Odd John: A Story Between Jest and Earnest, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 18

The Skid’s First Voyage

HENCEFORTH Pax was more at ease with Lo. She had nursed her, received her confidence, and found occasion to pity her. All the same it was clear that the continued presence of Lo was a strain on Pax. When the yacht was launched, John himself said to me, “We must get away as soon as possible now. Lo is killing Pax, though she does her best not to. Poor Pax! She’s being driven into old age at last.” It was true. Her hair was fading, and her mouth drawn.

It was with mixed feelings that I learned that I was not to take part in the coming voyage in search of additional members for the colony. I could live my own life. I could marry and settle down, holding myself in readiness to serve John when he should need me. But how could I live without John? I tried to persuade him that I was necessary to him, A saucer-like craft wandering the oceans with a crew of three children would attract less attention if she carried one adult. But my suggestion was dismissed. John claimed that he no longer looked a child, and further declared that he could touch up his face so as to appear at least twenty-five.

I need not describe in detail the preparations which these three young eccentrics undertook in order to fit themselves for their adventure. Both Ng–Gunko and Lo had to learn to fly; and all three had to become familiar with the mannerisms of their own queer aeroplane and their own queer yacht. The vessel was launched on the Clyde by Pax, and christened Skid, under which odd but appropriate name she was duly registered. I may mention that for the Board of Trade inspection she was fitted with a normal motor-engine, which was subsequently removed to make room for the psycho-physical power unit and motor.

When both yacht and plane were ready for use, a trial trip was made among the Western Isles. On this trip I was tolerated as a guest. The experience was enough to cure me of any desire for a longer voyage in such a diabolical vessel. The three-foot model had somehow failed to make me imagine the discomforts of the actual boat. Her great beam made her fairly steady, but she was so shallow, and therefore low in the water, that every considerable wave splashed over her, and in rough weather she was always awash. This did not greatly matter, as her navigating controls were all under cover in a sort of stream-lined deck-house reminiscent of a sporting saloon motor-car. In fine weather one could stretch one’s legs on deck, but below deck there was scarcely room to move, as she was a mass of machinery, bunks, stores. And there was the plane. This strange instrument, minute by ordinary standards, and folded up like a fan, occupied a large amount of her space.

After emerging from Greenock we skidded comfortably down the Clyde, past Arran, and round the Mull of Kintyre. Then we struck heavy weather, and I was violently sick. So also, much to my satisfaction, was Ng–Gunko. Indeed, he was so ill that John decided to make for shelter, lest he should die. But quite suddenly Ng–Gunko learned to control his vomiting reflexes. He stopped being sick, lay still for ten minutes, then leapt from his bunk with a shout of triumph, only to be hurled into the galley by a lurch of the ship.

The trials were said to be entirely successful. When she was going full speed the Skid lifted the whole fore part of herself right out of the water and set up a mountain-range of water and foam on either side of her. Though the weather was rather wild, the plane also was tested. It was heaved out aft on a derrick and unfolded while afloat. All three members of the crew took a turn at flying it. The most surprising thing about it was that, owing to its cunning design and its immense reserve of power, it rose straight from the water without taxiing.

A week later the Skid set out on her first long voyage. Our farewells were made at the dock. The Wainright parents reacted very differently to the departure of their youngest son. Doc was genuinely anxious about the dangers of the voyage in such a vessel, and mistrustful of the abilities of the juvenile crew. Pax showed no anxiety, so complete was her confidence in John. But clearly she found it difficult to face his departure without showing distress. Hugging her, he said, “Dear Pax,” then sprang on board. Lo, who had already made her farewells, came back to Pax, took both her hands, and said, actually smiling, “Dear mother of important John!” To this odd remark Pax replied simply with a kiss.

My slender knowledge of the voyage is derived partly from John’s laconic letters, partly from conversation after his return. The programme was determined by his telepathic researches. Distance, apparently, made no difference to the ease with which he could pick up the psychic processes of other supernormals. Success depended entirely on his ability to “tune in” to their mental “setting” or mode of experience, and this depended on the degree of similarity of their mode to his own. Thus he was already in clear communication with a supernormal in Tibet, and two others in China, but for the rest he could only make the vaguest guesses as to the existence and location of possible members of the colony.

