April 3rd, 1856:
My succour has arrived! For over a year now I have been in London, exercising my duties in the House of Lords to aid Mr. Palmerston's government in bringing about the conclusion of the war in the Crimea. Those who have read these pages are well aware, I am certain, that I do not relish government office; the endless meetings and floor sessions and meandering speeches by whips and cross-benchers and the Lords Spiritual could drive a man to madness, and represent nothing less than utter tedium to a man as afflicted by wanderlust as I. Still, with privilege comes responsibility, and when country and party call it is my duty to don my robe, cast my vote, and maintain the proud heritage of the house of Blackwood as defenders of the church and the state.
With the Russians acquiescing to the treaty that has been signed in Paris this past Sunday, the war has ended and so has the necessity of my sitting in Parliament. No sooner had I returned to my London estate after the final meeting when Deeds informed me a caller had visited in my absence. Dr. Hightower, the astronomer, has requested that I meet him two nights from now at Greenwich for a demonstration and the discussion of a most interesting proposition. I have not heard from Dr. Hightower since our trip to Mars in 1843; if the news he has in mind to share with me is as elucidating as it was in the days leading to that adventure, then this shall be a welcome change from the quiet desperation in which I have suffered this past year.
April 6th, 1856:
It has been many years, dear reader, since I was a man young enough to stay awake all night and feel no worse for it the following day. Of course, the nature of the occupation requires that an astronomer keep odd hours; and so it was half before midnight last night when I met Dr. Hightower at the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Dr. Hightower was most excited to see me; for a man who is typically most dour and sedate, concerning himself with the abstractions of physical science, he was uncharacteristically exuberant. He spoke to me of great discoveries and unique opportunities as he ushered me upstairs to the observing chamber, where the facility's great telescope laid bare the heavens to man's prying eye. For several years, Dr. Hightower informed me, he had been busily engaged in making refinements to the telescope that allowed it to compensate for the interfering effects of our atmosphere, allowing him to observe the heavenly bodies in levels of detail never before imagined. The doctor seated me before the great device and bade me to look into the eye-piece of the telescope, which he had delicately adjusted to expose his great discovery.
I beheld, amidst the blackness of space, a massive rock, one of the many asteroids that Mr. Piazzi and his associates had discovered between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter in recent years. But unlike the copper-plate dagguerotypes that had been published in the Times, this was no barren rock adrift in the void. Save for a few tiny blotches, the entirety of the oblong body was coated in a sea of verdant greenery, the unmistakable colour of the virgin jungle. I fancied I could even see the leaves of the canopy that enveloped the miniature world, and at its pole I espied what resembled a palm tree, truly gargantuan in size, towering above the foliage of the world. This was a most interesting discovery indeed; while the famous canals of Mars had proven to be mere illusions when I visited them (and its atmosphere, I found, most unpleasant to breathe), here was proof, plain to see, that God in His wisdom had not set living things on our celestial sphere alone, but that the Galaxy itself had been seeded with the germ of life.
Dr. Hightower had first discovered the asteroid, which he had named Victoria in honour of our dear Queen, five years ago during the mania following Mr. Le Verrier's discovery of the planet Neptune several years before. He had kept his discovery secret, he told me, for he had a plan to announce its existence in a manner as grandiose as no astronomer has ever done. For four years, at his estate in Wales, Dr. Hightower has employed a team of men constructing a rocket similar to the one proposed by Mr. De Bergerac two centuries ago, larger and sturdier than the one that carried us to Mars on our previous voyage. Last week, the final preparations had been made, and the rocket now stood, fueled and ready, to escape the bonds of gravity and carry to Victoria a scientific expedition that will rival Mr. Darwin's. The astro-nauts will for several months have time to catalogue and sample the flora and fauna of Victoria and, for the first time since the discovery of Australia, return bearing knowledge of a new world, and cement the names of those explorers in the annals of history.
