The Graduate Student


Introduction

The Graduate Student sat among a nest of wires, piled-up open books, sheaves of print-outs, and stacks of Mead composition books that he had filled with symbolic scrawls and diagrams of waves, rays, and orbs. He should have been working, typing vigorously, producing insightful and didactic discourse about the essence of light and its behaviors. What if you could observe and measure shadow as a physical mass, something that actively filtered light passing through it? Not just measure how much light got blocked by whatever object was causing the shadow, but the light-killing substance of the shadow itself? The Graduate Student spun a small quartz crystal in between his thumb and index finger, pondering how one might experiment on sending light's effects farther in space, if not the light itself...

Walking over to the Brown University Sciences Library, The Graduate Student rubbed his temples, attempting to ease away the headache he felt coming on. All he had wanted to do was login at a public node in the Center for Information Technology, login and check his mail.

Location: CIT 4th Floor

The computers in the public clusters were beginning to really deteriorate. How many hung when you tried to start up? How many had signs about stolen mice, or floppy drives that refused to cooperate? The web-based email client was down frequently, and now he could barely get Eudora to work. At least the library's online catalog was still functioning. He needed to look up that book on the history of light. What was it called? Maybe it would give him a new research angle...

In the Sciences Library, he found call number "Sci QB 981.B724 2000" for the book, The Fire Within the Eye, then headed upstairs to take a look at it.

Location: Sci-Li Carrel 13-20

Tracking down its location in the stacks he did a double take. It was the wrong book. Indignity of indignities, now even the heretofore dependable library database was screwed up. Disgusted, he marched the book to Circulation to complain. The supervisor came over to stop him from harassing the terrified undergrad working the desk and suggested that he see someone in Preservation. Apparently his was not the first instance of this problem. The next hour was wasted, as far as The Graduate Student was concerned, in tracking down the Preservation Department itself, and then listening to an unfulfilling explanation of the error: "It's not just you, we've been having vandals rearranging call numbers all over the place lately. Check the Rock." At least he had gotten a formal apology from the polite, if eccentric, Roderick Williams of the Preservation Department.

Passage

Tonight in his reading and research The Graduate Student stumbled across an interesting parallel. Using a science-specific search engine, he looked up "light + knowledge" instead of "clairvoyance" for a change. It seems that long ago Aristotle declaimed on why far-seeing and prophecy were so interlaced:

"'All men naturally desire knowledge.' We specially value knowledge of things that are important to us, as means to wise action and inner satisfaction. Then Aristotle continues, 'Above all other senses, sight helps us to know things and reveals many distinctions.' Light enables vision and vision enables knowledge and action; it represents creative power. For minds touched by the Bible, the command 'Let there be light' was the beginning of everything."

Closing the book eventually, he chose to leave his desk-lamp on, welcoming its comfort and familiarity.

The Morning Paper

The Fire Within The Eye

The Graduate Student decided to stretch his legs by walking upstairs to the fifth floor balcony of the CIT for a little fresh air. He stepped past two inviting pink sofas in a miniature lounge arrangement and put his foot on the single wooden step leading to the outside door.

Location: The CIT

As his hand closed on the knob of the opening, a flash of light outside made him stop. Last night, a flash, then... blackness closing on his eyes. A blackout. He had been staring dazedly at the book, the false book which had been given the call number of the volume he sought, _The Fire Within the Eye_. Then a flash of light at the window had caused him to turn. He saw blackness, a blackout. A howl of the wind had drowned out all other thoughts in his head, an acrid smell had singed his nostrils, and an octopus-ink welling of dark had covered his eyes. A flash of light. A blackout. How had he forgotten and then just walked down to yell at the circulation employees?

The balcony was a disaster. Yellow danger tape spread out from the doorway, men in the navy uniforms and shining stars of police officers stood around, questioning. A single man was talking to an officer with a notepad, pointing up to the roof of the Sciences Library and frantically producing words, so quickly that the cop made him stop repeatedly in order to keep up. A massive scorch mark, surrounded in white chalk, lay in a corner of the balcony. A flash of light. A photographer straightened from taking photos for evidence. The Graduate Student stared, thought, and remembered a flash of light, an acrid night-scream arcing down, a little man on the balcony below, and engulfing darkness. A blackout.

Giddily, The Graduate Student checked out The Fire Within the Eye to his carrel in the second basement of the Rockefeller Library. Taking the steps two at a time he rushed downward, unable to contain his enthusiasm, nearly overturning an undergraduate with a pile of philosophy books. He reached the little corner desk and threw open the cover.

Location: Rock Carrel B-3

And blanched. He began rapidly scanning the pages, looking for words, for ideas, for information that had not been... destroyed. He could not bear it for too long, the burn marks, shredded pages, knowledge erased, vandalized, sucked dry. Someone was trying to make him ignorant, someone was trying to keep knowledge from him, someone wanted him to fail. He tossed the ruined book in the nearest trash can. He got all the way to the lobby before returning to rescue the item, and place it back on his carrel.

