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Earthworks [MultiFormat]
eBook by Brian W. Aldiss

eBook Category: Science Fiction
eBook Description: In a future where the earth has been savaged by overpopulation and over-farming, robots are considered more valuable than humans and sand must be altered to create artificially fertile soil. Ex-convict Knowle Noland, the hallucinating sea captain of the Trieste Star, finds himself wrapped up in a plot to incite a global war that will wipe out millions. War, it seems, is the only way to drastically reduce the population and create a better world for those who survive.

eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, Published: 1965
Fictionwise Release Date: August 2012

Chapter One

The dead man drifted along in the breeze. He walked upright on his hind legs like a performing nanny goat, as he had in life, nothing improper, farther beyond the reach of ideology, nationality, hardship, inspiration, than he had ever been in life. A few flies of ripe dimension stayed with him, although he was far from land, travelling light above the surface of the complacent South Atlantic. The tasselled fringe of his white sylk trousers--he had been a rich man, while riches counted--occasionally catching a spray from the waves.

He was coming out from Africa, moving steadily for me.

With the dead I'm on fair terms. Though there is no room for them in the ground any more, as was the old custom, in my head I hold several of them--in my memory, I mean. Mercator is there, and old Thunderpeck, and Jess, who lives on outside my skull as a brave legend, and of course my beloved March Jordill. In this book I'll rebury them.

On the day of this new dead man, things were ill with me. My ship, the Trieste Star, was approaching our destination on Africa's Skeleton Coast but, as it happened on the last days of those long voyages, the few human crew had shaken into a sort of jelly of relationships, and we were busy suffocating each other, in love and nerves, in sickness and familiarity, Oh, it's an age ago, and like thinking myself into a coal cellar to go back and describe it how. I suffered from my hallucinations in those days.

My eyes throbbed, my vision was cloudy, my mouth was dry, my tongue was coated. I felt no sympathy when the doctor told me that Alan Bator was confined to his bunk with his allergy.

"I'm so damn tired of that mans allergy, doc," I said, resting my head between my hands. "Why don't you just load him up with anti-histamine and send him back to work?"

"I've loaded him up, but it makes no difference. Come and look at him. He's just not fit to be about."

"Why do these invalids ever go to sea? You say it's the salinity of the ocean he may be allergic to?"

Doctor Thunderpeck spread his hands. "That was my old theory; now I am contemplating something different. I am beginning seriously to think that he may be allergic to antihistamines."

Slowly and heavily, I rose. I would listen no more. The doctor is a strange and fascinating man to look at; he is a small stocky square man; big though his face is, there hardly seems room on it for all his features. Eyebrows, ears, eyes with attendant bags, mouth, nose--perhaps especially that mighty blob of nose--are all of the largest size; and what small facial area is not taken up by these features is covered by an ancient acne like a half-obliterated sculpture on a temple. All the same, I'd seen enough of him at this point to last the whole voyage. Giving him a curt nod, I went below.

Since it was the time for the morning inspection and Thunderpeck never took offence, he tailed along behind me.

His footsteps phased in and out with mine as I took the companion-way stairs down to the lowest deck, to the holds. On each deck, lights blinked on and off at the supervisory switchboard; I would check with the robot deck chief before moving on. Old Thunderpeck would follow behind me, docile as a dog.

"They could have built these ships without noise," he said, in an abstracted way suggesting he expected no answer. "Only the designers thought that the silence might prove unpleasant for the crew."

He got no answer.

We walked between the big holds. The all-clear signal on number three was slow in coming up; I marked down the fact on my scratch pad for attention, and looked in to see that everything was all right.

Number three hold was empty. I always liked the look of an empty hold. All that spare space made me feel good; Thunderpeck was just the other way inclined; it made him, in fact, extremely sick. But I had been conditioned to a bit of space. Doc, before he took this simple job on the Trieste Star because he was too old for the hurly-burly of the city, had known only city life. With my long spell of penal servitude on the land, I had grown accustomed to the idea of man-made space. Not that I ever grew nostalgic for the misery of those poison-filled fields: the hold was what I liked, of manageable size, and fairly clean, and under my jurisdiction.

I took care to look round all the hold; I met the Figure down there once, and the pulses still race at the thought of it; you find a pleasure in ignoring the stammer of your pulse, especially on the days when you are feeling not too ill.

"Come out when you're ready," Thunderpeck said from the gangway. He suffers from agoraphobia; that's one of the diseases among many that you are liable to pick up in the terribly crowded cities. The tale went--I never checked on how true it was because I liked the tale so much--that he had once found himself in the middle of an empty hold like number three and had heeled over in a swoon.

As we started down the gangway again, I said: "It's a dirty shame, Doc, all these holds empty, the whole ship obsolescent--beautiful ship, not worth a penny." That was my line; he came back with his.

