Saturday, July 2, 2011

"The New World Man" by Jonathan P. Hooper (chapter 4: The Heavenly City)

The lab had disappeared, and Dyson with it. I was in an outdoor place. A cool twilight breeze struck my face, a huge relief after breathing artificially for such a long time. My surroundings were utterly new and strange – the Cambridge village I knew was gone, and in its place there was a road, a road much wider than any I had yet seen, stretching away into the distance.

It was as if I had shrunk, as if the universe had taken on much grander dimensions. The concrete of the road was split, riven with cracks from which grass was sprouting, with the result that it brought to mind an ancient Roman highway. There weren’t pleasant hedgerows, such as I was used to seeing, only flat untilled fields stretching away towards the horizon, and beyond them what seemed to be a great city of grey, featureless buildings.

Beside the road, in the place where I was standing and where the Time Machine had come to rest, there were the leaning skeletons of houses, old ruins, with not much to speak of in the way of roofs or sheltering walls. I saw that there were a few such buildings scattered about on either side of the highway, and that this had obviously been a village once. Stepping through the broken doorframe of a house, I came level with the road and stood gaping in wonder: had I moved in space as well as Time? Dyson had let out nothing of the machine’s ability to move across the spatial dimension, yet I had evidently done so.

The city, however, was like none I had ever seen, unless of course its appearance was being distorted by distance. There was none of that grand Victorian gothic in its architecture, nor yet did it display the manly ugliness of a slum; this was something much more dreadful, in its way, to my eyes: great masses of shapeless concrete rose like blank, featureless towers against the evening sky. It was a nightmare of tastelessness, and for some curious reason I found myself wondering what Ruskin would have made of such crude functionalism – functionalism, yes, because the purpose of these towers could hardly be aesthetic.

I did not stand looking for long, for there arose a sound, filling my ears, that was like the roar of a steam train. I looked in every direction, but saw nothing. I was not fool enough, of course, to stand there contemplating the source of the noise, so I climbed back through the doorway of the ruined house and made to enter the machine, fear giving speed to my movements. But no sound followed the first, and so eventually I climbed out again to get a better bearing on my surroundings.

It was then, looking in the direction of the city, that I saw the object moving through the air. It was a kind of flying machine, shrunken by distance but obviously of some considerable size, hovering a few feet above the first of the grey towers. I had seen some strange designs before in my own age, fantastical flying machines, but none were fated to reach the air and fly as that distant shape did. The speed of the thing astounded me: I had not thought, before that time, such motion possible. The strangest thing was that the shape did not seem to have wings – rather it resembled, to my native eyes, a hovering steam engine, though it produced no visible smoke.

A clear-eyed account would seem to be called for: the object was, given allowance for my unsure perspective and distance, about the size of a typical engine of my own day. It was metallic and painted dark green, with a cylindrical body in which there were three long windows on either side, along with a window at the front and back. At one end of the cylinder, presumably where the cockpit was situated, there was a golden metallic nose which indicated the direction in which the thing was moving. The machine, I was later to learn, was called a hover car.

In a few moments several more of the flying machines appeared, hovering near the city, with only the faintest drone of sound accompanying their movement (the roar I had heard being caused, obviously, by the fact that the machine had flown directly over my head). It occurred to me that here was a danger Dyson hadn’t anticipated, given that the Time Machine entered unknown space – what if it collided with a moving object, or emerged in a space already taken up by some existing object (hadn’t it, after all, narrowly escaped collision with the ruin)? It would be destroyed, and at best my means of return lost. At worse, I would be killed at once. I counted myself lucky, and almost found myself thanking some silent god, had not reason intervened and sent me towards a smiling recognition of the traces of my childhood superstition. Thus I did not allow myself to go far along this line of thinking, standing there watching these strange-shaped vehicles flitting like insects about the city. My dread of the strange place conquered by fascination, I took it on myself to start following the road and making my way to the city. For the moment, I had to rely on the Time Machine being safe in its present position.

