Thursday, May 26, 2011

Prologue: The Golden Hour

Professor Mortimer Octavio Phigganbaum was a tall man, and undeniably stout.  While not overly corpulent, he was certain (by appearance) to have enjoyed a fair history of meals both frequent and unsparing.  Other than an occasional goatee, which was becoming less common in the recent summer heat, his head was entirely hairless.  This scarcely mattered to the professor, as his already imposing height was usually accentuated by any number of equally eccentric hats.  This combination of physical attributes created, as most things did in Mortimer’s life, a strange paradox.

The professor’s luggage, upon arriving to the university where he received his first (but not last) doctorate (this time in Aetherial Science) had sparked the attention of a particularly vocal and erstwhile junior porter.  As the clockwork carriage containing Mortimer and several of his future colleagues whirred mechanically away from the depot, a young porter by the name of Samuel Porridge turned his attention from the remarkably complicated task of loading a large sack of agitated serpents from a visiting herpetologist just in time to notice that an entire cart of suitcases, portmanteaus, and bags had been left deserted by the unloading gate.  Young Mister Porridge (of the Huffington Porridges) had only the week prior taken a position as assistant porter of train cars one through four.  Like many young men, Samuel took his first job very seriously, and strove to be the best employee Her Majesty’s Department of Mechanized Transport had ever seen.  The discovery of such an appalling oversight weighed upon him so heavily, that by the time his lunch hour arrived, Mr. Porridge had vowed to deliver the baggage personally – even if it meant his jam sandwich would go uneaten.

Mister Porridge spent the better part of a half-hour inquiring around Rivetsworth University’s dormitories after the owners of the ill-fated luggage.   While relieved and grateful students claimed much of it instantly, one lone bag eluded him.  Due to a combination of delicate etching on the bag’s brass tag, as well as Mr. Porridge’s own rather limited imagination, Samuel missed the possibility that the five letters on the owner’s suitcase were, in fact, initials.  Indeed, Samuel Porridge had nearly given up hope of locating a home for the final missing case when it dawned on him that he might be seeking a Mr. M.O.P rather than Mr. Mop.  By the time the error had been sorted, Mr Porridge had unwittingly labeled the young gentleman who had previously been destined to become the world-famous Professor Phigganbaum with the unfortunate, and completely unfitting moniker of Young Mister Mop.  Despite the fact that Mortimer looked, even in his youth, nothing at all like a mop, the name would stick throughout his life – eventually becoming “Professor Mop”. 

Mortimer accepted this nickname at first with indifference, then with growing affection as time went on.  Ultimately, he began to refer to himself as Professor Mop as well – even going so far as to, years later, stand one of the underappreciated cleaning implements near the lectern where he delivered his lessons one afternoon when he had come down with a particularly nasty flu.  The chalkboard near his desk read, “This is as close to me as some of you have paid attention all semester.  Please go enjoy the free afternoon with a random act of irresponsibility.  Exam Monday.”

Mr. Porridge had so influenced Professor Mop’s path with that one act of dedication that a few terms later, the two had become fast friends.  More than a decade had passed since that afternoon, but (despite their exceedingly different backgrounds) never in that time had either gentleman felt the urge to deliver a single unkind word upon one another.  This was due largely to a deep mutual respect.  Mr. Porridge was inspired by Professor Mop’s unlimited brilliance, while Professor Mop was in turn endeared by Mr. Porridge’s stalwart dedication and unflinching morality. 

It was Mr. Porridge on that fateful afternoon of Professor Mop’s departure from his home of many years that stood sentinel with tear-glossed eyes as the Professor made a few final arrangements.  With solemn precision, Mortimer wound the key jutting from a curious metal cube.  He made three turns, paused, cocked his head pensively, and completed the maneuver with one nearly imperceptible extra nudge to the device.  Professor Mop placed the cube upon the highest shelf of his well-worn bookcase, and arranged a copy of Berringford’s Guide to Obnoxious Insects in front of it.  A faint ticking sound emanated from the shelves.

Mr. Porridge watched his long-time friend as he retrieved the same battered bag that had united them on a long-ago fall day.  With stony determination, the professor arranged himself and his luggage in the center of a peculiar dais of  hammered copper and esoteric dials.  Once centered, Mortimer stooped to open a curious panel along the glittering edge of the platform.  Within the panel, a series of wires and pipes connected several irregularly shaped glass bulbs.  All of these bulbs, save one, was blackened and lifeless.  It was this exception to the collection that Professor Mop now attended.  As he adjusted the metal cuff surrounding the neck of the bulb, the transparent tube emitted a low hum, and slowly glowed to life.  Mortimer watched it carefully for a long moment, then sensing it was performing to his standards, he stood and gave a final smile to his old friend.  “I suppose this is it, “ he grinned.

Mr. Porridge choked back a sob, and answered with a stony fa├žade of false hope. “I suppose so, Professor, but likely you’ll be back within the hour.”

Professor Mop looked at once both sad and serene.  “Perhaps, Samuel, and perhaps not.  We will know soon enough.   One golden hour and twelve silver slivers of the sky, would you say?”  Samuel nodded bleakly.  “You remember the requirements for the party, should I return?”

“Yes, Sir.  Cochietto Number Five.”

“Thank you, Samuel.  Also, stop calling me sir.  We’ve been friends for an age!”

“Yes, S-Professor.”

The professor appeared amused. “That will have to do.  I will see you soon, dear friend, and if not. . .Well, all things in time, Samuel.  I’m off!”  With this, the Professor kicked a lever nestled next to the open panel.  With a startling hiss, a swirling eddy of golden sparks rose around him.  Mortimer Phigganbaum began to blur around the edges like an inking dipped for a moment in water.  Suddenly, Mr. Porridge became alarmed at what was becoming a nearly habitual error.  “Professor,” he shouted, “Don’t forget your case!”

It was no use, for the professor had already vanished away.  Behind him, the room smelled strongly of ozone, as well as a faint scent of pine.  Samuel regarded the case with equal parts affection and exasperation.  “Such a thing to forget,” he remarked.  As he stepped onto the dais to clear up and unpack the suitcase, Samuel Porridge had the strangest sensation of being watched.  He glanced around the room intently.  It was impossible that any living thing (or unliving for that matter) had entered the chamber since their arrival.  He was sure of both the Professor’s attention to detail, as well as his aether-locks.  It was very likely just the Professor’s own sudden disappearance that unsettled him.  He remembered the professor remarking on the lingering “miasma of essence” left behind during an “aetherial translocation”.  To Samuel, it sounded vaguely like magic, but he had had the good manners to not mention this fact to the professor.   By his foot, the final bulb had gone black.

“That’s that then, “ Samuel muttered.  He regarded the study of what was very likely his new home with a complicated mixture of gratitude and sorrow.  The professor had left explicit instructions that, should he fail to return by the following morning, the estate would fall to Mr. Porridge’s keeping.  Samuel bent to retrieve the now ownerless suitcase.  As he stood, his eyes fell on the clock arranged upon the mantle. 

 “One golden hour,” he mused. 

It was then that something struck Samuel Porridge from behind.  Before he could utter a cry, his vision blurred, and the floor rushed to meet him.