Life Among the Savages, Part 20.
[NOTE: If you want to start from the beginning, here's Part 1 or, if you reject linear storytelling, here's a link to all the parts so you can choose for yourself.]
I felt the closing of the hatch above me as a wave of concussive force, much in the same manner as one both hears and feels a cannonade when in close proximity to the battery, and the sound of its shutting reverberated through wherever it was that I now found myself falling. That I was, in fact, falling, there could be no doubt; all the appropriate sensual indicators of falling were present – the forceful upward rushing of wind, the weightlessness coupled with an inescapable downward momentum, the mounting nausea. I felt myself hurtling through space, spread-eagled as it were, clutching my lanthorn in my right hand. Beyond that significant change, however, my surroundings seemed nearly identical to the cabinet itself. Indeed, I wondered if I had truly left the cabinet, or merely escaped to a lower level of that same eldritch construction, as the pervasive darkness enveloped me on this side of the hatch as well, and the light of my lanthorn penetrated no farther here than it had above. I could not see or hear Spiegel, though if he had been making any sound, the rush of air around me would almost certainly have drowned it out.
One could say, if so inclined, that my circumstances had become neither better nor worse, but merely different, exchanging some details with others for no “net gain” of security or benefit. And, as I fell through the ink-like blackness of this new, but unfortunately familiar, expanse, I felt an equivalent inclination to agree with such an assessment. True, the malevolent gurgling thing which had stalked me through the cabinet’s interior (or first level, had I not yet escaped the widow von Kant’s strange artifact) was no longer an immediate threat. In its place, however, was this attenuated fall, already abnormal in its duration. I felt no ill effects thusfar; the overall sensation was actually quite pleasant, and beyond the possibility of windburn, I foresaw no injury from a protracted fall alone. Pleasant fall or not, though, this fall was still a fall, and as even the most rudimentary observation of the physical world will prove, all falls eventually stop, often with profound suddenness, much to the detriment of that which is engaged in falling. Suffice it to say: my prospects were not good.
The curious irony of my situation was such that I felt no dread about my fate. Though I might impact myself upon some surface at any moment, the nature of the expanse provided no visible clues as to when that collision might occur. Further, given that I had already been falling for some time – I had no watch to consult, but I hazarded somewhere between three and seventeen minutes had transpired between my leap through the hatch and the full realization of my circumstance – it was safe to presume that I had accumulated considerable momentum (assuming the law of gravity applied here as it did elsewhere on earth, which I admit was rather cavalier of me!). Only one conclusion could be drawn: as long as the current conditions persisted, if I ever did reach the ground, or the floor, or whatever awaited me at the end of this fall, my end would by virtually, and mercifully, instantaneous.
I realize that resignation to such a grim fate might seem alien or even distasteful, my faithful readers, and I admit a certain strangeness in the memory even as I recount it. Facing certain death with an eerie calm is not a state that most people experience, and fewer still seek out opportunities to do so. When one lives a life of great risk and adventure, as I do, the chances of finding oneself in such circumstances increase dramatically, and as with any activity, repetition makes even the most unnatural things more commonplace. Though it often lasts only until the immediate crisis has been averted, I have found that extreme danger often provokes a great clarity of mind.
As it was, the lack of immediate threat to my person, and the relentless, even soothing sound of the upward rush of wind induced in me a state of contemplation. Of course, I cannot discount the benefits of my natural scientific curiosity in this case. A less inquisitive person may have found himself shrieking in terror as he plummeted through the void, barely maintaining a grip on his lanthorn, that mundane object acting as his last tether to a comprehensible world and even his very sanity as he hurtled through blackest space toward mysteries he could not hope to fathom (though I’m sure, as the eldritch nature of the expanse revealed itself, and his throat became inflamed and raw from prolonged bouts of screaming, he would eventually find calm, and settle into much the same sort of rumination as I did almost immediately). I, on the other hand, was very quickly enraptured by this new domain and its unique, even marvelous qualities.
