The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard
By J. G. Ballard
Picador Copyright © 1978 J. G. Ballard
All rights reserved.
The Concentration City
Noon talk on Millionth Street:
"Sorry, these are the West millions. You want 9775335th East."
"Dollar five a cubic foot? Sell!"
"Take a westbound express to 495th Avenue, cross over to a Redline elevator and go up a thousand levels to Plaza Terminal. Carry on south from there and you'll find it between 568th Avenue and 422nd Street."
"There's a cave-in down at KEN county! Fifty blocks by twenty by thirty levels."
"Listen to this — 'PYROS STAGE MASS BREAKOUT! FIRE POLICE CORDON BAY COUNTY!'"
"It's a beautiful counter. Detects up to .005 percent monoxide. Cost me three hundred dollars."
"Have you seen those new intercity sleepers? Takes only ten minutes to go up three thousand levels!"
"Ninety cents a foot? Buy!"
* * *
"You say the idea came to you in a dream?" the voice jabbed out. "You're sure no one else gave it to you?"
"No," M. said flatly. A couple of feet away from him a spot lamp threw a cone of dirty yellow light into his face. He dropped his eyes from the glare and waited as the sergeant paced over to his desk, tapped his fingers on the edge, and swung around on him again.
"You talked it over with your friends?"
"Only the first theory," M. explained quietly. "About the possibility of flight."
"But you told me the other theory was more important. Why keep it quiet from them?"
M. hesitated. Outside somewhere a trolley shunted and clanged along the elevated. "I was afraid they wouldn't understand what I meant."
The sergeant laughed sourly. "You mean they would have thought you really were crazy?"
M. shifted uncomfortably on the stool. Its seat was only six inches off the floor and his thighs and lumbar muscles felt like slabs of inflamed rubber. After three hours of cross-questioning, logic had faded and he groped helplessly. "The concept was a little abstract. There weren't any words for it."
The sergeant snorted. "I'm glad to hear you say it." He sat down on the desk, watched M. for a moment and then went over to him.
"Now look," he said confidentially. "It's getting late. Do you still think both theories are reasonable?"
M. looked up. "Aren't they?"
The sergeant turned angrily to the man watching in the shadows by the window.
"We're wasting our time," he snapped. "I'll hand him over to Psycho. You've seen enough, haven't you, Doc?"
The surgeon stared thoughtfully at his hands. He was a tall heavy-shouldered man, built like a wrestler, with thick coarsely-lined features.
He ambled forward, knocking back one of the chairs with his knee.
"There's something I want to check," he said curtly. "Leave me alone with him for half an hour."
The sergeant shrugged. "All right," he said, going over to the door. "But be careful with him."
When the sergeant had gone the surgeon sat down behind the desk and stared vacantly out of the window, listening to the dull hum of air through the huge ninety-foot ventilator shaft which rose out of the street below the station. A few roof-lights were still burning and two hundred yards away a single policeman slowly patrolled the iron catwalk running above the street, his boots ringing across the darkness.
M. sat on the stool, elbows between his knees, trying to edge a little life back into his legs.
Eventually the surgeon glanced down at the charge sheet.
Name: Franz M.
Address: 3599719 West 783rd Str., Level 549-7705-45 KNI (Local).
"Tell me about this dream," he said slowly, idly flexing a steel rule between his hands as he looked across at M.
"I think you've heard everything, sir," M. said.
M. shifted uneasily. "There wasn't much to it, and what I do remember isn't too clear now."
The surgeon yawned. M. waited and then started to recite what he had already repeated twenty times.
"I was suspended in the air above a flat stretch of open ground, something like the floor of an enormous arena. My arms were out at my sides, and I was looking down, floating —"
"Hold on," the surgeon interrupted. "Are you sure you weren't swimming?"
"No," M. said. "I'm certain I wasn't. All around me there was free space. That was the most important part about it. There were no walls. Nothing but emptiness. That's all I remember."
The surgeon ran his finger along the edge of the rule.
"Well, the dream gave me the idea of building a flying machine. One of my friends helped me construct it."
The surgeon nodded. Almost absently he picked up the charge sheet, crushed it with a single motion of his hand, and flicked it into the wastebasket.
* * *
"Don't be crazy, Franz!" Gregson remonstrated. They took their places in the chemistry cafeteria queue. "It's against the laws of hydrodynamics. Where would you get your buoyancy?"
"Suppose you had a rigid fabric vane," Franz explained as they shuffled past the hatchways. "Say ten feet across, like one of those composition wall sections, with handgrips on the ventral surface. And then you jump down from the gallery at the Coliseum Stadium. What would happen?"
"You'd make a hole in the floor. Why?"
"If it was large enough and held together you'd swoop down like a paper dart."
