Panoptikon is an unpublished novel I wrote between 2001 and 2002. It marks a transitional phase for me: I wrote it after completing my second fantasy trilogy with HarperCollins, when I was keen to try something a little different to the more epic stuff I’d put out up to that point. The manuscript has been rejected by several publishing houses, and that’s fair enough, because there’s a lot wrong with it. I made extensive revisions in 2008, but I’m now convinced the novel would need a complete rewrite to render it fit for publication.
However, I haven’t buried it yet. That’s why Panoptikon has found a home here among my Undead Manuscripts. Like all good denizens of this twilight literary world, it’s not very pretty, but somewhere under that noisome skin I believe it still has a strong beating heart. Maybe that’s true. Or maybe it really does belong six feet under. I honestly can’t make up my mind.
Here’s a complete chapter to help you make up yours:
Panoptikon – Chapter Five
They started in the chapel.
It was a single small room, dank and unimpressive. Bland and empty. There were no seats, no markings or fittings on the walls, no gravestones in the floor and not a hint of a god. The ceiling was low and vaulted with awkward rinds of granite.
Centrally placed, the altar was an unassuming slab of timber, slightly bowed. It looked to Arm like a ship’s bulkhead.
They stood, surrounded by their own condensing breath.
After only a few moments Arm put his coat back on.
‘It gets a lot colder,’ said Victor. He observed Arm’s disappointment before spreading one meaty arm across his shoulder. ‘It doesn’t look much. But don’t let it fool you, Armstrong. A lot of people have come down here promising to educate me about this little room. Every time I’ve been disappointed. Nobody can place it anywhere in the history books.’
‘How old is it?’
‘Nobody knows. It doesn’t fit anywhere. It’s an enigma, but not really a very interesting one. We have dates for some of its component parts but as for the chapel as a whole …’ He shrugged. ‘The timber on that altar, for example. It’s been carbon-dated to 2,250BC. That’s the date fixed by the Old Testament for the Flood, by the way.’
Bigger than it looks
A winding stone passage led from the chapel into a low, cramped cellar. Victorian, explained Victor.
‘The eras get a bit jumbled down here.’
Here were barrels and boxes and stacks of swollen books and rolled-up acres of rotting carpet. Glass cases lay half-buried beneath mountains of mouse-shredded newspaper. Most of them contained preserved animals – everything from stuffed badgers to impaled beetles. One was big enough to hold a grizzly bear, although as far as Arm could see it was empty.
The cellar stank.
‘Forgive the perfume.’ Victor’s expression turned sour. ‘It’s the one place I never get round to. I just keep throwing crap down here and somehow it just keeps on taking it in. My father threw his crap down here too, and his father before him. You get the picture. It’s a lot bigger than it looks though. I guess I abuse the hell out of it so it’s got the right to stink the way it does.’
Arm followed Victor to a heap of books that dwarfed even his prodigious guide. The shadows of the two men ran across the spines like spilled ink.
Victor’s hand found and flipped a switch and the whole stack of books folded into the wall with a long, reluctant creak.
In the space where the books had been was a door.
Arm looked at Victor Falconer and was not surprised to see the big man was grinning again.
‘This is where the fun really starts.’
A field of elephants
The secret passage cut a slowly-descending spiral through the interior of the Pebble.
Down here the years were piled much deeper the junk in the neglected cellar; but at least the air tasted fresh, thanks to a succession of ventilation grilles punctuating the walls at regular intervals.
Glaring bulkhead luminaires, linked by bunches of snaking conduit gave light as clean and cold as the air through which it spilled.
Rooms led off at every turn. Here, beneath a low-domed ceiling, were the Moorish mosaics he’d heard about – the vivid blue of lapis lazuli, the soft and somehow disappointing sheen of true gold. Another room looked like a drained bath-house, in a style that straddled a strange line between Roman and Egyptian. Yet another boasted fine walnut panels and a brass chandelier suspended from a delicate plaster rose; on the far wall was pinned a stag’s head with a dead and penetrating gaze.
Room after room after room.
Sometimes the rough-hewn stone of the corridor walls gave way to thick square-set timbers or crumbling brickwork, inner cores of architecture placed here long ago by ancient hands.
