The Museum

Wouldn't you like to visit?

Original draft : 11th January 1989 (7,888 words)
Thomas first noticed the message light as he crossed the mezzanine plaza between levels 434 and 435, but it might well have been winking its useless prophecy for an hour. He never checked the back key panel on level 434; it just wasn’t part of the almost ritualised pattern of his habits on this round. But then it was very unusual for the message light to be on. “Calvin wants those beers back”, the old man muttered resentfully to himself as he hobbled towards the glass steps. His shuffling footsteps and his voice echoed as if in faint surprise at their own sonic reflections round the shadowed corners of the gloss dark room. “I won them fair and square, and he knows it. He’s gone too far this time! The key wasn’t meant for that.” He enjoyed his vocal complaints in a certain grim fashion. They broke the usual train of his intermittent monologue without really disturbing his mental equilibrium in any profound way; a mildly pleasant diversion. But no speculation was going to alter his routine. The round had to be completed as normal and the message could only be answered when he reached his curator’s station. It was for this reason that the light was a useless prophecy.
“Anyway I’ve drunk them now”, he chuckled, the amusement turning into a wheezing cough as he reached the top of the stairs. Across a spacious and bare landing, huge plasma blue letters glowed brightly high above his head. ‘Wing J11, Level 435’. Underneath two arrows pointing left and right capped smaller text which read ‘Halls 621 to 640’ and ‘Halls 641 to 660’. The first ‘l’ in ‘Halls’ on the left hand sign was assumed, not illuminated. For as long as Thomas could remember, it had never been lit. He turned right.
Hall 641 was a vaulted expanse of low milky white light. There were five cases with electrostatic middle level environment penetration shields and full atmosphere control units connected to a central plant in Hall 643 which in turn also fed the gas mixes in Halls 641 through 645. The Abragil were exhibited here. When Thomas had first been allocated his charge section of the Museum it was this particular hall which had frightened him the most. He was ten years old then; the crèche had been his only home and work place. There were the LifeSkills to be taken in classes of fifteen, education machines which taught the basis of their vocation and certain ancient curators who taught the rest. Suddenly, it seemed, he’d graduated to a new and unfamiliar part of the Museum and was beating the bounds with a temporary overseer when he came across these hideous displays...
The old man made a minor adjustment to the neon mix in the small central case. Inside, water dripped slowly from pallid alien vegetation which oozed from the tops and sides of the back lit jungle scene in a glistening mucous and very creditable imitation of life. Dominating the case was a huge skeletal Abragil, its bony frame five meters tall, ribs protruding from back and front, teeth clashed and dripping, receding far back into the skull for a ruthlessly exposed ten centimetres or so.
Two arms tore the foliage aside before it, whilst a third member, protruding from it’s chest wielded a gleaming machete, frozen in the act of slicing down a giant green fungus. Advance Chemical Preservation had kept it there in horrible semblance of life, although for just how long Thomas was unable to say. Underneath the case a plaque would light if touched.
‘Abragil warrior circa 1715 G.V. : A soldier from the feared Tithe Armies of the Twin Emperors clears a path through the jungle of Xaramon IV during a ground action in the short lived “Lost Cluster War” (1711 G.V. - 1719 G.V.)’
When the overseer had been satisfied that the young boy could perform his duties without supervision he had left him to his solitary occupation, but Thomas himself was not so sure. In those early days he’d peopled his new loneliness with fantasies of a highly disturbing kind. The Abragil was his main nightmare. Sometimes in the long watches of the night he would wake, on his simple pallet, sweating with irrational terror. He had dreamt that the Abragil had somehow miraculously come to life, cut its way out of the case, and was stalking the long empty corridors with easy quiet strides as it came looking for him. Then he would listen with awful concentration for the slightest unusual sound - a variation in the creaking atmosphere control, a change in the sighs of ACP, a shadow on the water crystals in the next hall. It never happened of course, and he had always fallen at last into an exhausted sleep. To his shame, he’d bypassed Hall 641 on level 435, J11 for a full year, running through it on Day nine of his cycle to avoid the glassy glare of the alien warriors. Eventually, though, he’d overcome his fears, adjusted to the isolated life style and guiltily resumed his duties in Hall 641. Luckily the ACP had managed quite well without him that year, though the key and master board in his station would have warned him if there had been any serious problem.
