Published: Nov 19, 2020 5:00:00 PM

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CHAPTER XIV

I thumbed at the patches of scored skin above my brow, and eased the cellar door open. The Electrochemistry building’s ground floor was bright with sunshine. Its floors were rough slate tiles, yet they still were cleaned enough to give back the light. I exhaled and crawled up the last few stairs like an animal and remained crouched while closing the door behind me.

I couldn’t recall if Jordan said anything regarding the other students in the building. It was a safe assumption if Lorna could not attract loyalty from what appeared to be her dearest friend and student, no others would likely remain, either. Still, I cautioned. I regretted not agreeing upon a plan with the others to open a side door for them, if and when I made it through the crack in the foundation. The shame in my lack of preparation was sudden, but fleeting. My heart was beating too quickly and there was a deep, desperate need to survive until the next minute, and then the next after that. What a coincidence, recognizing my own body chemistry while creeping among the hallways of this laboratory dedicated to that exact subject.

Crackling friction tickled my fingertips as I touched the wall for balance while crouch-walking toward what I begged would be the front entrance. The building was as silent as a cemetery. I could not even notice sound coming from outside. I shuddered, thinking of the dead space in the foundation, trapping me alone with no noise but the earth’s very own unfeeling stillness. The entry foyer was close. My borrowed coat’s fringes dragged on the slate and I eased forward on tiny barefoot steps. Hunkering behind a welcoming administrative desk, not dissimilar from the desk Francesca sat behind at the Oral History building, I chanced a look backward.

A staircase of metal and stone spiraled upward behind the desk, exposed and in sight of any who might stand in the foyer. Slender metal beams and wound wires suspended the spiral staircase in place, cabled to the room’s walls like a spider’s web. It appeared as ready to conduct electricity as it was to grant second floor access. Still no sounds or signs of Lorna.

I eased as cautiously as possible across the foyer to the building’s front door. I undid the drawn bolt, but my heart sank at the sight of a lock painted blue. I set my eye against the keyhole, humored at my own behavior, as if I might spot a man inside that could undo the lock for me. I could barely spot the inner workings, but a tug on the handle told me it remained locked, even from the inside, and it would not open without Lorna’s keys. The windows beside the doors were barred with a metal-cable mesh similar to the wires holding the staircase in position. It was no wonder Jordan had not broken the glass and climbed inside the moment she had been barred from access. I pivoted on my big toe, wobbling slightly in fatigue.

I breathed out and examined the staircase of stone, and metal, and artistry.

Carrying on with my creeping posture, I did not bring myself upright, electing instead to paw cat-like, up the spiraling stairs. Even as the cables wobbled and sang small, plucking songs under my delicate steps, even as I heard a muffled voice for the first time rumble from somewhere on the second floor, I did not pause. Once more, my wrecked forehead and cut face breached the peak of the stairs first, eyes scanning for dangers. I saw none. Climbing the top step, I at last stood upright while continuing to step silently.

Another rumble of human voice. It was away from the front of the building. I glanced one way— seeing the window where Jordan had fractured the pane—then the other, toward the noise. Above my head, running the length of the corridor, dangled a knit cable bundle. It led unward to a pair of doors and entered the distant room through a squared-off gap above the door, deliberately designed and placed to permit the cabling’s entry.

The words grew louder as I approached.

I combated my breath and hammering heartbeats, like cannonfire against my battered ribs. I required caution, but felt compelled toward loudness, to confront and alarm my enemy. At odds with itself, my body could only shake in each semi-obedient motion, each outstretched hand for balance, each small barefoot step toward those double doors. When I was near, and I could stand straight no longer, I lowered to my knees and crawled. Once more, I put my eye to the keyhole, laughing just a little at myself, and feeling quite childish.

With a smile, I set my eye close to see what I could. Lorna passed inches from the opening. I ground my teeth to keep sound from escaping.

Lorna shifted slightly into view once more, reading off a document. At the room’s far end, I could see where the bundle of cables and wiring terminated, attached to a frightening machine that appeared to run on some form of electricity. Polished spheres hoisted on lecterns flanked the machine and I recalled Francesca’s words—I could feel those spheres. I could feel them in my skin, on the bottoms of my feet, in my teeth, vibrating even across my eyes.

I was sure Jordan could explain the machine’s meaning, but I was alone. I had to confront Lorna. I had to seize the keys from her and allow Jordan inside so she could retrieve her instruments and come with us to the Orrery.

Deception did not strike me as an optimal path with one as blithering as Lorna. She was an intellectual with a superiority complex. I considered whether I could overpower the woman, though I was beaten and weakened by the experience being trapped in the foundation. None of these were sound plans. I could hardly form cogent thoughts, my brain so scrambled with excitement, fear, and survivalism.

No plan. Just go.

