Professor Zeno Cranium looked around the neat little room in which he lived, which bore some resemblance to the control deck on a flying saucer, as depicted in many a science-fction story. It was as clean and shiny and symmetrical as a crystal. His multitudinous books and papers were all tidily arranged on shelves around the walls. Apart that is from those papers on which he had been working, which were spread upon the circular table in the centre, together with pens, pencils, drawing instruments and calculators, and other strange devices of whose purposes only he was aware.
The room was octagonal and the windows, between the bookcases, were precisely aligned to look out in the four cardinal directions and their intermediates. The view however, much the same from each, was of blue sky and white clouds, for his ivory tower was so lofty that it soared up through the clouds, and his study was in the topmost turret. Occasionally, through breaks in the cloud, the Professor could see details of the world far below.
It often disappointed him that he could see no other towers like his own reaching up through the clouds. There were many buildings down below of all types, but their shapes and sizes reflected the interests of the people who worked in them, who were also of all shapes and sizes and philosophies. It made him sad sometimes that so very few people shared, or even showed the slightest interest in, his world-view, but he gained solace from the knowledge that his work was pioneering and would eventually achieve recognition of its true worth.
Across the city he could see the squat, square, sprawling campus of the Problematic Institute, where his rival the genial, but immovably conventional, Doctor Knowle presided.
Professor Cranium made his way down from the top of his tower. The narrowest part of it was served by a fast lowerer. This device was only correctly termed a lift, or elevator, when being used in the opposite direction of course. It had been built to his specifications by the Hokum robofacturing company and was sold under the name of "Hokum's Raiser and Lowerer."
To descend the last three stories, which were divided into apartments and workshops let to all manner of strange people, it was however necessary to use the ordinary stairs, and the nearer he came to ground level the shabbier it appeared. The carpet on the last flight, worn by the comings and goings of multitudes, was dangerously full of holes. And for some reason it seemed to make the Professor feel shabbier too. His white beard seemed more grey and unevenly cut, his hat more crumpled and old-fashioned, his coat more threadbare.
In his hand he carried an entrance ticket. On it were the words: Grant the Bearer one entrance to Hell Hole Hill Hall Hull.
As I believe I've mentioned before, Professor Cranium's room at the top of the Ivory Tower, resembled, in so far as anyone knows what they might be like, the control deck on a flying saucer. This resemblance was in fact more than a mere similarity, because his room was indeed a flying saucer, or at least a flying octagon. Since the uppermost storey of the tower juts out all round, and is anyway often surrounded lower down by cloud, people looking up from below, if they could see anything at all through the clouds, would not easily notice that the topmost section was sometimes missing.
The way it worked was this. Before setting off on a flight the Professor would carefully check that the door to the raiser and lowerer, and all the windows were securely closed and air-tight, since otherwise, when travelling through the vacuum of space air would be liable to escape, leaving nothing to breathe; also the air on other planets, he had found, was often noxious and best kept out. He would then begin to turn the circular table in the centre of the room around. It was fixed in place and its four legs stood on a rotating piece of the floor, below which were attached spiral plates, rather like the device in some cameras that opens and closes to let in more or less light. The effect of this was to gradually reveal the centrifugal plates from which the floor was made.
You are probably familiar with the centrifugal force that you can feel pulling outwards when you swing anything round and round in a circular motion. Professor Cranium had written a scientific paper once explaining how this strange outward force was caused by the attraction of the far distant parts of the universe upon rotating objects. Unfortunately the so-called experts to whom the editor of the scientific journal sent his paper all declared his theory to be contrary to established knowledge, so the editor regretted he was unable to publish it.
Strangely the Professor did not find this result surprising, only rather sad, since most of his ideas met with this reception, or lack of reception, and he had become used to it. He was a bit more puzzled than usual however, since the idea had even been investigated by no less than Sir Isaac Newton, who had conducted the experiment of rotating a bucket of water and seeing that the water rose up the sides. Newton had argued that seeing water rise in this way shows that the container is rotating relative to the bulk of the universe. How Albert Einstein reconciled this fact with his theory of relativity the Professor had never been able to discover.
