Collected Letters of Francis St. James, Letter 6 |



Collected Letters of Francis St. James, Letter 6

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First day after the island

Professor Zakharov:

As always, I shall begin this missive with apology - the difference in this case is that I wish to apologize not for the lengthy gaps in my correspondence (though such gaps are undeniable), but for the breathless and, I expect, somewhat ‘informal’ nature of what is to follow. I am quite beside myself with excitement; my mind overflows with ideas and images and, I must confess, even poetry (a discipline that I have, to date, tended to shun as being inimical to the pure science that I love), for the sights that I have seen in the last 24 (I believe that is the measure - time has seemed slippery of late, and even my father’s pocket watch has not proved immune to these effects) hours have made my heart and spirits soar.

I will attempt to begin with the cold science of what I have seen, to be dispassionate and to explain the simple facts of what I have found on this, the first island in the magnetic sea. To begin, the journey itself, from ship to island, was no small endeavor. Though certain of the crew are sympathetic to my position, when we arrived at the island itself, I found that there was no one who could spare the time to transport myself and my effects from ‘ship to shore.’ I was instead forced to beg the surly Preston Reingold (who has styled himself as quartermaster or bosun or whomever is in charge of such things) to make use of the ship’s dinghy for a time. After extracting a solemn promise from Glasikis (ever since learning my full name, he has treated me with an oddly reverential respect - I feel he will prove himself a good friend) that the ship would remain until my return, I loaded my bottles and nets and notebooks into the dinghy, and made for the shore. I will pass over the disaster that was my journey - I will maintain that a sea of water is, no doubt, far easier to row ‘pon than one of magnetism - and say only that I made landfall after a time, and found myself in a most wondrous place.

The ‘beach’ itself was made, not of sand, as is typical, but of a fine rust that squeaked and crunched ‘neath my feet; the air smelled of iron and ozone and, save for the sounds of my footsteps, and the faint echoes of the crew (in the midst of another carouse, I trust), all was silent and perfect. I did not immediately spy any signs of life, either floral or faunal. In the dim light (the previously darkened sky had acquired a notable glow above the island) I could espie that, beyond the beach, rolling hills of iron and nickel rose towards a plateau; I determined to make for it, reasoning that, since I had seen no life in the magnetic sea during our journey, it would be futile to search for the same at sea’s edge. I quickly packed some sample jars, chymicals, notebooks and a light repast in my rucksack, brandished a torch (for it was quite dark) and started off. It was eerie and (forgive the poetic intrusion) beautiful. The sky was black and aglow and drifting rust-motes sparkled in crimson and ochre; my footsteps rang dull ‘pon the brazen hills. Some might find the surround bleak, but it filled my blood with a wild thrill - to be the first, perhaps, to set human foot on these strange surfaces! Ah, that is something, is it not?

After a hike that lasted no more than an hour, but which left me breathless and flushed (I fear my time on the ship has had a negative effect on my constitution), I crested the rim of the plateau and found, to my delight, that the island was nowhere near as lifeless as I had thought. That said, what I found on the plateau is like no life or ecosystem that I have yet seen. What I first noticed were what seemed to be vast mounds of rusted machinery - I confess that this filled me with some dismay - my earlier thrill of discovery was belied by what seemed clear evidence of man’s presence. A closer investigation of these mounds revealed something quite different: while having an undeniably mechanical component - gears and springs and coiled servopods abounded - there was yet something quite organic about the mounds. Where the mounds met the ground, rusted stalks twined and burrowed ‘neath the steely surface, and I could detect a distinct pulsation flowing ‘cross the stalks, as if something were being drawn up from the metallic surface and into the hearts of the mounds. And, crowning each mound, what I had previously thought to be bent remnants of antennae or clothes hangers was instead something rather different: flowers are the closest I can come to describing them, though they were like unto no flowers I have ever seen - delicate spires of metallic thread huddled about a rusted stem and fluttered, as if in a gentle breeze that was wholly absent. They were clearly alive.

I was able to secure several specimens of these flowers (the mounds themselves were far too large to transport, even had I secure the assistance of the entire crew) and plan on a thorough examination; my initial impression however, is that they somehow allow these ‘plants’ to feed ‘pon the magnetic fields that swirl about them and, by making use of some manner of magnetosynthesis, produce the energy required to harvest the metals from the ground, to grow, to thrive. It is unlike anything I have seen or read about, this strangely mechanical life, and I cannot help but wonder if, in its clearly mechanistic nature, it is somehow closer to the true and real essence of the universes that we both seek.

(As an aside, in service of this quest, I am beginning the construction of a second machine. While the first rendered essences in the form of charts and graphs, this will strive to produce an auditory output, a music of the mechanical spheres, if you will. I believe it will be more amenable to interpretation than the impenetrable scribbles that are all I have yet extracted from my first machine. And besides, the feather that I had used as the subject of my experiments has vanished; I am loathe to continue experimenting when the conditions have changed.)

But I have left my most astounding discovery for the end: the ‘plants’ that I found ‘top the plateau were not that region’s sole inhabitants. Swirling and whirling through the air above were strange creatures that I will attempt to describe (my pictures may do them greater justice, though their artistic merits are, to be sure, debatable). Imagine a fish: a small plump one, all puffed with pride and covered with spikes - the very opposite of one of those slim, sleek fellows that are so tasty when smoked, fried and served next to a heaping pile of broiled tomatoes; now give that same fish a metallic sheen quite different from the silvery, scaly surface that is the norm. Up to that point, you have something odd, but not unrecognizable. The final detail though, proves the most distinctive: where an ordinary fish sports fins, these creatures have great billowing sails, made of some material that flows like quicksilver. As far as I can tell, it is by virtue of these sails that they ‘swim’ through the air, harnessing the power of the magnetic fields to caper and soar about the island, darting from ‘flower’ to ‘flower’ where they alight - a momentary and odd motion that would remind me of butterflies were everything else not so very different - and appear to ‘feed’ upon some emanation from the ‘plants.’

I wish that I were able to report success in capturing a specimen of these creatures (to call them ‘fish’ would be an inaccuracy and an injustice), but in my haste to set out from the beach, I neglected to pack my nets. I made haste to return to the shore, with the intent of rectifying this error, revisiting the plateau, and capturing at least one of these creatures for further study. Alas, when I reached the dinghy, I heard raised voices and shouts coming ‘cross the water, and saw lights flashing from the ship’s bow in the pattern Glasikis and I had agreed upon previously, indicating that I was to return at once. After an exhausting passage, I reboarded the ship, to find the crew on the verge of setting sail. My protests and pleas for more time ashore fell on deaf ears, and not a quarter hour passed before I was bidding the island a sad fairwell.

Despite the disappointing end to my first ‘expedition,’ I find myself heartened and filled with expectation. The discoveries that I made are, I feel, revolutionary, both in my assumed field of naturalism, and in my vocation of Mechanistic Philosophy. I can only hope, as I sit here typing, feeling the homesickness that I had thought banished by the thrill of scientific discovery creep back into my bones, that more such discoveries await me in the course of our voyages. Until such a time that more wonders appear, I remain

Your student,
Francis St. James

P.S. I opened your parting gift, and I must confess, it leaves me in a state of agitated confusion. What does it mean? ‘The End?’ To what use did you intend me to make of this object? What will happen when I depress the lever? I am, of course, grateful, as always, for your generosity, but this gift is puzzling in the extreme. Should you get a chance, please, send some sort of explanation or, better yet, instructions.