‘I’ll bet this hasn’t been carbon-dated,’ said Arm, peering at a wall of ivory on which a field of elephants had been carved. ‘You haven’t brought your experts this far down, have you?’
Beyond the elephants was a series of smaller ebony panels. Engraved into these were images that looked as though they’d been taken from the Kama Sutra. Oriental men and women folded themselves into each other with intricate ease. Victor brushed his hand against some of them as they moved past.
‘You’re right, of course,’ he said at length. ‘This is my private suite. You’re one of the privileged few, Arm. Count yourself lucky.’
Arm did feel privileged. And he wondered: why bring me?
At length the corridor intersected a steep stone staircase. Arm knew it at once: these were the stairs that ran down from the little vestibule near Panoptikon’s main entrance, the stairs which, if Victor were to be believed, led down to the boiler room.
Despite the flicker of the wall-mounted torches the air felt damp and cold. Moisture beaded on the blue-grey walls and gathered in pools on the steps. Draughts poked through holes in the ceiling. He trod carefully as he followed Victor down the stairs, telling himself it was ridiculous to feel afraid and feeling it anyway.
Halfway down he paused and listened. Nothing but Victor’s receding footsteps and the pop and hiss of the flames and there was a curiosity. The torches intrigued him: they were quaint and self-indulgent but what kept them burning?
‘Gas,’ he muttered. ‘Has to be. He got them from some theme park.’
A close inspection of one of the torches proved inconclusive. There were no gas pipes visible but that didn’t mean they weren’t there somewhere, channelled down the middle of the brands then chased behind the stonework. A difficult job but not impossible.
‘Keep up, Campbell.’ Victor’s voice floated up from the gloom. While Arm had been loitering the big man had become invisible.
Now it really was cold. He huddled into his trench coat, glad of its warmth. Still he could hear nothing but the hiss of the flames, certainly nothing resembling the moaning he had heard – or thought he heard – back on the first day.
By the time Arm caught up, Victor had halted before a gate which barred their way. The gate was secured by a stout padlock which shone out in bright contrast to the rusty swags and curls of the wrought iron.
As far as Arm could see the gate was designed to slide, portcullis-like, up into a recess in the ceiling.
‘There’s another gate like this further up,’ Victor explained, drawing a large bunch of keys from his pocket. ‘In case you were wondering why people don’t just wander down here from the lobby. We came the long way.’
He unfastened the padlock. Then, with a grin, he snatched one of the torches from the wall (thus confounding Arm’s gas-lamp theory) and held it beneath his chin. Underlit and devilish, he let rip with a blood-chilling rumble of laughter.
‘You’ll burn your beard,’ said Arm.
‘Naw,’ said Victor. ‘Press that stone behind you. No, not that one … that one, the one standing proud.’
It took Arm a moment to find it. A single push sent the stone – a little smaller than a normal house brick – gliding back into the wall. Hidden machinery clunked and the gate juddered not upwards but down into a slot in the floor.
‘Quickly,’ said Victor. He replaced the torch and darted through the opening. ‘It resets in ten seconds.’
‘Do we get to come back through it again or are we stuck down there for good?’
Victor’s grin broadened.
Beyond the gate the passage flattened out and narrowed. The ceiling descended, forcing both men to stoop. They encountered three more rust-covered gates, all of which were protected by the same shiny steel padlocks; unlike the trick portcullis the gates themselves swung freely on conventional hinges. Beyond the third gate there were no wall-torches. The air grew thick and dark.
Arm sniffed cautiously: was that wood smoke? Ozone? Something swampy, he decided.
He was about to ask how much further they had to go when the corridor came to an end.
It was utterly dark. The flow of the air across his face and the floating echo of his footsteps told Arm they had emerged into a much larger space, a cave perhaps. Something loomed in front of him, something black and massive.
It pulled at him, like a planet.
For a moment there was only Arm and this unidentifiable hulking thing. Everything else seemed … folded away. The draught he had felt, Victor, even the floor beneath his feet. All gone. He was afloat.
He touched his hand to his face to reassure himself that it was still there, that he was still there.
Then Victor Falconer turned the lights on.
It stood before them: a squat, round building. A little round hut in a large square cave. The Panoptikon.
