A Report by J.M. Cadogan RSSc, AHME, BS, MS (Birm), MS (Oxon). Presented by Archivist to The Society, Mark Wardecker.
Art by Katie Nyborg
We all thought de Groot was a crank, and that is why I bear no grudge toward any member of our Society. Like myself, you had no reason to believe that the errand upon which you had sent me could have been any more than the routine debunking of a charlatan. In fact, as I prepare myself to write this account of de Groot and his “creation,” it strikes me that I myself may be accused of attempting to deceive you, for the facts of the case seem fabulous even to me, and I have little to offer in the way of evidence, just what is left of de Groot and his machine. For the rest, I hope you will rely upon my reputation as a man who stands flat-footed upon the ground, a scientist–like most of you–but no theoretician, simply an inventor.
For those of you still unfamiliar with the circumstances surrounding this report, it was precipitated by a letter from Dr. Oswald de Groot, a physicist lately retired from academic life. It was early in the evening, and following dinner, we had all congregated before the fire in the walnut-paneled Members’ Room of the Society’s library for cigars and aperitifs. By way of a joke, Farnham produced de Groot’s letter, delivered earlier in the day. It was characteristically flamboyant and read:
“My work has progressed to the point where I have begun to assay the role of God himself. I have created life. Please send a representative to my home in Sussex to confirm, and all will be made clear.”
“You don’t suppose he’s impregnated his chamber maid?” asked Morrow.
“Doubtful–there are limits to what even science can accomplish!” Larson fired back.
“Seriously, though,” snuffled Farnham, “Does anyone know what de Groot’s been about lately? What could possibly be the meaning of this?”
“Last I heard, he was experimenting with magnets,” I recalled.
“To create life?”
“No, something that is obviously even further beyond his ken–invisibility.”
And with that, I assumed I had managed to dispel the last hint of decorum, but Farnham, as the last few chuckles subsided, declared, “Well, as this Society’s president, for form’s sake, I suppose I must appoint one of you to go and examine this buffoonery.”
It was at this point that I came to regret my earlier remarks, since my passing familiarity with de Groot’s recent work (and because the other likely candidate, the naturalist, Edwards, was conveniently busying himself with retrieving a match he had dropped beneath a chair) procured me the privilege of investigating the claim. I resigned myself to a trip to Sussex the following afternoon.
Not surprisingly, there was no one at the train station to meet me when I arrived, so I paid a local farmer to drive me in his dog cart to de Groot’s home. After an awkward twenty minutes with my more than taciturn driver, we came within sight of our destination. It was a grey stone pile of a house on a withered, brown plot scarcely large enough to contain it. We came to a stop before the entrance, and I carried in my own bags while one of de Groot’s maids showed me to my room upstairs. After unpacking and freshening up, I went back downstairs to meet my host.
Remarkably, de Groot was even more intolerable than I remembered, with a grace and build more suited to a village smith or butcher than to a man of science. Fortunately for me, however, his home in Sussex was spacious and well-appointed, and had it not been for the obnoxious presence of its owner, its sunny parlor would have been quite as comfortable for me as it seemed to de Groot’s black cat, Tom, who was sunning himself by the window. As it was, I had to contend with de Groot’s leonine pacing about the room as we spoke of his discovery.
Pausing before the mantle, he stroked his beard and regarded me.
“I did not expect the Society to take me seriously, Cadogan, but for them to have sent you, a mere machinist, is downright insulting! A sign of contempt and derision! I would be better able to demonstrate my work to Tom, over there.”
As I watched him march to the suit of armor in the corner, I became determined to gain the upper-hand and mitigate some of his bluster. I pointed out that my self-lubricating and self-cooling locomotive parts were what had obtained my fellowship in the Society, some few years before he had been elected, in fact. Besides, I was the only member at all familiar with his work.
“Is that so?” he sneered on his way to the bay window.
“Quite. You claim to have observed that strong magnetic fields have the potential to distort human sight. It is this phenomenon that appears to have occupied you. However, now you claim to have generated life. I am here to verify the latter and, I assume, reconcile it with the former.”
