'll be all right. As all right as any of us ever are." 

     He put a tube to Hahn's carotid and thumbed the snout. The subsonic whirred, and a tranquilizing compound slid into the man's bloodstream. 

     Hahn shivered. 

     Quesada said, "Let him rest for five minutes. Then he'll be over the hump." 

     They left Hahn in his cradle and went out of the infirmary. In the hall, Barrett looked down at the little medic and said, "What's the report on Valdosto?" 

     Valdosto had gone into psychotic collapse several weeks before. 

     Quesada was keeping him drugged and trying to bring him slowly back to the reality of Hawksbill Station. Shrugging, he replied, "The status is quo. 

     I let him out from under the dream-juice this morning, and he was the same as he's been." 

     "You don't think he'll come out of it?" 

     "I doubt it. He's cracked for keeps. They could paste him together Up Front, but—" 

     

     "Yeah," Barrett said. If he could get Up Front at all, Valdosto wouldn't have cracked. "Keep him happy, then. If he can't be sane, he can at least be comfortable. What about Altman? Still got the shakes?" 

     "He's building a woman." 

     "That's what Charley Norton told me. What's he using? A rag, a bone—" 

     "I gave him surplus chemicals. Chosen for their color, mainly. He's got some foul green copper compounds and a little bit of ethyl alcohol and six or seven other things, and he collected some soil and threw in a lot of dead shellfish, and he's sculpting it all into what he claims is female shape and waiting for lightning to strike it." 

     "In other words, he's gone crazy," Barrett said. 

     "I think that's a safe assumption. But he's not molesting his friends any more, anyway. You didn't think his; homosexual phase would last much longer, as I recall." 

     "No, but I didn't think he'd go off the deep end. If a man needs sex and he can find some consenting playmates here, that's quite all right with me.  But when he starts putting a woman together out of some dirt and rotten brachiopod meat it means we've lost him." 

     Quesada's dark eyes flickered. "We're all going to go that way sooner or later, Jim." 

     "I haven't. You haven't." 

     "Give us time. I've only been here eleven years." 

     "Altman's been here only eight. Valdosto even less." 

     "Some shells crack faster than others," said Quesada. "Here's our new friend."


***


All the inmates at the station have deviated from the beam of sanity. Some more than others. Most are middle class left super-sectarians. Silverberg seems to know the type intimately.


All the exiles experience the poignancy of this predicament. Some adjust. Others cannot. New inmate Hahn disturbs all their semi-sane (or not) routines.


....Hahn sniffed. "Why does the air smell so strange?"


"It's a different mix," Barrett said. "We've analyzed it. More nitrogen, a little less oxygen, hardly any CO2 at all. But that isn't really why it smells odd to you. The thing is, it's pure air, unpolluted by the exhalations of life. Nobody's been respiring into it but us lads, and there aren't enough of us to matter."


Smiling, Hahn said, " I feel a little cheated that it's so empty. I expected lush jungles of weird plants, and pterodactyls swooping through the air, and maybe a tyrannosaur crashing into a fence around the Station."


"No jungles. No pterodactyls. No tyrannosaurs. No fences. You didn't do your homework."


"Sorry."


"This is the Late Cambrian. Sea life exclusively."


"It was very kind of them to pick such a peaceful era as the dumping ground for political prisoners," Hahn said. "I was afraid it would be all teeth and claws."


"Kind, hell! They were looking for an era where we couldn't do any harm. That meant tossing us back before the evolution of mammals, just in case we'd accidentally get hold of the ancestor of all humanity and snuff him out. And while they were at it, they decided to stash us so far in the past that we'd be beyond all land life, on the theory that maybe even if we slaughtered a baby dinosaur it might affect the entire course of the future."


"They don't mind if we catch a few trilobites?"


"Evidently they think it's safe," Barrett said. "It looks as though they were right. Hawksbill Station has been here for twenty-five years, and it doesn't seem as though we've tampered with future history in any measurable way. Of course, they're careful not to send us any women."


"Why is that?"


"So we don't start reproducing and perpetuating ourselves. Wouldn't that mess up the time-lines? A successful human outpost in One Billion B.C., that's had all that time to evolve and mutate and grow? By the time the twenty-first century came around, our descendants would be in charge and the other kind of human being would probably be in penal servitude, and there'd be more paradoxes created than you could shake a trilobite at. So they don't send the women here. There's a prison camp for women, too, but it's a few hundred million years up the time line in the Late Silurian, and never the twain shall meet. That's why Ned Altman's trying to build a woman out of dust and garbage."


***


The tale in full, and worth reading, can be found here




Jay

30 April 2020







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