"Glide," Franz said. "Right." Thirty levels above them one of the intercity expresses roared over, rattling the tables and cutlery in the cafeteria. Franz waited until they reached a table and sat forward, his food forgotten.
"And say you attached a propulsive unit, such as a battery-driven ventilator fan, or one of those rockets they use on the Sleepers. With enough thrust to overcome your weight. What then?"
Gregson shrugged. "If you could control the thing, you'd ..." He frowned at Franz. "What's the word? You're always using it."
* * *
"Basically, Mattheson, the machine is simple," Sanger, the physics lector, commented as they entered the Science Library. "An elementary application of the Venturi Principle. But what's the point of it? A trapeze would serve its purpose equally well, and be far less dangerous. In the first place consider the enormous clearances it would require. I hardly think the traffic authorities will look upon it with any favor."
"I know it wouldn't be practicable here," Franz admitted. "But in a large open area it should be."
"Allowed. I suggest you immediately negotiate with the Arena Garden on Level 347-25," the lector said whimsically. "I'm sure they'll be glad to hear about your scheme."
Franz smiled politely. "That wouldn't be large enough. I was really thinking of an area of totally free space. In three dimensions, as it were."
Sanger looked at Franz curiously. "Free space? Isn't that a contradiction in terms? Space is a dollar a cubic foot." He scratched his nose. "Have you begun to construct this machine yet?"
"No," Franz said.
"In that event I should try to forget all about it. Remember, Mattheson, the task of science is to consolidate existing knowledge, to systematize and reinterpret the discoveries of the past, not to chase wild dreams into the future."
He nodded and disappeared among the dusty shelves.
Gregson was waiting on the steps.
"Well?" he asked.
"Let's try it out this afternoon," Franz said. "We'll cut Text Five Pharmacology. I know those Fleming readings backward. I'll ask Dr. McGhee for a couple of passes."
They left the library and walked down the narrow, dimly lit alley which ran behind the huge new Civil Engineering laboratories. Over 75 percent of the student enrollment was in the architectural and engineering faculties, a meager 2 percent in pure sciences. Consequently the physics and chemistry libraries were housed in the oldest quarter of the University, in two virtually condemned galvanized hutments which once contained the now closed Philosophy School.
At the end of the alley they entered the university plaza and started to climb the iron stairway leading to the next level a hundred feet above. Halfway up a white-helmeted FP checked them cursorily with his detector and waved them past.
"What did Sanger think?" Gregson asked as they stepped up into 637th Street and walked across to the Suburban Elevator station.
"He's no use at all," Franz said. "He didn't even begin to understand what I was talking about."
Gregson laughed ruefully. "I don't know whether I do."
Franz took a ticket from the automat and mounted the Down platform. An elevator dropped slowly toward him, its bell jangling.
"Wait until this afternoon," he called back. "You're really going to see something."
* * *
The floor manager at the Coliseum initialed the two passes.
"Students, eh? All right." He jerked a thumb at the long package Franz and Gregson were carrying. "What have you got there?"
"It's a device for measuring air velocities," Franz told him.
The manager grunted and released the stile.
Out in the center of the empty arena Franz undid the package and they assembled the model. It had a broad fanlike wing of wire and paper, a narrow strutted fusilage and a high curving tail.
Franz picked it up and launched it into the air. The model glided for twenty feet and then slithered to a stop across the sawdust.
"Seems to be stable," Franz said. "We'll tow it first."
He pulled a reel of twine from his pocket and tied one end to the nose.
As they ran forward the model lifted gracefully into the air and followed them around the stadium, ten feet off the floor.
"Let's try the rockets now," Franz said.
He adjusted the wing and tail settings and fitted three firework display rockets into a wire bracket mounted above the wing.
The stadium was four hundred feet in diameter and had a roof two hundred and fifty high. They carried the model over to one side and Franz lit the tapers.
There was a burst of flame and the model accelerated off across the floor, two feet in the air, a bright trail of colored smoke spitting out behind it. Its wings rocked gently from side to side. Suddenly the tail burst into flames. The model lifted steeply and looped up toward the roof, stalled just before it hit one of the pilot lights, and dived down into the sawdust.
They ran across to it and stamped out the glowing cinders.
"Franz!" Gregson shouted. "It's incredible! It actually works."
Franz kicked the shattered fuselage.
"Of course it works," he said impatiently, walking away. "But as Sanger said, what's the point of it?"
"The point? It flies! Isn't that enough?"
"No. I want one big enough to hold me."
"Franz, slow down. Be reasonable. Where could you fly it?"
"I don't know," Franz said fiercely. "But there must be somewhere. Somewhere!"