“Just so.” He sat down next to me on the divan and thought for a moment. “I was not trying to create life. I’ve invented a device that generates very intense magnetic fields. I was merely observing the effects produced by this apparatus when the egg appeared.”
“Yes, Cadogan, my ‘child‘ is an egg,” he proclaimed as he rose to feet, recovering some of his bristle.
“If I need to explain to you that machines don’t lay eggs, de Groot, it is you who needs to be concerned about his credentials.”
“I would hardly expect you to understand.”
“I know enough to understand that the only way a magnet can produce life is if it is used in close proximity to a fetus that has got hold of a sizable piece of steel.”
“Please try to elevate your thoughts and discourse above those of a petty mechanic. We already know, Cadogan, (or, in your case, should know) that magnets can influence electricity and vice versa. Perhaps there are other physical relationships that are as yet undiscovered.”
“Will you be able to explain and prove that?”
“There are a great many phenomena that occur despite our lack of understanding.”
“Yes, but only this one will determine your standing within the Society, de Groot.”
“Perhaps, Mr. Cadogan, it will be your great fortune to observe me as I unravel this mystery for humanity.”
Not wanting to unnecessarily prolong my visit, I replied, “I would like nothing more than to see this egg and observe this apparatus of yours at the nearest opportunity.”
“Why not now, then? I was just preparing for another trial run of the machine before you arrived.”
“No time like the present. Shall we proceed to your laboratory?”
And with that, I immediately followed my host from the parlor back into the hall. A door beneath the stairs led down to a concrete laboratory in the cellar.
In the midst of the various stands and racks of retorts, vials, and carboids arrayed about the sizable room, stood a deal table. Its centrepiece was a gas burner and, resting upon this, mounted in a glass case, was the egg. It was massive, the size of an ostrich egg, but completely unblemished, with a hint of phosphorescence about it. Whatever de Groot’s claims, this was unnatural, a real discovery. We would likely need a naturalist after all.
He observed my wonderment with satisfaction for a few moments before showing me his apparatus.
“You see,” he said, “I was conducting an experiment with this when it appeared.” He indicated a waist-high, mahogany cabinet and wheeled it toward me. He lifted the glass lid so that I could see better, and I looked down on a three-bladed propeller, wrapped in copper wire, flanked by two large, opposing magnets. Opening a door in the front of the cabinet revealed the gears that turned the propeller and an electrical motor, whose cable snaked from the rear of the cabinet to a large battery, the size of a footlocker, in the corner of the laboratory. Attached to the rear of the cabinet was a large horn, similar to that of a dictaphone.
“The egg just appeared behind the machine as it was running.”
“Have you been able to reproduce the result?”
“No, but I have only tried twice. It was on the machine’s third trial that the egg was generated. I have no doubt that I shall be able to provide you with another before your stay is through.”
“When will it be possible for me to observe the magnetic device in action?”
While impressed with the egg and the device, I was highly skeptical of any correlation between the two and was therefore surprised when my host agreed to demonstrate the magnetic field generator on the spot.
I expected the machine to produce a great deal of noise and was surprised when, after de Groot applied the machine’s cable to the terminals of the battery, a soft whirring was produced as the machine’s propeller spun between its magnets. In fairness, de Groot had been correct about the visual distortion produced by the field. Within moments, the air behind the cabinet became opaque, and then this opacity began to, in a sense, convulse. The room smelled of ozone, and the hairs on my neck and mustache stood on end. Then, something went wrong. I could see that on de Groot’s face, as I suddenly heard something I can only describe as a sort of bestial screeching noise. I looked instinctively at the equipment, but that was not the sound’s source. In fact, I couldn’t seem to localize it at all. It was almost as if it was coming from everywhere at once, even from inside me. It became louder and shriller, causing me to drop to the floor with my hands over my ears. This made no difference, and just when I thought I could take no more, de Groot managed to kick the field generator’s cable from the battery with his foot, causing the screeching to immediately cease.
