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Episode Forty-Four: OVERHEAD

Hello and welcome to the Mistholme Museum of Mystery, Morbidity and Mortality. This audio tour guide will be your constant companion in your journey through the unknown and surreal.

As you approach our exhibits, the audio tour guide will provide you with information and insights into their nature and history.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the exhibits.

Do not attempt to interact or communicate with the audio tour guide. If you believe that the audio tour guide may be deviating from the intended tour program, please deposit your audio device in the nearest incinerator.

While the staff here at Mistholme Museum of Mystery Morbidity and Mortality do their absolute best to ensure the safety of all visitors, accidents can happen. The museum is not liable for any injury, death, or klat sdrawkcab modnaR that may occur during your visit.

Enjoy your tour.

And good luck.

 

 

The Fata Morgana

CONTENT WARNINGS: Disappearance, Spousal Abandonment, Social Isolation.

 

There are many tales of bizarre happenings at sea. Ocean voyages are lengthy, and the sailors who make them do so regularly, so it is only natural that tall tales will be told and retold until they are quite unlike the incidents that inspired them- if they ever happened at all. But then there are the true stories. There are plenty of those, too. The ocean is the least explored and least understood place on earth, so it makes sense that there is so much we don’t understand about it. This exhibit falls into this category only on a technicality, however, as it does not actually take place in the sea: it takes place above it. Before you is a desk, a handsomely appointed wooden make that is over a century old. You can see on the right hand are assorted writing implements and sheets of paper- all blank, as the Written Word is quite forbidden in the Museum. On the left is a framed portrait of a pretty young woman. And in the centre of the desk is an envelope, a writing-free stand-in for a letter, written by one Arthur Welles. A professor in Natural History who had relocated to Australia a handful of months prior to writing this letter, he had intended to work at a university and live there with his wife Margaret, a quiet and unremarkable life. But in the end, he never set foot in a classroom. And by the time his wife arrived, having stayed behind in England while Arthur was to prepare for her arrival, Arthur had disappeared. This letter was all the explanation he gave her, and I will recite it now: the tale of Arthur’s encounter with the Fata Morgana.

Dear Heart,

I am writing this letter, knowing it will never be sent. Our home sits empty so very far away, and as I write this you are aboard some cramped and awful vessel traversing near the world’s full circumference to be with me once more. Instead you will find another empty home, and an unsent letter filled to bursting with a regret that still cannot describe in fullness that which now I feel. I bequeath to you all the wealth I leave behind, and I am sure that a sterling and headstrong woman such as yourself will be able to find your way without me. If you find yourself in need of assistance, my old friend Billingsley over at the University will be sure to lend it. You may remember him and his wife from some formal engagements back home, and he is a steadfast fellow; though I fear he will not be able to explain what became of me. Not even I can accomplish that feat, in truth. Of all my many regrets, this is the one felt most keenly: that you will go the rest of your days without truly understanding where I went and for what purpose. Even as I write this letter attempting to explain it I know that I will fall short, for the simple fact that I do not understand it myself. Even so, I will endeavour to do so to the best of my abilities. Perhaps this will grant you a measure of peace in the years to come, though I fear it will only make your heart yearn ever more greatly for closure.

My downfall began even before I had reached what was to be our new home. On the long and tedious voyage I often found myself wandering the deck, observing the vast and endless ocean that stretched on to the horizon in all directions. I would converse with the sailors about their craft, and while at the beginning of our journey they rebuffed my attempts at conversation, by the midpoint they had long since been worn down. They taught me how they climbed the rigging, and a few basic knots. I knew that they resented my treatment of their lives as novelty but they had few places they could avoid me. It was toward the end of our journey that I sighted it: a long and distant patch of what could only be land, spread out along the distant horizon to the ship’s larboard side- the men had thoroughly disabused me of such notions as “Left” and “Right” by this point. I cried out in surprise- not least because we were still some weeks from our destination, which should have been to our starboard side. I summoned the attention of the captain and indicated to him this unexpected landmass, asking him where we were. To my surprise and consternation he simply laughed, claiming that I had merely fallen for some trick of the light! Apparently this was not the first time he himself had seen such a thing, although it was far from common. He claimed that he had even seen ships larger than his own soar through the air on invisible wings- obviously preposterous, and yet there was no indication that he was attempting to hoodwink me. Eventually, the phantom landmass faded from view, and I must admit it did so in a way incongruous with merely passing below the horizon.

And yet even after it disappeared, it continued to loom large in my mind. Upon arrival in port I stopped only briefly at my rooms before heading for the university. Billingsly and I shared coffee and tales of my journey there, though there were few that were interesting. And so, I retold my encounter with the phantom land, which the ship’s captain had claimed to be an illusion. Billingsly recognised the thing that I described, although he had not seen it with his own eyes. He referred to it as a Fata Morgana, after the ancient sorceress Morgan Le Fay, and described the arcane mechanism by which varying hot and cold air flows cause the light itself to warp and shift. I understood little, but accepted that someone who understood such things understood it. And perhaps that might have been the end of my interest in this matter. Would that it were.