"That's progress for you, Knowle."

Already this account is getting out of hand. Let's start again. The imprisonment words bring! They get all through you, you live in them and out of them, and they make rings round the universe. I suppose they were invented to be a help. All I can say, I was freer when I was imprisoned on the land. The nip of winter. The heaviness of bed those dark nights, with everything you owned on or round you. The stink of the tractor smoke, almost unseen in the blue dawn compound. It's not the words that don't click with the things, it's more that when you write them down they become a different sort of reality of their own. But who am I to say?

This I'll say. In this thundering year, I must be the only one in this part of the world who is attempting to write down any account of anything.

Now I see why things like writing and civilization, I mean chiefly culture and the limits it imposes, were given up; they were too difficult.

My name is Knowle Noland; at the time I am trying to look back to and write about, I was young, sick, womanless, and captain, as they called it, of the 80,000-ton freighter Trieste Star, jewel of the Star Line. At the time I write--my now, though who knows who, where or when you may be--I am Noland still, lean of cheek, stiff as a board in the mornings, but reasonably clear of mind, with a loving woman, without kin, proud, diffident--both those I was on the Trieste Star, but now there's reasons for them, and I know the reasons. Much I know, and may it help me through this history.

(Sometimes the old books have this sort of editorial aside.)

So Thunderpeck and I were parading through the ship on the day of the dead man, as we did every day, and perhaps I do not have to be too particular in remembering what we said. Mostly, we said the same thing.

"That's progress for you, Knowle," he said. He often said that, I know, for he disliked progress, and anything else he disliked he ascribed to progress. At first, when I had not realized how thorough was his aversion, I thought how penetrating of him this was; but by this stage of the voyage I had got to think of him as a fool. I mean, when you analyse the idea of progress, it is only what men do generation after generation; and how can you blame on progress what is man, or blame man if you are one yourself? Which isn't to say that I did not value the doctor's company.

"That's progress for you, Knowle," he said.

You have to say something, make the effort of appearing human, when you are working your way through the entrails of a massive automated ship that can and does stay at sea for two years without needing refuel or refit. We had been nineteen months at sea, calling in at most ports only for a day, begging for cargo.

In the picturesque old days, ports had not been so efficient as they were now. There had been all sorts of regulations, and human dock labour with all their strange cult-like trades unions and the rest of it, and refuelling and all the rest of the paraphernalia that's gone; and then you could spend up to a week in a port, going ashore and getting drunk and the other things that sailors did. I know about these things; unlike Doc and the others, I can read. Now: nuclear freighters are island universes, moving on their predestined courses, and the few men needed aboard them come to have minds that run in little worn grooves like machines. No wonder I had migraine coming on.

We took in the engine-room, and on the way up again I looked in at crew's quarters in the fo'c'sle. Sure enough, there was Alan Bator, lying on his bunk and staring moodily at the canvas on the bunk above him. We nodded to each other. Alan looked puffy and ruined; I felt like congratulating him on a good performance. And like screaming. Sometimes I get nerve flutter, though I am not one of these sensitive people.

I left the doctor to minister to Alan and climbed on to the poop. On the way up, the world took on a rich dark brown colour, shot with fancy lights in colours that have no name: colours found in old Celtic manuscripts, or embedded in caves. There are aesthetic consolations in being sick; how many times have I thought of the words of our greatest contemporary thinker, computer-programmer Epkre: "Illness is our century's contribution to the good things of civilization."

In the poop I thought for one dreadful second I saw that Figure. Then the shapes resolved themselves into the partly dismantled framework of the autonavigator. Patiently following its working circuit by circuit was one of the robot repairmen. Sitting supervising him was Abdul Demone, a cartoon scanner fixed over his eyes. He flipped it up and nodded to me.

"Morning, Captain."

A civil, silent little man, Abdul. He was a spastic, and never put his bad foot down off the stool as he spoke to me.

"Can you fix it?" I asked.

"The autonav should be working in a couple of hours."

"It better be. We reach the coast by afternoon."

Again my nerves throbbed and fluttered. On a ship, more strain is placed on a man than in the cities. In the cities everything is arranged so that you can spend your whole life without thought; which is a fine arrangement, for a sick man hardly wants to be troubled with responsibilities. Many a time on shipboard I've longed to cut off the autocaptain and drive the ship on to the rocks, destroy it, destroy everything!

On deck, a cool breeze blew. I looked over the neat but cluttered yards of deck; almost uninhabited the deck looked, and naked under the tropical sun. Di Skumpsby was fighting with someone at the rail.

