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Special thanks to Katy Reynolds and Chris Reed for supplying some of this week’s .gifs!
Episode 5: Back to the Days of Past Present
Hello there, dear reader! Dr. Jackson O’Brien here. Confused draftee, bewildered conscript, and nonplussed inductee into a new-found resistance against forces aided and abetted by powers uncanny.
When last we parted ways, I had been informed by none other than the Chairman of the I.I.H.Q. That our venerable institution’s reluctance to assist me was due to the fact that it had been taken over months before I had petitioned it for aid in my case against the multi-layered parfait of evil that equated the designs of my nemesis, The Man in the Paisley Scarf.
And while I had secured the expertise of the motley rogues from the Order of the Velvet Elvis, the premise of we few storming the I.I.H.Q. and somehow wresting control away from our adversary was a daunting proposition to say the least.
To understand why, we must go back. Back to a more innocent time, where I as a younger man had first enrolled in the selective paranormal studies program at the I.I.H.Q. A program, I add, that I would not even known the existence of had it not been for an incident that occurred one day in my Biology class in college. An incident that, while never officially recognized by the University staff, came forever to be known among that year’s alum as “The Day of the Brain”.
While I do not know the particular catalyst that put this event in motion, I can tell you of the outcome, owing to the fact that I participated directly in it. Upon coming across my Biology professor and his assistant doing battle with this unruly gray matter, I instantly jumped to their defense. It was only after the last twitching tendril of this beast had been stilled that I understood the uniqueness of my actions.
The professor pulled me aside, not only giving me his thanks, but pointing out that not only I had not stopped to question the scene, or succumbed to the violently surreal quality of it, but had instead merely taken it as fact and then proceeded to try to solve it. This, he said, qualified me for more specialized work in the field of what he referred to as “transmundane troubleshooting”. He smoothly stepped over the dead engorged brain, and picked up the phone with an excited grin.
I was, frankly, a bit taken aback. Firstly by the fracas I had just been through, and secondly that this man, this doctor of science, was freely admitting that the world of all things strange and unusual actually existed. I waited silently while he made a phone call.
Whomever it was that he contacted arrived in the Biology wing not twenty minutes later. He was a plain man at at that perfect blending of youth and wisdom that made it nearly impossible to pin down his actual age with any measure of accuracy. He was dressed in a black three piece suit, and that was matched with glasses so dark that one could not see his eyes.
“Is this him?” the unidentified man asked. I was stuck instantly by the fact that though I had heard the question in articulate clarity, his lips had never moved. My professor answer in the affirmative, and before I could make my introductions, I was blindfolded and restrained by an unseen assailant. After what had seemed like only a handful of seconds, I found myself loosed, and the blindfold removed.
“What was-” I began, but my eyes had adjusted to the bright light around me, and I was faced with what appeared to be a cathedral, and a single young man, dressed in casual clothing, standing in front of it.
“First test,” he said. “Pass, and you pass, so to speak.”
I blinked in utter confusion. I was not nearly as garrulous then as I am now. I could only muster the word “what” in stunned reply.
“First test,” he repeated, albeit more slowly as though he were talking to a dimwit. “What is wrong with this picture?”
I peered at the scene, unable to comprehend what the young man was hinting at, until I saw it: what can only be described as a “flutter of reality”, as though the material world was a heavy theater curtain that had been disturbed. Without speaking, as I was a bit tongue-tied by the distortion, I pointed at it. The young smiled, and promptly walked over to the area. He reached up seized the very face of the building, and pulled.
“Right in one,” he beamed. As the drape of the world pulled away, I found myself standing in a reality of complete white, marked only by a towering complex of buildings beyond. “Welcome to the Idiosyncratic Institute Headquarters, friend. I think you’ll do just fine.”
“Do fine for what, precisely?” I asked, a bit lamely. It was a lot to take in.
The young man started walking towards the complex, and motioned for me to follow. “Simply put,” he began, “our organization prides itself on recruiting the proper talent for our purposes. You come highly recommended by your professor, who happens to be a noted member of our illustrious group.”