The Panoptikon. Coarse stone walls interlaced by stout wooden beams. Thatched roof. No windows. A single door. Dark timbers thick with age.
Above the hut, stalactites jutted from a low, craggy ceiling. Primitive art daubed the enclosing cave walls: stick-men hunting bears and wildebeest in a riot of terracotta and white. The old colours gleamed beneath arc lamps festooned like Goliath’s Christmas lights.
This is it, Arm thought with perfect calm. This is why I came here. This is why I took three trains out of the city. This is …
A building inside a cave inside a rock.
The stones and timbers were locked together like a Chinese puzzle: large against small, tall against belly-shaped, slotted one against the other with fanatical precision. As intricate as the Kama Sutra.
How long had it been here? And why here?
The more Arm inspected it the more he was amazed. The stones were rough because they’d been dressed that way: these convexities accepted those nodules perfectly, this crude notch was female to an equally rude peg. How could something so rough and ready be so meticulous?
His fingers reached the wall and found a section of tree-trunk. Something told him this wood was even older than the Ark.
Taking his hand away he saw it was trembling.
Victor’s arc-lights lent the cave a strangely showy air. 2001, he thought suddenly, the monolith on the moon. The roundhouse was as unfathomable as Clarke and Kubrick’s smooth black slab. He tried to pin it to an era but failed: it wasn’t Celtic or Viking, didn’t feel Neolithic. It might have been yesterday or never. It didn’t seem to belong to any time at all. It was simply here.
Victor Falconer said, ‘This is it.’
No windows on the outside
The way into the hut was a narrow doorway splitting the wall from ground to eaves. The door itself was a single plank hanging from six iron hinges. There was no handle, only a slot in the wood. Victor drew a large key from his pocket.
‘I’ll do the honours.’ The big man had grown serious. His face was pale as cheese.
After a moment’s hesitation he thrust the key home.
There was light inside. It had no source that Arm could trace but what shadows there were pointed up into the rafters, as if the floor were aglow.
The interior walls were rendered with pale, rough plaster – lime perhaps. The rafters were big and square and riddled with tiny holes. The floor was yellow dirt.
Regularly spaced around the wall were ten windows.
The door slammed shut and Arm’s heart, briefly, stopped.
‘There were no windows on the outside,’ he said.
Victor said nothing, merely watched his visitor closely.
Arm approached the nearest window. It, like the other nine, was blocked by heavy shutters. A stiff horizontal bar held the shutters against rusted stanchions. He touched the shutters, feeling them give a little.
He circumnavigated this one and only room, touching each set of shutters as he passed it. Most told him nothing, although two of them seemed unnaturally cold.
One window – the one opposite the door – was not only shuttered and barred but padlocked too.
Having completed his circuit Arm positioned himself beside Victor.
He was excited. His fingers were tingling with anticipation. His breath moved through his chest like drumbeats.
‘There were no windows on the outside,’ he repeated.
‘Observant,’ said Victor. He sounded unimpressed.
‘Can you open one of them for me? What lies beyond them? What do you see when you look out?’ Arm bit back the questions. He felt giddy, full of energies he couldn’t contain.
‘There’ll be one you want to try first.’
‘That one.’ Arm pointed to the window with the padlock.
‘Out of bounds.’ Victor’s smile was easy but his body was stiff.
‘Okay.’ Arm walked over to the first window he had examined. ‘How about this one?’
He helped Victor draw the bar out through the stanchions. Rust squealed and shattered, spraying Arm’s boots dark red.
The shutters relaxed with a slow, breathy sound as the pressure of the bar disappeared.
Victor Falconer grasped the handles and flung them open.
The impossible view
You aren’t seeing this, Arm told himself. What you should be seeing is the wall of the cave. That’s what lies outside this wretched hut. You know that. You were standing in it not five minutes ago.
Logic told him this. But his eyes told him different and Arm was ever one to trust his eyes.
What he saw was a landscape. A marshland. In the foreground – immediately outside the window if his eyes really were to be believed – lay a series of muddy humps and hollows. The hollows were thick with some noisome ooze. The humps were scarred with craters from which rose yellowish vapour.
Flanking this impossible Somme, leading the eye into distant fog, ran a low rope-slung fence. Instead of fence-posts, bones had been driven into the ground. From their size, they might have been the femurs of something rather larger than an African elephant.