Thomas pottered over to the next case. It was a village scene, where seven Abragil troopers were shown slaughtering a group of helpless women and children as they tried to flee their huts into a grain rich savannah under a pitiless fierce little yellow sun. Their expressions were chillingly authentic, and the ferocious way the aliens wielded several guns, swords and lasers looked alarmingly efficient. The plaque read.
‘Abragil warriors : The Long Jihad ( 1735 - 1791 G.V.) was started when the Hive King of Jyratyl IX ordered his private army to exterminate the human colonists of Tone IV. Here we see part of the “Massacre of Tone IV” where the first assaults took place on the northern farm belt. Note the purple stars on the two ranking warriors. This was an Association Symbol used briefly, only by the Hive Kings of the trailing rim and was not in use during either the “Lost Cluster War” or the “Big Duel War”. The weapons, too, are typical of the period. Shortly after the frontier Hive Kings made alliance in 1742 G.V. and the Mad Emperor ordered the Tithe Armies into action, the serrated machete was dropped from standard issue in favour of the straight edged “Caba” blade ( see neighbouring case )’
The neighbouring case was a simple display of Abragil weapons without ACP, but still under atmospheric control. Thomas passed it over quickly, checking the temperature and pressure with a long practised eye. A final glance at the last case ( where the Last Emperor of the Abragil was displayed in effigy, signing the instrument of surrender at the end of the “Little Apocalypse War” ) was sufficient to convince the curator, all was well in here today. He moved on.
Hall 642 was empty. Hall 643 contained a large scale series of three dimensional galactic maps depicting historical boundaries at periods which could be selected by the viewer. They were easy enough to check over, but Thomas took longer examining the atmosphere control plant, a routine which he performed with his usual thorough habits and long patience before the key monitor finally informed him that all was well. Then it was on to Hall 644, a brightly lit series of inorganic religious object d’art from a variety of technically similar Lost Cluster cultures. Hall 645 - Coins from the Macathan tribes - periods from 11321 Mn to 11788 Mn and extents from the Lost Cluster to the Snaking Rift. Hall 646 - Fragments from the lost civilisations of the Werds, grouped by estimated date. Hall 647 - empty. Hall 648 - comparative anatomy of the Bathava as they had evolved on a series of worlds in the Snaking Rift region. Hall 649- cloud seeding tools used by the Indron and Cobik races in gas giants at the trailing rim. Their huge spidery structures filled the hanger like space, which was a good deal larger than the surrounding halls. In a light breeze from atmospheric control the vaunting strings murmured quietly. Hall 650 - empty. Hall 651 - linguistic fragments from Vora races in the period 129 R.A. to 858 P.L. And so it went on for Hall after Hall, the vaguely connected exhibits waiting in silence for their curator, but none of them daring to gather dust whilst he maintained their electrostatic defences. It took Thomas another two hours to reach Hall 660. From there, he crossed over into wing J10 and arrived at a maintenance room where he always took his lunch break on the Day 9 patrol. A small ice blue refrigerator was stocked by unseen robots on their own private cycles. A low marble table, dimly illuminated from beneath, and a mat black ceiling with heavily curtained walls, deadened the echoing vastness of the endless outer halls. Perhaps it was then, as he ate his meagre rations that he made an unconscious decision to slow down his afternoon schedule in response to a secret desire to prolong the surprise of the message. Technically, and usually, it took him less time to complete the second part of Day 9, than it did to patrol the outward route, because there were more empty halls on the return. This time it took longer.
It was a good five hours then, before Thomas reached his station; through Halls 660 to 641 on level 434 of J10, Halls 640 to 621 on level 435, across to wing J8, up to level 436 and through Halls 620 to 601.
