Saturday, November 24, 2012

By request: the Steampunk Story, or "How Dave Came to Own That Thing in a Jar"

The story of the Thing in a Jar is written as a letter from an old (fictional) pen pal from Dave's childhood. It's a bit of an anachronism in that it's meant to convey the feeling and style of the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, HG Wells, and HP Lovecraft, but Dave is only 43! It's the first thing I've written in this style, and I wouldn't put it in my "top ten", so to speak, but I think it's a good start. So, enjoy!

Hello, old friend.

I wonder if you still remember me. We stopped writing to each other a long time ago, and I’m not sure if a childhood pen pal is exactly the right person to entrust with these items, but really, you are my last hope. Allow me to explain.

I don’t have time here to cover in detail all the events that have happened since our last letters to each other-- prep school, Oxford, marriage to a lovely girl, and a career in scientific research that allowed me to travel to some of the darkest reaches of the globe. I have a story that you must hear and time is running out.

The reason I was in that underground cavern is hard to explain to a layman. More difficult still to explain are the horrible creatures I was looking for. You know that in the absence of the Sun’s light and fresh, wholesome air, organisms can ferment and grow, their shapes twisting and changing. That Darwin fellow calls it “evolution”, and maybe the term works with his little birds. But the hideous monstrosities that fester and feed underground in the dark are not evolved – the opposite, in fact! In my scientific circle, we call them “mutants”.

My team had discovered evidence in the area: signs of feeding and other activity. But when I proposed going into the cavern, the idea was met with resistance. ‘Some things better left alone’, and that sort of nonsense. I tell you, it makes one wonder what is happening to the British spine, to see those calling themselves “men of science” turn into absolute jellyfish when confronted with noises in the dark. With my satchel over my shoulder, my pistol at my side, and my lantern held aloft, I entered the cavern alone.
The pathway was twisting and maze-like. My capital sense of direction only just kept me from becoming hopelessly lost as I wended my way in.  It was a filthy mess, littered with scraps of bone and bits of detritus everywhere, and the stench was enough to turn even a Welshman’s stomach.

I could hear scrambling, scratching noises in the near distance as I progressed deeper. It seemed my quarry was aware of my approach, and was just keeping ahead of me. Well and good, I thought. This cavern has to end somewhere, and then I’ll have you and we’ll see what is what.

And I was right. Eventually I reached a point where I could go no farther. The space opened up into a sort of chamber, and there, huddled in the corner and hissing like a cat, was the creature I’d been pursuing. It was ugly beyond description, looking something like my neighbor’s pet bulldog choking on a lizard, with tentacle-like appendages. As I got closer to take a more careful scrutiny of its god-forsaken visage, it made a sudden leap at me. I drew my pistol and fired a shot directly into its brain, dropping it in its tracks.

Once I was sure that life’s intricate processes were no longer at work in the thing’s corpus, I opened my satchel, withdrawing my field surgeon’s kit. As I leant forward to take tissue and hair samples that I would later study at my lab, the creature gave a sudden writhe. I soon discovered that the wretch was a gravid female, perhaps only days from delivering her pestilent offspring. A few quick strokes of my scalpel opened her up, and I drew forth three little things. Ugly things. But scientifically beautiful things! They would be the treasures of my research! I carried them out of the cave in a cloth sack, back to my tent. There I tried as best I could to keep them alive, but despite my efforts they were very feeble by nightfall and dead by morning. It was a disappointment, for live subjects are always best, but these things do happen. I popped each into a specimen bottle, covered it in formaldehyde to prevent decay as much as possible, and packed them carefully into a case of wood shavings. I had them shipped home, where I would be able to make detailed examinations in the fullness of time.

Two months later I returned to England. The crate was waiting for me in my lab, along with an unholy stench.  Unpacking the crate, I discovered that one of the bottles had broken during shipment and the liquid had drained, allowing the contents to rot. Two were left, and they were perfect, floating serenely in their formaldehyde baths. 

A colleague, Quentin Watford, stepped in from the hallway to welcome me back. “Good to have you back with us, Pelham,” he said. “Maybe now you can explain the scintillating aroma exuding from that mysterious crate. Entire floor’s been leaving windows open for a month. Getting quite drafty, what?”

I excitedly showed him the two remaining specimens, setting them like matched bookends on my desk.

