ShortRead of 10 September
Author: Jeff VanderMeer
What's the story:
Jeff VanderMeer is not a patient man - and that's a good thing. The three-time winner of the World Fantasy Award didn't want to drag his fans through years of waiting for his Southern Reach trilogy to reach its conclusion: having published Annihilation in March, the second instalment Authority followed up in May and now Acceptance is upon us.
An oppressive, disturbing read, Acceptance sees a new research group cross the border into the haunting Area X. Questions are finally answered, but the truth of what lies behind this biological anomaly poses an even greater threat to the outside world than anyone could have imagined.
Release date: Out now
Just out of reach, just beyond you: the rush and froth of the surf, the sharp smell of the sea, the crisscrossing shape of the gulls, their sudden, jarring cries. An ordinary day in Area X, an extraordinary day— the day of your death— and there you are, propped up against a mound of sand, half sheltered by a crumbling wall. The warm sun against your face, and the dizzying view above of the light house looming down through its own shadow. The sky has an intensity that admits to nothing beyond its blue prison. There’s sticky sand glittering across a gash in your forehead; there’s a tangy glottal something in your mouth, dripping out.
You feel numb and you feel broken, but there’s a strange relief mixed in with the regret: to come such a long way, to come to a halt here, without knowing how it will turn out, and yet... to rest. To come to rest. Finally. All of your plans back at the Southern Reach, the agonizing and constant fear of failure or worse, the price of that... all of it leaking out into the sand beside you in gritty red pearls.
The landscape surges toward you, curling over from behind to peer at you; it fl ares in places, or swirls or reduces itself to a pinprick, before coming back into focus. Your hearing isn’t what it once was, either— has weakened along with your balance. And yet there comes this impossible thing: a magician’s trick of a voice rising out of the landscape and the suggestion of eyes upon you. The whisper is familiar: Is your house in order? But you think whoever is asking might be a stranger, and you ignore it, don’t like what might be knocking at the door.
The throbbing of your shoulder from the encounter in the tower is much worse. The wound betrayed you, made you leap out into that blazing blue expanse even though you hadn’t wanted to. Some communication, some trigger between the wound and the fl ame that came dancing across the reeds betrayed your sovereignty. Your house has rarely been in such disarray, and yet you know that no matter what leaves you in a few minutes something else will remain behind. Disappearing into the sky, the earth, the water, is no guarantee of death here.
A shadow joins the shadow of the light house.
Soon after, there comes the crunch of boots, and, disoriented, you shout, “Annihilation! Annihilation!” and flail about until you realize the apparition kneeling before you is the one person impervious to the suggestion.
“It’s just me, the biologist.”
Just you. Just the biologist. Just your defiant weapon, hurled against the walls of Area X.
She props you up, presses water to your mouth, clearing
some of the blood as you cough.
“Where is the surveyor?” you ask.
“Back at the base camp,” she tells you.
“Wouldn’t come with you?” Afraid of the biologist, afraid of the burgeoning flame, just like you. “A slow-burning flame, a will-o’-the-wisp, floating across the marsh and the dunes, floating and floating, like nothing human but something free and floating.” A hypnotic suggestion meant to calm her, even if it will have no more effect than a comforting nursery rhyme.
As the conversation unspools, you keep faltering and losing track of it. You say things you don’t mean, trying to stay in character — the person the biologist knows you as, the construct you created for her. Maybe you shouldn’t care about roles now, but there’s still a role to play.
She’s blaming you, but you can’t blame her. “If it was a disaster, you helped create it. You just panicked, and you gave up.” Not true — you never gave up — but you nod anyway, thinking of so many mistakes. “I did. I did. I should have recognized earlier that you had changed.” True. “I should have sent you back to the border.” Not true. “I shouldn’t have gone down there with the anthropologist.” Not true, not really. You had no choice, once she slipped away from base camp, intent on proving herself.
You’re coughing up more blood, but it hardly matters now.
“What does the border look like?” A child’s question. A question whose answer means nothing. There is nothing but border. There is no border.
I’ll tell you when I get there.
“What really happens when we cross over?”
Not what you might expect.
“What did you hide from us about Area X?”
Nothing that would have helped you. Not really.
The sun is a weak halo with no center and the biologist’s voice threads in and out, the sand both cold and hot in your clenched right hand. The pain that keeps returning in bursts is attacking every couple of microseconds, so present that it isn’t even there anymore.
Eventually, you recognize that you have lost the ability to speak. But you are still there, muffled and distant, as if you’re a kid lying on a blanket on this very beach, with a hat over your eyes. Lulled into drowsiness by the constant surging sound of the water and the sea breezes, balancing the heat that ripples over you, spreads through your limbs. The wind against your hair is a sensation as remote as the ruffling of weeds sprouting from a head- shaped rock.
“I’m sorry, but I have to do this,” the biologist tells you, almost as if she knows you can still hear her. “I have no choice.”
You feel the tug and pull on your skin, the brief incisive line, as the biologist takes a sample from your infected shoulder. From a great and insurmountable distance, searching hands descend as the biologist goes through your jacket pockets. She finds your journal. She finds your hidden gun. She finds your pathetic letter. What will she make of them? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe she’ll just throw the letter into the sea, and the gun with it. Maybe she’ll waste the rest of her life studying your journal.
She’s still talking.
“I don’t know what to say to you. I’m angry. I’m frightened. You put us here and you had a chance to tell me what you knew, and you didn’t. You wouldn’t. I’d say rest in peace, but I don’t think you will.”
Then she’s gone, and you miss her, that weight of a human being beside you, the perverse blessing of those words, but you don’t miss her for long because you are fading further still, fading into the landscape like a reluctant wraith, and you can hear a faint and delicate music in the distance, and something that whispered to you before is whispering again, and then you’re dissolving into the wind. A kind of alien regard has twinned itself to you, easily mistaken for the atoms of the air if it did not seem somehow concentrated, purposeful. Joyful?
Taken up over the still lakes, rising up across the marsh, flickering up in green-glinting reflections against the sea and the shore in the late- afternoon sun… only to wheel and bank toward the interior and its cypress trees, its black water. Then sharply up into the sky again, taking aim for the sun, the lurch and spin of it, before free fall, twisting to stare down at the onrushing earth, stretched taut above the quick flash and slow wave of reeds. You half expect to see Lowry there, wounded survivor of the long- ago first expedition, crawling toward the safety of the border. But instead there is just the biologist trudging back down the darkening path… and waiting beyond her, mewling and in distress, the altered psychologist from the expedition before the twelfth. Your fault as much as anyone’s, your fault, and irrevocable. Unforgivable.
As you curve back around, the light house fast approaches. The air trembles as it pushes out from both sides of the lighthouse and then re-forms, ever questing, forever sampling, rising high only to come low yet again, and finally circling like a question mark so you can bear witness to your own immolation: a shape huddled there, leaking light. What a sad figure, sleeping there, dissolving there. A green flame, a distress signal, an opportunity. Are you still soaring? Are you still dying or dead? You can’t tell anymore.
But the whisper isn’t done with you yet.
You’re not down there.
You’re up here.
And there’s still an interrogation going on.
One that will repeat until you have given up every answer.
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)