For months Dr. Hightower has been assembling a crew to conduct this expedition. He has pilots, cooks, archivists, writers, dagguerotypists, painters, men-at-arms, and labourers, he told me, but he wants for one thing; a naturalist to manage the exploration and scientific observation of this foreign planet, and of all the men of learning he has known, he could think of no better individual than I to play this part. How could I refuse? Today I have been busy taking stock of what I shall need. We set off for Victoria on the twenty-first, when our world shall draw the closest to Victoria that it shall be in the next thirty years, and if luck and Providence provide, we shall return by Guy Fawkes Night. It is rare that I have ventured so far from our land of hope and glory, but England shall have to endure in my absence for a time.
April 23rd, 1856:
No matter how many times I am among the stars, I shall never grow accustomed to the sensation of weightlessness. One must learn anew how to perform the simplest tasks in this environment, as if returning to infancy; how to move about, how to eat and drink, how to sleep, even how to engage the water-closet, for absent the caress of gravity the slightest unintended twitch can send one hurtling every which way, and the slightest loose drop of moisture, applied to our rocket's apparati, could spell disaster.
This morning, our vessel conducted a circuit of the Moon. Dr. Hightower explained to me that we shall use our closest neighbor's gravitational field to produce an effect not unlike a sling-shot, granting acceleration that shall enable us to reach Victoria months before we might reach it otherwise. To achieve our target, we must travel twice as far through the blackness of space as the distance that stands between our Earth and the Sun itself. Thus far, Dr. Hightower assures me, all has gone in accordance with plan, and we should reach Victoria by the first of July.
We took advantage of our approach to the Moon to make as many observations as we could. We took several dagguerotypes from the on-board telescopes, and the artists have produced depictions of the dark side which Dr. Hightower informs me are the first ever made by man. I am told that the surface of the Moon is an inhospitable place, wanting entirely for air to breathe, that a vacuum-suit would be necessary to stand upon its surface, and that it will likely be a hundred years or more before such a deed is feasible. Still, I would very much like some day to attempt it.
May 24th, 1856:
Today is the Queen's birthday, and beside that, today marks the point where we are officially half-way to the world named for her. In her honour we held a party in the rocket's cafeteria. There has been little time for frivolity on this voyage thus far; all sixty-three of us have our appointed tasks to conduct every day, for our rocket is one of the most complex and intricate devices that man has ever engaged, and we are surrounded on all sides by millions of miles of emptiness from which no salvation will come if we are remiss in our duties.
Dr. Hightower toasted the Queen as we sipped the precious rations of champagne he had stowed for specifically this occasion, and I offered a toast to science and to the progress of our Empire. I wonder, what would Her Majesty say on this occasion, if she knew that Englishmen were praising her name ninety million miles away? I spent a good deal of time contemplating this as I stared out a port-hole into the darkness, the stars holding steady in the distance as we hurtled through the cosmos at a greater velocity than man has ever imagined. One truly feels small in these expanses. How insignificant is a man, how great is the mind of God, that in a thousand lifetimes one could not hope to cross from one end of the Universe to another?
June 30th, 1856:
Today we entered into Victoria's orbit. The artists and photographers have been busy at the port-holes and telescopes, creating the first records of this unexplored Eden. I was barely able to manage a peek for a few moments before giving up my spot, and I found myself utterly rapt at the sights that laid before me. What Dr. Hightower had shown me in the telescope at Greenwich was no illusion; the surface of the asteroid, now scarcely a dozen miles beneath my feet, was indeed blanketed thick with foliage, and I even fancied briefly that I espied a bird fluttering amongst the canopy.
Tomorrow, almost all of us shall board the landing craft and embark for the surface itself, the handful of pilots remaining aboard the rocket to maintain its orbit while we catalog Victoria's wonders for the next two months. Dr. Hightower has selected a landing zone at the edge of one of the cratered regions, where there is a break in the foliage large enough to attempt a landing without fear of being obstructed by the flora. I feel as Mr. Columbus must have felt when he espied the tawny, savage people of San Salvador through his spyglass. We are on the cusp of revelation of the sort that happens but once in a lifetime; for tomorrow I, Theodore Thomas Blackwood, explorer and gentleman, shall set my foot upon the virgin soil of a new world.
