My voice must have seemed calmer than my actual thoughts because there was no hesitation in their response. No hint in their tone of having seen the spores erupt into my face. I had been so close. The spores had been so tiny, so insignificant. I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead.
“Words? Made of fungi?” the surveyor said, stupidly echoing me.
“There is no recorded human language that uses this method of writing,” the anthropologist said. “Is there any animal that communicates in this way?”
I had to laugh. “No, there is no animal that communicates in this way.” Or, if there were, I could not recall its name, and never did later, either.
“Are you joking? This is a joke, right?” the surveyor said. She looked poised to come down and prove me wrong, but didn’t move from her position.
“Fruiting bodies,” I replied, almost as if in a trance. “Forming words.”
A calm had settled over me. A competing sensation, as if I couldn’t breathe, or didn’t want to, was clearly psychological not physiological. I had noticed no physical changes, and on some level it didn’t matter. I knew it was unlikely we had an antidote to something so unknown waiting back at the camp.
More than anything, the information I was trying to process immobilized me. The words were composed of symbiotic fruiting bodies from a species unknown to me. Second, the dusting of spores on the words meant that the farther down into the tower we explored, the more the air would be full of potential contaminants. Was there any reason to relay this information to the others when it would only alarm them? No, I decided, perhaps selfishly. It was more important to make sure they were not directly exposed until we could come back with the proper equipment. Any other evaluation depended on environmental and biological factors about which I was increasingly convinced I had inadequate data.
I came back up the stairs to the landing. The surveyor and the anthropologist looked expectant, as if I could tell them more. The anthropologist in particular was on edge; her gaze couldn’t alight on any one thing but kept moving and moving. Perhaps I could have fabricated information that would have stopped that incessant search. But what could I tell them about the words on the wall except that they were either impossible or insane, or both? I would have preferred the words be written in an unknown language; this would have presented less of a mystery for us to solve, in a way.
“We should go back up,” I said. It was not that I recommended this as the best course of action but because I wanted to limit their exposure to the spores until I could see what long-term effects they might have on me. I also knew if I stayed there much longer I might experience a compulsion to go back down the stairs to continue reading the words, and they would have to physically restrain me, and I did not know what I would do then.
There was no argument from the other two. But as we climbed back up, I had a moment of vertigo despite being in such an enclosed space, a kind of panic for a moment, in which the walls suddenly had a fleshy aspect to them, as if we traveled inside of the gullet of a beast.
* * *
When we told the psychologist what we had seen, when I recited some of the words, she seemed at first frozen in an oddly attentive way. Then she decided to descend to view the words. I struggled with whether I should warn her against this action. Finally I said, “Only observe from the top of the stairs. We don’t know whether there are toxins. When we come back, we should wear breathing masks.” These, at least, we had inherited from the last expedition, in a sealed container.
“Paralysis is not a cogent analysis?” she said to me with a pointed stare. I felt a kind of itchiness come over me, but I said nothing, did nothing. The others did not even seem to realize she had spoken. It was only later that I realized the psychologist had tried to bind me with a hypnotic suggestion meant for me and me alone.
Thankfully the other two had no desire to talk as we waited, and after just fifteen minutes the psychologist awkwardly pushed her way up out of the stairwell and into the light, blinking as her vision adjusted.
“Interesting,” she said in a flat tone as she loomed over us, wiping the cobwebs from her clothing. “I have never seen anything like that before.” She seemed as if she might continue, but then decided against it.
What she had already said verged on the moronic; apparently I was not alone in that assessment.
“Interesting?” the anthropologist said. “No one has ever seen anything like that in the entire history of the world. No one. Ever. And you call it interesting?” She seemed close to working herself into a bout of hysteria. While the surveyor just stared at both of them as if they were the alien organisms.
“Do you need me to calm you?” the psychologist asked. There was a steely tone to her words that made the anthropologist mumble something noncommittal and stare at the ground.
I stepped into the silence with my own suggestion: “We need time to think about this. We need time to decide what to do next.” I meant, of course, that I needed time to see if the spores I had inhaled would affect me in a way significant enough to confess to what had happened.
“There may not be enough time in the world for that,” the surveyor said. Of all of us, I think she had best grasped the implications of what we had seen: that we might now be living in a kind of nightmare. But the psychologist ignored her and sided with me. “We do need time. We should spend the rest of our day doing what we were sent here to do.”
So we returned to camp for lunch and then focused on “ordinary things” while I kept monitoring my body for any changes. Did I feel too cold now, or too hot? Was that ache in my knee from an old injury suffered in the field, or something new? I even checked the black box monitor, but it remained inert. Nothing radical had yet changed in me, and as we took our samples and readings in the general vicinity of the camp—as if to stray too far would be to come under the tower’s control—I gradually relaxed and told myself that the spores had had no effect … even though I knew that the incubation period for some species could be months or years. I suppose I thought merely that for the next few days at least I might be safe.
