The Face of the Deep

On the last day in May, when the sky is at its deepest blue at eight in the evening, when the yellow of the Oxford walls seems to shimmer where it is washed by the rays of the sinking sun, shadows float across the lawns, and windows flash like the revolving facets of some intellectual gem stirred by the currents of the mind – on the last day in May a sharp-sighted undergraduate noticed a tiny speck of scarlet in the zenith, directly over the pond in the centre of the Great Quad of Cardinal College.

A person who stares intently at a fixed point in the limitless expanse of the heavens quickly draws attention from passers by. A crowd soon gathered to watch the mote expand and flicker. It was a sultry day in the middle of examination season, and many were draped in academic robes: black, scarlet-and-blue, white-furred, ornately gilded, green with moss. The evening was a warm one, but only the boldest or meekest members of the congregation had chosen to remove their gowns and display themselves in the blinding whiteness of their rumpled shirtsleeves.

‘I expect it’s a meteor,’ observed a complacent astronomer.

‘Several thousand metres, I should say,’ corrected a deaf mathematician.

‘The Bomb has come,’ suggested a don wearing a dress which she had clearly put on back to front. ‘We shall have to postpone the guest dinner.’

Their curiosity was not intense. The day had been a dreamy one, undistinguished by powerful thoughts or high emotions. Punts had glided between willows to the accompaniment of guitars and sudden splashes. Those whom the gods had blessed with good looks or middle-aged shamelessness displayed their bodies in various shades of undress on the sun-soaked river margins. In the submarine coolness of the Examination Halls their less fortunate contemporaries sweated over theorems, theology and Thucydides, struggling not to be distracted by every scuffle, every cough, every rustle of the turning leaves of hidden dictionaries. These intellectual warriors watched the growing speck with comparative indifference. Their fingers were stained with the ink of immortal combat. After the battle of wits, when enough paper was used in a few hours to stock the College library twice over – an underwater forest of paper filled with parasitic scratchings, soon to be skimmed over by professors eager to return to their own scratchings, forests whose ultimate fate was to be pounded into pulp and recycled like the oceanic algae – after such titanic exertions a red ink-blot in the sky was of small importance in comparison with the red ink-blots that would pock the fateful leaves.

The sharp-sighted undergraduate who had first spotted the phenomenon moved to the edge of the small round pond and began to scatter breadcrumbs on the water, the remains of her dinner roll. The goldfish splashed and darted. A college porter – who wore a bowler hat to distinguish him from lesser employees of the college such as dons and principals – took the young woman gently by the arm and asked her to refrain, since the goldfish were well fed at regular intervals.

‘You see, miss,’ he explained, ‘if you feeds them a superfluity they swells and they swells till they is too monstrous uge for the pond. Then they thrashes their orrible tails and gnashes their orrible teeth and gobbles each other up, see, miss. Or else they bursts with an orrible pop and turns their poor stomachs to the sky, see, miss, God bless their tender arts.’

‘I have always understood,’ said the undergraduate, ‘that goldfish accommodated their growth to the limits of their environment. I mean, they grow no larger than their bowl or pond permits. I have heard, too, that they are sociable animals not in the least inclined to cannibalism; that they show signs of real affection to the human beings who feed them; and that they are capable of communicating with one another using an elaborate system based on touch and quasi-balletic choreography. Besides, they should be credited with an enviable philosophy; for what other creature would endure so narrow a confinement without chafing? A goldfish can live for forty years or more in a plain glass bowl with no other company than its meditations. Remarkable! Though as I said, the creatures are sociable, so it is kinder to give them friends in their enclosure.’

Here the don intervened, brushing past the porter with a flounce and drawing her doctoral gown more closely about her, as if to protect herself from the chill rising from the pond. ‘In the first place,’ she retorted, ‘there exist innumerable species which would as mindlessly submit to incarceration. And in the second, it is well known that the brain of the goldfish is so ineffectual that it forgets instantly each portion of the bowl as it swims by, so that in its imbecility each of those portions appears to be completely new terrain, and the universe it inhabits of a few fluid centilitres gives the impression of extending boundlessly in all directions. Impressive? Hardly.’