Passage

The Graduate Student found tonight, while sifting for scientific thought among ancient theological and philosophical texts, a summary of the Manichean heresy:

"If God is good, purely good, nothing but good, then he cannot be entirely responsible for us or the world around us; there must be something else, or someone else. For Mani, God is light; this is a fact, not a metaphor, and the place he lives in is also light. Not far away there is darkness also, not merely absence of light but presence of darkness, a focus of evil. It is an opaque material mass, the 'Earth of Darkness,' and Satan lives in the middle of it."

As he finished the passage, the Graduate Student felt a stillness descend upon the chirping crickets, night-sirens, animal chatter of the eve. In its place a clammy fear wrapped itself around him, the material dark of someone else at the window. In the distance, a delicate wailing like demented pipes arose, wind in the dark.

The Morning Paper

A Little History

"Excuse me... what you described with the book? I think I've had something like that happen to me before."

The Graduate Student started, raising his eyes from the text he was browsing to the pretty undergrad who stood before him. The other students had almost all already left. "What do you mean?"

"Well, mutilated books... loss of information... it's... I've heard there's this group that does things like that," she rushed. "A... cult, I guess. I just, you know, you hear weird things."

The Graduate Student reeled, trying to keep up with this, and opened his mouth to reply; but she interrupted, "Here. Take a look at this book. I think you'll understand what I'm talking about." And with that, she had left for the day.

The book lay on his desk; he didn't touch it until he had finished his other work, and even then with hesitation, but at last the pull of curiosity was too strong. It was a historical work concerning the sites and buildings of Old Providence; he found that the chapter on University Hall was particularly earmarked, and perused it with great care.

Location: University Hall

Later that evening, his researches led him in some particularly interesting directions. He began to encounter references to a famous Egyptian seeing crystal! More exciting still, it appeared to be currently in the possession of one Phillip Dexter right in Providence; evidently, the man loaned it to galleries from time to time. The Graduate Student made a mental note: he would have to track this man down and learn more.

Passage

The Graduate Student couldn't sleep. Still tight-wired and excited about the Egyptian Seeing Glass and local owner Phillip Dexter, he managed to read up on the author of the original text about the crystal:

"In about 965 Abu al-Hasan ibn al-Haitham -- in Latin, Alhazen -- was born in Basra, south of Baghdad. Almost nothing is known of his life. There is a story that he disentangled himself from an irksome political appointment in Basra by feigning insanity. One book of Alhazen's, called Kitab al-manazir, or The Book of Optics, is a classic, a masterpiece of observation and deduction. Some time around 1200 it was translated into Latin as De Aspectibus, On Vision, but manuscript copies spread slowly in Europe..."

Reading on, The Graduate Student felt a strange shudder each time he read Alhazen's name. Apparently European monasteries had balked at printing an Arabic book written by a man who feigned insanity frequently, openly discussed the magical properties of crystals, and had died mysteriously in a dark cave outside Basra, the flesh seemingly burned from his bones.

The Morning Paper

A Visit And A Conversation

The Graduate Student was anxious to get a look at this "seeing crystal." He looked up Phillip Dexter, recluse and eccentric, and was told to visit his house on Benevolent Street. Arriving, he was led into a dark, musty chamber where he spoke to the owner of an ancient Egyptian artifact.

Location: Dexter's House

Their conversation began formally, with an inquiry into the nature, specifications, and history of Dexter's prized possession, but quickly escalated into a discussion of light, refraction, knowledge, and clairvoyance. Dexter was remarkably intelligent. He seemed to believe that telescopes worked because they connected the essential light-containing properties of glass and crystal, and more reflected than focused those properties. He explained that the best way to use a crystal ball was to gaze deeper into it, not through it in order to read the seeker. He said that light had a way of story memories, of being knowledge, of blending deeper into itself and its origins, or taking about it journeys through uncharted reaches of space and time. One needed to find those memories and unlock them, and then that explorer could be millions of miles away, seeing the recent locales visited by the swift light-currents.

The conversation might have continued boundlessly, but when the Graduate Student finally asked to view the famed crystal, Dexter's demeanor instantly changed.

"With light and knowledge also come darkness and ignorance. Before anyone can gaze into the Trapezohedron, he must first be sure whether he seeks the light alone, for only then will he be eventually able to look away." And then he dismissed the Graduate Student. As the physicist reached for the doorknob, one last message got to his ears.

