THERE HAD BEEN TWENTY YEARS OF A TRANQUILITY HERE HAD BEEN TWENTY YEARS OF A TRANQUILITY beyond all of Man's former expectations, such as never before existed in all his long and bloody history. Hot wars had simmered down into cold wars, into uneasy, puzzled periods of dialogue and treaty, finally metamorphosing into blossoming friendships. Border disputes and territorial arguments had fizzled out, been replaced by mutual trust, sharing and understanding. The Great Nations had made a prolonged, concerted effort to help the Not So Great, with the result that they were finally seen to be great and were no longer feared for their might; and the Lesser Lands in their turn had adopted those so long neglected or ignored technologies by use and means of which they were at last able to help themselves.
Economic crises had receded; creeping ideological territorialism had crept to a halt; the population explosion had not novaed but had in factsputtered and gone out like a damp squib. The old agricultural science of the land and the new science of sea-farming, together with an expanded and sympathetic awareness of Nature beyond the wildest dreams of the early conservationists, had for the first time provided food aplenty for the world's billions.
It was an age of peace and plenty.
Twenty years, and 1984 left in the wake of the world's well-being (and Big Brother nowhere In sight), and the old arts and cultures revitalized and the new sciences surging ahead, reaching for a fair tomorrow. The turn of the Century only four years past, and life never so good on the green clean planet Earth
And then the plague--or at least recognition that it had come amongst us. A plague not of vermin, not born of the new sciences or the atom, not of radiation or of wild chemicals or poisons--not physical in any way. A plague of madness!
The doctors had no explanation, no cure for it. To them and to those who suffered it, it was known only as The Gibbering
The hospital was set in fifteen acres of landscaped gardens, its three floors spaciously appointed, its many-windowed, fresh-air appearance belying the conditions existing within. Not the physical conditions, for they could not be better-- not in the circumstances. But the twelve-foot tall tight-meshed wire security fence surrounding the entire estate spoke all too ineloquently of its function. Tucked away in belts of shrouding pines and oaks, still that fence could not be hidden completely--neither it nor the fact that it was not there to keep people out.
Typical of dozens of similar retreats the hospitalwas new, had been standing for less than five years, was wholly state supported--and was filled with inmates. With poor mad people who had heard and heeded The Gibbering. The hospital had a name, Calm Lawns, but the lawns were the only calm things about it.
It was a sunny Saturday, early June of 2004 when the Stones made their eleventh monthly trip seventy miles north from their Sussex home to Calm Lawns in Oxfordshire, for it was just a month short of a year ago that their son, Richard Stone, had been committed. The thing had first come to him on a hot Friday night last July.
A tall, well-built youth of previously sound physical and mental strength, he had suddenly got up from his bed to prowl the house and complain of a sound in his ears: a faint murmur like the beating of waves heard in a sounding shell. A susurration of whispers growing ever louder, a tumult of tiny voices in chaotic conflict. In short, he heard The Gibbering.
The symptoms were unmistakable, their development inevitable. Before the eyes of his stricken parents Richard Stone's deterioration had accelerated with demonaic speed. Friday night the first shaking of his head, as if to dislodge some leech of the brain, to still the murmuring in his ears; Saturday his reeling and rushing about, and the sickness, the bile, the maelstrom of mad winds or waters howling in his skull; and Sunday Sunday his imitation of those imagined sounds, the gabbled cries of souls in torment. The Gibbering.
Snatched aloft by unseen harpies, by Monday Richard had been a candidate for the straitjacket.
Heartbroken, they had visited him every third day through that first month; following whichtheir visits had been restricted. It was known that too much proximity tended to induce the symptoms in certain people, and Phillip Stone was secretly glad when their trips to the asylum were curtailed by medical restrictions. Vicki had been almost "out of her mind" since Richard's committal; her husband did not want to see that condition become permanent.
He had even tried to persuade her that the monthly visit was too much--protesting that it could only damage her already ravaged nerves, or at best increase her unhappiness--but all such arguments had gone unheard. She loved her son, as did Phillip Stone himself, and she could see no harm in him express or implied, neither deliberate nor incidental. Heartbroken she was; faithless she could never be. She would always be faithful: to her son's sanity, to his memory as he had been. He was not the same now, no, but he could recover. She ignored the fact that no one--no single victim--had yet fully recovered from The Gibbering. Richard was different. He would recover. He was her son.
