Published: Nov 24, 2020 5:00:00 PM



“How did you feel?” I asked. I was forward in my chair, doing my best to recognize the expanse of Lorna’s story. The Five Old Men, before they were old, before there were five, seemed to be a sloppy cabal of letter-writing overgrown boys in shock from the Civil War’s treacherous bloodshed. Hardly men at all. Hardly capable of the metaphysical thinking required for the holistic assemblage of a university as unique as Shackleburg. Gustave Tatum was a half-doctor hatchet man testing the limits of good taste in regard to human physiology. Dirk Soames was an abusive tinkerer experimenting on his own wife. And Lorna—this Lorna Rodan, a woman the school’s limited history had not accounted for, ghost-directed the Electrochemistry department at Professor Loomis’ pleasure.

Perhaps Professor Soames still dwelt up in the New Chapel? I believed that as much as I believed anything to be certain, so deep into Lorna’s story as I was. If she had told me Gustave Tatum never existed, I might believe that. What did any of it represent? What was the truth within the memory? These were the days of a future past, and it would be a labor unto itself, taking care all was remembered accurately. Yet now, reader, you may recall the students blinding themselves in the Oral History building, all to achieve total specificity and accuracy in their ability to recall. Did my own memories tinge my understanding of Lorna’s story? I believed her. I saw truth in her eyes. But a different man might feel hate in his heart when hearing her account of a husband who exacted cruelties upon her body. That potential man might believe it all some seductive insincerity—a woman exercising a most exacting power, that of deception.

I shook violently at the thought while burdened by the truth. Men such as this exist. Memory carried weight, for it was subjective, as well as objective. Lorna told of horrors. They were horrors because she—and to the degree I could muster, I did, too—knew the things done to her were horrible. Without such context, these were but a series of passing moments, as worthy or as unsuited for noting as any other. The responsibility fell to just minds in the present moment to noticing and identifying the horrors of the past. To see evil. To separate it from good. To combat one and nurture the other.

Now I possessed a meager context for Shackleburg’s creation. A unique place full of remarkable people. But was it a good place? Were these good people? Were all these things to be remembered as celebrations, or as cautions? Were our very actions—myself, Lorna, and Jasper and the rest, somewhere outside—already poisoned by our beliefs in the Five Old Men, of which there were not five, they were not old, nor were they all men?

I could make no certain decision until I reformed a cohesive reality. I’d been certain about my objective—to come to Shackleburg. I had not expected such a quest would demand I readdress the totality of belief in the academic and social structures that compelled me to come here in the first place. The restructuring annihilated clarity and squeezed my chest.

Onward. I needed Lorna to continue.

“I felt,” she began. “I felt liberation. I felt capable, like I was at last a star that could generate her own heat. That through chemical wizardry, I could welcome new objects into my gravity, and before, I was only a dead rock in the night sky, and I could only burn once in the night sky as a meteorite, reduced to near-nothing upon impact. No, now I was making my own light in the dark. I was burning.

“Alexis and I had the telegraph and we began to write the letterings from Kendrick’s communication.”

In that moment, Lorna took a book from her desk drawer. It was a bound text of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, its insides hollowed out to make a chamber for a small fold of paper. She placed it on the desk between us.

I lifted the paper and read aloud.

“Insect spawns on an apple slice at a beach picnic. It goes to water. It sees waves. The insect sees no change. Dies. Its brood sees the sea flee further. Waves are the same. Picnic ends. The last insect dies. None see the tide return. Dead, none know the sea comes back. None know the moon. None know humans. Know apples. Know death. Know waves always run away. But the sea comes back. The sea comes to Shackleburg.”

I twisted the paper sideways to read a separate passage written in a different hand: “Yet you, my creator, detest and spurn me, thy creature, to whom thou art bound by ties only dissoluble by the annihilation of one of us. You purpose to kill me. How dare you sport thus with life?”

“The Monster,” Lorna said. “Made into a detestable living flesh by a flippant creator.”

“So I see. I do not recognize the passage outright, but I believe its text,” I said. “What did the telegraph mean, exactly? It’s insects, and tides, and death, and the sea. What does it mean?”

“Hmm. You remind me of myself, when I was young,” Lorna said. She retrieved the paper scrap and contemplated the plate of gibberish. “This represents two pieces of the puzzle. Alexis and I took a great deal of time discussing your exact question. What does it mean? To answer it, you begin with the sender and its recipient. It was sent by Kendrick Loomis, an academic known throughout his profession as a philosopher and metaphysicist. The ontologist. Dictator of what is and what is not. Purveyor of things and not-things. All that thinking and talking he did inspired strangeness in his fellow academics who had for so long been bound by the strict parameters of scientific study. Of course, I did not know these things when reading the message. The name Kendrick Loomis meant nothing to me then. Nor did I recognize Shackleburg. I only knew a strange man had sent my husband and my doctor a telegraph message, always arriving after my visits, and always its arrival held these men at rapt attention.

