(!) Read Chapter 1 here.
Ten years later …
‘Your hands are floating along the keys, Josephine. You don’t have enough precision.’
Josephine was now a young woman of only 17, sitting up straight onto a dark mahogany stool. She was wearing a white linen, frilly dress, which swooped all the way down to her knees. She immediately corrected her technique, intently studying the music sheet. Mrs. Sylvia Prackson was reclined in a green velvet armchair, with her legs crossed and tapping the timing with her right foot.
The large grandfather clock on the other side of the broad living room struck 9 am. Rays of sunlight splashed round spots of red, green and yellow through the stained glass windows. Only one set of windows was transparent and they also served the purpose of a set of doors towards a rose garden.
Mrs. Prackson raised from her armchair and with rhythmic footsteps, matching the grandfather clock’s ticking sound, walked towards the garden windows. She lifted a long, wrinkled, white hand to pull a small rope, residing next to the windows. They opened smoothly with a slight clicking sound every 5 degrees.
Josephine, who had been playing solemnly until that very moment, suddenly stopped. She turned to see the tall, slim figure of her music teacher, soaked in sunlight. Mrs. Prackson was facing the garden with her left hand on her hip and her right arm folded against the rim of the door. Josephine admired her bright blue silk dress, shining in the sunlight as she half turned and said, ‘I didn’t say stop. You still have 4 bars left.’
As she said that, Sylvia stepped into the garden, grabbing a pair of metallic scissors from a little toolbox hung on the outside wall. Josephine finished playing the piece and then quickly turned again to see Mrs. Prackson returning with a small red rose. ‘Perfection!’ she exclaimed. ‘Behold a creature that knows nothing of praise, but still manages to attain the measurements of the golden mean.’
Mrs. Prackson walked to a round mahogany table, with stained glass motifs encrusted in its top. She gently placed the rose in a thin, clear glass vase, with a spherical bottom. Her long fingers brushed over the bright petals as she dropped a round pebble of salts in the vase. She watched as it dissolved with a light hiss in clouds of grey fumes. In a matter of seconds, the water was still again and Sylvia turned towards Josephine.
‘You must return by the time this rose withers, or else your talents too, shall wither. I have cut this rose from its source to show you how important it is to stay connected to a moving system of parts that work together. No more absences!’ she ended.
The living room door suddenly opened with the same clicking noise as the garden doors. Sylvia’s right arm was stretched towards it at a perfect 90 degree angle. Her chin was raised and fixed, while her brilliant green eyes were following Josephine out of the room. ‘Thank you Mrs. Prackson!’ she whispered mechanically as the front doors in the hall adjacent to the living room also opened.
She curtsied and walked away in a rhythmic fashion, slightly out of sync with the grandfather clock. ‘Same time next week then’, she uttered as the front doors were closing in front of her.
Josephine turned around to see Blossom Square in a frantic, but also organized state. School children were running around with large leather backpacks, with more books than their little bodies could handle. Their mothers and, occasionally fathers, would follow them with measured steps and composed features, without the slightest glimpse of remorse or surprize.
‘Good day miss Arundel, may I say that your complexion is most exquisite today!’, said a young man of impeccable posture as he beamed confidently towards Josephine.
‘Charming as always, my good Mr. Tickson’, she replied diplomatically. ‘I hope that my spirit will follow through with my flawless outward appearance.’
‘Do call me Richard, I believe our acquaintance has exceeded the allowed time for pointless formalities. See you in class!’ he concluded with a sharp nod and went on his way with an energetic trot, that reminded Josephine of the metronome on top of Mrs. Prackson’s piano.
The cherry tree, in the middle of the square she now stood in, shone of sap green and golden hues, as autumn was starting its long reign. A small group of children was forming a circle around it, while a tall, elegant lady was measuring the radius, with the help of a foldable ruler.
‘Not much progress since last year,’ she uttered briskly. Her name was Monica Mathews and was the local school’s most acclaimed geometry teacher. Monica followed Josephine’s weary walk for a while and sighed to herself. ‘The angular velocity is disproportionate to the global displacement field,’ she said to herself and then turned 180 degrees on her toes. ‘What else do we need to measure today, children?’