The undergraduate failed to wonder whether humankind might not suffer from the same delusion, because she was wondering instead how large a goldfish might grow given the bounds of the universe to swim about in. She therefore maintained a respectful silence as she returned her gaze to the meteor.

‘It’s getting larger,’ she pointed out.

‘How red it is!’ piped up a humble artist, much despised by his academic colleagues.

‘See where Christ’s blood streams from the what-do-you-call-it,’ recited an English Literature scholar, likewise snubbed.

‘It is an Unidentified Flying Object,’ declared a physicist, and adjusted his spectacles. At once everyone in the vicinity exclaimed ‘aha!’ as if they now knew exactly what the thing must be. Since it had grown in the last few seconds to the size of a cricket ball they could distinguish projections on either side like an aeroplane’s wings. It emitted the unrelenting bubbling noise of a proposition that refuses to be grasped. If the undergraduate squeezed her eyelids together slightly, applying pressure to her upraised eyeballs, she could even see what seemed to be bubbles emerging in a steady stream from a little hole in what she took to be the top.

For a while the full significance of the physicist’s pronouncement failed to sink in. But one whose brain was yet unclouded by toil or torpor, having spent the afternoon reading Archimedes in the bath, injected a sense of occasion by suddenly leaping onto the terrace that ran around the Great Quadrangle, pulling off his mortarboard and delivering the following oration in a tremulous but penetrating tenor voice.

‘OMG!’ he cried, ‘don’t you see what’s happening here? It’s a UFO! First Contact! The Arrival! From now on, humankind can no longer claim to be the sole intelligent life form in the universe! At last we are about to encounter our mental equals, our technological superiors if that UFO is anything to go by! The clash of two great minds on earth is witnessed with universal trepidation. How much more when race extends hand to race across the infinite reaches of the void? Gentlemen! Ladies! We must not let the college down!’

Roused by this exhortation the spectators raised their collective voice in a deafening babble of excitement. The don rushed off to fetch a deputation from the Senior Common Room, to greet their alien brethren with a suitable display of honorary degrees and peer-assessed publications. Graduates gathered together in a corner comparing notes on the languages and sign systems they could muster between them. Undergraduates scampered in and out of doors clutching cameras, bottles, musical instruments and little flags. The bustle was such as to bring many more undergraduates out into the sultry air, some clutching beer glasses, others binoculars, many with pens gripped between cramped fingers, several in dressing gowns having not yet risen with the setting sun. By the time the dons had assembled in gowns, hoods, mortar boards and white bow ties, the terrace that ran round the four walls of the quadrangle was packed with excited bodies. The grass by the pond lay empty, since that seemed the most likely spot for the spacecraft to land on.

‘I opes it don’t shrivel the grass with its orrible jets,’ commented the porter. ‘The staff only seeded it yesterday.’

At this moment a convoy of black limousines shot in through the front gate followed by a stream of military vehicles. The cavalcade screeched to a halt by the pond and emptied its occupants over the lawn. Camouflaged soldiers forced their way through the crowd towards staircase entrances and reappeared on the roof, waving automatic rifles and shouting into walkie talkies. Others positioned themselves in front of the throng to prevent it spilling into the arena. A corpulent figure squeezed itself out of one of the limousines and was recognised by a well-informed historian as the Secretary of State for Defence. An emotional don curtsied low to the ground. The artist struck up a rendition of ‘Land of my Fathers’ and was suppressed. All eyes strained upwards. All breaths were bated. All necks strained abominably. Heat throbbed over the compacted assembly.

‘I believe they think it’s going to land in the quad,’ whispered a geographer to her neighbour.

‘Do you think it’s dangerous?’ queried the English Literature scholar nervously.

‘I’m sure the Secretary of State for Defence wouldn’t be here if they thought so,’ answered a dubious politics graduate.

