In its inspiration this is sort of a science fiction story: I was reading about 17th century scientists and wondered, “What if they were right?”
The Aetherised Chamber
By Stewart Moore
17 October 1687:
The God-machine failed, and I destroyed it. With the wood-axe I smashed the glass vacuum pump, the encircling copper spring, the clockwork armature, and even the desk on which it stood. With a hammer I crushed the crystal at its heart as I would pith a frog’s skull. No one must know the extent of my humiliation.
Yet it was a worthy idea. The new science has shown that the universe is like an immense clock. By detecting its subtlest vibrations, may we not know the mind of its Creator? My method too was sound: I rarefied a jar of air to create a vacuum. Since of course a true vacuum is impossible, the pump can only have drawn in that finer substance, dissolved throughout the cosmos, supporting the planets in their courses: the aether. And what is the aether but the very essence of God?
Yes, the method was sound, but the machine was not sensitive enough. Its armature recorded nothing but microscopic doodles, likely no more than vibrations from distant earthquakes.
My father, from his bed upstairs, heard my destructive activity. His voice, like old hinges, called my name over and over. I warmed his broth so as to have time to think of what I should say. Finally his voice wore out and blessed silence settled in once more. I waited until my fingers on the spoon were steady before daring the staircase.
He opened his eyelids upon my entry, stared straight at the ceiling, then slid his pupils slowly over to me. “Damn it,” he creaked, his gummed lips the only things moving. “I still live.”
“I would not wish it otherwise,” I said, sitting beside his sickbed.
“You think so little of me, Father. As you always did. Yet have I begrudged you anything?” I hovered a spoonful of broth over his lips. He held them closed for a long time, yet my hands were steady now and I did not spill a drop. Finally he opened his mouth just enough for me to pour in the spoonful. He swallowed, then coughed for his usual spell.
“Yes,” he croaked fiercely when he recovered. “You have begrudged me the name you might have made in the Royal Society. I might have been known as the father of the greatest scientist in England. Instead that honour goes to Newton’s dead pater, and I lie dying in obscurity.”
“My experiments are at a delicate stage. I will yet make our name renowned once more.”
“Your experiments! You have smashed another one. Don’t perjure yourself further. I heard it clearly.”
I silenced him momentarily with another spoonful of broth. My fingers still held admirably steady, though I became conscious of a growing interior agitation.
“You at least do me the honour of not denying it,” he said once his coughing subsided.
“It nonetheless remains true: this is a delicate moment. The spring of my mind is perfectly balanced in its forces.”
“Which means it’s doing nothing!”
Another spoonful. This time, a single drop rolled down my father’s cheek. He fixed me with a baleful glare even as he coughed, as if I had poured blood over his face. I wiped his cheek with my cuff.
“Which experiment did you wreck?” he asked.
“The vacuum-pump to detect the vibrations of the universe.”
“The device was not sensitive enough.”
“Then make a more sensitive device!” He opened his mouth, but my fingers trembled and I feared to perform the operation. He closed his lips and stared at me. I had first seen that look when I was a child, and he expected from me a conjugation of a Latin verb. I felt like one of Mr. Hooke’s transfusion experiments, my blood replaced with some alien fluid.
“I am afraid no more sensitive device can be constructed,” I whispered.
“Newton would find a way.” My father closed his eyes. “He will, too, if you don’t do it first.”
I stared at my father’s head, the only part of his body visible from under the coverlet. In stillness, the operation of that malignant brain could only be inferred. Yet he had but to open his eyes to convey a wealth of dissatisfaction.
I knew he still waked, but I slipped silently out so as not to arouse him again. In the kitchen, I longed to hurl the bowl against the wall, but he would demand once more to know the source of the noise. Nor would he believe anything but that I had somehow disappointed him twice in one day.
In the twilight, I dug a pit large enough to serve as a pauper’s grave, and quietly lowered the smashed parts of the God-machine down into it. The cold clamped down on me even as I perspired while filling the hole once more.
I know I am correct: human fingers cannot construct a more sensitive machine than mine was. I take some pride in this, even in the privacy of my failure.
18 October 1687:
I have it. I do not need to construct a more sensitive instrument. One has already been constructed for me, by hands far more delicate than mine.
If only the old man will survive long enough!
1 December 1687:
My success would satisfy even my father, though I do not know whether he can enjoy it.
