If I had to pick the exact moment I started falling for Neil, it would be when he asked me what I knew about the Feuerbach monument. I’d spent the entire day up until that point listening to presumptuous suited men telling me everything I already knew about Stonehouse University.
That’s really not enough by itself to recommend someone. But it turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. I never realized what walking, talking bundles of assumptions most people are until I met a totally unassuming person. Listening to him articulately describe esoteric knowledge was just the knockout blow.
If it was something he learned as part of the tour guide position, he certainly brought it home with him. The pattern I’ve identified in every ex of mine is that they all could at least convincingly appear that they knew what’s really going on. That they had a map nobody else could see.
The feeling of security and comfort that sort of bluster inspires is hard to come by. There’s just so few men to believe in anymore. It seems like not a week goes by without yet another scathing article about violent fraternity hazing rituals, death by alcohol poisoning or sexual assault.
I wound up asking him out after the tour was over. It seemed doubtful he ever would’ve asked me regardless of how he felt. He asked where I wanted to eat. Then whether I had any allergies. It just went on like that. I worried it might stop being charming and become irritating at some point, but it never did.
To my surprise, he showed up in the same outfit he wore during the tour. I’d mistakenly assumed it was a uniform for that purpose. Plain black garments, head to toe, covering as much of his lily white skin as possible. Not even a freckle on him, I thought. Must not get out much, aside from the tours.
“What’s that little pin mean?” He looked baffled until I pointed to it. “Oh! Yes, that.” A brooch, sort of. No jewels in it. Just one solid piece of a metal that resembled gold, only a much lighter shade, as if mixed with some other metal. It looked almost shaped like a lowercase letter ‘y’ with a little tail that curves up at the bottom, but jagged...like lightning.
“It’s related to my work. Nothing we need to discuss, I’m content simply to enjoy your company.” His work...as a tour guide? However sweet his smile, it seemed like a red flag. I tried googling “weird shaped Y” later that night, concerned it may be the symbol for some sort of hate group or something, but could find no matches.
On the subsequent date to the local book store, coffee shop hybrid, I pressed the matter. Not overtly, I just brought it up in ways that made it very difficult and awkward to change the subject. “I tried the university website to see if it’s associated with their alumni organization or something.”
He assured me it’s nothing of that nature. “If I explain it, will you promise to leave it alone?” I nodded. “Will you promise to also go in without any preconceived notions?” I answered that I doubted if that was actually possible for anybody except an infant. He smiled.
“That’s a good answer. Alright, follow me.” I hurried behind him in confusion as he walked briskly to the science fiction section. Once there, he scanned a QR code sticker which brought up some sort of guide on his phone, which then helped him find the book he was after.
I covered my mouth so he wouldn’t see me smirk. He noticed anyway. “It’s just, you’re such a nerd” I confessed. He blushed, then resumed hunting down a specific dusty old red book with no jacket, and ornate flowery embellishments drawn around the cover’s border in black ink.
In the center there was some sort of oil lamp, or lantern. A single candle atop it sent out radiating beams of light. “This isn’t first edition of course, but it’s an accurate reproduction. I have an actual first edition at home and it looks just like this, if a little more weathered.”
That’s when it first occurred to me that this could be some sort of weird religious thing. I resolved to at least hear him out before making any judgements. He’d already begun to rub off on me in that respect. After he invited me to choose seating, the two of us huddled over the curious red book.
“Do you recall when the original War of the Worlds radio drama aired, that a great many people took it as a genuine news broadcast?” I asked him just how old he imagined I must be. “I don’t mean you were literally around to-” I cut him off, assuring him I was just teasing.
He only seemed frustrated by it. “Yes, well. A great many took it for factual reporting. Men got their guns and massed in town centers to fight the Martians, while women and children barricaded themselves in storm cellars and any other shelter they hoped would hold.”
I reassured him I really was just being silly a moment ago. His expression softened. Whatever he was getting at, I could tell he was to some degree emotionally invested, and made note to tread more lightly going forward. “So this is the novelization of that radio drama?”
He denied it. “No, I’m making the comparison because when this was published, it was also widely interpreted as a factual account. Wealthy men, educated ones, financed expeditions to seek out the subterranean civilization which Edward Bulwer-Lytton described in-”
Despite myself, I interrupted again. It’s something I then realized I’d also never seen him do. “I’m sorry, did you say subterranean? Like, a literal underground society?” He waited several seconds in silence, presumably to ensure I was done. I clasped my hands together in my lap and pursed my lips.
“...Yes. Underground. Deep, deep underground, built into a vast network of caverns, including a series of depleted aquifers with which they intersect. According to Bulwer-Lytton, this civilization was constructed and inhabited by a race of beings which call themselves the Vril-ya.”
I maintained composure, but only by a hair. Boy did that escalate quickly. When he didn’t continue, I interpreted it as invitation to question. “What did he base this on? Why would anybody believe it?” He fidgeted with his pin as he answered.
“Helena Blavatsky, William Scott-Elliot, and Rudolf Steiner are among the notable theosophists who affirm the truth of Bulwer-Lytton’s claims, to varying degrees. They claim, as with many of the wealthy financiers of those expeditions I told you about, to have seen and handled artifacts stolen from the Vril-ya.”
