The Terminal Correction
Note: Like my other story, Slouching Towards Jianghu, this is set in a friend's fantasy world. These stories take place in the dark fantasy world of my friend's roleplaying podcast, "The Sword of Nerdom." If you like this, you'll love that. Go check it out at wwwDOTswordofnerdomDOTcom, and see if you can get all the references I slipped in.
Summary: Doctor Hypatia Boyle walks a fine line of tolerated skepticism and religious devotion, when she is offered a research position in a divided city. As she travels to the river port of Terminas, she discovers a peculiar conundrum.
When I was summoned to visit Terminas, I was first excited by the chance to depart the dreary weather of Newkirk for warmer climes. Even as my initial excitement faded, I deluded myself into thinking that persistent humidity was why I'd come. What drew me down murk-filled Moldevay River was a curiosity about matters absent in the northern climes I'd grown up with, not the least of which was the safety of the riverboat I rode on.
Even among the intellectual and noble classes of northern Adelos, the Barony of Exos bore a reputation for fanatical religion, simmering violence, fetid swamps, and a constant plague of insects worthy of the Silver Codex itself. Despite being the most recent addition to the Holy Kingdom, it possesses a nascent intellectual and artisanal hub unseen anywhere else in Adelos. While I may be an outsider, I must profess a newfound respect for what I beheld, although I fear the grim costs.
Allow me to introduce myself. I am Doctor Hypatia Boyle, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Newkirk. Much of my prior work was devoted to debunking the charlatanry of self-proclaimed alchemists, hedge-wizards, cult leaders, and other snake-oil peddlers that prey upon public ignorance. The novel science of chemistry struggles to shake off the mystical trappings foisted upon it by ancient, pagan traditions, rather than the naturalistic causes the University champions. In my own way, I aim to bring the public closer to Adelos, through showing them the sublime beauty of the universe.
Such was the philosophy of my life's role model, Saint Kristoval himself. While my less devout colleagues were quick to point out the supposed irony, I like to believe divine providence was involved in the job offer I received from Dean Aldrin Proclus himself. Perhaps it merely wishful thinking on my part, but I like to believe the chance to work at a university named for my hero was more than random chance. The Dean offered a tenured position, a fully stocked laboratory, and a chance to pursue my lifelong passion in chemistry. It was an easy decision for me to relocate.
The language in the letter described specific aspects of my work in particular detail. The mechanisms of vaporous expansion and contraction, the relation of temperature and pressure, and certain mechanical systems gave me inclinations as to what they expected. The fact the Dean took care to mention me as a woman known in religious circles brought me to suspect political pressures. I supposed my hire might have been partially motivated by some attempt to mollify the occasional tensions between local radical sects, the Correctors, and the University. The Church did not care for my skeptical look at certain (undoubtedly allegorical) stories in the Silver Codex, but many a believer has enjoyed my lambasting of the petty frauds and pretenders that misled the common folk.
I left Newkirk with a merchant caravan heading south. As my travel expenses were fully reimbursed, I enjoyed a modicum of comfort on Dean Proclus' expense. As a middle-aged woman with a persistent limp, I was in no shape to trek by foot. During that trip, I tuned out the calling of the wagon master and passed the hours reading the account of one of my colleague's former students, Doctor Alan Ritter. I recalled his controversial and well-articulated thesis on the possible foreign origins for certain inventions, but I found his recent tone akin to a ranting blatherskite.
After suffering through that mercifully brief report, I turned once more those dog-eared pages of my own Silver Codex, a gift from my late mother. I remember reading stories to my older brother Tyson, especially those knightly exploits of Saint Aster. I remembered how much I enjoyed challenging his juvenile interpretation of those tales, and mocking his asperations to join one of the Holy Orders. To him, those stories were adventure tales detailing the righteous smiting of evil caricatures, like monsters and black magicians. To me, they were the deposing of superstitious frauds and barbarous warlords. In that way, I suppose partially Aster inspired me, although my favorite saint was always Kristoval.
In particular, the sound and smell of a caravan campfire reminded me of the time I demonstrated how a handful of alumina powder could invoke the same "magic" used in the Laying of the Fiend-Conjurer. I still remember that cruel prank he sprung on me, that ditch that caused me to dislocate my knee. I still fumed over that, even years after he gifted me with that hand-carved swordcane with the concealed pistol in the hilt. Despite the guilt he still harbored, I wondered if I'd truly forgiven him. I hoped to Adelos I could release such repressed spite, especially before starting a new chapter of my life.
My trip to Terminas became far more interesting when I arrived at the Ravormos River, the uppermost navigable tributary of the Moldevay, which ultimately empties into the Carmille Gulf. That delta is where Terminas lies, a strategic port warranting a catastrophic, generation-long war between the Holy Kingdom of Adelos and Devlos. I expected a traditional keelboat to take me down the river, the sort of flat-bottom craft a farmer would use to ship crops downstream. What I beheld was originally such a craft, but the modifications jumped out like a Alvhan Longeared Fox leaping for a plump chicken.