The large glowing letters that meant home were caught in the usual still reflections in the water crystals of Hall 601. ‘Wing J8, Level 436, Halls 581 to 600 and Halls 601 to 620.’ Smaller red letters indicated that it was the site of ‘Curator Station 1171’ over an open semicircular archway that was dimly lit in sterile white from behind. Thomas removed the smooth purple patrol robes and changed into the oatmeal brown tabard of his off duty clothes. He performed his ritual ablutions and convened with the monitor bank. Arcane controls were touched with reverence but two screens only, remained illuminated and tracked as he ordered them: A panoramic view of Halls 617 and 618 on Level 437 of Wing J9, where ranked spears and shields from the Lopin Kingdoms faced pottery shards of Gabalinca VI and a close up of the Mass Murder Masks of Tyvabar II, painted luminescent blue and red with serene striped eyelids in cases in Hall 562 on Level 435 of this very wing. There was no movement on either screen which was as it should be. A near perfect stillness pervaded his realm. Sometimes, when on Day 22, Thomas passed through the Halls of the Lopin Kingdoms he imagined his own image moving through the curator’s station back home. These were the monitors finest moments; their only chance to show some sign of life. Of course there was never anyone there to see it. The ACP and atmosphere mix plant control board was more useful and reliable. If ever a single red light shone in the monotonous rows of green, one of his two lapse days must be taken, from the curator’s cycle of 42 to check on the particular piece of equipment where the problem lay. On average, this would happen every three or four cycles and had never taken Thomas more than half a day to sort out. He inserted his key into the message reception slot and from the silent printer slow words were born into the quiet room.
When it had finished, Thomas read and reread the message several times, turning the packet of words round in his head with a strange excitement as though by force of will he could tear them apart and rebuild them with new meanings. But no, he couldn’t. The station heading was plain. It was no local letter from a fellow curator. Thomas had, almost unbelievably, received a directive from the Lords of the Museum. Wing J11, Level 435, Hall 642 was to be prepared for a new exhibit. Atmosphere control specifications were detailed and corresponding ACP data. Further instructions would follow when the piece was ready for collection. As he ate his supper with the usual methodical chewing, Thomas could not suppress a growing tension and a feverish curiosity. He compared the message with previous directives from the Lords and similar momentous events. There were really only three which stood up to the comparison. Three visits.
The first had been twenty four cycles into his job when he had still imagined that such events might be common. A party of twenty ‘High Socialites’ accompanied by one of the Lords himself, had made a limited tour of his sector. Their main interest had been with the Ciatic Sailing ships, the giant Burden Beast Carts of Toktimion III and the Superdragons in Halls 553 to 571 of Level 434 in Wing J7. He’d been introduced to them and the memory was still strong. The men in their foppish feathers ( like the lower forest birds of Dunyl II, he inspected on Day 5), and the women with their fabulous high heels, dripping gems and very little else. They laughed and joked with high voices in a language Thomas didn’t know. The Museum Lord seemed almost as excluded from their talk as the lowly curator, although to the young Thomas, he was the really impressive figure. His cloak was heavy and dark, his beard white and skin pale blue from the effects of anti ageing drugs which had preserved him for several lifetimes. His mastery of the Socialite’s language was halting and his manner grave; respectful but not fawning. There was just a hint of amused arrogance. After all, he was a Lord of the Museum.
The second was ninety cycles later; a party of academics from one of the Snake Rift Alliances of Intellect. There were five of them and they had camped for eight days in a service room off Hall 621 on Level 438 of Wing J10, where they studied the ribbed shells from the dead planet Joon, and argued fiercely about comparative exobiology. The Lords of the Museum had ordered Thomas to co-operate fully with them and that meant disrupting his schedule completely to look after them. To his great trepidation he even had to open the cases to allow the visitors free inspection, something he had never done before or since. Two of the scientists were blue tinged too, and their talk was high and slow. Everything they said which referred to his limited role, had to be interpreted to the curator by a younger man of nervous temper. For the main part, they all dismissed Thomas as beneath their notice and he never found out if they were satisfied with what they had seen. It took four cycles to re-establish his schedules on a proper footing.