And there had been a girl. Vicki could not forgive her. Lynn had been the love of Richard's life. He had lived for her, and she had seemed to live for him. But the plague had taken him and she had visited him only twice before her father stepped in and forbade it. She had her own life to lead. She must forget Richard Stone and leave him to his padded cell and his gibbering
Phillip Stone's large expensive car purred up to the gates of Calm Lawns and stopped at the security barrier. The guards were gray-uniformed, carried rifles that fired tranquilizer darts, wore helmets that filtered out all sounds except face-to-face conversation. In addition to filters the helmetscontained radios tuned in to the hospital's security computer; through them the guards could "talk" to the computer, and to each other. The other function of the helmets--some would have it the main function, quite aside from communication--was isolation. No one, not even the doctors, liked to listen to The Gibbering for too long. For which reason Security and Staff alike worked in staggered six-hour shifts, and no one lived permanently within the Calm Lawns perimeter except the inmates themselves.
The Stones had visitors' passes but even so their prints were checked at the security barrier. Then, with their passes stamped, the barrier went up and they were allowed in. And while they drove through patrolled gardens--along gravel roads between lawns and fountains and low, rocky outcrops of moss-covered stone, where shrubs and rose bushes luxuriated and vines crept on arching trellises--Security alerted the hospital of their coming. At the car park they were met by a helmeted receptionist, a girl who smiled and checked that the doors of their car were locked, then gave them headphones that covered their ears and issued soft, calming background music; following which they were led into the hospital complex itself.
Richard's cell was on the second floor. His parents were taken up by elevator and led along a rubber-floored perimeter corridor where dust-motes danced in beams of sunlight through huge, reinforced glass windows. There were many, many cells; their inhabitants did not need a great deal of room. And while the soothing music was fed to the Stones through their headphones, they plodded on behind their guide until they reachedRichard's cell--his "room," as Vicki termed it, but it was a cell like all the others.
Its door had a number, 253, and there the guide paused, smiling again as she tapped out the three digits on her electronic wrist-key. The door hissed open, admitting them to a tiny antechamber no bigger than a cubicle. Inside were three chairs, one of which the girl in the helmet took out into the corridor, leaving the Stones on their own. Just before the doors hissed shut on them, she said, "I know you've seen him in a straitjacket before. It's for his own good," and she nodded sympathetically.
"Are you ready?" Phillip Stone asked, his voice a little shaky. His wife half-heard him, half-read his lips, nodded and took off her headphones. "Vicki," he pleaded, "why don't you leave them on?"
"I want to speak to him," she answered, "if I can. And when--if--he speaks to me, I want to hear what he says."
Her husband nodded, took off his own phones and hugged her. "Have it your own way, but--"
She wasn't listening. As soon as he released her she turned to the inner doors, stared for a moment at a slip-card in its metal frame, read the words she had come to dread through many previous visits:
"Richard Stone--No Positive Improvement."
Then, hands trembling, she reached toward the doors, reached for the handles which would slide those doors back on well-oiled rollers. An inch from grasping them she froze. The flesh of her cheek quivered. She glanced at her husband. "Phillip?"
"I hear it," he said, his color gray. "It's louder this time. Not only Richard. It's all of them. Youcan hear it coming through the walls, the floor. They're gibbering, all of them!"
"I I feel it more than hear it," she said.
"Feel it, hear it," he shrugged defeatedly. "That's why they give you headphones."
"Ma! Ma!" came a bubbling, rising, tormented scream from behind the doors. "Oh! Mamaaaaaaaa!"
Hissing her horror from between colorless, twitching lips, Vicki grasped the handles and rolled back the doors. On the other side a wall of lightly tinted plate glass separated the Stones from their son, who lay on the thickly-padded floor coiled in a near-fetal position. He was in a jacket, as they had been warned he would be, with a white froth drying on his lips; but his face was turned toward them and his eyes were open. Open wide and wild. The eyes of a terrified animal, a rabid dog, their gaze wasn't quite concentrated, their focus not entirely correct. There was a vacancy, a nameless distance in them.
The antechamber and padded cell were audio-linked. "Richard!" Vickie reached out her arms uselessly toward him. "Oh, Richard!"
"Ma?" he repeated, a query in his voice, a half-prayer. "Ma?"
"Yes," she sobbed, "it's me, son--it only me."
"Do you understand, son?" Phillip Stone asked. "We've come to see you."
"Understand? See me?" Richard's eyes were suddenly awake, alert. He rolled, sat up, hitched himself across the floor by inches, came up close to the glass--but was careful not to touch it. On his side the plate's surface was electrified. In the early days he had used it deliberately, when things got too tough, to shock himself unconscious.Since then he had learned better. Learned the lessons of any poor dumb trapped animal.
"It's us, son--Ma and Da," his mother told him, her voice close to breaking. "How are you, Richard? How are things?"
"Things?" he grinned, licking his lips with a furred tongue. "Things are fucking bad, Ma," he said matter-of-factly, rolling his eyes.