I studied his face, searching for any indications of how seriously he took all of this. I couldn’t discern one way or the other, even as he went on about the details of this...underground Atlantis. “The Vril-ya were said to be a pre-flood civilization which survived by seeking refuge underground. Including the freshly depleted aquifers and other great chasms within the Earth from which some of that flood water came.”
Oh, the Biblical flood. Of course. How silly of me. I didn’t object though. I wanted to listen to Neil gab about something interesting. Having just gotten him going, I wasn’t going to put a stop to it just because I knew he was bullshitting me.
“By their own account, the Vril-ya evolved from frogs. But they are in the habit of feeding outlandish misinformation to outsiders, keeping the actual details of their origins a closely guarded secret, along with the nature of the energy source which powers all of their technology.”
My ears perked up. He seemed to pick up on it, and his theatrics intensified. I glanced over to see another couple eavesdropping with disturbed looks on their faces. “Me too” I thought, though I was still pretty sure I wanted to bring Neil back to the dorm with me after this.
“Yes, Vril. The titular ‘power of the coming race’. A form of energy storage which is a stable liquid at room temperature and sea level air pressure, making it as convenient to handle or transport as gasoline. Yet also an order of magnitude more energy dense than even uranium, thorium or plutonium.”
I asked what they needed all that energy for. “To live underground. That’s naturally a very harsh environment. The propagation of Europeans throughout the world, their success in conquest and enslaving native populations owed in large part to the formidably harsh northern conditions which forged them.”
About a million things my sociology professor would want to say to that ran through my head, but I’d already stepped on his toes twice, so I just nodded and waited for more. It was at least a fascinating story, and depending on whether Neil regarded it as fiction, I may also have baited him into letting some of his crazy out.
“They needed Vril to power everything from lights, heaters, dehumidifiers, to water pumps and other necessities just to make those caverns into a comfortable environment in which to live. But with such incredible energy density, it also could be used for excavating new tunnels and chambers, converting the obstructing rock immediately into vapor before safely redirecting it into volcanic emissions.”
I briefly pictured Neil as a frantic, sign-wearing hobo ranting about all of this on a street corner. Yet because he seemed so put together, I still reserved judgement. He was plainly connected enough with reality to succeed academically, and to hold down his job as tour guide. I expected at the end he’d reveal that he was pulling my leg, but wanted to draw me in until then.
Instead, he just continued to play it totally straight. “So far as humanity’s best and brightest can tell, Vril consists of antimatter contained not within a huge bulky electromagnetic confinement device as physicists use today, but instead individual molecular cages arranged in geodesic spheres you may know as buckyballs.”
I nodded and rubbed my chin to appear as if I was giving all of this serious consideration, while waiting for a punchline that never came. “This contains antimatter safely, since loss of confinement results in a much less energetic reaction than it would if a large volume of antimatter were to escape a conventional electromagnetic confinement chamber. The amount of energy released when a single confinement molecule fails is insufficient to break the bonds of neighboring molecules, preventing a chain reaction.”
I drummed my fingers on my thigh with one hand, nursing my coffee with the other. I wouldn’t even have bought it except that they come hassle you for hanging out in their lounge if you don’t. Neil never touched his.
When it seemed there was an opening, I asked him why he spoke about all of this as if it were real. He gave me a faint, knowing smile. Many possible ways to interpret that, none of which I found agreeable.
“You must know at least one jeweler, yes?” He gestured to my admittedly ostentatious earrings. “One, yes. Friend of the family.” He removed his weird little pin and handed it to me. I tried to give it back, worried it might be an heirloom or something.
“This isn’t necessary Neil. I believe you.” He closed my hand over the pin with his own. “No you don’t. But I’d think you were gullible if you did, just like that. Why don’t you take that pin to your jeweler and ask them what it’s made out of.”
Alright. I get it now, I thought. He’s really all in. He lives and breathes this fantasy. Uses it to capture the interest of naive freshman girls. He must have some success with it too, if he went so far as to dress the part and have this custom broach made.
“...Alright Neil. I will, for sure.” I worried he’d know I was lying, but he seemed to take it at face value. For the next two hours we talked about comparatively banal stuff. Campus policing, pledge drives, new clubs and so on. It’s amazing how he became an ostensibly normal, cogent person once we started talking about that stuff. Like he can just turn the crazy on and off at will.
I didn’t see him for a few weeks after that. I kept worrying one day I’d wake up to a huge backlog of angry, hurt texts from him in my phone, but nothing. He made zero efforts whatsoever to contact me after that. No emails, no calls, not even a wave when I would spot him shepherding prospective new students around campus.
It felt a little bit insulting, even. Wasn’t he into me? It seemed that way for awhile at least. I stewed over it for day after day until I remembered I still had his pin rattling around in my desk drawer. It matched up with a runic symbol I at last was able to find on Google when I searched some terms from the story he told me in the book store.
Loads of batshit conspiracy stuff came up. Page after page of it. Nazis. UFOs. Shape shifting lizard people. The hollow Earth. The entire gamut of warning signs that someone’s off their meds. Another strange symbol appeared over and over. Something like a broken wagon wheel.
I wondered if perhaps I was too hasty. I mean, I dated a Scientologist once. This Vril stuff didn’t look any crazier than Xenu, thetans and engrams. I worried I might’ve stomped on the feelings of someone who, in the brief time I’d known him, had only ever been a soft spoken sweetheart to me.
