Les Sklaroff

Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos.
Mary Shelley

At the insistence of a second arpeggio of descending chimes Mosper Belk reluctantly put down his book and shuffled into the front hall to peer closely at the wall-screen. It displayed in his doorway the profiled image of an unfamiliar man clad in sombre grey, apart from a jaunty emerald trim at collar and cuffs. He held a slim black case. There was a relaxed dignity about his stance which betokened someone serious and self-assured. Mosper had not been expecting any weekend callers. Intrigued, he opened the door.

“Forgive disturb, esteemed Belk”, the man announced gravely, with a respectful nod. “Hulf Atacrast, day-journeyed from Meheric. Fore-message left at place of work, but Mr Smirt of Greeming and er… Trelph?”


”Yes. He tells me they respect your rest-day.”

Mosper was not quite sure how to respond to this slightly contradictory information, offering only a non-committal “Ah,” and looking politely expectant.

“Meheric Faculty Propulsion,” the man clarified. “Since eleven years, Research Scrupulator.” He proffered a holocard for inspection. It confirmed his identity, membership of the faculty and significant academic credentials in the field of powered flight theory. Atacrast explained that his was a consultative rôle, shared with eight others, replacing what used to be known as the Scrutinizing Committee.

Mosper felt an unexpected pang of nostalgia at this reminder of his own earlier career. “So we have a common interest. I see you spent some time at the Wotzl Foundation. Even here in Snoak it has a fine reputation for being at the forefront of aeronautical development. The Institute in Meheric of course I used to know well, though I doubt whether any of the people I worked with are still there. One loses touch as the years pass… Now I content myself with a bit of general tinkering. The fingers still need to be exercised, as well as the mind.” He handed back the holocard. “But why have you come to see me?”

“Ah, venerable sir, with your permit, I greatly wish discuss with you certain papers, by auspicious accident of fortune retrieved from rodent nesting site in faculty archives.” Atacrast tapped his document case.

“The archives? But I thought they were… Papers? What papers exactly?”

‘Lighter, swifter, safer: rethinking the airpod engine,’ ‘Dynamics of cloud control,’ ‘Gyractive isolates and the quest for stability’. Also others similar, authorship M Belk, S Corrity, S Crobes, R Hobharp, Senior Airtechs. In humble opinion Atacrast, important historic work, for much time ignored…” He lowered his voice confidentially. “I, Atacrast, believe these documents not supplied for emergency comfort of mice by benevolent action of caretaker, but with purpose suppressed! Suppressed by person or people of ignorance or of malice to prevent advancement of aeronautics.”

Mosper looked momentarily astonished, then sighed ruefully and gestured to his visitor. “Well, Scrupulator Atacrast, I think you had better come in.”

Thirty five years earlier Mosper Belk, as a newly-qualified airtech, had joined what was then known as the Institute of Aeronautics in Meheric. He remembered the frisson of anticipation as he was shown into one of the engineering hangars to meet fellow members of the design team. Straplene Corrity had trotted up briskly to welcome him, followed by Rangent Hobharp, solidly muscular and grinning broadly, and lanky Spacker Crobes. Soon they had gathered into an enthusiastic huddle to decide which of their current projects would most suit Mosper’s level of training. An unshaven middle-aged man who had been standing nearby frowning at the ceiling wandered over, made as if to shake his hand, but instead clapped him on the shoulder and nodded without speaking, before heading out again. Mosper remembered thinking that the man’s clothes looked as if they had been slept in. Spacker offhandedly informed him that he had just met the Director himself, Cravian Drowl.

Cravian Drowl: a man with an enviable reputation as a paragon of probity, a level-headed problem-solver, a moderator of disputes, whose competence was beyond question. He had worked hard over the years to perfect this image. An only child of parents who lived in a state of uneasy truce, his retentive memory and observational skills equipped him with a sometimes startling ability to assess others’ states of mind before anything had been communicated verbally.

