By: Rudyard Kipling
March 31, 2024

AI-assisted illustration for HILOBROW

First published in The Story-Teller Magazine for October 1930 and collected in Limits and Renewals (1932), Kipling’s final proto-sf story explores the notion that mysterious processes at work in human tissues might be related to “waves” from the universe — and that in order to understand them, imagination and intuition may be as important as scientific investigation. HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize this story for HILOBROW’s readers.

UNPROFESSIONAL: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8.


‘It don’t matter. I only wanted to get an idea. Then you’ll turn on Frost to watch ’em? Thanks awfully.’

Frost, the valet-plumber, etc., was ex-captain of a turret, with the hard blue eye of the born gunlayer — a middle-aged, uncomely man, no mean mechanic, and used to instruments of precision. He liked sitting in a warm room, looking through a microscope at what he called ‘muckings,’ with instructions to ‘watch ’em all round the clock and log all changes.’ But no sooner did he begin than Loftie, jealous as two women, and knowing what beginner’s luck may do, stood watch and watch with him. Loftie was in hard work on his brain-cells, and the monotony of this sentry-go made him fear that his mind might build theories on self-created evidence. So he told Frost, after a while, that the whole thing was absurd, as well as bad for the eyes. ‘Isn’t it?’ he added.

‘I don’t know how it is with you, sir,’ Frost replied. ‘It sometimes makes me feel as if I were seeing a sort of ripple strike up along the edges of ’em. Like broken water, with the sun tipping it. Like Portland Race in open-and-shut weather.’

‘That’s eye-strain. But when does it come on — with you?’

‘Sometimes through the middle watch — from twelve to four a.m. Then, again, it will come on through the first and second dog-watches — four to eight p.m., sir.’

‘No matter which — what sample — you are looking at?’ Loftie asked keenly.

‘I’d say it depended on the sample. Now, One-twenty-Eight — ’seems to me — plays up in the middle watch — from midnight on — and One-twenty-Seven in the afternoon. I’ve logged it all.’

Three months later, at Simson House, Loftie told the others that, while not in the least departing from his own theories, there was a phenomenon, which for the sake of brevity he would call ‘tide,’ in Samples 127 and 128. It occurred at certain hours, which had all been noted and passed on to Harries — ‘for what that may be worth.’

Harries smiled, and hired an expensive expert to photo the two samples and film them; which took several weeks and cost some hundreds of pounds. They all checked the magnified ‘tides’ by some curious tables which Harries had worked out — ‘for what that’s worth,’ as Loftie said.

Harries said it was worth the expense, and took to spending a good deal of his leisure at Simson House. Vaughan, too, reeking of ether, would put in for shelter there, as the hunt after him (which his aunt whipped) quickened with his successes. Loftie had been almost a fixture in his lab. from the first; and poor ‘Tacks,’ who could no more have made a dishonest penny than he could have saved an honest one, catered for them so lavishly that even the cook shied at the weekly bills, which Harries flatly refused to audit.

Three months after their first film’s ‘release,’ Loftie read them a typed paper before dinner, asserting there was ‘tide ‘ in the normal cells of all tissues which he and his helper, Frost, had observed; but he could see no sign of ‘tide’ in the malignant areas. He detailed tests and observations till they yawned. Then Frost ran the latest film for them — in slow and quick time — and they sat round the fire.

‘I’m not committing myself to anything,’ said Loftie, speaking like a badly-shaken human being, ‘but every dam’ tissue up till now seems to have its own time for its own tides. Samples from the same source have the same tides in strength and time. But, as I showed you just now, there are minute constant variations — reactions to something or other — in each tide, as individual as finger-prints. I wouldn’t stake my reputation on it except to you. But I know it’s so.’

‘What do you suppose it means?’ Vaughan half-whispered.

‘As I read it,’ Harries spoke quietly, ‘the minor differences in those “tides” in the tissues are due to interferences with the main or external influence — whichever it may be — which sets up, or which is, the main tide in all matter. They both come from without. Not within.’

‘How far out?’ Vaughan asked.

‘’Can’t tell — yet — to a few light-years. I’ve been trying to disentangle the minor interferences or influences — which may be due to the nearer — er — influences — from the main tide. In my opinion——’

‘Stop!’ Loftie cried shrilly. ‘You swore us all not to theorise before a year.’

‘Hear me out! I’ve verified some of my calculations at my end of the game, and they justify me in saying that… we are all justified in getting tight to-night.’

So, then, they did: being drunk with the ferment of their own speculations before they went to table. Loftie, whom Ackerman confined to strong beer as best for tired brain-cells, rose up above the savoury, and said that he was ‘the Servant of the Infil-tresimally Minute, but not of that fat tape-worm, Tacks.’ Harries described to them the vasts of the Ultimate Heavens fizzing in spirals ‘with — or rather like — champagne,’ but all one generating station of one Power drawn from the Absolute, and of one essence and substance with all things. Then he slept soundly.


RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.

SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | & many others.