Thursday, 20 June 2013

The Diary of Howard Phillips


June 20th ‘06

We made camp at the edge of the great crater I have named Victoria. Her sheer size is difficult to fathom. If she is the outcome of some titanic impact, I shudder to think of the damage that must have ensued from that great conflagration. No. I think Victoria is what remains of an inland sea. One of the goals of our expedition is to prove or disprove this assertion, and I hope to find some evidence to that effect.
The native guides we hired at the last village abandoned us last night, thankfully leaving our supplies and pack mules intact. The locals are superstitious, and terrified of the region we call The Sick Land. In a way, I can understand their trepidation. Without the comforting blanket of science, the strange creatures and occurrences here must be terrifying. I suppose it is yet another burden of the advanced civilisations to explore this land, and to help the locals understand the fascinating region in which they live.

June 21st ‘06

We begin our journey into Victoria tomorrow. Today, we searched for the easiest descent. The sides are sheer, and difficult to scale; we have the equipment and expertise for a full climb, but I argued that it should be avoided if possible. The risk is unnecessary given the ease of finding a simpler path. Due to her enormous circumference, it was impossible for us to find the easiest route down. Instead, we spent three hours hiking clockwise around the rim, returned to camp for lunch, then hiked for three hours anti-clockwise. We returned to the camp at dusk with a reasonable way down the crater. I had to defend my method against Hodgson, who vouchsafed that we should circle the entire crater to find our path. Hodgson quickly withdrew his complaint when I pointed out that the best outcome of his plan would be that we spend months dragging the mules in a circle, before returning to our starting point and descending there. If the optimum point proved to be on the opposite side, we would have to spend months more returning.
Satisfied with my triumph, I treated myself to one of the cigars from our dwindling supply of tobacco.

June 22nd ‘06

We have made camp on a flat, rocky outcrop halfway down our path into Victoria. The mules are secured to a piton driven into the ground at the centre of the camp. The beasts are loyal, but they are also stupid, and we can’t afford to lose any more: one perished today. It took with it one of our tents, a cask of water, and half our supply of quinine. The hapless beast also pulled my assistant Edgar to his demise. Edgar was a passable technician, but he had no real insight for archaeology. He once thought he’d found the missing link between man and ape whilst on a dig in Borneo; how we laughed when I pointed out that he’d merely found the skull of an orang-utan!
I shan’t mourn Edgar. Had he been more adept at guiding his mule, it would have stayed the path, and he would be sat with us around the cheery camp fire, smoking the pipe of which he was so fond, under the strange stars that orbit this peculiar part of the Earth.

June 23rd ‘06

We completed our descent into Victoria an hour before sunset. The scenery, while not conventionally beautiful, is possessed of a stark majesty that reminds me of the great deserts of Africa and North America, or the mountainous regions of Asia. The land is far from verdant; there are no animals here that we have seen or heard, and the few plants visible from our camp by the crater wall are thin and scrubby.
Hodgson was chipping pieces of stone from the crater all the way down. The high-pitched sound of his rock hammer is my only source of annoyance. I am inestimably grateful that the weather, if not clement, is at least tolerable, and that there does not seem to be the abundance of insects that so torments one on trips to the rainforests or swamps. In fact, as far as I have noticed, there is no insect life here. Perhaps the absence of water is the explanation. We have brought plenty, even with the loss of the cask yesterday, but unless we find a spring, our expedition will be cut short.

June 24th ‘06

The rocks here are encrusted with salt! I do not know how I missed this fascinating detail yesterday; perhaps I was mesmerised by the brutal scenery, or by the incessant sound of Hodgson’s hammering. There are layers of crystallised salt on many of the larger boulders: a clear sign that where we stand was once under salt water. My theory is greatly supported by this finding, and I fear I may have been somewhat uncharitable to Arthur, Hodgson’s assistant, who is a great proponent of the celestial body theory. No matter; Arthur will soon arouse himself from his sulk, as there are new discoveries around every corner of this exciting region.
As I sit by the fire drawing on my pipe, I cannot help but be reminded of the strength of opposition that was levelled against me when I first proposed to lead a new expedition into The Sick Land. The survival of explorers in this area is worse than in darkest Africa, and there had been talk of banning all expeditions. When I present my findings to the Royal Society, I fully expect a new wave of researchers to journey here, and for The Sick Land to reveal its secrets to the irresistible strength of the scientific mind. This shall be my small piece of immortality!