The centripetal plates which the Professor was able to develop from his theory depend for their operation on the fact that all the atoms in them are arranged in a pattern whereby they all rotate in mutually compatible directions; whereas in normal materials the rotations are all at random and so the centrifugal forces all cancel each other out.
By opening the surface of the plates slowly the flying room was able to lift off from the top of the tower quite gently, with no rushing of air, jolting or other noise to attract the attention of people on the lower floors. And by opening and closing the aperture the acceleration was increased or decreased. When fully open the acceleration could be enormous. By changing the shape of the aperture, so that more was open on one side than another, the direction of movement could be controlled. It was all remarkably simple to use.
Unfortunately the last time Professor Cranium had operated the device he had opened the plates too quickly and the acceleration had been so fast that he had passed out.
The sonic boom as he went through the speed of sound was put down to thunder, and the vortex of air that was produced resulted in an anticyclone that, the Meteorological Office announced, could only be due to the influence of global warming and the Elle-Ninja effect. The photonic boom as he went through the light-speed barrier was recorded by the astronomers as a Nova in the O'nion nebula.
While the scientists on Earth may have misinterpreted the evidence, others in the Universe were quickly aware that a violation of the Laws of Nature had taken place, and investigators from the ACB (Anomaly Correction Bureau) were quickly on the scene.
You may wonder how, if they were preservers of the status quo, they could catch up with someone moving faster than light. The answer is that space is full of holes, rather like gorgonzola cheese. You may be tempted to ask how space can have holes through it since it is already all hole. The answer is that there is more to space than meets the eye of most creatures. Gorgons, whose gaze is known from legend to be particularly piercing are creatures able to see space for what it really is, and thus to perceive the cracks in it and pass between them. This results in their instantaneous reappearance at another point in space. There is no question of them passing through some sort of worm hole or tunnel connecting different parts of space. The holes in space are not themselves space.
For the reasons above stated the Anomaly Correction Bureau is staffed entirely by Gorgon Eye-landers. When Professor Cranium came round from his temporary unconsciousness and saw them peering down at him he was of course petrified. But he needn't have been afraid. They saw at once that he was a cousin of theirs. It was because he was able to perceive the cracks in Psychic Space that led him into his original patterns of thought. Hence the origin of the term "crack-brained".
Professor Cranium had long suspected that anomalosity ran in his family. It had been particularly marked in his maternal uncle. Uncle Od was so called because of his singularity. It was not merely that he was single or that his manner and appearance were strange, but that he was in the true mathematical sense of the term contrary to general principles. An exception to the commonly accepted laws of nature. An anomaly.
His nickname, if never actually spelt that way, was always pronounced with two Ds. The theory that it was an abbreviation of his given name of Odysseus was unsustainable, except on some scheme of coincidence consequent upon convergent evolution.
Odysseus Farlander had misspent much of his youth, like the ugly duckling of fable, in a vain attempt, guided by well-meant psychological theories of normalcy, to be a duck among ducks, until the scars proved that he did not belong. But he was not a swan either.
His misspent middle years were an odyssey, worthy of his eponym, in search of his kind, his kin, his place in the scheme of things. But in the end, he knew the truth at last. That he was not only the only one of his kind, but the first and last of him. One of a kind. A species and genus all of his own. Unique. A law unto himself.
Professor Cranium hadn't seen his uncle since many years before when he was just Zeno and had not yet adopted the high style of 'Professor'. That's why he was surprised when he found that it was Od who was now chief of the Anomaly Correction Bureau. It was from Uncle Od that he received the ticket for the trip to Hell Hole Hill Hall Hull.
The entrance hall to the Hall was large and of indefinite extent, seemingly walled with shifting drapes of dark purple-violet-mauve shades. Before the Professor could get his orientation a tall gaunt darkly dressed and triangularly bearded old-style gentleman approached.
"Welcome," the tall man said, "I am pleased to act as your guide I these regions. I am known here as Drax." He spoke in very clear precise English but with a slightly mournful tone.
"Drax," said the Professor, thinking he knew the name from somewhere, "Thank you, whereabouts are these regions you mention? I seem to be rather disoriented."
"You are in psychic space," Drax announced. "Or perhaps you might prefer to call it mind-space or the world of imagination."
