2b – The Academics

After slipping past the door, they jumped in the elevator, and dropped down two flights in the underground skyscraper to a classified level, passing several deserted guard posts.  The walls were cool, the air damp, and rust jammed the iron clamps which reinforced the security gates, sealing off the floor.  After Rupert explained their purpose, Aloysius pulled a crow bar from the guard’s desk.  They both pitched in, bending back clamps, spelling each other, until they pried the gates from their hinges and forced open the door.

They stepped onto a steel macadam encircling a huge holding cell. Aloysius scraped their key through the moldy cement and crossed the rusted bars to warn any unexpecting inmates.  In the dark, they tripped over  lunch trays, bedpans, piles of frayed wire then trudged through puddles of cold urine, feeling their way, toward a candle’s light, illumining an old man on his haunches, dipping stale bread into a basin of sour milk.

They watched him itch his blotched scalp and bare feet.  He was  ignoring a fellow inmate who wagged her bony index finger at him for slurping his milk.  As Rupert’s and Aloysius’ eyes adjusted to the dark, a women appeared whose face was plastered with faded freckles as she whispered conjugations of a Latin verb.  Then a whole group cropped up, curled into a corner.  They were cowering, pencil-sharp noses stuffed into shabby textbooks, and fidgeting beneath rag blankets.  Rupert used the key Undine handed him to open the padlock, pulling back and yawning open their prison door.  He edged to the group then veered to a heavier middle-aged man whom several had surrounded, sporting a sandy-gray beard reaching to his lap.  Aloysius, for emphasis, further cracked the door, letting it creak, as Rupert kneeled down.  A few stopped rocking and listened, but none of them rose, moving only to hypnotically fold their hands over their heads, readying for a beating.

“What are you reading?”  Rupert whispered

“Words!”  The old man grumbled hoarsely.

“Nothing political.”  His freckled friend confided, rubbing her feet nervously with a rag.

“The door is open.  You are free to go.”  Rupert declared plainly, gently touching his shoulder.

Aloysius, meanwhile, walked around the damp cell and fell to observing a priest with his collar resting loosely on his neck like a kerchief, playing tiddlywinks.  One letter was crudely scratched on each tab or “wink” from the Greek alphabet.  Aloysius watched him press his thumb, then flip an Omega over and over, tirelessly.  When Aloysius stooped beside him the priest slipped his Omega through the dust of the prison floor, without glancing up.  The priest insisted then by wrist slaps that Aloysius begin the game, isolating his pile from Aloysius’ Omega, fencing his forearm between them, then slapped his wrist again, urging him to play.   Aloysius crouched there, and obeyed.

“Did you hear what I said?”  Rupert asked again, standing up

Several readers irritably squinted up to him, and after much rustling, their bearded leader decided to confront Rupert:

“Why should we trust you?”

“I can’t give you more proof than an open door and an unguarded hall behind it.”

“We don’t believe it leads forward.  We will stay.”

“We didn’t intend to lead you.”  Rupert insisted, pointing toward the door, then helping the old woman beside him to her feet.

“We will follow our leader.”  She grumbled, resisting.

“We remember.  We preserve the past!”  An invalid with a French accent chimed in, crawling over to protest.

“Is it your duty to huddle in filth on damp cement floors?  Why preserve this?”

“We are scholars.”

“Before The Collapse.”  Freckleface added.

“Grabmaler needed Art Historians, mostly.  We told him what was of value and what was not.”   Yet another voice explained from the darkness.

“He squeezed us like rotten oranges.”  The freckled woman purred.  “Then tossed us here … to rot.”  She balled up a rag to demonstrate the cliché, then flung it close to their bearded leader’s sockless feet. “You can’t help us.”

“How do you know?”

“We know!”  Each shouted, firing off slow tempo’d volleys, in echoes, in staggers, as if from years of dutiful practice.

Rupert sighed:  “But the administrator of this jail has been shot!   The guards are no longer at their desks!  The High Priest of Morality Squad, the Head of Security, your jailer, is dead!  You are free!  You’ll starve or take sick if you stay here!  What’s more the control of this complex has already been taken over by fanatics who might shoot or hang you!”

