My name is Vantu. I am a composite man, a cyborg from a family of ignorant tradesmen toiling for bread in Region Three, where the tortured ground took less radiation and disease than other places during the Thousand Years’ Horror but still struggles to produce useful crops. I am the only man in my family to complete my local schooling and go on to university. I wish to be a scholar rather than a barrel wright.
When I started at the University of Dreams and Knowledge I was a dull, timid child of a man. On the first day of my sophomore year a light broke within me, revealing another kind of man. Here is what happened.
Quietly we followed the straight black path between the great shadowed blocks of the University of Dreams and Knowledge, the little whirs of our prosthetic limbs echoing, small as pebbles rolling through a mighty, foreboding canyon. My roommate Kranji walked directly ahead of me in the required formation but as we approached the intersection at Omicron Hall an upperclassman turned onto the path ahead. Kranji dropped back to walk abreast of me, forming the requisite equilateral triangle with the superior student in his yellow tunic at the forward apex, leading we two sophomores clad in green. Thus we made our way, averting all mysterious catastrophes by counting the passing people and objects in multiples of three until a fourth pedestrian compelled the formation of a square. Our silent counting continued in multiples of four.
Kranji has been my roommate since I started here at UDAK last year. He comes from a small mining town to the west, somewhere out in Region Five. Such places generally produce only miners and farmers but this particular town seems to be disproportionately represented here. Their school must be superb.
Kranji is an unparalleled scholar and a natural mentor. He is a good friend.
We arrived at the lecture hall precisely at our appointed time. Like all buildings on campus the hall is a vast stony block with narrow lines of slit windows and a mosaic of orange and aqua tiles adorning the top quarter. The images are nonrepresentational and apparently vary slightly from building to building. Some of the art majors claim they can discern a conceptual narrative in these variations. I cannot. To me they conveyed nothing but an icy alien formlessness and a vague sense of menace. I have seen them in nightmares.
Seating in the hall seems haphazard at first glance. In reality the seats are arranged in complex patterns which include the X, Y and Z axes. It is a test. The student is expected to recognize his proper seat intuitively and indeed this is second nature for most but as I looked over the covertly ordered ranks I noticed one student with an expression of distress. Some fool has misunderstood and taken his seat, leaving him stranded.
Black-robed Professor Hilber did not look up from the notes he had been studying since we entered but said simply, “4, 7, 2; explain yourself.” A look of panic crossed the face of the young man in seat 4, 7, 2. Before all eyes he rose and exchanged seats with his stranded classmate. The professor did not pursue his demand for an explanation. Grace for the first day of class, no doubt.
“Good morning, students,” greeted Professor Hilber, lifting his eyes from the glowing blue notes impressed upon their golden, metallic sheets.
“Good morning, Professor,” we answered as one.
So began the routine common to all classes since before the bloody mayhem of the Thousand Years’ Horror. The syllabus, the lengthy codes for the brain etchers, the rules of verbal engagement, the grading standards and required punishments were all delivered without pause or repetition, uninterrupted by superfluous questions. It was difficult to keep up with the professor’s rapid, flawless delivery but the assurance that my stalwart roommate would help me with it later kept me from succumbing to panic.
The greater part of our class time had elapsed as sunlight, dim and brassy slanted through the narrow window, slicing the room in half. The professor, finished with his mundane instruction moved on to the subject of today’s session.
“Dobrik Snett, stand please,” said Professor Hilber.
The young man who had taken the wrong seat whirred quietly to his feet. Perhaps he had not escaped the professor’s wrath after all.
“Who can tell me the significance of this young man’s actions at the beginning of class?” asked the professor.
“Come, come. You’re all sophomores so you’ve all mastered introductory psychological alignment,” said the professor. “What was the overall effect of Mr. Snett’s mistake?”
“Confusion, sir,” answered a young woman. Her blazing orange hair was a startling contrast to her deep green blouse.
“Confusion, yes,” approved the professor.
“Discomfort?” offered a student sitting behind and above me.
“Certainly,” affirmed Professor Hilber as he whirred quietly to his feet.
“Anger?” said another student.
“Anger, yes!” said the professor. “How many were angry?” Most raised their hands.
“How many were afraid?”
Hands rose slowly as awareness dawned. Kranji’s hand remained on his desk. I noticed his fingers drumming nervously; one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four…
“Why were you afraid?” asked the professor. “A young man takes a wrong seat. So what? It’s not the end of the world.”