The catamaran was long and low to the waterline, with a bow like an assassin's stiletto. The name Proclus-1 left little doubt as to the party that dispatched the vessel for me. There was a cabin towards the aft of the vessel, beyond the helmsman's shelter. Two pontoons supported the weight of the vessel above, with an opening in the deck between the deck and the water beneath. What I found curious was the metal device inserted into that gap, a metal drum acting as the axel suspending a metal wheel. Wooden paddles protruded from wheel like the teeth of gears. As I smelt the methane wafting into my nostrils, I hypothesized as to the device's purpose.
A second later, an explosion like a musket's report confirmed it. It occurred after the crew assisted me aboard, and one-eyed helmsman took position at the wheel. He winced as he pushed a button beside the wheel, and the paddlewheel starting turning. As we got underway, I heard explosions from the forward deck. Each discharge resulted in a quickening of the wheel's rotation and a whiff of burning material I could smell from the cabin. Nevertheless, I was surprised with the celerity we moved down the river, easily overtaking a fishing boat and a keelboat loaded with tree roach husks and shells from wood tick molting. The two overweight men aboard clutched their noses as we passed them, expressing revulsion at a chemical scent that ceased to offend me decades ago.
I headed belowdecks, and I noted the metal cylinders connected to a vast tangle of piping. The stench of decay increased as I followed the piping into one of the pontoons. The stench of offal and rotting meat wafted up from a wooden crate, as though the forward cabin was a charnel house. Noting the hand-pump and metal cylinders connected to it, I quickly surmised the functionality of the boat's engine.
"Professor Boyle," came a young man's voice from behind me. I noted a slight draw and South Alvhan accent. "I hope you appreciate my handiwork."
I turned to see a young man with short brown hair. He was dressed in a thin, white cotton shirt and a pair of suspended trousers beneath it. He suspended from his belt was a curious sidearm, which resembled a flintlock pistol with a metal cylinder beneath the barrel. He was clearly of Kedrenosi descent, given the lighter tone of his skin. He was easily two decades younger than me. He traced a line from the strange pumping arrangement towards the axel's drive shaft above us.
"I remember your thesis on waste gas generation and combustibility," he said. "Although you used a far less efficient catalyst."
"Engineering never was my strong suite, although I assume this vessel moves by repeated combustions of the gases in these containers," I said. "Which drives the paddlewheel."
The young man smiled. "Engineering was never my strong suite either. I borrowed most of the timing and feeding mechanism from Dr. Nicephore De Rivaz's scale model."
"And a piston cylinder like the Newkirk Arsenal's air-rifles," I said, pointing to the mechanism above my head. "Like your sidearm, I presume?"
"Not quite," he shook his head, grinning wryly. "But I'll discuss that later. My name is Dr. Isaac Niepre, a research fellow directly under the Dean. It's an honor to meet you in person, Dr. Boyle."
He bowed slightly.
"Pleased to meet you, too, Isaac," I replied. "If I may ask, what is your specialty?"
"As the locals call it, rot-gas," Isaac replied. "Or biocatalytic hydrogen generation, and the industrial applications therefore of."
"Biocatalytic? So something alive?"
"Exactly," he said with a sly grin. "That process is how this vessel keeps moving."
He stepped towards the apparatus before me, and pulled a lever. I could see a small glass window above the rancid chamber, revealing the contents. I beheld a tank of manure, decaying plants, fungi, mold, and fouler things. I wondered what purpose such disgusting things could serve, beyond direct fuel for his curious engine. Suspended above the container was a metal lattice, each ring coated in a thin layer of viscous sludge.
"My father owns a plantation near the edge of the swamp," he explained. "Since I was a boy, I had an interest in the Exosian slime molds that grew on dead plants. Especially star-moss."
I nodded, and he continued.
"They reliably decompose most organic matter into a purified hydrogen gas," he said. "I put them on the mesh above a midden heap, the gas they generate is compressed, and it is fed into a combustion chamber. We use a flint and steel sparker, which isn't as reliable as we'd hope. It is, however, enough to keep us moving."
I nodded, eagerly drinking down the details of the design. It was far more ingenuous than I first suspected, especially for war-ravaged, rural Terminus. I wondered if conflict truly was the driver of innovation, or if it had been re-appropriated from some foreign invention. Either way, the Dean and Isaac turned a heap of rotting garbage into a practical power source that could revolutionize the world. Isaac rode this untested vessel hundreds of leagues upstream, and I wondered just what was at store at the voyage's end. If they desired to impress me, they'd certainly succeeded.
However, my host was not done. Isaac headed out on deck, and he braced himself against the aft railing. He warily scanned the woods surrounding either bank, as if preparing for some illicit activity. He drew the pistol from his belt, and I saw him pull the hammer back. It was then I recognized the cylindrical cannister beneath the barrel, which was identical to the small ones connected to the hydrogen pump downstairs. He levelled it over the river, and he wordlessly bid me to watch with a gesture.
I covered my ears exactly as Isaac pulled the trigger. The weapon erupted like a handheld howitzer, and the muzzle flared like a furious dragon. I saw a splash far down the river, near the edge of my vision. I whistled at the chemical energy stored within that propellant, and other concerns flashed through my mind. Given the apparent wear near the end of the cannister, I realized how much mechanical stress the valves would be under. Given the apparently slipshod workmanship I'd beheld on the engine, I wondered how just how many accidents it took to arrive at the current design.
