EXCERPT: The Space Between by Diana Gabaldon

CATEGORY: Alchemical Explorations

RULE 196.966: Mad Science Is Stranger Than Magic

SOURCE: Joan MacKimmie, postulant

VIA: Diana Gabaldon

Devil worship. Alchemy. Witchcraft. The very words conjure up a distant time, a past where superstition ruled and science had yet to be discovered. But historians suggest many of the practices condemned as witchcraft and alchemy were rooted in the beginnings of scientific inquiry. Many of the women decried as witches were simple midwives and herbalists, using time-tested plant-based cures. And although no one ever successfully turned lead into gold, the technology Renaissance alchemists developed in their quest became the tools of doctors and chemists.

In our next story, we give you science through the lens of history and a scientist famed for his paranormal prowess. Here is a tale that explores the space between magic and science, mystery and analysis, ignorance and understanding.

Think of it as The Mad Scientist and the Philosopher’s Stone.

The Space Between
by Diana Gabaldon

Paris, June, 1778

He still didn’t know why the frog hadn’t killed him. Paul Rakoczy, Comte St. Germain, picked up the vial, pulled the cork and sniffed cautiously for the third time, but then recorked it, still dissatisfied. Maybe. Maybe not. The scent of the dark gray powder in the vial held the ghost of something familiar—but it had been thirty years.

He sat for a moment, frowning at the array of jars, bottles, flasks and pelicans on his workbench. It was late afternoon, and the late spring sun of Paris was like honey, warm and sticky on his face, but glowing in the rounded globes of glass, throwing pools of red and brown and green on the wood from the liquids contained therein. The only discordant note in this peaceful symphony of light was the body of a large rat, lying on its back in the middle of the workbench, a pocket-watch open beside it.

The Comte put two fingers delicately on the rat’s chest and waited patiently. It didn’t take so long this time; he was used to the coldness as his mind felt its way into the body. Nothing. No hint of light in his mind’s eye, no warm red of a pulsing heart. He glanced at the watch: half an hour.

He took his fingers away, shaking his head.

“Melisande, you evil bitch,” he murmured, not without affection. “You didn’t think I’d try anything you sent me on myself, would you?”

Still . . . he himself had stayed dead a great while longer than half an hour, when the frog had given him the dragon’s-blood. It had been early evening when he went into Louis’s Star Chamber thirty years before, heart beating with excitement at the coming confrontation—a duel of wizards, with a king’s favor as the stakes—and one he’d thought he’d win. He remembered the purity of the sky, the beauty of the stars just visible, Venus bright on the horizon, and the joy of it in his blood. Everything always had a greater intensity, when you knew life could cease within the next few minutes.

And an hour later, he thought his life had ceased, the cup falling from his numbed hand, the coldness rushing through his limbs with amazing speed, freezing the words I’ve lost, an icy core of disbelief in the center of his mind. He hadn’t been looking at the frog; the last thing he had seen through darkening eyes was the woman—La Dame Blanche—her face over the cup she’d given him appalled and white as bone. But what he recalled, and recalled again now, with the same sense of astonishment and avidity, was the great flare of blue, intense as the color of the evening sky beyond Venus, that had burst from her head and shoulders as he died.

He didn’t recall any feeling of regret or fear; just astonishment. This was nothing, however, to the astonishment he’d felt when he regained his senses, naked on a stone slab in a revolting subterranean chamber next to a drowned corpse. Luckily, there had been no one alive in that disgusting grotto, and he had made his way—reeling and half-blind, clothed in the drowned man’s wet and stinking shirt—out into a dawn more beautiful than any twilight could ever be. So—ten to twelve hours from the moment of apparent death to revival.

He glanced at the rat, then put out a finger and lifted one of the small, neat paws. Nearly twelve hours. Limp, the rigor had already passed; it was warm up here at the top of the house. Then he turned to the counter that ran along the far wall of the laboratory, where a line of rats lay, possibly insensible, probably dead. He walked slowly along the line, prodding each body. Limp, limp, stiff. Stiff. Stiff. All dead, without doubt. Each had had a smaller dose than the last, but all had died—though he couldn’t yet be positive about the latest. Wait a bit more, then, to be sure.

He needed to know. Because the Court of Miracles was talking. And they said the frog was back.

[End Excerpt]