Amongst my incarnations, occasionally there is some room for overlap. My work ran a competition to write short stories inspired by the synchrotron (that is the death ray at which I hench part-time). Below is my entry, which I am proud to say won first place in the internal staff competition.
Had I opportunity, I would change things and certainly re-edit some clunky word usements, but this is as it was submitted.
In theory it should be available in an actual book sometime soon, but in lieu of that moment, I present it here for your enjoyment!
(for reference, you can find info on my work here.
The title comes from a poen my Shelley – I’m not a clever academic type, I don’t know poetry, but I do know this poem and I like it a lot:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desart. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.)
Nobody would have listened to him, had it not been for the light-bulb. Old Gerard had been the custodian of the dusty tomes in the library for thirty years and had spent the previous decade as Master Flint’s apprentice, before that venerable sage had succumbed to age and died face down in a dictionary. Master Flint had survived to fifty-seven years old and Old Gerard, now forty-eight, showed no signs of approaching the Inward Road. This remarkable longevity had given rise to numerous rumours, from the gods-blessed nature of the library itself, to endless conjecture upon the secrets which the books themselves might hold.
No matter, though, these secrets, against the madness that he spoke. Even after he had sparked the light-bulb to life and proved the truth of the secrets he learned from the Mad Books and the Silent Books, the depth of the strangeness that tumbled from his mind was too great for the people to believe him wholeheartedly. Still though, the light-bulb glowed on in the town-square, reminding everyone that Old Gerard was not so mad as they might think.
I suspect that had the bulb not been there, Mayor Marrit Gunsson would never have allowed Old Gerard to pick his group of arcane students, or to cast his bony finger in my direction and declare me his ‘assistant’. In truth it is a cushy job; time spent in the warm, safe nest of the Library, few tasks beyond providing food, clean ankle-bandages and parchment to the old man and, occasionally, to gather up the ever rising tide of discarded pages that washed around his feet, take them to the scriptorium workshop and scrape them blank once more.
He once told me that the Mad Books, the Silent Books were misnamed. “Not silent,” he explained. “Not mad. You just don’t know how to listen!” He frequently spoke like this. He eschewed talk of the gods and of magic, shooed away notions of the esotericism of his knowledge. “Everyone can learn to listen,” he would insist. Everyone can find power to make the magicians of foreign powers tremble. He wouldn’t even let himself be called ‘magician’ despite the tangible proof in the town-square; he insisted on the meaningless title of ‘scientist’.
I do hope that he will prove himself sane, since our lives now hang on it. The last weeks have been spent gathering provisions and supplies to trek north. Over the Low Ice and then beyond the Blue Sea, the rolling hills whose ice-encrusted slopes seem so much like a crystallised, gargantuan ocean from the safety of the town.
There’s no guarantee that we can make the return trip, should we fail to find the place Old Gerard promises. There is no guarantee that we can make it that far even if it does exist, waiting silent and dead in the blasted white. I guess, though, that I must trust the old fool after all, as there was never a doubt in my mind that I would follow him and only three of his fifteen students have refused to make the trip, despite the old man giving no reason beyond “to show you that it’s there”.
After two weeks of our northward journey, we passed out of the turmoil of the Low Ice. Legend has it that the god of the living wind does eternal battle with the dead-god of the cold air. They tumble and rage about one another and bring an eternal, shifting storm to the region. I know Gerard gives little credit to the gods. Just cold air and the warm from the south mixing, he says. Whatever the truth, the gusting, sharp winds have battered us for long enough and we pass into the relative still of the Blue Sea. A steady nor-east wind blows constantly, dusting the lifeless, rolling swell of the Sea with bone-dry ice which gathers here and there into a fleeting shape, a transient phantom in the waste. It is all too easy to think of them as the ghosts of the sailors who perished on this Sea that never was.
These frozen waves are formed of no true sea. They are the rolling downs of a long buried plain, smothered in ice and time. Here and there a broken spine of masonry rears out of the swell to tell of the buildings and lives buried beneath.
