In the Control Tower

by Will Mohler

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Shadows haunted the dying alleys. Madness stalked the wide streets. And what lay at the city's heart?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I

Dewforth had almost most lost the habit of looking from windows. The train which took him to the city every morning passed through a country in the terminal stages of a long war of self-destruction. Whatever had been burned, botched, poisoned or exhausted in that struggle had been filled along the right-of-way, among drifts of soot and ground-mists of sulphurous smoke and chemical flatulence, to form a long tedious mural--a parody of cloud-borne Asiatic hills, precipitous and always so close to the tracks that their tops could not be seen.

This was almost merciful, considering what had been done to the sky. When the train did not sneak between hills of slag, cinders, rubbish, garbage, dross and the bloody brown carrion of broken machinery, it shot like a bolt in the groove of an arbolest between unbroken barriers of advertising or through deep concrete troughs and roaring tunnels full of grimy light and grubby air.

There was one inconsistancy in this scheme of things: Just as the train emerged from a deep valley of slag-hills and swung into a long curve, passengers on the left side had a panoramic view of the city--a frozen scene of battle between geometrical monsters, made remote and obscure by the dust of a thousand thousand merely human struggles, too small to be visible from the crusty windows of the train by the merely human eye. They had about one second in which to absorb this vision of corporate purpose. Then they were plunging into a final stretch of tunnel to the center of the city itself, where no surface was ever more than fifteen paces away and where there were no horizons at all.

Dewforth was excited by this view even though it reached him in a fragmentary and subliminal way. Day after day he told himself that he would have all his faculties at the ready before the train swung into the curve. But morning after morning he was still emerging from the stale fumes of the preceding night’s beer, or he allowed himself to be hypnotized by the sound of the wheels or fascinated by the jiggling of another passenger’s earlobe at that critical moment. The train had always entered the clangorous colon of the city before this resolve could crystallize in his mind, and he was left with an impression which lay somewhere in the scale of reality between the after-image of a light bulb and the morning memory of a fever-dream. He could never have described the scene except in loose generalities about buildings of contrasting height and unemphatic color.


The single memorable feature of the panorama, looming above the rest, was not even a building. It eluded all familiar categories. It was, like the other components of the picture, rectangular; but it was a displaced rectangle. A shining thread of morning sky could be seen beneath it. It was only logical to suppose that it stood on legs of some kind--a complicated process of girders. The upper part appeared to be made of corrugated metal, but, as with the matter of the legs, it was impossible to separate what was actually seen and what was merely inferred. The only other structures Dewforth had seen which resembled it at all were water towers and shipyard cranes, but these had been mere toys compared with the thing that hovered over the center of the city.

Its purpose could not be guessed, but what disturbed Dewforth more was the fact that he could not be sure that it existed. He was a precision draftsman, more or less resigned to deteriorating eyesight, and his usual abstracted state of mind during that segment of his day had also to be considered. He hoped that someone else would mention the structure. Once--only once--a man sitting on the opposite seat had made a comment which could have applied to it. “It turned,” he said, just as the tunnel swallowed the train.

Dewforth would have liked to ask the other passenger what he had meant. Had he seen the same thing? Had he seen anything at all? And what had he meant by “turned”?

But he had not asked. The other had been not merely forbidding, not merely repugnant, but alternately forbidding and repugnant--in daylight, an impeccable burgher sitting tall and righteous under a tall hat; in tunnels, a hunchbacked gargoyle picking its nose in the fickle darkness.

If Dewforth had been the only passenger on the train, or indeed the last man in the world, he could not have been more alone with his wonder. You did not ask whimsical questions of strangers nowadays. You did not ask many questions of friends. All uncertainties incubated in private darkness; they lived and grew and even put forth new appendages.

Not a building. Not a water tank. Not a crane. Perhaps it was only an illusion.

Illusion or not, it wanted a name so that it might be at least catalogued in his own mind. Therefore, on a morning since forgotten and for reasons never closely examined, he decided to call it The Control Tower.