Infiltrating everything was the fog. It roamed, buckling as it went, a living blanket. Barely visible within it were leafless trees and a jutting tower that might have been a rock, might have been a building.
Arm realised he had unslung his shoulder bag. His fingers were moving across it, hypersensitive to the smoothness of the cold steel buckles, the coarse nap of the fabric. The sketchbook inside was a slab of steel, the pencils were eager little stabs. Drawing was his way of seeing, a necessary conduit to understanding. It was his sixth sense.
‘It’s quite a view,’ said Victor.
Arm restrained himself from taking out his sketch-book, for now.
Something disturbed the ooze in one of the nearer hollows. He leaned forward, suddenly curious about whether there was any glass in the window. He could see none but …
His forehead met an unyielding surface. He confirmed its existence with his hand. Close inspection revealed nothing to his eyes. An invisible barrier then, not glass but something rather more strange.
No more strange than the impossible view.
A blunt, reptilian head broke through the ooze. It opened a wide mouth, revealing sharp and tiny teeth and a long, prehensile tongue that licked a fat insect from the cloudy air. Arm saw that the insects were everywhere, moving through the fog like glass dragonflies. Transparent, they were hard to see but, now seen, hard to ignore.
The fog thinned a little. Trees materialised; the tower solidified, became a castle. No Earthly fortress this though. It broke up out of the sodden ground like a nest of swords, all trident towers and hanging stairways. Fragile turrets raised pointed spires towards grey sky.
‘So this is the Panoptikon,’ he said. ‘The real Panoptikon. All the rest of it – the gallery, the illustration business – it’s all just a front, isn’t it? Just a cover for this. This is where it really happens, whatever it is you do. The heart of it. This is where it really happens. The Panoptikon. The room from which you can see everything.’
Excitement gradually gave way to something deeper – a contentment perhaps. That sense he was where he belonged. And that he was ready to start work.
A lightning study
The scene was dismal, he had to admit. He tried to draw the fortress but the fog grew thick again, obscuring the view.
Nevertheless, there were other shapes in the gloom. Here was a storm-struck tree, there a standing stone etched with spirals. The fence with its regularly spaced bone-posts was both incongruous and vital and he drew that too.
He returned to the tree. It demanded a page of its own so he gave it one, a tight study of its shattered frame. Then he tackled it again, this time drawing not the positive forms of the branches but the negative space in which they were contained.
Another lizard-head poked free of the nearest puddle and he sketched it, a lightning study.
But the drawing looked too much like a crocodile. He’d failed to capture the little creature’s bird-like demeanour.
Folding over a fresh sheet of paper he sketched it again. This time, just as he laid the last stroke, the lizard opened a ruff of spines and hissed at him.
Can it see me? he wondered.
He lost concentration for a moment. Victor’s gaze bored into him from behind. Suddenly he felt as if he were on trial: he was not being indulged but tested.
Something new moved through the fog, something massive.
Horns, a hulking body …
But it already gone.
Suddenly he saw the swamp-lizard’s true form, saw all of it in a single shutter-flash. He drew the little creature with hard, economical strokes of his pencil. Each mark fell with the surety he constantly craved and rarely felt.
These urgent marks for the row of perfect teeth, this elementary line for the gnarled skull. Each stroke pulled the drawing nearer and nearer to perfection, closer and closer to truth.
The droop of the eyelid … here. The bird-like cock of the head accentuated by … this drift of shadow.
And there it was, not finished, no drawing is ever finished, but as complete as it would ever be.
Beyond the window, the little lizard shuddered.
Its flesh vanished, leaving a tiny cage of bones. Something hammered at the window over and over, like an idiot blacksmith. Then the bones too began to fade.
In Arm’s hands, the sketchbook grew suddenly hot. When he looked down at the mark’s he had made he saw they were alive, like black lightning.
When he looked up again the lizard was gone.
Clutching the sketchbook to his chest, Arm turned slowly to face Victor.
‘What is this place?’ he whispered.
The head’s not his own
Victor’s fear was palpable. Arm wondered why he hadn’t paid it any attention before.
The big man was sweating, scratching at his beard, shifting his stance from one foot to the other. Gone was the confident bear.