Upon the crest of one wave, Old Gerard let out a shout and began to dash and fall down the slope into the lee of the mound. If I hadn’t been alerted by Old Gerard, I would have missed what he saw. The wave upon which we stood was one sector of a ridge of ice that ran in a broad circle, as if some giant had dropped a stone into the sea and the ripple had frozen even as it spread. Once I had seen it, there was no mistaking it for a natural formation.
Closer examination revealed that the structure beneath was covered by only about a foot of ice, the rest of its shroud being made up of loose packed snow. It took only another day and a half to locate and clear a route down through the frozen years. We found a door, small and without crest or sign. There was enough metal in its construction to keep Tam Smith, the town blacksmith, in business for a week, but as we brushed away the frost, it became obvious that fully nine tenths of the door, and of the wall around it, was made of glass; perfect, flat, bubble-free glass. What power could afford such a door and not bray about it?
At first it seemed that this portal was locked, but Old Gerard set us to boiling water, full kettles at a time – using up massive portions of our precious fuel – and used it to free the ice around the frame of the door. The metal banged and creaked out its age at heat like it had not known for centuries and when the glass in the frame gave a sharp report and cracked I nearly wept for the loss of such a perfect jewel. Half an hour later, however, and the cracked and ancient door gave way to a profound, still darkness within. I would have preferred to send someone younger in first, but Old Gerard, childlike and irrepressible, rushed forward into the sepulchral gloom. We struck torches and followed.
A short corridor led to a flight of stairs. The material of the floor seemed to be some strange, yielding stone. At the top of the stairs was another door, more wood than glass this time, which opened upon a maddening vista. We found Old Gerard with tears freezing upon his cheeks. We stood upon a narrow terrace which ran in a wide arc until it became obscured in the distance. One side was a solid wall of more exquisite glass behind which myriad rooms lay, waiting in icy stasis. The other side, inside the arc, bore a low handrail and a view out into a hall whose proportions staggered our minds.
Easily two hundred feet across, the hall followed the same curve as the terrace. It seemed a safe assumption – and one that would later prove correct – that the hall was built in the shape of a ring and the terrace – and the maddening jewels of the glass rooms – ran all around the outside. The floor of the hall was twenty feet below us and the roof another twenty above our heads. The majority of the floor of this great hall was taken up with a raised enclosure, jagged-edged and apparently monolithic, but from where we stood, I could make out little more.
Old Gerard led the party back down the stairs and out onto the main floor of the huge structure. “There’s almost no ice,” he remarked. “That’s a very good sign. Fetch the camp in here! We have a new home!”
As the rest of us erected tents and stoves, Old Gerard wandered freely around the area, touching this, staring at that. When camp was set and the others had begun cooking, I followed Old Gerard into the gloom. I stood near him for a few minutes, waiting for him to notice me, but eventually I decided upon an opening line and I spoke.
“Why’s there no ice?” It was a reasonable question. Outside this place the world was a frozen gem, but little more than a sugar frosting covered the innards of this ancient temple.
“Because there was no water in the air when it froze,” the old man explained genially. Then his attention flitted away from me and towards a nearby wall, where a small silvery plaque with an uneven surface glinted. He reached out and placed a finger on the surface. He turned to me with a grin and said “Hold onto your hat!” I was confused for a moment as I was wearing no hat, but all that flew from my mind. Old Gerard pressed on the surface of the plaque and it moved with a click. At the same instant a box on the wall nearby sparked and shone for an instant with a crack and a pop, then fell dark and silent once more.
Old Gerard grinned childishly as he watched my near-heart-attack. Then he shambled over towards the box on the wall and waved me over. He rummaged under his furs and produced a complicated little metal device from which he unfolded a screwdriver. He pushed this into my hand and gestured for me to attend the box. I found four screws which complained and squeaked as they came out, but when they were out, the box fell open. I managed to catch the thick glass cover before it shattered on the floor, but my pride in rescuing the glass became moot as I saw the shattered, ephemeral membrane of a light-bulb, almost identical to the one with which Old Gerard had first proven the validity of his ramblings. I almost wept to see the broken magic and I wondered at the grinning carelessness with which Old Gerard regarded the shattered wonder.
Could there be so many jewels and magics here that he could so blithely ignore this travesty?
