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A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism

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1. Description of Phenomena

Look: just there. A flash of light among gathered forms. Beside a kitsch collection of headless mannequins resplendent in vintage coats of all stripes. You have to get past the police perimeter to get there, and around that antique cabinet, painted an optimistic azure blue, which was humorously stocked with the heads of the mannequins, wearing an array of costume hats and whimsical sunglasses. 

The owner of this antique shop has a lively and overappreciated sense of humor, which has been strained by our quarry. He had been hovering over them for quite some time, casting hopeful glances at Helena. But now he stood just beyond the perimeter we have already left behind. 

Beside the forest of dapper torsos there were five whole and living bodies, and one which was whole, dead, and nevertheless steaming. 

It was beside an object which looked to Myka like the orphaned Victorian child of a massage gun and a hand mixer, which was tethered by two lengths of wire to a midsize wooden case, about the size of two stacked textbooks. There was no doubt that it was an artifact: it was still giving off sparks of blue and purple light. 

It was called a Granville Hammer. Myka was vaguely familiar with the concept: it had been covered extensively, and in a defensively joking tone, in a book she’d once read called The Real Victorians: Virtue and Vice in Fin de Siècle England. She hadn’t thought the book was particularly good, but it laid out in luridly memorable terms the advancements in sexual technology that Victorian doctors and inventors pioneered. All because there was no way to masturbate hysterics efficiently, the book claimed, with an air of am I right, men? Granville had been the one to hook it up to a battery, doing away with the need for foot and hand cranks, and steam and coal engines. It had struck her as equal parts sobering and funny, that women had once first encountered vibrators as large machine apparatuses in doctors’ offices, sometimes powered by a man constantly shoveling coal.

The modern man who’d encountered the machine seemed to have been, at least briefly, pretty happy with the results. His death rictus was hardly strained; in fact, it looked dreamy, even rapturous. His legs and arms were bent to angles that should have been odd, but instead seemed boneless. And there was, regrettably, a small stain of liquid on the front of his khakis, too small and contained to be mistaken for urine. 

Claudia took one look at him and said, “Aw, jeez, come on. I’m gonna hurl. You could have left me in the car.” 

“What,” Pete said, and seemed stymied by life exceeding innuendo, “he uh… jizzed to death, huh?”

Claudia groaned. “It’s like your superpower is saying the worst things I’ve ever heard,” she said. “It’s like you’ve got Batman’s utility belt, and every pocket has a gross word in it.”

“Badman,” Artie offered.

Ugh.”

“I don’t understand,” said Helena.

“Uh, okay, well jizz means—”

“No, I understand the implication, that by either severity or number of orgasm, he, ha, came to death.” Claudia looked equal parts relieved and wretched to have been cut off. “But he said it was a Granville Hammer?”

“Yes,” Artie said, and squinted at her. “You should know this— it’s your era’s insane medical ethics.”

Helena’s mouth moved, unconsciously, with the ideas she was piecing together. “Ah,” she said at last. “Of course. Female hysteria, I’m sure.”

Myka had begun to feel like she should say something. “It was the world’s first electric vibrator, right?” Pete, Artie, and Claudia seemed each to be shrinking back from the conversation. Helena, on the other hand, just rolled her eyes.

“Vibrator…? It vibrated, yes, at a rate and consistency far superior to its clockwork predecessors.”

“It’s a um. Marital aid,” Artie said into a fast-widening silence. “Not just something that vibrates.”

“Explain to me,” said Helena, with an air of dawning exhaustion, “what the sexual function of the hammer might be. Quick as you like.”

“I can take this one, actually—”

Claudia slapped her hand over Pete’s mouth with a ringing smack.

“So it wasn’t a vibrator,” Myka said. “Let’s drop the topic forever. What’s it doing, then?”

“The Granville Hammer,” said Helena, “was a percussive device used for physical therapy. Look at it, for God’s sake.” They did. “It’s pointed!” It was. 

“So the bit on the spring— that’s the hammer?”