The last visit was the most disappointing ; a directive from the Lords one hundred and fifty cycles ago demanding that he change his route to avoid a potential encounter with a group passing through Level 435 of J wing via the cross route through the 580 Halls. Later he’d found a handkerchief in J11 which must have been dropped by one of the visitors. He still had it.
But never in more than five hundred and fifty cycles had he been ordered to prepare for a new exhibit. As the Museum lights dimmed in response to the automatic night, Thomas found it hard to get to sleep for the first time in ages. And when he did finally succeed, his lonely body tossed and turned; an unquiet mote in the long empty silences of the cathedral halls. For the first time in two hundred cycles, he dreamt.
Day ten was a Conclave day, one of the five in the forty two day cycle when sixteen of the local curators from J Wing met together to drink, play cartwheat, cards and the breaking game, and to indulge in Free Association, Sanity Grouping and idle chat. Their designated recreation centre was Hall 711 in Wing J12 at Level 426. It took Thomas about half an hour to get there, even though he was checking nothing on the way. But that day, he went a little faster then normal. He had some real news for them today ! The spiral escalators between Levels 432 and 429 had never worked between Halls 661 and 761 on the entire J wing for as long as any of the local curators had been patrolling the floors. Thomas could have descended before he got as far as Hall 661 but he didn’t. By tradition, on day ten, he always met up with Porrik on J10, 430, 679. By custom too, he slid around the wide crystal banister, whooping and cackling as the sweeping curves threw him into the Bone Room.
“You’ll break your bloody neck doing that, one day”, Porrik almost always said in greeting, but so far Thomas had never missed a soft landing on a cushion field set up by his friend. Then it was along and across to J12, 693 where Gabbling Jack worked at his prize exhibit. In a Hall lit by the demon reds of Fovaram I, racks of minerals were carefully catalogued and displayed by temperature and pressure of formation. Some of them required extra special cases to preserve them, and the atmospheric mix machinery was very elaborate here with particularly strong electrostatic shielding. In the middle of the Hall there was a model of the chemical structure of the ‘living’ mineral of Fovaram I. It was about twenty meters high and ten by ten at the base. Tiny pink, blue, green, yellow and orange balls graphically depicted atomic positions and bond angles. Over this vast structure, Gabbling Jack crawled every Day nine in an attempt to complete a design started more than a hundred cycles ago. He was always ‘on the point of finishing’ as he assured his colleagues, and always Thomas and Porrik had to cajole him to come down and join them, leaving a pile of maps and diagrams the Lords had given him. For a stomach churning moment Thomas contemplated the awful thought that the Lords might be asking him to undertake an equally labyrinthine task of display.
The three Down Hall Up curators were the last to arrive at the Conclave which was not unusual. This time, when they entered Hall 711, however, there was an unusual sight. Chippa, the youngest of the locals, was standing on the breaking game table and talking loudly and excitedly to the onlookers. “What’s the young fool going on about now?”, Thomas muttered irritably to himself. He had kept his news secret from Porrik and Gabbling Jack despite great temptation, the more to surprise them all, and now it looked as if his plans for a dramatic entrance would be spoiled. It was too unlucky to have two excitements on the same day. It took the edge off them, if you got too many at once.
“That’s what I heard from the lot down from Level 420. Omaga is a decent sort of chap. I meet him every Day four at the bottom of my patrol and the top of his. Hall 660 it is, in J14.”
The other curators all knew the details of their respective routines and when they crossed with one another, but they listened gravely. It was as if the repetition of this simple and unquestionable fact lent credence to any story which followed. And it certainly was the way most news passed through the Museum: from mouth to mouth.
“Well he says he’s had it from those that have it from the bottom. Those that know say we’ve got new Lords. The powers that be have replaced the lot of ‘em, that they have! New Lords of the Museum! Now what do you make of that?”
There was much muttering, credulous and incredulous. This would provide conversation for a good few conclaves, but “those that knew” here (and they all knew really) had heard a few too many rumours to more than play with believing it. Calvin was the only one to scoff openly from the start, this time though.
“A likely story”, he said.
