Friday, March 26, 2010

Epistomonikos

Epistomonikos.  Seruka stopped and looked up at the heavy slab of hand-carved, coffee-and-eggwhite jade that formed the frieze set over the portal to the Academy.  According to the tour guide this particular piece had taken the better part of thirty-three years for a single master-artisan to produce working only with water, fine sand, and her own hair which she used to wear down, smooth and carve the jade into an exquisite work of art.  It was profoundly sad, to Seruka at least, that this particular portal languished unused, neglected and overlooked by the throngs of students and faculty who surged through the over-crowded concourses and pushed their way through the insane clusters of loiterers along the various bridges connecting the campus-sectors that straddled or were separated from each other by canals or the river.  It was as if some sort of ant-like pheromonal trail had been laid-down and the mobs of scholars were too caught-up in it to look for a more reasonable alternative.  In some ways it frightened Seruka.  It could be seen as a form of slavery to the established ways of doing things, a collective type of communal conformity that forced everyone into the same rut for no more reason than that no one ever thought about it.  Tradition was a trail stamped down into a rut, or so her grandfather had always said, before the oneiropolice came and took him away.

Unlike most of her peers, Seruka could take nothing for granted ever again.  She had been close to her grandfather.  As she neared the age of mandatory inclusion, her family pooled what meager resources they could scrape together and paid the exhorbitant fees of the smugglers to get her out of the country. They had drugged her into a dreamless slumber -- in itself an offense that brought with it a penalty worse than death for those caught attempting to subvert the authorities -- but it had been the only way to get her past the constant psychic scrutiny.  She had to drop out of the collective dreamscape so that the oneiropolice and their psychounds would not notice her as they transported her past the razorwalls and mirrorfields.  Three smugglers had perished in the process.  The others considered their fellows fortunate to have escaped from the society that they had no choice but to return to--they were addicts, enslaved to the neurosoma distributed by the socialworkers and advocates who served the Guillotine-council, those frozen disembodied heads locked forever in telepathic-bondage to the Oneirarchs of Lashteel.  To stray too far from the domains of their masters would cause them to die horrible deaths as their brains curdled and psychopharmic fungi erupted from their nervous systems to form fresh colonies of the source of the milky neurosoma and extend the reach of the authorities.  Instead, the smugglers resisted as best they could, taking as many children as they could away from Lashteel, smuggling them out to make lives for themselves away from the society that had enslaved them.  In their own way, the convicts and derelicts were keeping alive the dream of freedom in a place where dreams were the only real currency and all existence was arbitrated by oppressive narcoleptic prophets who wielded the terrifying forces of nightmares against their own people as prison wardens and slave masters.

Freedom.  It was a word that left Seruka cold inside.  Freedom meant starving, losing one's family, giving up everything.  It also meant being completely at the mercy of every stranger and passerby one encountered in a strange, new city.  Freedom was fear and hunger and grieving and it made the scavengers come out at the very merest whiff of its scent.  Seruka distrusted freedom.  It had proven itself far from the utopian dream that the smugglers clutched onto in their desperate naievete.  In its own way freedom had been as capricious, cruel and abusive as the tyranny she had been 'saved' from.  What child can cope with a freedom they know nothing about and are ill-prepared to act upon?

But her grandfather had prepared her, in his own way.  He had taught her the knife and the pen, the reading of various forms of writing, and the banned arts of the proscribes.  She had been born into a family of criminals, intellectuals who preserved the old learning, the illegal skills and ways of a culture that had preceded the Oneirarchs, one that was not mired in the cold, hard dreams of dead men.  Perhaps her grandfather had some inkling of her fate, perhaps.  More likely he suspected that something like it might happen, or even more likely, he himself had instigated her removal from Lashteel.  It was the kind of thing he would have done.  It could even have been the very thing that had made him run afoul of the authorities.  But there was no use holding onto unproven or left-over guilt in her new life.  And it was a new life that she was building for herself.  A life founded on learning.

Seruka looked back at the jade frieze overhead.  She whispered the word reverentially; "Epistomonikos."

It was an old word from an old world that meant 'Making Knowledge.' The Academy at Devukarsha was a place that was focused, some would say even obsessed on just that; the manufacture of knowledge.  Like a barbarian-industrialist's soul-deadening prison-factory, the vast campuses of the Academy churned out an incredible amount of books, recordings, lectures, performances, tutorials, theories, and more.  It was a huge secular cathedral dedicated to the intricate arcaneries of learning and the ancient and accepted traditional methodologies of teaching.  One came here to study or to disseminate knowledge, to peel back the veils of ignorance, or to ponder great thoughts. Otherwise they found themselves driven away at the point of a blade -- and that only if they were fortunate not to have provoked a feud with some recognized authority, erudite specialist or tenured professor.  Seruka had come to this place to learn and she would fight to the death to protect her right to study, to gain knowledge, to make her mark on academia.  She still carried the matching pair of slim stillettos that her grandfather had presented her on her fifth birthday.  At first they had been longer than her arms and she had to wield them like tiny swords.  Now they fitted her hands like direct extensions of her will as only something long-practiced could ever do.

