He told me of a dream, or was it the memory of a voyage? He found himself in a far country. Alone on a dark plain he was seized by a great birdlike creature that blotted out what little remained of the pitiful sky. Caught up in its talons and their dread passage, he was unsure for a time if he was the bird or the disquiet of the air.
Soon, he was rudely deposited at the gates of a metropolis. He drifted into the sprawling city. Beneath the dismal sun, its citizens existed in a perpetual twilight. They called the city Izdubal—or possibly Gilgitron. Its drab streets and ravaged buildings and towers were encircled by an immense putrid river that beat upon its crumbling shores. Here, life was just so much rot in a universe of decay.
Though rank and festering, the blight of the city was far from the strangest sight. He noted that all the people he came across—all but one as he was to discover—had encumbered themselves with a most puzzling contraption. Carried upon their chests a device was slung that contained in its centre a small, polished screen. Across the surface images flittered that bore a striking resemblance to the bearer. He stopped, fascinated by these stuttering forms, and soon realised that they were moving at a slightly faster rate than the lives so represented. “My future,” one of the city-folk whispered. “All of our futures,” another mumbled, whose screen was dark—or rather, a clutter of static. He pondered these words and realised that for many, indeed for all these people in the fullness of time, their screen life outpaced their actual. He soon saw many more of them, young, old and the barely living, whose screens were dead. Indeed, it seemed to him that no one here was fully alive or dead, and time itself was neither overripe nor completely barren—just uniformly dull. Screen life as bare recompense for something lost; a burden disguised as an apt distraction. All waiting for their dead life to catch up with its representation.
On the outskirts, across the raging river and past the ruins of the old city of the sun god Shamm, he found a refugee from Izdubal. She, like he, wore a helmet to guard against the foul air that some called atmosphere. On a mound, near a lone tree whose roots broke through a nearby burial chamber of a long-forgotten priest of the sun, she stood bereft of screen and so too her double life. At her feet, the gadget lay broken. There, with neither concern nor the complications of abstraction, she sung the day into being:
I believe in the gods. There are good reasons. They dress only in feathers. Eat and in turn are eaten. They are the vaults of heaven. I know this. I have heard these things. For I am their scribe. The suffering of their transcendence. In truth I am only a leaf. The entropy of contentment. Mark these words. Be their filth. Anticipate the transition between one sound and the next. Find necessity, never freedom, in these gaps. And as penance, dwell there. For they are divine in all but name . . .
He tried to join her upon the mound, but was never able to gain a sure footing. She smiled, wiped the tears from her face and continued to sing.
The following first appeared as A Christmas Tales of H. B. Shamass, 1921, in print December 2017. Since then the meandering misadventures of that equivocal figure have been relaunched under the title of A Shamass New Year. As the day approaches for this years Shamassian missive, and amidst the percolating expectations I regularly have to navigate, I thought it would be wise to look again into the singular role Doctor Shamass played in one of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Indeed, revealed below is the gruesome truth that lies at the heart of that quixotic attempt to storm the heavens and refashion human nature once more.
* * *
He stood upon my doorstep. I had not seen him since that business with the underground Taborite sect in southern Bohemia—almost fifteen years.
In southern Bohemia Svobada had saved us, dragged us unconscious from the grip of the tele-ideomat in the town of Tábor. When we had found a cell of Clockwork Men at the heart of these machinations, buried in a hidden labyrinth near Žižka Square, Svobada alone had briefly seen through their mechanised visions of barracks like happiness. Now he was lost to us—blind, mad, wailing.
On the doorstep Shamass pulled at his roll-neck sweater beneath pale sunken eyes. The rain undercut his silent face, his imploring eyes. So I helped the Doctor into my study.
Within the plush velvet carpets and thick lining of books he sat and wheezed. I brought him brandy and, when he requested, stimulants. His vision cleared, and he held me in his gaze, his glistening eyes.
“Verity…” he managed.
I held him, cradled his head upon my carriage.
“I have seen …” he said and then drifted away.
Drawing upon a range of stupefacients he returned to us and told us of his various passages, his journey into the depths of what it means to be a human relation.
It was during a Civil War. Shamass had found himself a passenger, sometime actor upon an armoured train. His adherence to the revolutionary faithful became more tenuous with each day. He read the arguments that wracked the International, caught up in the revolution and its bloody conditions of being—accidental and planned.