“What in God’s name was that sound?” I demanded as we stood upright, brushing ourselves off.
“I’m not sure … It has never happened before. It did not seem to be coming from my machine.”
“But it did stop as soon as you disconnected if from the battery … My God, what’s happening to the egg?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I had noticed a few gleams upon its surface, and we approached it to examine these more closely. Beads of moisture had begun to form on the entire surface of the egg–it was sweating.
I assisted de Groot with performing diagnostic tests on his machine until well into the night. We had also cursorily examined the egg, but since neither of us had a particularly strong background in biology, I suggested contacting Edwards by telegram in the morning to see if I could enlist his help with this commission, after all. De Groot had no objections to this and was pleased that a “real scientist” would be joining our small team. I left de Groot to tidy up in the lab and retired for the evening.
The following morning, as I finished dressing before breakfast, there was a knock at the door of my bedroom, and I heard de Groot announce, “I’ve asked Clara to prepare breakfast. It should be ready in ten minutes, in the dining room.” I hurriedly wrote my invitation to Edwards, hoping one of de Groot’s servants would be able to take it into town that morning. Just as I had finished composing this note, there was another knock on the door, and once again, I heard de Groot say, “I’ve asked Clara to prepare breakfast. It should be ready in ten minutes, in the dining room.” I froze and once more became aware of the hairs on my neck and of my mustache beginning to stand on end. Not being given to superstition, I discounted any notions of precognition or even déjà vu, but was struck by the incongruity of what had just occurred. It was unlikely that de Groot would be so absent-minded as to repeat his message and even unlikelier that he would have used the exact same words and cadences. It was early and the morning dreary. I thought perhaps I had simply dozed off for a moment and, despite the inadequacy of this rationalization, left it at that. Putting on my coat, I determined to have some coffee with my breakfast.
I joined de Groot in the small dining room and began to eat a large breakfast (while taking care to avoid the eggs). I gave de Groot my message, and he said that one of his servants could take it to the post office that morning. Not having had anything to eat since yesterday’s lunch, I was famished and talked very little. This made de Groot’s sudden outburst all the stranger.
Putting down his paper, he glared at me and snapped, “I just told you, Cadogan, that Clara will take it when she visits the market. Pay attention!”
“But I didn’t say anything.”
“You most certainly did ask me about that blasted telegram of yours.”
I paused for a moment. “When I asked, did I happen to use exactly the same words, even the same intonation?”
“Stop being childish, Cadogan. Of course you did.”
Upon receiving this confirmation, I recounted my recent experience in the bedroom.
“De Groot, we both spoke yesterday of the relationship between magnetic fields and electricity. Do you think that perhaps these relationships may involve time and even space, as well?”
De Groot ceased to look irritable for a moment and admitted, “You know, Cadogan, yesterday, just before unplugging the field generator, I thought I saw something. There, where before there had only appeared the visual distortion produced by the machine, I thought I saw a landscape, a sort of grey vista filled with crags and depressions. I didn’t want to say anything for … several reasons, but in light of what you have just told me, it seems my discovery may be much vaster than even I had imagined.”
“We should give your machine another go, de Groot.”
As we descended into the lab and made our way toward the field generator, our attention was arrested by the egg. It had developed two small cracks.
“It appears my ‘child’s’ gestation is progressing.”
“Which is why we need Edwards to give your ‘child‘ a proper check-up.”
“Clara’s on her way to send the telegram as we speak. To the machine.”
Once more, I heard the gentle whir of the propeller as de Groot connected the generator’s power cable to the terminals of the enormous battery. Again, I watched as the distorted opacity behind the cabinet began to grow along with the smell of ozone in the lab. This time, several minutes went by before I heard the screech, very faint and far away. The distortion grew, and we both marveled at what we saw as the opacity began to recede and a clearer vision began to form. There were the grey craggy vistas! We peered through a virtual portal onto an alien world. The landscape was sparse, desolate, and the horizon between the grey land and glowing purple sky was clearly delineated. Fascinated, I began to grow more and more uncomfortable as the portal grew in size. Soon, it would be big enough for a man to pass through, if that were possible or even desirable. I then became aware of the screeching sound again, much louder than it was just a moment ago.
