by Fiona Jones
Hank felt quietly ecstatic. He closed his eyes, feeling the letter of destiny in his hand and the joy in his heart.
Ever since early childhood Hank Lockhead had felt within himself a special gift, maybe not a talent but a sort of inner conviction of personal grandeur, something that set him apart from the ordinary people around him and whispered in his dreams and reveries that one day he would do something significant, would find fame, would bequeath his name to the history books. And, like Galileo in reverse, he hardly cared what it might cost him.
The letter confirmed Hank’s selection to the Antarctica Scientifical Substantiation Expedition and gave news of funding approval from a number of organisations, sufficient to cover expedition costs and contingencies. The long process of planning and equipping the ASS Expedition could at last proceed, and Hank could at last begin to order the new photography equipment he would require, and to share his great news on social media.
“Finally gonna PROVE the earth is FLAT,” he typed enthusiastically. “How we’ll prove it? By SCIENCE!!! Empirical observation, just like the science establishment always claims to use. As Photographic Officer of the Antartican Scientifical Substantiating Expedition I will travel to Antartica, all the way to the high rim of the earth, peer over the edge and PROVE to the world with REAL PHOTOGRAPHS that we do NOT live on some sort of spinning sphere!”
Hank then opened a new app that enabled him to block all negative responses to his post. He would suffer persecution enough. The scientific and educational establishment would absolutely hound him when he finally crumbled their edifice of theories and lies. Might he even suffer assassination attempts? It seemed possible, but remote enough to add a pleasant frisson to his musings without shaking his purpose.
Hank checked his social media responses. Likes flowed in and followers seemed to multiply almost daily. People called him a hero and a pioneer of true scientific research. A few unwanted responses had got through the filter. “Say hello to the turtles for me,” two or three acquaintances had written. Hank recognised this as sarcasm, but reassured himself that, pretty soon, he would show them, the doubters, the mockers, the deluded believers in a fictitious worldview that depended on nothing more substantial than the principles of mathematics and the four invisible forces of physics!
The planning, equipping and outset stages of the ASS Expedition ran so smoothly that several members declared it as evidence of divine approval and support. They had even managed to hire “polar” cabins and snow vehicles from the Vostok Project—a move of triumphant symbolism, using equipment belonging to the scientific establishment to further an anti-establishment cause.
Even after the ASSE landed on Antarctic shores, at the beginning of the edge of the earth, the weather held fair and the uphill journey proceeded well. The icy rim of the circle of their world, the edging that held the weather and the seas in place, continued to rise above them, higher even than they had imagined. One or two expressed a wonder whether this icy rim would in fact meet, join on to, the dome of the sky, but vociferous disagreement arose on whether the sky consisted of a solid dome at all. Hank had never considered this particular question, and consequently found himself playing the role of mediator in the argument. “We shall see,” he told both sides serenely. “When we get there, we’ll meet the evidence for ourselves.” A schism had formed, however, and when a storm finally incarcerated them for four days in their tiny conjoined cabins, resentment thickened the air more than the aura of limited sanitation.
Milder weather returned. Despite the poor visibility caused by fine windblown snow, the group packed up their cabins and went on, most of them within the three vehicles. Only Hank and his photography assistant, Jeremy, walked outside, safety-roped together, videoing the scintillating white panorama of their surroundings.
Hank and Jeremy saw it at the same moment: a jagged white edge ahead of them—surely at long last, the final frontier of their world.
Their eyes met, masked in each case by snow goggles, but each read the other’s thought. With hardly a wave back at the crawling, caterpillar-tracked vehicles, they each rushed forward, each eager—determined—to gain first glimpse of the edge. Thin, low sunshine stood at their backs and a straight, penetrating wind seemed to urge them on from behind—to urge them on to the glory of discovery.
Jeremy reached the sharp edge first by a whisker (an icy whisker of long-untrimmed beard). Like an elongated peak of snow, like the crest of a wave frozen in breaking, the snow surface, punctuated as it was by outcropping rock, simply ended. They faced groundless emptiness, dazzling with the mist of drifting snow particles, disorienting with sheer brightness.
Behind them they could hear that the snow vehicles had stopped. They lay prone, holding their cameras, and inched forwards, aiming for the vertical downwards shot that would show what the side of the Earth looked like. Despite the dazzling, snow-whipped light at their level and above, would they see darkness down below? Would they perceive the thickness of the disc underneath them, or might they, even now, encounter the hard edge of a glassy dome enclosing them, their sun and moon and all their world?
Suddenly, sickeningly, the surface crumbled beneath them, and they dropped, in among an avalanche of ice and loose snow. Hank felt hard ice, maybe rocks, hitting him, then one greater impact, followed by darkness as he continued falling. And falling. And falling.
Down the vertical wall of the outside of the Earth, striped here and there with variable rock strata, layer after layer and mile after mile, Hank fell. Dropping through deepening darkness, he never perceived where the vertical surface of Earth’s rocky disc ended. Time went by, and still he fell. Time lost meaning, and still he fell, always downwards, neither accelerating nor decelerating, through the emptiness of unending space below the bottom of the Earth.