But the next day when I waited for him at the Feuerbach monument, he was chatting up another freshman with long blonde hair like mine. Feeding her the same load of nonsense about underground cities and the great flood, by the looks of it.
My initial, cynical suspicion seemed vindicated. He noticed me and seemed as if he was going to say something, but didn’t. As I got up to leave, I noticed in passing that there was a Vril rune carved into the monument with many other similar markings.
He must’ve taken an interest in it himself. Researched it, then worked it into a routine he could use to impress girls. I shouldn’t have doubted my first instinct. When I finally took that stupid pin to my jeweler, it was to sell it. Figured I may as well, considering.
“I’d sure love to know where he got this” Mr. Kamiński mumbled as he scrutinized the pin under intense magnification. When I asked why, he said “It’s made of an alloy consisting of one part gold and three parts titanium. Very rare, known to metallurgists as beta titanium-3 gold.”
I furrowed my brow. “Wait. Rare? How rare we talking?” He switched to another lens, still studying the odd little trinket through a monocular scope. “It was only invented this year. Nobody’s making jewelry out of it yet. But that’s the other strange thing.”
He showed me some magnified photographs of what the captions identified as worthless replicas of designer earrings. “There’s no sign that it was laser cut. Or stamped. Or made from a mold. The edges are perfectly sharp, however close I look. I can’t look any closer without an electron microscope, but-”
I snatched the pin from him, paid him for his time, then rushed it back to my dorm. When Melanie returned, I foisted the pin on her and explained everything I could about its origin without coming off like an escaped mental patient.
“Yeah, I have access to an electron microscope in the materials lab. Technically it’s not for personal use, but you should see some of the dumb shit the guys in my program use the 3D printers for.” I asked if that meant she’d check it out for me. “Sure I guess. You’ll have to buy me pizza though.”
I told her more about Neil and how we met over the pizza. “Oh yeah, that guy. He told me the same goofy shit back when I did the tour, before orientation. Set off all kinds of alarms in my head. I can’t believe you went anywhere alone with him.”
I insisted we’d gone on only a few dates and all of them to public places. “You say that” she cautioned, mouth full of pepperoni and olive, “but I bet you wake up one night and he’s under your bed jerking it to the sound of your breathing.”
I laughed, equal parts amused and mortified, until some pizza came up the wrong pipe. Getting the coughing under control was made more difficult as Melanie didn’t offer any help, instead pantomiming Neil wanking under my bed.
“God damnit Melanie” I wheezed. She just kept laughing, but did eventually bring me a water bottle. That might’ve been the end of it. I was certainly ready for her to come back and tell me it was just something he’d paid to have custom machined, maybe gotten ahold of the alloy through an unscrupulous friend in the materials lab.
Instead, when Melanie returned the pin to me, she just looked troubled. “So what’d you find? A nanoscale ‘made in China’ on the back?” She didn’t smile. “Where did he say he got this thing?” I balked at her. Not Melanie too. I briefly entertained the thought that I was on some elaborate hidden camera show.
“What’s the big deal? It’s a piece of metal.” She turned it over in her hands, peering at it intently as she replied. “The alloy is brand new. It doesn’t exist outside the lab yet. It’s a perfectly cubic molecule which repeats in a three dimensional grid. Four times stronger than plain titanium.”
Big deal. So he must know somebody responsible for developing it, and they smuggled him a sample. “There’s no indication of how it was made. It’s formed perfectly down to the atomic level. It only doesn’t cut you when you touch it because the edges were deliberately beveled.”
I asked her what all of that’s supposed to mean about the pin’s origin. “I don’t know yet. But to be honest I wonder if he’d go to all the trouble of getting ahold of this alloy illegally, then risking prison time by having it machined in one of the vanishingly few facilities capable of this level of precision...just to get laid.”
I objected that he does in fact have a Y chromosome, so yes he would. She did smile at that one. “Okay, okay. Granted. But that is an awful lot of trouble to go through. My mother’s a psychologist and was never as tight lipped about her patients as she was supposed to be. So I’ve heard loads about wackadoos.
Many of them retreated into fantasy as a coping mechanism because of traumatic loss. They crave external validation, wanting more than anything else to be surrounded by other people who believe as they do. Leon Festinger wrote a fascinating case study about this effect. That’s the sort of thing I got for my bedtime stories.”
It made me think about Neil differently. Perhaps one of his parents died violently? Or someone he was in love with. This elaborate delusion was then simply his way of papering over that hole in his heart, just enough that he could keep getting out of bed each morning.
When I tried to take the pin from Melanie, she didn’t let go right away. I stared at her. “Well, it’s just. I could still take it back to the lab for more tests, maybe there’s more about it…” I put my hands on my hips. “...Alright” she confessed. “It probably is worth a lot of money. Potentially.”
I pried it out of her fingers, newly protective of it. “The thing is” she stipulated, “it’s made of a one of a kind alloy. Eventually somebody will take a closer look at it, realize that, and it will quickly be traced back to the lab it must’ve come from. Depending on how many times it’s changed hands since then, it’s not unlikely that the cops could come around, wanting to question you about it.”
That took the wind out of my sails. One moment, excited that I could pay my tuition in whole or in large part with a trinket I’d been given for free. But she was right. I would at least have to wait until the alloy entered common use, so it wouldn’t be so obvious where the pin came from.