Then, I saw the source of the noise, or so I thought. It was still very hard to localize and seemed to come from within my very skull. In that eerie purple sky, a shape began to take form, no more than a distorted smudge from this distance, alien and indescribable. I looked at de Groot to see if he had seen it and was horrified to see him approaching the portal, as if in a daze. In another moment, if it were possible, he could have been through! I threw myself behind the cabinet and yanked as hard as I could on the power cable. Abruptly, the portal vanished, and the machine’s whirring stopped. De Groot snapped out of his seeming trance and turned upon me.
“Cagodan, what have you done? How dare you disrupt my experiment! Do you realize what that was? I have discovered another world! Possibly another dimension!”
“But did you see that … that thing descending upon us? Have you forgotten your other ‘discovery’? For that is exactly what it is. I think you see that now. You didn’t ‘create’ that egg, so much as retrieve it.”
“I concede your point, but what of it? I have uncovered a whole new world, and I and I alone possess the means to explore it! I have the vehicle to extend the great British Empire into new planets, new dimensions!”
I was amazed at de Groot’s flexibility and opportunism; clearly he was as poor a “father” as he was a scientist.
“I hate to interrupt your sudden ecstasy of megalomania, but I must point out to you that you have no idea whether it is safe for a human being to pass through that portal.”
“The egg seemed to manage it, Cadogan.”
“Yes, and did you happen to observe what was approaching from the horizon? It may not have been hostile, but there’s no way of knowing. Further, I can’t help but wonder if the time distortions that occurred before and after breakfast didn’t have something to do with that egg. Recall the appearance of those two cracks after these incidents.
“In the name of the Society and on its authority, I must ask you to postpone all further experiments with your device until I can submit my findings and receive further advice. I am sure, as you should be, that they will be as eager as you are to continue this research, but it must be done safely and with their official sanction.”
I thought, at that point, he would strike me. De Groot’s eyes flared, and his beard bristled with menace as he trembled silently for a few moments. Finally, when he saw I could not be intimidated, his shoulders slumped, and he nodded his head in sullen acquiescence. I, in turn, assured him that the Society would likely put their best facilities and equipment at his command and would be able to assist him with any potential government negotiations. This appeared to soothe him somewhat, but I did not dare leave him alone with the device or that sinister egg. There was a tension I felt while I was around it that had begun to make me uncomfortable–a feeling that I was being inexorably drawn to a conclusion it would be best to avoid, a sick feeling of precipitancy, as though events were moving too fast. When de Groot had finished making some final notations in his log book, I retired to the parlor to prepare my own notes.
After a time, de Groot ceased his pacing and subsided into a chair to write what I assumed would be his own version of events so that he could present the best case possible to our Society. I had already brought my account up-to-date and was going over it one last time when, out of the corner of my eye, I caught de Groot suddenly looking up from his desk toward the hallway.
“What the deuce, Cadogan? Did you leave the door to my lab open? Stay out of there, you damn mangy tom!” And with that, he almost knocked over his chair as he got up and bolted into the hall.
I followed directly behind him and was just in time to see de Groot’s cat disappearing down the stairs to the cellar. Assuming de Groot would follow the animal down the stairs, I narrowly avoided colliding with him as he abruptly slid to a stop before the door of the basement. Once again, I felt all of my hair stand on end and a strange disorientation, which seemed to register on the other man’s face, as well. This only increased as we stared at the now firmly closed and bolted door before us.
“De Groot, quickly, what did you just see?”
“I could have sworn I saw this very door standing ajar and old Tom going down the stairs. But … I must have been mistaken,” he said absently.
“No, I saw it, too. Open the door, de Groot–I must get a look at your egg.”