July 1st, 1856:
O glorious day!
It was barely half past five, London time, when our landing craft separated from the main rocket and made its way towards the surface of Victoria. The pressure of re-entry was almost unbearable, and flames licked the windows of the craft as we descended. It was dark outside the craft when we finally impacted the edge of the crater; Victoria is of such small size, Dr. Hightower explained, and of such an irregular shape, that it takes little more than four hours for it to complete a single rotation. Day and night are brief affairs; one can almost watch the sun, from this vantage a dim and distant orb no larger than the Moon, race across the purplish sky from when it rises in the north until it sinks in the south. Because Victoria is so miniscule in relation to the Earth, Dr. Hightower had warned us that we would weigh but a tiny fraction of what we do there. Perhaps it was simply because I have become so used to weightlessness in the past two months, but I feel no lighter here than I ever have.
Shortly after we made landfall, Dr. Hightower addressed us with a matter most grave. We know not, he said, whether the environmental conditions of Victoria are conducive to human life. It is entirely possible that the air of this world is unbreathable, or that its flora exude compounds poisonous to man, or that vicious beasts stood ready to tear a man apart, or that the air itself was lousy with bacteria that would kill a man slowly from the inside. It would be necessary, he said, for a single man to expose himself to Victoria before the rest of the expedition alighted, and by his fate demonstrate whether it was safe for man to even exist on this world. It was entirely possible that that man might die, and that his death might be most slow and uncomfortable; but such a sacrifice, if it had to be made, might save fifty-six other lives. No man would be forced to make this sacrifice, Dr. Hightower said; he sought only a man who was willing to risk his life in the name of science.
I immediately volunteered myself as a guinea-pig. Dr. Hightower at first objected; I was too critical to the mission, he said, to risk my life so frivolously. I put forth the proposition that as a peer of the realm and a gentleman, I have an obligation to, as it were, lead from the fore, and that I would never dream of putting any man under my authority into a position of hazard that I was not myself willing to occupy. If Victoria was too toxic for man to explore her wonders, I argued, then there could be no further expedition to begin with; and therefore, if I died in ascertaining its safety, there was nothing lost. The men were in solid agreement with this logic, and Dr. Hightower acquiesced; shortly before eleven in the morning London time, as the sun arose over the crater's edge, I stood alone, in my finest khakis, boots, and helmet, in the landing craft's air-lock.
The hatch opened and I breathed my first breath of Victorian air. It was hot and thick, more severe even than the oppression of the Amazonian jungle, with a bitter scent not unlike cinnamon. I breathed deeply, and though it was a most labourious effort, I found it not as hostile as the choking air of Mars, nor as cruel and unyielding as the sparse atmosphere of the Himalayas. Though I stood bare and exposed on a world where man had never before dwelled, I lived. Cautiously, I made my way down the gantry and set my foot upon the earth, the treads in my boot impressing themselves in the virgin soil. How small a step for a man! How great a leap for the Empire!
The earth before me was barren and plain. Less than a mile distant I beheld the forest that blanketed Victoria; like a brick wall, it seemed to stand impenetrable, jutting hundreds of feet above the surface. The purple sky was a sharp contrast to the greenery, a vision worthy of one of the great French Impressionists. I lack the words to truly describe the sight and the emotions that ran through me as I beheld that alien landscape, and I wondered if a poet ought to have descended in my stead. With as much solemnity as I could muster, I produced from my jacket a Union Flag, mounted to a small pole, and reverentially mounted it in the earth. As the men watched eagerly from the windows of the crowded vessel, I fell to my knees in the Victorian soil and made an address, heard but by God, that I had written and revised in my mind for hours since;
I, Theodore Thomas Blackwood, CBE, 7th Viscount of Winchester, do hereby claim in perpetuity this land, the planet Victoria, in the name of Her Majesty the Queen Victoria and of her British Empire, on this, the first day of July, in the Year of Our Lord 1856, and do hereby pray to our Lord and Saviour that our expedition to this land shall be fruitful and pleasing unto Him. God save the Queen.