With the light swiftly fading, I could see, in the growing dark as I marched along the road, that this was a city of a thousand lights, that the mass of featureless concrete became, at sundown, a much more glittering prospect. I found myself revising my opinion of the place – it now seemed like a grand palace, glimpsed from far away, with a lamp burning in each of a thousand windows. They all started to glitter at once, and I had a momentary vision of an army of workers, like little ants, charged with lighting the lamps to meet the dark. For how else was this accomplished? It appeared a shining city, a heaven across the fields, and I went towards it with a newfound willingness.

I found myself wondering, as my progress took me to the edges of the glittering city, how far into the future I had plunged, and what the name of this place was. Glimpsed closer up, it indeed appeared a heavenly place, a settlement of steepling towers clustered with lights of angelic brightness. I walked closer with growing awe. My early disappointment at seeing the grey buildings was now forgotten, and I walked like a pilgrim toward this wonder of progress, this miracle of man. I scarcely noticed the ruins around me, on either side of the road; the shells of houses, the crumbling walls barely visible amidst the knotted bramble bushes, the black pits scarring the ground.

As I reached the edges of the city, the first line of buildings soon obscured my view of the skyline, and concrete walls rose up to meet me, more than a hundred feet high from their base. I realized, that without noticing, I had left behind the cracked road, and that here in the city itself there were wide avenues properly maintained. The concrete towers were built with mathematical precision, each a mirror image of the next, with variation only in the height of the buildings. The windows, and the chain of lanterns that hung above the roads, were lit with a brightness that spoke of some new kind of gaslight. I stopped beneath one of the lampposts and regarded it: the chain of lamps, spanning the road and fixed on the other side to a similar post, lit the surroundings with dazzling luminosity; studying one of the lanterns, though it was far beyond reach, I saw it held some kind of glowing wire that I couldn’t fathom.

As I walked through street after street, not daring to risk the lighted doorways of the towers, the few people I came across stared at me with blatant curiosity; it was true that my manner of dress must have looked alien to them, since their own looked thus to me and without any sense of style; they wore ragged-looking, mismatched clothes, hung loosely and shapelessly upon their bodies. None of them spoke to me, and I decided to pose no questions, realising that my appearance already led to something of a spectacle. What could I say to them? What if I told them that I was a traveller from the past, a traveller between dimensions and worlds? They would doubtless think me deserving to be locked up, declared insane, and so I said nothing.

At length I found myself deeper in the city proper, standing on a wide avenue that ran between a sea of glittering towers. I could not believe the light, the total conquest of darkness. Here also the air was thin and sanitized, lacking any taint of dust or smog, unlike the London of my day, where they choked the air and blotted out the heavens. Where were the smoke-belching factories? Had the industrial revolution taken some new turn, cured itself of its evils? Here was a great urban sprawl, yet it was free of hellish mills and slum pits. The air could be breathed. I found myself smiling: here, at last, was progress. How many times had I had the same conversation with Dyson: science would eventually correct all its mistakes. Here was a city of the future, a heavenly Jerusalem descended to earth.

Most remarkable of all to me were the flying machines, moving smoothly now in the black sky above the towers, without the thunderous noise that had startled me upon emerging from the Time Machine. They drifted against the rooftops in an endless stream, moving like trams upon an invisible wire. The night was alive with music and noise, and people streamed like pilgrims into the populous areas. I followed what seemed to be a swelling crowd. They were moving towards a wide square with a statue in the middle, if statue it was, for it appeared to resemble nothing on earth except perhaps an insane person’s sketches of human symmetry; abstract art, I have since heard it called. I tried to blend among the crowd, conscious that I was being stared at. But soon enough the crowd thickened, and started to flow towards the steps of a large building with Romanesque architecture. Despite its classical style, it looked like a new place, and thus gave me no clue to where I was.

There was much noise and excitement. Many members of the crowd carried flags and banners with emblems I did not understand: a single eye, like a Masonic symbol, was one of the most prominent, but there were also others: a dove, a laurel wreath, a lion and a unicorn, amongst other stranger and more arcane ones. A speaker mounted the steps of the building and raised what looked like some futuristic kind of megaphone.

