space-time conundrum
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Warning. By J.B. Pick.


Warning was a mile from the prison of that metal container which had borne him for half a year across the terrible emptiness of space before he even realised that he was walking without protective clothing, without equipment, breathing air, watching clouds, feeling about him the slight pushing of a fresh wind, without having taken even the most elementary precautions against the deceptions of appearance.

How could he have gone through all the rigorous routine procedures of release and yet have ignored each step in those procedures which related to his own protection on an alien planet? For six months he had attended with a dedicated and habitual alertness to every operation required by his training and in strict accordance with the careful conditioning to which he had given himself for more than five years.

And yet, here he was, at the extremity of nowhere, completely at home in a world of utter familiarity, having wantonly forgotten all those measures designed to keep him alive and healthy.

He knew the reason well enough. This planet so closely resembled Earth that its every feature served to disarm and reassure him. One look at its trees flourishing in domestic clusters, its richly burgeoning grass, its little sluggish streams, its gentle humps and hollows was sufficient to sink deep into his mind the dangerous and amazing thought: "I'm home".

But he was not home. He was an unimaginable, daunting stream of distance away from it.

Warning found himself in a strange state of double consciousness. He at once savoured the sweet, soothing pleasures of recognition and swam in the bath of familiar sensations and at the same time gazed from some intimate spiritual distance at his own incredible self-deception. He seemed too, to experience a third form of awareness - a compound of fear and the admiring acceptance of all the paths in the maze of contradiction.

The more he walked over the folded hillocks of this kindly landscape the more that bewilderment of recognition troubled him. It was not merely Earth whose reality he saw and heard and felt all around him, pouring into his mind and washing over the exposed skin of his face and hands, it was England.

Somewhere a skylark rose, trilling, a blackbird whistled sweetly on a bough, hedges embraced the fields, and amid the hedges five-barred gates spoke comfortably of man. Prom the distance came the murmur of traffic.

His pace quickened as the immediacy of this dream forced more vividly home at every stride. Not only the fields and birds and beeches, oaks and hawthorn hedges of home but the living people, too. For there was a house on the hill; and there, beyond the wood where the little stream wound down and vanished into lush meadows, a cluster of houses gathered, not in a primitive settlement but the mundane villas of a suburb straggling on to receding pastures.

When he climbed the third gate - rickety and tied to its post with twine icy certainty gripped Warning by the heart. There was the very road, with its tarmacadamed surface and its rush of Fords with their registration numbers so familiar and pertinent that he didn't need to read them to know that they were those of his own home county, here in a far planet in a galaxy remote as heaven.

That was not all. He knew, not only generally but most precisely, where he was. Three miles down the road, over a gentle hill and through the declivity beyond, lay the village where he had lived, within that village the wide-windowed bungalow, and in that bungalow the family that was his ....

For a moment he could neither move nor think. This whole trip, then, this terrible journey through space, this wearisome intensity of applied skill, this zeal of concentration for which he had been trained so long, all this was a dream; he had never strayed farther from his village than five cosy and domestic miles. And then he glanced down at his own clothes, his own shoes, those planned and checked and rechecked and counter-checked clothes issued to him for a journey which had brought him - here .... And the devices clipped into his concealed pockets, every one of the Government issue space-probe experimental equipment on which his fellow-astronauts and dedicated scientists had worked for a decade .... He was not dreaming these. He was here, and it was not home. It was at the climax of a great curve of exhausting flight.

He knew that only one course lay- open to him. He must walk three miles to reach his village, to mount the familiar path through the garden he had dug, to knock at the door with its cracked glass pane, and to greet that girl, his wife, who would open it - the girl who had suffered so many bitter hours of resentment which she had striven so hard to overcome before releasing him for this trip from which it was grimly likely he would never return ...