“Good Christ!” he gasped, leaning in for a closer look. “What on earth are those wretched things?”

I told him my tale as we carried the odiferous crate, its broken contents, and the soiled shavings down to the incinerator to be burnt. 

Watford was intrigued, declaring they would positively be the highlight of any scientific exhibition at which they were displayed.

Things get tricky now, old man, but stay with me.  When I returned to my desk, I had the distinct impression the things in their bottles were looking at me. It’s an odd but familiar enough sensation to anyone who has spent time with a bottled menagerie; something about all those dull eyes floating there in the clouded yellowish solution. I picked up one bottle and tapped my fingernail on the glass, smiling --and may the Devil take me if the creature didn’t blink.

It was alive! But how could it be? After two months in a sample jar, with no oxygen or other natural sustaining force – and I swear on my honor as one of the Queen’s loyal subjects that the thing had been stone cold dead when it was put in the jar.

Nervous reflexes, you say? After two months of soaking in formaldehyde? The solution should have stiffened the membranes beyond the twitches of mere residual electrical impulses, if indeed it were possible for those impulses to occur so long after death.
I called out for Watford.

When he arrived, I picked up the bottle to show him. I’m sure he thought I was completely mad, but when I tapped –-there it was again, that blink! -- his pipe dropped from his mouth.  With trembling hands, he took the jar from me, regarding the thing inside with even more curiosity than before.

“Pelham, this is utterly unique!” He cried. “How could it possibly be so? Returning to life from death is remarkable enough, but to do so in a sealed jar filled with a poisonous chemical preservative? And it’s been two months!” His eyes narrowed with suspicion. “All right – you got me. What’s the trick?”

I assured him there was no trick, that I was as astounded as he in every respect. I had called him in only to confirm what I had seen, to make sure my travel-wearied brain wasn’t playing tricks on me.

“You see what this can mean?” He said. “This little thing holds the secret of resurrection in its mutated form. Think of what we can learn from it! The future of medical science will never be the same!” He slumped, sitting on the edge of my desk and cradling the specimen jar.

He begged me to let him have one to study. He offered me money, quite a lot of it. There was a look in his eyes that concerned me, and I began to feel protective of the ugly little things. I had brought them into this world, after all, in a bloody sort of way. They were mine. Taking my specimen back from him, I made excuses and not-very-subtle-y pushed him out of my lab.

I put the creatures into a cabinet and locked it tight, then prepared to take my leave for the day. At the last moment, I decided to take one home so I could spend the weekend making some preliminary sketches and notes before beginning serious study of the two on Monday.

When I returned to my work the following week, I was met in the hallway by a sheepish-looking Watford.

“Don’t be cross, old fellow,” he began, “But I had some extra time on my hands over the weekend and wanted to take a better look at your latest acquisitions. I’ve made some notes we can discuss later this morning. Mind-boggling stuff, absolutely.”

I unlocked the door and surveyed my lab. The wretch had done far more than look, and that was certain – the place was an absolute shambles: papers and books scattered everywhere, chairs overturned, bottles of chemical tipped, with the contents leaking and dripping. And in the corner, the cabinet where I had so carefully stashed my specimen, with the lock broken open.

Furious, I turned on Watford. Of course he denied everything. He had only picked the lock, and had returned the creature to its place last night, he said. I made my way through the debris and turned back the cabinet door, now hanging on a single hinge.

The specimen was gone.

There was an inquest, inspectors and constables pawing and trammeling over and through my laboratory and study. Watford maintained his innocence and despite my protests, managed to keep his position at the facility. The specimen was never found.

A few months have passed since then. I have developed the habit of carrying the second specimen back and forth with me, to and from work.  I have no doubt that if I left it unattended for any length of time, Watford would have it in an instant. He no doubt managed to drop or contaminate the other, and tried to cover up his shenanigans with the appearance of a false break-in. This last surviving representative, with its astonishing viability, must be kept safe at all costs.

There is no one I can trust it to here; the small publicity brought on by the criminal investigation has made it a coveted object to my professional colleagues, all of whom seem desperate to open it up and cut it to bits to satisfy their indiscriminate curiosity. Unbelievable foolishness that they should want to kill it to see why it lives.

And so, I have instructed my solicitors to have it delivered to you in America upon my death, in the hopes that you will find it as astounding and worthy of protection and observation as I did. 

Ever your faithful friend,
T Pelham

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