The Last Alchemist

Edward, his coat in shreds, watched out the library window as a group of junior faculty played some complex game with a Frisbee. He thought casually how many athletic games were essentially modal, the reward for a particular action varying depending on the status of some Boolean variable. Further, there always seemed to be a meta-game, in which rule changes fed back into the game, on the field and off. On the other hand, his perceptions could be artifacts of the modal/meta approach itself. Aptly enough, he thought with a smile. Still watching the game, he called over his shoulder, “Julian, still with us?” Edward sighed deeply. “Julian, speak in reply.”

“I attend you faithfully as ever, master.”

“Great.” A hero would have an enchanted sword, flying carpet, magic lamp. He had a talking blackboard. “Clear, then begin again in red with the Moat of Arturius.”

Writing appeared on the blackboard, a cursive script interrupted with arcs and whorls, in brightly glowing red. Beginning at top center, the writing wound clockwise, stopping short of the upper left corner. “Julian, why have you stopped?”

“The specification is incomplete, master.”

And a lying, manipulative talking blackboard at that. “Julian, speak freely.”

“Do you not recall, noble master, the previous result? Did I not tell you…”

“Julian, stop. Clear and wait until called.” The writing vanished, and somehow Julian managed to twitch an eyebrow – a remarkable trick for a featureless black board, but then Julian was remarkable, for all the irritation he caused.

Julian’s operations manual, in the form of Edward’s great-great grandfather’s journal, incorporated material as much as eighteen hundred years old. Some had been copied from older journals by people who misunderstood what they read; in two cases copied with well-intended redaction by a boy distraught over the recent death of his father. For all anyone knew, the original Greek may have been a model of lucidity. Quirky translation, pious code words to fool the Inquisition, layers of commentary upon commentary, had created a Chinese motorcycle assembly manual without the charm. Edward read, thought, and read again, then looked up.

The clock said 5:40. Tossing the remains of his jacket in the trash, Edward locked his office door behind him. Though distracted in thought on the five minute walk, an impression of blue sky and green grass followed him into Murphy’s and he took his Guinness out to the beer garden. He tried to work up some interest in games as collaborative meta-creation, but his mind wandered as he watched the puffy white cumulus clouds form. Not a people-person, he missed the waitress’s unease as he ordered another beer, and a plate of fried potatoes.

“Magicians and astrologers,
Logicians and theologers,
Gain nothing from their cleverness,
‘Cause everybody dies.”

“Uh, I’m not sure ‘theologers’ a word, Carl.”

“It is now.” Carl set his beer down, and shortly returned with a bowl of chips. “Cut yourself?”


“There’s blood all down the side of your face. People see it, and it frightens them. You should go wash it off.”

Edward returned from a hasty trip to the rest room, trying to telepathically convey harmlessness to people who avoided eye contact. Gloria had joined Carl at the table. As he looked disapprovingly at her long bright red nails, a rare flash of insight and the damp paper towel he held to his cheek embarrassed him. He was lucky they put up with his eccentricity. Still, the three of them, and poor Eric, went way back. They were all weird by any standard.

Carl had evidently told Gloria about the cut on his face, otherwise she would have asked about the paper towel. Silence followed greetings as the three ate and drank, Gloria taking chips from Carl’s bowl.

Inevitably thinking of Eric, Carl spoke. “Gloria’s heard from him again.”

“Oh? How is he doing?”

“He seemed to be in good… Um, he seemed hopeful; optimistic. Pretty cheerful really. Didn’t have long to talk. He said he had something he was working on, and if all goes well we should hear from him soon.”

“We?” Only Gloria could communicate with Eric. Eric was, in some sense, elsewhere. His spirit inhabited some kind of other reality. His body inhabited a large chest freezer in Carl’s basement. For ten months they had worked, then studied, then hoped to somehow reunite his body and soul. During that time, Carl had lived a model life, paying every bill early and feeling the recoil at every stop sign.

Having moderated his expectations, Edward was now working to recall Eric’s spirit into some inanimate object, like, say, a blackboard. Julian, the Amazing Talking Blackboard, was no help. Eighteen hundred years ago in Antioch, Julian had gone home after a night drinking with friends, and awakened as a blackboard. He figured his neighbor had done it to him, and that it could have been worse.

Eric, however, had done it to himself. To his credit, he blamed no one else.

“He said he hoped to be in touch with all of us soon.”

The waitress kept a safe distance as she checked on them. “How we doin’? Get you anything? Clouding up…”

It was clouding up. The puffy cumulus clouds had thickened and darkened. A gust of wind took some napkins and sent everyone but the smokers into the bar. The three took a table in the back. “Carl told me you got cut,” said Gloria.

“Yes. Julian did warn me. In 1271 one Robert de Febrile tried to put a student’s spirit into a footstool. His distinctive nose allowed the dean to identify him. The student joined the Franciscans, and Julian, ah, hung out quietly, in a lecture room in Paris for some years.”

“Seems like there would be way less energy in the transition, Eric being not currently corporeal and all.”

“Well, yes, I expect there was less energy. My coat was torn up, and I got a slash on the cheek, then it seemed to dissipate. Didn’t even notice the cut at the time.”

“This rain shouldn’t last long. Shall we go back and have a look?”

“Sure, I’d appreciate your opinions.”

And indeed the rain ended with a big flash of lightening just as they finished their second round. They heard the sirens as they walked across the quad, but were still surprised to see Edward’s building engulfed in flames.

The next morning the place was surrounded with yellow tape, and security ran them off. “You gentlemen will have to wait till next week to reclaim your possessions. Everything salvageable will be in the maintenance shed on the south end, building 5534. Until then, please stay out, like the sign says.”

Julian had not made someone’s cut for “salvageable.” They eventually tracked him down to a scrap yard. It had been necessary to give the yard manager an even thousand dollars. Counting the money, he seemed sorry to have the blackboard taken from his office wall and loaded onto the special truck they’d rented from the glass company. A month after the freak lightning bolt destroyed his office, Edward had Julian installed in a new frame in his “temporary” office. For Julian the whole business had been “disorienting, but painless.” The manager at the scrap yard had been very generous with his hospitality, Julian said.

There had been no word from Eric. The search warrant for Edward’s house seemed to surprise them all.


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