Can immortal man ever outwit the airlines? What if dumb animals could be trained to 'appreciate' the communications media of the human world? How does Number 38, Zone 11, respond when he sees a U.F.O? What happens to Slippage City when the Devil decides to think big? These - plus a remarkable sex comedy - are some of the intriguing themes of Element 79, the new Hoyle galaxy that ranges the full scientific spectrum and beyond into the furthest reaches of the imagination. Author Fred Hoyle is an internationally renowned astronomer and much of his fiction is rooted in the realm of what is possible - scientifically and psychologically - on earth and in space, in the present and the future. His visions of his fellow humans is disquieting, hilarious, and sometimes frightening; his social commentary is often etched in acid. In Element 79 Mr Hoyle steps forward to take a backward glance at the world - deftly balancing his followers between the unreal and the real, between a chuckle and a shudder.
Release date: June 24, 2015
Print pages: 168
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It fell out as I had planned. I reached Killin not much after ten A.M., found a caravan site, bought fresh meat and other provisions in the town, and set off for Glen Lyon, with the intention of walking up Meall Ghaordie. The afternoon was as fine and beautiful as it could possibly be. I quitted the car at the nearest point to my mountain and set off across the lower bogland. I moved upward at a deliberately slow pace, in part because this was my first day on the hills, in part because the sun was hot. I remember the myriads of tiny colored flowers under my feet. It took about two hours to the summit. I sat down there and munched a couple of apples. Then I laid myself flat on a grassy knoll, using my rucksack for a pillow. The early start and the warm day together had made me distinctly sleepy. It was not more than a minute, I suppose, before I nodded off.
I have fallen asleep quite a number of times on a mountain top. The wakening always produces a slight shock, presumably because you are heavily conditioned to waking indoors. There is always a perceptible moment during which you hunt for your bearings. It was so on this occasion, except the shock was deeper. There was a first moment when I expected to be in a normal bedroom, then a moment in which I remembered that by rights I should be on the summit of a mountain, then a moment when I had become aware of the place where I had in fact awakened and knew it was not at all the right place, not the summit of Meall Ghaordie.
The room I was in was a large rectangular box. I scrambled to my feet and started to inspect the place. Perhaps it may seem absurd to imply that a boxlike room needed inspection, particularly when it was quite empty. Yet there were two very queer things about it. The light was artificial, for the box was wholly opaque and closed, except where a passageway opened out of one of the walls. The distribution of the light was strange. For the life of me I simply could not determine where it was coming from. There were no obvious bulbs or tubes. It almost seemed as if the walls themselves were aglow. They were composed of some material which looked to my inexpert eye merely like one of the many new forms of plastic. But in that case how could light be coming out of such a material?
The box was not nearly as large as I had at first thought. The dimensions in fact were roughly thirty by fifty feet, the height about twenty feet. The lighting produced the impression of a place the size of a cathedral, an effect I have noticed before in underground caves.
The second strange thing was my sense of balance. Not that I found it difficult to stand or anything crude like that. When climbing a mountain the legs quickly become sensitive to balance. If I had not just come off a mountain, it is likely the difference would have passed unnoticed. Yet I could feel a difference of some kind, slight but definite.
My explorations naturally led to the passageway, which didn’t go straight for very far. Round a bend I came to a forking point. I paused to remember the division. There were more twists and turns, so that soon I had the strong impression of being in a maze. It gave me the usual moment of panic, of feeling I had lost my way. Then I reflected I had no “way” to lose. Instantly I became calm again and simply strolled where my fancy dictated. The passage eventually brought me back to the large boxlike room. There in the middle of it was my rucksack, the rucksack against which I had laid my head on the summit of Meall Ghaordie. I tried several times and always I came back to the boxlike room. Although the passages had the semblance of a multitude of branches, this also was an illusion. In fact there were eight distinct ways through the system. I managed to get the time required for a single “transit” of the passageways down to about ninety seconds, so the whole arrangement, if not actually poky, was not very large in size. It was just that it was made to seem large.
I did still another turn through the passageways and was startled on this occasion to hear running feet ahead of me. My heart thumped madly, for although I might have seemed calm outwardly, fear was never very far from my side. Around the corner ahead burst a girl of about eighteen or so clad in a dressing gown. At the sight of me, standing there blocking the passageway, she let out a nerve-shattering scream. She stood for twenty or thirty seconds and then flung herself with extreme violence into my arms. “Where are we?” she sobbed, “where are we?” She went on repeating her question, clutching me with a good, powerful muscular grip. Without in any way exceeding natural propriety, I held her closely; it was a natural enough thing to do in the circumstances. Suddenly I felt an acute nausea sweep through me, akin to the late stages of seasickness. The clinch between us dissolved in a flash, for the girl must have felt the same sickness, since she instantly burst out with a violent fit of vomiting.