June 25th ‘06

We have located a spring! Around noon, as I led the expedition, I spotted a glittering reflection. I have always trusted my eyes, which are keen and practised, but The Sick Land can be tricky. Illusions and mirages are as commonplace as they are in the desert, and the madness that afflicts the locals and the weaker-minded Englishman can trick an unwary traveller. I led the group forward, and soon it was apparent that we were approaching an oasis. In the absence of any hired natives, Arthur tried the water. It was fresh! We refilled our canteens and casks, and marked the location on the rudimentary map Hodgson is making. He is no cartographer, but it will do until the land can be properly surveyed.
With our water supply secure, we are free to explore this unknown land and retrieve whatever secrets it can be made to divulge. I think we shall aim to stay for six months; there must be food somewhere in this wilderness, but if needs be, we can subsist on the hard rations we have brought with us. It will not be easy, but the joy of science will sustain us!

June 26th ‘06

Hodgson has fallen ill. The old fool spent yesterday drinking what seemed like gallons of the water from the spring, and even soaked his biscuits and dried beef in it. He has been complaining that the rations are too hard for his teeth since we embarked. I doubt that the water caused his illness – the rest of us have been unaffected – but it may have contributed to the general effect this place has on more fragile minds. Hodgson has spent the day curled in his blankets, shivering and sweating, convinced he can see some sort of giant creature. It would be next to no use to explain to the feverish buffoon that there aren’t any creatures here, giant or otherwise. I hope he recovers for tomorrow. Today’s delay has left me itching to begin my investigation of the area, and I’ve already spotted a likely site for us to begin our dig. If Hodgson hasn’t fought off his illness, I’m of a mind to leave him here. Arthur would be loath to abandon him, but I think the lure of scientific investigation would overcome his misplaced loyalty.

June 27th ‘06

Success! My persistence has reaped a reward greater than even I could have imagined. Hodgson was able to sit on a mule today, while we travelled to my chosen site to begin the dig. He was next to useless as an archaeologist, but I have come to expect that. We passed a pleasant day digging in a flat area of red clay. I chose it because it looked easier to dig than the darker earth elsewhere.
With dusk fast approaching, it looked as if our day’s searching had been in vain; no one had discovered the slightest trace of anything interesting. With the light waning, the others spoke of returning to the camp we had made next to the oasis. I knew better though; my instincts are well honed for this type of endeavour. I made a final, valiant effort in a virgin corner of the area we had staked out. My fast, experienced spade work paid off: I uncovered bones! We left shortly after, secure in the knowledge that we shall return tomorrow to uncover what lies beneath.

June 28th ‘06

The bones belong to a whale! My theory is vindicated! The whale is of a species with which I am unfamiliar: its cranium seems vastly out of proportion with its body, which is relatively small. Uncovering the whale yielded another discovery: the leviathan’s last meal had been fossilised within its stomach! The belly contains a plethora of skeletons from fish, eels, and other sea creatures. Many have features that are not seen outside of The Sick Land, such as unusual proportions, or oddly shaped appendages. This haul will win me the acclaim of the Royal Society, and set the study of this area forward in a great leap!
My mind boggles at the thought of the great sea that was once here. The presence of creatures like the whale suggests that it was linked, at least originally, to the ocean, for such things could not, presumably, evolve in the confines of Victoria. What other bizarre fauna might have swum in those dark depths? I pray they left fossils as complete as that left by the whale.
When we returned to the camp, our hearts filled with joy at our successes, we found Hodgson dead. We had left him when his illness grew worse, and he succumbed while we were away.

June 29th ‘06

A strange finding today. We have begun mapping the interior edge of the crater. With Hodgson and Edgar gone, we have an abundance of supplies, and more time to explore than I had thought. Circling the inside of the crater is now a possibility, and a worthy one. We broke camp and loaded the mules before first light; without the weight of the two dead men, we can carry the bones without a problem. We trekked for an hour to reach the inside of the crater, and followed it around anti-clockwise, breaking for a quick lunch at noon before continuing. Around four, Arthur shouted for my attention. We had just passed an area where the rock face jutted out. Arthur happened to glance back, and spotted the curiosity.
The curiosity is at least a hundred feet high, and some forty feet wide. It is made of smooth, flat stone embedded in the otherwise rough and craggy side of the crater. It differs in colour from the rest of the rock in Victoria, being a grey that borders on light blue. I do not believe he is correct in any way, but the image may prove helpful: Arthur said that, upon seeing the curiosity, his first intuition was that it was a gigantic door.