Helena’s eyebrows seemed to have found themselves a new and permanent position pinching together on her forehead. She was looking at Pete as if he were a pebble lodged in the treads of her shoe. “Traditionally a spring is placed to facilitate the repeated application of force, yes.”

“Yow-ie,” said Claudia.

“It wasn’t even tested on women,” said Helena acidly. “Let alone on anyone’s genitalia. I mean, really.” Or maybe, Myka thought, it was a sort of gleeful sadism at watching Pete squirm, for she continued: “imagine the damage it would do to the soft tissues. We’d hardly have made it into the twentieth century.”

“No, that would— that would take you to the wrong kind of pound town,” Pete said unhappily. He craned his neck to look at the police perimeter outside, and waved a desperate hand. “Oh, would you look at that— I’m being called over to do literally anything else.” 

Claudia took the opening to join him as he beat a hasty retreat away.

Watching them go, Artie rubbed his neck. “Okay, so it’s an ancient battery-powered physiotherapy device. What’s it doing— relaxing them to death?”

“It might shut down their central nervous systems, given the time,” Helena replied, looking at it. Then she seemed to realize something, and her shoulders shot up in a giddy twitch. “Of course— the actual storage of energy— the ghost of old mechanical and electromagnetic energy— might influence its function and potency?”

Artie nodded, and his face scrunched in thought.

Myka was mulling over the other side of residual energy. It wouldn’t be the first time she had seen it happen, an object of quite limited importance acquiring its potentiality through fame or notoriety. “And it still could have some kind of sexual effect, just because people thought it did.” 

“Nobody likes an overachiever,” grumbled Artie, glaring at the Hammer.

“Incredible,” Helena whispered. She looked at the machine again, with a new light in her eyes. “Terrible, and yet— incredible, too.”

“So Joseph Granville wasn’t the inventor of the vibrator?”

Helena turned to look at Artie. “No more discomfort with the topic?”

“Well— no. I mean, it’s history. It’s just hard to discuss when you’re standing next to two adult children violently cringing.”

“Hm,” said Helena. “Yes, you’d think Pete’s fondness for openly discussing pornography couldn’t coexist with such prudishness.” She moved as if to touch the device, and laughed when Myka reached for her shoulder in warning. “But, no, he was, just not on purpose. The clockwork models delivered a weaker pulse, and were more easily used in the home. And there was this glorious machine with a vibrating ball that was all the rage for some time— but it ran on steam and mechanical energy, and doctors discouraged recreational use.”

Myka was full of questions she thought she shouldn’t ask. Helena had, for a moment at least, gazed off into the mid-distance with the warmth of remembering. The mid-distance was poised between an artifact still crackling with energy and the half-hearted perimeter restraining a handful of nosy shoppers. This wasn’t the best setting for the lesson on Victorian sexual practice Helena was clearly well-prepared to deliver. But, jeez, a vibrating ball?

Artie seemed disinterested in following Helena down memory lane, and was instead regarding the Hammer. “Well,” he said, rocking back on his heels. “Let’s get this thing unplugged and neutralized, shall we? Pete’s going to need supervision again soon.”

 

2. Conduction and Resistance

Myka made Pete carry the Hammer, just to be difficult. 

The battery, once untethered from its dubious machine, took two overlapping neutralizing bags to contain end-to-end. Myka had opened the crate, just for a quick peek, before consigning it to its fate; she now had firmly in her mind the fragility of the empty glass cells within it. She wasn’t sure if she was imagining a gentle tink of old glass with every step she took, or, when she sat it next to her in the SUV, with every jostle and turn of the road.

Here is how they were seated: Artie drove, and Helena was shotgun. Myka sat behind Artie in the backseat, and Claudia behind Helena. As they drove, Claudia was doing a nearly admirable job of nonchalantly plastering her body to the car door, creating as much distance between herself and the battery as possible. 

“It’s just weird,” she said, when Myka finally got her to make eye contact. “It’s like, okay, maybe the battery didn’t sign up for this, but I’m not putting my young flesh next to any part of the grody Victorian sex machine.”

Pete managed to beat Helena to the punch. “It’s not a sex machine,” he mimicked, doing his best Dick van Dyke in falsetto.

