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The Steaming Pile


The offices of Bear Land Holdings, Titus Groan

“Gone? What do you mean ‘Gone’? How can a whole bloody college suddenly be gone?!?”

I was confronting an especially well-focused, reedy office drudge who carried on sorting envelopes as if he thought I was simply talking to myself. Or perhaps he truly believed the disappearance of an entire college was an altogether trivial matter. 

“The college is defunct,” said the clerk without looking up from his work. “An airship fell on the main building and it was destroyed. In order to settle outstanding debts and numerous law suits, the school’s board of directors opted to sell the land and the new owners intend to begin new construction immediately. I think it’s going to be a shopping center of some sort.” 

“I was supposed to attend classes there later this summer,” I said. “I only stopped by to buy my books.”

“Can’t buy anything until the shopping center is finished,” the sorting clerk said officiously.

“You see,” said my solicitor/chauffer/alien chaperone, “I told you I’d brought you to the right place. A TAU-5 warp carriage is a precise instrument, Mr. Arkright. As long as you know where you’re going, it *will* get you there. Even if the ‘there’ you’re looking for has been turned into a steaming pile of rubble.”

“Well, this is disappointing,” was all I could think to say. “I had grant money lined up and everything. Months of nothing to do but go to school and study for free… the dream of middlebrow pseudo-intellects the world over! And now it’s ashes.”

“Your last name is ‘Arkright’?” asked the clerk.


“First name?”


“Your address?”

“A post office box in New Babbage, why?”

“Ha! Saves us a stamp!” The clerk cheerfully handed me one of the envelopes he had been sorting. 

The envelope was stuffed with papers, but one drew my immediate attention. “It’s a check. My grant money! I suppose I can do whatever I want with it now.”

“Must be nice,” said Mr. Caythun. “First me, then Mr. Tyvus… seems like everywhere you go lately there’s someone waiting to hand you piles of cash!”

“If that’s true, then we must hie to the next destination posthaste!”

As we left the office on our way back to his vehicle, Mr. Caythun asked, “Why exactly are these people giving you piles of cash?”

I handed him the papers from the envelope. “I wondered that myself until I saw who was on the board of trustees.”

“You know these people?”

“I’ve never heard of most of them… but I’ve met a few of them in my travels. And I’ve gotten to know several of them *extremely* well.”

“Oh, really? You mean…”

“Ha! And to think, mother said promiscuity would be the ruin of me! Never listen to your parents, Caythun, they never know what they’re talking about.”

“Prylothians have six or seven parents. Which ones shouldn’t I listen to?”

“‘Six *or* seven’? Do I even want to know what that means?”

“Correct me if I’m mistaken,” said Mr. Caythun, abruptly changing the direction of our conversation, “but isn’t this the second time this sort of thing has happened? An ‘accident’ resulting in your school being closed?” 

He was once again demonstrating why I find him so much easier to take when he’s silent. “This is not the second time this has happened,” I answered honestly.

“Really? I’m quite sure your parents told me about something similar happening to you previous… Are you sure this hasn’t happened to you once before?”

“Once? No.”

He began to catch on. “Twice?”

“Getting warmer…”

“Do I hear three times?”

“Here’s what you have to understand,” I said, “I was not directly involved in the destruction of a single one of those schools.”

“You were involved in all of them?”

“Do you remember the new science hall at Cambridge?”

“You mean the one that vanished from the campus only to end up falling from the sky and landing on southwest London with a very big bang? No, I must have missed reading the paper that week.”

Cheekiness did not suit him. “No more trying to be funny! I’m the funny one!! Anyway, I was… tangentially involved in that incident. It was one of the reasons I had to leave after only one-and-a-half semesters. So I found a new place to go to school.”

“Would that be the New Babbage Academy of Industry?”

“I registered by mail. Two weeks later, when I arrived in Babbage, I found they were holding a competition. A competition for builders. A competition to design a new Academy building… since the old one had just been destroyed.”

“That was number two… what was number three?”

“Well, I needed somewhere to go while they were rebuilding the Academy, so I enrolled at St. Leviathan’s where the head of the engineering department was working on an experimental airship.”



“The experiment failed.”

Mr. Caythun’s ample belly was shaking as he laughed. “No wonder it’s taking you so long to finish your studies. Your schools keep getting blown up! And here I thought you were just stupid!”

“I’ll ignore that because there is a school I’d like to investigate before you take me to London. It sounds completely capable of coping with catastrophic calamity.”

“Really? Can this new place be that different from the others?” 

“That depends. Do you believe in magic, Mr. Caythun?”



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One Comment

  1. Bookworm Hienrichs Bookworm Hienrichs July 7, 2011

    With an ability like this, sir, you ought to hire yourself out!  I’m sure many a student would be happy to benefit from your talent.

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