Hypothesizing that my current velocity and rushing pressure of the air as I fell would provide support regardless of how my limbs were arrayed, I endeavored to change my bodily position, making adjustments so that I might rotate onto my back. The first rotation took quite a while to accomplish, as I was perhaps erring on the side of over-cautiousness, but soon enough I found myself reversed, my face tingling at the absence of wind rather than its presence. The sensation was not unlike floating on one’s back in a large body of water, albeit without the accompanying wetness. I stayed on my back for some time, until the natural state of wanting to see the direction in which I was traveling (no matter how unrewarding that perspective might be) overcame my desire for novel experience. I rotated myself several more times for shorter intervals, to become more familiar with the process in case it revealed some utility later in my fall, but eventually the persistent downward motion and axial turning conspired to unsettle my stomach, and I ceased my aerial “tricks” before they had more unpleasant consequences.
Some time after my experiments in motion through the expanse, I perceived a very slight change in my velocity. Lacking instruments to gauge such matters, I could not say for certain, but I felt as if I had begun to decelerate. Naturally, this conflicted directly with all we know about gravity and the laws of natural motion. Further, I could very well have grown accustomed to the fall and was imagining some change in speed that did not in fact exist. At the same time, given the peculiarities of the widow’s cabinet – many of which this expanse clearly shared – I felt some latitude might be given to the idea those usually trustworthy laws might be, if not broken, then at least bent to varying degrees. A strong argument could be made that wherever I was, I was no longer bound by the rules Science had established.
The existence of a terrifying, seemingly limitless void that ran counter to humanity’s understanding of the universe naturally reminded me of my father. Always the polymath, he had many ideas about the workings of the physical world, just as he did about the mechanisms of the human mind. He was not a critic of Sir Isaac Newton – “He has many good ideas, especially for a mathematician,” he proclaimed on more than one occasion – but felt that the Newtonian laws, while they were solid general rules and an excellent springboard for further work in the field of physics, did not address the special cases which abounded in nature. Those special cases were the instances to which attention needed to be paid, for they were the instances most likely to spawn contradiction and confuse “the more soft-skulled members of the human race, especially those who lack ample opportunity for self-betterment.”
My father did not indulge in any personal experimentation vis-á-vis the physical sciences, preferring to speculate and test his own hypotheses in areas of knowledge more familiar to him. Instead, he set himself up as a patron of physical scientists, dispensing modest portions of his own estate to further the work of others as they probed various terrestrial and aetheric mysteries. Chief among the beneficiaries of my father’s magnanimity was Doctor Lannister Hood, who made frequent visits to our city home during my more childish years.
Dr. Hood’s visits were met with great enthusiasm from the entirety of the household. Father, of course, wished to “talk shop” with the man, but also enjoyed his company as a young and exuberant bachelor. So too my mother, who was at best tolerant and at worst greatly vexed by most of the scientists my father sponsored, listened eagerly as Dr. Hood recounted his tales of his experimental failures and successes and the journeys required to secure various substances and equipment necessary for the completion of the same. Hood’s work always required exotic chemicals or machines, or the rarefied expertise of some far-off artisan or alchemist, so he was never ill-equipped for tales. (Nor was he ill-equipped for money; in retrospect, I believe my father enjoyed Hood’s company so much because Hood was largely supported by his own estate and inheritance, and thus conflicted with my father’s frugality far less frequently than most of the other learned men he endowed.)
My brother and I were equally enthralled by the good doctor’s stories, and as the more perceptive amongst my readership will have already noted, I am certain his accounts of life as an itinerant gentlemen scientist and seeker of knowledge influenced me and contributed to the long and picaresque chain of events that have culminated in my current circumstance. However, as engrossing and thrilling as his stories were, there was another moment which my brother and I anticipated even more fervently. After Dr. Hood had arrived in our foyer, servants having towed the various cases and trunks that contained his equipage, and with booming voice greeted us all, and pleasantries had been distributed in the sitting room over comestibles, and an exciting tale or two had been told, Dr. Hood would clasp his hands together, lean toward my brother and myself and ask with a rakish grin: “Which one of you would like to assist me with my latest experiment?”