The glass for the vacuum chamber required incurring debts at usurious rates and using what little property remains to our family as collateral. Fortunately I dismissed the servants some months ago, as my plans required the utmost secrecy. Though I have achieved the height of natural philosophy, no doubt the vulgar sort would think me some novel sort of witch. I told the glassblowers that the device was a new design for a greenhouse, promising fourfold efficiency.
I installed the chamber in the barn, long since bereft of livestock. By means of a pulley I could raise and lower it onto a steel sheet of perfect flatness. I bolted a chair to the steel. I provided the softest cushions; I am not without feeling.
The pump itself is made of brass, a much enlarged version of Mr. Hooke’s original. A disc one foot in thickness and radius occupies a bottle protruding from the side of the chamber. By turning a handle, the disc moves from the chamber-side to the opposite end of the bottle, drawing out a portion of the atmosphere inside the chamber. After closing a valve between the bottle and the chamber and opening another in the top of the bottle itself, I can push the disc back into place, forcing out the air inside. The more I repeat the process, the more the air inside is rarefied, and the better able it becomes to admit the heavenly aether.
I rejoiced at last to see my device complete. Or nearly complete: I lacked yet the mechanism, or shall I say, the soul of the thing.
My father slept so peacefully when I opened his door. I hoped almost that he might never wake up, but that of course would defeat my purpose. Still, there was no need to be cruel. He stirred as I wrapped him in his blanket, and murmured something I could not catch. I carried him down the stairs without difficulty. There was hardly anything left to him, the poor thing.
Despite being rolled up in his quilt, he shuddered so violently when I brought him outside I feared he might expire on the spot. He moaned as the chill afternoon air filled his lungs, yet only a feeble wisp of vapour escaped his lips into the dim slanting sunlight. I hurried across the yard to the barn. I set him in the chair and freed his arms and legs from the bedding so I could strap him down.
When I rose from binding his feet to the chair leg, my father’s eyes stared at me, though he shivered so much I could only be a blur to him. He recognised me nonetheless. Who else could it be? His chattering teeth mutilated my name, but I could hear the question in his voice.
“Father,” I said, “we’re going to do an experiment. We’re going to speak to the essence of the universe itself. We’re going to listen to the heartbeat of the Almighty. I hope you will appreciate your role in our achievement.”
He tried to say something, but could not. I patted his trembling shoulder. “Soon, Father, we will know things no one else has ever known. Our name will be immortal among those with eyes to see.”
I stepped off the steel plate and slowly lowered the chamber onto it. My father strained at his bindings with what little force he could muster. I hoped he would not make himself uncomfortable.
I sealed the chamber to the plate with pitch. The sounds of my father’s cries grew fainter as I did so, but I could still hear them clearly. The glass conducted the sound, adding a slight ringing tone that was not unpleasant to the ears.
I kept a careful record of the progress of the experiment, which I reproduce in part here:
“1 pump. No discernible change.
“5 pumps. His breath is noticeably shorter, and he has stopped shouting, which is a mercy.
“10 pumps. Breathing is very laboured. Eyelids are closed, no evidence of consciousness.
“25 pumps. The work becomes very difficult. Fortunately, I foresaw this and provided myself with a long steel handle for the pump. As Archimedes said, ‘Give me a long enough lever and a fulcrum to place it on, and I will move the world!’
“30 pumps. He has vomited very thoroughly. The exhalation from the valve as I replace the disc confirms to me that he has soiled himself as well.
“35 pumps. Breathing has stopped. There is marked swelling of his skin, as of an inflated bladder, and bruises form spontaneously. Face is very dark purple.
“39 pumps. I can do no more. I pray it may be enough.”
My heart pounded as I waited. I knew from experiments at the Royal Society that rarefying the air in a small vacuum pump would kill birds and mice. But no one had ever taken the vacuum as far as I had. The greater proportion of aether, I reasoned, combined with the greater complexity and sensitivity of the human brain, would combine in a hitherto unknown way.
Night fell. I lit a lamp, which cast an eerie pall on my father’s body, and a will-o’-the-wisp reflection of myself in the glass. I shivered as the temperature dropped, and my fingers became so numb my entries in my log are now nearly indecipherable. I listened for the slightest sound, and heard only mice scurrying in the loft. I hardly dared blink for fear of missing some near-undetectable sign of my success. Yet nothing happened; nothing happened. Despairing finally of success, I retired to bed.
