“And so, my boy,” said Mr. Gimbal, putting his mug of tea on the step by the back door, “the time has come for you to see my magnum opus, the work of my lifetime.”
“The Vetustas . . .” whispered Danny, his voice quivering with excitement.
“That’s right: the Vetustas. The most unlikely instrument ever made by human hand,” he said, pulling a denim cloth off a pile of junk next to the shed.
And yet this wasn’t any ordinary junk, but a machine that looked like . . . well, I haven’t a clue what it looked like! That’s the point! It looked like nothing else. The base of the Vetustas consisted of three plastic barrels that once contained cabbage. They were filled with water, and a heavy steel sheet was nailed to their lids. Mr. Gimbal got the sheet from a friend from primary school. The friend, who was once the shortest and skinniest boy in their class, grew up to be a test driver for tank prototypes. Every now and then he’d crash one, and so had become a never-ending supply of heavy, steel things. On top of the steel sheet was a round wooden box with thick-lensed rubber peepholes around the edge. You could look through them into the machine. The wooden ring looked antique, because, as Mr. Gimbal explained, it was a centuries-old stereoscopic theater. The stereoscopic theater was attached to a gray, ordinary-looking slide projector, that is, one that enlarged small photo slides and projected them onto a wall or a screen. This bit of equipment was about fifty years younger than the theater, and the same number of years older than Danny. The projector was linked up to an ultramodern computer that had transparent tubes sticking out of it, which the water from the buckets flowed through and back again. A thick fiber-optic cable stuck out of the side of the computer and disappeared into the ground. The whole thing was connected to a 3D laser scanner, the kind that could capture a picture of an object from every angle and send it to the computer. In other words, there were objects from different generations (like a grandfather, father, and son) wired together. Other little dials and switches stuck out of the Vetustas. There was a smartphone stuck on with silver tape, columns of numbers and smiley faces scrolling down the screen. Some of the components emitted high-pitched beeps, some crackled, and others clicked.
Danny closed his eyes for a moment to focus on the unusual music. Truly, anyone would have to admit it: Mr. Gimbal’s invention was impressive.
“In a moment, Danny, you will witness a historic test . . .” Mr. Gimbal’s voice cracked with emotion. “We’re going to switch it on for the first time. We just need a piece of an old object . . .” He looked around and spotted the handle of a porcelain teapot lying in the grass. It seemed old enough.
All that remained was to switch on the machine.
“Now where the devil is that remote control!” cried Mr. Gimbal in frustration, ruing his own messiness.
Unfortunately, that’s just how it is: every genius is usually surrounded by mess. Among the rolls of wires and cables, the pieces of old calculators, the broken electric razors, the botched machines for doing all sorts of things that you bought over the phone without knowing if they worked or not, and the remote controls for every kind of device, it was difficult to find the right one. But that’s what a man has chickens for!
The ever-obliging Watson toddled over to the inventor, carrying in her beak a remote control that began its life as the remote for a large television. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Gimbal seized it and pressed the button to change channels, which now activated the machine. The Vetustas lit up and a thousand little lights began to shimmer, as if it were an electronic rainbow rather than a device unlike anything else. It also began to emit a pleasant low hum, and Mr. Gimbal felt himself swelling with pride.
He stepped up to the laser scanner and placed the piece of teapot inside. A beam of light ran over the glass base on which the porcelain handle lay, memorizing its bends and curves. The scanned image traveled to the brain of the Vetustas, that is, to the computer, which immediately connected to a server room via the thick fiber-optic cable. Once upon a time, Mr. Gimbal had tried to beat the world record for digging the fastest holes in the ground, and in doing so had discovered the fiber-optic cable running alongside his house to the biggest server room in the world, which—quite coincidentally—was just around the corner, in an unremarkable gray building behind a high gray fence. Mr. Gimbal decided that since this find was on his land, he didn’t need to ask the black-suited men in sunglasses who sometimes went in and out of the gate in the dark fence for permission to connect his invention to their system. In the meantime, the mysterious electronic memory cells of the servers contained pictures, dimensions, and all possible data about EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE, including all the teapots in the world, the ones that already existed and ones that might exist in the future. Among them was also the image of the very same porcelain teapot that was missing a handle. And it came back along the fiber-optic cable to the computer. The computer buzzed, the liquid in the tubes began to flow faster, and a moment later the projector whirred to life and sent a beam of light into the stereoscopic theater.
“Now we’ll see a fully restored teapot,” said Mr. Gimbal.
It was true! When Danny brought his eye to the peephole he saw the teapot inside, as good as new.
