In Control’s dreams it is early morning, the sky deep blue with just a twinge of light. He is staring from a cliff down into an abyss, a bay, a cove. It always changes. He can see for miles into the still water. He can see ocean behemoths gliding there, like submarines or bell-shaped orchids or the wide hulls of ships, silent, ever moving, the size of them conveying such a sense of power that he can feel the havoc of their passage even from so far above. He stares for hours at the shapes, the movements, listening to the whispers echoing up to him . . . and then he falls. Slowly, too slowly, he falls soundless into the dark water, without splash or ripple. And keeps falling.
Sometimes this happens while he is awake, as if he hasn’t been paying enough attention, and then he silently recites his own name until the real world returns to him.
First day. The beginning of his last chance.
“These are the survivors?”
Control stood beside the assistant director of the Southern Reach, behind smudged one-way glass, staring at the three individuals sitting in the interrogation room. Returnees from the twelfth expedition into Area X.
The assistant director, a tall, thin black woman in her forties, said nothing back, which didn’t surprise Control. She hadn’t wasted an extra word on him since he’d arrived that morning after taking Monday to get settled. She hadn’t spared him an extra look, either, except when he’d told her and the rest of the staff to call him “Control,” not “John” or “Rodriguez.” She had paused a beat, then replied, “In that case, call me Patience, not Grace,” much to the stifled amusement of those present. The deflection away from her real name to one that also meant something else interested him. “That’s okay,” he’d said, “I can just call you Grace,” certain this would not please her. She parried by continually referring to him as the “acting” director. Which was true: There lay between her stewardship and his ascension a gap, a valley of time and forms to be filled out, procedures to be followed, the rooting out and hiring of staff. Until then, the issue of authority might be murky.
But Control preferred to think of her as neither patience nor grace. He preferred to think of her as an abstraction if not an obstruction. She had made him sit through an old orientation video about Area X, must have known it would be basic and out of date. She had already made clear that theirs would be a relationship based on animosity. From her side, at least.
“Where were they found?” he asked her now, when what he wanted to ask was why they hadn’t been kept separate from one another. Because you lack the discipline, because your department has been going to the rats for a long time now? The rats are down there in the basement now, gnawing away.
“Read the files,” she said, making it clear he should have read them already.
Then she walked out of the room.
Leaving Control alone to contemplate the files on the table in front of him—and the three women behind the glass. Of course he had read the files, but he had hoped to duck past the assistant director’s high guard, perhaps get her own thoughts. He’d read parts of her file, too, but still didn’t have a sense of her except in terms of her reactions to him.
His first full day was only four hours old and he already felt contaminated by the dingy, bizarre building with its worn green carpet and the antiquated opinions of the other personnel he had met. A sense of diminishment suffused everything, even the sunlight that halfheartedly pushed through the high, rectangular windows. He was wearing his usual black blazer and dress slacks, a white shirt with a light blue tie, black shoes he’d shined that morning. Now he wondered why he’d bothered. He disliked having such thoughts because he wasn’t above it all—he was in it—but they were hard to suppress.
Control took his time staring at the women, although their appearance told him little. They had all been given the same generic uniforms, vaguely army-issue but also vaguely janitorial. Their heads had all been shaved, as if they had suffered from some infestation, like lice, rather than something more inexplicable. Their faces all retained the same expression, or could be said not to retain any expression. Don’t think of them by their names, he’d told himself on the plane. Let them carry only the weight of their functions at first. Then fill in the rest. But Control had never been good at remaining aloof. He liked to burrow in, try to find a level where the details illuminated without overwhelming him.
The surveyor had been found at her house, sitting in a chair on the back patio.
The anthropologist had been found by her husband, knocking on the back door of his medical practice.
The biologist had been found in an overgrown lot several blocks from her house, staring at a crumbling brick wall.
Just like the members of the prior expedition, none of them had any recollection of how they had made their way back across the invisible border, out of Area X. None of them knew how they had evaded the blockades and fences and other impediments the military had thrown up around the border. None of them knew what had happened to the fourth member of their expedition—the psychologist, who had, in fact, also been the director of the Southern Reach and overridden all objections to lead them, incognito.
None of them seemed to have much recollection of anything at all.
In the cafeteria that morning for breakfast, Control had looked out through the wall-to-wall paneled window into the courtyard with its profusion of stone tables, and then at the people shuffling through the line—too few, it seemed, for such a large building—and asked Grace, “Why isn’t everyone more excited to have the expedition back?”
She had given him a long-suffering look, as if he were a particularly slow student in a remedial class. “Why do you think, Control?” She’d already managed to attach an ironic weight to his name, so he felt as if he were the sinker on one of his grandpa’s fly rods, destined for the silt near the bottom of dozens of lakes. “We went through all this with the last expedition. They endured nine months of questions, and yet we never found out anything. And the whole time they were dying. How would that make you feel?” Long months of disorientation, and then their deaths from a particularly malign form of cancer.
He’d nodded slowly in response. Of course, she was right. His father had died of cancer. He hadn’t thought of how that might have affected the staff. To him, it was still an abstraction, just words in a report, read on the plane down.