We reached what I assumed was the front entrance. The complex itself seemed fashioned from parts of structures spanning the whole of human architectural history, and they were combined in planes and angles that made zero mathematical sense to my young mind.
“Don’t look at it overlong until you take the courses here. Are you familiar with Fourth Dimensional physics?” my guide asked.
“Uh, no,” I replied.
“Good, because this place was built utilizing Fifth. Staring too long without training might result in your molecules evaporating, or something. I forget. Anyway, follow me.”
He opened one of the mismatched doors, and we entered into the main foyer. It was spacious, but much like the outside it could not decide it it wanted to conform to any singular fashion or relative geometry. There was a greeting desk, behind which sat a . . . thing that caused my heart to skip a beat in dread under its unblinking gaze as its head slowly swiveled to regard us.
“Don’t mind him,” my guide whispered. “I don’t think he’ll be with us very long. Poor temperament, and dreadful interior decorating skills. Just follow me, and we’ll begin the tour.”
As we walked, a previous comment from my companion sprang to mind. “Pardon me,” I began, “but exactly what ‘purpose’ were you referring to? What exactly is this place? Where, for that matter?”
We strolled through a hallway leading out of the foyer; a long, solemn passage of marble whose whorls and veins were constantly in motion as though the stone was fluid. In niches set along the walls were busts of what I assumed to be prominent figures, but their facial features were smoothed over into indistinguishable visages.
“As to the first, that’s easy,” replied my companion. “The I.I.H.Q. was founded centuries ago around the time that humanity discovered that its reality was blended seamlessly with the reality of the paranormal. Our purpose, then, is to understand, catalog, and keep the coexistence of the normal and strange intact. Some say we should do more, but honestly we’ve enough on our plate, I think.”
We reached the end of the hall, marked by a giant door coated in luxurious fur. “Ah! Here we are!” he exclaimed. This marks the entrance into the Eastern Standard Time wing of classes and dormitories. Follow.”
he continued answering questions as we strode forward past the hirsute portal. “As to what this place is, think of it as kind of a nexus; an anchor point for both time and dimension. You’ll learn more about that later, should you accept enrollment. As to where, well, it’s best to not dwell on it. We are at ‘Which’, if you must settle on a position.”
“Which?” I echoed, thoroughly flummoxed.
“Oh, good! You’re a quick study! Now, to your left, you’ll see the cafeteria for this wing. Students and staff eat free. Mind the daily selections. They can be judgmental.”
I looked in on the vast dining hall, noting the leviathan-esque buffet style sampling of dishes. I spied the fruit section. Some of it spied back. I was suddenly not hungry.
This feeling of loss of appetite was only compounded by the sudden drama being endured by a lone figure at a table who was apparently having some trouble with his choice of condiment.
My companion sighed. “If we’ve told them once, we’ve told them a thousand times. Don’t strike the ketchup. Just ask nicely. Let’s move on.”
We continued on for some distance, when he suddenly stopped beside another open door, which lead into what I had to assume was an instruction room for swimming.
“Here student may train in basic aquatics.” he said simply.
“Just aquatics?” I asked. “What does that cover, precisely?”
“Water, and what might be learned there.”
As I watched, a young woman, prepped for swimming, attained the top of a diving platform, and leaped down into the waiting pool. Her descent was cut short.
“Don’t worry,” he said, noting my shock. “That student is just taking her Marine Biology final. There’s no faster way to show your command of a creature’s anatomy than to conduct a lecture from inside. Shall we?”
We pressed on, and my guide gestured around us. “As you might have guessed, the place has been built and rebuilt and built upon for some time, hence the varying pieces. It also changes configuration and layout at random, though I think it has something to do with whatever bands currently occupy the Top 40 Pop charts. You’ll be pleased to know that students who enroll have any changes placed directly inside their minds. No fear of being constantly lost as a newbie, eh?”
I had to agree, that was most beneficial. Though, I was loathe to inquire as to the how of said information implementation. Another thought did occur to me, however, and I simply had to know.