He was in the second back seat. Detaching the Hammer from its battery had send up a wave of crackling blue light, and a shockwave frisson, and no one wanted the two objects close enough to spark again, neutralized or not. They had an aura that artifacts usually didn’t, like they might constitute a mind of their own if they linked up. Myka suspected that zapping shudder of pleasure had been plural, but no one had broached the subject, and she wasn’t about to. Helena had winked at her, but Helena seemed to be in a winking mood.

“Well, it isn’t,” Helena snapped, winking mood evaporated.

They could make it from Pierre to Univille in just over two hours; as their commutes typically went, that was short. But it was dragging, heavy with silence and animus. You could forsake the dashboard clock display and mark time by Pete’s annoyed sighs, which occurred almost precisely every two minutes. Or by the soft rustle of paper every time Helena turned a page in her book, which was almost precisely every thirty seconds. It was like Chinese water torture reimagined for the modern workplace. 

On top of it all, and maybe under it all as well, she just didn’t feel right. The artifact had been neutralized but the body remembered its vulnerability, and was hyperaware of its proximity to the source. Surely, again, this was feeding the communal bad mood. But Myka suspected pointing out the fact could only make things worse.

“Can you please turn on the radio,” Claudia finally said. “I will put up with anything. Golden oldies, country, top of the pops, Radio Disney, NPR— you could find a station that’s all ads all the time and I would still kiss your feet.”

Pete interrupted his regularized two minutes of silence: “Ew.”

“It’s a saying,” Claudia grumbled into the window. “And I wouldn’t have said it if you knew when to cram it.”

“I haven’t said a thing!”

“You’ve been sighing theatrically at remarkably regular intervals,” Helena offered from the front seat. “It’s really quite commendable— nothing about you suggested that you had such a well-developed internal clock.”

“I’ll show you a well-developed internal clock,” Pete said with full conviction.

Radio, Artie!” Myka was only half convinced Pete might not find it in him to climb over the back seat to get to Helena. In normal circumstances? Unthinkable. But they were only twenty minutes out, and the tension in the car was sizzling so profoundly it could power the Hammer all on its own.

“Children, please,” said Artie. “It’s a constant temptation to strand you all on a butte and see how long it takes you to find your way home.”

It had the dampening effect he’d intended. Even so, Myka felt the car accelerating around her before Artie hit the radio.

They got the best reception on the local classic rock station. When the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil came on, even Helena bopped her head along, if only just to count time.

 

3. Mutual Action of Electric Currents

The normal undersong of the Warehouse was creaks and groans and odd rustles of fabric failing to rise into a looming, metallic silence. Its effect was a sort of sentient striving of matter under an uncaring and expanseless sky. Any sound that managed to raise itself in the Warehouse should have bounced, but it rarely did. Either the Warehouse was designed with the help of an acoustic engineer of unparalleled ability, or it had just, over time, come to have its own energetic force, which it exerted against its clamorous contents.

Myka, still haunted by that residual tinkle of glass, didn’t quite trust her ears when they picked up on a new quality of silence. Artifacts don’t THINK, she reminded herself, as she often did. The fluctuations of energy bequeathed only the illusion of agency and malevolence. Some carried with them the echoes of consciousness, which were not themselves conscious but able to perform some of its functions.

Claudia beelined away from them once the Hammer and its battery were in the Warehouse. Pete’s affected air of nonchalance kept him only marginally closer.

“It won’t bite you, for God’s sake,” said Helena, gingerly unsheathing the battery.

“I wish that was what it did,” Claudia called back, and then put a closed door between herself and the neutralized Hammer.

“Poor Joseph would be scandalized.” 

Artie rolled his eyes. “Sure, pity the long-dead old inventor who made this our problem. Don’t take out the Hammer yet, by the way— I need to figure out how to store it.”

“Surely it doesn’t require special precaution?”

“What, poor Joseph again? The man’s got over a century of unearned goodwill, I think his memory can take some well-earned resentment.” Archie opened the lid of the battery and stared dourly at the empty acid cells inside. “But to answer your question— not precaution, warning. What am I going to do, put up a sign that says SEX MACHINE: DO NOT TOUCH? How many generations of agents would that last?”