Perhaps a week later, as I awoke late in my rooms to the sound of the native birds and the light of the sun streaming in through my window, I saw it again. The view from my bedroom was quite something, facing out over the coast and the endless sea. Ever shifting and yet utterly regular, I had expected it to be one of the greater perks of our new home. And yet, there it was, hovering over the distant horizon, as if it were taunting me with its mere existence. The Fata Morgana. It was not, in this instance, an amorphous blob that recalled to the mind the shape of land as it had been when I first laid eyes upon it. Instead, as I stared out of the window at the ocean waves, I saw floating above them a ship not unlike that upon which I had arrived not so long ago. Its form seemed to shift and ripple with the breeze, and yet had I been standing closer I knew somehow that I would have been able to touch it. I watched for some time, until a cloud passed before the sun and the ship was gone, leaving only a bare horizon, and the after image of the ship burned into my mind.

Once again, I spoke to Billingsly. If he was concerned about my sudden fascination he did not show it; we are both academics, of course, we could talk forever about the obscurities of the world. Apparently, the ship I had seen was just over the horizon, and the light was bent or some such thing. I paid even less attention this time, I fear. The notion that this thing I had seen was just some illusion, a mere mirage, had already become somehow ridiculous to me. I had seen it with my own eyes twice in such a short space of time- something which the captain had told me was rare! It was too unlikely to be coincidence, the image too tangible to be a trick of the light. I had to know more. And so I told my colleagues at the University that I would be putting off the beginning of my work there for personal reasons. I was having difficulty settling into this new climate or somesuch. They readily accepted this excuse, for which I was grateful and for which I now accurse them.

At first, it seemed as though any experimentation would be stymied by the rarity of this phenomenon. How, you may ask, could I research something that only appeared sporadically? For all my distractedness, however, I had paid enough attention to Billingsly that I recalled the environmental factors that could lead to a Fata Morgana forming. As such, I was able to observe several in the weeks that followed, both from the shore and from the small boats I hired to take me out and observe the phenomena. To the crews of these boats, I claimed I was a scientist; not wholly inaccurate, but I fear that I was not doing this in the name of any kind of science. I was a man obsessed. With each and every Fata Morgana I saw it seemed to draw closer, as though if we just went far enough to the east I could reach it, reach out with my bare hand and touch it. It always seemed as though the crew turned back just a little too soon, making no attempt to hide their belief that we were sailing toward nothing. My new salary from the University was generous, but as I had not yet begun any work there I elected not to push things too far financially. The price of hiring a boat and crew were not insignificant, and increased rapidly at the sailor’s whim.

And so I acquired a dinghy of my own, and set about learning to pilot it. It was an older vessel, soon to retire, but it was within the realm of affordability so it suited my purposes. Every day I would sail out to the east, toward the Fata Morgana that remained tantalisingly close, and yet just out of reach. I sailed further than any of the crews I had hired had cared to, further every time I went out. I like to think I became quite the sailor in this time, as my skin became darker from the sun, my hands harder from the ropes. I assume at some point the University fired me. I wasn’t around to do the work they’d hired me for, I certainly wasn’t around to receive my notice of termination. I cared not at all. And then one day, in the late afternoon, a storm rolled into port. Savage gusts of wind tore roofs from houses, allowing the endless rainfall to pour in. Thunder and lightning broke the sky. I was at the docks at the time; I had been readying my dinghy for another journey out to sea when the skies had darkened as clouds blotted out the sun. As the rain soaked me to my skin I stowed the rigging and packed away my supplies, frustrated but accepting that my investigation would not progress that day. Then, as I glanced over my shoulder at the horizon, I saw it. Illuminated in a split second by a bolt of lightning, as distant as it had ever been and yet so much closer. My Fata Morgana. I could not quite make out its form through the darkness and rain, but I had seen it so many times that there was little chance I could be mistaken. It was quite impossible for the Fata Morgana to appear in such conditions, and yet there it was. I had an idiot notion that it was beckoning me toward it, and there was no part of me that could resist. I leapt into my dinghy, pulled in the lines, and began to row. I could hear fellows on the dock calling out to me, calling me mad. They were quite correct, of course. I rowed on, and on, out to sea. The wind and rain buffeted me, waves taller than the little boat’s mast crashed down around me, but on I went. Up and down the waves and each time I reached the peak I saw my Fata Morgana. It was getting closer. Not in the same nonsensical way as before. It was growing closer, there could be no mistake. I began to think that maybe, somehow, I was going to reach my destination and understand it all at last. And then a wave taller even than the rest came crashing down on my pathetic vessel, and all the rest is darkness.