When he began to speak his voice filled the whole square. “Welcome,” his voice boomed. “Welcome friends. It is good to see you turn out in such numbers. We are here in the spirit of brotherhood, to take a stand against the Department of Supernaturalism. We may be from diverse backgrounds, and our beliefs may be dissimilar, but there is the one essential thing that we have in common: we desire the freedom to practice our beliefs. I am here, blowing the horn of the ram, calling for an end to the Department’s persecution of our leaders. Countless mystics, spiritualists, faith healers, astrologers, magicians, theosophists, cabalists - all abducted in the past month, and no doubt many more on their list, myself included. But we will not hide. No, brothers and sisters! We are here to make our presence felt, to voice our outrage, come what may. Men of faith and women of the mysteries languish in the Department’s dungeons, left to rot without proper trial or hearing. The list of martyrs grows long. We have gathered here to demand that the abductions stop, to demand that our incarcerated brothers and sisters return to us.

“We are here to let the Department know that our belief cannot be extinguished by fear and terror. We are here to let them know that the rise in Materialism has not made one scrap of difference to absolute reality, the reality of the supernatural world. Let them try to break our resistance: we will stand united!”

A huge cheer welled up. I didn’t entirely comprehend the import of the speaker’s words, but it seemed that the protest was a gathering of religious-minded people and cranks. I did not know – the leaders he was referring to may have been radicals or anarchists, so I thought it best not to make quick judgments. What interested me more was that the religious were marginalized in the city. Was absolute freedom of thought such a high price to pay, I wondered, when primitivism was the thing in question? Better that the light pierce their minds. If this were an age of reason, an age of cool rationalism where science swept away the last remnants of supernatural belief, I was in favour of it. It was ironic, after all, that I found myself among such a crowd: I, one of the leading atheists of my day.

For some reason, I found myself looking up while the speaker droned on. Rising above the Romanesque pediment were towers of light and glass, and beyond that a sky specked with stars. I noticed lights moving up there, far beyond the sky, in the heavens themselves – lights that could not be stars blinking on and off, and wondered what they were. Were these the fantastical airships of scientific fiction? Had man conquered space as well?

In that moment, little would have shaken my belief in the civilising impulse of my heavenly city, as I had already toyed with calling it. It did not occur to me to ponder whether these protesters were justified in their complaints; nor did I agonize long over what the Department of Supernaturalism implied. I was to find out later, however.

So it happened that I was gazing up at the moving lights, the craft of the air, at the time the bombardment occurred. I spotted the craft at the moment of its appearance. My eyes followed its descent; it did not occur to me to shout anything, to warn the others; indeed, as an alien I had no grasp of the expected behaviour of such machines.

It was about sixty or seventy feet above us, its descent furtive as a spider’s upon a thread of silk, when one in the crowd noticed the thing and gave out a cry. All along I had watched in silent wonder, somewhat afraid but trusting my new environment and careful not to transgress its modes of behaviour.

Cylindrical in shape, windowless, somewhat smaller than the hover cars, the machine was dropping vertically out of the sky, its advancing front end, resembling a long steel proboscis, moving independently of its body, twitching from side to side, as if feeling the air like an insect does. As soon as the machine was spotted, the probe at the front began to retract into the body, and the device righted itself until it was hovering horizontally. Then suddenly the probe at its front end flexed outwards again and, with a pulsating movement, threw out a great jet of light or fire straight into the heart of the crowd.

There was an explosion of flame, and all at once the point in the square the jet had burst upon – somewhere in the centre of the mass of people – became a charred patch of smoke and blackened bodies. Where moments before a dozen or more people had been standing, there was just a black space, the skeletons of men and women still standing upright like the stumps of trees after a fire has razed a forest.

The crowd started to panic and move in all directions. There was a great crush of bodies, with people yelling and stampeding; the speaker, meanwhile, had dove for cover, dropping his megaphone and falling forward into the crowd.

The probe on the machine retracted again and quickly discharged a second shot: another burst of flame struck the crowd, this time nearer the building’s steps. As the people moved to escape, I found it hard to keep my feet and found myself staggering forward with the rest.

The panic that had greeted the machine’s arrival now turned to a kind of madness. I found myself struggling to keep from being crushed to death in the swell of bodies; behind us, evidently a third great burst of fire broke upon the fleeing crowd, for I heard the explosion and smelled the charnel-house smell of incinerated flesh. Escape for me, at least, was possible, since I had been late joining the crowd and was already near the edge of the square. Thus it was with enormous relief that I reached the cover of a narrow, brightly-lit street. In front of me there were several dozen men and women, all now fleeing without looking back.

