Day Twenty-eight: Fiat Scientia
There are so many ways you can shape the world in your home.
History is full of men who made new things in their home or their parlor, in small workshops and labs, who changed the world in ways large and small. Humphry Davy and his passion for bringing light into the world. Morse, who eliminated distance. Nobel, who allowed even the faithless to move mountains. And Faraday, who harnessed the lightning itself and bent it to his will.
And that was what these men had: a need, and the will to make that need come true. They made true magic, the kind that used to be granted only to gods. They had a vision of a thing – a new thing that had never existed before in the history of the world, and they made that thing real. They birthed an idea into reality, their will becoming solid and tangible and true.
At 8:35 tonight, I joined their ranks.
I wish to God I hadn’t.
There was a need, I cannot deny that. And I had the will, that much is true. But what I did – was it truly what I needed to do, or merely an extension of my own selfishness, my own self-centered vision of the world?
It began with the letter from Michael. Michael, who never sent letters, who would only call in person no matter how far he had to come on foot or by cab. He held that the only true conversation that humans could engage in was face-to-face. Anything else was sophistry and cowardice.
Of course, this meant that I never knew when to expect him. I would be working in the parlor, tinkering on some device that would be instrumental to doing this thing or that, attaching a new gauge or gear or lever, and he would walk right in. Contrary to his concern about manners, he showed none when he visited. No knock, no announcement, just a, “Charles! What kind of sorcery are you working today?”
He would throw his coat over the back of an antique chair, prop his walking stick against the wall and start asking questions about my latest round of tests and experiments. He poked, he prodded. More often than not, he broke what I was working on, but he always had to touch, to feel things. Explanations were never good enough.
Perhaps, then, the letter informing me of his suicide should not have surprised me as much as it did. In all of our meetings, I never saw any hint of despair, any evidence that he would seek out death the way he did. But his letter suggested otherwise. It spoke of a man who saw the world as so much bigger than he, as a place where events were outpacing even his ability to keep up. I know not what my purpose on this planet is, he wrote, but it terrifies me to think that I have already fulfilled it, that it is insignificant and easily overlooked.
Michael knew that discovery was a gift that could only be handed out once, and every new creation, deduction, invention that was trumpeted from the newspapers was one more that he knew he would never claim as his own. Every time he saw the brilliant minds of our time – and, to my shame, he counted me among them – he felt… reduced. There was one less thing for him to discover.
But, he wrote, there is one discovery that is both open to all and which can only be discovered once. It is the greatest discovery of all, the ultimate knowledge that any person can possess, but which cannot be shared. It is the great discovery of Death which I shall investigate, Charles. I shall face it as Columbus faced the New World or Marco Polo faced the mysterious East. Do not mourn me, Charles. I am off to discover the greatest mystery of man.
But mourn him I did. As soon as I received his letter, I rushed to his home, to find out if it were true. His sister was there, clearing out all that he had owned. It broke my heart to see the things he had collected and saved all thrown into a pile in the front garden to be taken away by junk-dealers and trashmongers. I berated her, an act which I regret. She, like I, was in the throes of mourning, neither of us able to truly understand what this person we loved had done.
Julia was a beautiful woman. I had never considered romance with her – with any woman, truth be told – but to see the pain on her face as she dismantled her brother’s life filled my heart with an ache that would not subside. The misery I felt, I knew, would only be a pale shadow compared to hers.
In one of the boxes, I saw the object which would lead me on the path to glory and damnation. His pocket-watch. He never left his home without it, and would show it off within moments of meeting someone new – especially a young lady. “This watch,” he would say, “was made by the great Thomas Earnshaw himself.” Most times, the young lady would have no idea who Earnshaw was, which provided Michael an opportunity to hold forth on the great advances in maritime navigation that his simple pocketwatch represented.
It wasn’t a beautiful watch, but it kept good time, provided you wound it daily. It was Michael’s most prized possession. He once told me that he felt lost without it. It pained me to think of it sold off to some stranger in a pawn shop.
I took the watch while beautiful Julia dabbed at her eyes. Somehow I knew that this was the thing I needed, even if I did not know what I needed it for.
The next few weeks were torture. I kept expecting him to walk in, to interrupt my work, and found that I couldn’t work at all for the anticipation. I read and re-read that letter he sent, and every time I remembered the look of pain on his sister’s face, the emptiness of the place he called home. I thought of the lived he’d touched – not just mine and hers, but so many others – and my pain and sorrow turned to rage. He had left us all behind on his “adventure.” He had seen the world moving past him, and rather than run to catch up, he just abandoned it. He thought nothing for those who loved him, who needed him in their lives.
I found that need building within me. That need to know, to have answers, to make him answer for what he had done.
Science had proven so many things, turning the mysteries of the world into solid, explainable truths. The lightning from which our ancestors had fled was now understood. The means by which our grain grew and our animals thrived was being forever advanced and improved, without invocations to spirits or gods.
If they were real, and subject to examination, then… Then what of the soul?
That was the question that would not leave my mind as those weeks passed. A dead body is so very different than a living one. A living thing is so very different than a non-living one. There must be something there, a force which we have yet to understand.
A force that could be controlled.
