by Jim Rossignol
The disease collectors were famed for their lethargy. Belatedly, Stry realised he had not left himself enough time to deliver the bundles of infected wax, to claim a receipt from the collectors, and then still make it to the Lehmkuhl lectures on time. He could not afford to be late, since the tickets were issued only once a year, and then only through a lottery system controlled by the college.
Stry paced outside the clerk’s office in the Hall Of Ailment. The dark and lonely building was far from the central campus of the University. Deliberately isolated, as one might expect. Stry delivered garlic and disease samples for his wage, and was more familiar with the building than most other students. It troubled him less and less. The disease collectors were mostly ageing men of a certain disposition, and Stry gave them a wide birth as they shambled by, although he did not fear them. A few younger students had passed Stry in the hallway, but they too were pallid and exhausted, reeking of decomposition, weakness.
Eventually the clerk appeared from the recesses of his office, carrying with him a cloud of fine yellow spores. The clerk muttered inaudibly and passed Stry a handwritten receipt, heavy with wet black ink.
Ignoring the moan of protest from the clerk, Stry set off the wrong way through the halls. Exiting through the back of the building would ensure that he would not have to complete the circumference of the gardens, and would shave precious minutes off the journey.
Barrelling through gloomy cloisters, Stry swept past wracks filled with extracted glands. The tiny organs took on the appearance of pea-pod faces as they shrivelled in their embalming fluids. Then there were actual human heads preserved for their facial growths and appalling abscesses, sinking over decades to the bottom of large cylindrical jars of formaldehyde. On the walls were pinned curling parchments, unread and sent fluttering by the speeding student. Each document recorded histories of failed treatments, the morphology of ailments, and the decline of the afflicted. An astute observer would have deduced from these writings that the disease collectors treated symptoms only. This academic audience deemed the collected malignancies wondrous, and many of the collectors, profoundly religious men, regarded the astonishing variation of sickness as a coded message from God.
In the basement beneath Stry’s flapping shoes there were five million glass vials, each one meticulously catalogued and labelled. Only the rarest diseases were stored here. Nightmare parasitic gut-inflations, afflictions that spawned weird and alien organs within the body of their host, and vegetables that fed only on the living bones – all found immortality here.
The thought that slipped through Stry’s mind as he plunged down the mossy steps at the back of the hall was that the disease collectors belonged to an older era – a past epoch of alchemy and spiritualism. The new age would leave such relics behind. They would, some students whispered, leave disease itself behind.
Stry rushed out into the dull light of mid-afternoon and the plunged into the shadow of the abbey. He could hear the new organ groaning and booming as engineering clergymen tested its sonic potential.
The student descended through the garden-library complex, which in turn gave way to the long grey-stone walls of barns, where the animals for experiments would be raised. The ruins of a red-stone clocktower (blasted by lightning) could be glimpsed over the threateningly vast, densely trimmed hedges that surrounded the lecture theatres. Stry passed the cottage-treehouse that rotted like a monolith of compost in the twin oaks. He raced along the seething, arcane valley of tumble-down towers and chimneys that made up the workshops and the foundry, dodging the heavy, slow moving menials as he went.
The University, Stry had learned, was like a cemetery. Ideas came here to die, and to be entombed. The new lectures were the only way to break out. To escape not simply the fossilising effects of the University, but of the world as any ordinary student knew it.
The theatre lay ahead. A final stretch of open paving, the vast black doors, the candle smoke and creaking boards.
Stry took his seat as the first words were spoken.
“Fine young gentlemen and scholars!”
Intent on recording every nuance of the lecture, Stry scribbled even these opening words onto the curling yellow leaves of his spring-bound pad. Distantly, a piano sonata leaked into the lecture theatre, reminding Stry of the oboe lessons he would be expected to attend later that afternoon. The thought was rapidly dissolved: fancies such as music were secondary to the pursuit of knowledge, and knowledge was like precious dust in the air of this legendary college amphitheatre. Stry took a good look up at the lecturer, there on the stage: Statsraad Lehmkuhl, Third Generation Paracelsian and Prime Surgeon. Lehmukuhl was the greatest of the Deep Historians, and the room was rippling with the great wash of his genius.
Once a brilliant man, the surgeon was now barely a man at all. Lehmkuhl flickered and hissed at the edges of his being. He’d step across the stage and leave his eyes behind, fading gems in the blistering air. His words were incisions, ducts to intellectual ether, something invisible, odorous and beyond parochial comprehension.