We descended into the lab, which was just as we had left it with but one exception: the egg had developed yet another large fissure. It also continued to sweat and to exude not a smell, or anything readily tangible, but more of an aura of unwholesomeness.
“Cadogan! The stairs!”
I whirled around, looking in the direction of de Groot’s trembling finger, ready to drop to the floor to escape whatever was coming. But all I saw was old Tom cautiously making his way down the stairs, as we thought we had seen him do only moments before.
“De Groot, I think we just experienced another temporal distortion,” I said, trying to control the tremors in my voice.
“I am now willing to acknowledge as much, Cadogan.”
“Do you also observe that there has appeared a third crack in your egg?”
“I do, but come now, Cadogan. Surely you can’t impart consciousness or motive to an egg?”
“A hen’s egg, no. Nor a lizard’s. But this, this is very likely from another world. Who is to say how it develops? To me, it looks a great deal like we saw your cat descend the stairs before it actually did so. What if that’s a cause?”
“And the effect?”
“To get us back down here, de Groot. To bring us back to your infernal, impossible machine. That thing we saw earlier, descending from the sky over that alien landscape …”
“What of it?”
“Though you now acknowledge that you are not, indeed, its father, have you considered that perhaps your egg has a mother?”
“You think it’s trying to manipulate us? Trying to get us to reactivate the machine so that they can reunite?”
“That would be a plausible theory, but the more I look at your egg, the more I feel that its design is far less wholesome. Also, the more time I spend in close proximity to your egg, de Groot …”
“The more I feel like prey.”
De Groot grunted, “Absurd!” and stormed back upstairs.
After acknowledging that we were both unable to do more than pick at the dinner that was laid before us, we settled on a much lighter repast of cigars and whisky.
“It is impossible, Cadogan. An egg cannot manipulate time and space, much less form a coherent motive for doing so.”
“Why not? You seem to have managed it. I’m not a betting man, but given a contest between the two of you, I’d have put my money on the egg.”
“It’s the damn Society. You’re here to obstruct me so that they can sweep in and take the credit for the discovery. A whole new world, Cadogan! Waiting merely for us to take a step forward and begin exploring! Surely that appeals to you as much as it does me?”
“You have no idea the pull that notion exerts upon me, but that egg repulses me just as much. One of us should stay down there watching it. If only I could trust you down there by yourself …”
“You are more than welcome to do the job yourself.”
“No. I have the distinct feeling that that would be most unwise. Still, we should check on it before retiring.”
“Cadogan, do you really think Edwards and the rest of them will be able make anything of this?”
“Several years ago, de Groot, I was applying myself to the problem of better shock absorption for railway cars. I had found a way to arrest every motion of the car but its forward momentum. In this way, fragile items could be loaded and transported far more quickly and easily.”
“Yes, I remember your talking about it at the Society.”
“As I was field testing the final prototype, Farnham came by with some acquaintances for a demonstration of what I had done. They then insisted upon staying to observe the car as it was pulled about a circular track by a large engine. The guests asked question after question, and I marveled that even the most miniscule details failed to bore them …”
“What of it?”
“Those men were from Whitehall, de Groot, and my shock absorbers now allow massive artillery pieces to fire extremely accurately from moving railway cars. My contribution to our Empire. The impetus that drives us to discovery is precious, but sometimes, I think we need to stop and take stock. Sometimes, it would be better to simply stop …”
“I’m afraid I’m incapable of that, Cadogan.”
“As am I, de Groot. As am I. Let’s have one last look at your egg before going upstairs.”
Back down in the cellar, we could barely take our eyes off the egg. It continued to sweat and seemed to tremble before us.
“We’ll have to be on our guard, de Groot. It looks as though another crack may be forming.”
“And what of it? It looks nowhere near hatching.”
“Perhaps, but I do fear it’s hatching something.”
