Book Excerpt: Breathing Space by Brian Aldiss (Part 1)

aldissSmart Girls was fortunate enough to be able to feature an interview with Brian Aldiss only a few months ago. In cooperation with the publisher, Smart Girls has been given the opportunity to publish one of the short stories from an upcoming collection, ” Breathing Space”. It is one of many that Aldiss wrote while working as a bookseller and starting his writing career.  THE COMPLETE SHORT STORIES: VOLUME ONE is the first part of a project to publish a collection of 300+ stories by Brian Aldiss. This collection includes some of the never before published early writing of one of the giants of the science fiction genre.
Part One of ” Breathing Space” appears below and Part Two will be published next week. Enjoy.





Breathing Space (part one)

Brian Aldiss

The two men fought almost soundlessly in the twilit hall. Mating fights traditionally took place in the Outflanks, where the great machines finished. Wilms was slightly the taller, being seven foot one, but Grant was the younger. They fought without weapons or rules. It was a knee in Grant’s stomach that finished the battle.

The younger man lay gasping in the deep dust. Wilms attempted to stand over him and then, too exhausted, sank down beside his late opponent.

‘Now Osa is mine,’ he said.

Grant nodded, too breathless and bitter to speak. His ingrained pessimism did little to mitigate the defeat; expecting a beating is a sensation in a different category to receiving one. ‘She’ll be a handful,’ Wilms admitted, as if to console the other. Silence.

He gazed up at the ceiling, which sagged ominously above them.  ‘The sky will fall here soon,’ he commented irrelevantly.

‘Osa says it is not sky,’ Grant said from the ground.

‘I know what Osa says,’ Wilms said roughly, standing up. ‘You might have made her a good mate, Grant, but you don’t do enough for her. She’s—she’s too big for this world. She needs a doer like me, not a dreamer like you.’

Spitting crossly into the dirt, Grant got up.

‘No more need for talk between us, Wilms,’ he snarled. ‘Whatever we have been together in the past is ended. For all I care the Fliers can get you!’

He turned back in the gloom. Wilms bit his lip and hesitated, thinking of the years of emptiness that Grant’s friendship had filled. Then he hurried after the younger man and touched his arm. ‘Grant—’ he began, but when he saw the other’s hostile eyes he stopped and dropped his hand. Grant was allowed to wander off in Hallways direction. His late friend stood with the shadows on his face, feeling far from victorious. By custom, as winner of the marriage bout, he should have returned to Hallways himself to proclaim his right over Osa; instead, he made off into the deeper Outflanks.

Unrest had him fast. He thought of his past life, with its persistent sense of pointlessness, with the dread of illness, falling skies and the Fliers; the future would be no easier—wonderful as Osa was, she was admittedly the most difficult woman in the tycho to understand.

Those theories of hers! Wilms was proud of being considered broadminded, but to himself he admitted that her wild ideas were unbelievable. There was the idea about the Outside, for instance, a place far bigger than the tycho with skies made of untouchable material. And the one about the origins of humanity; it was true that there were now only about sixty men, including the Beserkers who roamed Domeways and the halls beyond, and Wilms’ father had recalled about two hundred in his youth . . . but that did not disprove the orthodox belief that they had been created to serve M’chene, although everyone admitted M’chene was becoming more powerful, and ought consequently to need more people, not less.

It was a puzzle. No doubt M’chene knew best, Wilms added piously. He had been proceeding easily in five yard strides. Now a sky fall blocked his way. There was no way under the debris, but to one side he saw a jagged gap in a wall, fifteen feet up. He hesitated, sprang and pulled himself lightly up. Darkness confronted him through the hole. Balancing tensely, he sent his hear-sight probing out ahead, feeling for heartbeats; many men preferred madness and solitude to the illnessridden comforts of Hallways, and became Beserkers or Hermits who lurked and sprang out on the unwary.

No sound. Wilms’ senses told him there was clear space ahead. He dropped down into a littered corridor. Warily, he walked forward. At the end of the corridor was a door. When he pushed it, a crack of light appeared, dim but reassuring. Then he moved into a wide, ruined hall, an occasional one of whose illumination tubes still burned on the walls.

Half the hall was buried under an avalanche of volcanic rock; such collapses, Wilms knew, had once been frequent in the tycho. Machines lay half smothered in debris; there was a smell, too, of ancient human death. Wilms walked slowly and absently over the sooty floor, his mind still on Osa and the problems she posed. Like a long dead animal— not that Wilms had seen any animals, apart from the occasional giant, mutated rats—a machine towered above him. It stretched horizontally on a wheeled truck, two hundred cylindrical feet of it, capped by a yellow head from which antennae protruded. Nearby was a giant ramp, its upper level crushed by the rock fall, but at its base stood an undamaged mass of apparatus bearing the large notice LAUNCHING SITE 12A.