“In the snow, during an unplanned furlough from battle, I found myself in a lonely corner of the Second State University. I stood on the threshold of the All-Union Experimental Zoological Institute (Annex) with instructions from the Councils.
“The building was more porous shack than stolid structure closed off to the world. One could almost imagine that the snow drifts were important supports, flying buttresses made of water and the ephemeral dreams of tomorrow.
“A single light stuttered above the door. This close we could hear the generators scream each time the light flickered, filling the air with ozone. I hammered on the loose door, it slammed open. The light and a strange humidity struck me as I stumbled beneath the stark light of the interior. A short corridor struck off ahead to a door. Beyond the sounds of machine and animal interpenetrated.
“What we found inside was inhuman—but human, definitely human. I cannot explain it any other way. ‘Nothing that is human is foreign to me’.
“You have perhaps not heard of Ilya Ilyanov, biologist. In those days we still fought out the revolution, defended it from its enemies without and within. What we did not suspect at the time was that the latter would prove more insidious and persistent.
“We had stopped the Allied attempt to destroy the revolution by routing the Whites. Meanwhile other forces buzzed over and amidst the dead and dying body of the armed proletariat. Ilyanov was one of them. Not much later he would clearly ally himself with Djughashvili; but at that moment he was building a monstrous simulacrum of the coming disaster of iron and wrought steel.”
“Ilyanov?” I asked.
“You know him as …”
“… my chief antagonist…
“We found him in the very centre of the building, bent over a creature shackled to an operating table. Part man, part I did not know what—hairy and thin and bent in a peculiar fashion upon a metal surface. Framed in reddish brown hair it’s face looked like no person I’d ever seen, ape like and yet more than ape. No doubt it played the part of transition from ape to man.
“Like all caged animals its terrified eyes bespoke a desire to be free.”
“The fabled Salango!” I gasped.
Shamass nodded. “The very one. A pathetic creature. More itself than any other beast of Earth could claim—and so, so lonely. Jacks, under the guise of Ilyanov, had produced what some would call the ‘perfect worker’—the total man of breeding and the mechanisation of fancy. In the open, under the most orthodox of guises, Jacks confabulated a future—turned the dream of freedom into a nightmare vision of proclaimed efficiency and despair.”
“So what happened?” I asked
“Happened…?” Shamass fixed me with his rheumy stare.
“Nothing happened, so long as you can call the lab being broken up and Salango… disposed of… ‘nothing’.”
There is no need to repeat here what happened to Lord Jacks upon his capture that day in 1920. Like a diminishing few, I swear I ran into him once—Lord Jacks that is—on a tram on Crown Street in the 1950s. I was getting off and bumped into him as he mounted. He looked back at me from his window seat as the tram clattered on toward Oxford Street.
And what of Shamass? No doubt this interests you more, interests us all. In the morning he was gone from the bed I had made up for him amidst the study, little sign of his presence apart from a terse note. “Don’t.” it read—all of his farewells said that. I never saw him again. I last heard talk in an article in the Dreadnought, telegraphed whispers that he had joined up with the rebel sailors of Kronstadt. Did he fight Lev Davidovitch’s murder troops and die?
More than fifty years later, in Sydney of the late 1970s, and aged beyond repair, I received a note, a bit yellowed and tattered no doubt, but recognisable—legible even. The stamps were all wrong. On two of them was repeated the striking image of Great Pyramids floating in ranks that marched off to vanishing. The Pyramids were suffused with a preternatural light. Beneath their bulk, a single craft, little more than an indistinct smudge on the stamp, navigated the waterborne shadows of those impossible structures. These identical, stamped tableaus were marked “Arrival of the Strangers, 1949”. The third stamp was less familiar. The three heads of a generic woman, man, and the necessarily generic Old One overlaid above a single phrase: “The Alliance”. The Pyramids reminded me of my too brief travels across the wastelands of N’lleros. But what of the Old Ones and their gossamer “Alliance” with the humans? Had Shamass really managed to escape death and cross over, to live on in the Other World?
Maybe. Perhaps. I’d prefer not to speculate.
And inside the envelope, written on the letter?
sf & critical theory join forces to destroy the present