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Orbes Misericordia

Evidence of a positive, or even a benign divine providence, can be scarce; but sometimes there are some small kindnesses, some scant mercies, in things we cannot explain.


On August 13th 1868 the Peruvian city of Tacna, then occupied by Chilean forces, was part of a region devastated by the Arica earthquake, which has since been estimated to have had a magnitude somewhere between 8.5 and 9 on the Richter scale. Besides causing tsunamis that were recorded to have reached as far as Hawaii, New Zealand and Japan, a significant proportion of the buildings across the region were levelled, with Arica, Arequipa, Ilo and Iquique amongst those settlements which, like Tacna, were almost completely destroyed. There were an estimated 25,000 casualties, a full accounting being almost impossible given the horrendous circumstances, but that number might have been even larger if not for the appearance and intervention of something both unprecedented and still inexplicable: The Orbes Misericordia.

They came in the silence and the stillness of the aftermath, through the choking dust of shattered architecture and upturned firmament, half a score of perfect spheres of dull, unpolished bronze - sized variously between fifty and one-hundred centimetres in diameter - floating a few feet above the ground in a scattered, undeliberate formation. They made their way through the wreckage slowly; a movement one might call drifting if not for the deliberateness of their purpose, bobbing up and down regularly at a rate similar to their lateral motion but out of synch with one another. Several people later claimed to have seen them arrive, one witness saying that they burst forth from a fissure opened by the earthquake and another that they coalesced out of chunks and shards of the metal that was exposed as a result of the same, but, as with their later, equally abrupt disappearance, there was too much confusion to confirm any one of the various conflicting stories as more or less definitive.

Nevertheless, accounts of their actions are more certain and were described and documented by countless people: After weaving through a crowd of survivors already shocked into numbness by what must have seemed like, if not been, the destruction of their whole world - the Orbes Misericordia began to clamour, drawing any eyes that might, in paralysed insensibility, have missed their arrival and passage. Their clattering clanks and clangs lacked the tone and resonance of bells, sounding more of a cacophonous alarm - resembling rough chunks of solid metal being smashed brutishly together - which continued for several minutes until all those who were capable gathered to find out just what was making the noise. Suddenly, either apparently satisfied that they had drawn as many people to them as possible or having reached the end of some predetermined peal, they went silent and, for a moment, absolutely and perfectly still.

This calming held only for moments, no more than a few seconds, but everyone who later said they were there (and the number of those who claimed to have been there markedly outstripped the likely size of the impromptu congregation) spoke of a sense of perfect peace that quelled their terror and anguish in a brief breath so alien in the midst of the chaos. Then the Orbes Misericordia went into frenzied action, their close formation splitting as each took flight over the heads of the crowd in various different directions and back into the fray of the broken city. As they vanished from sight into the dust the gathered citizens and soldiers paused, still unsure of what they were witnessing, until the clattering alarm sounded again, calling them to break and find the various separate orbs.

Drawn with a sense of urgency and resolve that one might expect their fresh trauma to have perhaps belied, they ran into the ruins, small groups chasing to seek out the nearest of the Orbes Misericorderia. They found them, each bobbing frantically in place and ringing out urgently. Quickly realising that the orbs were taking positions above different collapsed buildings, and that the changed tenor of their cries and manner of their movements indicated a desperate imperative, the people begin to dig into the rubble. They quickly found the first survivor - Fr. Mathias, a Catholic priest - pinned but otherwise unharmed, as the Orbis Misericordia hung overhead, its clamour replaced by a rhythmic clicking and whirring. Soon Fr. Mathias was freed, able to help in the continued search, upon which the orb peeled off to mark another place where another survivor was trapped beneath the rubble.

The pattern, the plan of the Orbes Misericordia, played out for hours as they moved away and outwards from the plaza where they had originally called people together: Another location marked by their call, another survivor rescued. Eventually the searches reached right across the ruins of the city, some groups only barely able to hear the noise of the other distant alarms ringing out. The trapped disaster victims whom the orbs marked for rescue appeared to be chosen indiscriminately, with old and young and those critically injured or relatively unscathed all represented, even whilst survivors realised that they could hear cries and calls from people who were trapped, but whom the Orbes Misericordia had - for whatever reason - deigned to ignore. Nevertheless, spurred on by Fr. Mathias who believed he saw the hand of God at work and gave the orbs their Latin name, anyone not marked to be saved was ignored until, as day turned to night and back again, the Orbes Misericordia ceased to sound and took flight, never to return.

Given that the Orbes Misericordia have not been seen or cited as being present at the scene of any other such previous or subsequent disaster - even those which were the direct result of the Arica earthquake - almost everything about them is unknown. The clues to their internal construction; their levitation and motion, the different clockwork ticks and percussive grinding that they were able to make, their ability to locate and target people buried under rubble and the apparent ability to make judgements as to which survivor met their unknown criteria for rescue, suggest internal mechanisms which would be impossible to replicate by dint of the most advanced science of today, let alone the 1860s, but seem to preclude the direct hand of something divine which might animate them purely through will. Still, with all this left unknown, the most absorbing questions might be around why, having such form and function, they only came in response to one disaster, to one city, at one time. It seems, for now, likely that we will never know.


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