"Do you mean the world of my own imagination?" he asked.
"Part of this world is of your own invention, and more could be, if you exercised your imaginaton to its full extent," he told Zeno encouragingly, "But most of it has been imagined by others, over the millennial ages of humankind."
"Do you mean it is something like the 'collective unconscious' that the psycho-analysts talk about?" Zeno conjectured.
"Well, that may be part of it. Though not a part well known to me. Much of this world is available to the conscious mind. But it is so extensive that only a small part of it can be consciously held in mind at one time. In fact, the real space of physics exists within psychic space, which is a much wider domain."
"Indeed!" Professor Cranium mused somewhat perplexedly.
"Ask yourself how it is that we can talk about such non-existent creatures as Unicorns, for example, as if they really existed?" Drax continued. "The answer is that they exist in Psychic Space. Each of our minds is capable of exploring psychic space, and indeed of modifying psychic space for other explorers who come after us. Some minds, those of particularly creative authors, are indeed able to create, or to map out, whole new areas of psychic space previously unknown. Sometimes these new areas of psychic space last for a long time, are explored anew by succeeding generations, and may even be expanded or detailed further. Other parts of psychic space fade away if not visited by new minds. Come, let me show you some of its regions that have a particular fascination for myself."
Drax strode down the length of the hallway and Zeno tried to keep up with him, but though they were clearly moving the scene seemed hardly to change at all, giving the impression that they were in the same place all the time. This effect made him think of Alice being led by the Red Queen onto the Looking-glass chessboard, running hard to stay in the same place. Then at last the hall widened out. They were now in an even larger higher ceilinged hall.
In the centre of the open space stood a table on which was a sphere seemingly formed of symbols and formulae. Letters, names, numbers and images were inside it, all jumbled up and moving around in swirling patterns that were difficult to follow. Standing on opposite sides of the table were two figures. At first, from a distance, perhaps because of the Carrollian thoughts that had been passing through his mind, Zeno had the impression that they were the Lion and Unicorn. Certainly one had a pointed tusk rising from its head and the other was covered with unruly leonine hair. Then he thought of the famous Egyptian cartoon of the ferocious Lion and nervous Gazelle playing at Nard, or some other ancient game.
As they approached more closely the two creatures brought to his mind the image of Beauty and the Beast. The Lion-like figure was indeed quite asymmetrically distorted and monstrous and unkempt, while the face and form of the Gazelle-like figure was perfectly symmetrical, its hair perfectly combed and braided. It made him think of one of those "my little pony" toys that were popular at one time. He thought "It" because although Beauty was clearly more feminine in appearance than the macho Beast, neither of them was quite human.
"Who are these, Drax?" he asked.
"Well, in my days, when the world was simple, before the gods grew old and were no more, I would have called them Fate and Chance playing with the world," Drax said. "But in the age of quanta and relativity I believe you would prefer to call them Order and Chaos. As you can see, they are not at all interested in us, or indeed in humankind, or any other kind at all. They live only to play the perpetual Game of Fate to maintain the cosmic balance."
As Zeno watched he saw that each player held a sort of sceptre rather like a billiard cue with a little circular disk atttached to the tip. First one, and then the other, would insert its cue within the sphere of symbols and push or pull a symbol to a new position. In fact a better analogy, he realised, was to one of those radar plotting stations used in the Battle of Britain, the cues being like the rakes used to position the markers representing the aircraft squadrons.
"So they don't represent Good and Evil then?"
"Oh no. They are quite amoral. They care nothing for you or me or any individual person or thing. They are just the impersonal forces that guide the processes of nature."
Behind Order and Chaos was the perpetual ever-shifting purple-mauve-violet background. No matter how much Professor Cranium looked at it he could never get a clear impression of what it really was. In a way it was frustrating, but at the same time rather soothing.
"Do you know what that is that I can see behind Order and Chaos?" he asked Drax.
"Well you can't really see anything," Drax said, "That's because it's the underlying Mystery of the universe. There's no mistake in the fact that Myth and Mist and Mysterious are such similar words. Behind everything we always come to the ultimately unknowable."
The above was first published in the magazine of the Outlanders (Leicester Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Group).