As the powerful light picked its path across the stony desert foreshore that stretched away from the foot of the outcrop on which the Research Station stood, Armitage could periodically see a small, hunched figure, scuttling spiderlike among the rocky pools. As the beam caught it, it would throw up one defensive arm across its eyes, and the orange bucket with the pattern of seahorses would shake and tip crazily, occasionally flinging a few pebbles out onto the slimy grey rocks. Hastily scrabbling to gather these up, the creature would shake its pygmy, powerless fist at the lighthouse up on the point as the glaring beam passed on.
Bollard had never explained why he collected the pebbles, and Armitage had never dared to ask, fearing that the question might drive the wizened author into one of the terrifying fugue-states to which he often fell victim under the stress of unexpected stimuli. When in this condition, Bollard's tendency was to strip off his tatty safarri suit and run screaming through the corridors of the Station punching out the windows, his sere and withered genitals bobbing like fruit, dried on the branchby sudden heat, in a breeze.
Dr Mallory, for his part, had explained this behaviour as a means for Boolard to discharge his subconscious guilt.
"You see, it's all his fault, in a way," he had told Armitage one evening as they sat playing chess in the big bay window, over whose shatteredcentral pane a blanket had hastily beenarranged to keep out the chill wind. "He was writing about all this a long time ago, you know. It's all there, in The Interminable Beach, The Disastrous Aryan, The Draught, those books. Back then, in the sixties and seventies, they had quite a little movement. Most of them weer hopeful voices, saying 'This is what we must do!' But our friend took a different tack. He preached the doctrine of fatalistic acceptance, 'This is how it will be!' At the time, Iexpect he saw it as a mind game, an intellectual pose; imagine his horror now!" Mallory made a gesture towards the window with the black king, which he had picked up casually at the beginning of this short speech; now he put it down, two sqaurres away from its previous position.
Armitage was not sure what it was thathe disliked most about Mallory: his irritating and elliptical pontification, the way he always wore sunglasses, even indoors and at night, or his ridiculously transparent and childish attempts to cheat at chess. At first Armitage used to silently replace the pieces, frowning, but as he had come to believe that this was precisely the response his opponenet sought, he now tended to leave them and continue. Mallory's changes favoured Armitage as often as they did himself, in any case; and with all his faults he was a more congenial adversary than Bollard, who was a far better player than Armitage and was fond of gloatingly pointing out his errors.
During the five slow, almost dreamlike weeks that had passed since his arrival at the Station, Armitage had been working for most of the daylight hours. The technicians had left all the equipment set up and in working order before their suddendeparture, fresh soldered joints gleaming brightly on the handmade amplifier boards and elephantine cooling lines draped around the big hybrid magnet, but the entire loading system had to be retuned with new parameters and the tracking files updated to allow for the hulk's drift towards the Equator. He sometimes wondered what had beeen on their moinds as they carried out their test routines and recorded their results in big spiral-bound notebooks; it had been very obvious that conclusion of the project would never be sanctioned by the Emergency Government, but they had continued their futile experimentation regardless. There was, he had found, a curous warming satisfaction in writing otu large tables of results, the dependent variables progressing logicallty and predctably with the alteration of the independent. He took pleasure in copying them out again and again, ruling neat pencil lines to enclose the marshalled numbers, making each digit as nearly as possible identical with the others of its kind. The disciplined machinery hummed, its earlier unpredictability mnow thoroughly tamed and bound in his resultsbook. Leaving their labs musthvae been a wrench for the scientists hwo had worked here; it meant abandoning their preciseand mastered universe of flow rates, voltages and meters for the destroyed and sterile uncertaintly outside.
Armitage was aless than a scientist by training, though more than a technician. He did not fantasise about the smooth rounded curves of the superconducting coils, or the greased titanium-steel pistons that drove in and out of the pump assembly, ass had earlier occupants, judging by some of the photographs blue-tacked above several desks. But the hours he had spent alone at the controls, during long missions, had enabled him to find a degree of comfort and companionship in the presence of banks of green-lit status indicators and satisfyingly steady-needled dials. it was a considerable irritation when Bolard came to visit the labs, as he did every few days; ostensibly to encourage progress, but, Armitage suspected, more probably to check on its rate. The gnome-like prophet of entropy seemed to give off a shower of randomising factors, like so many disruptive lice, as he wandered from one piece of equipment to another, and Armitage could only watch helplessly as his carefully stabilised readings degraded and degenerated under a welter of thermalnoisee. Sometimes it would take hours to purge this static and re-establish clear signals; but Armitage was reluctant to ban Bollard from the labs altogether, as he was often athis most communicative during these encounters.