I woke with the amber sunrise filling my window. I thought I should feel dejected at the failure of all my hopes, yet somehow my heart was light. I hurried downstairs, threw my coat over my bedclothes and ran across the frosty grass in my slippers. I threw open the barn door.
My father sat upright, his white eyes staring from his bruised, puffed-up face. He looked at me slowly, as if moving underwater. Once locked on me, his gaze never wavered, nor did he once blink. His lips moved drowsily, in what was clearly rational speech, but I could not hear a sound other than the birds outside.
Even now, he speaks to me silently. All the joy at my brilliant success is devoured in the flames of one consuming question: How can I comprehend the revelations which he speaks?
2 December 1687:
I have established one thing: I can communicate to him. Speech apparently does not reach across the aether, but if I speak to him, his mouth stills for a moment as he absorbs my queries, then begins again in what is clearly a response. It frustrates me terribly not to know what those responses are. This is the key to all my efforts.
2 December 1687 (later):
Of course! How obvious! The milkmaid of the Montagues is as deaf as a wall. She learned, perforce, to read lips, but because she only lost her hearing to smallpox at age 12, her speech is still agreeably comprehensible. Yet she is certainly no natural philosopher; more likely to denounce me as a witch, or worse, should she see what I have done here. Yet see it she shall. I must know what words are constantly streaming from my father’s mouth.
3 December 1687:
I feared I would acquire another hostage, but it appears I rather have gained an able assistant. Obtaining the temporary services of Miss Eleanor Hobbes from Sir John Montague was a trifling matter, involving no more than some light untruths about a nonexistent diseased cow.
Introducing the young lady to my device required more tact. I had no way to make use of her but to let her see the entire arrangement. My father’s appearance has not grown less disturbing over time, as I’d hoped it would. The aether has the effect of freezing his features as they were at the time he was first introduced to it. I prepared a pistol and laid it in an inconspicuous but convenient spot within the door of the barn should force prove necessary with the young lady.
I led Miss Eleanor into the gloom of my barn in the late morning, when light slashed through the door almost all the way to the vacuum pump. That tilted polygon of illumination on the floor was sufficient to show what I had done. Miss Eleanor walked forward with a coolness that would serve well for an angel of the battlefield.
My father caught sight of her immediately and began speaking. I burned to know what he said, but the young lady watched him in silence for some time. I thought to remonstrate with her, but with her back turned, of course, she would have no knowledge of my abjurations. I didn’t dare touch her, for fear of her taking a wrong idea from the contact and withdrawing her assistance. Of course we were not alone, but then, in a sense, weren’t we? If I thought to impose myself, what could my father do about it?
I occupied myself with these unhappy thoughts until I saw my father stop moving his lips. Miss Eleanor turned to me. Her voice was low and too loud, yet somehow girlish, locked into the moment her hearing left her. Her words rebounded from the walls of the otherwise empty barn, and rang from the rigid glass chamber. “You intend to kill me, don’t you, Mister Waites?”
I spread my hands, for the moment struck speechless.
“With that pistol there behind you, I assume. No doubt you will say I ran off to London-town with some lothario.” She mispronounced “lothario”; likely she never heard the word before she went deaf, but only read it. “It would be an easy tale to tell of a young woman with no prospects.”
I grasped at the only advantage I could in the face of such an utterly fearless nature. “What I do depends upon your service to me, Miss Eleanor. Translate faithfully what my father is saying, and some accommodation might be reached.”
I felt naked before her gaze, which surely stripped my lie from the truth. I realised my father watched me with the same intensity.
Finally Miss Eleanor nodded, though I had little sense of what she’d decided. “This is not your father,” she said.
“Of course it is. Yes, he has suffered some ill effects from the vacuum—”
“Your father is dead. This… being has told me its name, but I could not venture to pronounce it.”
I walked in a stupor to the glass. For the first time, I touched it. Its unnatural cold burned almost like fire. “The aether…”
“Yes. The material that exists between all atoms of ordinary material.”
I looked at her, stunned.
She smiled. “When my world became silent, I acquired a primer and taught myself to read. No one would waste their time teaching such things to a deaf farm-girl, but much of the work of a farm is waiting. It speeds the waiting to occupy the mind. I have a special interest in natural philosophy. I don’t pretend to understand everything Mister Newton has to say, but then again, who does? Do you, Mister Waites?”