Letters told us that the Skid had spent an unprofitable three weeks on the West Coast of Africa. John had flown into the hinterland, pursuing traces of a supernormal in some oasis in the Sahara. He struck a sand storm of peculiar violence, and made a forced landing in the desert, with his engine choked with sand. “When the wind had dropped I cleaned her guts,” said John, “and then flew back to the Skid, still chewing sand.” What epic struggles were involved in this adventure I can only guess.

At Cape Town the Skid was docked, and the three young people set off to comb South Africa, following up certain meagre traces of the supernormal mentality. Both John and Lo soon returned empty-handed. In his letter John remarked, “Delicious to watch the Whites treating the Blacks as an inferior species. Lo says it reminds her of her mother’s stories of Tsarist Russia.”

John and Lo waited impatiently for some weeks while Ng–Gunko, doubtless revelling in his return to native conditions, nosed about in the remote woodlands and saltpans of Ngamiland. He was in telepathic communication with John, but there seemed to be some mystery about his activities. John grew anxious, for the lad was dangerously juvenile, and possibly of a less balanced type than himself. At last he was driven to tell Ng–Gunko that if he did not “chuck his antics” the Skid would sail without him. The reply was merely a cheerful assurance that he would be starting back in a day or two. A week later came a message that combined a cry to triumph and an S.O.S. He had secured his prey, and was making his way through the wilds to civilization, but had no money for the return railway journey. John therefore set out to fly to the spot indicated, while Lo, single handed, took the Skid round to Durban.

John had already been waiting some days at the primitive settlement when Ng–Gunko appeared, dead beat, but radiant. He removed a bundle from his back, uncovered the end of it, and displayed to the indignant John a minute black infant, immature, twitching and gasping.

Ng–Gunko, it seems, had traced the telepathic intimations to a certain tribe and a certain woman. His African experiences had enabled him to detect in this woman’s attitude to the life of the forest something akin to his own. Further investigation led him to believe that though she herself was in some slight degree supernormal, the main source of those obscure hints which he had been pursuing was not the mother but her unborn child, in whose prenatal experiences Ng–Gunko recognized the rudiments of supernormal intensity. It was indeed remarkable that before birth a mind should have any telepathic influence at all. The mother had already carried her baby for eleven months. Now Ng–Gunko knew that he himself had been born late, and that his mother had not been delivered of him till certain incentives had been used upon her by the wise women of the tribe. This treatment he persuaded the black matron to undergo, for she was weary to death. As best he could, Ng–Gunko applied what he knew of the technique. The baby was born, but the mother died. Ng–Gunko fled with his prize. When John asked how he had fed the baby on the long journey, Ng–Gunko explained that in his Abyssinian days he and other youngsters used to milk wild antelopes. They stalked them, and by means of a process that reminded me of “tickling” trout, they persuaded the mothers to let themselves be milked. This trick had served on the journey. The infant, of course, had not thrived, but it was alive.

The kidnapper was pained to find that his exploit, far from being applauded, was condemned and ridiculed. What on earth, John demanded, could they possibly do with the creature? And anyhow, was he really at all worth bothering about? Ng–Gunko was convinced that he had secured an infant superman who would outclass them all; and in time John himself was impressed by his telepathic explorations of the new-corner.

The plane set out for Durban with the baby in Ng–Gunko’s arms. One would have expected the care and maintenance of it to fall to Lo, but her attitude toward it was aloof. Moreover, Ng–Gunko himself made it clear that he would bear all responsibility for the new-comer, who somehow acquired the name Sambo. Ng–Gunko became as devoted to Sambo as a mother to her first-born or a schoolboy to his white mice.