The floor manager and two assistants, carrying fire extinguishers, ran across the stadium to them.
"Did you hide that match?" Franz asked quickly. "They'll lynch us if they think we're pyros."
* * *
Three afternoons later Franz took the elevator up 150 levels to 677-98, where the Precinct Estate Office had its bureau.
"There's a big development between 493 and 554 in the next sector," one of the clerks told him. "I don't know whether that's any good to you. Sixty blocks by twenty by fifteen levels."
"Nothing bigger?" Franz queried.
The clerk looked up. "Bigger? No. What are you looking for? A slight case of agoraphobia?"
Franz straightened the maps spread across the counter.
"I wanted to find an area of more or less continuous development. Two or three hundred blocks long."
The clerk shook his head and went back to his ledger. "Didn't you go to Engineering School?" he asked scornfully. "The City won't take it. One hundred blocks is the maximum."
Franz thanked him and left.
A southbound express took him to the development in two hours. He left the car at the detour point and walked the three hundred yards to the end of the level.
The street, a seedy but busy thoroughfare of garment shops and small business premises running through the huge ten-mile-thick BIR Industrial Cube, ended abruptly in a tangle of ripped girders and concrete. A steel rail had been erected along the edge and Franz looked down over it into the cavity, three miles long, a mile wide, and twelve hundred feet deep, which thousands of engineers and demolition workers were tearing out of the matrix of the City.
Eight hundred feet below him unending lines of trucks and rail cars carried away the rubble and debris, and clouds of dust swirled up into the arc lights blazing down from the roof.
As he watched a chain of explosions ripped along the wall on his left and the whole face suddenly slipped and fell slowly toward the floor, revealing a perfect cross-section through fifteen levels of the City.
Franz had seen big developments before, and his own parents had died in the historic QUA County cave-in ten years earlier, when three master pillars had sheared and two hundred levels of the City had abruptly sunk ten thousand feet, squashing half a million people like flies in a concertina, but the enormous gulf of emptiness still made his imagination gape.
All around him, standing and sitting on the jutting terraces of girders, a silent throng stared down.
"They say they're going to build gardens and parks for us," an elderly man at Franz's elbow remarked in a slow patient voice. "I even heard they might be able to get a tree. It'll be the only tree in the whole county."
A man in a frayed sweat shirt spat over the rail. "That's what they always say. At a dollar a foot promises are all they can waste space on."
Below them a woman who had been looking out into the air started to simper nervously. Two bystanders took her by the arms and tried to lead her away. The woman began to thresh about and an FP came over and dragged her away roughly.
"Poor fool," the man in the sweat shirt commented. "She probably lived out there somewhere. They gave her ninety cents a foot when they took it away from her. She doesn't know yet she'll have to pay a dollar ten to get it back. Now they're going to start charging five cents an hour just to sit up here and watch."
* * *
Franz looked out over the railing for a couple of hours and then bought a postcard from one of the vendors and walked back thoughtfully to the elevator.
He called in to see Gregson before returning to the student dormitory.
The Gregsons lived up in the West millions on 985th Avenue, in a top three-room flat right under the roof. Franz had known them since his parents' death, but Gregson's mother still regarded him with a mixture of sympathy and suspicion, and as she let him in with her customary smile of welcome he noticed her glancing quickly at the detector mounted in the hall.
Gregson was in his room, happily cutting out frames of paper and pasting them onto a great rickety construction that vaguely resembled Franz's model.
"Hullo, Franz. What was it like?"
Franz shrugged. "Just a development. Worth seeing."
Gregson pointed to his construction. "Do you think we can try it out there?"
"We could do." Franz sat down on the bed, picked up a paper dart lying beside him, and tossed it out of the window. It swam out into the street, lazed down in a wide spiral and vanished into the open mouth of a ventilator shaft.
"When are you going to build another model?" Gregson asked.
Gregson swung round. "Why? You've proved your theory."
"That's not what I'm after."
"I don't get you, Franz. What are you after?"
"Free?" Gregson repeated.
Franz nodded. "In both senses."
Gregson shook his head sadly and snipped out another paper panel. "Franz, you're crazy."
Franz stood up. "Take this room," he said. "It's twenty feet by fifteen by ten. Extend its dimensions infinitely. What do you find?"
"Well?" Franz asked patiently.
"The concept's absurd."
"Because it couldn't exist."
Franz pounded his forehead in despair. "Why couldn't it?"
Gregson gestured with the scissors. "It's self-contradictory. Like the statement 'I am lying.' Just a verbal freak. Interesting theoretically, but it's pointless to press it for meaning." He tossed the scissors onto the table. "And anyway, do you know how much free space would cost?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard by J. G. Ballard. Copyright © 1978 J. G. Ballard. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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