I was intimately acquainted with the theory and application. I remembered the time I built and tested scale models of hydrogen and methane gas detonations, based on the descriptions from silver miners unlucky enough to strike a gas pocket. One of them brought an open flame into a newly excavated section of tunnel, which caused a blast that claimed three souls. Fortunately, the mine's owner, an unusually pragmatic and thoughtful Strovan nobleman, instituted recommended changes to improve mine safety.
"Regular black powder spoils too quickly in the humidity, so we use the belch-guns instead," Isaac explained. "We even adapted it to crossbows, for spear-fishing and gator-hunting."
"Charming," I said. "But I suggest you strengthen the valves."
"Noted," Isaac said, his eyes nervously darting around. He quickly changed topics, suggesting I'd hit on an awkward topic. I did not press him, despite my later regrets. "The Dean says you're a woman of faith."
"Are you familiar with the Abacus Army?" he asked.
"You could say that," I said, vainly attempting to conceal my inner excitement. The tale of Saint Kristoval and the Abacus Army was my favorite story in the entire Silver Codex, even if it was apocryphal. To me, it was the epitome of St. Kristoval's brilliance, and why he was always a more compelling figure than St. Aster. It shows a cunning, if not a ruthless calculating, aspect of an otherwise revered figure.
If you are unfamiliar with it, then I hope I grant the tale the justice it deserves. As the classic story goes, Kristoval is traveling to visit a friend when a barbarian king captures him. In some versions, he's identified as a mere brigand or petty warlord, but in others, as a black conjurer like the Pale King himself. I'll just refer to him as Barbas the Brute, the moniker I gave him in my teenage years. The image of some foul-smelling, drunken oaf surrounded by a mob of similarly uncouth followers was the one that always springs to my mind.
So, Kristoval was brought before Barbas and mocked, but he remained calm. His indefatigable nature earned him their ire, and they beat and enslaved him. Barbas wanted to humiliate Kristoval's intellect, so he orders him to tell the future, or face a slow, excruciating death. Kristoval played on the barbarians' superstitions, claiming the answer laid in calculating the digits of pi. As an irrational number, he argued, that the fates of all could be read if enough numbers had been calculated. He used the idiosyncratic beliefs of Barbas' shaman and advisors, and played them like a fiddle.
Kristoval claimed that because manual calculation was too time-consuming, he needed the entire tribe to help him. He demonstrated a drill with three men, where each held a staff with one terminating in a black banner, and the other a white one. The third man of the three raised a white flag whenever both men raised the white flag, but flew the black one under all other states. He introduced the element as an "and" element, which transmitted information based on flag positions. He demonstrated other formations, like the "or" gate, which represented other binary, logical conditions. He explained by combining people into such formations, the warband could become a single, human calculating machine. Such an arrangement, Kristoval claimed, would aid in his divinations.
Barbas was hesitant, but Kristoval's words changed his mind. The Sage-Saint drew an elaborate diagram of positions, squad positions that would act as components of his grand machine. Barbas ordered his followers to assume those positions, and not to stop calculating under pain of death. The barbarian tribe became like an assembled abacus of people, or the Abacus Army. However, the ending of the story is my favorite part.
The calculations continued for months, during which time Barbas' patience grew thin. His warriors grew restless from a lack of perceptible progress or loot, and many had deserted or been executed for breaking formation. In a fit of anger, he drew his sword and attacked Kristoval. It was then Aster's troops charged out of the nearby forest, cutting down the Abacus Army before they could respond. Before Barbas was cut down by Aster, he saw Kristoval grinning widely. Due to that story, pi is considered to be Kristoval's number.
A colleague at Newkirk investigated the concept of building the Abacus Army in real life, only with mechanical components instead of people. She came up with an expansive contraption, a convoluted machine the size of a mechanical cathedral, that used an arrangement of springs, gears, and levers to run calculations. It was too expensive to build, but the Newkirk Tailors Guild used a partial prototype for controlling a mechanical loom. If my new employers made progress in the field of construct calculation, then I would truly be rendered speechless. I wondered if St. Kristoval would find some irony in it, with his followers building a machine based on such a spurious story. I suppose he'd at least appreciate the imagination, intellect, and knowledge required for such an endeavor.
My widened eyes and opened mouth betrayed my interest to Isaac, and he immediately silenced himself. I correctly suspected he was saving the best for our arrival. He excused himself from the deck, and he made small talk for the remainder of the voyage. He tried to converse with me about a possible treatment he'd found, using extracts from slime molds to counteract memory loss in the elderly, but I tactfully changed topics. Part of me was glad, as my own research of incredulous claims left my girlish sense of wonder jaded. I kept more to myself, burying myself back in the Silver Codex and my research notes.
Over the next few days of the voyage, the air grew fetid and miasmic, and the riverbanks wild and overgrown. I saw the swamps of the southern river, where mangrove trees towered like sword-bearing sentinels over the marsh. I saw strange lights around their roots, which glimmered like the last gasps of dying stars. I heard the buzzing of distant insects, which blackened the twilight skies as they filled the skies. I felt my skin moisten with perspiration, and never quite dry off. The sensation was like that of a humid Newkirk summer, only without the respite of spring or autumn. For a day, I seriously wondered if I should not turn back.