A little girl, dressed in a checkered uniform, thrust her arm up in the air. ‘Yes Caroline!’ ‘We need to count the number of trees along the Cosine river, to ensure enough support is provided for the river bank.’
‘Very well done Caroline! You’ve been reading ahead. Indeed children, everything must be counted, measured and analyzed. If we have the data, we have control over our lives.’ The children nodded and followed lady Mathews in what looked like a miniature army march. Their backpacks were bobbing up and down, in an attempt to balance the weight of the many books inside.
Josephine was walking slowly towards the school, which resided in the east part of town. Her gaze lifted from the ground where she had been projecting her thoughts, to see the school entrance sign: “Arundel School of Sciences.” and the motto “A man without knowledge is like a tree without roots.” The school bore her family name as Josephine’s ancestry was one of great mathematicians, physicists and chemists.
The first half of a normal school day consisted of theoretical lectures, while the second half was dedicated to practical experimentation. Josephine’s feet turned towards lecture hall 301, where her father, Frederick Arundel, was waiting for his students. His field of study was Sensory Physics, the physics of the five senses. Optical Acoustics was his speciality and where he spent most of his life researching and publishing for national journals of Applied Science.
‘Welcome Josephine! I see you decided to join us today. The forest did not tempt you to study its path distribution?’
‘Father, you don’t always have to be so formal,’ Josephine replied with a hard sigh, as she took her seat, at desk 14A, in the middle of the class.
Every number had an exact purpose in Arundel school, even in the classroom. The door number represented the advanced year and month the students were in. The seat number represented the current level of knowledge attained by the student. There were 10 years of study in the Arundel School: 4 for basic sciences, 3 for intermediate and 3 for advanced sciences.
Everyone was seated in respectful expectation. Professor Frederick was a very clear and confident speaker and knew all the most recent discoveries in his field. ‘A breakthrough has been made this week,’ he began, ‘Professor Gabriel Armitage from the Institute of Renewable energy in Brookcastle has created a perpetuum mobile.’
The class applauded in sync, creating a light echo around the classroom. ‘Since Valleycross is 30 miles away from Brookcastle, we are expecting to view a demonstration in the following month,’ he concluded with a slight sign of enthusiasm.
Frederick then turned on the spot and lifted a black board with acute precision. ‘Today we’ll be discussing how we can preserve and chanel the sounds we produce so that they can travel longer distances.’ His eyebrows broke into a realization and spoke more to himself than to his class. ‘With professor Armitage’s recent discovery, we will be able to apply the perpetuum mobile principles to sound propagation. Telephones will no longer be needed to communicate long distances.’
The alarm went off. Dark, grey clouds were cramming over the little village of Valleycross with urgency. The alarm sound was a combination of a thunder and a sharp ping sound that becomes irritating to one’s ear after a long period of time. Everyone rose without a word, almost like someone had shot them out of their seats at the same moment.
‘A storm is coming. The weather forecast was inaccurate today. I’ll have a word with the meteorology department as soon as possible. For now, please take your student cards and proceed to the emergency bunker on level -3 and wait there for instructions.’ Everyone turned 180 degrees, except Margaret Button, a plump, red haired girl with rosy cheeks and teary eyes. ‘I can’t find my student card’, she pleaded, visibly worried.
Frederick clenched his teeth slightly, but answered calmly. ‘You won’t find it in a rush. Head down with the others and we’ll see what we can do.’ He stomped his right foot twice to grab Margaret’s attention, who was still rummaging in her bag. She saw his left arm lift at a 90 degree angle towards the door, with a subdued, encouraging smile. Margaret wiped her tears quickly and jogged out of the room to join the others.