The surveyor concentrated on adding detail and nuance to the maps our superiors had given us. The anthropologist went off to examine the remains of some cabins a quarter mile away. The psychologist stayed in her tent, writing in her journal. Perhaps she was reporting on how she was surrounded by idiots, or just setting out every moment of our morning discoveries.
For my part, I spent an hour observing a tiny red-and-green tree frog on the back of a broad, thick leaf and another hour following the path of an iridescent black damselfly that should not have been found at sea level. The rest of the time, I spent up a pine tree, binoculars focused on the coast and the lighthouse. I liked climbing. I also liked the ocean, and I found staring at it had a calming effect. The air was so clean, so fresh, while the world back beyond the border was what it had always been during the modern era: dirty, tired, imperfect, winding down, at war with itself. Back there, I had always felt as if my work amounted to a futile attempt to save us from who we are.
The richness of Area X’s biosphere was reflected in the wealth of birdlife, from warblers and flickers to cormorants and black ibis. I could also see a bit into the salt marshes, and my attention there was rewarded by a minute-long glimpse of a pair of otters. At one point, they glanced up and I had a strange sensation that they could see me watching them. It was a feeling I often had when out in the wilderness: that things were not quite what they s
eemed, and I had to fight against the sensation because it could overwhelm my scientific objectivity. There was also something else, moving ponderously through the reeds, but it was closer to the lighthouse and in deep cover. I could not tell what it was, and after a while its disturbance of the vegetation ceased and I lost track of it entirely. I imagined it might be another wild pig, as they could be good swimmers and were just as omnivorous in their choice of habitats as in their diets.
On the whole, by dusk this strategy of busying ourselves in our tasks had worked to calm our nerves. The tension lifted somewhat, and we even joked a little bit at dinner. “I wish I knew what you were thinking,” the anthropologist confessed to me, and I replied, “No, you don’t,” which was met with a laughter that surprised me. I didn’t want their voices in my head, their ideas of me, nor their own stories or problems. Why would they want mine?
But I did not mind that a sense of camaraderie had begun to take hold, even if it would prove short-lived. The psychologist allowed us each a couple of beers from the store of alcohol, which loosened us up to the point that I even clumsily expressed the idea that we might maintain some sort of contact once we had completed our mission. I had stopped checking myself for physiological or psychological reactions to the spores by then, and found that the surveyor and I got along better than I had expected. I still didn’t like the anthropologist very much, but mostly in the context of the mission, not anything she had said to me. I felt that, once in the field, much as some athletes were good in practice and not during the game, she had exhibited a lack of mental toughness thus far. Although just volunteering for such a mission meant something.
When the nightly cry from the marshes came a little after nightfall, while we sat around our fire, we at first called back to it in a drunken show of bravado. The beast in the marshes now seemed like an old friend compared to the tower. We were confident that eventually we would photograph it, document its behavior, tag it, and assign it a place in the taxonomy of living things. It would become known in a way we feared the tower would not. But we stopped calling back when the intensity of its moans heightened in a way that suggested anger, as if it knew we were mocking it. Nervous laughter all around, then, and the psychologist took that as her cue to ready us for the next day.
“Tomorrow we will go back to the tunnel. We will go deeper, taking certain precautions—wearing breathing masks, as suggested. We will record the writing on the walls and get a sense of how old it is, I hope. Also, perhaps a sense of how deep the tunnel descends. In the afternoon, we’ll return to our general investigations of the area. We’ll repeat this schedule every day until we think we know enough about the tunnel and how it fits into Area X.”
Tower, not tunnel. She could have been talking about investigating an abandoned shopping center, for all of the emphasis she put on it … and yet something about her tone seemed rehearsed.
Then she abruptly stood and said three words: “Consolidation of authority.”
Immediately the surveyor and the anthropologist beside me went slack, their eyes unfocused. I was shocked, but I mimicked them, hoping that the psychologist had not noticed the lag. I felt no compulsion whatsoever, but clearly we had been preprogrammed to enter a hypnotic state in response to those words, uttered by the psychologist.
Her demeanor more assertive than just a moment before, the psychologist said, “You will retain a memory of having discussed several options with regard to the tunnel. You will find that you ultimately agreed with me about the best course of action, and that you felt quite confident about this course of action. You will experience a sensation of calm whenever you think about this decision, and you will remain calm once back inside the tunnel, although you will react to any stimuli as per your training. You will not take undue risks.
“You will continue to see a structure that is made of coquina and stone. You will trust your colleagues completely and feel a continued sense of fellowship with them. When you emerge from the structure, any time you see a bird in flight it will trigger a strong feeling that you are doing the right thing, that you are in the right place. When I snap my fingers, you will have no memory of this conversation, but will follow my directives. You will feel very tired and you will want to retire to your tents to get a good night’s sleep before tomorrow’s activities. You will not dream. You will not have nightmares.”
