The Madman and the Blue Box

Chapter One

‘History!’

Professora Donya Traufmann paused, allowing the echo of that single word to caress the ears of the students before her, her mane of silvery hair glimmering in refracted light from the shattered sky above her. 

River Wylde, her assistant and TA for this particular class, looked on with a small smile. He’d heard this particular lecture many times before and it never got old. 

Professora Traufmann would not allow it to get old.

‘Each of you are here out of a deep regard—nay! A passion for history. To know what has come before. To understand why it moves us, even here in the present. To plumb the mysteries and draw back the veil to glance at the forbidden beauty hidden by the shadows of time.’

The professora stood behind her podium, glittering nails clutching the lectern as if holding on for dear life. As if the passion that rolled off her in waves was in danger of casting her up into the kaleidoscope sky she had oh-so-deliberately chosen as a backdrop for this inaugural lecture.

She and River stood—and the assembled dozen or so students sat—on top of Penumbral University’s observation tower, a vast spiral of stone carefully stitched together from the shattered remnants of dozens of worlds. The weight of that history buoyed them all, professora and students.

‘Behold!’ Professora Traufmann swept her right arm out, the gauzy material of her academic regalia fluttering with the force of the motion, ‘The City of Twixt. Our home. The last refuge of those whose worlds are long since dead. Each stone and street a piece of one of those vanished lands, broken by time or terror or travesty. Each boudoir and boulevard that persists, bound to one another in a mosaic of living history. We eat and sleep and breathe within a living artefact, a testament to untold deeps of history. What a gift to exist within such a place! What a treasure! What an opportunity! Here, even here, beyond the end of time, there are untold deeps of history within which to immerse ourselves.’

River looked out over the city. It really was a fantastic view. One of the two most compelling things which could be seen at this exact moment (the other being, of course, Professora Traufmann). A metropolis of broken dreams, River spotted cracked and leaning towers of glass, spires of twisted metal pitted with long exposure to deep space, and massive trees and vines drooping for lack of their native sun. Above each was a shard of sky, drawn through to this place with the blasted bit of fundament that washed up on the shores of the city, joining with the flotsam and jetsam of a thousand other shattered worlds to create a single, uneasy whole: the City. 

‘You,’ Professora Traufmann called upon a cyborg sitting in the front row, ‘what of your world remains out there in the city?’

‘18 percent of an orbital space station remains,’ he said after a moment. His head cocked jerkily to one side and the grey of his skin went two shades paler. ‘You can see a glint of it there near the very edge of the city, hanging in that chunk of sable sky. Though there should be two cerulean stars shining above it, from this angle. There were, before the end.’ His three eyes glimmered with unshed tears, triplicate pools of ink. 

Fahks, that was his name. New to the City, then. The newer bits always washed up on the edges, before slowly being incorporated into the city proper, assuming a position nearer to the centre of things. It wasn’t terribly surprising. Most of Professora Traufmann’s students were new. 

‘It lives on in you,’ she said, voice softer though no less penetrating. ‘You are here to tell those stories. We are here to hear them. To bear witness! You!”

She whirled on another student, a statuesque figure with long green hair and bark-brown eyes. 

‘What piece of our fine City exists within your care?’

River noticed how the cyborg relaxed, slightly, relieved to have the attention off of his moment of emotion. The professora often did that, pushing her students to the edges of their comfort zone, but not so hard they tumbled over the precipice into the unknown. 

‘House Ghyleduv? Marvellous!’

River’s attention was drawn back to Professora Traufmann. Only his long experience with her and her teaching style allowed his mind to wander as much as it did. Donya was quite jealous of the attention due her when she was teaching a class. 

‘No, no! Let me see,’ the professora was tapping a scarlet nail against her right cheekbone and staring out across the City, ‘let me find it. Ah! There.’

That selfsame nail pointed imperiously to a snatch of verdigris sky just past the midway point to what served as the City’s centre. The broken-off tip of a swirling wooden spire was all that could be seen against it from this angle. 

The professora asked questions and the students answered, small histories and large trotted out under her watchful eye, each one seized with the enthusiasm of a golden retriever for a particularly wonderful and unexpected stick. Each one woven like a thread into the overall tapestry of the lecture. 

River picked out each piece of the city that was mentioned, running it through his customary mnemonics to situate it in his mind. He had a theory that the colour of each fragment of sky meant something in terms of the overall organisation of the city, but had yet to figure out what. It was clear that there was some method to the chromatic madness, however. Near the centre of the City the skies sorted themselves into a smooth gradient, a wheel of colour. Closer to the edges the colours were all jumbled together, like puzzle pieces in a box of unsorted mosaic fragments, each one separated by a thin, curiously colourless line.