The bunker was a set of three underground floors, made of a corrosion free metal alloy. Each level was made for each of the school’s expertise levels, basic, intermediate and advanced. Students would travel between the different levels by using the large square lift in the middle of the school. It could carry up to 50 people and was powered by four furious pistons on each level. The lift walls were made of brass, with a door on each side. The school’s emblem, of a sparrow flying along the golden spiral, was encrusted in the door which faced the main entrance on the ground floor.
Floor three filled up the lift and waited patiently for it to descend. As soon as they got to level -3, the doors opened like a swift cut of the knife in all four directions. Students divided with staggering precision into four groups of equal number. Each group chose the closest exit from the lift and walked towards the empty, dark space in front of them.
On each side of the room a row of cone lamps was illuminating a set of red wooden doors. Each door had a student name on it, engraved in a sliding brass plates. The lift had left the students staring at the doors in expectation. As it raised its body of brass, it revealed a giant round clock in the floor. The ticking movement pulsed from under a thick layer of transparent glass.
Josephine knew it would only take five minutes before the professors in charge of level 3 would descend. Their doors were light grey, with golden plates. There were two of these doors on each side of the room, one on the far left and one on the far right of the wall.
Time passed slowly and in the stillness of the room Josephine could only hear Margaret’s light sobs. She went to her, trying to avoid the harsh stares of her colleagues.
‘Why are you so distressed, Margaret?’ she whispered when close enough.
Margaret jumped an inch and also whispered. ‘I cannot get in my room, I don’t have my student card.’ She then suddenly turned to face Josephine, who had crept up behind her. ‘I know what happens to students who cannot access their bunker room. They send them out into the storm and make them run to the collection centre, at the Northern Laboratory.’
‘What’s so bad about a storm?’ Josephine laughed rather loudly.
‘Shush!’ snapped a voice next to her. ‘Josephine, you act as if you don’t know it’s a collection day today.’ This was the voice of Albert Prackson, her piano teacher’s son. He had his mother’s figure and his father’s grave voice. He was fascinated by forms of energy, which might explain his eternally frizzy hair and bright emerald eyes.
Josephine gave him a nudge and smiled. ‘Thanks for the reminder, I’m completely lost these days. It’s just strange that they have collections so often now.’
‘They want to harness the lightning power while the atmosphere is still warm from the lingering heat of the past summer.’
‘You talk poetry, Albert,’ she laughed.
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ he grunted and resumed to keep silent, with his hands tied together in front of him.
‘Here, have my card Margaret.’
Josephine put her student card in Margaret’s front pocket. ‘What are you doing?’ she gasped. ‘Do you want to be burnt by their experimental lightning procedures?
‘That is quite a mouthful,’ she said while eying the clock. ‘Don’t touch the top shelf collection while you’re in there, mind you! Well, see you later.’
‘But what if…’
‘We get caught? You can tell them it was my idea.’
Josephine ran to the middle of the room, where the clock ticked gently. Four metal ropes surrounded it and were now vibrating slightly. Besides each rope there was a round floor button, made of green marble. ‘I’m hope I’m not too late,’ she sighed, while stepping on one of the buttons. The brass lift came promptly down and Josephine stepped in, under the confused gazes of the half turned students in the room.
Rain was pouring down with strength. Rolling thunder accompanied blinding light over the village houses. Josephine was running across Blossom square with a look of victory on her face. She stopped for a moment under the cherry tree, listening. A subtle buzzing noise could be heard amongst the heavy drops. ‘They’re warming up the collectors,’ she thought and leapt forward with a jolt.
Her feet took her south, towards the forest. This was as far away from danger as she could fathom. Electricity was usually collected at a large condenser in the Northern Laboratory. The road was empty, but for the trickles of water, making their way through the cobblestones. Josephine was already drenched in the cold late summer rain. She hurried her steps with confidence, however, as she knew of a place where she could find shelter.
As Josephine approached Cosine river, lighting broke the dark clouds. She stopped. A light whisper, like a bird’s song, came swiftly through the trees. Lighting broke again. The rim of an ominous mountain revealed itself in the sharp blaze for a moment. Its dark blue crests sprung from the heart of the forest like a swollen wave, from the depths of the sea. Josephine listened very carefully. The song had stopped, but she could now hear a murmur. ‘It must be the wind through the leaves,’ she thought.