‘This whole place – the rock that’s known as the Pebble, the Panoptikon in its cave, the castle and all its wings above – it’s been in my family, oh, for generations. In fact, it’s never not been in my family. It’s hard for you to understand the measure of this but we believe that is the absolute truth. and I don’t just mean since Victorian times. I’m talking about much further back than that. I’m talking about prehistory, Armstrong. Prehistory and beyond.
‘Picture my ancestor. Far back, in the darkest, coldest of times. Imagine him. A man with clothes made of animal skins and a stone axe for a weapon. Like me, he was the warden of the Panoptikon, the man charged with maintaining it and keeping its secret, and handing its secret down to his son and he did his job and his line was strong down the years. Now, countless generations on, his job has become mine.’
The big man paused to wipe perspiration from his brow.
‘That’s ridiculous,’ said Arm. ‘How can you trace your family back so far?’
‘It doesn’t matter, not at the moment at least.’ Victor’s eyes were wide, his pupils huge. He took deep breaths, gradually calming himself. ‘Of course, we can’t go all the way back. We have no idea when the Panoptikon was built. We don’t even know if it was built by men. The Panoptikon is an impossible thing, so we can’t possibly understand where it came from. All we can do is what we’ve always done – look after it.’
He stared out of the window at the fog.
‘So, this is the Panoptikon,’ said Victor. ‘Put simply, a magical house. From its one room a man may look out on … well, on wonders. You will see more in time, but not today, not today.
‘Only light is transmitted through the windows. These worlds make no sound. There’s no glass but there is a barrier. You’ve felt it and it’s impenetrable.
‘Well, that’s not strictly true. Almost impenetrable. As you’ve seen, there is a way it can be … circumvented. That’s where you come in, Arm, but we’ll come back to that in a moment.
‘This Panoptikon is not the only one of its kind. Twenty are known altogether. The twenty wardens form a loose syndicate – a world-wide syndicate, for the Panoptika are scattered across the globe, some in the most unlikely of places. One of my forebears, a granddaddy with more “greats” than I can keep track of – one Josiah Falconer – was instrumental in forming the syndicate. He brought the families together, created a fellowship, an identity. A brand, if you like. It was old Josiah who decided on the name “Panoptikon”.’
Victor flicked his eyes first to the window then down at Arm’s open sketch-book. He looked like a man craving an exit.
‘So he invented the name?’ Arm prompted.
‘Not really. He stole it from a man called Jeremy Bentham. You won’t have heard of him but he was famous enough in his day and still is in some circles. Born in 1748, died in 1832, spent most of the intervening years being a bit of a wise-ass.’
Victor paused to scrabble in his beard, then continued.
‘Bentham was a philosopher, a critic, a prolific writer. Amongst other things he spoke out for suffrage, fought for prison reform and – you’ll like this one – animal rights. But I’m rambling. The point is this: one day Josiah read an article about a new design for a prison Bentham had devised. Bentham had some quite radical ideas, you know. He was a real man ahead of his time. He called his design a ‘panopticon’. The name struck a chord with old Josiah and he stole it. That’s all.’
Arm nodded. ‘You’re wrong,’ he said.
He might just as well have thumped Victor. The big man flinched and a darkness fell upon his brow. He recovered quickly but not before Arm had learned a fundamental truth about Victor Falconer’s need to be right.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ Arm added. He smiled in a way he suspected was intensely irritating. ‘What I mean is, you’re wrong when you say I won’t have heard of Jeremy Bentham.’
‘Yes. I didn’t know anything about his prison but he is famous for something else. A friend of mine who went to a certain university in the city introduced me to your Mr Bentham – or at least his mortal remains. After he died his body was preserved and put on display in a glass case. Mind you, the head’s not his own. They botched the embalming process and had to make a wax replacement. The students used to borrow the original from time to time to play practical jokes on each other. Even used it as a football for a time.’
‘R-really?’ said Victor. ‘I had no idea.’
‘Mmm. You’ve got me thinking now. Since old Josiah and Jeremy were such good friends, I wonder – did they stuff your great-granddaddy too?’
The castle moves about
The instant they were back in the cave Victor recovered his composure.