“We don’t know that, sir,” said the student behind me. “I mean, that is…”
“You mean you didn’t know it until I said, ‘It’s not the end of the world.’”
“Exactly, sir,” answered the student with evident relief.
“I see your predicament. We’ll talk about ways of knowing and sources of order in a moment but first we must discuss…” The professor turned and wrote on the board behind him. “Disorder. Who can define it?”
“The natural tendency of all objects to repel all other objects,” said a young man at the back of the room.
“Ah, a material philosophy major! Well done,” commended Professor Hilber. “Who else?”
“The natural state of the unregulated human mind,” said another.
“Did all of you spend the summer reading ahead?” said the professor lightly. I think he would have smiled if he was able. “Very good, and much closer to the preferred definition for our purpose. One more.”
“The negation of any ultimate governing principle,” answered another student.
“Good!” said the professor. “Nicely nuanced. Negation implies nullification of that which is in operation, whereas the absence of ultimate governing principles would be…” More writing on the board. The crystalline silence of the classroom was broken only by the soft whirs of the professor’s prosthetic arm.
“Chaos. So, we have Mr. Snett’s actions, the action of one, the reaction of observers or the many and some talk about disorder and chaos. Who would like to put it all together?”
The young woman with orange hair raised her hand. “Mr. Snett’s action was out of order. Where there is the negation of order there is no certainty. The lack of certainty is the subjective correlate to the absence of governing principles, which is chaos. Therefore, Mr. Snett’s action invited chaos and its attendant effects.”
“Indeed,” affirmed the professor. “And how were your fears allayed?”
“Your intervention, sir,” the young woman fairly beamed. “You provided the resolution.”
“And had I not intervened?”
Again the class was silent.
“Come, come,” chided the professor impatiently. “Wrong answers are opportunities for learning but timidity will not be tolerated. Speak up!”
“The many,” offered a young man to my left. “Order would have to be restored by the many.”
“But the many are angry and afraid,” the professor reminded us. “Can fear be a secure basis for order?”
“Is not fear the ground from which courage springs?” offered Kranji.
The professor seemed perplexed. “Can you elaborate? What is the connection between courage and order?”
“Is it not obvious that courage is a prerequisite of leadership?” continued Kranji. “Must not a leader first be courageous?”
“So the many may not produce order,” surmised the professor, “but they may produce a leader who in turn serves as a source of order. Excellent!”
I was not at all surprised that Kranji had thus distinguished himself so quickly. How well I remember the struggles of my first months at the university and my dramatic improvement under his patient and uncompromising tutelage. It is no exaggeration to say that I owed him my academic career. The memorization of facts was no easier for him than for anyone but reasoning, the bridge from fact to concept to comprehensive philosophical construct was as natural to him as breathing.
Yet, despite his facility I knew that he was apprehensive about this class. It was puzzling.
“Now, let us move on to…” More writing. “…ways of knowing and… sources of order. How do we know things?” asked the professor. “How is knowledge arranged to provide the order we need to function and advance?”
“We know things by direct experience,” someone answered.
“Yes we do,” acknowledged the professor. “But ‘knowing things’ isn’t enough, is it? What enables us to organize and make use of knowledge acquired through direct experience?”
“Intuition and subjective response,” replied the same student.
“Exactly,” approved the professor. “So direct experience is a ‘way of knowing’ and our subjective response is a source of order. What else?”
“Why unquestioned?” asked the professor.
“Simple assumptions are open to unspecified examination,” answered the orange-haired young woman. “This places them beyond the jurisdiction of sources of order.”
“Interesting. So what would be the source of order for unquestioned assumptions?” pursued the professor.
“Ah!” approved the professor. “So the many are not so helpless after all! A leader can arise from the many but so can an organic order given the proper conditions. Any others?”
“The declaration of authority, sir,” answered the student behind me. “The source of order is the authority itself.”
“And a reliable source it is,” remarked the professor, obviously quite pleased with the answer. “One more.”
Kranji had raised his right hand. I could see the fingers of his left hand drumming nervously on his thigh under the desk. I wondered why.
“Yes, Mr. Courageous Leader.”
“Directed investigation,” said Kranji.
“Directed investigation. Now that is interesting.” As he said this the professor’s expression changed, as if Kranji’s contribution might be more than interesting. “Could you be more specific?”
The patch of weak sunlight had shifted to the prime quadrant where Kranji sat. “The scientific method,” he said.