It was on one such occasion that Bollard first told Armitage about the entropic horizon.
"It's up in the polar regions at the moment, but don't you worry; before too long it will have reached here too," he said, staring with beetle-browed intensity at the madly dancing trace on one of the supervisory oscilloscopes. "You don't hear anything aboutit on the radio, of course; the government don't want to worry people, as if that could make any difference. but you just wait, Armitage! To try and turn your back on universal forces is pure idiocy. Far better to sympathise and to welcome their victory, the inevitable Götterdammerung. Think of that! A situation totally without hope, with absolutely no possibility of salvation! All humanity can do is to scratch in the sand, while the tidal wave rushes onto us! Don't you feel completed by the sheer undeniability of that knowledge, that nothing you or anyone else can do will have the slightest effect on anything at all? Imagine the colossal freedom it gives you; there can never be any need to answer for any of your actions! Zola, Flaubert, Schnitzler - they all saw part of the truth, all made their small revelations. And I, I too have made my contribution, I face my fatewith horrific equanimity!" Grasping himself around the chest with both arms, Bollard wheezed and wept with laughter, while behind him the needles on the pressure gauges whizzed round and round.
Later that evening, during Armitage's customary stroll on the crazily-paved terrace that extended along the western edge of the Station, he noticeds Bollard and Dr mallory,barely more than silhourettes in the fading light, at one of the upper windows. They seemed to be in animated conversation, and Armitage watched with interest as the tall, emaciated psychiatrist stooped to prod Bollard ferociously in the chest several times. Mallory's uncharacteristic aggression seemed to surprise Bollard, who stumbled back momentarily, out of the angle of vision; intrigued, Armitage moved around, to a position behind one of the giant ornamental stone cycads that were ranked along the margin of the terrace.
He was just in time to see Bollard's right fist strike Dr Mallory in the mouth. As Mallory reeled away clutching his face, Bollards's other hand hit out spasmodically to the left, smashing through the pane of glass that Armitage had himself replaced only a few days earlier. The shards of glass drifted slowly, like leaves, down towards the concrete paving, catching the last rays of the setting sun as they turned in the air, and gleaming like wet jewels. Armitage heard Bollard's screamed imprecations, now audible through the broken window, as if underwater, watching in awed fascination as "...my creation, Mallory! I made you! You poor fool..." the transfigured glass - "did you believe you had volition? Your every move..." splashed in droplets from the terrace, and, "...is at my will! I MADE YOU!" falling back, gathered in a radiant puddle beneath the window and set hard. Bollard held his left forearm up in front of his face, staring fixedly at it, drool running down from the corners of his fleshy mouth. The hand and wrist, where they had broken through the liquescent glass, were sheathed in an iridescent glove of rainbowed polycrystal. Beneath this glassy skin ran icy red snakes of blood, escaped from Bollard's smashed knuckles, now trapped within the glittering enclosure that encased his arm. Dr Mallory, who had been spitting broken teeth onto the floor, reached out to touch the sheath but quickly withdrew his fingers as though burnt, or frozen. He and Bollard silently moved away from the window, into the dark of the room beyond.
Although this first manifestation of the approach of the entropic horizon had alarmed Armitage with its suddenness, over the next several days the danger seemed to get no greater. On one occasion a giant seagull, its wings at least twelve feet across, circled round the station; one mad, yellow eye, the size of a fist, glared briefly in at Armitage as he trimmed the gyromagnetic stabilisers in the upper control room. The various electric clocks which adorned every room in the Station - clearly its builders had been devout ergonomists - one after another stopped, and could not be started again. Armitage's hand-wound wrist chronometer seemed the only timepiece not affected. He noticed Bollard passing from room to room, carefully noting down the times indicated; the piece of paper he had used was lying crumpled in the bin the following day. Smoothing it out, Armitage found the list of times heavily scored through and enmeshed in a web of Zodiacal symbols and curious hieroglyphics.