June 30th ‘06

We made camp away from the curiosity, which I refuse to refer to as a door, despite Arthur’s persistence. Neither of us had any desire to sleep near the monstrous thing. When we awoke this morning, we were both afflicted with terrible lethargy and nausea. I pray that whatever has struck us down is not that which killed Hodgson. The symptoms seem remarkably similar. Arthur is worse than I, which makes little sense, as he is younger than me by two decades. I presume that the robust physique I have developed from a lifetime of rugged outdoor pursuits has made me more resistant to disease; Arthur is near-sighted and pale from studying with Hodgson.
I availed myself of a canteen of water that did not come from the spring in Victoria. Unfortunately, there is not enough for Arthur to drink too. I hope for Arthur’s sake that it is not the water causing our illness, as he has been trying to avoid a fever by drinking plenty. As I sit here wrapped in my blanket, I do not feel feverish; perhaps I shall feel better in the morning.

July 1st ‘06

Arthur and I were fully recovered when we awoke this morning. He made some show of claiming he was still ill, but I brushed his objections aside. The young and the working man alike, of which Arthur is both, will use any excuse to try and shirk the labour their station has assigned them. While he sat pretending to shiver beneath a sodden blanket, I warmed myself with some bracing calisthenics. I felt wholly restored following a good night’s sleep, and, indeed, stronger and fitter than I have felt for years. The fresh air and exercise must be doing my physiology a world of good. Arthur, though recovered to my practised eye, looked like he had slept poorly. I suspect he may have stayed up with his nose buried in a book, or maybe even helped himself to some of the gin from the bottle I keep in one of the saddlebags. I have often thought that Arthur has the look of a clandestine tippler. Tomorrow, we shall continue our journey around the edge of the crater, starting at Arthur’s so-called door.

July 2nd ‘06

By some infernal mechanism, the door stands open! This morning, we broke camp and headed off toward the edge of Victoria, Arthur complaining bitterly that he was still unwell, but looking healthy. As we approached the outcropping of rock that holds the door, I felt ill at ease; in hindsight, it seems that some instinct of mine, perhaps one I have developed through my years of experience in dangerous places, sought to warn me of what was coming.
As we rounded the outcropping, we saw darkness where the door had been. Racing ahead of Arthur, I found the great stone door open. It had swung back into the rock, and now stood at the beginning of a great darkness. I approached as closely as I dared, but could see nothing in the blackness beyond. Arthur, swaying atop a mule and still wrapped in his blanket came more slowly upon the scene. When he saw it, he took great fright, and was struck by a wave of nausea. When the wave passed, I helped him back to his mule and we returned to camp. Tomorrow, we shall pack appropriate equipment and explore the darkness behind the door.

July 3rd ‘06

A most fruitful day’s investigation! We roused ourselves early in the morning and embarked at daybreak. Arthur is still weak from yesterday’s episode, but I insisted he accompany me, to share in the scientific glory of this escapade. And glorious it was! We lit torches outside the doorway and entered the darkness with trepidation, but our boldness was soon rewarded.
The area behind the door resembles nothing so much as a corridor. The corridor is shaped as the door: high, and comparatively narrow. The walls and floor of the corridor are composed of the same rock as the crater’s edge, not the blue-grey stone of the door. We made it no further than the beginning of the corridor, though, because what we found there occupied us for the rest of the day.
The walls of the corridor are painted with crude pictograms, or cave paintings, much like those found on cave walls in central Europe. As well as the standard pictures of stick men hunting stick antelope, we found fascinating stylised pictures that might well represent the first attempts at fantastic art. By fantastic art, I mean pictures that represent no real situation, but are purely based in the imagination of the artist. It fills me with wonder to think of some primitive daubing the wall thousands of years ago in one of the earliest instances of the creative impulse in our species.
The same impulse that drove Shakespeare, Milton, and Dickens, provoked this savage to paint stick figures fleeing in terror from a disembodied mouth, and to render them as if they were flying through the stars to throw spears at the sun.
What we have found so far within Victoria would be enough to guarantee a lifetime of scientific papers, exhibitions, and books, as well as all the speaking engagements for which I could find time. But my mind grows excited by the thought of what might lie deeper within this fascinating tunnel. Perhaps something within will shed some light on what created this huge, regular chamber, and how the giant door came to stand at the end. Arthur seems reluctant to venture farther into the corridor, but I pooh-poohed his complaints as the customary lack of adventure of his bookish type. Tomorrow we shall travel deeper!