‘You’ll be wondering what happened in there,’ he said. He was brusque now, back in control. ‘You started drawing instinctively. That’s good, that’s what I brought you here to do. Your final drawing, that was the critical one, the true one.’
‘It was the best of the bunch,’ agreed Arm.
‘And therefore the truest.’
‘What’s going on in there, Victor? Is it some kind of optical illusion? A projection? What is it?’
‘You don’t really believe it’s any of those things, Armstrong. No illusions, no projections. It’s real. Each window opens on to a different reality but we will concern ourselves with only one for now.
‘The land of marsh and fog you saw is the strongest of the ten at the moment. They come and go, these other worlds, like radio signals. Right now the marsh-world is coming in loud and clear. I’ve had many artists stand in front of that window, Arm, and draw what they see. I’ve seen sketch after sketch of lizards and goblins and long-bearded warriors … and stranger things too. The castle moves about you know, sometimes changing shape, sometimes just slipping through the fog like some damned ocean liner. And I’ve seen plenty of attempts made to draw our gigantic friend with the horns. But it’s not often someone manages to capture something truly. Capture something clean.’
‘Literally. Inside the Panoptikon, the act of drawing is an act of seizure. When the drawing is true – as your final one was – the subject is literally drawn through the window and captured on the page. You saw the effects for yourself: the swirling of the fog, the lightning. As for the lizard you drew, you hold him there in your hand, right now, Arm, trapped inside the paper. You have drawn him through the window from his world into ours and made him a prisoner.’
A harsh electronic beep infiltrated the cave. Victor jumped and thumbed a button on the side of his watch.
‘Come with me. It’s getting late and there’s one more thing I need to show you.’
The book felt heavier
Arm kept a tight grip on his sketchbook as Victor led him down yet another dank corridor. The book felt heavier, but surely that was only in his mind.
‘Believe it,’ said Victor without looking back.
‘But you’re talking about capturing souls. It’s like … like those early photographers who went into the jungle and had their cameras destroyed by superstitious natives. You’re telling me the natives were right all along.’
‘I’ve tried taking photographs of the other worlds. The films have all come out blank.’
‘Really? That’s fascinating. But what I was trying to say was it’s … all this is …’
Victor stopped, blocking the corridor. ‘Impossible,’ he said without turning round.
Victor grunted and walked on.
Arm tried to recapture the feeling he’d had while drawing the lizard. But it was gone. Instead of photographs he was thinking about television.
That’s what it was like in there, he thought. Watching television. Astonishing and magical but somehow … ordinary. Is that all it is? Just broadband from another world?
He scolded himself. The sketchbook was still heavy and behind him, far up the corridor, he could sense the inaudible pulse of those old walls.
I like to take precautions
A steel door barred their way. It would not have looked out of place in a Swiss bank.
Victor twiddled the combination lock and swung the door open to reveal a small, gleaming space no bigger than an elevator. There was a second, smaller door on the opposite wall. They entered, then Victor swung the door shut and tapped a code into a small keypad on the wall. Machinery squealed and Arm felt pressure in his ears.
‘Airlock,’ said Victor, holding his nose and gaping like a fish. ‘Nothing to worry about.’
The lock cycled for only a few seconds before the second door opened automatically.
Arm stepped into the Vault, his sense of anti-climax growing.
It was another cave, darker, more gloomy than the first. The floor was a flat timber deck; flickering green fluorescents illuminated row upon row of steel filing cabinets. In one wall, a large circular grille admitted a stream of cool, dry air.
Arm counted ten rows twenty deep. A lot of cabinets.
Pinned to the walls were animal skins. Most were headless but among those that weren’t Arm spotted a bear and what looked like a Siberian tiger. Most of the animals he couldn’t identify at all.
‘Some of the pelts were here when we found this cave,’ Victor said, his voice ringing in the hard-edged space. ‘My father had the deck put in, and the cabinets. For years the drawings were stored up in the cellar but it was too damp. We think this is where they were kept in prehistoric times. At some point there was a cave-in and the place was evacuated and sealed off. When he broke through the rock-fall my father found skins here at least fifty thousand years old, no sign of rot or decay. It’s perfectly dry. We had the air system installed to make sure it stays that way. By the way, that skin that looks like a tiger: it’s a smilodon, a sabre-tooth cat. You’ll agree it’s magnificent.’
