By Daniel Shand
In those years work was hard to come by, so when Dr Kinghead offered me employment in his lab, well, I nearly bit his hand off. I was surprised to be considered for the position, having very little scientific experience, and I said as much to Kinghead on my first day.
He leaned back in his chair, handsome, broad-shouldered, and nodded. ‘Believe me when I say that you are the ideal man for the job.’
‘Please don’t think I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth,’ I said, ‘but… why?’
He considered my question for a moment. ‘It has been my unfortunate experience that those of the scientific disposition have a tendency to exhibit a tendency towards narrowness of mind.’
‘Well,’ he said. ‘Shall we begin?’
Those first few days were taken up with standard administrative duties. Kinghead put me to work in his offices, where I was shocked to find tall stacks of letters and envelopes. It was my responsibility to sort through Kinghead’s correspondence and discard what could be discarded and to file the essentials. I thought it sounded like a fine, easy way to begin my employment, but that was before I understood the true depths of Kinghead’s slovenliness.
‘Do your best to sort through it old man. I’ll be down the corridor in the lab proper. Ring that if you need anything,’ he said, pointing to a large bronze bell hanging from the ceiling.
I set to work with a feeling of dread. Despite my lack of experience I had rather hoped I’d be tasked with something a little more… intriguing. Dr Kinghead had a reputation as a maverick and oddball in the community and I’d gotten a lot of funny looks when I revealed I was to work for him.
It wasn’t until the afternoon that I found anything more interesting than a receipt for glass flasks or lab coats.
Dear Kinghead, the letter began. I am afraid this missive must mark the end of our long correspondence. The concepts you are describing are unethical and I feel I would not be able to sleep at night if I thought our continued friendship was mistaken as support of your ideas. I will only say this: stop now, while you can.
It was signed by a Prof. Niels Lidenbrock, of Heidelberg University. I placed it into the pile marked for the fire and leaned forward onto Kinghead’s vast desk. I was hooked.
Later in the week I came across an odd piece of text. It was written in no language I understood or could even guess at; rune-like characters, only more rounded. Having no idea what to do with the document, I hurried down the corridor to check with Dr Kinghead. I rapped on the door of the lab and waited.
I heard shouts from inside and then the door cracked an inch. Kinghead peered out, eyes hidden behind thick goggles.
‘Did you forget about the bell?’ he demanded.
‘Oh. Yes, I suppose I did.’
‘It’s there for a reason.’
‘I just wanted to ask if this was important,’ I explained, showing him the document.
He gave it a quick glance. ‘Burn it,’ he smiled. ‘Burn everything. None of it matters now.’
I followed Kinghead’s instruction to the letter, building a large bonfire in the waste ground behind the lab. It took me over ten journies back and forth to the offices to cart through all of his letters and deposit them into the flames. I watched them burn, watched the wind carry black flakes of glowing paper up into the air.
A flicker of colour caught my eye and I crept along the wall for a closer look. To my surprise I found a huge number of birds perched at the far end of the grounds. They were clustered around the lab’s frosted window, peering at the glass, and were so enthralled that even my footsteps did not disturb them.
‘How odd,’ I said.
With my main responsibilities complete I spent the rest of the week pacing the vast corridors of Kinghead’s lab, always seeming to find myself meandering back to the door he worked behind. It held me with a magnetic pull.
Eventually the temptation and boredom grew too much for me and I knocked once more on that thick wooden door. I braced myself for Kinghead’s wrath but to my surprise the door swung open from the force of my knock. It was unlocked.
The place was in darkness. No sound but for a slight fizzing. I did my best to negotiate the black room and found a second door on the far wall, which I opened.
My eyes were immediately burned by the brightness within. I found Kinghead, stripped to the undergarments, holding a small stylus. His hair was being blown back but there was no draught.
‘You’re just in time,’ he shouted over the fizzing, which along with the light was coming from the stylus.
‘For what?’ I yelled back.
‘For the experiment.’
I could do nothing but watch as Kinghead drew a vast circle in the air with the stylus. The circle crackled with the same potassium intensity as the stylus until it was complete. When Kinghead joined up the circle the light dimmed and the sound vanished.
He dropped the stylus and sighed.
‘What is this?’ I asked, my voice echoing.
‘This is the culmination of my life’s work,’ said the near-naked Kinghead, gazing with reverence at the suspended circle, hung in the air between us.
‘I don’t understand,’ I said.
Kinghead ignored me. He rubbed his hands together and approached the circle, raising one leg in the air. He placed it into the circle and it disappeared, followed by his whole person.
He was gone.
‘It’s so beautiful,’ his voice said, rippling around me. ‘Promise me that when they ask, you’ll tell them it was beautiful.’