Published: Nov 17, 2020 5:00:00 PM

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CHAPTER XII

Was my soul vain and contemptible, so enthralled in excitement, so eager to discover truths, whether they deadly or kind? Was my eagerness a personal thrill? Did I long more to simply know, and understand, than to imagine the burden of combating a potential evil I could not yet identify? To know my enemy, as Jasper had spoken aloud at the sight of the encroaching ribbon of uncertain silver, was a recognizable task. I had overcome clear obstacles before, but to lust after simply knowing that which I assumed wicked and evil, this was a sin in countless ways. It implied I would only sit in the company of my attacker. It meant a prejudice against an opponent I pursued, prepared to damn this unknown otherness with malicious taint before ever I knew it. And most important of all—if the worst was realized, and we revealed a truth, and the thing was an invader, could we, would we fight the monster?

If fate or circumstance asked we set fire to our lives’ precious darlings in order to defeat this monster, could we live with such a sacrifice? Could we vivisect our prior notions and institutions, and autopsy the weaknesses that allowed a threat to manifest?

At first blush, Shackleburg appeared a construct of intelligent design, capable of detecting and unmasking phantasms lurking in the unlit pockets of creation. Its founding members arranged the institution to achieve precisely what Jasper, and Francesca, and Ianto, and myself—and others—were acting on that morning. And I was giddy to be an obvious piece in a system intended to address possibilities I alone could not. We are a machine designed to verify not just truth, but this specific truth. Yet, where were the operators of this machine?

I could not in good conscience imagine they are seated at the locomotion’s engine. Where in this queer line of cars were the Five Old Men and to what task had they committed themselves, now that there was no getting off this train?

The Electrochemistry building was the twin of the Ontology building, lying on the opposite side of the Clock Tower, only up the slope a touch further. We traversed back across campus until we at last found ourselves on a path even I recognized—it was the way connecting to the Fort where we had begun the morning. Continuing further, the Electrochemistry building grew into view, but not before a mob of bodies occupying the path.

“Commotion,” Jasper said.

There remained a chance word of an uncertain crisis had leaked out since the bells at the New Chapel rang. Approaching the group of students on the path, I found their attention was captured by a figure in a second floor window of the Electrochemistry building. She was shouting down to the student that had stepped forward from the group, appearing to mediate the conversation.

“Not a strong enough word,” Francesca said in response with a dry humor. She listened more closely. “It’s Jordan.”

“You know Jordan Kwan?” Jasper asked as we arrived at the rear of the onlookers.

“You know Jordan Kwan?” Francesca echoed, mocking him a little. She smiled wryly. “We had breakfast just this morning. Until I was called away. You want a trustworthy electrochemist, Ianto? Trust Jordan.”

“I can say Jordan has proven herself capable every time she’s visited the Orrery,” Jasper remarked. “Let’s see if we can speak with her.”

A little jostling through those gathered brought us to the front of the group. Between us and the Electrochemistry building was Jordan Kwan and a volatile conversation with the woman on the second floor. Like the Ontology building, the Electrochemistry department made its home in a bizarre structure of metal beams, naturally-exposed rock, and beautiful glass that truly did not belong so high up a mountain this far west of the Mississippi.

Jordan was taller than I’d realized when I sat at breakfast for a moment at Yvonne’s request. The name and the face were familiar, but not connected until that moment, and given the enormity of the morning’s events thus far, things had changed for me considerably. The same could be said for Jordan. She was chaos on a windy mountainside. Her school uniform overcoat was unbuttoned and thrown open, and her mouth followed, shouting what could barely be called a conversation. Her finally volley hurled, Jordan turned to face us now. Her eyes were coated in sharply-drawn makeup, black as night, and she seethed with a demon’s soul. Her lips were touched with the same all-black color around her eyes but the terror fixed on her face was precise, neat, and deliberately-applied.

“Jasper,” she growled in greeting, then noticed the rest of us. “Francesca?”

“Picking fights with old women?” Francesca asked her friend.

“She’s not a woman. A woman is capable of embarrassment,” Jordan spat, turning back to the figure at the window. “Isn’t that true Lorna? The natural response to your predicament ought to be embarrassment. You ought to self-examine and through years of life experience, you can equate your present emotion with any other time you felt em-barr-assed! Eh? Enough embarrassment to choke a sperm whale but you can’t even muster that, can you? No. That’d be admitting error, which you are in-fucking-capable of.”

“Slag off!” the woman at the window shouted, heaving with spit and feeling. “Slag—off-f-f-f-f!”

She threw a glass object down before Jordan. We all backed away in alarm while Jordan allowed the cracks and shards to explode across her unmoving boots.

I caught a closer look at the woman named Lorna as she bent forward to scream extended syllables with her entire body. She not only was dressed in the same black makeup as Jordan, she even resembled the student somewhat, down to the red hair tied up in braids and a bun at the back of her head.