* * *
Meanwhile, in the hospital, yet another consultant perused medical notes pertaining to the victim of a crevasse accident in Antarctica. Two people had fallen over a treacherous snow-covered ridge, in poor visibility, when an overhang of impacted snow gave way beneath their weight, dropping them down into the crevasse-riddled lower slopes of an ice flow beneath. One of them, badly injured in his fall, had died during the rescue attempt. The other lay here before her, still unconscious. She frowned.
“Mm,” she muttered. “Skull fracture mending well, brain lacerations closed but scarring. Mm. Comatose above three months now; reflexes still poor.” Aloud she said, “Yes. This definitely calls for full brain scanning. MRI plus the new scalp attachment apparatus. We need to establish whether this guy—Locker?”
“Lockhead. Hank,” supplied the junior doctor.
“Yes. Whether Hank Lockhead shows any indications of partial or returning consciousness. Can’t switch off life support until we’ve established brain death.”
“His medical cover looks pretty comprehensive, ma’am,” the junior doctor ventured.
“Mm. Still. Not fair on the family to hang it out indefinitely,” the consultant replied, and moved on.
An ambiguous MRI established very little beyond a faint flicker of lower brain activity. However, the newly patented continuous scalp monitor, so sensitive to electronic activity that the manufacturers claimed it could virtually read the patient’s thoughts, gave better news.
“I think we have some positive signs,” the junior doctor told Hank’s family. “You know how you experience a falling sensation, just as you wake from a dream? Hank’s brain scan readouts indicate a very distinct falling sensation. I think—well, I hope—I really hope we can interpret this as possibly leading towards a return to consciousness.”
“Oh,” Hank’s wife breathed. “How wonderful! I knew he would come back to us!”
“And about time too,” Hank’s ageing mother chimed in. “Ever since he fell down that crevasse, no, ever since he left on that expedition, we’ve suffered I don’t know what all in worry and trouble. Why did he have to go and follow this flat earth stuff? Why couldn’t he just believe what he was told like everyone else?”
Her daughter-in-law glared at her, but the doctor quickly interposed. “I know you’ve been through a terrible time,” he said. “We have no certainty yet. But let’s hope for the best.”
“Yes. I know. Thank you so much,” said the wife.
“When he wakes up,” the mother went on, “I won’t half give him a piece of my mind, silly boy, always so easily led. I’d like to know who put him up to this flat earth nonsense. I’d have a sharp word with them too.”
Her daughter-in-law refrained from answer. Relief, perhaps, sustained her in forbearance, and hope sustained her through another seven weeks of nothing from her husband but the continued readout of that falling sensation that ought to end in waking.
And hope won. Hank returned suddenly, one midnight, to inarticulate consciousness, still screaming from his fall. Another five months passed in slow and painful recovery, with one almost desperate setback when Hank asked about Jeremy and a relative informed him of Jeremy’s decease. However, Hank worked his way diligently through physiotherapy and cognitive rehab until he could finally leave hospital, suffering nothing worse physically than scars and a mildly painful muscular spasming of the limbs.
To Hank’s disappointment, he found that the spasms would prevent his returning to photography, but something far more remunerative opened up for him shortly after his return home. ASSE’s sponsors, disappointed by the curtailment of their expensive project and the highly undesirable reports from the other ten expeditioners, received Hank’s belated report with delight and offered him a lecture-touring contract.
“The world needs to know of your experiences,” they assured him. “Ten of our former friends, comrades in your expedition, have turned traitor to the cause of truth! They declare they discovered no edge to the Earth and several have deserted to the Spherists! We depend upon your personal account of events to set the record straight and present undeniable proof that our Earth has a physical edge—and that you have seen it. We will provide all the technical support you need to enhance your photos and videos to the quality necessary to convince the unbeliever.”
Initially Hank felt dubious about photoshopping his hard-won evidence—the sharp edge as he and the late Jeremy had approached; the disorienting light outside the boundary of the world; the auto-shots of ice strata darkening abysmally into what looked like rock. But he could not deny that the enhanced versions strengthened his story, and by the time he had told that story to three or four enthusiastic audiences he could never even remember that any of the photographs had changed.
He told his story a thousand times, earnestly and with almost complete consistency: how he and his deceased friend, close as two brothers, had discovered the edge of the world and how he, Hank, had got there first by a mere instant of time. How a glorious light shone around them, telling them they had fulfilled their mission. How they had looked downwards, and fallen—fallen untold thousands of miles off the edge of the Earth and into empty space. How by some means, whether a loop in spacetime or a special miracle for the benefit of future believers, they had found themselves back on Earth again, Jeremy to say his last words and Hank to share their truth with the world.
He confided, to audience after audience, his lifelong intuition that some great destiny had led him on, and his deep joy in the fulfilment of that destiny in spite of all the persecution and personal attacks that he continually faced. He told his story well, and with increasing skill as the years passed. And some who came to mock him dropped their tomatoes and took up his cause.
Fiona Jones is a teacher, parent and spare-time writer, with short fiction published in 2017 on Bella Mused, Astounding Outpost and The Moon. Fiona uses fiction to explore processes of illusion and delusion in the post-rationalist world of the 21st century.