About half way down the street, and with my heart pounding, I took refuge in a doorway where, moments before, one of the fleeing men had run. There was no sign of him now: a closed white door faced me, and the pillared entranceway gave scant cover. As I was standing there, a voice came on a megaphone: it reached us from above, perhaps from the hovering cylinder itself: “Let this be a warning to you all,” it said. “Further acts of insurrection will be dealt with in the same way. Return to your homes at once.”

It did not seem wise to remain where I was, so I made up my mind to set off again, just in case the threat was accompanied by further destruction. However, no sooner had I taken my first step than I noticed a woman standing just across the street from me. She was partly hidden in the gloom of a shop window, a slim girl in her early twenties perhaps, with close-cropped hair that, from a distance, made her look singularly boyish and unattractive. She wore a plain brown coat that reminded me of a monk’s habit, and though she was trembling slightly, she met my stare with surprising boldness. I stopped where I stood and regarded her. There could be no doubt that she was one of those who had fled the square, for I could see undimmed fervour in her eyes.

“Come on,” she said then, gesturing further up the street. She started running at a flighty pace and I followed her. “Isn’t it over?” I shouted, barely able to keep up.

She threw a look back. “Come with me. The police will arrive in a moment and round up the stragglers.”

We ran for what must have been twenty minutes through darkened side streets and alleyways, apparently moving away from the populous areas. When we reached a stone footbridge she went through a little wicket gate and descended a sloping path with bushes on either side. At the bottom, we found ourselves on a tree-lined embankment next to a black, oily river. It was draped in shadow, and nearby I heard the murmur of voices from under the arch of the bridge.

“Tramps,” she said, as if sensing my unease. “Vagrants, that’s all. Leave them alone and they won’t bother us. Look, I was watching you there when we ran. Why the get-up? Are you some kind of professor?”

I looked down at my own clothes, at my college jacket and tie. With amusement, I realised that, whatever time I had emerged into, the garb of the academic had not changed much.

“You are taking a great risk if you are,” she remarked then. “They’ll bar you from teaching if they catch you with us.”

I shrugged. “I was just curious. In any case, I don’t quite understand what happened back in the square.”

It had occurred to me, as I was standing there trying to catch my breath, that the city really was a hazardous place after all. The realisation that I had left the Time Machine in the ruins near the road now caused me great anxiety: what if someone in one of the flying machines stopped to inspect it, and damaged something? Worse still, what if the militant authorities seized it in order to inspect it?

“Look,” I said to her. “I’m a stranger here. Do you mind telling me what happened? Why did that airship attack? I’m afraid I’m quite at a loss.”

She looked at me in surprise. After looking me up and down for a moment she said, “If you really don’t know, don’t ask any more questions. You’d be better off making your own way back to wherever it is you came from.”

“But I’m a stranger here, and I don’t know my way around the city. I would be grateful if you could act as my guide for the time being. What was all that about the Department of Supernaturalism?”

She was silhouetted against the shimmering light of the river. I could not see her face, but I could imagine what could be read there. She seemed to sigh as she said, “I’ve been a fool. There’s no time for jests, mister. A college man would know all about it. So who are you?”

“Suppose that I don’t know anything. Suppose that I’m a stranger in from the country for the day. Would you tell me then?”

Without answering, she began to walk away. She started making her way along the embankment, away from the bridge, keeping to the shade of the trees. “Wait,” I called after her, realising I could only tell her part of the truth. “I really am a stranger here, and I need to find out what is going on. You have no reason to trust me, of course, but I swear I will not cause you harm. The god’s truth is that I know next to nothing about this city. I’m from another place entirely. As far as I can tell, the practice of religious belief is forbidden to you.”

The girl quickened her step. It was only natural that she was afraid. Suddenly, from behind me, a voice called out from under the gloomy bridge: “Come here, my good man, and drink with us. We can sermonize to each other, and not give a rat’s about the Department. No one cares what we believe. No one.”