I mulled over my options the next day. We weren’t into the material proper yet, the professor had us doing some ridiculous team building exercises like trust falling which made me second guess how wisely I’d chosen to spend the money left to me for college.
It gave me time to think, though. While falling blindfolded into sweaty nervous hands which nearly dropped me twice. That experience had quite the opposite of the intended effect, all told. I only came away from it more embroiled than ever in tangled thoughts of subterranean civilizations and fantastical energy sources.
He must’ve done this so I’d have to return the pin. But then, does that mean it’s made of something new every time? I could hardly believe he had such discreet, guaranteed access to bleeding edge materials research facilities that he could reliably get ahold of samples without management eventually getting wise to it.
Regardless, I had to return it. I wanted to be done with the matter, not to keep this niggling little reminder of a first year fling hanging around to torment me with thoughts of what might’ve been. The more I dwelled on it, the more I worried that I really had misjudged Neil too.
He’d been chatting up that girl the other day. But then, that’s his job. I didn’t hear him saying anything affectionate, come to think of it. It’s no great crime to be eccentric either, especially if it’s how you’ve chosen to overcome a painful past.
As a result, even while feelings of embarrassment conspired to prevent it, I sought out Neil in order to return the pin. It was as easy as ever, I simply went through the tour a second time and waited until it was over. This time he greeted me with the same warm, gentle smile, as if nothing ever happened between us.
I held out the pin. He met my gaze. “Did you have it looked at?” I warily nodded. “What did your jeweler say?” I insisted Neil take the pin so I could leave. That faint, irritating smirk again! “I see. It’s for the best this way. It never would’ve worked out between us for very long, anyhow.” He took the pin and refastened it to his smooth black shirt.
I wondered for a moment whether to take that as a slight. Just another attempt to draw me back into a quagmire I was determined to escape from, I concluded. Not today. I turned tail and left him standing there, a puzzle I would never solve but that I didn’t care to.
That’s what I thought at the time, anyway. I didn’t yet feel it, but there was a splinter in my mind. A nagging curiosity which grew louder and more difficult to ignore as one week rolled into the next. That nagging possibility, one in a trillion, that there might’ve been something to it all.
Not necessarily the X-Files type stuff about underground supermen with limitless energy, but the thing with the pin…I couldn’t account for it, so I couldn’t leave it alone. All of the mundane explanations I could come up with had glaring flaws which made them unsatisfying.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote that after you’ve eliminated all other possibilities, whatever remains must be true, no matter how improbable. That ignores the undoubtedly countless possibilities which just haven’t occurred to me...but try as I might, I couldn’t get anything to stick. To smack of reality, to make all of the pieces come together just right.
That’s when I knew I was going to meet with Neil again. Damn it all, I didn’t want to. I just couldn’t stop thinking about the whole baffling mess. The book. The pin. Melanie’s psychoanalytic speculation. I resolved, at the very least, to return armed with more than just questions.
The first thing I did was to plug his name into Google. Nothing much turned up outside of his involvement with the university. No forgotten forum posts, no abandoned social media accounts on obsolete platforms, no paper trail of any kind.
Must’ve paid some sort of service to delist everything before he started attending Stonehouse U. Anticipating somebody he talked up would try this, wanting to preserve his oddball mystique. Next I tried searching the university staff list. Surprisingly there was an entry for him...but not related to the campus tours.
Under a grainy, smiling photo of Neil, he was identified as a research assistant to one “Hieronymus P. Travigan”. I really had to dig to find anything on the official page about that guy, it was tucked away in a section you could only get to from that profile link, as it wasn’t listed in the main site directory.
Just a brief blurb acknowledging that he’s still alive and on the payroll, then a small map of the campus with a green outline around the building where I could expect to find him. That, too, turned out to be an unforeseen oddity.
I’ve walked through that part of campus a few times now and never seen the building indicated. When I specifically went in search of it though, there it was all of a sudden. The fact that it was surrounded on all sides by maple trees made sense of why I never noticed it before.
I was still marveling at how close to invisible this place was from the street when I rang the doorbell. The charming little building concealed amidst the trees resembled an old Victorian house, never painted that I could tell. All of it just ornate designs carved from dark, polished wood.
“Yes, what is it about?” I could see only a dimly illuminated sliver of the man speaking to me through the crack in the door. Elderly, by the sound of it. “I saw on the website that Neil Schreiber works with you.” He went silent for a moment, then asked how I knew Neil.
I told him about the tour. About the Feuerbach monument, the dates, and the pin. He chuckled a little bit at the end, but then unfastened the security chain on the door and opened it fully. “You’re one of Neil’s recruits, then. You should’ve said so straight away. Come in, come in!”
Recruits? I didn’t quite know what to make of that. Briefly, I remembered the other girl Neil was talking to at the monument. But I’d apparently said the right things to gain an audience with this hobbling little grey haired hunchback, I didn’t feel it necessary to endanger that by picking at nits.
As he led me down the poorly lit corridor, I first took notice that the interior was even more lavishly decorated than the exterior. Every available space was embellished with finely carved flourishes. Not just the ceilings but the wall panels, wainscots and support pillars as well. I crossed my arms, paranoid I might accidentally damage some of it.