‘He’s an unpopular man,’ pronounced the Unclouded Brain. ‘Does anyone have a paper bag I could borrow?’

‘Hold onto your hats!’ cried a medical student. ‘Here it comes!’

With an insufferable roar the sky above the college rent asunder. The weltering heat became unbearable as the flames from the spacecraft’s rockets pierced the sultry air. The tips of the watchers’ hair was frazzled into tight, untidy knots, their breath whipped away, their robes, hoods, cuffs and tassels singed, windows blown in, flags set on fire, and the great red globe, the size of a hot air balloon, settled hugely down on the earth beside the pond, the tip of one wing compressing the roof of one of the cars.

Vapour eddied about its base, obscuring their vision. Everyone who possessed one raised a handkerchief to their eyes. The rest buried their streaming noses in a neighbour’s gown.  An aged professor sat down and called for smelling salts. Flocks of birds wheeled screaming across the sky, then swept away towards the distant ocean. Gradually silence settled once more, as each observer composed themselves to examine the vessel.

It was a winged sphere with a flattened top and three stumpy legs like those on a Victorian cast iron bathtub. Its diameter was about ten metres, its colour a reddish orange, its texture smooth. To one side and a little underneath there was a small round hatch or door. As they watched, this irised open. All was dark within. No ladder descended to the blackened grass. The Secretary of State for Defence cleared his throat and edged a little closer to the ship, a little further from the safety of the gate and the street beyond. A military man with a lot of medals bent over and whispered something supportive in his ear.

In every tale of visitants from outer space there comes a moment of tense expectancy, when the onlookers stand and gape like so many frogs, unable to guess what will issue from the hole in the side of the spacecraft. The vapours disperse, the cameras hover, the last rays of the setting sun shoot horizontally across the darkening heavens, whose fragile glass dome has been suddenly breached like the rim of a bowl sinking into the sea. Suddenly all eyes are turned outwards from the surface of the planet. Suddenly the stars seem instinct with potential.

Three quarters of an hour had elapsed since the speck was first sighted. Philosophers pondered the alien thought processes that might explain the vessel’s shape and colour. Engineers calculated the resistance it must have encountered as it breached earth’s atmosphere at various velocities. The college principal thought of press releases. The sharp-sighted undergraduate thought of eggs. At long last something stirred in the darkness behind the hatch and a being began to emerge.

It did not walk on legs, nor swing on arms, nor hover on pinions. It did not wriggle on its belly, stalk like a jackdaw, hop like a rabbit. It floated through the air as if it were swimming. The first thing to float out of the hatch was a see-through helmet, of the kind that is favoured by human cosmonauts. The head inside was flat on both sides, with a toothless mouth and bulging eyes. The creature’s body swam parallel to the ground, the size of a cow, the shape of a leaf. It had fins on either side like the ship that carried it, and a vertical tail that served as a basic rudder. Its flanks were protected by scales of reddish gold. Between its highly flexible forefins it grasped a second sphere, this time transparent with a hole on top.

This second sphere was large and no doubt slippery, but the creature’s forefins clung to the sides as if fastened to the surface with a strong adhesive. The Secretary of State for Defence stood staring at it with his mouth hanging open, overawed by the being’s dexterity. The military man gave him a none-too-gentle nudge. The Secretary gave a start, licked his lips once or twice, and declaimed in a high-pitched wail:

‘On – ah – on behalf of Her Britannic Majesty’s government I bid you welcome to the United Kingdom on – ah – Planet Earth!’ Here he paused to mop his brow with the air of one who has tried to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to a toddler who is eating a crunchy biscuit. He glanced round to seek help from the military man, but his former supporter was now crouching several metres away fingering the holster flap of his handgun and shouting into a walkie talkie. He clearly had his attention on other things. The Secretary sighed and cleared his throat again, wondering whether to continue.

The creature made no response. It was hovering under the spaceship, seemingly as uncertain about the next move as the Secretary. All at once it gave a flick of its tail and glided forwards towards the centre of the quadrangle. The Secretary backed away; the military man began shouting louder, though the instructions he was barking into the radio were either in code or symptomatic of a total loss of control over his tongue and larynx.