The beginning of my search was haphazard at best, as i looked through vast libraries of natural science, religion, and spiritualism to find a place to start. Finally, I found my foothold in the works of Luigi Galvani, who used electricity to – briefly – re-animate dead tissue. His work suggested that it was electricity that gave the body life.
Perhaps this was it. Perhaps it was electricity that was the tether between the spirit world and ours. Perhaps this was what I needed.
The year that followed was a year of intense study in which I neglected all but my most essential responsibilities. I nearly burned down my own home several times, thanks to experiments gone awry. I discovered new means of working with steel and copper, using them to create better and better electrical conductors. I built great capacitors, capable of holding onto frightening amounts of charge, and nearly lost a hand to the greatest of these.
And at all times I kept the watch with me. Under glass, so that my essence might not taint it as a link between myself and Michael. That was my key and my inspiration. That was how I would bring him back.
Yesterday, I made the last of the connections to the monstrous device that I had conceived. Having grown unmanageably large, I moved it out to the back garden and erected tall fences to keep away the curious. If it worked, they would all know soon enough.
It was elegant, in its way. Two brass-bound telegraph poles, cut short, were each topped with a great torus of steel and copper wire. Great cables entwined their way from bottom to top and down again, linking the towers to a circle of brass and wood that I had set into the slate that had replaced the grass. Etched into the brass ring, about five feet in diameter, was the Latin phrase, “Omnia Mutantur, Nihil Interit” – All things change, but nothing is truly lost.
The words were not essential to the apparatus, of course, but they summed up my feelings rather neatly.
The whole contraption was linked to a generator that stood nearly as tall as myself. Once I started cranking it, a series of reciprocal gear assemblies would increase the applied power, filling capacitor after capacitor, which would eventually all discharge into the towers and the ring itself. Priming the device would take hours, of course.
In the center of the ring, I set the watch. It hung by its chain on an ivory stand, intricately carved and aged to a dull yellow-brown.
All I needed to do was to prime the machine and call my friend.
The next day – today – I got up early. I turned the hand crank for thirty minutes at a time, allowing time to rest so that I would be able to do the real work of the evening. As each capacitor reached its limit, I would check and re-check the connections and the heavy, canvas-wrapped cables. Assured that all was well, I would go back to priming the generator. My impatience was tempered with the need to do it right. I would talk to my friend one more time, and failure would truly be the end of me.
As night fell, the last of the capacitors reached its limit. I locked the crank handle and rubbed my shoulder to relieve the cramping that had set in hours before.
The sky was clear, and the moon hung low among the stars. It was a beautiful night to change the world.
I could feel the stored charges as I approached the apparatus. I had set a single switch onto a tall stand, right outside the bass and wood ring. I had checked it all, once, twice, a hundred times. The watch hung in the center of the ring. There was no better moment. I took a deep breath.
The world exploded when I flipped the switch, and I felt like the hand of God Himself had me in its grasp. Electricity was arcing through the air, from tower to tower and from both towers down to where the watch was placed. I could no longer see the watch, of course – the brilliant incandescence was too much for my eyes.
White light arced all around me, a noise which no human could have described filled the air, and it took a supreme effort of will to change my screams of inchoate terror into words. “MICHAEL!” I screamed, and it was lost in the great roar of the electric towers. I had prepared a script, an incantation-like summons. After all, I was calling upon a spirit to attend me. It seemed appropriate. But I couldn’t remember any of it. All I could remember was his name, and all that came with it. The joy of our amazing friendship. The sorrow of his passing. The rage at the pain he caused. The pity I felt for his poor sister. The need for him, for his answers, which had guided my life. All that energy had built within me, and it needed to go somewhere. It needed a ground.
The noise ceased, but the light did not. It hung in the air, brilliant and terrifying. I was on my knees, not noticing how hot the slate paving was, how my clothes were beginning to smolder. All I could see was that light.
It pulsed and it moved. Waves rippled across it in colors which had no name. With the light came a feeling. A sure and certain knowledge. An answer to a question I had never thought to ask in all my searching for a way to bring Michael back, and even now I cannot say what that question was.
Michael did not appear to me, not as I had expected him to. But he was there. In the light, and around it. And in me. The being which he was now, which was at once identical to and completely different from the man I had known, touched me, surrounded me, and held me. He used no words, but gave me a vision of what I had yearned for, and begged to know. He gave me understanding, in its truest and most elemental form. He gave me his love, and his memories, and all that he had been and would ever be.
And I understood.
He had taken that last great step, embarked on the greatest adventure, and come back to tell the tale of it. But the tale he told was a riddle, a feeling just beyond understanding. It was a tale that could not truly be known until you were ready to tell it yourself.
And it was wonderful.
The light winked out as the last of the capacitors gave up its charge. I was burned where my skin had been exposed, but I don’t care about that now. Michael’s watch was reduced to a puddle of metal, but I had no more need for it. There are men in my garden, men from the city who are very concerned with my apparatus and how it works. And I don’t care.
Something wonderful is waiting for me. I know this for a fact.
At 8:35 this evening, I made the greatest discovery in human history. It could change the world for all time.
It’s all I can do not to kill myself.