The next thing I noticed were all manner of bizarre antique machines on display at every turn. I couldn’t guess at their purpose. One looked to be a welded metal chair encircled by a pair of toroidal glass vacuum tubes, held at an angle relative to one another by a set of primitive looking robot arms.
Taking up the most space by far was what could only be the remains of a Soyuz capsule, but with some spherical device the likes of which I’ve never seen before integrated into the cockpit where another cosmonaut would normally sit.
“Sssoooo….you keep this stuff….for a museum?” He guffawed. “No my dear girl, it’s a private collection I’m afraid. Not for just anybody’s eyes, though if you know Neil, that’s good enough for me. Lovely earrings by the by, they really bring out the orgone in your eyes.”
Odd way to say it. I don’t know what color orgone is supposed to be, but I appreciated the kind words. I wear these over the top earrings mostly because they often elicit revealing reactions from people. If they’re a closeted shitheel for example, this way I have a chance at an early warning.
We arrived in a lavishly appointed sitting room that seemed a suspiciously long ways from the entrance, given how small this house looked from the outside. The doddering old professor returned a few minutes later with freshly brewed tea.
“Now tell me” he urged while pouring some into my cup. “What’s all of this about?” I didn’t yet know enough about him to gauge how much or little I should reveal. But given clear signs that I was dealing with another eccentric, I doubted if I needed to self-censor.
After unloading it all on him, he blinked a few times, then exhaled. “My goodness. I see why you sought me out. I didn’t realize you broke it off. I assumed you’d at least been initiated already.” Initiated? Could this be related to the frats and sororities somehow?
An alternate meaning then occurred to me, and I started to worry it could all be some Heaven’s Gate kind of thing. I set the tea down and scooched it towards the center of the tray to signal that I didn’t intend to finish it. He looked concerned, but didn’t mention it.
“Neil is an associate of mine, it’s true. I rarely deal with him directly though, Zachary handles that for me. Are you and Zachary acquainted?” I told him I don’t personally know anybody by that name. “Oh, that’s a shame. Bright young lad, next in line to head up this department should I ever kick the bucket for good.”
That last part snagged my ear and I dwelled on what he could’ve meant by it, but he plowed right into the ensuing spiel so quickly that I set it aside in order to pay closer attention. “Now, the Vril-ya are not actually descended from frogs of course, at least not as recently as they mean for us to believe. That’s self-evident from their hominid physiology and appearance, although they certainly have tampered with their own genome quite liberally.”
It didn’t surprise me Neil knew this guy, given how matter of factly he launched right into crazytown in the span of a few sentences. “What I and the other fellows at the Institute have determined from what little genetic material of theirs that we’ve been able to scavenge is that they are descended from neandertals.”
I asked if he meant the extinct species of protohuman that used to dominate Northern Europe before Homo Sapiens drove them to extinction. “The very one!” he exclaimed, eyes twinkling. Probably just thrilled to have company. Who else knows about this building?
“Now, they were never terribly photogenic, but they were unusually bright. Brains wired differently from our own ancestors, possessing some capacities in advance of our own, though others were deficient by comparison. Having already survived the ice age by retreating underground, it came as second nature to them when the next great cataclysm befell their lands.”
Oh, yes. The flood. Noah piling two of every species on Earth into a boat he built with his sons, somehow. Travigan detected the shift in my demeanor. “Don’t be so hasty, my dear. There was indeed a flood, local to the Middle East, which reputable archaeologists consider the basis for all the legends.”
In fact I did read something to that effect years ago. I can’t remember how credible the source was. But flooding localized to the modern day Middle East could never have spread to Northern Europe. When I asked about it, he readily gave me a superficially plausible sounding answer involving localized melting of glaciers.
“Early experiments with Vril, as with any newly discovered energy source, occasionally met with spectacularly disastrous results. Their own equivalent of Chernobyl, or Three Mile Island. No lingering radiation, mercifully. Matter/antimatter reactions, while fiercely hot, don’t irradiate their surrounding environment the way nuclear explosions do.”
More and more of it kept tumbling out of his mouth, as if he were wholly oblivious to how bonkers it all sounds. “In truth, their retreat was as much from the encroaching homo sapiens as it was from the aftermath of their own scientific accidents. If anything, the flooding drove our ancestors out long enough for the Vril-ya to seal up and conceal every entrance to their caves, taking all traces of their technology with them...so it wouldn’t end up in our hands.”
He winked for reasons unclear to me until he produced the incomplete remains of a gauntlet made out of a familiar pale yellow alloy. “You...don’t mean…?” He nodded. “You’ll never find this in any museum, I can assure you of that. Nor any of the other artifacts we’ve recovered. I’d like to tell you we found them lying about, except the Vril-ya are anything but careless.”
He leaned in, now whispering. “It is possible to kill one of them, you know. Don’t be fooled by their looks. They bleed the same red blood as either of us. At least until you take a close enough look at the DNA, but that’s beside the point. It is difficult and unfathomably dangerous, but they can be killed.”
At this point I noticed he wore a ring bearing that...broken wagon wheel symbol that turned up in my internet searches. The spokes, if that’s what they are, abruptly taking a ninety degree detour, then another before resuming their path to the circular outer rim.