The students were silent and beaded with sweat. Inwardly they battled the strange arousal that was stirred in them by the master’s humming words. These lectures were not about understanding, they were about performance: and what a performance it was! Scintillating propaganda for the incredible new science that creatures as low as these students could never hope to truly understand, not least in their current form. The gathered dozens knew that if they were to claim understanding they would have to submit themselves to terrible transformations, the kind of processes that had cut away Lehmkuhl’s humanity and made the alien creature that lectured them on that day.
Stry immersed himself in the tongues, the hurricane of a billion-year language: Lehmkuhl talked of the God beings, the corridors of time, of the machine souls and the black halo of life. He whispered of the human prison, of their flat vision, and the grim cadence of the human hell they called learning. Lehmkuhl’s speech was a report from the end of time, a suggestion of what might lie beyond the narrow, taught perceptions of how they believed the universe should function. He gesticulated in rainbow colours, speaking matter-of-factly about the Egyptian rites that had transformed the Gygonne, the great computational engine that had been built by the new scientist beneath the University. Lehmkuhl spoke about how Latinate systems were now only a tool for the information under-classes – the old humans, redundant in their Euclidean cages. Pan-dimensional hieroglyphics had created new systems for intelligence and communication: this was the future, this was the exit, the way out of the smoky furnace of the old Empire.
A shrieking sliver of chalk skidded across the blackboard that framed Lehmkuhl’s lecture. He turned to diagrams and graphical forms to attempt to express the ideas of the Deep History to the raw, dumb minds of his students. Stry could feel the frustration, the intellectual truncation, exuding from the flickering creature on the stage, as if he were tunnelling into the surface of a cliff with a fork and spoon.
Stry’s own pen became motionless as he was drawn into the images on the board: incredible fractional images, entrancing, mesmeric. Soon he gave up his notation entirely, simply willing his weakly brain to capture everything that poured from the creature Lehmkuhl. Thirty pages of dense scribbling had failed to capture even the opening parameters of the new system that Lehmkuhl was describing for them.
“And who would be my first volunteer?”
Stunned, the assembled minds took too long to react. Lehmkuhl reached down and picked one: “You!” He reached through an impossible distance, pulling Stry up onto the stage with a tortional, prismatic limb. The young man winced and stooped forward in an involuntary attempt to conceal his lanky awkwardness from the silent mass. He felt as if he were trapped between two opposing magnets: the electric intensity of the audience, who pulled information from his very flesh, sucking in everything with the intensity of their gaze, and Lehmkuhl, the spectral, disassembled man, dragging a soul towards him with the inevitability of a black hole.
“Come, Mr Stry. Sit down here, in front of the mechanism.”
How did Lehmkuhl know his name? There was no registration here; the new lectures were accidental, anonymous.
Stry sat in front a table, where something about the size of a hunting dog was draped in a pale blue sheet. There was, for the first time, some muttering in the audience. What could Lehmkuhl intend?
The lecturer whipped the sheet from the table to reveal a mass of copper wires and brass tubes, all linking through to cylinders where the contents of three large bottles, each filled with dark, cloudy fluids, would be mixed by a single polished piston. At the front of the device was an animated mosaic – a cluster of thousands of pins and levers, designed to transform the surface into an artificial chameleon-skin, flickering with ceramic ideograms.
“Now we shall proceed with a single cellular blur,” said Lehmkuhl. “The biologic access to rotospace is at the core of time travel and, as a result, at the core of our memory and imaginative faculties. Imagination is time-travel! Imagination is dimensional carpet bagging! Without this access to underworld frequencies, our minds would be flat, two-dimensional, and animalistic. Your own intelligences are four dimensional, and it is only through direct interference of the usual methods of the biologic projection that we are able to take up informational bandwidth from other dimensions beyond the original four. Your humanity has nothing to do with God, although we will soon be interrogating him directly.”
As he spoke, Lehmkuhl rolled up Stry’s sleeve and wiped down the inner-elbow with alcohol. He lifted a lid from a duct on the mechanism and attached a hose and syringe.
“This is my ideology: we must enter the smoky nether realm by force! Through these fluids we can enable any of you to undertake the cellular blur. We inject rotospace into the host and watch the resulting dimensional adjustments. Once the blur is in process our bodies begin to unravel, just as you see me now. You will, without hindrance, open up the ribcage of the universe! Are you ready Mr Stry?”
Stry nodded. And with that cue, Lehmkuhl plunged the needle into the student’s pimpled arm.