“The scientific method,” repeated the professor in a curiously thoughtful tone. ”Indeed.”
Kranji shot me an odd sort of glance as if he stood at the edge of a precipice some distance away. He didn’t look at me again.
“How many are familiar with the scientific method, or, more precisely, scientific methodologies?” asked the professor in an entirely new tone.” “Come now, it would be shocking if you hadn’t heard of it.”
Hands rose slowly.
“Can anyone give us a quick outline of a scientific methodology?” said Professor Hilber, returning to the harsh, mechanical tone he had employed while explaining his rules and expectations. “Mr. Snett, you’re a history major. Can you enlighten us?”
“Well, sir,” began Snett, “It has to do with the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a theory to explain how the phenomena happen and the testing of the theory.”
“How is the theory tested?”
“The theory is used to predict what’ll happen,” said Snett. “If the phenomena occur as the theory says they will the theory becomes… I forget what it’s called but it would be a source of order, sir.”
“Would it now? Is anyone dissatisfied with Mr. Snett’s explanation? No?” He paused, drumming the fingers of his left hand on his desk, one, two, three, four, five, as if considering some radical departure from his planned agenda.
“Tell you what,” he said. “I loathe suspense so let’s do this in one go. Is there anyone in this class who believes the scientific method to be a reliable guide to… truth?” He wrote the word on the board. His writing was large and energetic.
Now I understood my friend, though I must confess I was shocked. Why had he not confided in me? How well had I really known him?
Having already declared himself by bringing up science Kranji raised his hand without hesitation. Dobrik Snett followed boldly, as did two others, albeit with reluctance.
“I see,” said Professor Hilber. “Well then, if you will consult your syllabus you will see that your first paper is due in two weeks. The subject will be the root and rise of the horror genesis philosophy. In addition, our four ‘scientists’ will each write an essay entitled, ‘Why I Have Rejected the Infantile Scientific Method’. Now, to continue our discussion about ways of knowing and… yes, Mr. Snett? What’s the matter, don’t care for your assignment?”
“In fact I don’t, sir,” acknowledged Snett, “but that’s neither here nor there. I’m sure the four of us knew we’d be swimming upstream here at the university but is this sort of treatment really necessary, sir?”
“No, Mr. Snett,” answered Professor Hilber. “It is not. Nothing is necessary; that’s the point.”
“But sir, I thought that…”
“No you didn’t!” said the professor. “You haven’t thought at all! You’re just passing along whatever superstitions and mythology your parents have passed on to you. Perfectly natural but that’s why we have a university. Let’s see, you’re from Eastmine, out in Region Five, aren’t you? Mines and farms! Hardly an intellectual nerve center, don’t you agree? You do understand that the scientific method is not the issue?”
“Then what is the issue, sir?” asked Kranji. How far did he intend to take this?
“The issue, young man is the arrogance of certainty,” said Professor Hilber. “Look, from what we have been able to surmise from the bits surviving the Horror the scientists of the past were just as committed to the fallacy of certainty as the moralists and religionists. It’s no good saying they hedged their bets with probability; there’s no such thing. A thing happens or it doesn’t; there’s no probably about it. Besides, probability was generally applied to the most thoroughly tested hypotheses whereas the really big assumptions were held with the same baseless certainty as religious dogma.”
“Sir,” ventured Kranji, “you acknowledge that the evidence is scant and fragmentary. How can you claim such certainty?”
“You heard your fellow ‘scientist’” said the professor. “The purpose of the scientific method is to predict the future. I think we can all agree the world has had enough of that.”
“But nothing could’ve predicted the Horror,” said Snett. “Nothing could’ve prepared us…”
“Exactly!” declared the professor. “Now you’re getting it. It was all figured out, wasn’t it? Scientists, philosophers, religionists; everybody understood how the world worked. Differences of emphasis, yes but order of some sort was assumed even by those who denied it. It was validated through experimentation, divine revelation, logical reasoning and even subjective response. And it was wrong, all of it!”
Even as he railed against the ancient heresies the echo of loss was unmistakable.
“The Horror took everything that we believed made us human,” lamented the professor as we listened in silence. “No god stepped forth to protect the beings made in its image. There were no scientific principles which enabled us to comprehend what was happening to us, let alone defend ourselves. What man has always suspected but never had the courage to accept smashed through the brittle, decorative walls we’d constructed for ourselves. To paraphrase Job, that which we most greatly feared came upon us.
