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The University of Dreams and Knowledge

by Harry Lang

part 1

Professor Majis Grimble put down the light stylus and marveled at his two good hands. They were healthy. They were soft and pink and warm to the touch. Blood flowed unimpeded by inherited scar tissue. Nerves relayed commands to the muscles which responded with no hesitation. There was even feeling; not the pseudo sensory input of the loathsome prosthetics but real, natural feeling.

“Professor Grimble?” The voice on the battered intercom was thin and scratchy and seemed to come from much further away than the outer office. “Doctor Jerph is here to see you.”

“One moment.” He quickly stuffed the manuscript into a drawer and pulled on the gauntlets he had left lying on the desk. One was black and tarnished silver and simulated the characteristic creak of the commonly used prosthetics. The other fit like an ash colored second skin and masqueraded as the diseased natural hand he had pretended was his for as long as he could remember.

“Come in, Doctor. Please, have a seat.”

Dr. Jerph entered cautiously, inspecting the spotless office for any sign of disorder. The stool in front of Grimble’s desk evoked a frown of discomfort and disapproval. He moved it ever so slightly to the left.

“You have read the file?” he asked as he lowered himself onto the stool that was too small for him. Most furniture was.

The monster even makes simple questions sound like commands, thought Grimble. “Of course,” he answered. “And I am familiar with Lorink’s work.”

“He is raising havoc,” pronounced Jerph, who was not one to tolerate havoc of any sort.

“He certainly is,” agreed Grimble, “but he is breaking no laws.”

“Laws!” spat Jerph, as if constitutions and legislation were subversions devised by useless eaters and other undesirables. “So he spills his poison through happy little stories instead of essays and manifestos. Why does that matter? Besides, if he was breaking the law it would be a problem for the authorities instead of the university’s department of orthodoxy. I say, you don’t look well, Grimble. A bit pale. Getting enough fresh air, are you?”

“A slight headache.”

“I see. Never get them myself. I don’t suffer from that particular weakness.”

“Doctor, you know we’ve been working on this case for some time. His ideas can be countered,” said Grimble, though looking at Jerph raised doubts on this point.

“Ideas? We’re past caring about his ideas, Grimble. As are the students, let me tell you! It is fast becoming a matter of personality, understand? One of Hilber’s students brought up the scientific method. The scientific method, Grimble! It wasn’t an exploration of ideology or an exchange of worldviews; it was a challenge backed by the strength of a leader!”

“The scientific method? Doctor, I’ve read everything Lorink has published. There’s been no mention...”

“Precisely my point, Grimble. There doesn’t have to be. He sets things in motion; he doesn’t have to furnish details. We have been too slow to recognize this, Professor, too slow! If we hadn’t tripped over Glorn and his cabal out in Snaketown we wouldn’t even have a department of orthodoxy! Then where would we be?”

I’d be in a classroom where I belong, thought Grimble sourly. Hard to say where you would be.

“Doctor, I must apologize but I have an appointment. Surely you didn’t walk all the way up here from Omicron Hall just to talk over old times?”

“No, I didn’t,” agreed Jerph, rising to his feet with an ease that was almost frightening for a man of his bulk. “Here.” He handed Grimble an envelope.

“The faculty’s recommendation? Is it unanimous?”

“It is. The deans have signed it as well as the trustees. Stop wasting our time, Professor. Civilization is counting on you.” He paused, making another inspection of the tiny office. “And please empty your wastebasket! Slovenly habits betray a slovenly mind!”

Jerph was accompanied by the familiar creaks and groans of the prosthetics as he turned and left the office. He had to duck to avoid a collision between the top of the doorway and the cybernetic interface clamped to the back of his massive head.

Grimble slapped the envelope nervously against his thigh before tossing it onto the desk unopened. He knew what it contained and it ruined his day.

He turned to the slit window running the length of the wall behind his desk. The brassy afternoon sun cast a bronze hue upon the low gray buildings of the university, each with its own mosaic frieze of aqua and orange.

The artwork supposedly depicted scenes from history, but the abstract images were incomprehensible to his untrained eye. Row upon row of the square structures, most of them empty, stood upon a grid of narrow black paths. Small groups of damaged students moved as best they could along the paths, keeping themselves evenly spaced in single file or arranging themselves in clearly defined geometric formations. It could take hundreds of generations for the remnant of the curse to be exorcised.

Or not, he reflected. How many generations had it already been since the onslaught from beyond, the mysterious gamma barrages and retaliatory nuclear detonations? It had taken humanity centuries to pull itself from the rubble and attempt a return to civilization and now Chebma Lorink wanted to bring it all down around their ears.

He dug Lorink’s file from the perfectly stacked sheets near the edge of his desk. “Grael,” he called into the intercom as he scanned the blue characters glowing on the thin golden metallic pages, “I need you to find a route to... to Eastmine. It’s a small town out in Region 5, possibly near a place called Snaketown.”

“Yes, Professor. Shall I pack your gear?”

