From the Archive: “The Control Tower,” by Arthur Koestler

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“The Control Tower,” short fiction by Arthur Koestler, appeared in the Summer 1981 issue of MQR.


They did not tell me the date of my forthcoming execution. Nor the method by which it is going to be carried out. I am not sure whether this withholding of information is motivated by cruelty or pity. The proverb says that uncertainty is worse than death. But uncertainty at least leaves a crack in the wall through which a ray of hope, however thin, can infiltrate the total darkness.

This prison, or place of detention, or whatever they call it, is rather like an airport. It sprawls under its neon sky like a huge labyrinth whose exits and entrances no one knows; least of all, it seems, the hosts of officials or warders in various uniforms, some of them hurrying past with a bewildered expression, others slumped in lethargy behind their counters, but all sharing the same distraught look, refusing to listen to questions, or answering them with a hopeless shrug, or else with the sarcastic advice to address inquiries to the Control Tower. Yet they are unwilling or unable to explain how to get to the tower. One cannot help feeling that the people in authority are as much in the dark–or nearly so–as the passengers or prisoners in their charge.

The loudspeaker system, which is in action day and night, penetrating the sleepers’ dreams, also fails to provide any relevant information. It just calls out names, instructing such and such a person to proceed to the Departure Lounge, without any indication of purpose or destination. The announcer’s voice sounds reproachful and hectoring, but the worst are the long pauses before it calls out the next name.

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