I gave a convulsive start. There was nobody for him to fight with. Apart from the doctor, my human crew numbered only three--Di, Alan, and Abdul. And I knew the others were below. Again the thought of the Figure crossed my mind; I wondered if I were not undergoing one of my hallucinations. Then I mastered my emotions and went forward to help him.

Di was not fighting, He was trying to pull the other person over the rail. As I got nearer, I saw the face of the stranger. It was black and baggy and its mouth gaped horribly,

"Give me a hand, Cap, the fellow s dead," Di called.

The fellow was certainly dead. He was well dressed, though he was soaked with sea water, arid his smell was high. His white sylk trousers clung to him. My dead man had arrived; punctual to the tick of fate, our courses had intersected.

"He came over the water," Di said. "Upright, with a stagger. Like he was walking on top of the waves! Scared me stiff, it did!"

On the man's back was strapped one of the new anti-gravity units, a cumbersome affair almost the size of a refrigerator. Since neither of us knew how to switch it on or off, we had an awkward job pulling the man over the rail. He came at last. Something--perhaps a seagull--had pecked out one of his eyes. He gave me his silent frozen scream and I felt like screaming back.

"Let's get him in Number Two Deckswab Locker," I said. Until we switched the unit off, the corpse would continue to drift. At the time it appeared to be only luck that he had fetched up against the side of the Trieste Star, but he had not then set in motion the chain of death that followed his vile presence.

The locker housed one of the automated deck cleaners that were activated every morning at dawn. The machine stood bright and unseeing as we bundled our new-found companion into the locker. As soon as we had him secure, Di turned and ran for the rail, and vomited into the sea. I turned and made my way into my cabin and lay down. My brain felt as if it were throbbing and pulsing like a heart.

There are rational things which can be accepted and rational things which can't. I could accept all the reasons for being on a rotten obsolete ship like the Trieste Star; I could not accept the reasons for a dead man coming aboard. I rang for Doctor Thunderpeck.

"Di just told me about the corpse. You lie there and take it quietly, Knowle," he said when he arrived. He started to open his little black bag and bring out some tablets.

"I'll give you a sedative."

"Have you got something special to cure dead men? It's bad enough sailing on this stinking ship but to think we're being pursued here across miles of empty ocean by a corpse--"

As I accepted his tablets and a beaker of water, Thunderpeck said gently: "You like it on this ship, Knowle, remember that. Remember what you were before you joined the Travellers, and the penalty for that was death."

"Don't remind me of the Travellers!" That I definitely remember saying, and fairly often, for I was feeling guilty then about what I had done to the other Travellers.

"And in the city--you weren't happy there, were you?"

"Look, I know you're right, but I've told you before I'm cursed. How did that corpse get here to me? Don't tell me that was coincidence."

"I tell you nothing. You can work it out for yourself." Thunderpeck loved to lecture me. "You know the cost of these new anti-gravity units; it's phenomenal. Only a very rich man could afford one. There are few of them in production as yet; they go only to heart cases. A ten-stone man can wear one of these units and adjust it so that he weighs only two stone. It saves the heart pump a lot of work. So we know our friend was rich and suffered from cardiac trouble. Right. Where do such people often live? On the coast, by the sea, for the good of their health. So he died walking along the front--people do, you know. An offshore breeze carried him out to us."

"But we're heading for the Skeleton Coast, Doc, if you remember. Nobody lives along there!--No one in their right mind!"

"All right, Knowle, you know best. Now lie down and get some rest. Your persecution complex is showing."

When he had gone, I lay there in the half-light thinking. I thought about the Trieste Star. Certainly it was a refuge to me, more than Thunderpeck knew. It travelled and it was isolated, and that suited me. But all the time, far away on the continents, Thunderpeck's "progress" was hunting it down, numbering its days. When I had signed on a dozen years ago, the ports and cargoes were prosperous; now the situation was different. This wonderful leviathan of metal, almost automatic, nuclear-powered, with a registered tonnage of 81,300 tons, a length of 998 feet 3 inches and a beam of 139 feet 1 inch, this super-ship, was obsolescent. Its day was done.

Modern as the Trieste Star was, it was old-fashioned and being superseded by super-tonnage hydrofoils or the massive new GEMs which could travel almost anywhere, and saw no difference between land or sea. I hated those metal doughnuts, riding on their pillar of air. It gave me ironic satisfaction to think that they might in their turn be superseded if the newly invented anti-gravity devices were developed to the point where they could carry heavy loads, and carry them economically.

Because of the hydrofoils and GEMs, we were reduced to calling at dumps like the Skeleton Coast for a load of sand, to carry to a soil manufacturer in Liverpool. The costs of the voyage would barely be covered.

What the soil manufacturer did with the sand when we delivered it was a matter beyond the bounds of our interest. I'm an intelligent and self-educated man, but it was sufficient even for me to know that the sand could be made into a soil good enough at least to raise vegetables fit to feed beef animals on.

