Going the distance – Devoted for life – The mountains of mild confusion – A glimmer of light – Breaking the philosopher’s stone
I have sometimes debated very devout Christians, who maintain against all available evidence that the Earth is but a fraction of its actual age, that Man once walked with pre-historic reptiles, either riding them or being eaten by them, that the Earth was once surrounded by a mile-thick layer of ice that would have blocked all light from the surface before breaking up and plunging to the ground in boiling fragments, and that marsupials were propelled back from Mount Ararat to the Australian continent by volcanic eruptions, on a trajectory that would take them outside the Earth’s atmosphere for several hours before landing in what reason suggests would be a bloody frozen smear on the ground, rather than a single pair of breeding animals capable of re-populating a continent barren of all life. One must marvel at the sheer devotion and the powers of concentration that allow these people to find in the wealth of scientific evidence those very few facts that confirm their beliefs, while ignoring the vast majority of the facts that do not. They call themselves Creation Scientists. Most members of our faculty, many of whom are God-fearing Christians, call them idiots, and treat them like the embarrassing relatives who have taken to wearing their underwear on their heads.
— Prof. Alan Wadcroft, “Never the twain shall meet”
As we rode through the African jungle, having escaped the cannibals in he last village, a sombre mood had descended on the expedition, due to the unfortunate incident of the soldier who had shown indecent intentions towards Miss Alexandra Tennant, and left his watch post in order to do so. Whether this offence truly warranted execution by firing squad, is not something I would have liked to decide, but Klemm took matters into his own hand. Miss Tennant, though she was quiet, seemed to have come through the ordeal with only minor injuries.
The Beast of Algernon performed admirably in the harsh conditions, showing Andrew’s remarkable engineering skills, as well as his expertise in driving. He seldom left the vehicle, preferring to drive, or sleep in the Nr. 4 bunk, which he claimed for his own. On the one occasion that he found someone already occupying it when it was time for him to sleep, Andrew gently picked him up and put him in the bunk above, much to the entertainment of the rest of the expedition. To say that Andrew is a creature of habit would be the ultimate understatement.
We rode on for about a week, meeting several more of the natives. Very few of them, I’m glad to say, were aggressive. On just one occasion, we had to retreat to the Beast quickly under the threat of spears. The rest of the natives greeted us with anything between indifference and enthusiastic hospitality that we responded to in kind. Miss Tennant’s expertise in dealing with these people, and Margaret’s anthropological knowledge, were invaluable in our negotiations. We had several photograps of expedition members to show them, and on two occasions Hammond and his explorers were recognised. My intuition that Hammond would make for the rock formation I had spotted from so far away was proven correct. Mr. Nazeem proved to be of much use in our dealings with the natives, being able to perform feats of magic that dazzled the uneducated. While I am certain that all of it was simple trickery, I must admit that I could not find a reasonable explanation for several of his feats. When left to himself, he would sit on top of the Beast, meditating. Occasionally, he would advise us to change course. On several occasions, we found some kind of trace of Hammond’s expedition, such as broken or discarded items, camp fires put out, tent pegs left in the ground, or more worryingly, spent rifle cartridges. We did not find any bodies though, so we had to conclude that they had been able to fend off any attackers.
Every day, when possible, we would find a clear area and search the sky for a sign of Boreas. It had been twelve days since we parted ways, so they had a few more days to find us. If we saw them, we would use a heliograph to signal them. By night, if we would see Boreas‘ lights in the sky, we could use signal flares or the Aldis lamp. In any case, we had enough provisions on board to last us for three weeks, and we could always supplement our provisions by hunting or gathering edible plants.
On the twelfth day, we came upon a hut unlike those that the natives tended to build. In fact, it had a distinctly European look, was large enough for some two dozen people to sit in, and had a bell tower on one end. Margaret, who was on lookout duty at the time, stopped the Beast, and pointed.
“Is it Sunday, Wadcroft? Better put on your best pith helmet. It’s a church!”
“Halleluiah,” I said. “A sign of civilisation. We are saved!”
“Hope they’re not Catholics,” said Miss Tennant. “I’m no-nonsense C of E.”