“I set out to solve this first question—who was Kendrick Loomis? Once I knew the name, it began appearing everywhere in my life, as if the sun had grown brighter. Letters, discarded telegraph messages in Dirk’s wastebins, and constantly in conversation when we visited company. His theorizing and lectures on humanity’s place within creation was both modern and terribly traditional, citing both Plato and Durkheim in the same breath. But it was his perspective on the totality of time and our inability to accurately track scientific phenomena on both a planetary scale and a micro-scale that transformed the man into a messiah. Or a pariah. It took little time to absorb this information about Kendrick, now that I knew what I was looking for. It was a simple matter of eavesdropping at social events. Find the most hushed corner, and Kendrick would eventually rise in conversation.

“And so, we come to the second question—why were men such as Dirk and Gustave so eager to receive messages from Kendrick? You read the message I intercepted. It was legible, yet more wild and poetic than ought to be of interest to an electrochemist and a physic. This telegraph from Kendrick was more psalm than theorem. The answer came once I discovered the book of saved messages in Dirk’s office.

“This was only one in a series of forty-seven. There are only forty-seven, and I found that the one I captured was technically nineteenth in the cycle. One arrives each day—not with perfect timing, at the same minute of the same hour, judging by the time stamped on the communications—but they do arrive every day, without fail. After forty-seven days, the cycle begins anew, back again at the first message. Dirk had cataloged them. I compared copies of the first message with the repeated message when it reappeared at the start of a new cycle. They are identical, so are the second, and third, and so on.

“I do not have copies of these messages here, but I believe they have been cataloged in the Shackleburg archives, which is next to the statuary, down by the infirmary. Together, when read in order, the forty-seven telegraphs comprise a cohesive picture. They represent Kendrick’s vision. For the world. For humanity’s role in creation’s continuity. For the return of our oldest foe.”

I tensed at the words. “Lorna,” I interrupted suddenly. “I feel I must explain, before you go further.”

“What could you possibly explain to me?” she laughed bitterly.

“The reason. The reason I came to—the reason I broke into the Electrochemistry building in the first place through the basement.”

“You came in through the basement? How the devil—?”

“I will tell you how someday, but first—”

“You’re here on behalf of Jordan Kwan, aren’t you? My so-called protege? If I can muster the bile to even describe her as such at this point.”

“Please listen. I came here because we need measurement tools. Jordan’s instruments. We must go back to the Orrery. Something’s happened at the Orrery. Something we cannot rightly identify or measure,” I blurted, finding the words coming faster now, watching the expression on Lorna’s face shift as quickly as I spoke. “That’s why the bell rang. It wasn’t Professor Loomis sending a message, it was because Professor Rakosi came out of the New Chapel to check his Orrery. But there’s more! There’s more to the Orrery than even he expected. More to its design, and its function, and its capabilities, beyond the cosmological. And we found he didn’t build it alone. There’s more to its instrumentality—”

“Quentin is at the Orrery,” Lorna stated.

“Yes. We met him. Jasper Barlowe and I, another student. There is a thing in the Orrery. A facsimile of a coming—something. It resembles a silvery wave. But we must know what this arrival represents, and to do so, we must know what type of chemical was released to understand if it is a threat. To understand if Professor Rakosi was forced out or cast out. To know if the Five Old Men intended for this to happen, or simply anticipated it.”

“It’s mercury,” Lorna said plainly. She stood and crossed the office to the machine I’d spied through the keyhole.

“You’re certain.”

Lorna began working the machine. “Boy, I am one of the Five Old Men. I told you, I took Dirk Soames’ place at Kendrick’s request.”

“What happened to Professor Soames?”

“I killed him,” Lorna said. The machine began humming with electrical thoughts. I felt the cables snaking back and through the entire building tremble with life. “He was no scientist and he was no unique mind. I learned more from the experiments he conducted on me than he ever could fathom. Kendrick was more than happy to be rid of him. His only stipulation of hiding the alleged murder of my husband was I carry on using his name, recognizable in academia, as it was. I was free of one demon, only to but saddled with another, perhaps one more terrible still. It was my design to build the release of the mercury chemical into the Orrery. Most of us included secret tricks and triggers in that ragged machine’s construction. Partly because we detested Quentin and believed he ought to be punished for taking his craft far too seriously. But we were also professionals, and each of us knew we must all keep specific knowledge of the Orrery’s functions secret, even from each other. It allowed equality. Struggling under Kendrick’s thumb, it was highly necessary.”

“You need to come and talk to Professor Rakosi,” I said.

“Quentin has outlived his usefulness. I trust your comrade, what was his name, Mister Barlowe, more than I trust Quentin Rakosi. No, what we need to do is to display power.”

As she worked the final calibrations on her machine, the building trembled. Lorna smiled and gestured with a steady, reassuring hand. Metallic wheezing twisted and thrummed inside the walls. The accompanying banging rose louder, repeating, expanding through the building. Electrical currents spilled in visible blue arcs from the exposed metal beams jutting from the roof and foundation. The structure pulsed with energy, and from off the horizon, where the white clouds drifted over the valley below, a thick darkness breached forth, blazing with untamed lighting on its approach toward the mountainside.

-- Alex Crumb
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