The Skid now headed for Bombay. Somewhere north of the Equator she ran into very heavy weather. This was a matter of small importance to a craft of her seaworthiness, though it must have greatly increased the discomfort of her crew. At a much later date I learned of a sinister incident that occurred in those wild days, an incident to which John made no reference in his letters. The Skid sighted a small British steamer, the Frome, in distress. Her steering engine was out of action, and she was labouring broadside-on to the storm. The Skid stood by, till, when the Frome’s plight was obviously hopeless, the crew took to the two remaining boats. The Skid attempted to take them both in tow. This operation was evidently very dangerous, for a sea flung one of the boats bodily on to the after deck of the yacht, thrusting her stern under water, and threatening to sink her. Ng–Gunko, who was dealing with the tow rope, had a foot rather badly crushed. The boat then floated off, and capsized. Of her crew only two were rescued, both by the Skid. The other boat was successfully taken in tow. A few days later the weather improved, and the Skid and her charge made good progress toward Bombay. But now the two strangers on board the Skid began to show great curiosity. Here were three eccentric children and a black baby cruising the ocean in a most eccentric craft driven by some unintelligible source of power. The two seamen were loud in praise of their rescuers. They assured John that they would speak up for him in the public inquiry which would be held over the loss of the Frome.

This was all very inconvenient. The three supernormals discussed the situation telepathically, and agreed that drastic action was demanded. John produced an automatic pistol and shot the two guests. The noise caused great excitement in the boat. Ng–Gunko slipped the tow rope, and John cruised round while Ng–Gunko and Lo, lying on the deck with rifles, disposed of all the Frome’s survivors. When this grim task was finished, the corpses were thrown to the sharks. The boat was scrubbed of blood stains, and then scuttled. The Skid proceeded to Bombay.

Long afterwards, when John told me about this shocking incident, I was as much perplexed as revolted. Why, I asked, if he dared not risk a little publicity, had he been willing to risk destruction in the work of rescuing the ship’s boats? And how did he fail to realize, during that operation, that publicity was inevitable? And was there, I demanded, any enterprise whatever, even the founding of a new species, that could justify such cold butchery of human beings? If this was the way of Homo superior, I said, thank God I was of another species. We might be weak and stupid, but at least we were able sometimes to feel the sanctity of human life. Was not this piece of brutality on exactly the same footing as the innumerable judicial murders, political murders, religious murders, that had sullied the record of Homo sapiens? These, I declared, had always seemed to their perpetrators righteous acts, but were regarded by the more human of our kind as barbarous.

John answered with that mildness and thoughtfulness with which he treated me only on those rare occasions when I gave him matter for serious consideration. He first pointed out that the Skid had still to spend much time in contact with the world of Homo sapiens. Her crew had work to do in India, Tibet and China. It was certain, therefore, that if their part in the Frome incident became public, they would be forced to give evidence at the inquiry. He insisted, further, that if they were discovered, their whole venture would be ruined. Had they at that early stage known all that they knew later about hypnotically controlling the humbler species, they might indeed have abolished from the minds of the Frome’s survivors all memory of the rescue. “But you see,” he said, “we could not do it. We had deliberately risked publicity, as we had risked destruction by the storm, hoping to avoid it. We tried to set up a process of ‘oblivifaction’ in our guests, but we failed. As for the wickedness of the act, Fido, it naturally revolts you, but you are leaving something out of account. Had we been members of your species, concerned only with the dreamlike purposes of the normal mind, what we did would have been a crime. For today the chief lesson which your species has to learn is that it is far better to die, far better to sacrifice even the loftiest of all ‘sapient’ purposes, than to kill beings of one’s own mental order. But just as you kill wolves and tigers so that the far brighter spirits of men may flourish, so we killed those unfortunate creatures that we had rescued. Innocent as they were, they were dangerous. Unwittingly they threatened the noblest practical venture that has yet occurred on this planet. Think! If you, and Bertha, had found yourselves in a world of great apes, clever in their own way, lovable too, but blind, brutish, and violent, would you have refused to kill? Would you have sacrificed the founding of a human world? To refuse would be cowardly, not physically, but spiritually. Well, if we could wipe out your whole species, frankly, we would. For if your species discovers us, and realizes at all what we are, it will certainly destroy us. And we know, you must remember, that Homo sapiens has little more to contribute to the music of this planet, nothing in fact but vain repetition. It is time for finer instruments to take up the theme.”

