“Hold up,” said Joshua as they reached the ground floor. “There’s a faculty list round here somewhere,….”
“In your office, it’s called the phone directory,” said Mark. He stopped, and then followed Joshua round a corner. “Where are you going?”
“The phone list is the current faculty,” said Joshua, rounding another corner and then stopping in front of a large wooden board, nearly six feet square. It was divided into eight rectangles, six of which were filled and the seventh was two-thirds full. “This is a list of all faculty that have been at Sherwood University Mathematics Department.”
“This is weird,” said Mark. “Why is this here?”
“I don’t know,” said Joshua. “I found it when I first got here and was looking round the building. Apparently you have to be promoted to full professor while you’re here to appear on the board now, but up until about 1900 it listed everywhere who ever taught here. Ah, ok, here he is.” Joshua pointed to a name that had the year 1872 next to it. Markka Koivula.
“So at least I know he was a lecturer here,” said Joshua. “So it was probably him annotating his manuscript.”
“And he crossed his own name off it?”
“It looks like it, doesn’t it?”
Joshua did manage to only stay for one drink this time and went to bed at half-past ten when he was yawning too much to concentrate on the television. As he got into bed he noticed that the room felt cold, so he got up again to close the window. Finding it already closed he went back to bed thinking that it must just be unseasonably cold outside. He dreamt.
He found himself standing half-way up the stairs of Robin Hood Tower. He looked down at himself and realised that he was dressed except for shoes and socks; his feet were bare and he could feel the cold from the stone seeping into them. He started climbing the stairs to warm himself up and find something to stand on that wasn’t stone. As he reached the next floor there was a sea of dust covering it, and he had to practically wade through it to make progress. He trudged to the next flight of stairs leaving a wake behind him in the dust, and carried on up. The dust rose up around him and made him sneeze and his eyes water, so when he reached the next landing he stopped and rubbed his eyes and tried to get a breath that wasn’t full of dust. As the dust settled around him again he realised that one of the doors on this floor was open and that light was coming from it. He found himself drawn to the light, wondering who might be up here, and thinking that maybe Lieutenant Georges had come back and was systematically going through all the offices. The dust thinned out until it was just a thin layer on the floor that was barely disturbed at all by his passage, but his feet were so cold now that his toes were numb. He couldn’t feel his little toes at all, and his other toes hurt gently.
The door was only half-open, but it swung fully open as he approached, and he could see that someone was in there, sitting at the desk and leaning forward. As he got closer he could see that they were writing something on paper on the desk. The desk looked clean and tidy, and then Joshua realised that he could see a thin layer of dust on the desk, except in rectangles where something had been removed.
The person at the desk looked up and looked at him, and dark eyes met his. The person, a man, laid down the pen he’d been using, and turned slightly so that his body was facing Joshua. Joshua wanted to look at the man, but couldn’t free his gaze from the man’s eyes.
“I found those papers in my mother’s bureau,” said the man. His voice was raspy as though he’d not spoken in a long time. “They were mine, I found them. I took them, and they were mine.” He paused as though waiting for Joshua to say something, but Joshua found he couldn’t speak. “Beauty is terrible when it’s pure. It’s just a topological transform you know. Look three pages from the end and you’ll see it. It has to work, it just won’t work here. The dimensions are wrong.” He sounded as though he were running out of breath, and his voice became deeper and harsher. “But that’s not always the case. If you bridge the gap, then you can bring the dimensions with you.”
He stopped speaking, and his eyes flicked to something behind Joshua. Suddenly freed, Joshua realised that he could look around the room again, and at the man in the chair. He was skeletally thin, wearing an ivory ruffled-collar shirt and dark trousers beneath a brocaded gown that looked like something from centuries before. His hair was grey and sparse and long; it looked at though it hadn’t been washed. The rectangles on the desk suddenly jumped into relief, like an optical illusion suddenly becoming clear and Joshua knew that that was where they’d taken the papers from earlier.
Something behind him laid a hand on his shoulder and pressed down. It had great strength, and though he tried to resist he could feel his legs buckling. The man in the chair looked ecstatic, and stood up, the gown he was wearing reaching the ground and looking like some kind of priestly robe. His hands lifted upwards as though in supplication and the sleeves fell back revealing arms so thin that the bones were visible and the muscles along them stood out like wormy ropes.
Joshua tried to turn, but another hand grabbed his head and forced him to look forwards, and the man at the desk suddenly ran to the packing crates. Joshua didn’t remember seeing them there before, but they were there now, stencilled with numbers beginning with 301-. Everytime he blinked the numbers seemed to change, and he couldn’t remember any of them for long enough to check. The man scrabbled at a case, pulling the lid of it off with difficulty, and plunged his hand inside. He searched around in there, and Joshua could hear things being knocked over and pushed around, and then the hand pulled out a rusty-looking knife.
“True beauty is truly terrible!” said the man, his grin nearly a rictus. Joshua was absolutely certain that he was looking at the face of madness.
Something smashed outside the office and the hands gripping Joshua let go. He staggered, not having realised how hard he’d been trying to get free, and the man with the knife looked past him again. Then he looked down at Joshua. “Beauty awaits you,” he said, his voice dryer than ever, and then he exploded in a cloud of dust.
Joshua turned around as the dust swirled about him, coughing and spluttering, trying to clear the dust from his watering eyes. Out in the corridor was another figure, and for a moment he saw it clearly. It was Venkat.
He rubbed his eyes and opened them, and felt a hand land on his shoulder. He fell over, shocked. On the ground he tried to work out where he was. This wasn’t his bed, and he’d been sleeping. This should be his bed. It must be a dream. Only dreams were usually so cold. Or wet. The soil was wet.
“Sir?” A voice above him spoke. “Sir, can you hear me now?”
“Y… Yes,” said Joshua, starting to shiver. “Where the hell am I?”
“Sherwood University campus,” said the voice. “Are you aware that you’re naked, Sir?”