“He always has been the most cynical of us”, Thomas thought, but for once he was grateful to his traditional enemy. If this story were devalued early it would increase the merit of his own.
And indeed, so it proved. Thomas had his coup because he could present hard evidence of his claim in the form of the paper printout. The consequent discussion which put him at the centre of attention was very gratifying for the old man. Most of the speculation was concerned with why Thomas was chosen for this singular honour. They all had a few empty halls and with the exception of Gabbling Jack had never been selected for a new exhibit. Perhaps the display was to be related to Thomas’ existing portfolio? But the curators knew that there was only a very loose logic in the arrangements of their exhibits. It seemed that the local displays were grouped by galactic region and the general consensus also held that the J wing specialised in artefacts of war (to a very rough degree). Rumour had it, that in D wing (which none of them had ever seen, of course) there were only animals, F wing was a depository for unidentified language and music fragments which required no ACP whilst B wing was entirely devoted to water exhibits. It was well known that L wing was for ‘Large Artefacts’. But any guesswork as to the nature of Thomas’ new display would remain just guesswork until it arrived, despite the fact that clues could be gleaned from the atmospheric specifications giving intelligent grounds for betting. It was a brilliant topic for discussion because they all knew that in this case, at least, they would ultimately get confirmation or rejection of their speculations.
As Thomas walked back to his station at the end of Day ten, he had a momentary chuckle at Chippa’s story. New Lords indeed! Thomas remembered the other Museum tales he’d heard, a few no doubt with a grain of truth but most apocryphal; curators legends. Four hundred cycles back they’d said that an ACP on Level 201 somewhere on the C wing had malfunctioned. A giant centuries old chrysalis, which was supposed to be perfectly sterile was accidentally revived by a change of humidity and hatched into a man eating moth which violently slaughtered two curators before the Lords of the Museum managed to kill it. Now it was said to be pinned in a four meter case somewhere on the 200th Level of C3. A hundred cycles ago this story resurfaced in another form. In the latest version, it was said that fifty Halls of the 140th Level of G Wing had been rendered out of bounds by the Lords, who had quarantined the area with huge energy/defence shields. Somewhere in the light less black a monstrous brain sucking devil with tremendous hypnotic power was said to wander restless and invulnerable. It had jumped out of the crates for a new exhibit whilst the background was being arranged by the curator. Although the old man didn’t believe a word of this one, it was not a particularly comfortable story to remember in his present circumstances. But there were countless other stories of a less dramatic kind. A spirit from the Apacrota worlds, which were destroyed by a nova trigger in one of the wars of the “Dark Myth” era, was even reputed to haunt the 397th Level of J wing, and Porrik said he’d once seen it on the 422nd. “Too much beer”, Thomas had thought at the time, and still did. Another persistent rumour was that new Wings were going to be added and/or demolished. There was always someone who would swear they were adding fifty floors to D Wing, or another one hundred Halls at the end of F wing to bring it into line with E, or widening M wing to incorporate a new range of exhibits from the Magellanic clouds. Even the story that the Lords of the Museum were changing was by no means a new one, and no doubt from time to time they must have changed, but most likely only one at a time. Whatever could be speculated, it seemed to Thomas, had been thought of and proposed as true at one time or another. But he at least had his paper to prove his story. He laughed again, but when he reached the 430th floor he was quiet. For the first time, silently and efficiently, the crystal escalators carried a very subdued and thoughtful curator up towards his station.
On Day twelve Thomas received a second message from the Lords. It came before he had started on his patrol and if he had not been late rising would have caught him only as another flashing key signal on the 437th floor, though doubtless one to which he would have returned with greater haste. The fortunate timing enabled him to revise his schedule easily. He had taken the previous day as a lapse from cycle and spent the time installing atmospheric, electrical and ACP connections to the empty Hall on Level 435. It was just as well that he had treated the matter so urgently. Now, it seemed, the exhibit was ready to collect and a prompt response was called for. Donning his purple robes the old man found time to hope that the worst of his labour had been accomplished. Building new cases was not light work. Although he had been instructed in the task in crèche ( a long time ago! ) and was reminded of the necessary steps by the key signal sequencer, he found it hard mentally as well as physically. His bones felt stiff in the artificial morning and that was why he had overslept, but he had finished his preparation. Taking today as his last lapse day, he might, with luck, start the installation this cycle.