II

There was an unholy Friday restlessness upon Dewforth. To make matters worse, it was the last Friday in March. Logically, perhaps, this should not have made any difference because Dewforth worked in one of a number of identical windowless rooms in a building from which all natural rhythms had been rigorously excluded. From skylights high in the ceilings of the drafting rooms came a light which had been pasteurized and was timeless. It could have been artificial.

His work provided no refuge for his thought. It was demanding, but only mechanically so. Strictly speaking, he did not know what he was doing. No one did, apparently. He did not have the satisfaction of knowing that what he did was real. He filled large sheets of plastic with tracings of intricate, interconnected schematic hieroglyphs. But he knew that in another place a template would be laid over his work. An irregular portion like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle would be cut out of it and the rest, perhaps more than half of his work, would be destroyed.

It was even possible that all of it was destroyed.

Dewforth worked for a firm which made components. Of what, no one said, no one asked. Components, Inc., the firm was called. He knew that the finished products were small, heavy and very complicated. Their names were mute combinations of letters and numbers, joined by hyphens or separated by virgules. Some said that these components performed no functions. Others said that they worked, but their operations corresponded to no known human need. It was known that some of the finished products themselves were destroyed. Some maintained that they were dissolved in vats of hydrofluoric acid. Others argued that they were encased in cement, then taken out to sea in speedboats on moonless nights and jettisoned. The favorite rumor was that the entire firm was a decoy to bewilder agents of foreign powers and pre-empt their espionage efforts. There was neither proof of this nor evidence to the contrary.

The penalty for circulating this last rumor was immediate dismissal with prejudice.

In another place, another time, Dewforth might have spread the burden of his mood by confiding in other workers, but not under the circumstances so painstakingly arranged by Components, Inc. in the interest of what was called The Inter-loathing Index, or I.I. It was an axiom of modern industry that a high I.I. meant high productivity and also tighter security. The latter was as much the measure of the importance of an industry as what it made or how much. That there was design in the egg-box compartmentation of workspaces, for example, was obvious enough. Less overt were the lengths to which Personnel had gone to discourage the exchange of information, or confidences, among employees.

Under the guise of aptitude testing, the psychologists had been able to select and organize teams consisting entirely of mutually incompatible individuals. So well had they succeeded that most workers could barely stand the sight of one another, and so were driven back upon themselves and their work. Only by practicing an almost egg-like self-containment could a draftsman or other worker hope to get through the day without open conflict and disaster.

Latent antipathies among workers were further intensified by means of the Annual Proficiency Competitions. At the conclusion of these tests all employees save two were given Proficiency Stars. Of the remaining two, one was invariably a person who had shown signs of becoming too popular among his fellows. He was given a Leadership Star, and because an affable man was usually less rather than more efficient than the rest, this made of him a lonely little air-bubble in a sea of resentment.

The second of the two workers was always discharged. Thus a dash of anxiety was added to the proceedings.


The visible manifestations of high I.I. were hectic color, a characteristic ferocity of eye and throbbing jaw-hinges. Often the jaw-hinges of an entire team would be pulsating at once, sometimes even in unison. This spectacle emanated an overwhelming feeling of earnestness and purpose. Executives were fond of pointing out this phenomenon to visiting dignitaries. “Observe their jaw-hinges,” they would say.

Another factor which isolated employees from one another was the peculiarly virulent form of halitosis which afflicted all workers without exception. The company cafeteria was the source of this malady.

Thus, if Dewforth had been the only employee in that vast complex of buildings, or in the world, he could not have been restlessness. Add to this the fact that it had been his misfortune to win the Leadership Star in the Proficiency Competitions only three days earlier. He did not have to trace the bitter stream of his mood any farther back than that to find the bile-source.