"There are those who seek dark, but many others like us seek the light. Be careful to avoid the first group. As for the second: If you truly wish for knowledge about light, talk to The Photographer, she has seen some interesting phenomena you might enjoy. If you want a chance to come back here and request a viewing, I'd like you to meet with Dean Maxwell Jaranti. He can explain some of the responsibilities and risks involved with your field of study."

Contact: The Photographer

Passage

Intrigued by the recluse Phillip Dexter's messages, and thinking further about the intersection of science and art, The Graduate Student looked up Euclid's Optics, "where Proposition 6 states that parallel lines, when seen from a distance, appear not to be equally distant from each other. If you look at his proof in §3.2, you can see that he might have stated it more exactly -- parallel lines extended away from the observer appear to draw together, [...] the idea that is basic to drawing a scene in perspective."

Perhaps he would look up The Photographer after all...

The Morning Paper

Dean On Call

The Graduate Student had never received a personal phone call from a Dean before, let alone one he had never met, one he had only heard mentioned briefly by a genius eccentric.

"Hello?... Dean Jaranti?... Yes, I have heard of you, believe it or not... You know what field of study I'm involved in? Well, actually I think your source -- Dexter? -- said I was... well naturally, I am trying to finish a dissertation on the intersection of light and knowledge, particularly their behaviors over long distances... cosmic, even... I would love to meet with you, shall I arrange -- tonight?.. I honestly don't understand the hurry, especially as Dexter indicated it would require some... oh, I see. Very well, I'll see you in two hours."

As he hung up the phone, the Graduate Student felt slightly less at ease with his world of pure knowledge, unadulterated by good and evil, light and dark. Something about this man of higher education and the pure dread that quivered in his voice set the doctoral candidate on edge. He looked at his clock. They would meet shortly. Then perhaps some of these vague utterances and obscure warnings would make more sense.

The Morning Paper

Conversation

Dean Maxwell Jaranti had the haunted look of a commander perched behind a broken army of defenders, awaiting the imminent approach of a conquering infantry line. What he had to say was far more terrifying than any martial advance:

"You must understand that for as long as people like us -- scholars, thinkers, explorers -- have existed within the world, they have repeated endlessly the nasty habit of probing too far, pushing their investigations too much, and ending up dead... or worse. You see, we must always temper our methods with morals and a strong sense of right and wrong. Otherwise we blindly follow whatever path most strongly presents itself, often to our own ruin." The Dean had candles, fluorescent lights, lanterns, and flashlights littered around his room, making the whole office seem to be a child's bastion against terrors of the evening. Now he slowly pulled a high-caliber handgun from his desk drawer, walked to the cabinet and removed a small box of bullets.

"For instance: You claim to follow light, truth, knowledge, and clairvoyance. Yet you like so many others would have gladly used that accursed stone Phillip guarded. 'Seeing crystal,' what crap. It is a crystal meant to bring about the ultimate obscurity, the darkness from beyond Yuggoth, the dread dark fiend of the Outer Ones. You would look and become just another cultist, blind worshipper of the idiot dark." Now he straightened and loaded the gun, pointed it at The Graduate Student, who white-knuckled the arms of his chair.

"Don't listen to their invitation. A mirror can appear to offer brilliantly streaming sunlight just as well as a window. But while the window shows the true light, the mirror conceals darkness behind it."

At home, The Graduate Student pondered the meaning of a cult that worshipped darkness, scanning about a hundred entries in a Google search until he found a promising, if frightening passage:

"After light, the eye rejoices in shadow, and the mind gives it meaning. Inside a Greek temple the light was always subdued, and in some Egyptian temples the Holy of Holies was kept very dark [...] for the power of light is finite. It only pushes darkness further away, and we follow it where it goes [...] most of us move naturally toward shadow [...] There will always be enough darkness for them. Truth lies in the abyss, said Democritus, and the philosopher Karl Popper [1962] was more specific: 'For this, indeed is the main source of our ignorance -- the fact that our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.'"

A quick click closed the window, and The Graduate Student quickly shut down his computer. Sight; light; knowledge. He needed to know more.

Passage

When he returned home, The Graduate Student found an email awaiting him, with a ghost-sender's name -- Stars51302@hotmail.com in the "From:" field. Opening it, he read Michelangelo's "Sonnet To Darkness":

"Any place that's closed, or any room
that solid walls shut in on every side
gives shelter to the night when daylight comes,
defends her from the sun's ferocious play.
Fire and flame can drive her from her home
and every day she's hunted by the sun,
but even little lights can stain her beauty;
a firefly or two and it is gone.
In any open field the burning sun
falls on a thousand seeds, a thousand leaves,
until a farmer turns them with his plow.
But man is planted only in the dark
and therefore night is holier than day;
man's worth more than any farmer's crop."

Trembling, The Graduate Student whispered, "I'll be there..."