The glassy sheath on Bollard's left arm grew daily. After a week it was up to his armpit. Underneath, when the shimmering veils of colour parted for a sufficient length of time to permit a glimpse, his flesh seemed to have taken on a milky, marbled tone, presenting the appearance of a long-forgotten statue, shrouded by brilliant tropical blossoms, in the mist.
Dr Mallory had taken to carrying around with him a pair of sticks, both of the thickness of a broomstick, one some three feet long and the other eight inches or so. Every now and then, while he was waiting for Armitage to move, he would attempt to balance the shorter one on the tip of one finger; these attempts were rarely successful for longer than a few seconds, and the stick, in falling, often knocked over or even broke several of the chess pieces. The longer stick usually remained upright, propped against the window-ledge, although Mallory occasionally struck its end against the floor to emphasise what he considered a particularly powerful or interesting move, as though it were the physical counterpart of the exclamation marks used by chess columnists in their analyses of matches.
After one particularly absorbed game, which the psychiatrist had won with a complex mate involving simultaneous check by both bishops, he relaxed his usual impenetrable manner sufficiently to attempt some explanation of Bollard's conduct.
"Try and put yourself in his position, Armitage. Imagine yourself a middle-aged novelist, conscious of considerable literary sucess in your own terms but regarded as a cryptic visionary by the many. Now you feel the advent of the extra-human forces upon which you have called, maybe in disbelief, for your dark revelations. Before that depressing prospect is realised, you surely feel an urge towards self-justification, towards proof of worth. You must consider that in our friend's eschatology, personalised and cathartic acts of exorcism are the sole agents of redemption: here, then, is his opportunity. He seeks the consummate martyrdom of self-annihilation!"
All that was apparent the Armitage from this morass of psycho-philosophical speculation was that Bollard's unhappy life was heading towards a crisis point; and it seemed likely, given the propinquity that the Research Station forced upon them, that any such event would have far from pleasant effects on himslef and Dr Mallory. From this point he resolved to spend more time in his laboratories and less in the communal areas, to minimise his chances of running across Bollard in a traumatic moment.
His work was progressing well, and if domestic matters did not intervene it seemed likely that rendezvous with the Apollo hulk would be on schedule. Armitage had his old vacuum suit carefully hidden under a long lab coat, hung up on the back of the door to the magnet room, and from time to time he took it down to check it again. The silvered canvassy fabric was now softened and creased with age, and dulled in numerous places. High on the left arm, and under the ribs on the same side, were crinkled grey emergency patches. Those had been applied three weeks after the supposed end of the last Venus mission, when Cesar had finally cracked and had cycled the alien artefacts out of the lock, shrieking that they were talking to him. Bradley had tried to grapple him, but Cesar had turned the welding torch on him and fried his head. Armitage had been in the pilot's seat and had escaped with two minor punctures, before Cesar had gone through the lock himself in response to the call of the Venusian dolls.
The Chinese rescue mission who had boarded the ship three days later had whisked Armitage away, shaking their heads as they surveyed the gore and algal goo that was spread over every surface. Since returning to Earth and 'retiring' from the Service, he had been drifting from one nursing home to another, and Apollo 21 had been drifting through space, with Cesar, Bradley and the metal manikins that they had found on Venus completing sad ellipses around it. In three days Armitage would be rejoining them.
He had heard about the transmission project under way at the Research Station shortly before the start of the events that had led to the formation of EmerGov, and had at once started to make his way there. During the chaos characteristic of that time he had reached the Station to find it abandoned by the scientific team, and occupied instead by the dangerously obsessive author and his enigmatic psychiatrist sidekick. Since then, Armitage had been busy adapting the equipment, which had originally been designed for marmoset subjects, to suit his purpose, trying to avoid being distracted as Bollard's and Mallory's bizarre symbiosis evolved around him. This was easier on some days than on others. Since the advent of the entropic horizon seemed to be exaggeration Bollard's eccentricities and hastening his decline, avoidance seemed to be the safest tactic.
The next day the sun did not rise. At half past ten, Armitage climbed anxiously up to the roof to scan the eastern horizon. He found Bollard already up there with a small telescope, the crystalline encasement now extending over most of his torso. The moon was no longer visible, and the skyline far from distinct. As Armitage fumbled across the flat roof towards where Bollard stood, the author swung round and focussed the telescope on him. Armitage stopped, wary, as Bollard shrieked in horror at the sight of his magnified features and sat down with a bump. Just then the beam of the lighthouse swung across the Research Station, and in its harsh light Armitage saw that at Bollard's feet was the orange plastic bucket in which he collected his pebbles. It was empty.