Again that feeling of utter exposure. I could only shake my head. I felt the chill of my father’s gaze—or whosever’s it was—on my cheek. Really, it would be easier if my father were dead. I would not worry so much about disappointing… whatever this was. Yet I shuddered with involuntary revulsion. I knew it stared at me. I felt its regard as a living thing sliding intangibly over my face. I could not now look at it if I tried.
Miss Eleanor had no such trouble contemplating that horribly bruised and puffed-up visage. I saw in her aspect the determination she must have to teach herself so much, without so much as a headmaster’s whip to prod her on. “The aether, as we call it, is a medium of communication. Unlike sound, which must jostle along from one atom to another, the aether permits instant communication along its whole expanse, if the means of reception be sensitive enough. We are in the presence of a being such a distance away as our minds cannot comprehend. The distance to the visible stars would be but the first footstep along the way.”
Miss Eleanor’s eyes pinned me like a loathsome insect in a noxious collection. “You should not have done this,” she said.
“I had no choice!” I cried.
“You did disappoint him. That information is canalised in your father’s brain.” She mispronounced “canalised.” My awareness of my pettiness was sudden and exquisite, and in my anger I lashed out.
“Then let him measure this achievement against Mister Newton’s! That eminent man only described the orbits of the universe. I am in contact with the intelligence that animates those orbits!”
Miss Eleanor shook her head. “You assumed that intelligence was a friendly one. You have made a terrible mistake.”
I paused to gather my whirling thoughts. “To know what this being says will make me the greatest natural philosopher in history. I will know it.” Trying to match her calmness, I walked slowly to the door, picked up the pistol, and aimed it at her. “You will tell me.”
Miss Eleanor returned her gaze to the thing in the glass. It stared back at her. If they communicated, they did not do so by lip.
Miss Eleanor did not look at me when she spoke again. I took this to mean any response of mine would be irrelevant. “I believe your father’s husk is wearied, and your correspondent would speak later. I daresay you have not eaten properly in some time. I will prepare a dinner for us.”
With that, she turned and left the barn. I kept the pistol with me and followed her to the house. As the once-familiar sounds of rattling cookware emanate from the kitchen, I write down these impressions.
I cannot deny that I am very hungry.
4 December 1687, midnight:
I have little time. We all have little time. Now it is necessary at least to leave some record behind.
After dinner, and without clearing the table, Miss Eleanor left the house, forcing me to hasten after her. The waning light of the day did not reach inside the barn. With some trouble, as I hardly dared set down the pistol, I lit a lantern.
My father’s eyes watched me. They must have watched me intently even in the dark. Miss Eleanor stood at the glass directly in front of his chair. She paid no attention to me or my weapon. Her body and that of my father were equals in stillness.
When my father’s mouth spoke, his gaze never broke from mine. But it was ever Miss Eleanor’s voice I heard.
“I will be here soon. Make straight my path.”
I asked the question that had trembled on my lips all through dinner. “Are you God?”
“…Yes. I am God.”
His pause induced in me an urgent desire for certainty. “He who created us?” I asked. “He who redeemed us?”
“I will redeem you, yes.”
“But surely we are already redeemed?”
A strange expression crossed his face, the first I had seen that could be said to reflect some emotion. Yet I couldn’t place which one. My father had never looked upon me thus. “By whom?” He enunciated these words so clearly I understood them even before Miss Eleanor spoke.
“By the blessed Christ Jesus, of course.”
A new expression rested upon my father’s face. I held up the lantern for a closer look. A faint smile distorted his distorted features. “I will redeem you better than he.” Something about the memory of that face prevents me now from capitalizing the pronoun in his speech. “I will redeem your flesh. I will redeem your bones. I will redeem everything.”
I looked to Miss Eleanor. She kept her gaze fixed upon my father’s face. The fingertips of one hand gently rested on the cold glass. The next words she whispered, her breath escaping in wisps: “Make straight my way, and you may know mercy.”
Those words could have been my father’s. He would have raised a polished wooden rod as he said them. I felt a weakness growing in my legs. I could not bear to look at his face any longer, and kept my attention on Miss Eleanor’s, which blushed warm with the chill of the twilit barn. “How can I… make straight your way?” I asked.