“So how is it you know all this?” I pried. “Did one of these...Vril-ya...just appear to you one day and tell it to you?” He scoffed. “I should think not. They don’t just ‘appear’ before any of us without a great deal of enticement. To orchestrate such a diplomatic meeting, if what they do could be called diplomacy, is Neil’s business not mine. He takes care of all that hoopla for me, so that I never have to deal with those insufferable creatures.”
At last, something I could use. “He organizes meetings, then? Where do they take place?” He pushed a small pair of spectacles up his nose a short ways and peered at me through them. “You could ask Neil to take you. If you just show up, uninvited, it’s liable to end quite disagreeably for you indeed.”
The implied threat was not lost on me. “I don’t know what you want with the Vril-ya, though” he added. “They’re fool’s gold, in the flesh. Captivating to look at, don’t get me wrong. But the more dealings you have with them, the more you will come to realize how irreconcilable the cultural differences between our species truly are.
The thing about evolving from frogs is far and away not the only lie you’ll hear from them. Damn near everything that comes out of their perfectly sculpted mouths is a lie. They just have no qualms about lying right to our faces about even trivial matters. If ever you were to catch them in one of their lies, if they didn’t indignantly vaporize you with a thought, they’d just double down on it with total apparent sincerity.
It’s not sociopathy either. Not exactly. By all accounts from Institute spies, they are scrupulously honorable with others of their own kind. It’s only humans they have no regard for. Culturally ingrained collective narcissism might be a more accurate diagnosis.
You see, they no longer resemble their neandertal ancestors. After mastering genetic engineering while the brightest human minds on the Earth’s surface were busy mastering gunpowder, the Vril-ya set about radically altering their genome.
They already engaged in some limited form of selective breeding before that, as I understand it, but it accomplished very little measurable improvement compared to the sudden leaps and bounds which resulted from their mastery of genetic engineering.”
I still wasn’t about to touch the tea, but now wished I had popcorn. Far from put off, now desensitized to the strangeness of it all, I’d become engrossed. “Even so, they are not actually as far in advance of us as their disproportionate self-regard would lead you to believe. That’s purely cultural, the result of thousands of years isolated underground. With no competition and nobody to dispute it, naturally they identified themselves as the supreme form of life in existence, and dedicated more than one holiday to ritualistic self-congratulation.”
Charming. I could think of two exes in particular who, in retrospect, sounded a lot like the professor’s description. “Don’t you ever speak to one directly without being invited to. You’ll be gone in a puff of superheated vapor. Even if invited, never make eye contact and never speak as though you know anything at all about anything.”
Neil’s unassuming nature came to mind. “Most of all, despite what I said before, do not ever put yourself into a position to fight one of them unless there’s no alternative. Besides their considerable physical advantage, they are never without a Vril staff. It is to them much as smartphones are to us. A general all-purpose gadget representing the apex of their technology which every Vril-ya, even their children, own at least one of.
There is no better way to describe it than the sum total of all human manufacturing capabilities miniaturized into a portable form the size of a walking stick. It actively reads the owner’s mind, and translates their intention into reality by reconfiguring matter into any form, or disassociating it entirely if all they wish to do is destroy.
Mind you the children’s staffs are carefully constrained so they don’t hurt themselves or one another. Though the gy-ei, their women, usually possess staffs with less destructive potential than those wielded by males, it seems to be by their own choice.
All of the intel gathered to date bears out apparent gender equality in their society, not as a recent development but as a foundational tradition. Do not imagine the gy-ei are any less dangerous, though. One percent the destructive potential of even a child’s Vril staff is still enough to cripple you, if judiciously applied.”
I asked how it is that he managed to overcome one of them and steal the artifacts in his possession. “Well I didn’t do it personally! Never said I did, either. The Institute has its fingers in many different pies. Rest assured they have agents younger and fitter than I, armed with the most potent forgotten technologies in our possession with which to keep the Vril-ya in check.
Though really, Neil’s...activities...are also a great help with placating those pricks. Don’t tell him I said that, though. He’s always trying to talk me into attending the rituals. If I never lay eyes on another Vril-ya, it will be too soon.”
I turned my attention to my phone, thumbs a blur as I hammered out a text to Neil asking him if we could meet at the bookstore again. When I next looked up, professor Travigan had nodded off and was now snoring, spectacles dangling precariously on the end of his nose.
I saw myself out, and received a text from Neil on the drive back to my dorm. It just said “Ok” followed by a time and date. I couldn’t blame him, given that I’d cut him out of my life so abruptly. Still...I expected more than “Ok”. The more I dwelled on it, the more I realized that I still felt something for Neil.
My affections were strong as ever, just lurking in the background, overshadowed by concerns about his sanity. I experimented, on the way back to my dorm, with a new perspective. Neil as a suffering creative type. But then, what about the professor?
Folie a deux? Is he the one responsible for inspiring Neil’s delusion? Or does he simply cultivate it for his own reasons? I resolved to ask Neil directly about his relation to the old man the next time I met up with him.
It would have to wait though, as I had sociology in the evening. The lecture hall was packed, probably more so than it would be for the remainder of the semester. Plenty of these people knew enough to show up for the first few classes, but from what I’ve heard, I could expect them to thin out as the weeks wore on.
To my amusement, someone more daring than smart had one of those plug in electric griddles set up in the furthest row. By the smell of it, he was using it to to make grilled cheese sandwiches. The professor, still busy unpacking her bag and preparing the lesson, either didn’t notice or wasn’t bothered enough to call him out.