By now the procedure for approaching a settlement was well-rehearsed. We approached cautiously, watched over by Klemm and his soldiers. The shepherd of this unlikely flock turned out to be a Pentecostal Christian named Father Nathaniel. Upon seeing us, he cordially invited us into his church, even Nazeem, who looked uneasy. Perhaps the Spirits didn’t like him fraternising with infidels – something like that. Father Nathaniel’s church was simple, furnishings made out of wood, a skillfully carved crucifix, an altar fashioned from a large solid block of wood. The communion wine was made from local fruits, the wafers baked from yams. It was strange, in this hot, humid jungle, to be sitting in actual pews, singing the well-known hymns, praying the Lord’s Prayer as though we would step outside to find ourselves back in Ipswich. I glanced at Miss Tennant, who was sitting next to Margaret, eyes closed, hands folded. I must confess that I am not a regular churchgoer, but every time I go, I emerge feeling fresh, having thought about things less concrete than data, figures, chemical reactions, and with the fleeting notion that I should do this more often.
The familiar rituals drew to an end, and Father Nathaniel joined us outside, moving from one to the other chatting, until he came to Andrew, who was sitting on a bench, a cup of tea in his massive hands, staring ahead of him, pieces of metal no doubt revolving in his mind.
“Good day my son,” said Father Nathaniel. “I didn’t see you at communion. Doesn’t your church have this ritual? Are you a Quaker perhaps?”
I saw Andrew withdraw from the universe in his mind, to the here and now.
“I don’t have a church,” he said.
Father Nathaniel’s eyes opened wider, and I moved a bit closer. Andrew and the ineffable don’t mix well. Though he was baptised of course, his parents, may they rest in peace, stopped taking him to church, knowing that it would only confuse a soul like his, a creature of pure mechanics.
“Have you not accepted Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?”
“No Sir,” said Andrew.
“Why not? Your immortal soul is in peril every moment you tarry.”
“This year is ____,” said Andrew. “People do not live that long, so I could not speak to him, nor enter into an agreement with him.”
“But Jesus lives on even today! Unless you repent of your sins and accept Him, you may burn for eternity!”
“I wear protective clothing,” said Andrew.
“There is no protective clothing in Hell, my child,” said Father Nathaniel.
“That is against University Rules,” said Andrew, with a finality that hit like a stroke of doom. “Protective clothing is mandatory in the forges.”
Margaret noticed the tone of Father Nathaniel’s voice, and wandered over.
“But…” I could see Father Nathaniel spinning up the apologist engines, so to speak. “You are obviously a man of science. How, without knowing the Maker, can you know anything?”
“By measuring, and calculating, and drawing, and building,” said Andrew. “The Maker has not made himself known to me. I have not, so far, required his assistance. I have no evidence that he exists.”
“Then let me prove it to you,” said Father Nathaniel.
Now if there is one thing that really gets my hackles up, it’s when someone sets out to prove the existence of a supernatural being by means of reason or physical evidence. It’s impossible. Suggesting that we have, so to speak, found the Toe of God, and can elicit a celestial chuckle out of Him by tickling it, borders on the blasphemous. His existence was never meant to be proven, it was meant to be taken as, strangely, a matter of faith.
“Tell me,” said Father Nathaniel. “Is it impossible for the God of the Bible to exist?”
“I have insufficient data,” said Andrew. “I have not read the Bible.”
“Then let me describe Him to you. He is all-powerful, knows all that is, has been or will be. He is all-merciful, all just, all good, and he made us all. It is written that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. Without God, we can know nothing.”
Andrew nodded. “In that case, yes. It is impossible. An all-knowing being cannot be all-powerful, since he is powerless to affect what will be, as that is known already.”
Father Nathaniel frowned. “Time does not mean to God what it means to you or me, my child. He exists outside of Time, and is not restricted. He knows what is, and what might be. Which of those is which is not ours to speculate about. Only God knows. The Bible teaches this.”
Andrew frowned. “That does not affect the argument. If…”
“Let me ask you this. Out of all the knowledge in existence, how much do you posses?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what I don’t know, and cannot compare it to what I do know.”
“Would you say that you have one hundredth of all knowledge? One thousandth?”
“The data I have are not sufficient to answer that question.”