She crossed the stone bridge into the forest and was soon surrounded by tall pine trees and stout oaks. After a few minutes of walking briskly along the marked path, Josephine broke off to the right. She had a particular tree in mind, an old oak, with a girth the size of a small hut. As soon as she reached it, the murmur of the forest grew into an eerie echo. The sound of drums followed. Thunder bellowed and with it a myriad of sounds emerged from the heart of the mountain standing now in front of her. Josephine looked up with wonder and fear. In the mist of the downpour she could only see the sharp, desolate crests of the mountain against the velvet sky.
A loud echo resounded through the trees, followed by light, enchanting human voices. Lighting struck the oak tree which had been her momentary protector from the rain. One of its branches fell on Josephine. As she closed her eyes under the shock of the blow, Josephine could make out the figures of men on the crests of the mountain.
‘Josephine, wake up!’
Frederick was gently shaking his daughter out of what had seemed like an eerie dream.
‘The little people on the rocks,’ she murmured.
Frederick started to pace along the hospital bed. His footsteps created a rhythmic pattern, contrasting with the now soft rain outside. He turned to face the window.
‘You can’t just leave the school during a collection Josephine,’ he started gravely. ‘I’m very disappointed in you.’
Josephine tried sitting upright slowly, but an aching lower back pain held her in place. ‘There was hardly any danger of a shock, father. I’m surprised that the physics department aren’t having a field trip during a lighting storm.’
‘There have been meetings on the topic and we can’t take the risk, however small,’ he muttered mechanically. Frederick looked at his shoes and for the first time in what seemed like a decade broke into a deep sigh. ‘Don’t get up!’ he urged as Josephine lifted her head in wonder.
‘Your mother died in a lighting storm,’ he finally managed to utter. ‘You were very young, and probably have little recollection of it or of her, for that matter.’
She could hear his words fading, as if under a heavy burden.
‘I remember her singing.’
Frederick’s eyebrows broke into a frown for a split second.
‘I’ve never heard singing since then. Well, not by a human voice, at least, and birds seldom come in these parts.’
‘She called it a science experiment,’ he smiled bitterly. ‘Her hypothesis was that music made by the human body had the quality of accessing deeper information than what the mind can provide. She even went as far as to proclaim the existence of a soul, which caused quite a commotion amongst the science committee members. Song taps into the heart, my Sarra used to say.’
‘Is it so very wrong?’ Josephine stammered as if wanting to sieve her words as they came rushing out of her. ‘To have a soul, I mean. Surely by now science has proven that not everything can be proven.’
Her cheeks burnt with curiosity and bashful sincerity. Frederick paced once more and then stopped to look at his daughter.
‘It is true that much knowledge is lacking from our minds. Inventions and theories have been swallowed by time, ignorance and violence. I am sure science would have held a much higher rank, were it not for four world wars and two civil wars. Much truth has been lost in fires or stolen by individuals of little consequence for intellectual growth.’
‘Are you saying that we haven’t had the time to prove everything,’ she uttered resentfully.
‘Nor ever will we have the time to prove everything,’ he concluded with an academic demeanour. ‘Josephine, you must understand that rational, logical thinking, detached from any form of passion or emotional impulse is the only certain path that can sustain human life on this earth. If one gives in to whims and fancies one is undoubtedly on a road of being bound to irrational, sometimes dangerous pursuits.’
‘Father, you are implying that mother’s theory was a mere whim.’
‘In some sense, it was,’ he resolved. ‘And you are not to follow in her footsteps. Continue with your studies and build your theory of the world on solid solid ground, not on grains of sand. I’ll let you rest now. I’ll be back tomorrow to bring you home.’
‘I miss her,’ she said, tears running down her rosy cheeks.
Frederick was on the doorstep, with his back towards the girl. ‘Cry now, but I wish to see you refreshed by tomorrow.’ He then stepped out, with the door closing behind him with a ticking noise.