“I’d appreciate it.”

* * *

The sun was rising as the coal-fired steam engine rattled into the grimy depot on the outskirts of Snaketown. For two days Grimble had sat in the cramped compartment with nothing to do but doze or nibble the inedible tidbits passed around by the one-armed conductor as empty brown fields gave way to barren brown hills.

At least a third of the trip had been spent on sidings in the middle of nowhere listening to the clangs, plinks and jangles of the trial and error repair efforts made by the vehicle’s baffled crew. His head was pounding. His back was stiff and his leg was asleep. The dirt and disorder beyond the university limits were constant threats to his mental equilibrium.

Worst of all he was afraid.

This wasn’t his first visit to Snaketown. Even though he would only stay long enough to hike out to Eastmine for a day there was a chance he’d be recognized.

Or was there? The nearest mind center was a day and a half away by steamer. There was no way the bumpkins could keep up the maintenance on the brain interfaces. They were lucky to remember what they had for dinner, much less the face of a passing stranger from years ago.

Snaketown was an outpost in the swirling brown dust of the wilderness, a frontier town where adherence to order was voluntary and the force of law was sporadically applied. It was commonly believed to be a survivor of the Thousand Years’ Horror or possibly the first municipality to appear after. It was neither, but the legend added to the eerie and threatening ambiance Grimble found as he walked the old, crooked streets with their slanted gray houses and incomprehensible markets already swarming with farmers, children and widows.

He found the room Grael had booked for him, washed and had breakfast. He then made the mistake of asking the husband and wife proprietors of the establishment for the shortest route to Eastmine. Apparently this topic generated some heat among the locals. Best to follow the road signs, he decided and made his exit just as the couple started throwing things.

He soon found a crossroads where signs indicated a number of destinations: Deadfield, The Memorial, The Dangerous Water (Stay Away!), Mr. Glarchy’s House, The Other Memorial, Eastmine, The Failures, Doe Run. He thought there was something familiar about Mr. Glarchy’s House but he couldn’t place it.

The air was clear and had a fresh smell which he hadn’t experienced since his last trip beyond the university limits. The sky was blue and the sun was bright and warm. Small black trees lined a path covered with crushed stone and gravel. He soon worked out the kinks from the long trip and found a comfortable stride which would get him to Eastmine in just under two hours.

Lorink had been a project of his since the publication of his first book, A Handful of Souls, a charming collection of stories about the residents of his hometown of Eastmine. Grimble had recommended the book to several people on campus, having completely missed the underlying themes and their implications. By the time Lorink’s third book The God of Questions appeared, the students were hooked and his intentions were clear.

Jerph was right. They had been slow to recognize the trend. For the last hundred years the academics had been so single-minded in their determination to build a working educational system that it never occurred to them there might be opposition. Ignorance, yes. Resistance to change, of course. But the kind of thoroughly considered, well organized challenge mounted by Dr. Glorn and championed by Lorink had taken them completely by surprise.

The struggling authorities were no help. Jerph himself had filed complaints pursuant to the heresy laws when the subversions of Dr. Glorn were discovered. The bureaucrats were weakly sympathetic but uncomprehending. Glorn was a scientist, they reasoned. He made no political or religious statements. He advocated no action of any kind. How could he be a threat? Why should they waste their time?

The official indifference left the academics to devise their own rearguard strategies to defend the advances being made. Some thought the conflict made them stronger. Others feared the worst or bemoaned the drain on time and resources.

It just made Grimble tired.

The path emerged from the sparse shelter of the trees and continued in a straight line across a field of blond grain shot through with streaks of green. His understanding of horticulture was practically nonexistent but he knew green was good. It was evidence of progress and he took it as a small confirmation of the importance of his mission.

As his head continued to clear and the strangeness of the place faded, Grimble found himself enjoying the hike. Rolling hills topped with small clumps of trees, fields of amber dotted with green and the enchantment of the blue sky reminded him of the ancient poetry he used to teach before he’d been impressed into the academic bureaucracy. Even the student editions, with their extensive restructuring and clarifying interpretations, retained their emotional power, and Grimble wondered what it must have been like to respond to the world with such artistry and directness.

Jerph sneered at literature, dismissing it as the useless production of aimless intellects. Grimble wondered why he was even an academic; the state boot squad seemed more suitable. There was conjecture among some of the faculty that Jerph’s brain interface had not been properly retuned after the previous owner passed it on. The impulses generated by the device could be in conflict with the doctor’s natural inclinations. This led to some amusing speculation. Was Jerph a monster forced to play the part of a civilized man or a genuine scholar tormented by irresistible coarseness?

Hills and blue skies weren’t the only sights to be seen along the way. In the distance, where the hills rolled down into the fields there stood rusting piles of strange-looking objects and the disintegrating ruins of ridiculously malformed buildings. The locals called these collections the Failures. They were the fanciful attempts of the ambitious but unguided to reconstruct the imagined artifacts of the mysterious past.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2011 by Harry Lang

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