I awoke in what remained of my dinghy, bobbing gently on the surface of a calm sea. The mast was gone, though thankfully the oars remained in their locks. I looked around to see where it was that I had been deposited by the waves. A colossal staircase rose above me, disappearing into the clouds on high. When I turned my head away, the stair vanished, only to return when I turned back. I could not possibly begin to describe its appearance, only that it was as though the light and the rain had somehow conspired to become solid and incorporeal at the same time. My dinghy butted up against the base of the stair; my baffled mind knew that it should have been carried away by the ocean tide, and yet it sat there as if waiting for me to alight. And so I did. I set foot upon the stair and found it to be solid enough beneath me, and then I climbed. I climbed until all memory of a life before this stair seemed trivial, false. And then I reached the summit. Again, my love, I must apologise. I have not the words for what I saw in that place that was above the clouds, beyond them. There were people there, and yet they were unlike me or any other I had seen in all my life. It was as if their faces were upside down and inside out, or perhaps back to front- but no less human. Perhaps the difference was below the surface, or perhaps it was simply in my imagination. They looked at me with distrust, but also familiarity. They were not hostile to my presence as I walked their strange streets, explored their uncanny world. I sampled their food, which tasted of the memory of something I hadn’t chosen from a restaurant menu many years before. Their homes were those of friends I’d never visited. I had a strange sensation that I was hanging from the ceiling of a world that dangled above my own, upside down and uncaring for such foolish notions as gravity.

Eventually I left, though I do not recall why. I recall little of the journey back down the stair, only a sense of relief upon reaching the bottom that my dinghy was yet still there. I rowed back to port, uncertain of how great a distance I travelled. I tied what remained of my boat to the dock and returned to my rooms, exhausted beyond measure. I awoke the next day, into a world no different than it had been before, and yet far stranger than that bizarre place in the sky. Nothing had changed, of course. I was the difference. The people I passed in the street looked at me- those who dared look- as if I were a phantom, some bizarre manifestation from another realm that should not even be glimpsed from afar. Young ladies cried out in fright, children cried. I looked at my reflection in storefront windows and could not see what they did. And yet I knew. Because to me it was them, the ordinary people whom I had often passed in the city that was my home, who were now appalling to look upon. They were the same as they had ever been, and yet they were not. They were wrong. But of course, they were not. I was wrong. In some intangible, impossible way, I had changed. I was a wrongness, an out-of-place presence that cast a pall over all that saw me.

And then I thought of you, my beloved. Even as I am writing this I am staring at your portrait here on my desk, and the thought of you arriving in this place, which should have been our home, and seeing me. Seeing a stranger, a strangeness. Finding yourself unsettled, frightened even, at the sight of me. I have no doubt that your love for me would have persevered, dear heart, that you would go on loving me in spite of my wrongness. But I could never subject you to that life. A life of shame and fear is not the one you deserve. And so I made a decision. I paid a visit to Billingsly, one final time, to reveal to him what had become of me that he might do the same for you in my absence. I told him all of what had happened to me, of my obsession with the Fata Morgana and what I had found when I finally reached it. I had expected he might find my story implausible, but he accepted it. I suspect it was my strange affliction, the awfulness of being in my presence, that convinced him. How could a man appear unchanged and yet have such a profound wrongness to him, from some natural circumstance? What explanation was more plausible than that I had journeyed into the sky and found another world, one that had ruined me forever.

And so I apologise, my beloved, that I must leave you. Despite my foolishness in these past months, there is still money enough that you will not be destitute, and Billingsly is as sure a friend as any. If you find yourself in straits he and his wife will be there, where I cannot. Expressing my sorrow is as impossible a feat as describing what has become of me, dearest Margaret.

I understand it is a custom among sailor’s widows to gaze out to sea, longing for their husbands and hoping that they will one day return. I will not return, much as I wish that I could, and I hope that you will not miss me too dearly. But if you must, I implore you not to gaze out to sea as those widows do. For you are not a widow, and I am not at sea. When the loneliness and sorrow grips your heart, simply look up to the sky and know that I am looking back.

With love,

Your Arthur

 

Montgomery and the Guide

A door opens. The sound of a creaking chair.

Montgomery:

Ahh, that’s better.

Guide:

Uhh, excuse me, what are you- Oh. Uh, Walt. What are you doing in there?

Montgomery:

Guide! Apologies, I’ve gotten myself somewhat lost in your Museum after parting ways with your Head of Research. Not even my cards could find a way out, it’s the damnedest thing.

Guide:

Oh! I should apologise, actually, I should have realised that you wouldn’t have downloaded a copy of me when you arrived here. Helping people navigate is one of my primary functions, you see.

