By: Rudyard Kipling
April 21, 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.


When he and Loftie had refreshed their memories of One-two-Eight’s construction and arrangements, they asked Harries why he had chosen that time for the operation. Harries said that by his reckonings it should fall nearer the woman’s birthday. His guess at its actual date he wrote down and was passing it to Vaughan, when Vaughan’s Nursing Home reported the arrival of the patient, not unduly fatigued and most anxious to thank ‘Doctor’ Vaughan for the amazing kindness which had rescued her from the open ward.

The table listened to Vaughan’s reply, soothing and sustaining, and, by tone, assuming the happiest issue out of this annoying little set-back. When he hung up, he said: ‘She — wants it the day after to-morrow, because that’s her birthday. She thinks it ’ll be lucky.’

‘Make it midnight, then, of the day after tomorrow, and look at the date I wrote down. . . . No! The Devil has nothing to do with it. By the way —if it won’t cramp your style — could you set the table on ——’ Harries gave a compass bearing.

‘Don’t be shy,’ said Ackerman. ‘He’d stand her on her head to operate now, if the Bull told him. Are you off, Taffy? Frost ’ll put all your towels and pots in a taxi. ’Sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings.’

Loftie’s account of the operation did not interest Frost so much as the samples he brought back. It took both of them three or four days to plant them out properly. In return, Frost told Loftie that ‘our end of the show,’ with Major Harries at the sidereal clock, waiting ‘till the sights came on,’ and Captain Ackerman at the telephone, waiting to pass the range to Captain Vaughan in Sloane Street, was ‘just like Jutland.’

‘Now, this lady of ours,’ he said after a busy silence. ‘How would she lie in her bed?’

Loftie gave a bearing which he had heard Harries give Vaughan.

‘I expect Major Harries knows, if anyone,’ was Frost’s placid comment. ‘It’s the same as ships’ compasses varying according as their heads lay when they were building.’

‘It’s crazy mad. That’s all!’

‘Which was what the Admiralty said at first about steam in the Navy,’ Frost grinned.

He put away a set of sealed cover-glasses and reverently returned some lenses to their velvet shrines.

‘Not to talk of that lady of ours —’ he straightened up as he spoke — ‘some of my mice aren’t behaving as I could wish.’

‘Which?’ said Loftie. There were several types of experiments under way.

‘One or two of some that recovered after inoculation — since discharged and promoted to pets. But it looks as if they’d had a relapse. They’re highly restless — always trying to escape out — as if they were wild, not white. I don’t like it.’

‘Clean up, then,’ Loftie answered, ‘and we’ll go down to the boiler-room.’

In one of the cages there, a doe with a plum-coloured saddle was squeaking, as she strove desperately to work through the wires with semitransparent hand-like forefeet. Frost set the cage on a table under an electric and handed her dossier to Loftie. This gave her birth, age, date and nature of inoculation, date also when her system seemed to have cleared itself of the dose; and, of course, the times and strengths of her ‘tides.’ It showed dead-ebb for her at that hour.

‘What does she think she’s doing?’ Loftie whispered. ‘It isn’t her natural squeak, either.’

They watched. She laboured increasingly at the barrier; sat up as though most intently listening; leaped forward and tore into her task beneath the glare of the basement-bulb.

‘Turn it out,’ said Loftie. ‘It’s distressing her.’

Frost obeyed. In a few seconds the little noises changed to a flutter and ceased.
‘I thought so! Now we’ll look again,’ said Loftie. ‘Oh! Oh! God!’

‘Too late,’ Frost cried. ‘She’s broke her neck! Fair broken her pretty little neck between the wires! How did she do it?’

‘In convulsion,’ Loftie stammered. ‘Convulsion at the last. She pushed and pushed with her head in the wires and that acted as a wedge . . . and . . . what do you think?’

‘I expect I’m thinking pretty much the same as you are, sir.’ Frost replaced the cage under the leads and fuses which he had painted man-o’war fashion. ‘It looks like two tides meeting,’ he added. ‘That always sets up a race, and a race is worst at ebb. She must have been caught on her ebb — an’ knocked over! Pity! There ought to be some way of pulling ’em through it.’

‘Let’s see if there isn’t,’ said Loftie, and lifted out the tiny warm body with a needed droplet of blood on the end of the nose.


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.