As he tramped steadily along the hard road he blanked off his mind t? the solidity of his surroundings, trying to calm the dull thudding of his heart, the anxiety which constricted his chest and contracted the muscles of his stomach, to become the man he was trained to be, capable of assessing the nature of all experience and reporting on it with the objectivity of one for whom the accuracy of measurement and clarity of perception are basic requirements, and for whom skill in assessment within a dozen disciplines was a condition of employment.

He began then to apply all the criteria of his training to all that he saw about him and to record it on the miniature instrument in his breast pocket, making no mention of its familiarity but describing only its characteristics as he observed them; and he knew that the clinical assessors on Earth would recognise at once that he was describing the terrain and fauna of the centre of England.

"So they'll know I'm mad," he thought," and the whole mission wasted. They'll know it for certain. And the computer will confirm it."

And yet. And yet. Here he was, there was the house where the old man had suffered a heart attack and his wife had run into the road to stop learning's car, so he went in and loosened the man's collar and stood by the grey-faced, pain-constricted body until the doctor came. There was the Garage where he bought his petrol. There was the huge house abandoned half-built when Fowlie lost his money in the crash of Farthingale's.

He was only half a mile away now, and found himself hoping that the kettle was on. By the sun it must be mid-afternoon. Mid-afternoon! Six months space travel from the planet Earth! With a sun and a time-passage whose rhythm he recognised .... He felt the trembling of his nerves through the deadened sensibility which familiarity had brought, and as he passed the first house in the village, so ordinary that you could not remember it, but would instantly know it as soon as it came into sight, it was all he could to keep one foot plodding leadenly beyond the other, moving him past the Bull, the Post Office, the corner shop and down that lane he had used so often he no longer needed to see it to know its features as part of the pattern of his mind.

If he saw anyone through the agony of his concentration he did not notice them, yet at the same time he knew that if he had seen no-one he would have noted that, and would have recorded the deserted character of the scene; he knew that everything was normal, the people, the things, the procession of the clouds, the warm calm passing of a midsummer afternoon..

Now he was standing in his own drive. Is my car there, he wondered? I could drive back to the capsule. But the Garage was shut and there was no sign of a car. The apple tree would be well laden again. The lawn needed cutting as always. There were weeds in the flower-beds. Clara loved flowers, but had a marvellous capacity for ignoring weeds. One of her familiar aprons hung on a stump where she had forgotten it ...

As he climbed three steps to that utterly ordinary and acceptable front door he noticed again the slight crack in the glass, just where it had been for several years, since Tom 'had kicked a ball against it, and paused with his knuckles raised to knock, why not simply go in? This was his house, he had a right to enter it. Why go on pretending that he stood on a planet a galaxy away. No, such a sudden eruption would be too great a shock for Clara. It was impossible to imagine the sharpness of the effect it would have on her. He must be careful, gentle, exploratory ... He would knock.

As he waited for his own wife to open his own door on a far planet his heart began to thump, thump, thump in a heavy awesome manner he had never experienced before, as if it were emphasising to his whole being its control of his body - "It is I who bear the strain and if I cannot bear it, out you go."

The front door opened. A small, neat charming woman he did not know stood there looking at him with faint wonder and alarm in her calm brown eyes.

For a moment he could not speak.

"Er - Mr Warning ?" he said at last in a jerky tone.

"Mr Warning ? Oh, I'm sorry." Her voice was clear and sweet. "Mr Warning's not here I'm afraid."

Very carefully he said: "Would it be troubling you too much to tell me - where he is?"

"Where he is ?" She gave a small, gentle laugh. "I don't know, exactly. You see. Well, he's - actually he's gone to some other planet. That's what they say. He won't be back for - oh, at least a year. So I can't ask you to wait, can I ? Who - who is it, please? "Who are you?" She was looking in a puzzled way at his strange clothes.

"Who am I?" Warning stood with a passive, wooden face which concealed, a stirring of emotion he could not understand. "I wish I could tell you. Yes. I really wish I knew."


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