I shot back a look into the shadows, and elected to go in pursuit of the girl. “Listen,” I said, catching up with her. “It is important for me to learn what the Department of Supernaturalism is. I am, as I told you, an academic. There is a good chance that by my writings I can prevent it from happening.”

“That’s foolish,” she said, without pausing or meeting my gaze. “Don’t think there weren’t academics in the square with us. Rawlings, the speaker, was once a professor and sociologist. They expelled him. Of course, they won’t tolerate academics who were theologians. Those always disappear. If you write a word against the Department, they’ll act at once. I don’t know why I’m telling you this – everybody knows. Where have you come from? Would you have me believe you’re some kind of Rip Van Winkle character, who knows nothing of the state of things here in Cambridge?”

So it was Cambridge after all. The town I knew had passed away, replaced by this shining city. I walked beside her in silence, barely able to comprehend the changes.

“So what about you? Are you some kind of spiritualist too?” I asked. Somewhere up ahead, light beams were traversing the night sky.

“Not a spiritualist. Not like them,” she said with an amused expression. “But there are others who share the same cause.  Why should I tell you more? Perhaps you work for them, for the Department.”

“I give you my word that I do not.”

“Then tell me, have you heard of the Brotherhood of Faith? The Nazarenes?”

I shook my head. She stopped walking and turned to me. There was a lamp shining down on her face; suspicion still lingered there, but her eyes were more searching. Perhaps she could tell that whoever I was, I certainly could not be with the city authorities. It was the first time I had looked properly at her face; the first chance I had got to see beyond the strange, unfeminine way she dressed. Her eyes, alert and penetrating, her sensitive mouth and the narrow curve of her chin, the look of intelligence and some sort of mature grace upon her face, suddenly captivated me. It was disarming, at once, to be so shaken by a look.

“Look, where have you come from? You sound as if you’re British, but there’s something unfamiliar about your accent. Something I can’t quite put my finger on.”

I hesitated. If I told her the truth, she would judge me insane. Without giving it much forethought, I plunged into a likely sounding tale: I was a visiting lecturer from a foreign country, and had lived most of my life cut off from world affairs. She did not seem quite convinced, but finally she spoke, after first introducing herself as Marion. She started walking, as if it was not safe to stay put. “The Department of Supernaturalism deals with outbreaks of faith. It was formed after the first Supernaturalism Bill, at the time of the Great Schism. When religion was abolished at the time of the third bill, the Department was set up to police underground religious creeds. Especially Christian creeds. Christianity is seen as the most dangerous to the Department simply because it is the most thoroughly orthodox. Of course, you might say that Islam is more orthodox again, but since the Middle-eastern wars there have been fewer and fewer Islamic clerics here in Britain. But it’s not just Christianity now. There are all kinds of underground creeds – they’ve come along to fill the vacuum. Mystics, healers, neo-pagans, magicians. The charlatans tend to be tolerated a lot more. That is the sort of gathering we had today. The Brotherhood of Faith is different. As Mellor says, it’s the beacon of orthodoxy. That is why we are in such danger. I realise, by the way, that I am telling you enough to incriminate myself.”

“I give you my word I am not with them,” I said. “But tell me – why? Why did they pass the Supernaturalism Bill?” We were far away from the downtown area now. I thought I heard a flying machine droning nearby. There were long stretches where the embankment was unlit, and the river wound on through the dark.

“It started in the schools, in the name of equality,” Marion said, her voice pitched at not much more than a whisper. “All part of the mass secularisation of society. We were not to show any religious bias; we were to keep God out of all forms of public life. Religion, so far as it was tolerated at all, was meant to be something personal, practiced in private. The theologians and the politicians took to calling it the Great Schism, because it marked the final separation of religion from secular life, and the name kind of stuck. Different creeds and denominations were obliged to be tolerant of one another, but they were to keep their noses out of all secular affairs. No kind of religious thinking of any sort was to be tolerated in the educational establishments. Religious references, all forms of religious ideology, were to be expunged from our language, our politics, the news, the state literature, and so on.

