With your gentle admonishment fresh in my mind and a heart emboldened from the news of Thorpe’s unexpected success (details toward which I will progress as the ink flows here) I want to first tell you: I attempted it again.
I can remember that I stared for a few moments at the stopper on the laudanum bottle, knowing fully that peace was three droplets away, but something inside me changed. A new will seized me. I unfolded the torn sheet of note paper upon which you had written your missive, and I saw your advice to at least document my experience with the laudanum tincture. I decided that I would instead document my experience avoiding it—and I knew your ever-scientific mind would be eager to hear the results.
As you recall, there had been a night a few weeks ago when I had allowed the sounds to override my senses, welcoming the cascade of voices and noises into my mind. Then, I felt a visceral panic like a drowning man whose lungs are filling with water: confusion, fear, hopelessness, and then nothing. Last night, the same dread overtook me—but instead of resisting it, I welcomed it.
The fear melted, to my surprise, into peace—in fact, a feeling of control, not an abyss of horror. I tell you Crane, it was an odd feeling, to be sure, but one that left my heart beating with confidence, not weakness.
I could not quite sense the passage of time, and I found that during this episode, my eyes would not focus; at one point I tried to recognize any shape inside my tent, but as soon as I used my eyes, the noises caused a stabbing pain at my temple. The sensation reverted to pleasure each time I closed my eyes and allowed the sounds to crash over me like a mighty surf.
The most exciting discovery I can report is that I found that I could “channel” the voices by gentle concentration. For a few minutes—or perhaps an hour for all I could surmise—I chose to pick out Thorpe’s voice in my head. Not all of what he was saying was understandable, but as I mentioned in an earlier letter, I nevertheless understood meaning and emotion—direction and purpose, let us say. In my mind, I could hear him giving orders to the men under his command, accepting their reports, and explaining his plans to explore a deep ravine.
When I awoke, it was the darkest part of the night, but a light from a new fire blazed behind my tent. When I exited, it was Thorpe, who had newly returned from his foray. He was describing his discovery to Bennington, so I joined them.
My blood raced as I heard him describe the ravine. As he told us how he encountered this strange place and how his men approached it, I matched what he said to us at the campfire to what I recalled his voice telling me during my feverish repose. I then also noted that, for the few moments that I had been conversing with Thorpe and Bennington, the noises and sounds were all but vanished from the background of my perceptions.
I will leave off now more details of my personal experiences with the sounds, and instead devote the rest of this letter to news of Thorpe’s discovery, and then to Bennington’s opinions of your sketches.
If Thorpe is a fool then he is at least a fortunate one, and perhaps we ought to make full advantage of his luck for as long as we have him on our expedition. The five men that accompanied him—Arasaku, Kensington, Laray, Gujparat, and Elberts—came back relatively unharmed physically, and I daresay that Thorpe has thoroughly mapped out most of the way ahead. This is a huge advantage as we begin our northern slant tomorrow.
They returned after about a week’s time, and as Bennington and I learned later, most of the reason for the delay was the four days spent investigating what we have been calling “the Ravine.” To me, it sounded like more like a scar where a hideous giant carved out a great swath of earth, leaving an angry gangrenous wound behind.
The entrance to the ravine is more or less an easy, wide ramp, which Thorpe likened to the shape left behind from the angular strike of some rough-hewn meteor. Thorpe reported that no rocky debris was scattered that would indicate an explosion; rather, the burnt gouge seems to have drawn earth in with it, as if some elongated sinkhole occurred well underground yet cracked the land with a jagged mark in its inexorable progress.
The far end of the ravine was never reached by Thorpe and his crew. After finding a drop-off at the ramp’s edge, a laborious descent allowed them to land deep on its floor, but even navigating that depth was an hourly challenge: the base had no easy level, and sub-abysses were found every quarter-mile or so, such that additional equipment had to be employed to allow their safe navigation. After the fourth day Thorpe had decided that our base camp here at the Narrows was undefended for long enough that prudence (or guilt) dictated that he make a return.
The one detail that disturbed Bennington and I the most about Thorpe’s report was the fact that all five of the men who descended into the ravine described the discovery of humanoid skeletons near the bottom. Burned and charred just like the rock surface inside the ravine itself, the men who had enough light to make out these harrowing shapes found that in general, they all seemed to have laid in a uniform direction—skulls upward toward the open sky high above, arms seeming to clutch the side of the wall, reaching toward the surface. In some cases, skeletal remains seemed piled upon another yet slanted in the same configuration, always toward the top of the ravine and away from the far end of the ravine. The bones got more dense as the men moved away from the entrance, and finally, Thorpe commanded a halt.
Thorpe and his men had passed by what appeared to be an official building of some sort—as he tells me, a blasted, ruined bunker some thirty miles along our current trajectory—and so we will head for that in the morning. If I can, my next correspondence will be from that location.
Ah, my dear sir, I had almost forgotten to relay what Bennington wished to convey to you regarding your helpful sketches of the autopsy results. As a footnote, I appreciated what you noted in sotto voce regarding whether or not I thought she could be trusted with the autopsy findings. I can say that while you and I both know that she is an agent of the Society, thus far her motivations have been true regarding the purpose of our mission and her scientific interest. If that changes, you will be the first to know, and if you wish to follow the same course of action as we did the others, then so be it—but this time we must be of the same mind about it.
Bennington studied what you had enclosed for at least a day or more, which itself told me enough—she had seen this type of metamorphosis before. From your clinical notes and measurements she seemed to conclude that the agent of the transformation was carried in the blood of each victim; she pointed to a recent round of Society-sanctioned research that showed that the blood’s superstrata could be manipulated as an effective diffusion system for an aetherial force, like an ultra-magnetic pulse.
She does not know if this was the cause of the metamorphosis in those poor beings you described in your previous letter—she corrected me dryly for my proposed use of the word “wererat”—but I suspected that she felt the phenomena are connected, even though she did not say as much. She also told me that she could not account for the variance of the changes; in other words, why one man’s insides turned to liquid and another man’s insides became so efficient as to strain his own system to implosion. Finally, she asks that you convince Robards to find a way to safely autopsy one of the half-men, as she does not believe a communicable disease is truly at play here. (Do with that advice, friend, as you will, as I am loathe to countermand Robards.)
As for thoughts of rendezvous—agreed, that is well impossible now, as your group is striking east and ours is intent on heading north, with the eventual destination of the obelisk. My most immediate worry is whether Alia can find another safe landing area at our new location, and if not, I am afraid our correspondence will be yet more sporadic.
With best hopes,