By Freya Masters
Posted March 2022
This story was written for the MSc Science Communication Course for Imperial College London, for assessment as part of the Narrative module
Science traced her fingertips over the shape etched into the door, noting the finely meandering rivulets of grain in the wood. It was the symbol of an open book. With some trepidation and a curiosity she could not resist, Science nudged open the heavy door and peered into the gloom. She stepped lightly over the threshold into the beyond, her eyes adjusting to the murk. Immediately, there was a sense of heaviness in the air, a feel of atavism and knowledge which settled over Science’s senses like a blanket. A small fire danced in an alcove, the tongues of flame roaring and dying, coalescing into one another. The firelight flitted along the walls all around. Except there weren’t any walls to see.
Science gasped in wonder, turning full circle as she saw row upon row of books surrounding her from the very floor and ascending into the blackness above – countless volumes, their spines a myriad colours. The heavy wooden door finally creaked to a close behind Science; the space now seemed simultaneously small and yet cavernous, expansive, permeated with potential. The potential propelled Science towards one of the shelves and she stretched out her hand to remove a volume from the shelf, this one a deep, azure blue.
Science rapidly retracted her hand.
The Voice seemed to rumble from everywhere at once, panning around the space, echoing from the deep darkness above, flowing down between the books and over their spines and settling inside her mind. “H-hello?” Science called out timidly.
“Hello Science. Welcome to the Atomism Archives.”
Atomism. The universe comprises discrete components, these are ato– “Yes, yes. Of course you know the definition of atomism.”
“Yes, I can also read your mind,” the Voice continued, amused.
“Why am I here? Who are you?” Science asked shakily, bewildered.
“Well, you chose to open the door,” the Voice continued. “I thought you might… As for me, well I am the Archives. I am this Voice, I am every book you see, the fire, the door.”
“What is it all for?” Science cried, gesturing around at the space, not entirely convinced she wasn’t dreaming.
“You are not dreaming,” the Voice replied.
“I wish you would stop doing that,” Science muttered sulkily.
The Voice continued, unperturbed. “As I understand, you have been contemplating the differences between you and Arts…one might say mulling over what Arts has, the likes of which you lack?”
“What of it?” Science asked quietly.
“Well, I wait here for those like you, who want to…divert from their reality, even just for a little while. You see, these books contain an infinite number of possible realities, mirroring an infinite number of desires. So, I am sure we can accommodate yours. From what I understand, you are sad – and a little resentful – of Arts’ escapism. You are tired of being you, Science, rooted in reality, and you want to taste the freedom experienced through Arts. Am I correct?”
Science sighed. “I have heard that Arts is renowned for allowing its subject to escape, through literature for instance! I am just a little too objective.”
“Well now, let us see what we can do about that…For you to experience the sense of escapism which Arts achieves, we first need to strip you of your fundamental core, your components, the essence of you. That is why it is called the Atomism Archives! We are reducing you to your parts – and then we will replace them!”
Science stepped back towards the door. “Won’t that hurt?”
The Voice made an amused sound, low and sonorous which rang around Science’s head. “No! All I need you to do is say three things which make you…well you…and three things that Arts has, which you desire.”
Science took a deep breath. “Ok…objectivity…truth…rationality…subjectivity, escapism…emotion.”
“Now wait and see.” Science could hear a hint of a smile in the Voice. But how on earth could a Voice smile?
Then Science noticed a feeling from deep within. It was a sort of tugging emanating sensation, small at first but growing ever more insistent. It wasn’t painful, just…strange. There was a final, sharp tug and Science gasped as the word objectivity rippled dispersedly through the air before her.
“There’s one part removed!” The Voice declared. Objectivity began to float through the air. One of the books removed itself from the bookshelf, flicked open its pages and hung in the air, waiting. Science gazed in wonder as the book shuffled its sentences. Suddenly objectivity whipped through the air towards the book and with a pause so slight as to be imperceptible, disappeared into the book’s pages. The word subjectivity popped out of the book, appeared to shuffle about in the air as if assessing its surroundings, then flew in the direction of Science.
“Catch it!” The Voice commanded.
Science grabbed subjectivity and almost instantaneously it became a fragment of her. The same thing happened for truth and rationality! For each word, a different book removed itself from the bookcase, wove the word into its sentences and coughed up the corresponding chosen word which propelled itself towards her.
“Now, Science, you can experience the ‘escapism’ of Arts. Just wait a second and”–
The Voice faded. The room faded. The familiarity of the books, the friendly crackling of the fire, the sense of the knowledge-blanket all faded too.
Science felt herself tumbling.