Here, in the cafeteria, the carpet turned dark green, against which a stylized arrow pattern stood out in a light green, all of the arrows pointing toward the courtyard.
“Why isn’t there more light in here?” he asked. “Where does all the light go?”
But Grace was done answering his questions for the moment.
When one of the three—the biologist—turned her head a fraction, looking into the glass as if she could see him, Control evaded that stare with a kind of late-blooming embarrassment. Scrutiny such as his was impersonal, professional, but it probably didn’t feel that way, even though they knew they were being watched.
He hadn’t been told he would spend his first day questioning disoriented returnees from Area X, and yet Central must have known when he’d been offered the position. The expedition members had been picked up almost six weeks ago, been subjected to a month of tests at a processing station up north before being sent to the Southern Reach. Just as he’d been sent to Central first to endure two weeks of briefings, including gaps, whole days that slid into oblivion without much of anything happening, as if they’d always meant to time it this way. Then everything had sped up, and he had been given the impression of urgency.
These were among the details that had caused a kind of futile exasperation to wash over him ever since his arrival. The Voice, his primary contact in the upper echelons, had implied in an initial briefing that this was an easy assignment, given his past history. The Southern Reach had become a backward, backwater agency, guarding a dormant secret that no one seemed to care much about anymore, given the focus on terrorism and ecological collapse. The Voice had, in its gruff way, typified his mission “to start” as being brought in to “acclimate, assess, analyze, and then dig in deep,” which wasn’t his usual brief these days.
During an admittedly up-and-down career, Control had started as an operative in the field: surveillance on domestic terror cells. Then he’d been bumped up to data synthesis and organizational analysis—two dozen or more cases banal in their similarities and about which he was forbidden to talk. Cases invisible to the public: the secret history of nothing. But more and more he had become the fixer, mostly because he seemed better at identifying other people’s specific problems than at managing his own general ones. At thirty-eight, that was what he had become known for, if he was known for anything. It meant you didn’t have to be there for the duration, even though by now that’s exactly what he wanted: to see something through. Problem was, no one really liked a fixer—“Hey, let me show you what you’re doing wrong”—especially if they thought the fixer needed fixing from way back.
It always started well, even though it didn’t always end well.
The Voice had also neglected to mention that Area X lay beyond a border that still, after more than thirty years, no one seemed to understand. No, he’d only picked up on that when reviewing the files and in the needless replication from the orientation video.
Nor had he known that the assistant director would hate him so much for replacing the missing director. Although he should have guessed; according to the scraps of information in her file, she had grown up lower-middle class, had gone to public school at first, had had to work harder than most to get to her current position. While Control came with whispers about being part of a kind of invisible dynasty, which naturally bred resentment. There was no denying that fact, even if, up close, the dynasty was more like a devolving franchise.
“They’re ready. Come with me.”
Grace, conjured up again, commanding him from the doorway.
There were, he knew, several different ways to break down a colleague’s opposition, or their will. He would probably have to try all of them.
Control picked up two of the three files from the table and, gaze now locked in on the biologist, tore them down the middle, feeling the torque in his palms, and let them fall into the wastebasket.
A kind of choking sound came from behind him.
Now he turned—right into the full force of the assistant director’s wordless anger. But he could see a wariness in her eyes, too. Good.
“Why are you still keeping paper files, Grace?” he asked, taking a step forward.
“The director insisted. You did that for a reason?”
He ignored her. “Grace, why are none of you comfortable using the words alien or extraterrestrial to talk about Area X?” He wasn’t comfortable with them, either. Sometimes, since he’d been briefed on the truth, he’d felt a great, empty chasm opening up inside of him, filled with his own screams and yelps of disbelief. But he’d never tell. He had a face for playing poker; he’d been told this by lovers and by relatives, even by strangers. About six feet tall. Impassive. The compact, muscular build of an athlete; he could run for miles and not feel it. He took pride in a good diet and enough exercise, although he did like whiskey.
She stood her ground. “No one’s sure. Never prejudge the evidence.”
“Even after all this time? I only need to interview one of them.”
“What?” she asked.
Torque in hands transformed into torque in conversation.
“I don’t need the other files because I only need to question one of them.”
“You need all three.” As if she still didn’t quite understand.
He swiveled to pick up the remaining file. “No. Just the biologist.”
“That is a mistake.”
“Seven hundred and fifty-three isn’t a mistake,” he said. “Seven hundred and twenty-two isn’t a mistake, either.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Something is wrong with you.”
“Keep the biologist in there,” he said, ignoring her but adopting her syntax. I know something you don’t. “Send the others back to their quarters.”
Grace stared at him as if he were some kind of rodent and she couldn’t decide whether to be disgusted or pitying. After a moment, though, she nodded stiffly and left.
He relaxed, let out his breath. Although she had to accept his orders, she still controlled the staff for the next week or two, could check him in a thousand ways until he was fully embedded.
Was it alchemy or a true magic? Was he wrong? And did it matter, since if he was wrong, each was exactly like the others anyway?
Yes, it mattered.
This was his last chance.
His mother had told him so before he’d come here.