I remained alone on the surface of the planet for several hours, an entire Victorian sunrise and sunset occurring in the meanwhile as I took samples of the soil and documented in my journal the conditions of that world. By the time the sun rose again at half past three and the rest of the crew could see that I was alive and well, they began to alight as well. We established our base camp at the edge of the forest, which seemed to terminate at a certain point as if a line had been drawn in the sand and no plant dared extend its roots further. Tomorrow we shall begin our journey into the forest proper, and endeavour to learn what we can of this planet.
July 3rd, 1856
I once thought, dear reader, that I had beheld all there was that a man could hope to see in Creation. I have wandered the jungles of South America, and blazed trails across the frontiers of the West. I have lived among the unknown cults of India and Bangla Desh. I have trekked across the great Outback, wandered the vast and empty forests of Siberia, and lead men and dogs across the vast plateaus of Antarctica.
So I had thought, until this day. Were I to make a comparison, I would say that the Victorian forest is most like that of the rain-forests of Brazil; beneath the massive trees, little of the already sparse sunlight reaches, and were it not for our electric torches we would be altogether blind. The undergrowth is thick and impassable, and we have had to make liberal use of our machetes to cut a path into the forest. Dr. Hightower's thermometer attests that the temperature, day or night, is almost a constant one hundred and thirty degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than all but the most desolate of the Arabian wastelands. The flora here must derive their nutrition from the heat of the air, for no terrestrial plant could hope to blossom in an environment this dim. Already we have collected several hundred samples of organisms unlike none that have been seen on Earth; I imagine that Oxford itself will be set on its ear for decades in endeavouring to decrypt the nature of these organisms once we announce our findings.
To our universal surprise and delight, we have discovered this day that there is not only foliage, but that animal life exists on Victoria as well. Four-winged creatures not unlike insects flit through the air, alighting from flower to flower in the vines that cris-cross the jungle. From mounds on the earth teem thousands upon thousands of creatures that for all the world are dead ringers for the common ants one may find anywhere on Earth. We collected many samples of the insect life. The ants, however, responded with great hostility when we attempted to examine them; Mr. Andrews, one of the junior biologists in the mission, was suddenly set upon by thousands of the creatures when he attempted to examine their nest, and found himself suffering a toxic condition as the result of their bite. As we have yet to encounter any megafauna, I am beginning to suspect that the ants are the dominant organism of this world. I have often felt a curious rhythm emanating from the earth whenever I approach their nests, and I suspect that some subterranean machinery may be to account.
July 11th, 1856:
Today our expedition reached the base of the giant tree at Victoria's pole. It has been less than ten miles from the landing site to the tree's base; the jungle, however, has proven so thick that cutting our way through the thick vines has proven a full-time occupation for many of the men. We have observed yet no larger animals than the dragon-flies of this world; as thick as the various and entangled vines of the flora are, I doubt that any larger animals could even evolve here.
We have named this great tree the Major Oak, in reference to that ancient tree in Sherwood where Robin Hood and his band of outlaws held court. It is indeed, as I first considered it from telescope, very similar to the rare palms that grow along the tropical coast, but unlike those plants it is truly massive; it stands some four hundred feet tall, and seven of the men with their arms outstretched were barely able to encircle it.
I have taken several core samples from the Major Oak, and would have willingly climbed her myself to acquire a sample of her fronds. But I am not the young man that I once was, and it was decided that Mr. Edelman, a junior biologist late of Cambridge, would perform that obligation. I watched in stunned silence with the men as he shimmied up that massive trunk which must have taken millennia to become what it is today, and saluted us with a single thumb cast skyward as he reached the top of the organism.
