“What is this? What are these worlds and worlds beyond worlds?” I wondered aloud, still transfixed by the silver ribbon dwelling angelic over the Orrery.
“Is this projection accurate?” Jasper asked Professor Rakosi. “Do we trust the Orrery hasn’t been damaged somehow?”
“That is what I have come to inspect,” Professor Rakosi answered. “And the root of the collective disagreement at the heart of the New Chapel.”
I remained pinned in place by the accumulated glory overhead. This was no simple mechanical model of our solar system, nor a hallucination, as I’d rid myself of the possibility with a good night’s rest. I felt as though I was walking on air, and in the same instant, understood that it was not air at all beneath my feet, but a foreign compound that defied my narrow comprehension. I was ten steps behind. All that I had come to believe, and my capabilities, had gone absent in an instant. I was not secured, untethered, tossed to the merciless ocean of rippling stuff I could not name.
Yet there I still stood. I did not depart my corporeal frame for another existence. The unreality I behold would not vanish, so it became as true and right as I, at least by my own certainty at present. There might come a day where I separate from my own consciousness and dither into nothing, no longer compatible with perception as the human mind sets one sense or object apart from another, but I had not suffered such delusion. I did not endure the mind-death. I tangled with the new information and recognized the brassy tang in the Orrery’s air, returning to the others.
Jasper and the Professor continued their conversation as calmly as they could, exercising monumental understanding and awareness of the other’s thoughts for two men that had apparently never met in person.
“Check the gas line,” Rakosi suggested while he studied the ledger by the door. “Soames’ students might have neglected their upkeep assignments and it could be leaking. Before we consider what this wave represents on a cosmic scale, we must make certain the mechanism is not malfunctioning.”
“I checked the gas levels when we first arrived. Jordan Kwan is our liaison to the electrochemistry department and I trust her aptitude,” Jasper said. “The room would be filled with an odor if there was something seeping. I can bleed the line and restart the cycle to make certain, should the need arise. I’ve little reason to believe this is a mechanical error though. We need to test the silver liquid. Perhaps it is a function we hadn’t imagined? Perhaps it was released by design?”
“I included no such substance in my design of the Orrery.”
“But you didn’t design the Orrery alone. Sir,” Jasper added quickly. “Isn’t that correct? Professors Soames and Loomis contributed.”
“If we cannot find an issue with the machine’s electrochemical output,” I interrupted, causing Professor Rakosi to balk at my sudden presence in the conversation. “And you cannot identify what this object represents within the context of the surrounding planets, then you must first identify what it represents to you and the person who placed it there. Ontologically. Metaphysically. Until you understand its potential, you cannot assert its actual value. I side with Jasper’s thinking—was any such feature or function placed in this Orrery at its construction to account for an object like this potentially appearing? If so, why? And who placed it there? Was it Professor Loomis?” I shrugged at my own question. “What is the thing? We will likely need to answer that question many times, but we must begin by answering it once.”
“That is a complicated question,” Professor Rakosi said.
“Uncomplicate it,” I said. “Can the three of us find the answer right now? If not, why so? Or, who could? Why were you sent from the New Chapel to examine this object’s assumed appearance in the Orrery if you now find yourself incapable of identifying it? Why you? Why not one of the other Five Old Men? Those are less complicated questions, yes?”
“Are you explaining scientific method-making to me, boy-child? Shall I uncomplicate the universe itself, as you suggest?”
“We are so clearly not discussing the universe at this moment, Professor.”
“K.K.,” Jasper hissed.
“Mister Barlowe, remove this idiot from my sight,” Professor Rakosi said.
New emotion took me. “Lay a hand on me, Jasper, and there will be consequences,” I stated, unmoving. “I do not know the source of my compulsory actions, or why these words pass my lips, but I wish no malice against you. Against either of you. I may be young, Professor, but instinct and certainty have borne me from my home, to this strange place, to you people, to this moment, and I have not doubted for a second that I was in error. And I’m sure the contents of this immediate conversation will carry me onward to some other odd climate I cannot yet guess, because I certainly did not anticipate this. What we are discussing is simply a matter of what you believe and what you’d prefer I believe. But truth—truth is singular. It might elude us our entire lives, I am not embarrassed to admit, even with every effort, every kindness, and every cruelty. So you, Jasper, may lay a hand on me at his request. And you, Professor, may call me a child and dismiss me from your presence. Carry out those acts, and you will realize consequences.”
“You are correct,” Professor Rakosi said. “You cannot imagine my capacity for cruel consequences.”
“I’ve spoken with Kendrick Loomis,” I said.
All movement between us was struck dead. Jasper’s hand twinged, rubbing finger to thumb in an imperceptible, considerate tic.
“Are you being serious?” he asked.
“It’s not possible,” Rakosi said.
“When?” Jasper asked. “When did this happen? When did you speak with Professor Loomis?”
“Months ago?!” Rakosi blurted. “You—when did you arrive at Shackleburg?”