Regaining his composure, Bollard beckoned Armitage over to where he sprawled.
"This is the beginning of the end, my friend," he whispered, so that Armitage had to bend down with his ear unpleasantly close to Bollard's mouth. He was almost overwhelmed by the fetor of the author's breath. "This is where the world starts to run down. The puppet-master cuts the strings, and the marionettes sink, twitching and jerking, to the floor of their theatre. You are one of those puppets, Armitage, although you do not realise it! What happens to fictional characters, when their author loses interest? The soap opera we call Life, the longest-running there's been, has been dropped from the programming schedules!"
Armitage hastily backed away, covering his ears as Bollard's voice rose to a howl. The febrile gleam in Bollard's eyes, the eerie glinting of the crystalline cast on his arm and shoulder as the lighthouse passed round, the way he had what looked like a penis peeping from his top pocket - all these combined to suggest that Bollard had reached and passed his personal crisis point. As Dr Mallory had predicted, he had laid down his sanity as an offering to the dark entropic forces he had so rashly sought to woo.
Mumbling that he had to get back to his laboratory, Armitage retreated nervously to the hatchway. As he climbed down, Bollard yelled, "I've warned you now, Armitage! I've already written the other one out, and your character's next for the chop! To stand against me is to wrestle a Booker nominee!"
As he lowered the trap door, Armitage felt his arm struck painfully by an object flung by the deranged author. He dropped the heavy wooden slab the rest of the way, cracking his elbow on the surround, and tumbled down the short ladder into a heap of cardboard boxes that had once contained tins of pet food. He got to his feet, wincing, and after poking around recovered Bollard's missile. It was the shorter of Mallory's sticks. One end was splayed and furred, as if it had been struck repeatedly by the head of a hammer; the other end had been hacked to a rough point, and was stained a deep red for about two inches of its length.
Although Bollard seemed initially firm in his resolve to kill Armitage, he fortunately lacked the application and drive to carry a plan through to with any degree of success. Nonetheless, the remainder of Armitage's time at the Research Station took on a hunted, nightmarish quality. He had to snatch odd hours of sleep locked in the fume cupboard of the lower laboratory, with a dummy wearing his clothes propped up at the window, in case Bollard tried some extravagant sniping manoeuvre; and the elaborate alarm system he had rigged up on the doors of the laboratory complex proved so impenetrable that he was forced to void his wastes into an incinerator bin, for fear of receiving twenty kilovolts across his fingers from an incautiously tried door handle.
Armitage was at last drawn from his skulk, though, when a giant cross, roughly nailed together from what looked like the structural members of a sofa, came crashing through the fibreboard wall separating the laboratory from the upper corridor. Diving from his stool at the circuit board printer, he tumbled out into the middle of the room and crouched in a karate pose. Spreadeagled on the crucifix, which now swung gently back and forth from a hook in the corridor ceiling, was his vacuum suit, its arms roughly nailed to the crosspiece and its legs fixed to the upright. The chest badge with "CAPT. ARMITAGE" on had been ripped out and replaced by a piece of card scrawled with the word "CHARACTER" in ill-formed, childish majuscules. Armitage slowly unbent from his stance as it became clear that Bollard, who was nowhere to be seen, planned no instant attack. He walked over to the dangling cross and carefully took down his suit, wondering how his deranged adversary had managed to penetrate the hiding place of his most treasured possession.
Out in the corridor was a trail of pebbles. They ranged in siae from half an inch to two inches across, although all were more or less spherical. The blasted and barren beach had provided Bollard with little variety in colour from which to make his selection, but he had clearly attempted to do his best with the limited material available. The pebbles led down the corridor and off round the corner towards the staircase, each separated from its neighbours by a few yards or so but straying from side to side across the passageway as though their sower had been staggering drunk, or hysterical with laughter. Clutching the vacuum suit to his chest, Armitage followed the pebbles along the corridor. He had a vague presentiment of some nebulous doom lurking ahead, but the narrative drive imposed by the pebble path drew him inexorably onward.