That evening, a thunderstorm approached, and despite my fears, I found myself becoming increasingly drowsy as I listened to the sound of the rainfall. I slept fitfully until a loud and horrifically familiar screeching sound awakened me. It was that same foul, bestial noise that had terrified me during our experiments with the field generator, and once again, the hairs of my mustache began to bristle. For several minutes, I could not move, but the sudden sound of an explosion propelled me from my bed. I got dressed as quickly as possible and ran down the stairs to the ground floor and then began to descend the stairs to the laboratory. As I had feared, de Groot, dressed in his night shirt and smoking jacket, had reconnected his machine to the battery, but as I looked from the stairway, I was surprised to see that nothing aside from his state of undress yet looked amiss. I hoped desperately that, rather than another future echo, the explosion I thought I had heard was nothing more than thunder from the storm. When I reached the bottom of the stairs, I stopped abruptly, for I noticed that the egg had developed a very large, fourth crack!
“De Groot! What are you doing? For God’s sake, turn it off, man!”
“I couldn’t resist, Cadogan. I was asleep but then I saw you bolt down the stairs and followed you. Just where did you go off to?”
“I never came downstairs until just now. What you saw was another distortion. See? A fourth crack in the egg! It lured you here! Turn off the bloody machine before it’s too late!”
As if in answer, I heard the same deafening screech fill the space around us and within us. I squinted into the portal that was once again beginning to form behind the field generator and once again saw a dark smudge on the horizon. As the grey vistas became clearer and I tried desperately to shield my ears, I heard yet another sound: a strange cooing that was impossible to localize but could be coming from nowhere else but that horrible egg. De Groot must have heard it, as well, because he stopped moving toward that horrible rent in time and space and turned toward that awful specimen from another world. I was unable to ascertain whether it was shock or the temporal distortions that made everything seem to happen so quickly. As soon as de Groot turned, the thing on the horizon went from a small, dark shape in that wine red sky to a massive, leathery-winged, but otherwise formless, tar-like monstrosity that filled the space of the opening. Two long, glistening tendrils shot out and encircled both de Groot and his egg and began pulling them through the threshold into the alien landscape. The man’s head and torso were already being dragged though the grey dust of the other world, when it finally registered with me that I had only seconds to act. I had not time to waste circling the laboratory in order to disconnect the battery and gambled on the chance that I might be able to generate feedback that would provide an adequate disruption of the field. I charged toward the field generator itself, and launched myself at it, pushing it into contact with the portal. There was the sound of an explosion, exactly like that which I had heard upstairs, as the gateway burst into nothingness and de Groot’s machine caught fire. I was able to quickly smother the flames with my coat, but when I turned to de Groot, lying motionless on the floor, I knew there was nothing I could do for him. From the bottom of his ribcage to his head, the parts of him that had crossed the threshold of the portal, the man had simply dissolved! For the first time in my life, I fainted.
With Clara observing her strict orders never to enter de Groot’s laboratory, it was Edwards who found me unconscious the next day, and it was he who arranged for the removal of the body and the machine for your perusal. Of the egg, there was no trace. I did not regain consciousness for several days, and even now, my physician has advised me against a return from Blackpool to London until my nerves have been completely restored. With any luck, I shall be able to return this fall to speak with you all in person. In the meantime, now that you have the two final pieces of evidence and my report to examine, it is my solemn hope that you will exercise the appropriate discretion and sound judgment and destroy what is left of that machine. The world is not yet prepared for this discovery of Oswald de Groot’s.
Though not a mad scientist himself (or, rather, not yet), J.M. Cadogan has met more than his fair share of them through the august Society of which he is a senior member. It was, in fact, during the events described in the report featured here, that he began a long career of investigating such characters. Prior to that, he was best known for his innovative mechanical contributions to the Empire’s railways.”
Mark Wardecker has been a great admirer (from a safe distance) of mad scientists since his first exposure to Peter Cushing’s Victor Frankenstein and his various monsters from hell. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, The Willows, Doctor Who and Philosophy, and the Baker Street Journal. He has also edited an anthology of August Derleth’s early Solar Pons stories and is a librarian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Katie Nyborg’s art, plus information regarding hiring her, can be found at http://katiedoesartthings.tumblr.com/