“What are you? What are you all but replicants, adhering to a specific pattern that I dictate?” Lorna yelled. She clutched her fingers delicately against her breast and thrust her chin forward as though she knew none could strike at her from below. Her voice croaked as she spoke, weakened from the yelling match. “Unlovable. Contemptible. Failures. Not even hands as skilled as mine could craft such mud into structures of precision or purpose. No, we were misguided in attempts to teach. To teach—children. Empty-minded and yet impossible to fill with knowledge. Refusal to learn. Refusal to recognize truth. The sciences governing propulsion of one molecule’s elegant ricochet against another are a heavenly codex that I alone observe. I cannot teach it, and you call me a monster! You are low. You, most of all, Jordan.” She pointed a lone finger. “You were my brightest star. My most beloved daughter. You enjoyed every advantage. You could not even mimic my success, what chance do you have in surpassing me. You’ve not only failed yourself, you’ve failed me. The one who poured every drop of meaning—”

Jordan stepped on a curved bit of glass at her feet. The motion was enough to spring it up to her dangle hand and she snipped it, almost invisible in the gesture, between her fingers. She flung the sharp object up toward Lorna, fracturing the window above her. While it was only enough to startle the woman, nothing more came of the response, Lorna squealed through a set jaw, pawing at the empty air in a panic.

“Open the door, immediately, Lorna!” Jordan demanded.

“You are no longer permitted!” Lorna shouted back. She brandished a ring of blue keys. “Let your petulance be a scarlet letter upon your chest for all time. Though, I may allow you—” She picked at the keys’ teeth with her fingers and twined them within hers like they were a lover’s hand. “In time. Who can say? I’m a fair woman to those who demonstrate loyalty. You know of devotion. You know of loyalty. Come back again. Two days. The building is closed until then. All classes are canceled! Goodbye!”

She reached forward and gently closed the right window. She reached forward and gently closed the left window, the top pane chipped where Jordan had flung her glass shard. Lorna twisted a small latch to bind the windows together and drew the curtains.

Jordan turned to face us. Her eyes were massive, blazing dots at the center of darkness on her face.

“You’re handling this rather well,” Francesca said, smiling toward her friend. “Better than I would have. I would have been inconsolable.” Jordan spat into the dead grass, exposed from the snow dusting now that it had a chance to melt in the sun. It was a crude gesture but did not feel unladylike or inappropriate, given the strangeness that surrounded us. “You’re quick to anger and even quicker when returning to calm. Why bother doubting yourself one way or the other. Just commit to the feeling.”

“I’ve good reason to be calm when I’m calm,” Jordan said. “And very good to be angry when it comes to that. I thought you were stuck over at Oral History after the bell rang?”

“Trouble came and found me. Do you ever feel like you just attract problems? Life is a curse sometimes.” Francesca gestured to us. “Ianto. Tell her what you told the new boy.”

“What about? And how much of it?” Ianto asked.

“As much as you can, as quickly as you,” I suggested. I glanced at Jasper who sighed and shrugged.

Ianto raised an eyebrow but did not protest. “Very well. An event has been detected in the Orrery. It does not appear to be a malfunction in the mechanics, but it is not one we can identify, nor can we validate it as malicious or benevolent. It is a celestial body manifested by a pre-designed mechanism as a silvery ribbon. We must determine whether this encroaching event represents good or ill, and we require your electrochemical expertise to identify the substance.”

Jordan listened. Ianto concluded his explanation and elaborated no further.

“And?” Jordan asked. “Francesca.”

“And, Ianto?” Francesca asked.

“And we hold suspicion that this event’s positive or negative alignment could imply the Five Old Men may be aligned with, or against, the coming anomaly.”

“What’ve the Five Old Men to do with this?”

“Professor Rakosi himself is in the Orrery at this moment,” I said. “He is distraught. He might be stricken with fear, or saddened that his colleagues sent him down from the New Chapel alone. Whatever the circumstance, we suspect a difference in thinking. This encourages a theory that not all in the New Chapel are unified, and as such—”

“Yeah, it means the purpose of the school as a connected whole of systemic subject matter has gone fucky, I gather you, thanks,” Jordan said, exhaling. She wiped at the makeup jabbing from her eye’s edge, scraping just a fleck on her thumb, and she left the rest. She had heard all she required. “I’d need my instruments and they’re in the Electrochemistry building. Lorna was having a regular day until the bell rang, and now I figure her brain’s been tossed—mad as a loon because Professor Soames didn’t send a message down like she was expecting.”

“You imagine she was expecting that?” Jasper asked.

“That’s how our chin-wagging started,” Jordan said. “She waited and waited. I’ve never heard of the bell to ring in my time here, so I didn’t feel fair doubting her until the day started to grow older. Then nothing came. The Five Old Men were quiet, so I thought, till you described Professor Rakosi coming down.”

“Walked right out through the door in the wall,” I said.

“Lorna’s been here longer than any of us. Longer than Jasper, longer than Yvonne. Stuck working on her dissertation. She’s held onto those blue keys like it’d save her when the creek rises. I can’t reckon whether she thought the bell was calling her home, or she was meant to receive a message, but the not knowing turned my friend and mentor into a heart-starved idiot.” She pointed to her makeup and lips. “It’s a tradition she developed. One we’ve shared. Warpaint for a woman denied everything in academia. It’s enough to drive—shit.”

Jordan didn’t complete the thought. The statement was enough.

“Jordan?” I asked, catching her with as gentle a tone as I could. “Is there another way to get inside?”

-- Alex Crumb
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