With a penchant for figures, but as yet with no specific career in mind, Drowl had opted to qualify in accountancy, while conscientiously cultivating the techniques necessary to put people at their ease. This seemingly effortless knack of inspiring trust allowed him in due course to advance to positions in senior management. People of both sexes found they had no reservations about confiding in him, although Drowl was vaguely disappointed that none of these encounters was the prelude to the kind of intimate relationship he had imagined. He chose not to dwell on those brief fumblings with Witany Yargle which had left them both hot and humiliated, and resolved to concentrate on work. At Snoak’s water purification plant, in the absence of any opposition, he rose steadily to become Operations Manager, a post he held for almost ten years before beginning to feel a vague restlessness. Looking beyond his familiar comfort zone, he happened to notice that there was a vacancy for the Directorship of Meheric’s Aeronautic Institute, a position which came with the additional benefit of self-contained furnished accommodation. He suspected he did not have the full range of skills for the job, but his interest was piqued.

Of the four other candidates, all had far higher levels of technical expertise than Cravian Drowl. Two had worked on commercial pods, Den Flepter as flight engineer, Zoel Torison as pilot. A third, Veiv Maufrig, had worked for many years abroad, progressing from cargo-handler to Podport Chief of Security. The fourth was Ko Prodovel, a specialist in micro-engineering. Her public profile was of a well-groomed ambitious woman of formidable talents and conspicuously expensive tastes. She was reputed to have been the brains behind the success of the ParaPet organization, earning her (when safely out of earshot) the dubiously respectful nickname of “Pokehead”.

An unhappy series of events led to a shortening of the odds in Drowl’s favour. In the week following the formal interviews Flepter had been seriously injured in a snow-float accident on Mount Kyren. During a routine dental appointment Torison was regrettably diagnosed as suffering from the onset of Hiriffer’s Syndrome, a neuromuscular affliction which gradually inhibits speech until the victim can utter only fricatives. Then there was the report in the Quanderpyre Press, “SNAFFLED BAGGAGE FUNDED PODPORT PERKS – SAYS EX-HEAD OF SEC’S SEXY EX” in which one of Maufrig’s resentful former wives revealed that her former husband had for years secretly conducted a lucrative sideline selling confiscated goods. After questioning, Maufrig had been taken into custody, pending further investigation.

The Institute was dependent on State funding, and its limited annual budget was allocated at the Director’s discretion. It was partly his reputation for safe economic management that tipped the balance towards Cravian Drowl over the other remaining candidate, the more technically experienced if allegedly extravagant “Pokehead” Prodovel. When interviewed, “Pokehead” had been eager to explain how her expertise might be applied to aspects of pod technology. She filled in the odd awkward silences with sharp remarks about the cost of progress and the difficulties of private enterprise, and made it clear that she knew how to knock a team into shape.

She was obviously fiercely energetic, highly capable and somewhat intimidating.

What sealed the decision was the interviewers’ unanimous agreement that Drowl, despite being new to aeronautics, was confident and motivated, and had the kind of reassuring presence which boded well for the future smooth running of the Institute. Each of them had felt that he had answered their questions with a disarmingly honesty, and had no doubt that Drowl had the makings of an excellent Director. Sadly, they were to be proved wrong.

He moved from his north Snoak apartment with its view of the deeply-shadowed shelving of the sandstone quarry into the comparative luxury of a suite of furnished rooms in Meheric’s Institute. For the first few years everything went reasonably well. His work at the water purifying plant had accustomed Drowl to the basic principles of engineering, and although he was not expected to equip himself with an oily rag, a pair of calipers or a wrench, he soon familiarized himself with the terminology of pod mechanics. He made a point of meeting and chatting to the designers, assistant airtechs and ancillary staff, acquainting himself with their functions and degrees of responsibility. He assured them he was always open to new ideas, and that any concerns or grievances would be treated sympathetically and in confidence. Those he spoke to were left with the pleasurable feeling that their new Director was someone with their best interests at heart. In Research and Development, the creative hub where sustained funding was so crucial, the mood among the airtech designers was almost celebratory.