Helena coughed tactfully.

“You could just not put up a sign at all,” Myka suggested. 

“All artifacts are labeled in the system. It’s not going to not be a sex machine. Pete played ping pong with Lewis Carroll’s mirror until Alice Liddell nearly killed him; do you really think an artifact which causes advanced relaxation and fatal climax—” 

At Helena’s cough, he stopped, and narrowed his eyes.

“Fatal relaxation and fatal potential, unconfirmed sexual pleasure— someone’s going to try it out. They always do.”

“It’s a wonder there aren’t more artifacts of a potentially sexual potency,” mused Helena. “Surely sex is a more common energy sink than warfare among men, yet the Warehouse mostly bristles with weapons.”

Myka thought Helena must be right. Destruction and orgasm had a similar structure of catharsis, after all: an exertion of effort, a varyingly explosive payoff. “Maybe it’s the different kind of energy,” she suggested. “Or a different kind of intention.”

“A sort of object agency,” Helena said. “It might also be a transaction with the psychic energy of expectation and reputation: the Granville Hammer, in falling short, rose to the occasion.”

“Do you two hear yourselves? I once had a conversation with a looking glass that had Aleister Crowley imprinted within it, and this is giving me deja vu.”

“Do you hear yourself? You have at your fingertips a collection of objects which might revolutionize physics, and when you hear the merest ghost of a hypothesis regarding their power, you dismiss it as occultist nonsense?”

“Yes,” said Artie, fervently. “Of course, yes— you can’t seriously think you could meaningfully study their function, do you?”

“Well, not as such… if it’s a matter of design, after all, it would be near impossible.”

“Hold onto that thought, specifically. It is impossible, and if I see so much as an experimentalist twinkle in your eyes, I’m kicking you out and changing the locks.”

Myka watched Helena frown. It was resignation and annoyance, she thought, which was probably for the best. She wouldn’t have put it past Helena to jury rig for herself some sort of energy meter; even with that acquiescing frown, she still didn’t dismiss it from the realm of possibility.

“It’s not going to be stored reassembled, is it?”

“What, I’d attach it back to the battery? After the fireworks display when you two took them apart? No— they’ll stay separate. It might mitigate the Hammer’s effects, though there’s no safe way of knowing.”

“It’s curious,” said Helena. “There must have been some sort of residual energy in their coupling. The potential to still function as designed, maybe. Or as desired, rather.”

And then she raised her eyebrows at Myka. Impishly.

Artie didn’t seem interested or alarmed by that statement, which started a ball rolling in Myka’s mind. Pete and Claudia had been, reluctantly, back in the room, but at a distance. Artie— he’d been over her shoulder, at a lesser distance. The bright flash of what looked but didn’t feel like electricity had phased through the whole of the room, but the following jolt, that frisson— it might have just been contact. It might have just been her and Helena.

What were the odds Helena knew that? No, she knew. She had to. Myka was certain. The question was how annoying Helena was about to be about their newly shared knowledge.

 

4. Theory of Electric Images

The answer was very. 

It was one of Helena’s sweeter kinds of annoying, when an idea seemed to possess her, making her move like an automaton designed only to carry it to its conclusion. She had, for example, sat cross-legged in the kitchen at the B&B, entirely dead to the world, reassembling Leena’s broken blender. With a boning knife and a MacGyvered soldering iron, she’d installed another blade in it. The result was a $20 blender that worked better than the top-of-the-line VitaMix Myka had budgeted for as a rookie agent. It took Helena just twenty minutes, and she hadn’t noticed that Leena asked her not to solder in the kitchen twice.

At least there wasn’t a soldering iron, or any of its components, in Helena’s hands when she sidled into Myka’s room that evening.

“Knocking!” Myka said. It came out as a yelp. “They definitely invented it before the 19th century. Knocking.

“May I come in?”

“It doesn’t work retroactively,” Myka grumbled. The look on Helena’s face suggested that she wouldn’t have taken no for an answer anyway, not when there was the Idea at the wheel. It occurred to Myka that Dr. Moreau’s inability to give up his experiments might have had its own real life counterpart as well. “But fine— why are you here?”