The curator’s instructions were to report to the nearest InterDimensional Gap Door between wings I and J which, he was told, was on Wing J1 Level 20 in Hall 100. There Thomas must sign for his charge which would be delivered by robots. It was quite an expedition. The old man knew that he had to allow most of the day simply to get there and back. He hoped that there would be some time and energy left at the end to begin work on the display, but as his journey progressed he soon realised that he was too slow for such an ambitious plan.
He left his own domains by descending onto Level 433 at the 595th Hall of Wing J5. From now on, he was on strange territory and an adventure opened up before him. He knew that he had almost as far down to travel as he had horizontal distance. Unless he could find a lot of working escalators it would be a terrible trudge back home, and he intended to keep his eyes open and his mind full with favourable return routes. To keep the angle of travel roughly constant and provide reasonable directional variety over a short scale he planned to use the service ramps which connected the Levels of the J Wing every five Halls along its length. These were narrower and steeper than the sweeping spiral escalators, glide ramps and staircases which, often with spacious mezzanine plazas provided routes between the floors at twenty Hall intervals, and which the curator used almost exclusively on his normal patrols. But five Halls along, then five flights down at a time seemed less daunting than twenty on and twenty down.
After an initial twinge of anxiety as the familiar exhibits were left behind the new Halls filled Thomas with a kind of exhilaration and a renewed awe at the diversity and size of the Museum. Four consecutive Halls held an impressive series of ACP preserved pachyderms, with the subspecies obviously set out by size. The collection ranged from a frightening giant of a beast, ten meters tall, to a case full of miniature copies each no higher than the width of the curator’s hand. On the 398th floor he passed through a Hall with a brilliant sintering collection of Free Quark jewels which cast enormous roseate reflections in beautiful wan and delicate light from their tiny carefully cut facets. Occasionally he paused to read a panel. A heavily pitted metal plate, scorched around the edges, eleven meters tall and buckled in the centre was accompanied by the text,
  ‘The only known remnant from the Trolene VII expedition led by Commander Verileen in 2985 A.D. ( -2114 SCL ). Probably part of the New Conquistador which was the last of the ships to enter the “Forbidden Regions”. Recovered on ByRoute 74 by Counter Xarctic traders in 3471 A.D. (-1801 SCL )’ Or again, ‘Sea Caryllion Coffins uncovered in the Deep Earth Works of the Tomb Mistresses of Hibaa III. Dates range from the early Pinnig dynasty to the Beran invasion during the zenith of the Zequeck dynasty.’  
And, ‘Automobiles from the era of petroleum on Sol III. Recovered after a raid on the State Museum of Donakin II during the Closed Wars. Believed to have been originally created in America circa 1980-2020 A.D.’
And, ‘Fragments of the “Failed Prophecy Freeze” of Klarmotikan IV. These sections were recovered from the old temple complex of Xox in the waterlands of the ancient priest kingdoms. They are thought to depict the exodus of the Ogamoon from the Sweet Sea Paradise. Note the five pointed red stars above the curious arched building to the left. These are an indication that the event took place in the “Past Mythic” mode and contrasts with the “Future Real” mode which the artist indicates through her use of a smaller tile structure as in the mosaic in the next case.’