As I sit here writing in my tent at the base of the Major Oak, I find it impossible to believe that we have made such incredible breakthroughs in so many days. What will they say, I wonder, when we return to Earth, and the proof of our exploration is published, plain for the world to see, in every periodical from San Francisco to Peking? Perhaps I shall finally earn the knighthood that I long have coveted; but no temporal honour is greater than the knowledge that the progress of science and reason, and of the glory of the British Empire, has been advanced by my efforts.
July 27th, 1856:
A most terrible calamity has befallen us this day. Half past six in the morning, at the second sunrise of the day, we heard a strange sound in the distance, a droning sound barely liminal at first, that slowly grew louder and more ominous. It seemed to come from the direction of the sunrise. Mr. Andrews held his binoculars to the horizon and espied a terrible doom - a swarm of insects, not unlike the common locust, voraciously devouring everything in its path and moving with great speed toward our base camp!
We have not yet seen this type of swarming behavior from the Victorian fauna, and in any event we had little time to study it, for in fifteen minutes they descended upon us. We scrambled to move as much equipment into the landing craft as we could, for what we left behind, the creatures devoured or destroyed. Poor Mr. Jacobs did not make it to the air-lock in time, and I watched in horror as hundreds of the insects enveloped him and stripped him to the bone in seconds. Minutes later, the swarm was gone and we emerged to survey the destruction.
We are fortunate to have lost little of our research; however, we have lost many of our tents and a good deal of food and fresh water. Worst of all, the engines of the landing craft themselves have been compromised; Mr. Darren, the pilot, says we cannot now take off to rejoin our rocket in orbit, and it shall have to be repaired if we are to have any hope of ever leaving this world.
For now, my work continues as it has. Many of the men have been assigned to rebuild the engines; the rest of us shall continue to study and observe, and pray for their success. Dr. Hightower says that the rocket must begin its return to Earth no later than the first of November, lest the distance between our worlds become so great that the trip would be years in the taking. The doctor is confident that the engines can be repaired, and that we should be homeward bound by September. A more immediate concern, however, is that we now have but two weeks worth of food left to us, and with the landing craft out of commission there is no way to bring more from the rocket, or even alert them to our distress. The water that flows in creeks and rivulets upon this world, and dribbles from the trees like morning dew, has proven safe to drink; but if we are to endure on Victoria until summer's end, we shall have to determine which of the native organisms are safe to eat.
NOTE TO THE READER:
At Mr. Blackwood's request, I have heavily revised and edited the following two entries in this journal. As Mr. Blackwood had at the time come under the unfortunate effects of consuming Victoria's native flora, he was not of sound mind when he wrote these pages. The following entries contained numerous errors in spelling and standardized sentence structure, rambling and incoherent tangents of an incomprehensible nature, and several vulgarities which Mr. Blackwood is not proud of, and partway through the second entry he had abandoned the English language entirely and began to write in Chinese.
I have translated and standardized the spelling throughout, and expunged those portions which Mr. Blackwood has asked me to omit. I have done my best to maintain his genteel and scholarly tone, and to describe the state of mind he was in at the time. I hope the reader will not feel that I have taken any undue liberties.
August 16th, 1856:
It is difficult to write at this time. Though the affliction I suffer is less severe than many of the men, I find my mind clouded and confused, and it is a Herculean effort to keep my thoughts clear enough to express.
We spent several days in experimentation with the native foodstuffs. Several of the vines and fruits were poisonous, and five of the men died most uncomfortable deaths. We eventually discovered several of the larger vines bear sweet and savoury vegetables that could be eaten and digested without discomfort, and were indeed not unpleasant in taste. We feasted liberally that night, though at Dr. Hightower's request the men working on the engines were to abstain for fear of a long-term effect that might impair their critical work. His judgment may yet save us all.
Several days after we began eating the native food, we began to turn green. It was a minor pallour at first, like that of a jaundiced man, but with time it grew more severe. Some of the men who have eaten the most are almost the same colour as the trees themselves. The colouring itself seemed to bear no more malicious effects along with it, however. Dr. Hightower assured us it was safe to continue eating, but I voluntarily cut my rations at that time. I have been eating only sparingly the last two weeks, and have lost a considerable amount of weight.