I stared straight ahead as she said these words, and when she snapped her fingers I took my cue from the actions of the other two. I don’t believe the psychologist suspected anything, and I retired to my tent just as the others retired to their tents.
Now I had new data to process, along with the tower. We knew that the psychologist’s role was to provide balance and calm in a situation that might become stressful, and that part of this role included hypnotic suggestion. I could not blame her for performing that role. But to see it laid out so nakedly troubled me. It is one thing to think you might be receiving hypnotic suggestion and quite another to experience it as an observer. What level of control could she exert over us? What did she mean by saying that we would continue to think of the tower as made of coquina and stone?
Most important, however, I now could guess at one way in which the spores had affected me: They had made me immune to the psychologist’s hypnotic suggestions. They had made me into a kind of conspirator against her. Even if her purposes were benign, I felt a wave of anxiety whenever I thought of confessing that I was resistant to hypnosis—especially since it meant any underlying conditioning hidden in our training also was affecting me less and less.
I now hid not one but two secrets, and that meant I was steadily, irrevocably, becoming estranged from the expedition and its purpose.
* * *
Estrangement, in all of its many forms, was nothing new for these missions. I understood this from having been given an opportunity along with the others to view videotape of the reentry interviews with the members of the eleventh expedition. Once those individuals had been identified as having returned to their former lives, they were quarantined and questioned about their experiences. Reasonably enough, in most cases family members had called the authorities, finding their loved one’s return uncanny or frightening. Any papers found on these returnees had been confiscated by our superiors for examination and study. This information, too, we were allowed to see.
The interviews were fairly short, and in them all eight expedition members told the same story. They had experienced no unusual phenomenon while in Area X, taken no unusual readings, and reported no unusual internal conflicts. But after a period of time, each one of them had had the intense desire to return home and had set out to do so. None of them could explain how they had managed to come back across the border, or why they had gone straight home instead of first reporting to their superiors. One by one they had simply abandoned the expedition, left their journals behind, and drifted home. Somehow.
Throughout these interviews, their expressions were friendly and their gazes direct. If their words seemed a little flat, then this went with the kind of general calm, the almost dreamlike demeanor each had returned with—even the compact, wiry man who had served as that expedition’s military expert, a person who’d had a mercurial and energetic personality. In terms of their affect, I could not tell any of the eight apart. I had the sense that they now saw the world through a kind of veil, that they spoke to their interviewers from across a vast distance in time and space.
As for the papers, they proved to be sketches of landscapes within Area X or brief descriptions. Some were cartoons of animals or caricatures of fellow expedition members. All of them had, at some point, drawn the lighthouse or written about it. Looking for hidden meaning in these papers was the same as looking for hidden meaning in the natural world around us. If it existed, it could be activated only by the eye of the beholder.
At the time, I was seeking oblivion, and I sought in those blank, anonymous faces, even the most painfully familiar, a kind of benign escape. A death that would not me
an being dead.
In the morning, I woke with my senses heightened, so that even the rough brown bark of the pines or the ordinary lunging swoop of a woodpecker came to me as a kind of minor revelation. The lingering fatigue from the four-day hike to base camp had left me. Was this some side effect of the spores or just the result of a good night’s sleep? I felt so refreshed that I didn’t really care.
But my reverie was soon tempered by disastrous news. The anthropologist was gone, her tent empty of her personal effects. Worse, in my view, the psychologist seemed shaken, and as if she hadn’t slept. She was squinting oddly, her hair more windblown than usual. I noticed dirt caked on the sides of her boots. She was favoring her right side, as if she had been injured.
“Where is the anthropologist?” the surveyor demanded, while I hung back, trying to make my own sense of it. What have you done with the anthropologist? was my unspoken question, which I knew was unfair. The psychologist was no different than she had been before; that I knew the secret to her magician’s show did not necessarily mean she was a threat.
The psychologist stepped into our rising panic with a strange assertion: “I talked to her late last night. What she saw in that … structure … unnerved her to the point that she did not want to continue with this expedition. She has started back to the border to await extraction. She took a partial report with her so that our superiors will know our progress.” The psychologist’s habit of allowing a slim smile to cross her face at inappropriate times made me want to slap her.
“But she left her gear—her gun, too,” the surveyor said.
“She took only what she needed so we would have more—including an extra gun.”
“Do you think we need an extra gun?” I asked the psychologist. I was truly curious. In some ways I found the psychologist as fascinating as the tower. Her motivations, her reasons. Why not resort to hypnosis now? Perhaps even with our underlying conditioning some things are not suggestible, or fade with repetition, or she lacked the stamina for it after the events of the night before.