July 4th ‘06

The discoveries continue! Today we travelled deeper into the corridor, past the cave paintings at the entrance, to the point where the daylight behind us was barely visible. It is interesting to think that the corridor continues approximately in a straight line, and without ascending or descending. I cannot guess how far outside Victoria it travels.
What we found today would have been most interesting to our amateur geologist, Hodgson, had he lived to see it. As we passed outside the range of the natural light, we found ourselves surrounded on all sides by blue crystal. The crystal is not polished and clear like a sapphire; rather, it resembles a thick, blue liquid bubbling up from some chemical experiment. The crystal glows faintly with an inner luminescence that is quite striking. It would not be practical to navigate by the light of the crystal, but it is beautiful in the darkness. I chipped a few pieces off to take home to London. Sadly, the light died when the crystal was chipped away, but no matter.
Arthur insisted that we explore no deeper, as the day was almost over. I, in turn, insisted that we break camp in the morning and move to the mouth of the cave. That way, we will be able to find every wonder that lies in this magnificent cavern.  

July 5th ‘06

After moving the camp to the entrance of the cavern, we travelled deeper. The blue crystal continued for half a mile before ending abruptly. The guttering light of our torches revealed that the ground in front of us was riddled with holes. The holes are almost perfectly circular, some six feet in diameter. They are very deep. The torch light is insufficient to see the bottom, and dropping stones down the shaft yields no sound of impact. Of course, they cannot be bottomless; such fancy is the purview of the primitive. They are, however, deep enough that the sound is inaudible. I briefly considered lowering Arthur on a rope, to see if he could make out the bottom of a shaft; his physical condition is not up to such an endeavour, I fear.
Arthur is worse today. His health appears to have deteriorated with his proximity to the corridor. The sound of the man’s sniffling and snivelling is almost intolerable. Unfortunately for him, I have determined that we must make camp within the corridor if we are to explore the depths. The distances are too great to continue travelling in and out each day. We shall return to the entrance, and move the camp to the area between the crystal and the holes tomorrow morning. Arthur shall have to maintain a stiff upper lip.

July 6th ‘06

Beyond the holes, I have made my greatest discovery yet. The corridor widens into an enormous chamber, so large that the torch light reaches not the ceiling or the walls. In the centre of this gigantic room is an enormous block made of the same stone as the door. All manner of bizarre symbols are carved into the stone. I attempted to copy down a sample, but I found that my eyes could not linger on the individual details. The symbols began to swim and melt away before me. I considered taking a rubbing, but none of the symbols were within my reach. Whoever carved them must have had access to some form of scaffold. When I was standing by the vast artefact, I could see that lichen was growing within the carved symbols. Again, I would have like to have taken a sample, but they were outside of my reach.
Arthur expired during the night, and I threw his body down one of the holes near our camp.

July 7th ‘06

I returned to camp after today’s exploration to find it in disarray. My equipment was strewn around and broken, the water poured away and the food smeared on the ground. The mules had been eviscerated in the most horrific manner. They had to be dragged into the cave, and trembled continuously once they were inside. Perhaps it is a mercy that they are dead. I suppose there is little chance that I will return to London now. The journey back to civilisation is long and perilous, and impossible without food, water, and transport.
Beyond the chamber of the stone block is smaller cave. This cave is noticeably colder than elsewhere, and icicles hang from the ceiling. It is dominated by a huge pool of inky liquid. I am unsure whether it is discoloured water, or some other substance. It feels silky on the hands, and denser than water. The liquid is warmer than its surroundings, and has a faint taste of rotted fruit. My head began to spin after I drank, and I found the second handful to have a much more refined taste, like an expensive brandy.

July 8th ‘06

I have spent the day drinking from the pool and staring into its mysterious depths. Whenever I begin to shiver from the freezing surroundings, I drink from the pool and it warms me to my core. Lights have begun to sparkle beneath the surface. I feel that I can almost see the faces of my parents and my beloved grandmother. The pool invites me to swim in its warmth, to release myself from the cares and troubles of my exhausted body. To be enveloped in that silken embrace would be to enter heaven.
As I stare at the pool, I can almost feel myself leave my body and soar to the ceiling. From there, I can see that the pool is circular, and resembles nothing so much as the pupil of some tremendous eye. What things would an eye such as this have seen?
I can feel my resolve to dive into the pool strengthening. The sparkling lights draw closer and beckon to me, like a lighted window on a cold winter’s evening. Soon, I shall finish writing and swim to my destiny. No one shall find this diary. I have gained some degree of knowledge from the pool, and I know the door to this strange place is once again closed. No matter. My life became complete when I found this pool. All that remains, is to dive.    


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