Practice.  The acting out of theory.  Her granfather had taught Seruka that theory was only half the puzzle and it would be a lame thing indeed without Practice to complete it, fulfill its promise and make things come alive into fertile actuality after a dry, sterile sojourn through the wilderness of the unreal, the imagined and the hypothetical.  Thoughts were indeed things, but only things gave a thought any real purpose.  Such was the prevailing mindset of the slender young girl from Lashteel as she crossed the threshold into the Academy grounds and made her way towards the basement archives where she had been assigned to assist the lesser under-curator's assistant with some menial and mostly pointless reorganization of the materials stored in the third cellar-level.  Each hour she spent in that cellar counted towards her scholarship and brought her a small stipend that made it possible for her to stay enrolled in the Academy.  And Seruka was determined to see her way through the mazes and minefields of academia no matter what.  Too much had been sacrificed that she might have this opportunity, and she was not about to disappoint her grandfather who had almost surely been executed for his mindcrime.

Blinking away someone else's second-hand tear, Seruka stopped to peruse the headlines and announcements scrawling and crawling across the datakiosk a few blocks away from the archives.  The war was going badly.  More scandals.  One of the Regents had been horribly maimed in a botched assassination.  Various test results and scores were now downloadable.  Blah, blah, blah.  The same old stuff that had been going on ever since her first day on campus.  Only some of the details were changed.  Everyone kept saying that these were 'dark days,' as if it were somehow the only thing one could say following upon three disasterous wars and the Fall of Sentallim, Karkosin and Drauve to the Enemy.  Dark days indeed.  For those city-states too far to the East to save themselves.  For Seruka these were fine days, filled with learning, and hard work.  She hated politics.  Her childhood exposure to despotism had dulled her appreciation of the whole thing.  The memory of her family still languishing under the tyranny of the Oneirarchs made her sick at heart and drove her on to better efforts, as if by her academic exertions she could somehow redeem or rescue them.

But it was her own redemption that Seruka was trying to earn through all of her intense studies and diligent efforts.

She turned away from the datakiosk in disgust and headed straight for the archives.  Her quick, sure steps dissuaded casual conversation and she sliced past all the foot-traffic in an almost surgically precise manner.  Larger even than the most extravagant manors and estates of the Nobility, at least in terms of objective real-estate, the Academy sprawled across nearly one full quarter of the city's various tiers, platforms, ledges and districts.  In her brief time enrolled within the Academy, Seruka had become used to a great deal of walking.  Unlike most of her fellow students, she rarely, if ever used the various municipal and campus gates to get around.  She preferred to walk.  It strengthened her legs and prevented her from being caught in clusters of strangers like the mobs that congregated around the most heavily-used gates.

She disliked crowds and distrusted gates.  Truly a most curious attitude for one living within a city packed to excess with both such things.

But she adored the Academy.  It was her home now.  A massive hive of erudition and learning consecrated to the ten thousand Secular Saints, the Academy was home to numerous Cliques, Cabals, secret societies (ssshh!), committees, panels, inquisitions, laboratories and more. More than a hundred libraries were liberally scattered across the campus, each one jealously guarding its share of the amassed wisdom and hoarded knowledge of countless millennia, all carefully preserved by hereditary archivists, librarians (both committed and freelance), specialists and curators who watch over priceless collections of the relics and detritus of humanity's long climb upwards from oblivion's very brink. Clerks, scribes, monastic illuminators and calligraphers (both digital and by hand and brush/pen) struggled to process the ever-growing back-log of monographs, dissertations, research findings, patents, and other pixel and paperwork generated by innumerable students, Scholars and Experts, many of whom occupied themselves in correcting the errors of the woefully ignorant past, censoring the scandalous lies of vituperative frauds of bygone eras, and offering expert critiques on just what was meant by the greatest intellects, philosophers and scientists of previous ages.  The place excited her, the very air invigorated her, made her feel alive in a way that she had not known was possible prior to her enrollment.  She had found her niche, her place in the grand scheme of life and she was happy though she didn't realize it.

The Academy was a place of learning, where wisdom was guarded like gold, information had run rampant, and opinions were necessarily defended by force of arms in scholastic duels and assassinations and that suited the girl from Lashteel just fine.

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