“Listen carefully!” said the professor with fervor not often found in a university lecture hall. “There is no truth beyond that which we choose to recognize. It’s not hidden, waiting for us to persevere until we find it. It’s just not there. These… these attempted returns to the arrogant posturing of the past are delusional! They can only lead us back to the chaos of the Horror. Are you really so impaired that you can’t understand that?”
“Maybe that’s it, sir,” answered Kranji calmly. His conviction was unshakable. “Maybe I’m not smart enough to give up. The Horror turned man inside out but not nature. When my dad plants wheat, wheat comes up. When the hen lays an egg we never get a goat. The stars don’t drop from the sky. Objects still fall down instead of up or over. Always have, always will…”
“That’s it! Right there, don’t you see it?” said Professor Hilber. “‘Always have.’ Do you really know every event that’s ever occurred? Can you know that a chicken has never hatched a goat? Do you have the knowledge of the mythical One Almighty? As for ‘always will…’ A little presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“No sir,” persisted Kranji. “It is reasonable.”
I cannot lie. I must confess that I too have considered these things despite their taboo nature, or maybe because of it. I knew nothing of wheat or goats but the order of human relationships was inescapable. If I neglected to test the water or read the dosimeters on schedule my father would swear and beat me. A present action ensured a future result regardless of the uncertainty demanded by the horror genesis philosophy.
Nothing prevents the extrapolation of this natural order into every realm of existence but the academics have constructed an ersatz reality upon the contrived order of leadership and submission, closing off every avenue of inquiry. The modes of thinking derided by our professor come naturally to the human mind. It is not at all difficult to conceive of a world founded upon a discernible transcendent order, perhaps presided over by an ultimate source of order. Scientific inquiry is ideally suited to the task of systematic discovery and understanding. Might not philosophical and religious reasoning reveal their answers as well?
Kranji saw this clearly. His response was to fight…
“Ah, reasonable,” continued the professor. “Let’s see if I can characterize reasonableness. Today we observe that A + B = C. Seed plus dirt equals wheat. Being good scientists we observe this equation over a specified period and record our findings. Every time we examine the statement A + B = C we find it to be true. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude that tomorrow A + B will equal C. Is that an acceptable characterization of reasonableness?”
“Limited,” said Kranji cautiously, “but not inaccurate.”
“So in your view reason is just another name for faith?” challenged Professor Hilber.
“I’m not sure I understand,” said Kranji.
“We have many working definitions for faith,” said the professor, addressing the class, “but none surpass the simple elegance, and therefore usefulness, of this verse from the old book. ‘Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.’ The ‘things hoped for’ part is subjective, of course. Who knows or cares what others hope for? But the ‘evidence of things unseen…’ Now that is a gigantic concept, a philosophical monster capable of devouring all who consider it, but like all truly great concepts its applications are limitlessly comprehensible and direct. Can anything be more ‘unseen’ than the future? Can certainty about the unseen future be called anything but faith?”
“This is sophistry,” protested Snett. “The terms of this discussion are undefined. When words can mean anything they mean nothing, sir.”
“Exactly,” I called out. I did not look at Kranji as the light broke and I sprang from the edge of my own precipice. “Mr. Snett is correct, sir. If even the words common to us all are not to be trusted, what are we to do but look to an authority for order and security?”
“Well now,” approved the professor. “That is insightful.”
Every hand was raised as the students, excited by the discussion, sought to make their contributions. But our time was up.
As we rose in our ordered ranks the professor directed us to the assigned reading for the next class. And then, looking directly at me he said, “Take this thought with you. In a world established upon chaos faith and its twin brother reason are the most destructive delusions of all.”
The timid sun had retreated to the safety of clouds as we stepped onto the narrow black path. Habit drove Kranji past me to take his customary place at the head of our line segment but as he passed I grabbed his shoulder and glared hotly. My simple act of betrayal had remade me and he knew it. Without a word Kranji took his new position behind me and we made our silent way, counting in multiples of two until we were joined by a third.
Looking up at the orange and aqua mosaics glowing eerily in the gloom beneath the overcast sky I began to hear the whispers of their devilish incantations. Their ungodly chaos was indeed not of this earth; the nightmares they promised would be bottomless and exhilarating, crushing order, faith and reason beneath the furious stamp of their elemental banshee feet.
No more fearful counting for me. I had found my source of order, the leader whose courage strengthened him to rebel against reality itself. My path would follow the roaring lion, who walked about, seeking whom he may devour.
I was a new man.