While Drowl was not averse to seeking informed advice, he positively avoided having to delegate decision-making. He felt that letting others operate on his behalf would somehow degrade the responsibilities of his position. Consequently, every choice he made, whether relating to finance, management or maintenance carried its niggling burden of anxiety, which he strove to suppress.

His secretary, a local girl, seemed to be adept at prioritizing matters that required his attention, and ensured that any documentation, once dealt with, was appropriately filed away.

As might be expected, the principal conflict lay in staying within budget while keeping all departments of the Institute functioning efficiently. From past records he could see that R & D was the potentially profitable area, but also the most expensive to keep supplied with necessary hardware. Any restriction was bound to affect the morale of its highly specialized team. He knew that over time he would have to make economies, but they must be unobtrusive. It was a difficult balance, but as Director, it was under his control. He couldn’t afford to be seen to make mistakes. He dismissed the nagging thought that he might be out of his depth. Insidiously, like a virulent infection, the anxieties multiplied.

Eventually even the most commonplace problem began to bristle with unresolvable contingencies. In his pursuit of economy he gradually cut back on renovation, postponed repairs, finally dispensed with secretarial help. He cancelled meetings, sat for hours in his office, checking and re-checking figures, doubting the logic of his own reasoning, puzzling over investigative safety reports or proposals for technical improvements as if they had been written in a totally unfamiliar language. As time passed Drowl grew steadily more withdrawn. Sometimes he neglected to eat, and his evident lack of sleep caused him to look increasingly haggard. He would wander absentmindedly into hangars and workshops, avoiding confrontation, rarely mumbling more than a few words to anyone. The Institute continued to function, driven by the established momentum of multiple interdependent daily tasks, but the seeds of chaos had been sown.

“And so, Scrupulator Atacrast,” said Mosper Belk, “you must understand that we airtechs hardly ever saw Director Drowl, and for many months had no idea that anything was amiss. We were skilled at improvising when requisitioned items were temporarily unavailable, and we had facilities for manufacturing our own precision tools, so work on ongoing projects was scarcely affected. But we all assumed that our research papers had been sent on, as was customary, to the State Scrutinizing Committee, and copies duly stored in the Institute’s files.”

“Committee with response of elongated silence…”, Atacrast suggested.

Mosper smiled, a little ruefully. “Indeed, a silence of such length that we made attempts to seek an explanation. My colleagues and I went to see the Director. We had not known that by then he no longer had a secretary, and were disconcerted to see the disorganized state of his office. Boxes of documents were stacked on the floor around his desk, and the surface of the desk itself was littered with sheets of hand-written calculations amid the detritus of what looked like abandoned meals. Drowl apologized for the mess, explained that his secretary had left (he did not say why), and assured us that there was no cause for alarm, matters were in hand, he would personally see to it that the Committee would be made aware of our concerns. Corrity and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt, although Hobharp and Crobes suspected that for some unknown reason we were being fobbed off.”

Atacrast asked if he might have a glass of water, but was readily persuaded by his host’s counter-offer of emberskelven, the reddish-gold brew which was one of Snoak’s local attractions.

“A week or so later,” Mosper resumed, “we went once again to Drowl’s office, determined to extract satisfactory answers from the Director. He was standing by the window, wearing his outdoor coat, staring out at the rain. His face looked strained, with dark pouches under his eyes, and he seemed to have some difficulty recognizing us. In contrast to our previous visit the office was practically bare; the boxes had been cleared away, and only a small pile of papers remained on the desk, neatly trapped under a green onyx paperweight in the shape of a sleeping dog. When we asked him about the lack of response to our research papers, Drowl launched into a barely coherent explanation involving budgetary requirements, regulatory constraints, regrettable economic necessities, bureaucratic procedures and other such waffle. Then, with an abrupt change of mood he evicted us from his office, muttering that he needed to attend to an urgent personal matter. There was something so dourly implacable about his attitude, the look in his eyes so desperate, we were frankly too taken aback to raise a sensible objection. After that it was too late.”

“Too late?” prompted the Scrupulator.

“That was the last time anyone at the Institute ever saw or heard from Cravian Drowl.”