We both stood there panting. I steadied myself against the wall of the passageway for my knees felt weak. “And who might you be?”
“Giselda Horne,” she answered. The voice was American.
“You’d better take that thing off,” I said, indicating the dressing gown, now the worse for wear from the sickness.
“I suppose so. I was in a room down here when I came to.” The girl led the way to a box, precisely square as far as I could tell, opening out of the very passageway. I felt certain I must have passed this spot many times, but there had been no opening before. Giselda Horne staggered into the box, moaning slightly. I made to follow but soon stopped. I was only just inside when another wave of sickness hit me in the pit of the stomach. Some instinct prompted me to step back into the passage. As I did so, silently and rapidly a panel slid back closing off the box. With the double attack I was hard put to it to take any action, but I did manage to shout through to the girl and to bang my fist on the panel. If she made any answer I was unable to hear it.
I tried to walk off the sickness by touring through and through the system of passages, but to no avail. I felt just as rotten as before. At quite some length, for I must have gone through the system many times by other routes before I found it, I came on exactly such a square box as Giselda Horne had gone into. With some apprehension I stepped inside it. Two things happened. A similar panel slid closed behind me, and within thirty seconds the sickness had gone.
This box was a cube with sides about twelve feet. It contained absolutely nothing except a heavy metal door, set into one of the walls, which opened to a moderate tug. Inside was a volume about the size of a fairish oven, in which I found a platter covered with stuff. Before I could examine it further the nausea started again. This time it seemed as if I too would reach the vomiting stage. Just in time the panel slid open and I staggered into the passage with the irrational thought that I must reach the toilet before my stomach hit the roof. Out in the passage the sickness dropped steeply away. In minutes I felt quite normal again. Then suddenly it started up once more, the paneling opened, as if to invite me back into the box, and once inside the sickness was gone. The process was repeated thrice more, in and out of the box. Long before the end of the lesson I knew exactly what it meant—move in, move out, to orders. From where? I had no idea, but one thing the lesson had done for me, my fears had quite gone. Manifestly I was under some kind of surveillance, a surveillance whose mode of operation I couldn’t remotely guess. Yet instead of my fears being increased, the exact opposite happened. From this point on, I was not only outwardly calm but I was inwardly master of myself.
With the passing of the sickness I felt quite hungry. Apart from a light lunch on the slopes of Meall Ghaordie, my last meal had been at five A.M. on the Scottish border. I tried the stuff on the platter in the oven. It was neither pleasant nor unpleasant, about like vegetable marrow. How nutritive it was I couldn’t tell at all, so I simply ate until I was no longer hungry.
Next I noticed the floor was softer here than it was in the passage or than it was in the big rectangular box. It would be quite tolerable to sleep on. It was harder than the usual bed, but after the first two or three days it would seem comfortable enough. What about a toilet? There was nothing here in the box at all appropriate to a toilet. So how did one fare if taken short with the panel closed? I determined to put the matter to test. I made preparations to use the floor of the box itself. I didn’t get very far, nor had I expected to do. The sickness came, the panel slid by, and within a minute I found a new box opening out off the passage. Stepping inside I discovered one large and one small compartment. The small compartment was obviously the privy, for it had a hole about a foot in diameter in its floor. I made the best use of it I could, wondering what I should do for toilet paper. My thoughts on this somewhat embarrassing subject were interrupted by a veritable deluge descending on my head from above. I hopped out of the smaller compartment into the larger one. Here the downpour was somewhat less intense, about the intensity of a good powerful shower. Within seconds I was soaked to the skin. The shower stopped and I began to peel off my sodden clothes. I had just about stripped when the shower started up, again. Evidently it went off periodically, every three or four minutes in the fashion of a pissoir. Stripped naked, I was heartily glad of the downpour, for I had sweated fairly profusely in my walk up the mountain. Clearly the liquid coming down on my head was essentially water, but it had a soapy feel about it. I stood up to about half a dozen bouts, in which I washed out my clothes as best I could. Then I carried the whole dripping caboodle back to my box. It would take several hours, I thought, for the heavier garments, particularly the trousers, to dry out, so I resolved to try for some sleep. As I dozed off I wondered what items I might lack for in this singular situation. I had no razor, but then why not grow a beard? By the greatest good fortune I always carry a small pair of scissors in my rucksack. At least I could eat, keep clean, and cut my nails.