When he had done, John looked at me almost pleadingly. He seemed to long for my approval, the approval of a half-human thing, his faithful hound. Did he, after all, feel guilty? I think not. I think this strong desire to persuade me sprang simply from affection. For my part, such is my faith in John, that though I cannot approve, I cannot condemn. There must surely be some aspect that I am too stupid or insensitive to grasp. John, I feel, must be right. Though he did what would have been utterly wrong if it had been done by any of us, I have an almost passionate faith that, done by John, and in John’s circumstances, the terrible deed was right.

But to return to the story. At Bombay John and Lo spent some time studying Indian and Tibetan languages, and otherwise preparing themselves for contact with Eastern races. When at length they left the Skid, and Bombay, Ng–Gunko remained behind to nurse Sambo and his damaged foot. The two explorers set out together in the plane; but Lo, disguised as a Nepalese boy, was put down at an Indian hill station. There, it was hoped, she might develop a telepathic contact which was thought to indicate a supernormal in some such environment. John himself continued his flight over the great mountains to Tibet to meet the young Buddhist monk with whom he had often been in communication.

In his brief letter describing his expedition to Tibet John scarcely mentioned the actual journey, though the flight over the Himalayas must have been an exacting task even for a superman in a superplane. He said only, “She took the jump splendidly, and then was blown right back again into India, head over heels, too. She dropped my thermos flask. Coming back I saw it on the ridge, but let it lie.”

As the Tibetan monk was able to guide him telepathically, he found the monastery quite easily. John described Langatse as a supernormal of forty years, physically but little advanced beyond the threshold of manhood. He had been born without eyes. Blindness had forced him to concentrate on his telepathic powers, which he had developed far beyond John’s own attainment. He could always see telepathically what other people were seeing; consequently, for reading he had simply to use some one else’s eyes. The other would cast his eye over the page while Langatse followed telepathically. He had trained several young men to perform this task for him so well that he could read almost as quickly as John. One curious effect of his blindness was that, since he could use many pairs of eyes at a time, and could see all round an object at once, his mental imagery was of a kind quite inconceivable to ordinary persons. As John put it, he grasped things visually, instead of merely having a single aspect of them. He saw things mentally from every point of view at once.

John had originally hoped to persuade Langatse to join his great adventure, but he soon found that this was out of the question. The Tibetan regarded the whole matter much as Adlan had done. He was interested, encouraging, but aloof. To him the founding of a new world, though it must indeed some day be accomplished by some one, was not a matter of urgency, and must not tempt him from his own more lofty spiritual services. Nevertheless he consented gladly to be the spiritual adviser of the colony, and meanwhile he would impart to John all that he knew of the telepathic technique and other supernormal activities. At one time Langatse suggested that John should give up his enterprise and settle in Tibet to share the more exacting and more exalted spiritual adventures on which he himself was engaged. But, finding that John was not to be easily persuaded, he soon desisted. John stayed at the monastery a week. During his return flight he received a message from Langatse to the effect that, after grave spiritual exercise, he had decided to help John by seeking out and preparing any young supernormals that were in Asia and suited to the adventure.

John received a communication also from Lo. She had discovered two remarkable sisters, both younger than herself. They would join the expedition; but as the elder was just now in a very poor state of health, and the younger a little child, they must stay where they were for the present.

The Skid now set her course for the China Seas. In Canton John met Shên Kuo, the Chinese supernormal boy with whom he had already had some communication. Shên Kuo readily agreed to make his way inland to join the two other boys and two girls whom Langatse had discovered in the remote Eastern Province of Sze Chwan. Thence the five would journey to Tibet to Langatse’s monastery, to undergo a course of spiritual discipline in preparation for their new life. Langatse reported that he had also secured three Tibetan boys and a girl for the colony, and that these also would be prepared at the monastery.