“I’ve learned from experience not to assume any of you so much as read the introductory chapter.” There was an accusatory but open inflection to it. Nobody corrected her, so she continued. “The historical crimes of European colonialists were motivated of course by the pursuit of material wealth, which is to say the natural resources of the lands they plundered.
But beauty is also a natural resource and form of wealth, for the sake of which no small number of terrible things have been done. For example, some of you may be aware that Vikings preferentially brought back only the most comely women as brides, contributing to the appearance of Northern Europeans in the modern day.” With that, she powered up the aging projector, which then took its sweet time warming up.
"Beauty is out of the hands of the individual, though. Not only do you have no choice whether to be born beautiful, but also no choice as to the beauty standards of the culture you’re born into. So imagine the feelings of a Georgian peasant girl in the seventeenth century upon learning that she is considered, by all learned men, to be representative of the greatest pinnacle humanity has yet reached and might ever aspire to.”
The first image to appear on the projected screen was one of a girl laying in a field of flowers with hair just a shade lighter than mine, and piercing blue eyes. I suddenly felt the uncomfortable sensation of many eyes upon me. The instructor picked up on it. “That’s by no fault of her own, you realise! She took no part in the history of rape and plunder which shaped her genome. She harbors no such delusions about herself, but would nevertheless become a pawn in a perverse game played by powerful men over the subsequent two centuries.”
The picture changed to propaganda posters from the Third Reich depicting statuesque, well toned blonde women with their arms outstretched to Hitler. “When we first mastered the principles of heredity, and thought to apply it to moulding the overall traits of humankind, the one thing it seemed everybody could agree on is that we should all be blondes for whatever reason. Also that we should have blue eyes and other typically nordic features. That was the first consideration. Not intelligence mind you, or why blondes?”
Some scattered laughter and snickering. “No, the first consideration was, how do we destroy ugly people forever? How do we sacrifice them for our betterment? Burn them as garbage, so that we can be forever beautiful, perfect and pure? In appearance of course. The only thing that matters to regimes of that sort.
But as it turned out, blondes aren’t super humans. At least not for combat purposes. To be fair, plenty of the Soviet troops were blonde and blue eyed, as were no small number of American soldiers sent against the Reich.
I wonder what Nazi officials would think of the fact that their actions ultimately served to steeply reduce the number of blondes in the world...no doubt if we’d left anything to survive of that regime, they would regard their loss as our best Aryans defeating their own, survival of the fittest.
Never you mind that the very concept of ‘Aryan’ was rooted in foolish superstition concerning the origins of Europeans as an offshoot of Indians. That was the smallest part of it though. I could teach a whole course just about the insane fever dreams the Nazis had, about how Tibetans are hiding the entrance to the hollow Earth. The sort of thing that only makes sense when you find out that their top officials were all tweakers.
I mean shit, usually tweakers are harmless. They burn themselves out in a few years, at worst they’ll kill another junkie in a fight or something. That’s not to make light of their suffering, meth addicts are human beings. But about the worst place I can imagine for one of them to wind up is in a position where they have a guaranteed, unlimited supply of both meth and control over other people’s lives. That’s a recipe for the total devastation of Europe and Japan.
The fanatical National Socialist quest for perfection really boiled down to the quest to make everybody beautiful. A full, unironic embrace of flash over substance. A betrayal of all other principles for the sake of the superficially gratifying. So that even if no other improvements occur in the future, and even if we have to commit unthinkable atrocities to achieve it, at least we’ll all look real pretty.”
The slide changed, now depicting a set of skulls with various instruments being used to measure their dimensions. “Starting from...firm...knowledge of what their penises liked, the assuredly unbiased and in all ways distinguished gentlemen responsible for racial science of the day went about justifying, post-hoc, why blondes should become the only form of humanity.
Note the typical unexamined male perspective at work here. The features they imagined were objectively most beautiful for both men and women also happened to be the most delicate. If women had instead been the judges of objective human beauty, what would their ideal humanity look like?”
Now most of the eyes were on the only black student in the room, who by the looks of it was entirely receptive to the professor’s implication. “...But that would be no less partial!” He deflated somewhat, but took it in good humor.
“Whenever human beings set themselves up in a position of supposed objectivity to judge this or that, the outcome tends to look suspiciously in tune with their sexual preferences, whether that was their conscious intent or not. We cultivate what arouses us and diminish what doesn’t.
That’s what it came down to. The wiles of fair skinned, golden haired, blue eyed maidens from the alpine regions of Europe. Scooped up by these power mad white colonialists and made into a commodity. The Third Reich killed for it. They died for it.
Joseph Smith went so far as to create a religion devoted in large part to preserving those features. A beauty which sank a thousand ships, and I’m sorry to say will probably will sink more in our time, so long as military leadership remains male dominated.”
I felt the paper cover from a drinking straw hit the side of my neck, followed by some juvenile giggling. I didn’t bother to turn around. “By no fault of their own!” the professor reiterated. “There remains stigma against undue fetishization of these features, even in the present day. It’s one thing to appreciate a beautiful woman. It’s another to think oh, she’s got the right hair. She’s got the right eyes. Maybe there’s a chance to carry on the fight? Maybe one day, our children…”
She trailed off as she changed the slide to a page of her notes about which websites we should look at to learn more about the pseudoscience of race, of comparative craniology and the origin of “Caucasian” as a category of people. All around me, other students began to gather their things. The dude who grilled his breakfast earlier was already long gone, somehow packing it all up and slipping away without my notice.