There was nothing of obvious significance left in the Director’s office other than an ashy heap of burned paper in the ceramic incinerazer. It was assumed that Drowl had taken his paperweight with him. It was not found in his private rooms, whose abandoned contents apparently offered no clue as to his possible whereabouts. This posed a quandary for the investigative team, a trio of burly detechs and a forensic specialist from Snoak Central, who had been called in when the Director failed to return.

The entire workforce was questioned with discreet efficiency. The lately dismissed secretary, the quietly dependable Seepy Trasset, had been duly traced to her shared apartment above a bakery in Lower Meheric. She was persuaded to overcome residual feelings of loyalty, and asked to describe anything unusual about the Director’s behaviour in the weeks preceding her dismissal. Seepy told how he had become strangely secretive about the filing of paperwork, and prevented her accessing even material she had previously handled. She confirmed that he had grown increasingly remote and uncommunicative, and that while genuinely concerned about his health she was actually more relieved than disappointed when he told her she was no longer required.

Mosper and his three colleagues had been closely questioned, as Drowl’s last contacts in the Institute. Further investigation revealed that the State Scrutinizing Committee had received no research papers from the Institute for almost a year, and no such documents were to be found either among the remaining office files or in the Director’s apartment.

It soon became clear to the investigators that the missing man had almost certainly been suffering from severe work-related stress. The Institute’s finances were stretched to their limit. It was concluded that an obsessive fear of overspending had led him to the irrational decision to ignore or actively hold back any proposals that might entail further costs. In Drowl’s mind the prospect of allowing the Scrutinizing Committee to approve research papers, irrespective of any long-term benefits, would have been fraught with disaster. It was therefore believed that the papers, together with any filed copies had been destroyed, and that the wretched Drowl, unable to face the consequences of his mismanagement, had fled in a state of guilt and confusion.

Mosper Belk blinked away the unbidden moisture in his eyes as he gingerly examined the papers that Hulf Atacrast had removed from his document case. They were indeed the originals, complete with marginal notes in a neat hand he knew to be his own. The individual pages had been carefully uncreased and sheathed in transparent sleeves. The paper itself was slightly yellowed and brittle, some corners and edges showing evidence of desultory nibbling. The ink was still legible, but patchily faded and stained. He had never expected to see again these distillations of so many hours of focused thought and excited discussion with his fellow airtechs; the long-lost repository of their combined inventiveness.

“Meheric Faculty Propulsion now much changed, respected Belk. New buildings, new people, some new ideas. Paper is dead, extinguished, like the doodle. Now, all e-screens, haptic panels, telefacture, self-correcting praxins, all manner advances since time of Drowl and his sad misguidance.”

“Drowl, who was never actually found,” murmured Mosper, “despite supposed sightings in a dozen far-flung places over the following years. We often wondered, with a mixture of bitterness and well… pity, what really became of him.”

Atacrast shrugged and raised his hands, as if fending off an enormous balloon. “Defaced utterly from Meheric Archive, perhaps for better. And now after years you hold again valuable research deserving of proper credit, which as Scrupulator I would be honoured to make possible.”

They sat for a while in reflective silence, sipping at their emberskelven, savouring its tang and listening to the faint hiss of crepitation. Later, Hulf Atacrast insisted on marking the occasion with a meal at The Cylinder in Gropp’s Market, prepared under the supervision of Tedor Safra himself. Mosper Belk began to protest at this suggestion, but Atacrast assured him that he had made an open reservation well in advance, being both a gourmet and an optimist. Belk’s home in Prossing Street was only a short walking distance from the restaurant, which he had passed many times without really noticing the expensive delights being consumed within.

After the meal, the Scrupulator left to catch the night-pod back to Meheric, while Mosper strolled back to his house, glancing up from time to time at the swiftly winking beads of micropods as they threaded the sky carrying their vital commerce. He had heard them called “Pokehead Pods”, but had no idea why. He must remember to ask one of his young friends at work. Sometimes he felt that the new technology was leaving him behind.

© L. J. Sklaroff 2016 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 11:13 Sun 28 Aug 2016
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