Montgomery:

Yes, well, no harm done. I’m just resting my feet for a moment, you know you could stand to add a few couches or such here and there, a lot of walking to be in this place.

Guide:

Well, again, normally I would guide patrons to seating if they required it, they don’t have to… ah, break into exhibits. Incidentally, would you mind switching to the other seat? He tends to get jealous.

Montgomery:

I… see. Okay. [Shifting chairs] Oh this one’s even more comfortable!

Guide:

Yes, if you could keep saying things like that it would probably be a good idea.

Montgomery:

Okay. So, what did you think of our discussion earlier? Between myself and the Head of Research?

Guide:

I… can’t say I followed a great deal of it, if I’m honest. Most of the things I know about the Alternatural have kind of filtered down to me from the Head Of Research so when she’s in full… ah, “Head of Research” mode it can be like she’s speaking another language.

Montgomery:

Ha! Yes, it required a bit of a change in perspective when I left more mundane academia, although I will say my education hasn’t been entirely useless to me in the years since.

Guide:

So, what resolution did the two of you come to, in the end?

Montgomery:

That more research is required.

Guide:

Right. Well, I’m sure between the two of you you’ll know where to start.

Montgomery:

Oh, we do.

Guide:

Oh?

Montgomery:

We agreed that the Library would be the place to find information on what happened to your people and mine.

Guide:

Ha! Yes, of course, in between the Young Adult section and Paranormal Romance, I bet. You- Oh, you’re not joking?

Montgomery:

No, you misunderstand. I don’t mean a library. The Library.

Guide:

I’m not sure I follow. I heard you two mention it but I didn’t realise there was a distinction?

Montgomery:

The Library is not a public building where people can go and borrow books. It is neither public, nor a building- though it may appear to manifest as one- and retrieving books is not nearly as simple as just going in and borrowing them. Technically it’s not even a physical place. Rather, it’s… believed to be a manifestation of knowledge itself. If you’ve got a question, odds are you’ll find the answer there.

Guide:

Oh. That’s fascinating. Who’s responsible for this Library?

Montgomery:

Near as anyone can tell, nobody. Appears to be just another of the universe’s little \ quirks. It’s as though all of the collected information that’s ever been known has flowed downhill and slowly accumulated in one place over time, like debris after a flood.

Guide:

Huh. Kind of like how the Alternatural tends to just find its way to the Museum. I wonder if that’s some sort of… universal tendency?

Montgomery:

An interesting theory.

Guide:

I’m surprised I haven’t heard about this Library before, it seems like it would be a valuable resource.

Montgomery:

Well, it’s not so easy as just going there, on account of there not really being a there to speak of. You have to know how to get there, and then you need a way to navigate the place- it’s called the Library in part because one of the most reliable methods of making the place comprehensible is using what’s called a Catalogue. If you have a Catalogue, it moulds your perception of that place into a comprehensible shape- a library, albeit a strange one. Without a Catalogue or a similar aid, it’s just… knowledge. If you go to a place that’s just pure unfiltered knowledge… well, suffice to say, nobody’s come back. And of course, once you get there you’re not out of the woods yet, because then you have to deal with the Librarians.

Guide:

What are Librarians?

Montgomery:

Well, again, nobody knows, but nobody who’s gotten caught by one has come back.

Guide:

Right, seeing a theme.

Montgomery:

Indeed. That’s likely why you folks don’t have an exhibit about the place, you don’t want to risk giving someone the idea to go there and then have them meet some terrible fate.

Guide:

Yes, that would be terrible. I- wait. You were just saying that you and the Head of Research were planning on going to this Library, though.

Montgomery:

Well, I don’t get the impression that she’ll be coming along, but as fortune would have it you folks have a Catalogue in your secure archives and I’ve learned the methods to reach the Library in my travels, so we agreed that the best course of action would be to take some of your combat people along and see if we can’t find some information on whatever it is that’s caused the issues with your security department.

Guide:

We call them Retrieval Agents, combat isn’t really the main… idea… Did you talk to the Head of Retrieval about this?

Montgomery:

No, your Head of Research said she would handle it, I figured I’d hear back from her.

Guide:

Yeah… She hasn’t mentioned it to the Head of Retrieval. I kind of suspect she forgot all about that as soon as she left the room.

Montgomery:

I see. She did seem a little distracted, although she was still quite engaged with our discussion regarding the-

Guide:

Yes, she’s a little preoccupied with a different project. Don't worry about that. I’ll let the Head of Retrieval know and we’ll see where we go from there.

Montgomery:

Good to hear. Do you suppose I could stay here for a moment longer?

Guide:

That’s fine, just… relock the door on your way out.

Montgomery:

Not a problem. [Reclining, sighing] Not a problem at all.

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