When I saw the first estates, I was glad I preserved to see civilization once more. The largely uninhabited river gave way to cleared riverfront properties, which grew larger as we continued downstream. They were often painted white, with wrap-around verandas and turrets like wooden castles. I personally found the aesthetic gaudy and disjointed. While I could not see their faces from the river, I saw ragged people working on the fields, gardens, and mills that occupied the riverbank. Their darker skin tone suggested Devlosi or Kharsi heritage. I saw their glistening, sweat-soaked bodies, and I recognized my first sighting of the grim reality of Exan indentured servitude. I reflected this was not the civilization I hoped to first behold. I uttered a silent prayer as we traveled ever-southward.
Our river eventually merged with another to become the proper Moldevay River. The current beneath us carried the boat with more alacrity than the brackish backwater we rode before. The waters were largely still a brown, muddy carpet, but there were a few patches of cleaner water. In one of them, I caught a glimpse of my own reflection. I wondered how my host's representative, Isaac, imagined me looking. Despite the brief mirror image view of myself, my counterpart quickly vanished beneath a brownish swill. I wondered if it was a sign from Adelos, before dismissing it as just another example of wishfully looking for patterns in randomness.
For some reason, that image of myself depressed me. I'd liked to think of myself as some forever spry young woman of two or three decades, but my tenure on earth had been twice as long. After the accident that claimed my hair and my husband, I'd given up on any semblance of a traditional family life. Sometimes, I still remember Samuel's wolfish grin and contagious mirth, now forever frozen in my memory like a tragic portrait. At times I wake up at night, remembering the chemical stench that covered me after that horrible accident. I wonder sometimes if he'd be here if I was more careful, or there was some precaution I could have taken that would have prevented it, but I know such thoughts will not bring him back. Adelos saw fit to spare me, and it was thanks to His actions through my friends and family that I endured.
Pardon an old woman's ramblings. I have grown thin and gaunt, where I was once ample and able. While I was never a fighter or athlete, my face still bears the scars of both those chemical burns and cuts from that brief foray into academic fencing in my younger, more careless years. I may cover my head in a hood, but I know nothing shall ever grow there again, like a salted field. Such, I felt, was the diminishment of my career in Newkirk. I trust there may be a plan for me, even if I do not realize it yet. I would immediately distrust anyone who claimed they knew what my providence would be, just like the cold readers and fraudulent mediums I debunked.
Nevertheless, I raised my expectations for Terminas. Would it be the well-stocked lab I hoped awaited me? Or would it be a war-ravaged backwater, roiling in distorted religion and brutal crime? I hoped for the former, but my inner pessimist drew me towards the latter. Despite my dour and macabre musings, they were dispelled as I caught my first glimpse of the distant city.
The first thing I saw were the stone towers of the Terminus Cathedral, rising above treeline like artificial mountains. A trick of perspective and optics made them seem closer than they were, but I nevertheless could sense we drew close to our final destination. Isaac and the vessel's crew, relieved from a week of dried provisions and fresh fish, were eager for solid land beneath their feet. I agreed with them, as I was becoming fatigued of our time aboard the vessel. Even the fact our vessel was propelled by a sustained explosion, a series of internal combustions, was of little comfort compared to the appeal of a floor that did not bob erratically beneath my feet.
As we neared Terminus, I saw the echoes of past and present glory. I saw the massive bay where the river emptied into the ocean beyond, and the forest of masts that filled the city's docks. Caravels, galleons, catamarans, dhows, and stranger craft I could not describe occupied the harbors and wharves like a plundering armada. The two small peninsulas that comprised the harbor were like the jaws of a swamp alligator, which each ship like a bird picking for food between the beast's filthy teeth. Our cyclopean helmsman, a sailor I'd come to know was named Sebastian, capably maneuvered us past a frigate towards a small wharf. Their wake nearly knocked me over, but I used my cane to preclude that.
The crew clambered ashore, securing the lines on the pier. Isaac, ever-eager to be a gentleman, helped me off. He hurried to the end of the pier, where a dark-skinned man in a suit waited by a horse-drawn coach. He must have been sweating bullets. Isaac gestured me inside, but my eyes glanced towards the other side of the river. I saw the wood and stone ramparts rising above that eastern shore, topped by grotesque stone gargoyles that leered like hungry demons. I looked away and stepped into the carriage.
"Sadly, the eastern part of town is still a disaster area," Isaac said, leaning back onto the velvet cushions. "The City Guard fills it with lepers, the maimed, and any criminal unfit for indentured servitude."
I winced visibly, imagining the hellscape within those ramshackle walls. I presumed they remained the original Devlosi fortifications, back before the war. The new owners were not so considerate, using it as a dumping ground for human refuse and worse. I presume the locals kept it out of sight and out of mind, and perhaps similarly banished from polite conversation. Isaac was eager to turn my attention to other sites around town.
Unsurprisingly, the best were originally of Devlosi build. I saw more of those manors, pale imitations of the architecture of northern Kedrenos. Their flimsy wooden frames were inserted between the majestic stonework of the original architects. Even the statues erected in the wake of the Adelosian invasion were uncouth, simple statues compared to the Devlosi monuments, eidolons capturing the vivaciousness of life in stone.