That lack of colour was a reflection of the Abyss in which the impossible city hung suspended. Or perhaps the cracks in reality through which nothingness seeped. Just one among a host of mysteries that threaded through the City.

River filed it away, a question for another day, as he heard the professora’s voice rise in cadence once again. 

‘But it is not enough to simply remember these things! Not enough to simply go through one’s life merely existing! No! Not enough at all.’ Professora Traufmann flicked her fingers as if dismissing the thought from existence entirely. 

‘Why is that, professora?’ River called from his position at the back of the class, knowing a cue when he saw one. 

‘History is crafted! Why else would it be called “making history”? Do we not owe it to our descendants to live the best lives we possibly can? To create the most absorbing, most sensational history that can be made? Of course we do!’

Professora Traufmann thrust one hand up in emphasis. She held it there for a long moment, eyes glinting in the light of a dozen broken skies, before drawing it slowly down to her side as she raised her chin defiantly.

‘And we have a particular obligation to history, we who were so often mocked, despised, even reviled in our own worlds. We whose history has been denied to us, rewritten by the lowest common denominators of our cultures. We who saw our lovers recast as friends, saw our identities dismissed as eccentricities, saw our stories rewritten. And all that when we were not simply erased.

Silence hung suspended over the top of that tower, the students assembled hardly daring to breathe in the face of the Professora’s fervour. 

‘So tell me then, each of you. What wonders, new or old, have you heard of as you walk the City’s streets? What opportunities might be there, waiting, to be made into history? Come! Don’t be shy! Tell your professora.’

Crickets. Were this a field on River’s homeworld you could have heard crickets. No one wanted to be the first to speak. 

That would change by the time the course was over. Professora Traufmann would see to that. 

‘Babs is tracking up to three possible incoming worldmotes at The Gap-Toothed Grin,’ River said, naming a rather infamous pub near the edge of the City.

‘I heard a jabberwock came in on the last worldmote,’ the student with green hair blurted out after that.

The floodgates were loosed. Students began talking over one another, all sharing the bits of gossip they’d collected. It was impossible not to. Too many new things happened every day, and the City thrived on word-of-mouth.

‘I saw a pair of elves with their eyes stitched shut running along Wispteria Lane. They had Edgerunners after them.’

‘Last night I was at House Ce’Netermann’s ball and one of the queans who walked had the most amazing stone floating about her head, like her own miniature asteroid! No one knows where she got it, so it has to be new, from something washed up recently.’

‘I have se—heard of a madman with a great blue box,’ the Fahks said, his grey skin flushing mauve as Professora Traufmann turned her full attention to him.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘oh yes indeed. I have heard of this one as well, just this morning at breakfast. A blue box that can bridge time and space itself. Curious.’

‘We have—had—legends of such things in my world,’ River said, an uncharacteristic interruption. Usually he preferred to let Donya run her own show. He had enough work to do without getting drawn into her pedagogical passion plays. ‘A blue box that could move among the stars, captained by a man—possibly a god—both wonderful and terrible.’

His pronouncement had an immediate effect on the class. A frisson of excitement shot across the top of the tower. River blinked. What was that? He wasn’t so much an authority figure that his words should provoke that much of a reaction.

Something about this blue box must have people really excited. Even for a city that regularly saw wonders wash up on its shores this was an unusual amount of interest. He’d have to follow up in the pub and see what rumours were already circulating. 

‘Silence!’ The professora raised her hands, flicking them out in a cutting gesture. ‘That is all we have time for this week. Now, as to your homework, I want each of you to meditate for me upon the past, the present, and the future. Bring to me an account of your world, something from your past to consign to the archives and increase our store of knowledge. Spend at least one moment per cycle attempting to immerse yourself fully in the present, thinking only of what is happening to you in each, precise second. And find an opportunity, howsoever small, to make your own mark on history! I expect to hear your stories next week!’

The class erupted into a post-lecture buzz as the students variously reacted to their assignments. The professora lorded over the scene from behind her lectern for a moment before speaking again, shooing at the assembled with her hands.

‘Go out and make history, my darlings.’ The professora grinned wickedly at them before catching River’s eye with a knowing wink.

Can someone’s stomach flutter with excitement and sink with dread at the same time?

‘Because I assure you,’ Donya continued, ‘that is precisely what I shall be doing!’