"Son, son," his father gently admonished. "Don't talk to your mother like that, please."
"Fucking, cunting, arse-picking, shit-stinking bad," Richard ignored him. "Why don't you get me out of here? Why did you put me in here? Do you know what it's like in here? Do you realize that I can hear them every second of every minute of every hour of every day and night? Did you know that, Ma?"
"Richard!" his father snapped. Then, less harshly, "Son, old chap, try to control--"
"Son?" Richard's eyes had shrunk down to yellow pinpoints burning into his father's through the tinted plate. Perhaps it was only a trick of the colored glass, but Phillip Stone could have sworn those pupils pulsed like a pair of amoebas, brimming like blobs of molten gold. "Did you say son?" Richard shook his head, his eyes fixed in their stare. "Ah, somebody's son, yes! But not your son, 'old chap!'"
Vicki could no longer hold back her tears. "Richard, oh my poor, poor boy! Oh my poor love, my lovely boy!"
Her husband threw an arm about her shoulders. "Vicki, don't. He understands nothing. We shouldn't have come. It's too much for you. He doesn't know what he's saying. He's just gibbering!"
"Mal" Richard screamed again. "Maaaaa! I dounderstand, I do! Don't listen to him. He's not my father. You don't remember, do you? No, but I do. Ma, you named me after my father!"
His words seemed to conjure something within her. For the merest moment mad, impossible memories seemed to burn upon the surface of her mind's eyes--only to be brushed aside. The Gibbering was, after all, infectious. "Oh, son, son!" she collapsed against the plate glass, going on her knees, her face only inches from his and wet with tears. "You don't know what--"
"But I do I do I do!" he insisted. "Oh, I do! I'm the only one who does know!" He rolled his eyes again, the yellow pupils going up, up until the white showed. And slowly, slowly his lips drew back from his teeth in a horrific lunatic grin, and the saliva trickled and bubbled thickly from his gaping jaws. In mere moments his face had become a total nightmare.
"No want in all the world," he said, the words breaking glutinously through phlegmy foam like oily bubbles rising in mud. "No wars, no misery, no fear--except the misery of this, the fear of this! No prayers where there's nothing to pray for. Religion dead, faith dying. What use faith when the future's assured? No famine, no flood, no pestilence--except this pestilence! Nature herself bows to Man's science but does she really? Peace and plenty? The land of milk and honey? A perfect battleground! With all the lesser evils out of the way, the field is clear for the greatest Evil of all. And it's coming, it's coming! The Gibbering is only the advance guard, and we are the fathers of the New Faith!"
The white balls of his eyes rolled down, seemed almost to click into place, like the reels of somesentient slot machine. Their yellow pupils blazed and then a further deterioration.
The Stones had seen this twice before, this abrupt and still more hideous alteration in their son, which must invariably terminate any visit in which it occurred. It was a transformation from sub-human to complete alien. Without warning his cheeks, all the flesh of his face seemed sucked in, shriveled, wrinkling like a paper bag with its air extracted. The yellow fires behind his eyes flickered low. His head wobbled upon his neck, jerking and twitching without coordination. His color became chalk-white--a pale amber as seen through the tinted glass--then rapidly darkened to a purplish blotching. The rise and fall of his chest beneath the straitjacket slowing, stilling. Breathing coming to a halt. And the purple spreading. His wrinkled, monkey-face darkening, tongue protruding. And finally the blood trickling, then spurting from gaping nostrils as his mother screamed: "Oh, Richard--no, no, no! Noooooo!"
In another moment consciousness fled him and Richard toppled face forward against the glass partition. The charged plate galvanized his muscles, flinging him back from its field. He tossed for a moment, then lay still upon the deep-padded floor, his face turned to one side and shiny with blood.
Vicki had instinctively jerked back from the tinted pane, lay half-fainting on the floor, her hands propping her up. Phillip went down on his knees beside her, wrapped his arms about her, rocked her to and fro for a moment as she sobbed. Then the door behind them hissed open and their receptionist-guide was touching his shoulder. "I'm afraid--" she gently began.
"It's all right," Phillip Stone cut her short, staring almost unseeingly up at her. "We'll be leaving now."
"Mr. Stone," she smiled concernedly, reached up a hand and tapped her clean pink nails upon the plastic casing of her headphones, "you really should wear them, you know."
"Yes, of course," he automatically answered, helping Vicki to her feet. Then his eyes focused. He stood stock still, his arm about his wife, holding her up. His air was that of a man who listens intently for something.
The girl looked at him questioningly. "Mr. Stone?"
"No need for the headphones now," he told her. "Can't you feel it? It's quiet as a tomb in here. They've all stopped, for the moment at least. They've stopped gibbering"