I remembered only one major monument that day, and I believe it is emblematic of Terminas. It was the famous sculpture of Saint Aster, standing almost as tall as the two cathedral towers behind it. She was depicted as a Devlosi woman, but still recognizable in her armor. Her sword was thrust downward into the pedestal, as if finishing off a downed foe. The way she twisted her body, sensually torqueing her hips, hinted at the expression on her face. She looked skywards, her mouth opened in that climatic ecstasy all women recognize. The iconography was simultaneously subversive and symbolic, far more memorable than those dour, marble Adelosian knights. staring out with blank expressions more appropriate for tombstones. The Kedrenosi know how to die, but the Devlosi know how to live.
I was surprised, and honestly relieved, that Aster's statue was not torn down. I found myself curious as to the sculptor's take on Kristoval would be. Given how the original sculptor's name was covered up by an ugly bronze plaque commemorating the "sanctification" of the city in that long-ago war. It was then I noted the Cathedral Square was strangely empty, save for a mob gathering in Aster's shadow. The carriage driver moved closer for a look, and I saw Isaac's face go pale. I knew we'd stumbled into something he hoped I hadn't wanted me to see.
Beneath Aster's twisting body was an atrocity that marred that perfect moment for me. I saw a man and a woman, one Kedrenosi and the other Devlosi, tied to wooden posts. It took me a moment to identify each of them, owing to the bloody bruises that covered their bodies. Strips of flesh were flensed from their arms and legs with the great care of an expert torturer. A small bucket between them was filled with salt, and a man stepped out of the crowd to throw a pinch at their opened wounds.
The crowd cheered, but too many pretended to ignore it. I saw armored men form a ring around their victims. I first thought it was the local City Guard coming to rescue them, but I realized their armor was cheap and imitative, rather than the more well-maintained gear I'd come to associate with disciplined constables. One that towered a head over the others stepped out of the ring and looked towards us.
"Come, my brothers! Behold the righteous excruciations inflicted upon these heretics!" he said, gesturing behind him. "Witness this Devlosi strumpet, who was peddling blasphemous books!"
The crowd jeered and booed.
"Evil can wear a familiar face, just as this one shows. This traitor to Adelos leapt out to stop our righteous judgment upon this witch!" the leader said, shifting his hands towards the bleeding man. The crowd's ire followed. I realized the grisly spectacle was my first look at the feared Correctors. The tall man started ranting to his followers, and they advanced towards the carriage.
Thankfully, the coach-driver saw an opening and drove through it fast enough to give the horses whiplash. The Correctors continued to pursue us, trampling through the assembled crowd like stampeding cattle. I heard feral, animalistic shouts behind us, but something curious happened. They were easily falling behind the carriage, but a half-dozen guards emerged from between two expensive-looking estates. They were dressed in light armor and helmets, but they locked bucklers close enough to mimic an ancient shield-wall. They held truncheons, belch-guns, and crossbows. The one with the flashiest uniform blew a whistle, and the Correctors immediately ceased pursuit. They slung onto side streets like a pack of whipped dogs, and I exhaled.
As the crowd receded behind us, I heard my heart beat as fast and frantically as a barbarian war-drum. I had not felt such exhilaration in a long time, and I hoped I would not do so again. I was too old for such things, although I saw Isaac had drawn his pistol. I was grateful he hadn't discharged it, as the report inside the carriage could have blown out my eardrums.
"My apologies, Professor," Isaac said, as if he'd been guilty of the spectacle in the streets. "But I'd hope the Correctors would be less brazen after the march last month."
"What happened last month, Isaac?" I asked. I knew I would not like the answer, and I did not appreciate this information being omitted from our earlier conversations. He'd always skipped over the Correctors and their cruel, public tortures when I tried to breach the subject before. I wondered if the Dean and faculty were similarly inclined towards duplicitous half-truths, although their letter was drafted and sent over two months ago. I hoped I was not being too prejudiced, but my investigative instincts smelt blood.
"The Correctors were always present, but they've gotten more brazen and aggressive this year," he said. "Last month, faculty and students marched against the Correctors, hoping we could pressure Lord Mayor Taggart and the City Guard to move against them."
"And they attacked you?"
"The Correctors assembled, but they stood by while the City Guard beat us," he said. "A friend of mine in the Guard resigned in protest, and things have been going steadily downhill. We believe it may be prudent to take…appropriate precautions."
"How is university security?"
"The campus has its own full-time security force, but thankfully, we haven't had any…major issues," he said. "But I'm worried about the Correctors. They're bold enough to harass nobles, but even the Guard are having problems reigning them in. The Correctors are even attacking each other, if you can believe that."
I sighed heavily. He was obviously on edge, and I did not press the issue. I wondered what I'd truly left Newkirk for. Was this a career advancement, or my own willful blindness to peril? I shuttered, the stress from a dozen sources overwhelming my sound judgment for a moment. As we turned down a nearby street, I temporarily failed to notice we'd turned towards the university campus.