Without any further concern for prudency, Helena climbed onto her bed and sat at the foot of it, leaning against the low bed frame. She was holding two objects: a leatherbound notebook, with an anachronistic plastic ballpoint pen stuck between its pages, and a small, timeworn envelope. 

“I took these from my home,” she said when she noticed Myka staring at them.

“You mean you stole them from the museum?”

“They’re my possessions! In my own home! That museum is technically robbing me, you know. Besides, they’ll hardly have noticed the loss.” No doubt they’d been stored away in another finicky little secret chamber. Myka did wonder about the sheer volume of historical artifacts secreted away in that house, in compartments no one save Helena knew how to find. 

“What are they?”

Helena flipped open the notebook. In, first, aged brown ink, then pencil, then fresh, modern black, were pages of diagrams and mathematical problems, theorems and proofs— and, Myka noticed, the occasional scratchy doodle of a flower, or bracketed passage of text. “This has my notes from James Clerk Maxwell’s Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. I thought his modifications to Gauss’ work on potential theory and electromagnetism might prove useful— forgetting, of course, that electrodynamics can make as much sense of an artifact as a veterinary surgeon might of a dragon.”

Helena was every part the dejected Victorian theoretical physicist. Even the starched linen collar of her shirt looked wilted.

“There’s very little to be done without experimentation,” she said. “Extensive observation can only take one so far.”

“If you’re about to suggest that I should be your lab rat, don’t bother.”

“Oh, no— never. My God, Myka, what you must think of me. No, I— I’m simply here to complain. I found myself at the end of my study with a remarkable desire to vent my spleen.”

Myka could feel her eyebrows pulling at the thought. It was, again, one of Helena’s more sweetly annoying traits, the way she seemed pulled around by the force of her own ideas. She suspected Helena’s dejection might have been a bit of a show; off the solid ground of Newtonian mathematics, Helena came slinking into the room of her earlier co-theorist, whose limited mathematical training might allow her to see what her well-trained intellect couldn’t…? Or maybe she did just want a second opinion, that she’d done her best, to be delivered. It was hard to tell with Helena, when it came to her ideas.

The solution, she thought, might be the second object.

“And the envelope?”

“Oh, of course. Nothing to do with Maxwell— I thought you might find these… interesting.”

Myka shook out the contents of the envelope into her hand. What emerged was … 

They came out face-down first. In an extravagant hand she had to squint to make out, someone had written: Two libertines make use of the Dildoe. A few of the others likewise sported labels, but her vision had narrowed beyond interest. 

Two roads forked before her, Myka thought. One of them was refusing to turn over the pictures, and telling Helena off for engaging in uncharacteristically Pete-like behavior. Chastened, Helena might leave, and they’d patch up their collegiality over the next few weeks. Along the other, she’d flip over the photographs. This second road was forested and disappeared into the dark shade of its understory fairly quickly. 

Myka took the metaphorical right, and turned over the photograph of the two libertines. It was faded, but distinct. The two libertines were nude women. One was bent across a cushioned arm chair, with her knee on its seat. She leaned up and out towards the camera lens, so that her face and breasts were on display. A great mass of pale hair was twisted up around her head, though it sat artfully askew. The woman behind her had other features, but most prominent among them was the Dildoe, which she was holding between her legs, and levelling up to penetrate the other woman. It looked almost like the handle of a broom, regular across its length; at its base, against the woman’s thighs, were two mock testicles, each the size of a tennis ball. Both women wore matching grins, equal parts silly and smug. Aren’t we a RIOT?, they seemed to say.

Then Myka took another look at that second libertine, who had dark hair, high cheekbones, and a familiar lush grin— maybe a decade younger, but unmistakable. “Is that you?”

“Yes,” said Helena, and Myka finally looked up from the photo to see that same face regarding her, wearing a diminished version of that smile.

The image was fixed in her mind. Yes, that was Helena, slim hips jutting forward; where her partner had arrayed herself for the camera, she barely seemed to register its presence. Her smile was instead directed down at the spectacle of the phallus, and where it conjoined their two bodies. 