The object of the contest had been to draw a single line 28-5/8 inches long and 1/15,000 of an inch thick, a feat which is starkly simple in conception but only theoretically feasible. The draftsmen had spent hours preparing the surfaces of paper, straining ink through filters, honing drawing pens with emery and polishing them with rouge, drawing practice lines and scrutinizing them with powerful bench microscopes. They did Balinese finger exercises, Chinese body coordination exercises, Hindu breathing exercises and Tibetan spiritual calisthenics to dispel their incipient shakes. When the great moment came, a solemn little group of executives entered the drafting room and stood about in attitudes of grave ceremonial courtesy.

The draftsmen then drew their lines.

When it was over, the judges examined and graded the lines and the scores were announced by Mr. Shrank, the foreman. The better scores prompted little flutters of restrained applause from the executives. This moist and muted sound had reminded Dewforth of a hippopotamus venting its wind under water, and in a moment of thoughtless exhilaration he had even thought of sharing this bizarre notion with his wife. He never did so, as it happened.


Why had he ever told his wife about that wretched Leadership Star? Her laughter persisted through his dreams, or through his dream. He only had one. In this dream she was always a massive machine which ingested songbirds between steel rollers and stamped them into pipe-flange gaskets at a rate of one hundred and twenty per minute.

And the prize-winning line he had drawn--it revealed its true nature in the perspective of days. There was no mistaking what it was. It was The Abyss. It could widen and it could engulf. How much light would a Leadership Star cast in that bottomless inkiness?

Acute restless had the effect of sending Dewforth frequently to the lavatory, not so much for physiological reasons as because there was no other place to go and he had to go somewhere when the white walls of the drafting room threatened to crush him. He went as often as he thought he could without attracting the attention of Mr. Shrank or eliciting ponderous jocosities from the other workers. After several visits, however, he did begin to question himself. What drew him to that bleak refuge again and again? He was not aware of bladder irritation. He had no infantile obsession about such facilities. Was he driven by an aggregation of petty forces, each too small to make sense by itself? Or was there one reason hiding behind a cloud of small rationalizations? There was a difference in the air in the lavatory, and in the sound--the undifferentiated background sound which came from nowhere. Nowhere?

It came through a window.

He had been staring at a window--probably the only one in the building--and it had failed to register on his mind at the time because he had not expected it to be there. It was not part of the habitual pattern. He had seen a window. He had, moreover, looked through a window. What had he seen? He thought about this, and at the same time he thought about being sick--administratively sick. He succeeded in working up a palpable fever and a windy yawning beneath the diaphragm. Before taking any action he would have to confirm what he had seen through the window of the lavatory.

On his last trip to the lavatory he climbed up onto the slippery washbasin and looked through the high window. His position there would be impossible to explain, of course, if anyone should come in. He was past caring about that. The unpasteurized air made him a little drunk and the sound--the immense distant sighing groan like a giant’s whisper--filled his brain. It made him want to expand to meet it somehow.

Only one immense skeleton foot was visible, but there was no question about exactly what it was.

No conventional structure would curve upward in that way. There was no point of reference by which to determine how far away it was, and the air was blue with haze, giving everything an appearance of remoteness and of unreality. He had never seen the city from that angle before, but if what he saw was what he thought it was, how could it have been so close without his knowing about it before this time? It was a thing which belonged to vast distances--spatial distances and other kinds of distance as well. Now it was close, or he was closer to it than he had ever imagined he would be in his life.

It was accessible.

Dewforth left at half past three when the somnolence of afternoon was heaviest on the heads of the other draftsmen. He did not speak to Mr. Shrank about it. He did not clear with Miss Plock in the dispensary, nor with Mr. Fert in Personnel, nor with Miss Yurt in Wage Readjustment, nor with Miss Bort in Sick Leave Subdivision, nor with Miss Vibe in Special Problems, nor with Mr. Pfister in Sick Claims, nor with Miss Grope in Employee Grievances, nor with Miss Rupnick in Company Grievances, nor with Miss Guggward in Allowance Reductions, nor with Mr. Droon in Privilege Curtailment, nor with Miss Tremulo in Psychological Counseling, nor with Dr. Schreck in Spiritual Aid Subdiv.