The entrance to the university was a wrought iron gate beside a statue of Devlosi origin. It depicted my favorite Saint as a young man with a book in one hand, and a sling in the other. His wide eyes and excited smile perfectly captured the essence of some thinker's epiphany, while simultaneously paying homage to his most famous stories. The book symbolized his compilating of Adelosian teachings and epistles, but the sling symbolized his slaying of a giant with a single stone. I remembered slinging stones myself as a young girl, pretending the dark trees were the claws of giant fiends. I was once more impressed by the Devlosi sense of aesthetics, which was far superior to the soulless, unexpressive statue of the first Dean inside the gate.
The campus itself was of mixed architectural origin, with restored Devlosi buildings and classical Adelosian architecture dotting gently rolling hills around a fountain and pond. The Devlosi structures were elaborate stonework, while the classical Adelosian architecture was a fusion of marble columns and red clay brickwork. Unlike the rest of the city and the surrounding estates, the two styles complemented each other instead of clashing. Our carriage came to a stop on a cobblestone circle before the largest of those buildings, a Devlosi structure that looked like it was once a noble's mansion.
Isaac stepped out, and he breathed deep, as though all of his responsibilities were absolved for a second. A woman stepped out from the front door, dressed in a light leather and khaki uniform I presume was used by the university's security guards. Her auburn hair was cut short, and she smiled widely. I saw the pistol on her side and rapier at her hilt, but the way she turned to face Isaac suggested close familiarity.
"Isaac! Glad to see you're back," she said, her voice bearing the Exos draw. "And this is Professor Boyle?"
"Pleased to meet you," I said, offering my hand and bowing slightly. "And to whom do I owe this honor?"
"Constable Jessa Bellum, formerly of the City Guard, and now the University Security Staff," she said. "A more welcoming place, although I do keep in touch with the few upstanding City Guard comrades I left."
"Jessa was a childhood friend of mine, and she resigned in protest after the march," Isaac said. "But we'll have time for chat later. Jessa and I will take your baggage to your room, Professor. The Dean's waiting for us."
Isaac opened the door of that Devlosi grand hall, and I immediately felt like I'd been transported into the midst of a sweltering swamp. I saw preserved animals behind glass cases, surrounded by potted plants like those from the marshes I'd seen from the ride downriver. In just a cursory glance, I identified giant wood ticks perched on branches above, doing battle with a nest of tree-roaches the size of puppy dogs. I saw a preserved silver-cat about ready to strike a wooly boar, frozen in place by taxidermy that seemed to rival Devlosi stonework or mythical necromancy. An Alvhan Longeared Fox stood lurking beneath the gnarled branch of a dead tree. A small flume of water circled around the room, moved by a pump somewhere in the floor beneath. A mangrove tree in the middle of the room grew from an artificial pond. I heard buzzing from somewhere, and I saw a glass terrarium on the other side of the room, full of insects of all descriptions.
"Ah, welcome to Saint Kristoval, my honored guest," came a male, Exosian voice from behind a display case. "I am glad our vessel held together for the whole journey. Good thing, too, because I'd hate for you to have to swim here."
The speaker chuckled at his own joke. He walked with a cane and a limp that almost mirrored my own, but something about his gait was almost mechanical. He was perhaps two decades older than me, with a swelling stomach, gray suit, and grandfatherly demeanor. I wondered if he had some injury or condition that locked him into that automaton-like cadence, which caused him to move like a sauntering tripod. Nevertheless, there was something familiar about him as he stood.
"I trust Isaac was able to brief you on all the details of his work," he said. "But I hope he didn't overwhelm you too much. I say, there's a lot in him a recognize about my younger self."
"Dean Aldrin Proclus, it's a pleasure to meet you in person," I said. "A man in your position must have to deal with a lot of stress."
"Not as much as you may think," he said, grinning cheerfully. "This city is a stewing cauldron, but it has a certain flavor to it. One that even rivals the spicy Kharsi cooking, if you're familiar."
"Only in passing. So, quite the collection you have here."
"Yes, but I have something very interesting to show you," he said, his face grinning like an over-excited child. "It's relevant to the work we've been doing thus far, and no doubt a woman of your intellect can figure out what we're doing with it."
The Dean moved towards a lever protruding from the wall. He struggled with it for a second, so much that I thought he'd topple over. Nevertheless, he turned his hips and put his full weight into it. As he moved away, I heard unseen mechanisms activate above us. The source of light in the room, the glass window-filled rotunda, was being extinguished as metal shutters descended on each window. Darkness shrouded the room like a funereal pall, although small lanterns remained glowing. The light-drained room was like a twilit swamp, crawling with dangers literal and figurative. I saw the Dean was still grinning.
"You may have noticed the star-moss," he said, pointing to the mangrove tree. A pattern of scintillating colors radiated across the tree's spindly roots. I recalled the distant glowing I'd seen on the boat-ride, and I presumed this was the cause of it. I was no expert in local flora and fauna, so I waited for the lecture to continue. "A local species of slime mold with a knack for mimicry, even down to cellular level. Observe."
Proclus moved towards the insect terrarium, and I noticed several glowing orbs in the air. I recognized them as a species of firefly, although larger and more radiant than the muted glow of their northern cousins. With that manic grin, he unleashed a jar of them towards the mangrove tree. I noticed the fireflies flash at each other, a luminal mating call like the twinkling of distant stars. The star-moss ceased to glow for several long minutes. I was about to speak, but the Dean raised his finger to his lips.