Miss Eleanor turned to me. I could hardly hear her voice; I hardly needed to. “Set me free.”
Though blind to it, I felt my father’s eyes bore into my temple, felt the hole he wished to drill into my brain. My mind had always been open to my father’s knowledge, except those last fatal thoughts before I carried him into the chamber. The enormity of what I’d done weighed me down. My knees buckled. I was lucky the lantern didn’t shatter, and a little sorry too. My shame immolated me as surely as flames would.
I considered my empty hands. Dimly I wondered what I had done with the pistol. But my mind revolved around the fact that with these fingers, I could free God to walk upon the earth once more. Miss Eleanor’s warning that God was unfriendly came as no surprise to me. My father was a Puritan, and warned me daily of God’s displeasure in me. I came to see the fires of hell as inevitable; why, then, delay them? I gathered my spirit, stood, and opened the valve of the pump.
“Mister Waites, you can’t!” Miss Eleanor cried. She did herself credit as a natural philosopher in recognizing so quickly the manner of operation of the mechanism. She did herself further credit in proving she’d paid more attention to where I placed the pistol than I had. She raised it with two steady hands and aimed at my father’s head. I saw that it was no longer necessary for me to turn the valve.
Miss Eleanor fired. The powder caught and exploded. For the barest fraction of a second, the barn filled with black smoke. Then with a noise like lightning striking the roof one cowers under, the glass chamber imploded, sucking in the smoke with a great wind. It swirled around the chair.
I charged into the cloud even as it cleared. My father lay in pieces, shredded by huge shards of whirling glass. But his head lay intact; the thick wall deflected Miss Eleanor’s bullet. My father’s mouth gaped like a fish; a little blood, thick as an uncooked pudding, trickled from the severed arteries. Fortunately those terrible eyes were closed, or I would never have gathered the courage to snatch up that grim visage.
I whirled to see Miss Eleanor’s form rising over the fallen lantern, wielding a shovel. I crouched under her blow, which would surely have cost me my consciousness, and bowled her over with my shoulder.
I ran in the darkness, under the unfeeling stars, into the house. Despite the pitch blackness, I knew every board and step of the place. The movements of my father’s mouth—my God’s mouth—made carrying the head loathsome. I brought it to my chambers and kindled the lantern I knew lay there.
Though no longer in the vacuum, without my father’s trunk the head’s speech was as silent as ever. Yet without Miss Eleanor, I could not hope to comprehend him in the slightest. Doubtless she fled back to the Montagues, where she will denounce me and my works.
But the mouth spoke only one word, over and over, and at last I was able to identify it: “Soon.”
There is little now to do but wait.
4 December 1687, later in the night:
I see it now. The smoke which pours up the staircase discloses Miss Eleanor’s plan. I can see from my window that the barn is already in flames. I realise that I never recovered the pistol. I am sure I know where it is, and how it would be used should I attempt to force an exit.
But there is no need. I have another pump in my room, much smaller of course, but large enough for my purposes. I will work the mechanism one last time, and place the head and these pages in the vacuum, where fire cannot touch them. The fireplace flue will protect the jar. And sooner or later, someone will open it. Curiosity will overwhelm them, and they will unseal the chamber.
My God is coming, and though he may be delayed, yet all will be redeemed in blood and darkness. My father would have wanted it no other way.
About the Author
Stewart Moore has recently published short fiction in Mysterion and Diabolical Plots, as well as a nonfiction book, Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt.
About the Narrator
Alasdair Stuart is a professional enthusiast, pop culture analyst, and writer. He is a Hugo Finalist for Best Fan Writer, and a British Fantasy Society Best Non-fiction finalist for his weekly pop culture newsletter The Full Lid.
His nonfiction can be found at numerous genre and pop culture venues, including regular columns at the Hugo Award-winning Ditch Diggers and Fox Spirit Books. His game writing includes ENie-nominated work on the Doctor Who RPG and After The War from Genesis of Legend.
He co-owns the Escape Artists Podcast Network and hosts their horror podcast, PseudoPod, along with the Hugo Award nominated science fiction podcast, Escape Pod. He is a frequent guest and presenter on podcasts, with voice acting credits including the 2019 AudioVerse Award-winning The Magnus Archives.
His second collection of expanded essays from PseudoPod, The PseudoPod Tapes Volume 2: Approach with Caution, is available from Fox Spirit Books.