An Evening at the Institute

This is a short extract made as a prologue for a story I have been working on for a few months now, I won’t share any further parts of it here but this snippet should give a good idea of what it’s about. Think “The Lost World” meets HP Lovecraft in a dark alley.

Dr Hendrikson eyes danced with delight over the hoard of treasures the cryptographers had brought in. As his gaze wandered over each item, his face brightened in response. I had not seen him get this excited since he confiscated a box of playboys from first years some six years ago.

“What do you see?” I knew what I saw: Junk. But clearly, this was more than that to Hendrikson, he had always had strange interests in his chosen fields of research. While the rest of the faculty had chosen safe reliable topics; sure to earn government grants or support from interested companies; Hendrikson always chose to chase wild delusions in hopes of finding his holy grail, as he put it. His work rarely got funded, the many patches sewn into his blazer, rough scraggy hair and the dusky smell made him seem more like a down on his luck bum than a professor teaching at one of the most prestigious schools of learning in the known world – Imperial College London.

“What do I see?” he echoed the question quietly under his breath.
“Adventure, acceptance, a new frontier for mankind. But most importantly I see what I have always seen my blinded friend, the truth. Only now, you all see it too…” a thin smile spread across his face. He wore it unnaturally as if the muscles had not been in use for a long time.
“Yes Franklin, this is the moment I have awaited far too long for, all the mockery and failure I have tolerated will have been worth it. So. Very. Soon.”

“ I -” A sharp glance from Hendrikson cut me short.
“Save your pitiful apologies, I know you laughed with the rest of them; I would have done the same in your position! I had no concrete evidence for my theories, who in their right mind would believe them; but I was never in the right mind I suppose, so I persevered. And now the truth has revealed itself. Shame about the ones that didn’t make it back, but these treasures are worth any sacrifice!”
I was starting to view my colleague in a new hideous way. Before he had seen him only as an eccentric old fool who hung on too long to his maiden theories despite overwhelming evidence against them ( the downfall of many a scientist). But now, men had died to prove him right. To him, their lives meant nothing, all that mattered was success, all he cared about was having his moment of victory. The relics scattered before them were not even solid proof of Hendriksons theories, most learned men still held him as mad. But to Hendrikson, these fragments of the unknown where irrefutable proof that he had been right all those years.
Feet shuffled around on the stage behind thick velvet curtains. A sharp cough drew the attention of the crowd and a voice announced that the speech would begin in five minutes.
I glanced back round to find Hendrikson gone, melting back into the crowds. The cryptographer’s guild always managed to gather quite a number to it’s annual reviews but this special announcement midyear had drawn in twice the usual numbers. Images of the objects brought back from their latest venture only sought to heighten the interest around the event. I glanced down at the figure before me, stood on a simple white marble pedestal and encased in a thick glass box. It depicted a man, of sorts, many handed and in each outstretched palm an eye bulged outward. Instead of hair, long slender fingers grew out of his head, reaching down over where one would expect eyes and covering the face – deep scars marking where the nails dug deep. A chill ran through me and I turned away instinctively. Around me, everyone was making their way to their seats. Forgetting the statue, I did the same walking down to my reservation in the third row.
The raucous around me soon died down to a gentle muttering and when the lights turned down that too died leaving only the silence of anticipation in its stead. Lights flashed on illuminating the centre of the stage; the curtains opened to reveal a small thin woman adorned in a long leather trench-coat a few sizes too big for her, and a long cashmere scarf draped loosely around her neck dangling almost to her knees. So this was the legendary explorer Jaina Woolsey… She didn’t seem much compared to the stories I’d heard about her. Then again it was unwise to judge those in our field based on looks alone as if they were some athlete or model.