I slept much longer than I intended, nearly ten hours. When I awoke I noticed the box door, cell door if you like, was open. Before touring again through the passageways, or patronizing the privy with its remarkable drenching qualities, I tested the metal oven door. A new platter was there, piled high with the same vegetable marrow stuff.
My clothes were snuff dry. So the humidity had to be quite low, as I had thought was probably the case. I trotted along to the showers in my underpants only, for these would easily be dried should I misjudge the pissoir. Fortunately the panel was open, and it remained open from that time on, so far as I am aware, so I waited for the flush, then darted in and darted out before the thing fired itself for the next occasion. At the best of times my mountaineering clothes are distinctly rough. After their recent wetting and drying they were now baggy and down-at-heel in the extreme. I saw no point in putting on my boots and simply went barefoot, rather like a shipwrecked mariner.
I padded along the passage knowing that sooner or later I would reach the “cathedral,” as I had come to think of the big rectangular box. Another box was open, different certainly from mine, and different, I thought, from that of Giselda Horne. I was just on the point of stepping inside when a voice behind me said “hello” in a foreign accent. I turned to find an Indian of uncertain middle age standing there. He stared rather wildly for perhaps thirty seconds and reached for support against the wall. To my surprise he went on, “It is not the stomach sickness. It is a matter of shock to see you, sir, for I attended a lecture you gave in Bombay last year. Professor Wycombe, is it?”
“I did give a lecture in Bombay. You were in the audience?”
“Yes, but you will not remember me. It was a rather large audience. Daghri is my name, sir.”
We shook hands. “You have been in the big room, sir?”
“Yes, many times.”
“Yesterday. That is to say, before I slept. Perhaps ten hours ago.”
“Then you will find it has changed.”
Daghri and I hurried along the passages until we emerged into the cathedral. On the walls now were a mass of points of light, stars obviously. The projection onto the flat surfaces introduced distortions, of course, but this apart we were looking up at a complete representation of the heavens, both hemispheres.
“What does it mean, sir?” whispered the Indian.
For the moment I made no attempt to answer this critical question. I asked Daghri to tell me how he came to be there. He said he remembered walking out in the evening in the Indian countryside. Then suddenly, in a flash, it seemed, he was in this big cathedral room. It appeared almost as if he had walked around a corner in the road to find himself, not in the countryside anymore, but right there in the middle of this room, more or less at the exact spot where I myself had wakened.
Accepting that both Daghri and I were sane, there could only be one explanation. “Daghri, it must be that we are in some enormous spaceship. This display here on the walls represents the view from the ship. We’re seeing the pilot’s view out into space.”
“My difficulty with that thought, sir, is to find the Sun.”
I pointed to the bright patch lighting the entrance to the passageway. “That I think must be the Sun.”
“Is there any way to make sure of this, sir?”
“Quite easily. All we need do is sit and watch. The motion of the ship, if we are in a ship, must produce changes in the planets. We only need to watch the brighter objects.”
Within half an hour we had it, the apparent motion of the Earth itself, for the Earth-Moon combination was easy to pick out, once you looked in the right direction. Within an hour or so we had Venus and Mars, and already we knew the rough direction we were traveling—toward the constellation of Scorpius. We also knew the approximate speed of the ship, something above two thousand miles an hour. Reckoning the ship to be accelerating smoothly, and trusting to time from my watch, I was able to check the acceleration itself. It was quite close to ordinary gravity, a bit larger than gravity as I calculated it. This might well be the difference I had noticed in my legs right at the beginning.
It was while we were thus watching the display on the walls of the cathedral that the others slowly filtered in, one by one over a period of about five hours. The first to appear was a sandy-haired man going a bit thin on top. He announced himself as being of the name Bill Bailey, a butcher from Rotherham, Yorkshire, and where the hell was he, he’d like to know, and where was the bacon and eggs, and who was the bird he’d seen in the bloody showers, half-naked she was, but he didn’t object to that, the more naked the better so far as he was concerned. For a badly frightened man it was a good performance. Although I never took to Bill Bailey, the never-ending stream of ribald remarks which issued from his lips served in the months ahead to lighten a thoroughly grim situation, at any rate so far as I was concerned.
There were two other men and four women, making a total of nine captives. Of the whole nine of us, only two had been acquainted before, Giselda Horne and Ernst Schmidt, a German industrialist. Schmidt and the girl’s father were in the same line of business, meat-packing, and Schmidt had been visiting the Horne family in Chicago. He and Giselda had been swimming in the household pool when the “snatch,” as I liked to call it, had taken place. Schmidt had suddenly found hims. . .
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