“Before you all go” the professor urged, “there’s going to be a disability focused solidarity march this evening. Everybody is encouraged to include someone they know who is either differently abled or whose perspective could perhaps benefit from meeting such people.
There will be punch and gluten-free cookies afterward, as well as a safe space for asking honest questions you might have about the lived experiences of the differently abled. I can’t tell you to donate, but I can tell you all the donations go to a charitable foundation which has been set up to...ahem...assist the physically and mentally handicapped with...intimate bedroom activities.”
Some stragglers blushed, or laughed with one hand over their mouth. “It’s something I’m sure all you take for granted, but which is a huge quality of life improvement for a quadrupelegic, or someone with significant mental impairment. Depending what I work out with the dean, I might be able to swing extra credit for any of you that stick it out to the end with me tonight.”
On my way through campus to the dorms, I passed the beginnings of the disability march. At least I think that’s what it was. A muscular, neon green haired transwoman in a leotard with abruptly projecting E-cup implants was being led around on a leash by a legless Asian midget in a wheelchair while bystanders clapped...some of them tearful.
I smiled. Typical fare for Stonehouse U, part of why I chose it. The more I learned about the basis for Neil’s weird racist cult, the more it reinforced my own convictions. The age of exclusion, of flash over substance, of anything-for-beauty, is at an end. A funeral with no mourners, instead that grave is now danced upon by the children of a softer, kinder age. The age of inclusion.
I spotted Neil sitting on one of the benches around the Feuerbach monument, looking dejected. Thinking about me? Or perhaps one of the conspicuously nordic looking freshmen he often chats up here gave him a richly deserved earful.
I’m fresh out of anger and jealousy though. After seeing firsthand where he got his crazy ideas from, and cottoning to the probable emotional reason for his...rich fantasy life...I only wanted to apologize. For ducking out of his life almost as soon as I’d entered it, and taking a huge shit all over beliefs I now suspected were the only thing keeping him going.
He noticed me as I approached. I waved weakly. He smiled, but said nothing. “I met your friend today”. He looked briefly confused until I clarified that I meant professor Travigan. “Oh, him. He and I are only associated in an official capacity. The...organization...he represents technically owns the Feuerbach monument.”
I blinked. “You said during the tour that it was donated to the university.” He affirmed it, but with a caveat. “The monument and the land it’s on are nevertheless on the books as property of The Institute.” I asked which institute. He smirked in passing, then prattled on about legalese as if I never asked.
“Neil, I need to talk to you about something important.” He trailed off...then looked at me with those adorable baby blues, wide open and waiting. “I don’t know how to say this, but...I also can’t say nothing anymore. I really care about you! I don’t know how it happened exactly. You swept me up in your fantasy I guess, by the time I got reoriented it was too late. I got my heart all fucking entangled.
That’s why I don’t just leave you alone, or write it off as a fling. I think I see something of myself in you. I’ve been through some shit we didn’t have occasion to talk about. Probably would’ve if we’d kept dating. But I dealt with it the same way you have, I retreated into my own head.”
He motioned to interrupt, but I steamrolled him. “No, it’s alright. I know it’s all a game you play. I was angry when I thought it was just a way to sleep with naive freshman girls. But after speaking to Travigan, I can see what’s really going on here. You had me fooled for a little while! That’s what you wanted, right? For someone to believe it. To live in that fantasy world with you, for however long you could maintain the charade.”
Stunned until now, he shifted back in his seat, arms folded and gently smiled as I laid it all out. “Even so, you’re being selfish by making other people part of how you cope, without telling them that’s what it is. It’s emotionally irresponsible to suck them into your life like that, to encourage them to care, when all they are to you is a source of independent affirmation.
That’s not fair, Neil. It wasn’t fair to me. I’ve been hurt too, just like you. I’m as real as you are, and I’d like to think I was more to you than a prop. Somebody to get satisfaction from fooling. But even if I wasn’t, I’m in too deep now. I can’t let you keep doing this to yourself, and more importantly, to the poor girls you’ve been deceiving.”
He just sat there, arms crossed. Smiling sweetly, with bedroom eyes. Part of me wanted to slap him. He only became upset when I got up to leave. “No, wait! It’s all true. You’ve got me figured out, and I promise I’ll stop. Just...sit with me a while longer, will you? Until the sun goes down.”
I tried to turn him down. Sincerely, I did. He just looked so pathetic sitting there by himself. We wound up making idle chit chat about the disability march until the stars came out. That’s when about a dozen guys in black robes showed up.
“Oh. Neil, do you know these guys? I didn’t know you were...this is some frat thing, right? Initiation, hazing or whatever? Listen, he and I were done here anyway, you can-” to my dismay, Neil shushed me. Something I’d never seen him do until right then. He stood, performed some weird salute and then firmly shook the hand of one of the robed figures.
“Is that her?” Neil nodded. I stared at the two of them, aghast that they’d apparently spoken about me before. “L...listen you guys, I don’t…” The robed figures formed a circle, their positions corresponding to the twelve stone pillars of the monument. I looked around for anyone I could potentially scream to, if it came to that. Nobody to be seen in any direction.