“You mentioned that some believe that more should be done,” I said. “Given what happened earlier today, would I be safe in assuming that there are . . . less than savory elements in the paranormal that pose a threat?”
“Oh of course there are,” he answered with a laugh. “The world is full of threats, otherwise it would just be another intergalactic tourist trap. Very boring. Suffice it to say that within these halls, all students and faculty, human and other, are completely safe.”
He gestured around again. “The very fabric of this place repels attack, and that’s before you consider the fact that we are impossible to reach save by invitation. Don’t worry. The only way anyone could launch an offensive here is within, and none here would dare to try. Oh, you’ll want to see this!”
He paused by an atrium, where I could see students in small groups tuning musical instruments. One in particular launched into a song, accompanied by his guitar, as I observed. I say song, but, to be honest . . .
. . .“song” might be too generous. It was a piercing, shrill cacophony that threaded into my brain and seized it in an implacable grip. I heard the distant sound of crying lambs, the angered voices of investment bankers, and the stuttering pauses of college radio DJ’s tripping over their lack of confidence. All warred inside my mind until I managed to plug my ears and drown it out.
“Takes some getting used to, that tune,” my guide piped merrily. “It’s a traditional lullaby of the Outer Ones, though the student has added a lovely flamenco twist to it. Inspired. One last thing to show you.”
Without waiting to see if I was ready, my guide pushed an unseen panel in a nearby wall that sat flush with the exterior, and we began to descend on a platform directly into the floor of the hall. I looked up in time to see another slab slide into place, closing off the opening, and leaving us in complete darkness.
After a few tense seconds of minor nyctophobia, I saw a line of light bloom at our feet, swelling into full illumination as we descended from the black shaft and into an open space, almost completely spherical in nature, and so vast that I could not see the whole of it without turning a full circle.
“And here is the heart of the domain, and the engine that drives it all,” my guide announced solemnly.
There, on a platform in the center of that chamber, was an engine the likes of which I had never before seen or imagined.
“That-” I began, and swallowed. “That defies the laws of physics!” I exclaimed.
“What? Oh no. No the staff break room openly defies the laws of physics. This engine politely ignores them,” he replied.
At the foot of the engine stood a man whose back was to us. He was examining the great feline perpetual motion mechanism, and writing down notes on a clipboard.
His mellow baritone voice seemed to fill the space as he spoke. “Is this the new prospect?”
The platform hit ground level, and my guide hopped off, striding over to the man. “Indeed, sir. I figured I’d wow him a bit before he had to decide.”
“Decide what?” I asked.
“Haven’t you guessed?” the guide asked, chidingly. “This was a campus tour. We would like for you to enroll as a student! Should you do particularly well, you might even opt to become a full time member of our institution!”
I thought about it. It was a whole new universe that was opening to me, delighting my mind with fantasies of what I might learn, how it could benefit the world, and the far-flung places I might travel to in pursuit of unorthodox lore.
“I’d be honored!” I shouted with a grin. “When do classes begin? How long is the term? Will I need textbooks?” The questions poured out of me as if they were on tap.
“There’s plenty of time for all that,” said my guide. “in fact, one of your professors shall be this man here, who is one of the Institution’s highest-scoring and seasoned operatives.
“Patience, Doctor,” said the man observing the machine. He cut a stoic and solidly impressive figure. Wide shouldered, with flowing long hair just past the nape of his neck, raven black and threaded through with silver.
I blinked. “Um, my apologies, professor, but I’m not a Doctor.”
He turned, tucked the clipboard beneath his arm, and extended his right hand to shake mine. His style of dress was as immaculate and interesting as the timbre of his voice, from polished shoes to his paisley scarf. I traded grips with him, and he smiled in a knowing manner.
“When I’m done with you, you will be that and more. We begin now.”
And that is where I leave you for now, dear reader. Until next time, this is Doctor Jackson O’Brien wishing you sweet nostalgia, pleasant memories, and an ever-growing scrapbook of life experiences!
((What is The Speculative Singularity Serial? How can you be a part of it? Well, if you dare, you can click here to find out! ))
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