"The world's hunger takes many sophisticated forms," March Jordill once told me. We were sorting rags. It was evening; I can remember now how the light was. He spoke to me like an equal. "Even religion has become subordinate to hunger, as everything else has, just as in the under-peopled world of the past the thinking of the west, when it had plenty, was subordinated to plenty. We can see that now, though they couldn't at the time."

Sand! It was a noble trade, carting sand round the world. March Jordill, great philosopher and ragman, would have appreciated my graduation from ragman to sandman. He liked small things. A grain of sand might have interested him. The sand we got off the Skeleton Coast was mainly quartz grains, with gypsum and rock salt also, and traces of rare minerals not worth separating, tourmaline and thorium compounds. But for a slice of luck, the whole world might have been made of sand. I begin to get the feel of this writing. It's just a matter of recalling everything and omitting some things, only you have to get the proportions right.

Perhaps I ought not to omit what I heard a popular speaker say about hunger: "Our hunger is our civilization. We have brought beauty and strength from it." I was nine when he said that, and just out of the orphanage. Hammer and I stood at the back of the crowd. When Hammer heard what the man said, he looked down at his own bulging belly, caused by the sprue, laughed, and hit me and ran off.

All your life comes back to you when you sit and think like this. I can remember--I can feel that cheezey bed Hammer and I dossed in, under the table. If I chased the straight line of my thoughts, what a maze I'd write!

Listening to all the tiny noises of the ship, watching colours create themselves in the darkness of my head, my thoughts remained soggy with the complexities of soil manufacture, one of the sciences we heard so much about in the land-starved cities. Soil--dirt--dirty days as a landman on a farm--heavy beds, the Gas House--the poor land--working under the supreme rule of the Farmer. I still had nightmares about the Farmer--he pursued me almost as doggedly as did the Figure!

Old childhood rhyme, learnt in the orphanage, never forgotten, hopping on one leg, counting out who was next to be Wolf:

Farmer farmer eat your earth--

Coffin cradle coffin berth

Send us food or send us measles--

You're the--maimer-- of--dis--eases

And not only the Farmer, but the man I betrayed when I slipped away--got hauled away, I should say--from the farm to become a Traveller. We will get to that some time. Over and over, my mind roamed back to those times, if not when it was rational, then when it roared up the dark old mountains into nightmare and delusion.

Moved by a compulsion, I rose from the bunk and slipped my feet into my sneakers. Feet, shoe, leg, bunk support, floor, shadows, made a mysterious pattern across my vision. What could I smell? Sometimes it was like onions, sometimes like violets. I seemed to remember it from a former time.

Outside the cabin, the set was arranged as it ever was: cardboard deck, plastic sea. The sun lit it too badly, like overdone studio-lighting on a film set. Alarmed about it, I addressed myself.

"I'm very near it again. Now I know the whole thing is an illusion. It's a fake and I'm somewhere else--not on a ship at all. The props are wearing thin! The motion of the ship is incorrect, some of the shadows are misplaced. There must be a better world than this! Gradually, I'm working my way through to reality. And in Number Two Deckswab Locker ... Is that where the truth lies? Can it be that truth lies?"

I'd forgotten what lay or stood in Number Two Deckswab Locker. Nobody was on deck, nobody walked on the sea. I went over to the locker and opened it.

He was laughing, a laugh more of power than mirth! I saw exactly the way his lips curled back, wrinkling up to bare the enamel of his teeth, the skin of his gums, in a yellow and terrible humour. It was--it was the Farmer!

"Noland, No. 14759180! You knew I was on the ship all the time, didn't you?" he said. I had not remembered he was so large.

A jolly man, the way the fierce are jolly.

"I knew there was something wrong."

"Not exactly wrong, Noland. It's just that you aren't real; you understand that?"

I kept a sailor's knife in my belt; but if I was not real, could I do him any damage?

"You've come because I betrayed Jess, haven't you?"

"And for all your other sins."

Behind the Farmer was not the locker but something else. My eyes refused to tell me what I saw there. It was an emptiness, but a tainted and unlicensed emptiness, as if when you were talking to a friend, you suddenly realized that you could see straight through one of his eyes and out the back of his head. So supposing he was not real?

With the thought, I launched myself forward, pulling out the knife. As we came together, I sank the knife into the Farmer's ribs. That was real enough! But still he smiled, smiled as we fell together and rolled on the ground. Hugging him, intercorpse. But his smile--no, the world was spinning--his smile stank, and where his eyes had been ... The peculiar clarity of vision drew me down into little ripe craters, where worms, white and so exquisitely built, threaded themselves through a dirty fabric. At once, I fell through the fabric of consciousness.

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