Father Nathaniel leaned forward, smiling. I was starting to dislike the Reverend more and more with each passing minute. It takes a special kind of man to travel to a place as far away as Africa, and tell the natives that they are wrong about all they believe. I believe the distance between them and sensible people is a good thing, but their proximity to unsuspecting natives? Less so.
“Could you be wrong about everything you claim to know, Andrew?”
Andrew considered a moment. “No.”
“Really? Do you think everybody’s reasoning is valid?”
“No, I don’t,” said Andrew. “People are sometimes wrong.”
“So how do you know that you are not wrong? Can you trust the evidence of your eyes and ears?”
“Yes,” said Andrew.
“I’ll show you you can’t,” said Father Nathaniel.
He picked up a stick, drew a few lines in the sand. You’ve probably seen it. Two parallel lines with at their ends arrows pointing out and arrows pointing in. The eye is thus tricked into thinking that one is longer than the other.
“Which one of these lines is longer?”
Andrew looked, pointed. “That one.”
“Ha! No it isn’t. Both lines are the same length!”
Andrew shook his large head. “No they are not. The line closest to you is eight millimeters longer than the other.”
“No, it only looks like that to you. The eye is fooled by the context of the arrow heads, proving that…”
Andrew gently took the Father’s stick out of his hand, and held it up to the longer line, marking it with his thumb. Then, he held it next to the other line. There was an unmistakable gap between the end of the line and Andrew’s blackened thumbnail. Andrew gave Father Nathaniel’s stick back to him.
“Nevertheless, you can’t be absolutely sure about anything, unless you receive the knowledge from the all-knowing God. God does not lie, and without him, our knowledge lacks a foundation.”
Margaret gave Father Nathaniel a friendly smile, the one she usually uses to trick people into thinking she’s harmless.
“There must be some kind of foundation, somewhere in the spirit of Man, Father.”
“No, there is nothing,” said Father Nathaniel. “If you don’t base your knowledge on the fear of the Lord, you will inevitably be deceived, by your own ignorance or by the Evil One.”
“How would you know?” said Margaret. “If the glory of God has not been revealed to you yet, then you can’t know if any revelation comes from Him, or from the Devil.”
“From the Bible,” said Father Nathaniel. “The Bible is the Word of God, and so can you know the truth.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Even if you do receive your knowledge directly from the Almighty, how do you know you interprete it correctly? If I were to pray for the number of stars in the sky, I could not possibly contain the number in my mind.”
Margaret laughed. “And how do you know you have the right Bible? There is a very old copy of the Scriptures that says ‘Thou shalt commit adultery’. They’re worth a mint! The poor bugger who wrote it got fined three-hundred quid and his license torn up.”
“That is impossible,” said Father Nathaniel. “God protects his Word, so that its truth and beauty are preserved. Who told you about this?”
“Seen it myself,” said Margaret. “It’s on display in the British Library.”
“Are you sure of this? How can you be certain that this is not some kind of fake?”
“That’s an excellent question,” I said.
At this point, Miss Tennant walked up and coughed. “Father? May I trouble you for a confession?”
Father Nathaniel dropped his stick, and got up, smoothing his robes. “Of course, my child. Follow me.”
“Saved by the bell,” Margaret said as she watched them go.
“Pompous ass,” I said.
Andrew frowned. “He has not completed his argument. Is there really someone who points out mistakes in people’s calculations? That would be most useful.”
“The short answer to that, Andrew, is no,” I said. “There are many excellent reasons to believe in God, but none of them are scientific, and none of them involve Him pointing out mistakes in our homework.”
Andrew had stoked up the furnaces, and the Beast stood trembling, eager for more miles to feed on. Miss Tennant came walking out of the church with an expression like stone on her face. Without a word, she climbed into the Beast, and took up her seat next to Andrew’s. Margaret strapped herself into the other chair. She leaned over to Miss Tennant, touched her arm.
“Did he tell you anything useful, love?”
Miss Tennant looked round at Margaret.
“Platitudes,” was her only word.
Just before we were about to go, Father Nathaniel came walking out of the church. He walked up to Andrew, who was inspecting one of the tracks, and put a hand on his shoulder.
Father Nathaniel handed him a Bible. “Read this, my son, and all your questions will be answered.”