My impatience turned to curiosity as the star-moss glowed once more. It flashed short, rapid bursts of brilliant light, just like the insects hovering around it. Unlike the insects hovering around it, it was not merely mimicking their display. It was experimenting and adjusting its approach, in order to bring those fireflies closer. A single, lovelorn insect charged straight into the waiting star-moss, like a lustful sailor after a siren's song. It found itself entombed inside the blob, but the digestion was peculiar. A spindly assemblage of threadlike proteins wrapped around the insect's head, and the flashing patterns become much more precise. More insects were lured into the fatal gossamer ooze, and met similar fates. The few insects left flew away, instinct compelling them to take flight.
"You see, the star-moss can absorb information from its prey's brain. Even more remarkably, it works on fish, mammals, amphibians, insects, and similar prey," he explained. "But it is smart enough to realize it cannot devour anything bigger than a rodent. Some have even been reported as entering a sort of symbiosis with alligators and other predators, working together to lure deer, livestock, and perhaps even humans towards the larger predator. We even believe it can signal to other star-moss, further multiplying their efficiency."
"Charming, but carnivorous plants and dangerous fungi are well known. How does this relate to methane engines and combustion machinery?" I asked.
Proclus grinned. "My dear Professor, I am sure you will figure it out tomorrow," he said. "One of the reasons I selected you for your insight into matters scientific, social, and theological. You walk that line between science and religion that would make you a valuable asset, someone our namesake would be proud to know."
I knew it was blatant flattery, but it was reassuring to hear. I have long tried to banish any hint of excessive pride from my mind, lest it tempt me towards sinful excesses. However, I was well aware of the balance between healthy self-esteem and total abolition of ego. I had turned down job offers before that I believed were not worth my time, but this new professorship had me curious. Whatever was going on here, I sensed, was something that even was unaware of. As a regular reader of all chemistry, biology, physics, and natural philosophy journals, I found this highly peculiar. Having read the chemical work performed by the faculty, I could not recall anyone performing any work this new. It led me to suspect they'd omitted portions of it, perhaps to unveil it later.
I pushed such conspiratorial thoughts to the back of my mind, as I had more than enough to occupy my thoughts for the remainder of the day. I recalled walking passed the pond with the fountain I saw earlier, and I saw a Devlosi statue that made me snicker, that of Kristoval holding a youth's head beneath water in a wrestling hold. This was of one of the apocryphal Kristoval that always made me smile. An indecisive student approached Saint Kristoval as he meditated by a lake, asking for instruction. Kristoval responded by plunging his head beneath water for a few seconds, before releasing him. Kristoval then admonished the youth to return to him when he wanted knowledge as much as he wanted air in the prior moments. It was an apt sculpture to put in front of the library.
Completely unsurprising to me was the fact Saint Kristoval's had a seminary, the School of Divinities. I walked inside, and I was accosted by a small crowd of aspiring clerics wanting me to sign their copies of my earlier essays. I was pleasantly surprised to know that a local publishing house had become quite successful reprinting my old essays. I believe I was told that before, but I must have forgotten it when I originally heard it. I had a lively discussion on theology and rhetoric over dinner with a lecturer over recent history. He was adamant that the Adelosian invasion had terminated slavery, but replaced it with something functionally identical, the current system of oft-indefinite indentured servitude for petty crimes. We debated inconclusively as to which was worse.
I can scarcely remember the remainder of that night, although I remember bits of a dinner filled with generic platitudes, forgettable speeches, and sumptuous Kharsi-style cooking. What I remember was the light filtering in through the following window. I felt the warm sun on my face, and I had an inkling why people tolerated this city. It rose from the swampy cesspit of the Moldevay River Delta, a collapsing and sinking monument to pandemonium. As I watched the students scurry to class, I had an epiphany of my own. Despite the religious fanatics, crime, and corruption, it was the struggle against such things that gave them meaning. Just as Saint Kristoval was confronted by a hulking brute, he used his mastery of physics to bring his foe down with an expertly-placed sling stone to the face. Such would be how they faced the manifold problems of this city. While the world faced innumerable problems, the Codex reminds us to start with the events under our control rather than those outside it, and develop the wisdom to tell the difference.
Isaac and Jessa met me after breakfast, and I could tell they were far more interested in talking to each other than dragging me around on another tour. I would have been content to give them space, but the Dean intervened. He ordered Jessa to open his personal study, and Isaac to retrieve a few additional specimens for my perusal. The first was work I was aware of, the use of wood tick larvae secretions for firearm and bludgeoning-resistant cloth weave. The second was something far more interesting, especially given how secretive the Dean was.
As we descended the stairs to a basement laboratory, I noted similarities between how Isaac and Proclus spoke and acted. While I supposed it was natural a head researcher and colleague would have similar mannerisms, there was something a bit closer. It was only due to the Dean's infirm legs that I failed to notice before. I wondered if they were related, perhaps outside the more traditional boundaries. However, such things were none of my business. I wondered if I was once more allowing idle speculative to place imagined turpitudes on relative strangers and potential future colleagues.