“But, my dear Danny, that’s not the end of our work,” sighed Mr. Gimbal. “Now we have to work out how to get the picture of the teapot out of the theater, so you don’t have to look inside.”
“I have an idea!” said Danny excitedly and ran home, returning a minute later with a little old mirror that had a photo of a very pretty actress on the back.
“You clever rascal!” cried Mr. Gimbal with joy when Danny placed the mirror by the peephole. “What an ingenious idea!”
That was true too! It was an ingenious idea because the picture of the teapot inside was reflected off the mirror and outside the wooden box. And yet—to the surprise of the inventor himself—it didn’t stay flat on the mirror as usually happens with reflections, but appeared floating in the air, in three dimensions. Perhaps that was down to Sherlock, who had pecked at the computer keyboard a couple of times, changing something in the program’s settings, but who can say.
The teapot really was beautiful. There wasn’t a trace of damage, not even the slightest scratch! But you could see there was some hot tea inside, because a wisp of steam was rising from the spout. It was as though the Vetustas had in some miraculous way managed to link the broken bit of old porcelain with what it used to be in its greatness. It made you want to grab the handle and pour yourself a cup . . . which must be what occurred to Danny, because he took his empty hot chocolate mug and was just about to pour himself some when—
“Stop! Don’t do that!” cried Mr. Gimbal. “We don’t know the properties of this image our device has created. It’s a phantom, not a real thing, so we haven’t a clue what would happen if it touched living matter. Sometimes, if someone gets very close to a phantom, if they touch one, they become a phantom themselves and can’t get back to the real world. But we’ll soon find out for sure!”
Mr. Gimbal grabbed a slice of lemon in some kitchen tongs and with a brisk movement dropped it into the phantom teapot. The fruit hissed, spun around as though caught in a whirlwind, and vanished.
“Like I said!” he exclaimed. He wanted to go on, but just then a window in the house next door opened and they heard Danny’s mom’s voice.
“Darling, dinner’s on the table!”
“What a pity,” sighed Danny. “You have no idea how much I like you, Mr. Gimbal!”
And he ran home. When he’d regained his composure, Mr. Gimbal realized he hadn’t eaten anything since morning either. So he left the Vetustas and the image of the steaming teapot and went inside. Sherlock and Watson followed him.
Having observed everything from his position under the apricot tree, Mr. Casimir stood up and walked over to the machine. He picked up the teapot and drank straight out of the spout, because, unfortunately, he didn’t have a phantom teacup to hand, and as a ghost he couldn’t use a real one.
“Exquisite,” he sighed with pleasure. “I haven’t had such a good cup of tea in ages!”
And do you know what? If someone were standing next to him, they’d have been able to see his outline against the leaves of the apricot tree, still transparent, still blurred, and yet just a bit—a teeny tiny bit—visible.
The inventor and his young friend were preparing another test of the Vetustas’s potential.
“The most incredible thing about our invention is that we can’t fully predict what it will do,” said Mr. Gimbal.
Danny and Mr. Gimbal were sitting on the bench beneath the apricot tree, and just behind them stood Mr. Casimir, who was in the privileged situation of knowing exactly what was happening around him. But neither the inventor nor the boy had any idea they were in the company of a ghost. And it was a ghost who was brimming with enthusiasm and was therefore, how can I put this, more lively than traditional ghosts. The Vetustas was the cause of Mr. Casimir’s renewed liveliness, of the kind he hadn’t felt since he was . . . alive. It was simply because after many years he could finally have a good cup of tea and dance to his favorite music. Along with the music, he’d rediscovered his love for Miss Alice. And that’s why his silhouette was filling in. Mr. Casimir agreed with the inventor that the Vetustas was incredible, and he was expecting much more excitement to come of it.
“I’m very curious,” he went on, “to know what would happen if we put something on the scanner that used to be alive. We already know the Vetustas can reconstruct a whole based on a small part. Indeed—and this was the biggest surprise for me—it doesn’t just conjure up a phantom object, it’s also able to recreate the sounds it used to make.”
“I wonder what would happen if we put a slice of cake on the Vetustas . . . we’d probably get the whole cake. And then someone could live off one cake for their entire life. Isn’t that amazing?!”
“No, Danny! A grave error!” Mr. Gimbal raised his finger. “We only get a virtual recollection of a cake. Do you remember what happened to the slice of lemon in the phantom teapot?”
Danny did remember.
“Let me say it again,” Mr. Gimbal said firmly. “We must not touch a phantom, let alone bite one. If you swallowed some phantom, you’d be filled with an enormous vacuum. It might tear you to pieces.”
“Poppycock,” muttered Mr. Casimir, who had had an entirely different experience.