Arm agreed it was.
‘How many drawings are down here?’ He ran his hand across the nearest cabinet. The wood, like the cave, was cold, but not uncomfortably so. He licked his lips: the air was desert-dry.
‘If we were to keep the one you’ve just done, there would be six thousand, eight hundred and four.’
Arm hugged the sketchbook to his chest. He wasn’t normally protective of his work but Victor was looking nervous again. ‘What do you mean, if we kept it?’
Victor led him to the far end of the cave. Steel office furniture rose from the deck like a giant erector set. Electronic instruments hummed and blinked, screen-savers sprayed stars across two large computer monitors, a third was inert; red box files filled utilitarian shelves. Something hummed.
‘Forgive the mess,’ said Victor. ‘Almost no work is done here now, just cataloguing.. And now, please give me the drawing.’
Arm hesitated. ‘If I give it to you, what will you do?’
‘I have shown you something incredible. When you return to your home tonight you will doubt what you have seen. When you wake up tomorrow morning you’ll wonder if it was all a dream. I need you to believe, Arm, therefore I must show you the entire process. Only if you understand what I and generations before me have done here will you be convinced that what you have seen is real. I need you to know it is real, because I need your help.’
Arm tore the drawing of the swamp-lizard from the sketchbook and gave it to Victor.
‘Stand over there.’ Victor directed him to a spot about three yards from the desk, near one of the filing cabinets. ‘Don’t move, just watch.’
He crumpled the drawing with one huge fist. Arm stifled a grunt of surprise. Victor placed the crumpled drawing on the floor in front of the desk, then reached behind the desk to extract a wire wastebasket. This he upturned and positioned over the ball of paper – a cylindrical cage. Rubbing his beard, he pondered this arrangement for a moment before dropping five heavy box files on top of the wastebasket. He offered Arm a sheepish grin.
‘I like to take precautions,’ he said.
He rummaged through most of his pockets before drawing a box of matches from inside his jacket. Without hesitation he struck a match and dropped it through the wire cage.
The paper caught immediately, growing orange leaves of fire. Black smoke, as thick as the smoke from a burning tyre, puffed through the bars of the cage. The flames turned brilliant yellow and began to spit tiny forks of lightning into the dense smoke.
Taking a step back, Arm crashed into the filing cabinet.
The burning wad of paper bulged. The smoke curled over the top of the wastebasket then spun itself into a descending spiral as something sucked it back towards its source. Black lightning stabbed through every gap in the mesh. Something inhuman began to wail.
The light from the fire was brilliant now. The flames no longer looked like leaves – now they were elaborate bonsai structures wreathed in miniature storm clouds. Little burning trees. Yellow branches spawned sharp white twigs and now fire and lightning were indistinguishable. The complexity grew. Light etched dazzling lines across Arm’s retinas, a fractal explosion of pattern and fast-developing form. Now the light was a web, now it folded into a three-dimensional form whose skin was veined with fire, now it contracted so that the gaps between the lines of light disappeared, leaving only the fire. Then the fire began to cool, leaving the shape it had made.
The creature was still glowing orange and howling with the agony of birth as a final billow of black smoke rose from the wastebasket. Heat lingered but the flames were extinguished, or else drawn into the body of the creature, Arm could not tell which. All he could do was watch as the swamp-lizard, cooling still, raised its head and screamed.
He clasped his hand to his ears and the lizard – no bigger than a kitten – lunged at the metal bars of its prison. The wastebasket shunted a foot across the floor. On top, the stack of box files teetered.
Victor reached to press down on the tower of files. Already the little beast was moving again, this time in the opposite direction. Victor’s hand came down not in the middle of the stack but on the corner. All five files tumbled to the floor, spilling papers and plastic wallets.
The lizard lunged again, tipping the wastebasket over.
It looked just as it had through the window. Small round scales; teeth like a baby shark; a long, chameleon tongue. Its eyes looked feeble, as if it had cataracts.
It gave a short screech, a much more considered sound than its birth-cry.
Arm took a step to the side. The lizard’s head tracked him; still he couldn’t quite place the direction of its gaze. Was it blind, using some more exotic sense to track its prey? In his peripheral vision he saw Victor reaching under the desk and realised he had inadvertently distracted the creature. It too sensed what Victor was doing and darted for him too late.