One other convert was made. This was a half-caste Chinese American girl resident in San Francisco. This child, who went by the name of Washingtonia Jong, was also discovered by Langatse telepathically. The Skid crossed the Pacific to pick her up, and she straightway became a member of the crew. I did not meet her till a much later date; but I may as well say at once that “Washy,” as she was called, appeared to me at first a quite normal young person, a keen little American flapper with rather Chinese eyes and black cropped hair. But I was to find that there was more in her than that.

John’s next task was to discover a suitable island for the colony. It must have a temperate or subtropical climate. It must have a fertile soil, and be well situated for fishing. It must be remote from any frequented steamer route. This last requirement was extremely important, for complete secrecy was essential. Even the most remote and unconsidered island would certainly be visited sooner or later; so John had thought out certain steps to prevent ships from reaching his island, and certain others to ensure that any visitors who should make a landing should not spread news of the colony among the normal species. Of these devices I shall speak in due season.

The Skid crossed the Equator and began a systematic exploration of the South Seas. After many weeks of cruising a suitable though minute island was discovered somewhere in the angle between the routes from New Zealand to Panama and New Zealand to Cape Horn, and well away from both courses. This discovery was an incredible stroke of luck, indeed it might well have been an act of Providence. For the island was one which was not marked on any charts, and there were clear signs that it had only within the last twenty years or so been thrown up by sub-oceanic disturbance. There were no non-human mammals on it, and no reptiles. Vegetation was still scanty and undiversified. Yet the island was inhabited. A small native group had taken possession of it, and were living by fishing around its coasts. Many varieties of plants and trees they themselves had brought over from their original home and established on the island.

I did not hear about these original inhabitants till much later, when I visited the island. “They were simple and attractive creatures,” said John, “but, of course, we could not allow them to interfere with our plans. It might have been possible to obliterate from their minds every recollection of the island and of ourselves, and then to transport them. But though I had learned much from Langatse, our technique of oblivifaction was still unreliable. Moreover, where could we have deposited the natives without rousing protests, and curiosity? We might have kept them alive on the island, as domestic animals, but this would have wrecked our plans. It would also have undermined the natives spiritually. So we decided to destroy them. One bit of hypnotic technique (or magic, if you like) I felt sure I could now perform successfully on normal minds in which there were strong religious convictions. This we decided to use. The natives had welcomed us to their island and arranged a feast for us. After the feast there were ritual dances and religious rites. When the excitement was at a climax I made Lo dance for them. And when she had done, I said to them, in their own language, that we were gods, that we needed their island, that they must therefore make a great funeral pyre for themselves, mount it together, lie down together, and gladly die. This they did, most gladly, men, women and children. When they had all died we set fire to the faggots and their bodies were burnt.”

I cannot defend this act. But I may point out that, had the invaders been members of the normal species, they would probably have baptised the natives, given them prayer books and European clothes, rum and all the diseases of the White Man. They would also have enslaved them economically, and in time they would have crushed their spirits by confronting them at every turn with the White Man’s trivial superiority. Finally, when all had died of drink or bitterness, they would have mourned for them.

Perhaps the only defence of the psychological murders which the supernormals committed when they took possession of the island would run as follows. Having made up their minds that at all costs the island must be theirs, and unencumbered, they did not shirk the consequences of their decision. With open eyes they went about their task, and fulfilled it in the cleanest possible way. Whether the end which they so ruthlessly pursued did in fact justify the means, I simply do not feel competent to decide. All my sympathies lie with the view that murder can never be justified, however lofty the end at stake. Certainly, had the killing been perpetrated by members of my own kind, such a deed would have deserved the sternest condemnation. But who am I that I should judge beings who in daily contact with me constantly proved themselves my superiors not only in intelligence but in moral insight?

When the five superior beings, John and Lo, Ng–Gunko and Washingtonia and the infant Sambo, had taken possession of the island, they spent some weeks resting from their travels, preparing the site for future settlement, and conferring with Langatse and those who were under his guidance. It was arranged that as soon as the Asiatics were spiritually equipped they should find their way as best they could to one of the French Polynesian islands, whence the Skid would fetch them. Meanwhile, however, the Skid would make a hurried trip to England via the Straits of Magellan to secure materials for the founding of the colony, and to fetch the remaining European supernormals.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30