My Dear Rackham,
Indulge me for a moment while I paint a scene:
A seaside hilltop, its southern face very nearly a cliff, descending steeply into the surf. An abandoned observatory, once a jewel of the Society, now useful primarily as a defensible position. Me, on the roof, enjoying a moment’s quiet with my sketchbook. The sky, clear for once, with rays of sunshine filtering through puffy white clouds … as pretty a day as one could wish for, as if the heavens remain ignorant of all that has transpired below. I look north, and my heart leaps, for I perceive what seems at first just a horizontal line, an em dash written on cumulus, but gradually resolves into a nimble vehicle beginning its descent. Angelic Alia’s aero swoops down from the sky, its wings rotating on their axes at the last second, propellers emerging, allowing her impossible contraption to suspend nestled against our improvised mooring mast on the roof.
And so I find I must once again write in haste, as she is with us for only a short time. It had occurred to me more than once to begin writing earlier in anticipation of her arrival, thereby giving you a much more detailed account of everything that has transpired here. Alas, this was not to be: far too much has been going on, and most nights I collapse asleep before my head hits the wadded-up jacket that passes for my pillow.
So then, to business: the autopsies. Both of them were baffling in entirely different ways. Smythe’s internal organs had gradually liquefied in a manner consistent with extreme heat, as if he had melted from the inside out. I had noted an extreme fever in his last hours, to be sure, but nothing that could account for the condition of his innards. Dodgson’s was an even more peculiar case. Imagine the heart and lungs of an Olympian athlete in his prime, and then extend that image to the very edge of your credulity. That is what I found inside him: the very heart of a Hercules, in perfect condition. It was as if some new, impossible strength had swelled within him, but the rest of his body was unprepared for the transformation. He had ruptures up and down his entire cardiovascular system, and died from internal cranial bleeding.
I have included notes of a more clinical nature, as well as my sketches. Dr. Bennington may find them interesting, but I leave it to your judgment whether she can be trusted with such information.
It seems that nearly everyone in proximity to the stone has been affected. My own nightmares continue but I have had no recurrence of the strange perceptions I related in my last letter — at any rate, none that I can easily separate from my dreams. Robards, though, has been fine and reports nothing unusual. Strange.
Our primary occupation this past week has been fighting off attacks that I wish I could chalk up to fevered imaginings, but alas, are all too real. Theriocephic hybrids, part rat and part man, have attacked us every night without fail. They certainly lack human intelligence, for they throw themselves against our defenses willy-nilly, allowing us to mow them down by the dozens in interlocking fields of fire. Their fierce cunning at close quarters is undeniable, however. Thankfully we have lost only one enlisted man in the assaults, though minor injuries are numerous, and I am kept perpetually busy in our makeshift infirmary. An autopsy of one of those creatures would reveal much, but Robards, fearing disease, has forbidden it. We burn the bodies.
Something tells me Thorpe’s expedition may be encountering something similar; hopefully you know by now, one way or the other. But as to my wishes should he fail … I fear they are of no consequence. Robards has a plan, and it does not involve a rendezvous. We are to abandon this position in coming days and make for a fishing village east of here. I believe he means to set some or all of us to sea.
And finally: I hope you will forgive me for giving the sort of admonishment allowable between old friends. Laudanum may help ease your symptoms, but if we are to truly understand what is happening to us I fear it will be a hindrance. Dispensing with concerns about “long term” effects, as each day may be our last, I nevertheless advise caution. If you insist on imbibing, at least keep careful records of amounts, frequencies, and side effects.