“Did you say something?” asked Mr. Gimbal.
“Me? I thought that was you . . .” Danny looked closely at the inventor.
“But it was actually me!” giggled Mr. Casimir, delighted with his prank. But he said it a little quieter so no one heard him this time. Well, no one except Watson, who was wandering around the garden digging things up—no, not treasure! This time they were just ordinary bugs. Watson heard Mr. Casimir, but it didn’t make much difference at that point.
“To come back to the heart of the matter, we need to carry out another test of the Vetustas. Look!” Mr. Gimbal rummaged in his pocket and produced something that looked like a sharpened stone.
“It’s a fossil! The tooth of a mosasaurus, a giant prehistoric lizard. It lived on this street back in the time when it was still the sea. About sixty million years ago.”
“Oh my . . .” Danny looked around, trying to imagine what it would be like if all the houses and streetlights, not to mention the cars, were suddenly underwater.
Mr. Gimbal stepped up to the machine and placed the mosasaurus tooth on the scanner. He pressed the button and . . . crikey! In barely a second, the most enormous and terrifying lizard imaginable leapt off the mirror attached to the stereoscopic theater! The tooth really was the smallest part of it. Suffice to say the jaws alone were about six feet long, and the whole body filled up the inventor’s garden from fence to fence. But that’s not all! The giant prehistoric creature, which of course used to live in an aquatic environment and couldn’t exist without the sea, had dragged an entire extraordinary underwater world along with it! It looked as though the small glass surface of the mirror had suddenly released a cloud of colored fog.
The air around Mr. Gimbal’s house began to shimmer like crystal clear water, spreading a blue haze more intense than anything humans had ever seen before. A layer of golden sand appeared on the lawn, with large pink shells lying on it. Inside they hid pearls the size of cabbage heads. In the sky—or rather, the upper levels of the ancient ocean—there were shoals of fantastic fish swimming around. Some had small mouths and fins that looked like wings, others had what looked like feet instead of tails, and still others were as flat as paper and had bell-shaped heads. They came in a dazzling array of colors, only some of which we know today. And behind the shoals, like an evil, voracious shadow, swam a gigantic octopus, spewing a cloud of purple ink. It was a terrible and yet enchanting picture. Danny stood there, his mouth agape, while Mr. Gimbal went weak at the knees and had to steady himself against the apricot tree.
Then, all of a sudden, a black cat came leaping out of a seashell! An ordinary alley cat! One of Spigot’s hairs had been stuck to the mosasaurus tooth, and the Vetustas had used it to recreate a complete image of the animal. The poor creature was blowing bubbles through its nose, pitifully paddling its legs and looking like it was about to drown! What did it matter that it was a phantom cat? In the image conjured up before a terrified Danny and an equally outraged inventor, the creature was behaving exactly as though it had fallen into the water. In other words, it was alive, and this life was in danger. If it were the real world, Danny could have rescued it; he’d been taking lessons since he was small and was an excellent swimmer. Mr. Gimbal would probably have also dared to leap into the watery depths. But it was too dangerous to touch the spectral ocean. They remembered what had happened to the lemon!
Fortunately, Mr. Casimir leapt into action. He was a ghost, so he could easily dive into the phantom ocean, particularly since he’d earned a swimming certificate when he was still alive. Of course, he was afraid of the huge prehistoric lizard, but he was much more afraid that the beautiful furry creature might drown! Without a moment’s hesitation, he leapt into the shimmering picture. And that’s when Danny and Mr. Gimbal saw him. Danny was struck dumb by terror, and Mr. Gimbal cried out, “Heavens above!”
You’re probably wondering how it was possible for the Vetustas, a machine for conjuring up images of the past, to suddenly conjure up a phantom image of a creature that was alive and well. It’s very simple. Every cat has seven lives, and so Spigot, a.k.a. Fluffy, was both a cat that wandered between Mr. Gimbal’s house and Danny’s, and at the same time a kitten from history that roamed from house to house fifty or a hundred years ago, or even earlier. It’s the same with all cats, including the one you have at home: it is both itself and another ancient creature. What’s more, when a bewildered Mr. Gimbal pressed his trembling finger to the button on the remote control and the whole enormous prehistoric ocean (including the shells, fish, and mosasaurus) was sucked back into the mirror, the cat was still sitting on the shoulder of Mr. Casimir, who was soaked to the skin and of course had no intention of disappearing again. How did it happen that the phantom cat stayed in the present time? To be honest, I just don’t know. Cats will always do as they please.
From Pan Kardan i przygoda z vetustasem (Bajka, 2017). © Justyna Bednarek. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones. All rights reserved.