The answer presented itself almost immediately. All the while under the amused gaze of the old man, I went to the wall nearby where I had spied a few letters barely visible under the frost. I brushed this away and revealed the word “Lightsource”. Of course! A workshop; a place where the light-bulbs were born! Where else could Old Gerard be so cavalier about shattering only the second bulb he, or I, had ever beheld.
I saw Gerard just before he disappeared into the gloom. The camp was well set after a full day in the sepulchral vault. The old man had sent his protégés out into the ring of fantastical glass rooms with numerous instructions to search for… I don’t know what. I was not a student, I was not there to understand the depths of Old Gerard’s knowledge, but to make sure he ate and that the bandages on his ankle remained clean.
He deigned to stop briefly and acknowledge me, but made no show of changing what he was doing. “Why?” he asked as I drew closer.
“In this place?” I asked amazed. “There must be ghosts and demons in here!”
He chuckled and clapped his hand on my shoulder. “No ghosts,” he said. “And no spirits. This is all real. The nearest thing we might find in here is a mind…and a heart, perhaps. Trust me lad; let yourself believe what you see here and the world will fall open for you!”
I made no pretence of knowing what he was talking about. If I’m honest, I think the old man enjoyed my confusion. I fell into step behind him.
He kept almost walking into pillars and walls, as he was referring to an enormous map that one of his protégés had discovered in a room near the camp. His finger traced faint lines across the page as he led me deeper and deeper into the place. Soon enough I was sufficiently afraid that even Old Gerard took pity on me and began to reassure me that as sure as he had been of the light-bulb, he was equally sure that we were safe. I tried to find this reassuring, but my heart still faltered.
We traipsed up a flight of stairs and walked around the ring of rooms for nearly quarter of an hour before we found a bridge which arched out to the top of the raised enclosure girdling the inside of the circle. Once across the broad surface of this odd tunnel, we found another staircase which led back down to the same level as the camp on the other side. The area enclosed was a maze of metal conduits and pipes and a few anonymous huts. Old Gerard led us to one of these huts, seemingly oblivious to the strangeness around us. The door opened at a push of his hand and inside yet another set of stairs led downwards. Only as we reached the bottom did I become aware that the air was warmer, but Old Gerard still seemed unphased. With each new strangeness, each revelation that threatened to drive my sanity from me, the old man seemed to become more real, more sure of himself. In this lost and maddening world, his feet were ever more firmly planted on the ground.
Here in the depths of this place, boxes, like those which had briefly sparked into life the day before, hung on every wall, glowing in the darkness so that we needed no torches to navigate the gloom. Soon enough I was forced to shed the heaviest of my furs; the air was well above freezing point now, although it was still so dry that it seemed to scrape my throat.
The pipes and conduits that had sprawled across the ground upstairs seemed to be coming together, growing ever more numerous and more thickly bundled as we progressed, until we rounded a corner and found a fissure in the floor, into which every single one plunged, or perhaps from which each erupted. Beyond was a grey monolith with a lever in the middle of one face. Finally the old man’s relentless progress halted. He banged his fist on the face of the monolith and it boomed like a gong, as if it were empty and made of metal, although I had never seen a metal of such strange, uniform, dull colour.
He reached for the lever and tested it, brushed dust from it. He turned around with a sudden, bright grin and said “well boy; this is it. Her heart’s still beating, let’s see if she’ll wake up!”
He turned the lever and it seated with a heavy thud. There was a moment of silence before a series of clicks and bangs emanated from behind one wall and the air began to hum. Several of the thick conduits erupted in momentary sparks and fizzled, then melted to the floor. The gloom flashed with shattering blue brightness, flashed again, then flooded with constant, cold light from yet more pipes on the ceiling. From all around there came sounds, but surely nothing that could be made naturally. What mad, ancient gods had the old man awoken?
“Unless I miss my guess,” Old Gerard chuckled. “It’s just a test. Ignore any instructions.”
I wondered what he meant for all of a few seconds before a voice, that of a woman, but impossibly loud, rang out through the dead air, reverberating down the staircase. “This is a test,” she said. “Please ignore all instructions.”
“I told you,” beamed Old Gerard. “Now you’re ready to listen.”