The automatic pistol Victor had snatched from the grab-holster beneath the desk went off with a deafening report. The lizard’s head disintegrated. Blood sprayed vivid scarlet lines across the floor. A shard of bone stung Arm’s face and he recoiled, nauseated.
What remained of the little lizard collapsed, sack-like. One clawed foot twitched erratically for about a minute.
Touching his hand to his cheek, Arm found blood that might have been his own. He plucked out the bone splinter and examined it. It was no bigger than a bee-sting. He tore a rough square of paper from an empty page in his sketchbook and folded it around the splinter, then put the paper in his pocket.
He looked up to see Victor nodding approval.
‘Keep it,’ he said. ‘Look at it in the night, when you begin to doubt.’
The right man for the job
‘I knew you were the right man for the job as soon as I saw that African calendar of yours,’ said Victor. ‘You were clearly a talented artist – a prerequisite of this, uh, unusual position – but more than that, an artist with a genuine feel for conservation. Not the ideology or the politics but the heart of it, the animals and plants, the natural world itself.
‘If you’re asking me to tell you what those worlds are that lie beyond the windows of the Panoptikon, I can’t. It’s something we can discuss later; I have some theories of my own. My father had a few ideas of his own too. Suffice it to say they are simply other worlds, parallel worlds if you like, connected with our own through the Panoptikon. They’re strange, some are terrible, all are beautiful in their way and – this is my point – they are all in their own way natural. Therefore worthy of conservation.’
‘The worlds are unstable. I can’t demonstrate this to you now: it’s late and we’ve done quite enough for one day. But my father’s studies, and more recently my own, have shown they are deteriorating at an alarming rate. You saw for yourself the wretched gloom of the swamp-world. It was not always like that. Drawings from the eighteenth century show it as vibrant and sun-filled. Now it is changing, sinking inexorably into the mud. As are the worlds behind the other windows. We are simply trying to save them.’
Arm looked round at the filing cabinets, two hundred of them.
‘It’s an ark, isn’t it? That’s what you’re doing here, what you’ve been doing all these years.’
‘I like to think of it as a seed bank. Conservation at its most elemental: the collection and preservation of specimens for future reintroduction into the wild.’
‘The wild? Surely you can’t mean …’
‘Fear not, Armstrong. These creatures can never be allowed into Earth’s biosphere. No, our aim is merely to store them until such future time as their worlds are regenerated, or new worlds can be found into which they can be released.’
‘But you can’t be sure that will ever happen.’
‘Of course not. This is more than a life’s work, Armstrong. This is a task that may never end.’ Sparks appeared beneath his prodigious eyebrows, the reflected glare of the fluorescents. ‘And now I am asking you to join me.’
‘Is … is that all?’
‘That is enough.’
‘I’ll have to think about it.’
Victor was solemn. ‘I understand. It’s a big decision. You’ll take a few days to think about what you’ve seen. What I’m asking you to do is simple enough – it is after all what you like to do most of all, namely to draw. However, the Panoptikon can be daunting. Some of it’s contents are … unusual. Stimulating, of course, never forget that.’
‘A few days. Yes, I’ll take them. It’s all so … unexpected.’
The word dropped from his lips, inadequate. Victor was already on his hands and knees, beginning the unpleasant task of clearing up the mess.
‘You don’t need to help me,’ he said, ‘but I would prefer you to wait for me before leaving. It’s entirely possible to get lost down here.’
‘I’ll wait,’ said Arm. ‘And I’ll help.’
Kneeling, he picked up the wastebasket, which had fallen on to its side. A single bead of blood chased round the rim. The creature’s remains were pathetic.
Its claws looked terribly sharp.
The remains of the kitten
He got home to find a padded envelope beside the door.
On cue, a cloud obscured the moon. Declaring himself immune to melodrama, he tore open the envelope on the doorstep.
This bag contained what looked like offal: little loops of intestine, indeterminate organs, all very clean, with almost no blood. Jostling for space with it all was the head of a kitten. Its white fur was perfect, the cut through its neck surgically precise.
Arm managed to reach the bathroom before vomiting. He buried the remains of the kitten next to the rat.
Copyright © Graham Edwards 2008