“We of the cryptographer’s guild welcome you all tonight; and are gracious in the attention you have shown us after this latest voyage into the oceans of the unknown. As many of you will be aware, this January I along with nine other members of the guild set off on two sailing vessels into the area known as the Bermuda Triangle so as to ascertain the rumours of the so-called “Giddeon Gateways”…”

From across the room I could hear Hendrikson curse at that; that Henry Giddeon had been given credit for the discovery of the spacetime faultlines and not him must have driven him to unimaginable anger.

“Only six of us returned alive. And the second vessel, St Lucia’s Lament was lost to the sea.”

Gasps went up from the crowd; the loss of life on the voyage was made public knowledge some days ago, but scholarly folk have a habit of hiding their heads under mountains of books.

“But the mission itself was not a loss! Look around you and see the successes of our voyage. These objects all brought back from the other side. Beyond the veil, a new land lay in wait and from there we have returned. While we have succeeded in crossing the gateway; we did not have the right equipment or knowledge with us to make the best use of our first journey. So we are proposing a return this September to the gate, if it still remains intact, and hope that some of you, with the appropriate knowledge and understanding, may join us in this venture and help us understand this new horizon.”

Cheers and yelps came from the crowd, It was unusual to see such animation from these men. I chanced a glance over at Hendrikson only to see a grim glare of determined focus on his face. I was certain he wished to be aboard that next vessel. Soon after Jaina announced the artifacts retrieved on their first voyage would be mostly auctioned off to finance the next trip. Shocked gasps could be heard from the audience, who considered selling important historic items to private collectors to be a greater sin than murder. But Jaina quickly silenced them with promises that what had been brought back were nothing more than cheap trinkets that the next, well-funded voyage would be able to retrieve in the thousands. I made my way back out through the lobby when the speech had concluded, mulling over what she had said. From the crowds, I manoeuvred through I could hear a mix of commentary ranging from scepticism to careful optimism. It seems Hendrikson was the only one in attendance with 100% certainty of the validity of the finds and their origins.

I scanned the sea of faces trying to make out my colleague, but to no avail; instead, I caught the eye of a group of white-suited men discussing passionately in the far corner; guild cryptographers, I recognised their matching outfits. It took a while to jostle over to the group, not knowing whether they would welcome my interruption I stepped in announcing my presence with a warm smile and a quick compliment:
“ An excellent presentation tonight gentlemen, truly the guild has outdone itself this time!”
The eyes of the group all turned to me. None of the men wore friendly faces, although I doubt many in the guild were accustomed to the formalities of social events. The yearly presentation was usually the only major social of the year for the guild members; this year having two such events was a sure oddity.
“Fred was it?” an elderly man with a long white flowing beard and wild untamed eyebrows spoke out first.

“Yes, yes; that was it; well I’m sure there will be plenty of work for even the social sciences once we Head into the inner rings; assuming, of course, the creators of these relics are still alive enough for you to study” He scoffed, letting out a deep chuckle clearly amused by his own voice. I was used to men like these belittling my chosen field. Those in the natural sciences always thought poorly of the study of humanity and the human condition. But yet if they were to have any hope of successfully navigating these new lands they would need people like me; those that could reach inside the minds of complete strangers and form connections.

“Maybe if you hadn’t been so desperate to keep the gateways a secret and brought some of my colleagues your first voyage wouldn’t have ended so abruptly in such needless violence.” I had had enough of the bickering old fools, although dropping that fragment of knowledge was perhaps unwise. Not many outside the guild knew how exactly the men had been lost on the first voyage nor how the second vessel, The Anaximander had sunk. It was not, despite what the guild would tell you, due to stormy weather. The rumours that had reached my office door were that they had met with conflict with the local population whom they sought to study like some newly discovered species. The rumours were rather vague on the information of how the events unfolded but it seems they were chased off the land and The Anaximander sunk at sea by hostile vessels. Typical of the cartographers to charge headlong into a land governed by a culture they know nothing of acting like they already own the place, I thought. It reminded me of their previous voyages to regions of Africa and Southern Americas. Many of the guilds former members had lost their lives at the ends of crude spears, rocks and arrows from disturbed tribes. Their response to these deaths were always the same, send back a larger group with armed guards and establish a base of operations by force if necessary. I glanced down at the old brass watch on my wrist, 8:58pm, the evening’s events had made it seem so much later. I knew of course that I would get little sleep tonight, my many armed friend would make sure of that, but despite that, I thought it best to make way home before I was drawn into any more dull conversations.