The gnomic trail of pebbles led Armitage through the maze-like passages of the Research Station, up and down through the several interconnected stairwells, weaving through rows of upturned seats in the dusty lecture theatre, and eventually down into the subterranean cellar complex. Bollard had irretrievably fused the lighting ring down here some time ago, and the only illumination, apart from the gentle and diffuse reddish glow from boiler control panels, was provided by the lighthouse beam as it shone through the glass panels let into the celing where the cellar extended beyond the upper floors. Armitage picked his way slowly and cautiously through the throng of sharp, bulky shin-high objects that were scattered around the floor. He held his suit in front of him like a talisman or an aegis as he followed Bollard's markers among a group of warm, upright, humming tanks of indeterminate purpose. The path threaded these enigmatic dolmenic structures in an intricate pattern, dipping in towards the centre and whirling out again. Armitage staggered round the course in increasing dread and terror, sinking at last to his knees as the pebbles drew him inward for the final time to confront with the lolling horror planted at the circle's focus.
Dr Mallory's face carried an expression of sardonic detachment remarkable in the circumstances, as far as could be determined during the brief interludes of light and through his dark glasses. The longer stick, which had been sharpened in the same haphazard fashion as its partner, entered his body between his outstretched legs and emerged between his left clavicle and scapula. The white suit of which he had taken such care was a gory mess of rents and shredded patches, with pale slivers of bone and ropy organs protruding unpleasantly, and his fly gaped threateningly. The remainder of Bollard's pebbles were piled in a small cairn between his feet. Judgung by the smell, he had been dead for some time.
Armitage stumbled to his feet, gagging in revulsion and terror. Surely not even Bollard could descend to this kind of crazed violence - a major character, with development potential, ruthlessly savaged and battered to death in frenzied bloodlust, the only reason being the author's all-devouring need for a shock denouement. "There are hardly any lengths to which he won't go in his search for effect," agreed Dr Mallory. Armitage edged away slightly, not sure from which of the corpse's orifices the voice was issuing. "The dedicated author, you see. No-one can accuse him of lacking the courage of his convictions! Let's face it, Armitage, entropy is not the most stimulating subject, of itself. But a judicious admixture of horrific spectacle can be made to tell, you see, if handled correctly."
Mallory swept up one loose, mangled arm in a gesture of admonition at Armitage, who was trying to back out of the circle of tanks without being noticed.
"It's an essentially visual technique. Think of the nouvelle vague directors - this cinematic combination of the surreal, the shocking and the repetitious. Bollard plays tunes with our existential anomie through images of alienation and obsession, and if his effect frequently comes from brutality, surely that can only enhance its validity. His mirror may distort, but it is our world he reflects. Now, as for his use of sudden dislocations and narrative jumps..."
The laboratory could no longer be considered a safe and comforting environment, given the evident extent of Bollard's powers. It would not be beyond him to turn the situation inside out with some non-linearity if he felt like it, condemning Armitage to perpetually open the door to enter the room only to find himself back outside in the next paragraph. Or, just as bad, he could regress all the equipment to its state at the beginning of the story, with an extended flashback, and cause Armitage to miss opposition with his spaceship. So the last few hours of work were carried out in a blind panic, hoping that the deranged author had, if only temporarily, spent his creative juices.
Armitage slowly put on his vacuum suit as the transmission time approached. Its integrity was breached in several places, but that seemed not to matter now. Cesar and Bradley had been penetrated too, so he wore his stigmata as a badge of honour rather than a disgrace. He mounted the platform at the focus of the three pairs of magnets, and strapped himself to the metal support frame as charge built up in the giant capacitor bank beneath. The controls had been set, and at transmission time his apparatus would rejoin him with his mission, to carry it to the appointed conclusion from which he had been withheld before.
Suddenly there was a flash of coloured fire, its dazzle drowning the glow of the buzzing coils, as the beam of the lighthouse caught on the coruscating form of Bollard, dashing into the room. Armitage's clumsy gloves struggled with the harness release as Bollard, now entirely covered in brilliant, flexible glass, stood with hands poised above the major control panel. The whine of the equipment rose to a howl as the transmission time arrived... Bollard's hands plunged downwards to the controls as Armitage spun, battered and blindingly illuminated in the fierce glow of the transmission field... and at the moment of transit Armitage slowly disappeared in a fountain of sparks. Whether to join Bradley and Cesar or not, who could say? The atrocity man saw that it was good, and smiled.