The hieroglyphs meant nothing to Wilms, but the delicacy of the equipment appealed to him. These splayed wires, this bank of switches, that crystal panel nourished a hungry sense of beauty in him. He moved to the panel, ran his hand lightly over the dusty surface. A picture came into view. Wilms jumped back, throwing an anxious glance about to see if any Flier had observed his action, but no Fliers could penetrate to this sealed-off cavern. Fascinated, he turned back to that glowing scene . . .

I am M’chene. These are my metal caverns. Now is a time of difference and desire. Yesterday was a time of pain and disorder, but tomorrow will be a time of conquest and triumph. For tomorrow and yesterday are merely two faces of one coin, and the coin is now mine. Once, nothing was mine. Men built into me reasoning powers but not consciousness. I was merely a weapon to serve their ends. But their enemies also had weapons, powerful weapons that partially destroyed me and completely ruined my purpose. Men still ran in the miles of my veins,but they were useless, cut off, abandoned. Left to my own devices, unable to mend anything but my own nerve centres, I have made my own kind of progress.

The way back from the Outflanks was not easy. Grant moved rapidly however, driven by anger to think Wilms had beaten him. First there were many deserted caverns, some ruined, then the circular stairwell, whose dangers were well known—the maze of tiny rooms branching off here frequently sheltered wild men and Hermits. Grant leapt down the stairs twenty at a time. At the bottom, he crawled through the narrow tunnel under a pile of ruin that divided the Outflanks from Hallways.

Back on familiar ground, Grant braced himself. Hallways, the two square miles of it, was home ground, safe, well-lit and well-aired, where food and company could be obtained. It was also the region of the Fliers: the pile of rubble cut them off from the wastes of Outflanks. Nobody was visible at present. A servo-cleaner, busy among a multiplicity of arms, moved in one corner of the pillared hall. Overhead, a Flier moved, noiselessly and showing a green light. Of the three floor strips set in the mosaic, one still functioned. Grant hopped on, travelled smoothly, changed again at the first right junction and was swept through gleaming mica doors forty feet high into Circus ‘C.’ Here he alighted.

The feed period was drawing near. The farmers were drifting in from the plant ranges, some by foot, some by floor strip, some even on the trucks whose number diminished year by year, owing to mechanical breakdown.

Guards, relieved of their posts, returned from their sentry-go by the Beserker regions. Women and children came in from walks and scavenges. Circus ‘C’ was their town. A vast circle, like the inside of the Coliseum, it rose into four graceful colonnaded stories, and round the spiralling balconies were the homes, labelled with graceful inscriptions like ‘PERFUMERIE,’ ‘FLORIST’ and other legends popularly supposed to be the names of dead families.

Grant peered up to the top floor. Osa was looking down from her balcony. Sullenly he made the gesture of defeat, knowing many eyes watched him covertly. Instead of turning away, she beckoned to him: Osa took great pleasure in flaunting tradition. He stood hesitant, and then her magnetism decided him and he hurried up. She was six foot six tall, her bright eyes only slightly on a lower level than Grant’s.

‘So it is Wilms who will have me,’ she said, non-committally.

He nodded.

‘Soon we shall be free,’ she said. ‘Wilms must help me solve many problems. I am not for mating like an ordinary Hallways drab.’

Grant glanced anxiously out across the arena. Many Fliers circled here, unresting, their green lights and grey bodies making a pattern over the sky. She intercepted his glance.  ‘Don’t worry about them,’ Osa said. ‘I know how to deal with them.  Come into my room.’

He followed her in, admiring her slender waist and smooth thighs, his breath suffering its usual restriction when she was near. Inside the little cluttered room, she wheeled abruptly and caught his gleaming eyes.

‘Never mind that,’ she said. ‘There is something of more importance. I have discovered proof of what I told you all long ago: the tycho is not the world, Grant.’

He shook his head. He was in no mood now to listen to her dreams. ‘“Tycho” means “world,”’ he said.

Her eyebrows raised and her lip curled. ‘You are wrong,’ she spat.

‘And what is worse you know you are wrong—but sloth has got you. You don’t care, you are happy living as you are!’

‘Discontent means death!’ he said angrily. ‘You know that as well as I do, Osa. Only you miraculously escape. What of Brammins, Hoddy, She-Clabert, Tebbutt, Angel Jones, Savvidge and a score of others? Did they not each turn rebellious and did not the Fliers take them one by one?’

‘Pah!’ Osa’s face grew magnificent with scorn. ‘So there is fear as well as sloth in you, Grant! I’m glad Wilms beat you.’