“Yester—yesterday morning?! Shall I summon the cooks and the porch-sweepers and ask their expertise on the cosmological implications of the massive band of light descending upon our solar system?”
“Perhaps. What expertise have you offered thus far on the subject?” I stepped between the two men and examined the Orrery with judgmental eyes for the first time. “Other than an unwillingness to bear a responsibility for discovering a solution. You know, when I first saw your face, I wasn’t entirely sure why they called you an Old Man. Hardly different from myself, but for a few years. Jasper strikes me as a greater mind than yours as we stand here, so what are you, Professor, other than a vessel for this institution, powered by younger, keener minds? Is this why you weep?”
“Hold your tongue!” Rakosi shouted.
I ignored him, attention fixed on the Orrery. “Professor Loomis came to me in my hometown of Platavilla,” I explained. “He did not invite me to follow him. He did not call me by my name. He did not even identify himself for quite some time. He made indication I was significant, valuable, or exceptional. Yet his mere presence, as a mind in the world, was enough to make me consider my capability. I determined I could not wallow in inaction, destined to die at my father’s whims so broken dreams of dead men might occupy my rightful place in tomorrow’s world. Once again, an Old Man obstructs me, Professor Rakosi. So, I appeal to your supposed sense of scientific judgment—what is the significance of this intrusion upon the Orrery? Explain as best as you are able.”
Professor Quentin Rakosi shuddered in his purple coat. He wiped at his irritated face, battered by emotion, fatigued by battles longer than the discussion before him. I felt dispassionate. I did not hate him. In truth, I saw inside him. He was burdened with a career of displeasing encounters I could not imagine, each one likely a near-truth, or an embarrassing assertion unmet by his chosen institution. I’d beaten him. Barely more than a boy, a fresh opponent, and his ego collapsed in a heap. I desired no victory over a man such as he, splintered like a bone from a long-ago injury.
Perhaps my initial suspicion was actually the reverse—perhaps the Five Old Men had marched him out of the Chapel, not to teach me a lesson, but to teach him a lesson. We are never beyond learning, it seems. Or pettiness.
But is to imagine such specifics an exercise in vanity? Was it vital I know for certain? What must I know, lest my entire being suffer?
“I believed at the outset, I could craft the Orrery myself,” Rakosi said. “It was a driving force in relocating the campus from the town of Shackleburg proper to here on the mountainside. We were losing money then, and only a truly mad gambit would save us from such a dire scenario. It’s written in the Archives that I and four of my students completed the Orrery together. There were no students. It was the Five. Professors Soames and Loomis contributed most, but that does not discount Viharo and Tatum’s presence. Those two—such optimists. I love them both dearly. In fact, it was Professor Viharo who selected this exact patch of earth to construct the dome itself. We all knew it was haunted. But to align us with the cosmos and the capability of a human body to even perceive an expanse beyond our mortal shells, it had to be this place. That was Professor Tatum’s contribution—that in all our available knowledge of a physical body, it was here that this detestable sack of meat, and these glassy cow-eyes might be given the slightest advantage.
“So we set to work. We were beset by doubt, hunger, weather, and ghosts.” Rakosi flinched, overcome with memory, and momentary self-consciousness, but neither Jasper nor I interrupted. “They only grew more tangible, those spirits, as they came to understand the purpose of our labor. They knew we meant to assess our place in the cosmos. And I, as head of the department, knew I must achieve it beyond any measure of deniability. The Orrery would dictate all other studies because we must first learn our location before the other departments could begin the remaining work in earnest.”
“Hold—the remaining work?” Jasper asked at last, taking care not to offend. “With other departments? I’ve never engaged with others in their areas of study.”
“Not yet. But I fear the time is fast approaching,” Rakosi said. “All of us will need to gather our collective work and assemble this puzzle, as we always expected. Because there must be a conclusion in the universe. Complicated as it is, that is a reality we must assert. All things that begin must have an end.”
“And the Five Old Men sent you out of the New Chapel to find if that is true?” I asked next.
Rakosi sighed. “They sent me out to admit it was true. Even without immediate access to the Orrery, they could each make their own deductions. I was the one disarmed. That is why I stand before you. To admit—to see with my own eyes and confess with all my heart, the Orrery has revealed the terrible fact that the end is coming. And I say in the grip of shame—I do not know how to stop it.”
I felt my body drain of warmth, retracting into itself for safety. While Jasper permitted his teacher to sulk in silence, he strode calmly to the floor’s center. He stood beneath the gaseous model of our solar system’s sun and looked up through it, past the skittering orbits of the planets Mercury and Venus, and beheld that silvery sea, rippling some imperceptible distance beyond. Somewhere among them was the facsimile for Earth, taking care in its orbit, and I imagined on a microscopic scale, somewhere in the center of a western continent, we stood replicated, too, if only as an atom contributes to a grain of sand’s molecular totality.
“I see my enemy,” Jasper said. “I will know my enemy.”
-- Alex Crumb
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