Published: Nov 11, 2020 5:00:00 PM



The students were stricken still in their chairs. Only a few mustered the will to head for the exit, the bell repeating its singular, low roar, again and again, over and over, as I took to my feet and navigated that tomb of thought. The others’ lips drifted apart, mouths gaping slightly like fish, eyes all wide and paralyzed. More, the bell thundered, as if its simple song could fill the hall, inch by inch, and drown us all.

“K.K., here,” Jasper mouthed to me from the door where he stood with some others I didn’t recognize. Blazing morning light collided with us once more at the exit and I was forced to wear the dark glasses. Here, the bell was not as loud, yet it was altogether more present. It shook the skin on my flesh. I felt it contract and hum, as if it breathed separately from me. Each crash of sound set my teeth trembling against each other and I could taste the texture of it searing along my tongue.

We encircled the pathway along the Fort’s edge, taking a light jog at the lead of another boy at the front. At last, the New Chapel and its belltower drew into view. It was a steady structure of stone and mortar dotted with tiny rectangular windows. Inelegant in its architecture, the thing reminded me more of a barn than a chapel, but it was large and mighty. In spite of its squat footprint just below the mountain peak, it loomed, powerful, unerring in its utilitarianism. A wall of the same gray stone surrounded the chapel with a pair of hefty doors seeming the only entryway to the grounds.

The Five Old Men had walled themselves in. If what Jasper had told me was true, and it appeared confirmed in my passing conversations with Yvonne, none entered the New Chapel, and these tenured professors also never walked the campus grounds. Words and messages passed back and forth, it seemed, Yvonne’s suggestions made it sound to me that more senior students conducted classes in the professors’ stead.

But I had met Professor Kendrick Loomis months ago. I recalled his singular ruminations on the two stories as we overlooked the silver mine in Platavilla. As he had warned, a letter from Shackleburg did arrive for me, urging me to attend, setting off this entire journey into the strange and the forbidden. Why had Professor Loomis come to me, personally? For that matter, could I trust that man to tell me the truth, and was he the man he claimed to be? I hadn’t doubted the notion until I learned the Five Old Men never left their sequestration. Was this an act of grace, appearing to me, personally? Favoritism? I had done nothing to attract such attention, by my reckoning.

For that matter, had the faculty come to others, and did those students—maybe Jasper or Yvonne, or even Monroe or Ianto, or some I’d not yet encountered—keep further secrets of those encounters? Who, exactly, was committing the crime of mythmaking in this place?

Our gathered band, brave enough to approach the New Chapel and its pealing bell, slowed at last as we came within sight of the wall’s door. Not forbidding or threatening, the portal appeared all at once too small for its place on such a high barrier, and too decorated to be out here facing nature’s harsh elements.

Then the bell fell silent. The final ring blazed across, over, and through our minds and came to rest somewhere beyond sight down the mountainside.

“What does it mean when the bell is rung?” I asked Jasper, swift as I could while there was a moment to speak.

“It means the Five Old Men are sending a messenger,” Jasper whispered back. His tone was even and sapped of vigor.

The highly-decorated door on the New Chapel’s wall creaked aside. An airless sob crept through the silence overtaking our small group. A hand reached forward from the ajar door, followed by a tall man. His skin was eggshell-white and tears stained the fingers covering his eyes. Slithering, greasy hair covered more of his face. Through the dangling strands I spied not an old man, nor a youth, more a man of his late-thirties. What I mistook for disease at first glance was more assuredly emotional distress. He was not corpulent, simply filling his robes with broad features. What a mismatch—he seemed weary, but well-fed, and downtrodden, but stylishly dressed. His overcoat was dyed purple and trimmed with gold fox fur. Yet none of this could disregard the audible, ghastly hurt in his wordless voice or the salty redness staining his cheeks.

He closed the door behind him with the weary weight of his shoulder. He addressed the door’s lock, then approached us.

At just more than an arm’s length, he stopped. A breeze of ghostly chill passed between us all and this weeping man.

“To wh-whom do I have the pl-pleasure of s-speaking?” the man asked, breath catching on the untamed emotion.

“My name is Jasper Barlowe,” my companion said, stepping to the front. “What’s happened?”

“Oh-h, Mister Barlowe. No,” the man said in shame. “I am sorry. So, so sorry. That you must learn this news in this manner. I promise you, it was never my intent. Young man, I am Professor Quentin Rakosi. I am the head of the Cosmology department.”

Jasper’s body shook. He recoiled and managed one step back. Then he stood firm, aware of the murmurs from those behind him.

“Why’ve you come here?” Jasper asked, low and demanding. “All your past communications were written letters. Simple messages to proxies. But now you’re standing here in the cold light of day. Nobody has spoken to one of the Five Old Men in God knows how long. Meaning no dis—please explain what’s happened. Why’re you here?”