When it reached the pond the creature lowered its head and dipped its forequarters into the water, parting the lily pads. The action immersed the sphere it carried completely.

‘It’s drinking,’ conjectured a self-important zoologist.

‘We are but an oasis on some titanic voyage of discovery,’ murmured the English Literature scholar.

‘Fiddlesticks,’ snapped the Unclouded Brain. ‘What you see here is an act of self-abasement. This alien is obviously unintelligent, because it has shown not the slightest sign of curiosity, and curiosity is the first prerequisite of a rational life form. That and fear. This alien is either a remarkable bacterial growth which drifts through space, inside another growth shaped like a spaceship, as an amoeba drifts through a puddle. Or else it’s the equivalent of the dogs and monkeys which we humans sent into space in the experimental phase of extra-planetary travel, instead of hazarding one of our own superior species. Whichever it is, the creature is making a bow, having recognised the members of this college as its betters. How disappointing. I had hoped for a conversation worth recording.’

‘I suggest we catch it and perform a vivisection immediately,’ proposed the zoologist.

‘Everybody stand back!’ roared the military man with ribbons. ‘This could be an act of aggression. Any other suspicious movements and we’ll blast it into the stratosphere!’

At this the academics present fell silent, and gazed with renewed respect at the armoured flanks, impressed by the possibility that the creature might kill them. The soldiers shuffled their shiny boots and fumbled their gun stocks, impatient for action. Encouraged by the sound of boots on the ground behind him, the Secretary of State for Defence renewed his efforts at communication.

‘We are a peaceful nation,’ he asserted, running over in his mind the centuries of successful peacekeeping represented by the military man and his regiment. ‘If you surrender without resistance no harm will come to you or your vessel. We wish to establish friendly contact with other intelligent life forms across the universe. We are convinced that an exchange of knowledge will prove beneficial to both our species. If you understand me – ah – wag your tail.’

At this point the tail did wag, but for purely functional purposes. The creature slid backwards out of the pond and hovered with dripping helmet about three feet above the ground, still clutching the transparent sphere between its forefins. Inside the sphere the forms of goldfish could be discerned, hanging in the murky water.

At this the college porter took umbrage. His face went red, his bowler hat assumed a bullish stance on his lavishly-brylcreemed hair, and his eyebrows hid his eyes in a scowl that had been known to quell entire crews of muscular oarsmen. ‘Excuse me, sir or madam!’ he shouted. ‘Those are college property, those are! I’ll thank you to put them back in the college pond, you orrible thieving alibut, you!’

The halibut – if such it was – took no notice at all, but flicked its tail for a second time and shot over to the spaceship. The sudden movement startled the soldiers, so that six or seven of them emptied their guns at its vanishing hindquarters. The bullets bounced harmlessly off the hatch, which had irised shut behind the fish with astonishing speed. A zoologist, a physicist and a chemist began to struggle with the soldiers nearest them, the first to preserve the specimen intact, the second and third because they liked a bit of a scuffle. Within seconds the whole assembly was locked together in undignified combat, heaving, writhing, shrieking, biting and seething like a swarm of eels. Gowns were torn, hats hurled, books battered and knuckles rapped. In the meantime a gush of vapour obscured the base of the spherical spacecraft once again. Bullets burst on the reddish-orange carapace, their flashes combining with the flames that surged from hidden rockets underneath. The resultant reddish-orange glare cast enormous shadows on the walls of the quadrangle, transforming the ancient seat of learning into an apocalyptic vision. The grass caught fire and let off sparks, more windows blew in, a howling arose as of a million souls in torment, and the force of the blast as the ship took off knocked the furious company flat.

The sun had almost set. Only from the college bell tower – where the sharp-sighted undergraduate had taken refuge – could be seen a sliver of yellow, like the rim of a giant goldfish bowl disappearing beneath the waves of the distant ocean.