Stepping out onto the street a fell wind hit me, sending my scarf whipping around my face, blinding me temporarily. A chill ran through me and the cast-iron street lamp above flickered in response. Albemarle Street was unusually quiet for this time of evening. Most of the guests of the lecture were still inside gossiping over wine and aperitifs and the few that had left alongside me were hurrying into cars or taxis desperate to get out the cold night air. My apartment was only a few streets away and despite my body giving a staunch argument, I determined I would walk back. In the far off distance, I could hear the gentle chatter of crowds rising out of Berkeley square. My mind drifted back to the grasping fingers and eyes bulging out of palms; It had reminded me at first of Kali the Hindu goddess, or perhaps one of the Japanese spirits known as the Tenome. But something about the craftsmanship of the figure had made it seem altogether alien. While it had aspects that reminded me of the cultures I had studied in the known world it was noticeable immediately that it was not from any place here on our earth. As I turned the corner onto Grosvenor street the faint echo of tobacco smoke clung to the air for a brief moment.

The stillness of the night was shattered as I walked onward; raucous laughter and shouting poured out of the Three Tuns Tavern and taxis made their way back and forth down the road with crowds of inebriated revellers dotting the sidewalk. I quickly turned off that busy thoroughfare seeking to return to the quiet of my thoughts. The alley I took cut through to my road down the backs of restaurants, the hot steam and tempting smell emanating out from the kitchen doors that lined the alley. It was unnaturally dark, having no street light for illumination and only the passing lights of taxi carriages giving momentary sight. Ahead I saw what I thought to be a tramp, curled up beside a bin; I pondered whether to go on, or return to Grosvenor street and find a longer more well-lit path home. Tiredness and eager longing for a warm fire pushed the notion from my head. I paced gently past the man hoping not to wake him and have to apologise and tolerate his stench any longer than necessary. It was only as I was almost within touching distance that I made out the face and shock horror was upon me.

“Hendrikson!” I quite forgot about any attempt to be silent, instead drawn in by the confusing and coincidental situation I had found myself in.
Lying crooked curled up next to the bins, jacket covered in dirt off the street floor, and wild eyes locked in a startled panic with mine: Dr Hendrikson.
I had seen him less than an hour ago at the institute, what terrible circumstance had led him here? I grasped the man by his lapels and attempted to raise him from his paroxysm of mad panic – or at the very least off the grime of London’s streets.
“Get a grip man! Good Lord, what in seven hells happened to you?” I still could not fathom how the man had had the time to make his way here and end up in such a state for me to find.

“ A thousand eyes…
…Beating wings…
…Crimson skies…
…Cuts and stings…”

Each line of his mystifying sonnet came out louder with the last practically shouted into my face. I came to the conclusion – the only one my simple humanly innocent mind would allow – that the man had left shortly after the speech and having spent a short stint in one of the nearby public houses: had gotten steaming drunk! Hauling his weight onto my left shoulder we limped on together towards my apartment. He would have to stay at mine the night, I concluded, there was no good come from leaving him out here in the freezing winter air. My pace was slowed considerably carrying his bulk, made the more so grievous by his lack of effort in making movement of his own – other than the occasional panicked spasm. Luckily he had been only a few hundred yards from my front door in neighboring Grosvenor Mewse. I made no attempt to drag him up my steps at first, instead of dumping him at the first step while I made to open my front door. Once I had the door propped open with a hat stand I carefully dragged him inside and deposited his mass upon the first chair I came to. Exhausted, I took the one next to him and without meaning to, found myself drifting off into a deep but troubled sleep…

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