Aloysius continued playing tiddly winks, following the game, slapped thrice on his wrist for straying from his Omega tab.

“Hurry up!  There it is! The door is open!  We’re here to help you.  This is not a fucking trick!”  Rupert shouted.

“We stay!”  A blue-wigged woman repeated firmly, adjusting her rags.

“Who told you this?  Here, let me help you!”  Rupert offered again.  This time she slapped him.

“Get out!”  She hissed.

The invalid interceded, impatient to explain, and avoid violence:  “With the universities closed, there is nowhere for us to go!”

“Yes there is, or there will be.”  Rupert countered.  “Why would you prefer to live here?”

The apparent leader sniffed.  “Let me explain young man. Imagine restoring an old cathedral, its slates, its shingles, its cornices, spires, its gargoyles! It’s very much like preserving an old city which would be forgotten forever.”  It sounded rehearsed, but the others solemnly nodded their heads and began rocking, matted gray heads rising and falling dutifully in the moist light.

“Do you mean a lost City?”  Aloysius asked, still obediently flipping his Omega wink.

“Yes, that’s what we mean.  How did he know?  We occupy a … lost city …  but we have also discovered and peopled it.”  The leader confided to Rupert, his thin beard dusting the floor, astounded, as if their secret had been betrayed.

“Then be careful not to chip the gold wings of your angels.”  Aloysius advised, while several inmates evaporated back into the shadows, “… or smear the cock of your Cupid with goo!”

“He’s making fun of us!”  The freckled woman cried, after they scratched for a moment, confused.

“Or get weighed down, scaling those shingled roofs by doggie bags of bibliographic silverfish!”  Aloysius chided.

The inmates who could, stood up, vaguely aware of the challenge, and piqued to a frenzy.

“Aloysius, really! Your city is of the mind,”  Rupert explained, “You will not lose your city, nor your minds, by leaving this cell.”

“Yes we will!  Our city will die if we leave it.  It will evaporate!  Our city is in the past, and we will remain there, and live in it.  You will never see that city!  Not in your dreams! The city which we will live for is eternal and you are part of a dying world, without rhyme or reason.  It is the City of Light.  You will serve like everyone else the Emperor of Atavists and he will have you driven to the heaps of the dead, or burn you amongst skeletons in a mass crypt — and no one will sing at your funeral!”

“No music?  No flowers?”

“Only the caws of blackbirds and vultures of Plague!”

“This is a prison game! To preserve your sanity in solitary.  Why stay here? Please, we beg you to re-consider.  I leave the door open.  You walk out when it suits you.  Doesn’t that sound .. just?”  Rupert pleaded.  “But if you wait, you will inherit new jailers who will beat you just like the old, and they may lead you before a firing squad.”

“Then it’s fate!”  The Frenchman murmured, from his wet shadow.

The whole group started to moan, and protest in despair:  “You are threatening us!  Get out!”

“Tenured deconstruction!” Aloysius tossed off, as his wink was snatched from him.

“Don’t egg them on Aloysius!”  Rupert cried.  The group had already graduated to hysteria.

After a moment of silence, Rupert entertained a slender hope that the situation could still sink in.  He walked outside to wait, until the apparent leader mustered the strength again to speak, this time in confidence.

“We need to stay. To protect the city of our mind. We must remember.”

“Are you afraid?”

“Yes, we are!  Atavism will win.”   A few within earshot sheepishly nodded, thumping their rags on the stone floor.

“Yes.  I can see that you feel that.”

“Young man, if you don’t already know it, you certainly will.”  He  snapped, waddling anxiously to slam the door.

Aloysius escaped from the cell just in time.

“We cannot make sure you will be fed.  You may die. … .”  Rupert added, giving up.

“Fuck off!” He barked back.

You will die!  You will not save the City!”  Several others chimed in.

Rupert and Aloysius watched the group rustle back to their rags.  Rupert held up his key to make one last plea before they averted their eyes.  The group leader slammed the door, slid the security bars over it, and they left him, fiddling to re-fit the padlock behind them.