He did not even trouble to see Miss Nosemilker who kept the time book.

He just left.


III

“Nobody goes up there,” said the hulking oyster-eyed man in the burlap overcoat.

The bum’s eyes cleared long enough for him to peer into Dewforth’s eyes in order to see if his madness was worth sharing, then they filmed over again as he decided that it was not.

Dewforth crowded past him and walked on. He was making real progress. He had at last found someone who acknowledged that there was something up there above eye-level. The others--old lost children, figures of scab and grime--had been unaware of anything but inner cavities of craving and fear above the sidewalk firmament of trodden gum disks, sputum stars and the ends of twice-smoked cigarettes.

He could not have lost sight of the Control Tower. He had never realized what streets were. Before that time he had known a single well policed block between the station and his place of work. He still thought of streets as more or less open strips along which people moved, north or south, east or west, purposefully from Point A to Point B with perhaps one right-angle turn, two at the most, pausing only to tip hats or look into shop windows. Now it developed that streets were sewers, battlegrounds, lairs, abattoirs, cesspools, lazarettes, midways of deformity and brawling markets where nightmares and spirochetes were sold.

The city had not less than three dimensions. He had not been fully prepared for the implications of this, either. Existence in three dimensions does not necessarily mean three-dimensional vision. The sky was not visible through the maze of girders, stairways and catwalks overhead. Dewforth tried to orient himself by the direction of shadows, but this was misleading. It was the heart of the shadow district, and the play of shadows was the order of things. The rules were the rules of phantoms. Flesh lived there in subjection. Long miscegenation with shadow had made phantoms of them all and endowed all shadows with the menace of the real. Everything was equivocal as hell.

Dewforth wandered in a cavern without walls. He saw bulky overcoats with defeated hats or defeated heads; long-legged dwarfs in black leather jackets; willowy chorus-boys with platinum ringlets, waiting in their niches for the gift of violence; scuttling trolls with horse-blanket jackets and alpine hats; deposed patriarchs under the small shelter of black derbies, hiding from persecution behind the Spanish moss of consolidated beards; headless things and thingless heads, importuning, threatening, watching or just standing there, those that were able.

In his search for a way out of the darkness, he was obliged to turn back time and again. If gangs of shadows fought with knives at the end of a street which had at first looked promising, what business had shadows cursing or screaming or bleeding? If the madman who enjoined the mob to fight in the service of nothingness was only a mouse dancing on a summit of garbage, why did they cheer? At the end of still another street, a mass rape may not have been in progress; the participants may not have waited sullenly in a long line; a macrocephalic gnome in a plaid suit may not actually have moved up and down the line selling tickets at a reduced rate and explaining that the outrage had been in progress since the preceding Christmas Eve: but why was the unreality so consistant?

And if no one was in fact being ravaged, why did everyone look as though they had been?


All these spectacles tested Dewforth’s courage, but they dimmed his resolve not at all. At last he found a deserted street. He followed it and he was rewarded with encouraging signs. There was more birdlime underfoot, and the inhuman yammering of the streets was replaced with echoing silence, and that silence was invaded by the sound--the voice of the colossus, remote and terrible.

Dewforth asked directions again, this time of a pear-shaped figure which may or may not have had legs and which sat in the mouth of an iron cave and smoked what appeared to be a twist of hemp. “Where...” Dewforth began.

“Nobody goes up there,” the hemp-smoker answered without looking up at him.

“Where do they come down, then,” asked Dewforth, trying a new approach but with little hope. There was a long pause. The pear-shaped man didn’t have arms either, Dewforth noticed. Hands, but no arms.

“Well now, some got it, some ain’t,” he said.

“How’s that?” asked Dewforth. The pear blew out a cloud of smoke, sulphurous, with viscous strings through it. “I knowed a guy caught it from a drinking glass once.”

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