She tried to grasp onto something, anything! But there was nothing to hold. Science tumbled over and over. Flashes of colour, of distant images seemed to emerge from the space which she inhabited but they were only flashes – fragmented and distanced. Maybe if she tried to stretch out a hand–
Science managed to touch one of the images and immediately felt herself being… swallowed by it.
Science opened her eyes.
The air tinkled with light and laughter, joyous music, and a little chaos. People were everywhere! There was so much to see. One woman passed Science by, her hair a sharp 1920’s bob, her makeup lavishly painted and eyes alight with vivacity. Her gown rippled like melted silver. The music pranced. It was an overwhelming setting, almost gaudy in its extravagance. And yet, it was brilliant! It was like nothing Science had ever experienced.
“Here!” An enthusiastic waiter shoved a glass towards Science, just as a man and a woman passed by, whispering conspiratorially. “Gatsby? I heard…” Science turned to listen more intently but whoa–
She opened her eyes once more.
The party was gone. There was stillness all around, and a gentle lapping sound. Science wiggled her toes in the soft sand. Where am I now?
A movement caught her eye, and she could just make out a figure on a jetty, appearing to reach outwards towards some distant green light… She took a step towards the figure, but her curiosity was short-lived.
Science tumbled again.
Ah! Another image! She reached out and put her arm through it–
Science opened her eyes and wished she hadn’t. The ice wind whipped itself into a frenzy, stinging her cheeks. The air was charged, the sky black and indigo and a brilliant red. There were dark waters below. Science clung to the railing. Is that a person? Even as the thought occurred to Science, the ‘person’ turned towards her, oddly linear in stature, just like the great stripes of colour in the sky, thin hands clutching a vacuous face as if the figure was screaming and yet she couldn’t hear screaming over the wind. Science did not like this. Science wanted to go back. Back where? Where was the archive? What even was the archive? Some place in-between her reality and what she desired? What she had desired. If this was escapism, then she didn’t like it one bit now, thank you very much. The figure was still in a screaming stance, agonised, frozen in a state of delirium. It was terrifying. Science wanted to get away–
Science opened her eyes. She appeared to be in a forest. Plucking a leaf out her hair, she sat for a moment, quivering. Wherever this was, it was much better. It was just so peaceful. Science contemplated the leaves in the sunlight, watching their illuminated veins, connections so tiny yet so significant. She could sit here all day. Then Science heard what she thought was the low murmuring of words, quiet and then louder as they were carried on the ebb and flow of the breeze. She softly rose to her feet and tiptoed to a tree, stifling a gasp as she peered around its trunk. For not so far away stood a dark horse among the trees, neck proudly arched. A faery sat astride the horse, skin so pale it almost glittered, and a knight gazed upwards at her, infatuated. Her auburn hair flowed down towards the knight, a fleeting, dissonant caress –
With a humph, Science landed. She was back in the archives.
“Welcome back Science!” The Voice sounded warmly.
Science felt a little dizzy as she picked herself up. The fire still crackled; its light still flitted across the books in the bookshelves. It was as if nothing had changed. And yet science felt so full of change she could burst.
“How was it?” The Voice asked.
“It was just…I…” Science spluttered helplessly.
The Voice laughed. “Arts tends to have that effect! You just tumbled into the worlds of some rather famous works of literature and a painting!”
“There was a horrid one in the middle,” Science muttered, shivering slightly. “Everything was so cold, so barren and there was this figure…”
“Ah, now. I wanted to show you that Arts comes in many forms, Science. Arts can evoke countless emotional responses and not all of them may be positive, and yet we will often learn something from such experiences. You were brave, Science to weather the storm, to harbour your fear. The great Science has learned a thing or two today!”
Science nodded slowly. “Yes, yes I have! Although now I have experienced all that…I do rather miss me.”
The Voice chuckled. “I thought you might say that. It will be time to exchange the words soon. Before you do, would you like to make a memento of your experiences?”
Science nodded thoughtfully. “Yes, I believe I would!”
Science turned and to her surprise, a small table and chair had appeared behind her. Some paper, a quill and a pot of ink sat waiting patiently. “Write, Science. Write your experience down!”
Science sat, drew a deep breath in and stared at the paper.
I escaped for a little while; I tumbled in and out of the worlds of Arts. Now I understand what all the fuss is about! It really was rather exciting, most of the time. But how can you ultimately achieve anything if you are ruled by emotion? After all, I was frozen with fear inside that painting!
I can already feel subjectivity, escapism and emotion tugging to return. My scientific essence needs to be restored, but I shan’t forget this. The Voice just said that my story will be kept here in the archives for someone else to tumble into.
I hope that you enjoyed my story, dear reader, and that you could escape for a little while, too.
Freya Masters is the Online Features Editor for I,Science and is studying an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. She loves writing in all forms, with a passion for science writing in particular.