“There’s been a disagreement,” Professor Rakosi said. He set his jaw and struggled to breath and speak at all once, saliva seeping between his teeth as he forced the words out in short fits. “Among the departmental heads. We cannot say what, exactly. At this moment. But a threat that we have not yet identified stands before us. It has persisted. It has eluded close study from our place in the New Chapel. We need to go. We need to go to the Orrery, right now, Mister Barlowe. The equipment there can reveal more.”

“Are the rest of the Five Old Men coming?” I asked.

Professor Rakosi looked at me. “There’s been a disagreement,” he repeated. “No. No others will be joining us at this time.”

With that, Professor Rakosi pressed through our group, patience expended, and took the path down toward the Orrery. Jasper immediately took a place beside him. “Go back to the dining hall and tell the others it was just a message from the departmental heads,” he ordered one of the other boys. The Cosmologist glanced at Jasper and then the boy with the message.

“So whatever you please,” he murmured without slowing. “It’ll hardly matter, at this point.”

The other boy peeled off with a second accompanying. I joined with Jasper and the Professor in their walk toward the Orrery. It bordered the campus some distance down the slope from the Clock Tower where we’d begun our morning, seemingly ages ago. I discarded thoughts of my father, my journey, my visit to the infirmary and subsequent discharge, even the discordant timepiece Monroe explained to me before breakfast. All these things had occurred, and yet now, I was swept along in the spontaneous arrival of this Cosmologist. A contemplative ache settled into my nerves—should I tell Jasper that Professor Loomis approached me at my home and revealed his identity to me? My new friend had informed me of a great number of things regarding Shackleburg. Was I beholden to sharing such confidence?

I resolved to speak with him in private, given the opportunity. As soon as I could. This Old Man—though he hardly appeared old, and he dressed unlike any man I’d ever met, though his fashion extended no offense to me—might have lost his mind. Or he might not even be Professor Rakosi at all. In a place as unusual as Shackleburg with a unique course curriculum, anything was possible. This might be a lesson, and this state of mind a lecture hall of my own making, if Professor Loomis was as wise in ontology as he seemed.

Such a vain thought, that the sudden appearance of this man, was truly a lesson specifically for me, and me alone, made me shudder. I’d come to Shackleburg to shed such privileged perspectives, not nurture them.

We were nearing the Orrery. Tucked along the edge of the campus below a steep berm, the building was a gigantic brass dome set on what appeared to be a foundation of sandstone blocks. A long series of consecutive arches welcomed our arrival but each was sealed with an iron gate painted blue. Jasper stepped forward and produced a ring of blue keys, similar or perhaps identical to the one I’d seen Yvonne use in the infirmary. He sorted through the ring and selected one key, unlocking the first gate, repeating the effort for each additional gate, totaling five when all was said and done.

Professor Rakosi appeared more composed, though his skin was battered red and irritated from the stress. He’d at least taken a slight effort to neaten his hair and comb it from off his brow with his fingers. I had estimated correctly—he was a man of barely more than thirty. What an alarming thought, to have a man so young leading an entire university department. I considered Jasper’s feelings on the subject and resolved to ask him. Then again, Professor Loomis was no old man himself, from my encounter with the gentleman back in the spring.

This was far too much to deliberate at the moment. Jasper opened the Orrery’s doors and escorted us inside. The air was tangy and metallic, and I was surprised at the air’s movement in the place. A machine was whirring and ticking in the darkness, revealed only as Jasper raised the lever by the entryway to ignite the room’s electric lamps. One by one, the current reached the bulbs, illuminating a network of spheres high above within the domed ceiling. The air in my lungs shuddered in fit of uncertainty, for what I beheld was nothing familiar, obvious, or named in my brief life.

The Orrery was decorated with spheres, yes, most traveling at nigh-imperceptible speeds. Nevertheless, these objects were not metal, made of gold or gilded brass, nor did they hang from suspended wires, as I understood planetary models often did. These spheres appeared to be tight balls of shimmering liquid, compact gas, or simple stone. I felt the heat of the star at the model’s center. Thought escaped me, and I begged an outside force conjure the first question, for I dared not breathe the first, last, or any query that entered my mind.

“Do you know the planets, young man,” Professor Rakosi asked me. He waved his hands at the spheres above as if he were conducting a symphony. “Celestial bodies, once so far beyond human comprehension, that we imagined it was we that stood at creation’s center, and the heavens did dance for our amusement. We are but one of many. But many—so many more than can be counted in a thousand lifetimes, transform mankind’s capabilities to imagine matter’s totality, its source, its reason, or its destination. Created in conjunction with my companions in the Ontology and Electrochemistry departments, the Orrery was our first vital mission in grasping our capacity to step beyond such crude atoms and perceive an existence beyond the light, beyond the void, and the beyond simple complexities of life.

“Today. Today we perceive a threat against our comprehension of life itself.”

I lifted my eyes to the peak of the dome. Silver liquid, lilting gently in an unfelt breeze, was flowing like a serpent above the model, cautiously lowering itself toward the Orrery’s collection of planets.

-- Alex Crumb
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