A few days after that, the men began going mad. At first they complained of having difficulty in cognition (as I now do myself) and claimed hallucinations. Later they began speaking in nonsense entirely; several of them seem to sit for hours and have conversations in utter gibberish. A few have taken to frolicking naked amongst the trees and rolling in the dirt, referring to the plants as their "sisters" and attempting to court them as if they were eligible ladies. Dr. Hightower has been spending his time by the largest ant-hills; he claims the ants are heathens, and that he intends to convince them of the righteousness of Christianity. He sits for hours with his ear to the ground, the ants crawling around and over him, reading aloud from the New Testament; as I write, he is currently on the seventeenth chapter of Acts. (Curiously enough, I had always understood Dr. Hightower to be of the Jewish faith.)
I pray the engineers have our vessel repaired soon, for I fear the men may be beyond saving if we remain here much longer. I had to shoot two of the men yesterday; they had come to the determination that our landing craft was a "great metallic devil" and had to be slain, and were attempting to chew their way through the wires of an instrument panel. We are almost out of terrestrial food; the engineers may have to begin eating Victorian foliage in a day or two, and choose between madness or starvation. Either way, we are surely doomed. We came to Victoria to explore in peace; instead, we may remain here to rest in peace.
September 8th, 1856:
Dr. Hightower's madness may have saved us after all. I awoke from a stupour this afternoon, having collapsed in a stream by our base camp, only to find myself in the air, being carried by a blanket of ants. I looked up and saw that ants were swarming over what remained of our camp by the millions; streams of them coming from every which direction, and making their way to our ship. I feared that they intended to finish the job the locusts had begun; but not one of the men made any sound of distress, and I found that I had not a single bite upon me. The ants were carrying men by the dozens and loading them into our lander, and carrying other objects as well; great hunks of metal, and tools the likes of which I have never beheld before. They crawled in and out of the damaged engines. By God, they were repairing them!
In less than two hours, Mr. Gregory, the engineer, a man now emaciated and half-starved for want of food, reported that the engines had come alive and our escape was possible. Not all of the men were aboard, but we saw no sign of the others; either they have perished, or run off into the forest in utter madness. In any event, those of us of sound enough mind voted and decided we could not spare another day to search for them; we have been given an opportunity, and we must make use of it. I caught a final glimpse of the Union Flag I had planted in the soil in July as we lifted off, the twenty-six of us that were left abandoning the mad planet Victoria for the last time.
December 12th, 1856:
The journey back home was a long and arduous one, but I have never felt so relieved to be back in London as I was when Deeds greeted me at the door with a nip of brandy and my favorite silk pyjamas. With as few of us in possession of our faculties as there were at the outset, it was nearly impossible to operate the rocket safely; many of us did not sleep for days. Fortunately, once liberated from the planet and its madness-inducing flora, the men began to recover their senses, and our flesh acquired once again a healthy shade. Most of the men remember little of the time they were under the influence of those horrid crops. Dr. Hightower, I fear, may not recover fully; he is lucid, indeed, but he lacks the sharp mind and cleverness he once had, and shall be retiring to the country.
When I spoke to him the day before last, we agreed for now that it is best not to publish our full findings on Victoria. Any attempt to colonize that land will surely end in disaster; and if the culture of the ants is as advanced and sophisticated as it seems, they could oppress and conquer our Empire as easily as the rebellions in India and Zululand of late have been put down. I shall keep the samples and notes we acquired at my country estate for safe-keeping; perhaps in a few decades, when we better understand the chemistry of those organisms, another adventure might be advisable.
Deeds was seeing to the cleaning and mending of the clothes I had brought on that ill-fated expedition today when he informed me that several live ants had crawled out a pocket and escaped through a crack in the wall. It is entirely possible they were nothing more than ordinary insects, but I wonder; after so many of the Victorian ants crawled over and through our ship repairing our systems, how many stow-aways might we have brought back with us?