I gripped the doorknob. I twisted it, imagining Lorna’s surprise to see this thing that should not be. And as I opened the door, I rose upright again, breathing out, for it was all I could do.

“Lorna,” I said plainly from the place in her doorway. It was no question. I only meant to capture her attention. And there I stood in the electrochemistry office cum laboratory, and she with the look on her face, but not the exact one I expected. Not defiant or flippant, as she was in her language with Jordan while yelling from a second floor window. No, she was terrified at the sight. I was shoeless, shirtless, trousers damp and torn, with a borrowed coat fit for a cowboy, and now shirt. I was cut on my fingers, my shoulders, neck, cheeks, and ears. The blood on my chin was dry and stale. I entered the room without a sound, shutting the door gently behind me, as if I’d visited this office a hundred times before, and would a hundred times more.

Professor Rakosi had mentioned ghosts when we discussed the approaching wave. Jasper had called the Orrery the most haunted building on campus. What ought to be a total impossibility to a scientist such as Lorna—perhaps an evil phantasm given shape, and even feet to walk on—overtook her every thought. And all I had said was her name.

“I should introduce myself,” I went on, calm. “My name is Keziah Keyes. I am an Ontology student. And I have a favor to ask.”

“How in the fucking hell did you break into my laboratory?” she breathed.

“I don’t believe that’s the first conversation we ought to have,” I laughed a little. “Perhaps later? First, a favor. Would you please unlock the front door?”

“You said you’re a student?”

“Ontology, yes.”

“Did Kendrick send you?”

I hesitated. “Kendrick?”

“Are you—?” She pointed. “Are you Kendrick? We’ve all been through so much. Sacrificed. In the name of—well, I’m not entirely sure. Kendrick only told each of us half-truths. Simple words. Small ones.”

“You know, they say two people having a conversation about a third person that is not present in the room, does not make for good drama. And I say, if we’re to get anywhere, you and I should speak plainly and clearly.”

“So—you are Kendrick, then?”

“No. I am Keziah.” I stepped further into the room, nearer to her, and she stepped away slightly. “Are you Lorna?”

“Yes,” she said, barely mustering the word without shuddering and beginning to weep, but only for a moment. She straightened up. “How much do you know?”

“I have—” I considered the fine violin strings of our tense conversation. “Approximate knowledge of a great many things. I ask you of your identity, Lorna, because I sense a disharmony within you. And it’s clear, with the bell being rung this morning, a great many things are troubling the people here at Shackleburg. You are not excluded. We wonder our roles and responsibilities when the world summons us from the familiar and into untracked territory. What was your responsibility this morning, and what is your responsibility now?”

“I am—I am tasked with the tutelage of the Electrochemistry department. So the world might be mended. My role in this is that of a caretaker.” She halted to taste the bitter flavor of the word in her mouth and spat it out. “How much do you know?”

Dressed like a starving man in a mining town, I leaned against the academic’s desk, and spoke as my schooling had taught me. “I’ve spoken with Professor Kendrick Loomis. Not more than a few months ago when he passed through my hometown. On his way to where, and to what end, I cannot accurately say, but he was a man that identified himself as such, and spoke like a man that commands respect among men who speak—and women. Have you ever spoken with Professor Kendrick Loomis?”

Lorna laughed, short and still bitter. “Constantly,” she said.

“So the Five Old Men do communicate with you? Directly? It’s common knowledge they never leave the New Chapel.”

“It is so easy for you to cradle that lie in your arms and protect it like gospel,” Lorna snorted. Her expression shifted. She was the woman in the window again, sharp chin thrown forward, black warpaint around her eyes and lips making a demon of her. “It warms you and comforts you. It is brilliant fun to imagine the inaccessibility and height of those men. Your mind thinks and thinks, and crafts worlds and lives for these people you have never met. Parasocial relationships spun like delicate electrical webs in minds desirous of an endorphin surge. Because you cannot exist in homeostasis yourself. Because you believe you are a vital piece of a vital system and it is critical you find some comfort there, lest the warmth of impractical imagination leave you.

“Humans are balls of energy. Humans are ongoing electrochemical explosions. We want to burn. Our minds’ missions are to burn and perpetuate that fire—through destruction, or fucking, or growth, we comprehend our position in existence more acutely than one might expect. To exert, perpetuate, and gather power, that is what is good in life. And some believe the greatest power to achieve is to be an element in the chain reaction of another. To burn, on behalf of another, greater explosion.”

“You mean Professor Loomis?” I asked.

“Feh,” Lorna smiled. “Yes. But no. Dirk Soames, young man. The head of the Electrochemistry department.”

“Of course,” I admitted. “You serve at the pleasure of Professor Soames.”

“No,” Lorna said. “I am Professor Soames. Because Kendrick Loomis asked me to.”

-- Alex Crumb
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