“That was, if I recall correctly, a broom handle wrapped in sheepskin,” Helena said conspiratorially. 

“A broom handle?!” It had resembled one. But the reality of it was alarming.

“Things were different then. We had instruments of wood, ivory, some of stuffed leather— there wasn’t a half-naked women selling tools of sexual pleasure plastered on a billboard on every major road.”

“No,” said Myka, slow and near speechless. No, that would no doubt have caused the kind of vehicle pile-ups you usually needed a four-lane California highway to engineer. 

She turned the rest of the photographs over, and leafed through them. The pale-haired woman showed up in two more: in one, wearing nothing but stockings, a jaunty little hat, and a piece of translucent fabric slung uselessly across her torso, she lounged across a low sofa. In another, she lay with her skirts hiked up to her waist across the lap of a fully clothed man who, with an elaborate splay of his hand, appeared to be fingering her. 

In the last, Helena stood alone in front of a large mirror. She leaned one arm across the high crosspost that supported its frame, while her other hand rested on the curve of her hip. It was, despite its looseness, a posture of triumph; her chin was raised high, and the position she took, so that the mirror was exposed, reminded Myka almost of Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware. There were flowers in her hair, and twining around her body another length of diaphanous fabric that seemed to render her more nude than its absence might have. A strand of ivy wrapped loosely around her arms and slung low behind her. She was posed so that very nearly every inch of her was visible; the proud jut of her chest presented her breasts to the camera; in her reflection, the ivy fell low across the back of her thighs, below the prominent dimple of muscle in her ass. She looked like a mythical nymph set loose in a respectable Victorian household. This seemed to capture a greater truth about Helena than any history book ever had.

“Do you like that one? You can keep it.”

The warmth of her blush became a violent heat. 

“No, I— they’re yours. I don’t— I don’t want naked pictures of my colleagues.” It took her a second to gather herself. Normal, Myka, normal! She cracked a nervous grin. “Pete might get ideas.”

The thing was, if Pete had ever showed up in her bedroom with an envelope full of amateur pornography, she’d have at the very least engaged in physical violence to remove him from the room. She might even have pulled her gun on him, just to punctuate the memo. She certainly wouldn’t have turned over the picture. She even more certainly would not have been feigning nonchalance by joking about it. She’d set good, hard boundaries: the sole of her boot, the slam of her door.

The pictures weren’t going to leave her memory for a long while, either. It was the dual curse and blessing of her memory, that she was going to be looking at Helena with the knowledge of what she looked like under her clothes, avec and sans Dildoe, for the foreseeable future. In the switch of her hips as she walked she’d see that proud, flirtatious arrangement of her body, and how her shoulder blades shifted fine muscle to accommodate movement. 

Helena’s look was nostalgic again. “So you can see,” she said, by way of explanation. “We weren’t all prudes finding illicit release in medical experiments.”

“You know,” Myka said, “I didn’t really think you were.” This reminded her of the other thing that had come up earlier. Specifically, it reminded her of how little she wanted to talk about it, and how much she wanted to know.

She picked up the solo photograph of the other woman instead. “Who was she?”

“Evelyn,” said Helena, with that same mid-distance misty stare. A soft smile brightened her face, and made that mistiness sparkle.  “We had such fun, you know.”

“I can see that.”

“Yes, well. The photographs are performative, of course. The one with the mirror I took for her, though I never got the chance to give it.” Helena took from her fingers the photograph of the two libertines and the Dildoe. “We had our little joke— ‘when Helena delved, and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?’”

“What is that? It’s familiar.”

“An old medieval saying, if I recall correctly. It was one of William Morris’ illuminations— it was Adam who delved, with Eve still spinning. The idea was that Eden held no distinctions of class, as all labored in paradise.” She handed the photograph back to Myka. “But we were young, irreverent, and well-to-do, so we found it immensely funny to turn the innuendo on its head.”

“Eve… span, as in spread her legs?”

“It makes the delving easier, I’ve found,” Helena said, and winked again.