In the basement laboratory were all manner of apparatuses. There were beakers, burners, glassware of all shapes and sizes, and extracts of all manner of chemical. The Dean reached onto a shelf, and he pulled out a wood and metal object. At first glance, it was a scale model of the vessel that carried us down the river. He set it into a metal tank on a table, and he returned to a bench of extracts. There were brains from laboratory animals, preserved in a shimmering substance with familiar crystalline lines growing out of them. He put a pickled rat brain into some sort of apparatus, and he set the apparatus atop the model boat. With a report like a gunshot, the oversized toy started to move around tank. He dropped a stone in front of its path, and the boat rapidly diverted to avoid the impact.
"You see, Professor Boyle, you need neither convoluted mechanisms nor flag-waving soldiers to build Kristoval's Abacus Army," Isaac said with a contented grin on his face.
"You used the star-moss and those brains?" I asked, the missing pieces suddenly fitting into place. "But what about the sensory deprivation? The lack of oxygen and nutrients? The brain damage from such invasive surgery?"
"We found a strain of star-moss that acts as an excellent preservative. We're still not quite sure how it works, but it allows us to transplant a brain between its original body and control of a simple construct like the boat."
That would have been amazing enough, had Isaac and the Dean not moved onto the next demonstration. A rat was held in a painful device, which held it in place with a metal pin pressing into its skin. A small lever next to its paw was connected to the mechanism that would remove it. The rat writhed in pain, but the Dean returned to his shelf of animal brains. In what was labeled a frog brain, he stuck a syringe and withdrew some of the solution. He carefully injected the needle up the rat's nose, and stepped back. Immediately, the rat ceased moving.
"All of that for a dead rat?" I asked.
"Watch," Isaac replied. "This is where it gets truly scary."
The rat awoke a few minutes later, and its first movement was to press down the release lever. The pin withdrew from its back, and the rat was free from its restraints.
"It can work across the species boundary, to an extent, but it works best across the same species," the Dean explained. "Even to the point of memory transference."
"I understand your skepticism, Professor Boyle. The process is poorly understood, but Isaac and I have tested this technique on ourselves. Others have noted we start to act like long-lost brothers," he said in that disarming, fatherly voice. "But there is a reason for such reckless self-experimentation."
"What possible reason could justify some bizarre, barbarous experiments on yourself?!" I asked, my temper escaping me. "Injecting fungi into your brain sounds more dangerous than all the quack doctors, all the cult leaders, and all the superstitious fools I've met!"
Isaac and Proclus sighed simultaneously. "Professor Boyle, you are completely right," Isaac said. "But we need you to help develop a cure. A counter to this."
"Why? Why would I work with you after seeing this slovenly, spurious laboratory? Are you the Dean, or are you just another crank?" I asked, ranting without thinking. My collected façade dropped like a mountainside avalanche.
"Professor Boyle," Proclus said, in a voice more akin to begging. "The reason we need your help is your predecessor. He stole an early form of our research, and we have reason to believe he approached a powerful figure with the worst possible intentions in mind."
My mind turned from fury to fear. Such capacity could turn dissidents into mindless automata. If this technique was truly as simple as Proclus demonstrated, then death was no longer the worst fate for a person. Free will, the choice between good and evil that underpinned the entire Silver Codex, would be utterly eradicated. And perhaps most insidious of all, the person in question would never realize truly independent thought. With such thoughts on my mind, I stormed out of the basement, determined not to have any part of that work.
Nevertheless, I accepted the job for a simple reason: they were correct. I performed my own investigation, and I found every word of what Proclus and Isaac said to be true. Worse, it appears someone involved with the Correctors is organizing experiments on followers and dissidents alike. I am not sure which is worse: to be duped into such dangerous experiments, or to be an unwilling participant turned into a willing collaborator by such unholy artifice. Thus, I devoted my every waking moment to finding a way to break the external influence of the moss extracts.
At times, I find myself turning one more towards painful ruminations. I look at the combustion engine, the powered boats, the bio-refineries, the brain-controlled constructs, the use of star-moss for mathematical calculations, the brain preservation method, and other inventions that we do not have the resources to fully develop. I wonder what my brother would think of me now. I wonder what Samuel would think of me, if he was here with me. I wonder what my old colleagues at Newkirk would think of me now. Most of all, I wonder what Saint Kristoval would think, that such a technology was developed at a university bearing his name. I hope I would have made the same choice as him, if he was faced with similar circumstances.
I have instructed my colleagues to publish this essay for one of several reasons. One is that I am reasonably certain I have a countermeasure. Another is that something has happened to me, such as my disappearance, death, or disablement. I pray the former is the case, but the latter is seeming to be more likely with each passing day. I work onwards, though, knowing that if I cannot stop the misuse of this knowledge here in Terminas, it will be the end for life as we know it in the world. It is not the fault of this knowledge. For as Saint Kristoval said, if knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance we can solve them.
Simultaneously, I pray I do not succumb to someone else's terminal correction. At least if I am tortured to death, I would have the solace of dying as myself. But would I reach heaven if my mind is so unnaturally twisted towards evil? Could I spend eternity as a brain controlling some construct, devoid of all else but the slow gnawing of madness? Such questions plague me, but I continue onwards. I do not fear death, but I do fear these fates worse than it. Nevertheless, I persevere. The world changes. We endure.