Finale

Before he had even managed to knock on the front door or ring the bell, The Graduate Student felt mute hands close on him and he knew the taste of chloroform. He could not tell, as the door of the Samuel B. Mumford house opened, whether the blackness that engulfed him came from the overpowering effects of the chloroform, or from within 65 Prospect Street itself.

The Graduate Student awoke to find himself bound and gagged, trussed up like a rodeo calf on the floor of... somewhere. He had no idea where he was. Surely this bottomless pit of shadow was not the same Samuel B. Mumford house that looked so typically colonial New England on Prospect. He felt rather than saw a gathering of shapes and forms around him in the blackness. His eyes didn’t seem to be functioning correctly. The more he stared into the darkness, trying to find the light, the blacker the oily space obscured his efforts, forced him farther away from the infinitely distant light. Yet when he stopped focusing and simply let his eyes wander naturally, light seemed to build steadily all around him, producing the humanoid forms of robed figures, cowled and in procession around a room of finite size and scope.

While he continued to ponder this bizarre marvel and how it might be scientifically explained, an ozone-wash of air announced the arrival of a new form into the room. Indeed the star- and lamplight streaming in once more forced The Graduate Student to reconsider how the light-as-dark phenomenon worked. It seemed as that last figure entered ­ a woman lacking the accouterments of the others ­ that she stood out as a brilliantly hued form against a sunlight background, only pierced here and there by orbs of black, cones of streaming darkness.

As he gave in to the paradox, The Graduate Student could see a robed figure detach from the processing crowd and speak with the woman, who bore an old-fashioned camera. Her gaze seemed fixated somewhere above him, and he found that with an effort he could turn his body to look around.

High on a strangely shaped pedestal of stone above him, The Graduate Student beheld the same enticing box that he had noticed in Phillip Dexter’s apartment, the one he knew to hold the Shining Trapezohedron. But this time the flickering sigils and hieroglyphic messages inscribed on the box radiated their own terrifying black glow, an emanation of profound darkness. Within, a crystal rested upright, exposed to the air, its scintillations and curving refractions defying all geometric description, seemingly also at odds with every theory he had read, envisioned, or dreamed up. It allured him with its ancient mysteries and enchanting supernatural behavior. It was the key to everything. He needed to know.

“I’m glad that you’ve decided to join us.” At first The Graduate Student couldn’t tell if the cloaked speaker addressed him or the female photographer. “Now you may see the truth behind all the inquiries you’ve made, all of your fruitless, frustrating searches. Behold! The Shining Trapezohedron, blessed charge of the Order of Starry Wisdom. We are its guardians, defenders of the knowledge it holds, supplicants of the Dark-Haunter Nyarlathotep, whose messages bring to us the lore of the unreachable stars, the gulfs of mighty Azathoth and his swirling chaos! Watch and learn, for when we are done you shall know nothing ever again.” The cloaked cult began to follow a series of bizarre, completely random rituals, chanting words so irregular as to belie even a system of gibberish. They walked with the feeling of a sacred procession, yet each member’s actions varied so as to suggest that no proper form existed to what they did. They performed a mockery, a farce intended to seem dastardly and diabolical, but without any substance or meaning. The Graduate Student felt an unbelievable urge to laugh.

Then his nostrils began to pick up a ghastly odor of sun-denied rot, long-dead putrefaction mingled with the chemical foulness of a public restroom. Above him, even in the strange off-light of his vision, a darkness began to spread, to grow, to take over the rafters and upper regions of the room, while the dark emanations of the Trapezohedron burgeoned the inky mass. Unable to look away, The Graduate Student had a single moment’s realization that the Dark-Haunter was coming and that it would consume him, and then his world began to rush upwards in a shocking flight of self-effacement. His memories, the light-bounces that formed his appearance, and his entire being was getting erased, sucked off by the billowing blackness above him. Just before he lost consciousness again, a massive flare of light struck the room and a loud voice from somewhere distant threatened: “This is the police! Surrender yourselves now, give up peacefully, and lethal force will be minimized...”

A week after the police raid on the Order of Starry Wisdom, a few days after his amnesia-plagued statement to The Police Officer, a day after handing his resignation to his dissertation director, The Graduate Student returned home with a stack of pocket notebooks and a mountain of pens. He spread them out on his floor and sat down on the corner of his bed. He had tried to return to his research. But he had found all of his notes -- painstakingly copied, diligently proofread, and precisely catalogued -- to contain nothing but gibberish. Unbalanced equations, simple physics expressions that no longer made sense, and cryptic symbols he had never drawn before all dominated the pages of his previous journals. Now he sat down to write and to think on new things. He sought to continue his pursuit of knowledge.

After several hours The Graduate Student went out once more, coming back within minutes and carrying two fifths of cheap vodka. Opening one he sat down on his bed once more and began to sip. The notebooks and pen-boxes remained unopened long after the vodka was gone.