“Thank you, Father,” said Andrew. He climbed aboard, tucked the Bible into a corner of the controls and set the Beast in motion.
Margaret sat there, quietly laughing to herself.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
“That man doesn’t know what he’s done, giving Andrew that Bible. He’ll either end up destroying Christianity, or proving the existence of God up to five decimal places.”
We all started laughing, quietly at first, then louder and louder. Really, it wasn’t that funny a joke, but to us, it was irresistible. Even to Miss Tennant. Do you see what I mean by excellent reasons?
As the days drew on, the mountains drew nearer. It was still quite hot, but no longer as humid as it had been. Nazeem no longer sat on the roof of the Beast, but had moved his mat to the top of the cockpit. Often he would stare ahead with an intense look in his eyes, murmuring prayers, mantras or incantations. We hadn’t met a living soul for days, and the larger trees had disappeared, giving way to thorny bushes. I didn’t envy Hammond, having had to cross this inhospitable place on foot rather than on heavy iron tracks. As I was sitting in my usual lookout spot, under a parasol, Nazeem suddenly stood up.
I nearly fell off the Beast, but Nazeem stood straight and tall, not even swaying. One of these days, I will make a large thesis on the man, explaining in great detail how he does what he does, but today was not that day. Nazeem leapt down to the ground, bent down, picked up a bit of dry, calcium-rich soil and rubbed it onto his forehead, and into his black beard. He started a chant in a very loud voice, and knelt to the ground, pressing his forehead to the yellowish earth. Riley stuck his head out of the hatch.
“Oh great, here we go. The spirits are angry and demand we turn back at once. Bets anyone?”
Nazeem turned round, anger on his face.
“You mock the Spirits of Earth, even as Nazeem implores them safe passage. Do you wish for the Earth to swallow us up?”
“God forbid, said Riley. Better implore some more, just to make sure.”
“Unbeliever,” said Nazeem. He returned to his chanting.
Riley looked down, disappeared inside, and was replaced by Margaret.
“What ho, Wadcroft? Is Master Nazeem having a vision? What do the spirits say?”
“Buggerall,” I said. “To me anyway.”
“Aren’t we lucky to have Mr. Nazeem to talk to them on our behalf?”
As we watched, Nazeem’s chants raised in a crescendo, then suddenly ceased. His kneeling body did not move for a few seconds. Then, he staggered to his feet, and walked unsteadily to the Beast. His face, smeared with light soil, looked weird and inhuman as he held onto the Beast for support.
“We may continue,” he said, his voice shaking. “But Nazeem cannot lead you for a while. He has made a great spiritual sacrifice, and must rest.”
“Well done, Master Nazeem,” said Margaret. She handed him a bottle of water. “Get into one of the bunks. Not the number four.”
Nazeem made a great show of climbing into the Beast, nearly falling down the hatch. He fell into one of the bunks and seemed to pass out. I looked at Riley, who silently clapped his hands.
“Right then”, I said. “All ahead full Andrew.”
We continued on. Thanks to Master Nazeem, we were not swallowed up by the ground. The mountains now seemed a lot taller, and I worried a bit about having to clamber up them at my age. The Beast is a magnificent piece of engineering, but vertical ascents are not what it does best. The landscape became steadily less hospitable. Now and then, we had to change course to avoid deep crevasses in the rocky ground. Once, we stopped and tried to measure how deep they were, which turned out to be over a hundred yards. The geologist in me itched to explore these fissures, but it was not the time. A sense of urgency had come over us. Hammond had not been seen or heard of for several months now, which was against University rules for an expedition. Despite the evidence, I was starting to doubt whether they really came this way.
Miss Alexandra was the first to spot it. She was sitting up top with my binoculars.
“I can see tents!” she shouted, pointing. “West by south west, about ten miles away.”
The tents were set up in two neat rows of six, with one larger tent a little way away. In a spirit of national pride, someone had set up an American flag, but worryingly, it was flying at half mast. Miss Alexandra called down the hatch.
“Hurry up, Andrew, something’s wrong.”