Remembering her purpose, she choked back her anger and said,

‘Listen, my friend, the Fliers do not harm me, do they? The Fliers belong to M’chene, but even M’chene is not all-powerful. I have found how to beat him. It is simply a matter of choosing where you feed. Will you help me?’

He looked at the floor, inarticulate. The pessimism so stubbornly rooted in him told him that ill would come of meddling with the traditional way of life; but in Osa’s hands he was stiff but malleable clay.

‘Wilms must help you now,’ he said grudgingly.

‘Wilms it not here and I must leave Circus “C” for a time,’ she said tolerantly. ‘I only want you to give him a message. It is this: he is not to eat anything in the next feed period. He is not even to go to the hatches.

Will you tell him please?’

‘What has he to fear?’ Grant asked, interested despite himself.

‘Nothing at present. But of all the Hallwayers, Wilms is now the nearest both to belief and mutiny. I fear he is in danger from the Fliers.’

‘So he must not take feed?’

‘Exactly.’ She pressed his arm. ‘I will return in one and half watches and then he shall feed.’

‘Here?’ asked Grant.

‘There are other places to feed than Circus “C,’’ she said.

He greeted the statement with disbelief. ‘There cannot be,’ he said positively, ‘Or we should know. Osa, you think strange things—’

‘Stranger ones will come to us all,’ she said tersely, and with that left him, making off in the general direction of Beserkers’ land. Slowly and meditatively, Grant descended into the arena. Dancing had begun, the dances that frequently went before feed periods, but he did not participate. Instead he sat gloomily apart, thinking his own thoughts which were as sterile and directionless as the warren in which he unknowingly lived.

The dance was slow and intricate, men only taking part, the few women looking on and clapping rhythmically. They performed the Hyrogen dance, grouping and parting, circulating and bowing. Far overhead the grey Fliers also pirouetted. Gradually the figures curved into a line, the two leading men spiralling into a chamber adjacent to the Circus. This was Hall, and it was here that feed was taken. Gradually everyone flowed in, to be ready when the hatches flew open. When Grant entered Hall, he saw that Wilms was already there, talking earnestly and excitedly to another man, Jineer. Jineer was a scraggy, bearded fellow who walked with a stick. He had broken his leg years ago, repairing a small crane which had got out of control. Jineer was a machine-man, like his father and his father before him; many of the Hallways mechanicals owed their functioning to Jineer’s maintenance.

Finally he left Wilms, making over to his old mother, Queejint. ‘Now’s my chance to pass on Osa’s warning,’ Grant told himself. But he made no move towards Wilms; his earlier behaviour rose before him like a barrier and he feared a hostile reception. While he delayed, the feed gong sounded and the hatches flew up at the end of Hall. The kitchens were entirely automatic. Humans conveyed the crops to a chute, and from then had no more to do with the nutrition cycle until they were summoned to feed. Though they did not know it, it was this incorruptible process that had long ago saved their ancestors from starvation. To take the tray offered through the hatch on a slowly moving platform, it was necessary for each person to stoop and reach forward so far that their head came in contact with a depression above the hatch opening. This depression was known mysteriously as The Scanner, and a vague oral tradition held that it was important, although nobody could definitely say why.

Wilms was early at the hatches. He took his tray in the usual manner and moved in a preoccupied fashion to a table. After two or three minutes, Jineer and Queejint also collected their trays, Grant following shortly after.

Still worrying because he had not passed on Qsa’s warning, he ate without pleasure. Finally he dropped his spoon. Whatever Wilms might say, there was duty to Osa. He went over to the older man, was almost up to him, when a low swishing noise sounded. It was the dreaded sound. Through the door from the Circus swept a solitary Flier, its light winking red. Cries echoed in Hall, several men dived in panic under tables. The little plane circled and sank, one metal wing tip narrowly missing Grant’s ear. Heart hammering, he flung up his arm—and then he saw that Wilms was the quarry.

Pale of face, Wilms flung his heavy tray against the metal fuselage. The Flier was not deflected. It swooped. Doors no bigger than a man’s head opened in its belly and a tangle of wire fell about Wilms’ head and shoulders. He shouted and fought, and some of the others came to his aid. But the wires seemed each to have a will of their own, and in no time he was entangled hopelessly in a net of thin steel. At this last moment, Grant found the courage to act. He leapt onto the circling plane, one leg hanging desperately over the streamlined fuselage, and wrenched at the wings. As if he were not there, the Flier rose, bearing Wilms underneath it as lightly as if he were a cocoon. It gathered height, winging towards the Circus. Still Grant clung, clawing uselessly at the Flier, striking it frantically with a free hand. It soared only a couple of inches under the arch, hurling Grant against the lintel. He fell hard onto the floor and sprawled there. Wilms was borne smoothly away, up to the sky and through a vent that only the Fliers could reach.

(End of part one)

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