“Then came the age of persecution. It supposedly began with an attempted coup by militant Christian fundamentalists to take control of the government. There was a siege, several deaths resulted. A lot of important men and women came forward to speak out against the danger posed by the Church, now that it was being pushed further and further underground. Already it was forbidden to preach in public; indoctrination was seen as a threat to freedom. Now, according to the antagonists, religion was edging closer and closer to fanaticism. Christianity already had a history of persecution, discrimination, and hatred. The antagonists made the case that religion was the cause of mankind’s ills. The Bible was a tract of patriarchy, nothing more. It was their considered opinion that the continued marginalized existence of religious creeds would lead to acts of extremist violence. Someone, somewhere, in the echelons of the government, put forward the first Supernaturalist Bill, and it received unanimous support. They doubtless believed that if the practice of religion were restricted and ultimately stamped out, mankind would evolve.”

She had come to a stop. I stood next to her, thinking deeply, regarding the reflections of lamplight on the river. Much from my conversations with Dyson now came back to me. This, then, was the next stage in man’s evolution. It would not be painless. Here, in my heavenly city, was a government prepared to use force, to limit freedom for rationalist causes. How many times had I told Dyson the same thing: man must shed his religion, if he is to become like the gods.

“Don’t you see?” I said, still watching the beams of a flying machine glittering across the oily water. “If you persist in this war, you will be doomed to failure. Mankind is bound to take this step. I predicted it long ago. The French Revolution proceeded with bloodshed, yet it was a righteous uprising that few now bemoan. I am, as I told you, an academic. For almost half my career I have been declaring the death of God. It is time, Marion, for man to cut free from his primitivist past. He cannot profess reason and yet cling to superstition.”

The flying machine was moving above the opposite bank. Marion had grown uneasy. I looked long at her face – I could not but help be moved by the way it registered worry, then conquered it. She was stronger than any woman I had yet met from my own time. The proper word for it, I realised, was grace.

“I knew you were like them. Tell me – why did you even come to the rally, if you agree with the government?”

“Because this war you mention – the war going on between the Supernaturalists and the government – interests me from a professional point of view. I am a chronicler, you see, of the evolution of man’s thought. I seek to understand man’s past from the perspective of science, and I am equally interested in where man is going. You could say that I am a traveller: a traveller in Time.”

My remark was innocent enough, and she barely seemed to notice it as she made her way up from the embankment, on a narrow footpath leading toward some squat-looking suburban houses. There was an urgency in her step, and she seemed to be looking back towards the embankment to see if the flying machine was still there. All the way, we fell to silence, and my thoughts ran away with me. I was convinced, by now, that this was the next great step in mankind’s advancement; now, finally, we would step out of the cave; now, at last, we would begin to see through purely rational lenses. I envisaged telling it to Dyson: we would commit its ideas to paper. I would christen it ‘the post-religious age’.

Suddenly, as we came near the first of the houses, shouts rang out. I saw Marion suddenly spring away to the right, in the direction of a park with a little copse of trees. There was a whooshing, roaring noise from above and behind me, and I looked up in time to see a flying machine descending right above where Marion was attempting to flee, its light beams shining down upon her. I moved – jumped almost – to the safety of a grass verge. Meanwhile, Marion had stopped moving and was looking up, straight into the blinding beam of light, her face full of courage. Suddenly I gave a gasp of panic, and my blood froze. Marion had collapsed onto the floor and was thrashing about: she was having some sort of fit, like one possessed by a devil. It was the first time I had witnessed an epileptic attack, and its ferocity, her crazed thrashings, disturbed me deeply. Meanwhile, a few black-coated figures had emerged out of the newly-landed flying machine and darted towards her.

I was shaken by the whole incident. I understood then, with a jolt of recognition, that I cared for this girl. I was concerned for her in a way that our brief acquaintance could not account for. At that moment, I did not know if the men who now surrounded her where there to help or to harm.

A second mechanical door slid aside on the flying machine and another group of men emerged, coming this time towards me. It was futile to run. They were dressed in dark blue suits and I took them to be policemen. Two of the men dashed forward and took a hold of me, fastening my hands in handcuffs, and then waited for their comrades.

One of the men following behind, wearing a long black leather coat, stood out from the rest. He had close-cropped hair of silver, sharp, angular features, and a cold, steely stare. He walked up to me and stood regarding me, without saying anything.

I was captured, then. Miles from where I stood, the Time Machine waited unguarded.

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