In response, the Beast belched more smoke from its chimneys, and sped up. The wind picked up, and there was a weird, whistling sound in the air. The air was hot, like the draft out of a furnace. The Beast leapt forward, eating up the miles, rushing forward like a horse to the stables. A strange sense of urgency had descended on all of us, a sense of foreboding. At a barked order from Klemm, all the soldiers grabbed their weapons and readied themselves. Even Riley and Margaret quickly checked their revolvers.
Andrew was unshakable. He was moving the Beast at maximum speed, but without risking life and limb. As we approached the camp, we could see tents flapping in the wind, their doors open, sand covering the heavy canvas on the windward side. Inside the camp, nothing human stirred. It looked abandoned, but why would everybody leave and not take any of their equipment? I didn’t like any of the obvious answers.
Like a metal storm, the Beast thundered into the camp, and came to a shuddering stop. The back hatch opened, and Klemm and his Jäger leapt out. They started to go from tent to tent, until they shouted out for their commander.
Klemm marched forward, stiff and straight.
“What have you found?”
Miss Tennant ran forward, her rifle on her back, into the tent. I followed her, somewhat slower. As I approached the tent, Miss Tennant came out again, a tight expression on her face. She ran to another tent, and entered it, only to come out again a few moments later. I looked inside the closest tent, and stopped. On the bunk beds were the dead bodies of expedition members. They were lying on their backs. Their faces were hideous with ulcers, and so were their hands, folded on their chests like they had been laid out that way. I heard a cry from Miss Tennant, near one of the other tents, and looked round.
“I can’t find him!”
“Miss Tennant, please! Come here. We have to be careful…”
“Go to hell. I have to find him.”
Miss Tennant tore open the door to another tent, and disappeared inside. She came out again only a few moments later.
“Where is he? Where is Carl? I have to find him!”
Margaret walked up to her. “Alexandra, calm yourself. We don’t know what these poor people died of, and I don’t want to join them.”
“I need to find Carl,” said Miss Tennant, and walked towards the largest tent.
“Hold! Do not enter that tent!”
Nazeem stood a little way off, hands crossed on his chest. His face looked pale, and he was shivering despite the heat.
“In that tent dwells a spirit beyond the experience of Nazeem. It is like to the Spirit of Fire, but it only burns, and does not warm. What is it that these people have disturbed? It took their lives, and its influence dwells within that tent. Do not enter, I beg of you!”
Riley came walking up. “God damn it Nazeem, cut it with the superstitious nonsense. You don’t believe that yourself and you know it. Do you think we are idiots? What’s in that tent that you don’t want us to see, and more importantly…” Riley’s eyes narrowed at Nazeem. “How do you know it’s there?”
Riley stepped up to the tent and prepared to open it. Nazeem sprang forward, grabbed his arm and threw him back. Riley drew his revolver. At an order of Oberst Klemm, one of the soldiers sprang forward and stepped on Riley’s arm, knocking his revolver out of his hand.
“If there is any violence to be done, meine Herrschafte, it will be I and my Jäger who do it.”
I stepped forward and drew a deep breath. Time for a little shouting.
“Pestilence, War, Famine and Death! Why is Stupidity not among them? Master Nazeem, step back. Riley, don’t be an arse and put away that gun. Everybody, calm down as befits members of the Scientific Society.” I looked round. All round me, people were looking at me. I pointed at the tent.
“We don’t know what is in that tent. Maybe it’s the cause of all this death, maybe it’s not. But we will find out, taking appropriate precautions. From the data we will gather, we will try to determine what has happened here, and what to do next. Margaret, you examine the bodies of the deceased. Miss Tennant, assist her. Klemm, take Nazeem and Riley and search the perimeter of this camp for any tracks. Maybe some of them went to find help. If they did, we may be able to find them. Andrew, fetch the environmental suit from the Beast. Stop running round like headless chickens when there’s work to do. Now go!”
There was a momentary pause, where nobody moved. Then, everyone set off to do their alotted tasks. I’ve led several expeditions, and most of the time, my learned colleagues and friends will know what is expected of them without me having to tell them, with perhaps the occasional nudge in the right direction. But by God, if it becomes necessary to turn that nudge into a shove, then shove I will.
As Andrew lugged the heavy protective suit out of the Beast, there was a shout from the East of the camp, and I ran over to find out what the cause might be. The men were standing in a half-circle. As they opened their ranks for me, I saw three wooden crosses standing side by side. I did not know the names on two of them. The middle one bore the name of James Hammond.
In the failing light of the evening, against the background of the majestic mountains, we all paid our respects to the graves of the expedition members. Klemm and his Jäger had dug the graves for the other dead. With all the rituals seen to, I pulled on the environmental suit with the help of Andrew. This suit was almost like a diving suit, made from gutta-percha, a natural rubber that was getting quite hard to come by these days, with an independent air supply provided by hoses and a pump that Andrew would operate. The helm was made of light thin steel with large windows to the front and sides.
I closed the visor and signalled Andrew to start the pump. Hot dry air started to blow on the back of my head. I slowly opened the tent flap and walked in. Inside the heavy canvas, it was almost dark. The tent would have been large enough for twenty people to sit at tables. Various pieces of equipment were lined up at the sides. The tables were stacked with jars filled with a luminous kind of rock that bathed the interior of the tent in a greenish glow. To one side, I could see large containers with the pitchblende rocks, small lights in them. I vaguely remembered reports of glowing crystals coming from the University of Paris, but to be honest, I considered them curiosities and never gave them much heed. Obviously, Hammond had been more interested, dug a large quantity of them out of the side of the mountain, and here I was, bathed in their radiance. What Hammond saw in them, I could not begin to speculate, so I looked round the tables for any papers that might shed some light on the situation, no pun intended. In the far corner of the tent, I found Hammond’s field notes, and a letter adressed in an unsteady hand to whom it might concern. I took both, and made my way out of the tent. The eerie glow was starting to unsettle me.
Once outside, I handed the papers to Margaret and started to peel off the environmental suit. Margaret was leafing through the journal with a dark expression on her face.
“Anything good, Margaret?” I said.
Margaret sniffed. “Twaddle. Hogwash and poppycock. Gibberish. This is not a scientist’s journal, it’s a horror novel.” She looked up to me with a wry grin. “And those tend to have a juicy romance or two in them. This one doesn’t even have an embarrased glance at anyone’s bottom.”
“Well, you’re the biologist here,” I said. “Hammond’s a geologist. Rocks are famous for their lack of… goings-on.”
Margaret shook her head. “Just look at this, and I quote. From the studies of Professor Pierce, I was able to determine the cause of aging as a gradual decrease in the frequencies at which our bodies resonate in the higher dimensions, as entropy takes its toll and energy becomes unavailable to the functioning mind to use. If we could only replenish these frequencies with fresh radiation from elements only hinted at in the writings of the Ancients… and so forth, and so on.”
I shook my head. “I know all those words. I simply have never heard anyone use them in that particular way. Was Hammond looking for a cure for old age? Good grief.”
Margaret glanced over at the fresh graves. “That would have been nice. I don’t think it worked.”
“What about the letter. Did you see that?”
“Here it is,” said Margaret. “Got distracted by the interesting discourse.”
Margaret held the letter out to me, but before I could take it, Miss Tennant snatched it out of her hand.
“That is Carl’s handwriting!” Miss Tennant stared at the words on the page, swallowed, then started to read.
To whom it may concern,
This is the final report on what happened to the expedition of Professor James Hammond of Miskatonic University, Arkham, America. It is with sadness that I have to report that he has died in the pursuit of science, and has been buried near the mountains that he suspected held the key to a cure for the many maladies that plague Humanity. Whether he was right or wrong, we will never know. Pestilence has caught up with us, and many of our expedition are dead or dying. We do not know the details. Doctor Sigrid Saknussemm has kept comprehensive records, up to the point that she herself succumbed.
Our bearers have deserted us. Half the expedition members are dead, and many more are dying. I myself have noticed the first symptoms. If our experience is any guide, I have a week or two before I too fall victim to this new plague.
If you, Reader, find this letter, then for God’s sake turn back. This place is cursed. I will attempt to reach civilisation, so that I may warn them not to return to this place. I have set off in a Westerly direction, and with God’s help, I will find some soul to hear my story before I die. May God protect you all.
(Signed) Carl Tennant.
Miss Tennant dropped her hand, and looked to the west. Then, she looked at me.
“Please Professor. Help me find him.”
Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.