After a while though, the novelties began to pall, the curator stopped reading any panels and pushed forward all the faster on his journey. He was starting to feel very lonely, surely strange in a life where he had been on his own for the great majority of his days. The reason, though, was simple enough. It was a mind wearying thing to wander this vast Museum without any sign of life, or any sign of an end. At least in his daily routine, he knew his Halls and his exhibits. They were familiar through years of maintenance and they no longer challenged him into smallness. He was never too far from home. Here he was confronted with new wonders at every step of the way and it reminded him of his first duties when all his patrol had been sinister and threatening. The old fears returned and he felt a sudden nostalgia for the Abragil, the Ant Balls and the Flame Stakes of the Stramu lightning guns. Once, he now remembered, he had undertaken a similar expedition to this one, but a journey he had decided on from simple curiosity. It was about fifteen cycles after he started work as a curator. He took a lapse day and without authorisation set out to see how far he could get and whether he could reach the limits of the wing. The old man shuddered now at his former boldness. This time he had an official pass from the Lords of the Museum but then it had been pure impulse and if he’d been challenged by another curator so far outside his designated bounds he would have been severely punished. His idea had been to see how tall and how long the J wing was. In completely the opposite direction from today’s trek, he had moved up J8 until he had reached the 914th Level and the 1008th Hall. There were signs that he had almost made the top. Many of those high Halls were empty and there was a change in the style of their internal architecture. The steps were narrower, the ramps steeper and the very atmosphere seemed thinner. The illumination from the 850th floor upwards was brighter and made the young Thomas feel more vulnerable. As his footsteps echoed through the sparse upper reaches, he felt his chance of discovery grow greater and greater, and twice he had to dodge the faint sound of footfalls. So in the end, he’d turned back without achieving his goal.
But age had doused his courage still further, and strangely enough, despite his pass, the thought of meeting another curator now filled him with a mild apprehension which turned into a slow dread as the hours passed, much worse than anything he had felt as a youth. These soul stretched Halls needed friends to wander with, or at least an intimate acquaintance with their often creepy if lifeless occupants. Thomas stopped to listen for sounds from time to time but heard nothing. He began to wonder what the odds were of accidentally encountering another curator. To suddenly meet an unknown figure in some dark Hall of fracture masks or between ranked displays of Greater Cracked Brain Insects, would, he fancied, certainly give him a heart attack. Far better to see no one than to have the shocking company of a stranger amidst the strange cabinets. For the first time, Thomas thought he might understand why he had been ordered to avoid his last visitors.
Time passed, while Thomas moved like a vagrant thought through the mind of mankind. Between the 500th and the 400th Halls somewhere, he had crossed into the J2 Wing and a sign came to his attention. ‘Wing J2, Level 320, Halls 201 to 220 and Halls 221 to 240’. With a shock he realised that unconsciously he had drifted from his intended pattern of travel, dropping down far less than he should have for this number of Halls. Accordingly, he resolved to descend fifty levels without going any further along. Luckily, for thirty three of them the down escalator was working and he noticed that only four of those going up on this section appeared broken. It looked like a good way back.
On the 107th floor in Hall 150, however, he came across something which disturbed him more than any of his hitherto imagined terrors. The room was completely dark, devoid even of the very low level of ambient light which usually suffused the Museum and Thomas wondered initially what they were trying to keep here which required the complete absence of light. It certainly made it difficult to see his way to the steps with their dim emergency illumination. Then he caught a faint smell, as of overripe cheese. Some peculiar sense alerted him and he turned his head. Hesitantly and not a little scared he crept a few paces into the Hall and rounded a large case. A central ACP plant was sitting in the middle of the room with all its warning lights blazing red. Then Thomas knew that he had smelt the onset of the stench of decay. The maintenance of the displays had been critically neglected! Hurrying away, the curator skirted a block of dark Halls anxiously speculating as to why they had been abandoned. Had their curator died and not been replaced? Had he gone off on some errand, like Thomas, and never returned ? That seemed unlikely. It could take years for the machinery to breakdown so badly. Still, the Lords of the Museum must know about it, he realised. Surely, they should do something ? The fact that they had let matters go so far alarmed him.
Wing J1, Level 20, Hall 100 took Thomas by surprise when he finally reached it. The room was on a much larger scale than any he had ever seen in his life. It arched above his head for a height of four floors and it was five halls long. This meant the absence of Halls 101 to 104 on Level 20 and Halls 100 to 104 on Levels 21, 22 and 23. Instead, their six corridors, starting with the 105 Halls and the 99 Halls, led off from high up the walls with long ladders and staircases running down to the level 20 floor area. There was no direct connection through to the J2 wing and against the wall hung five enormous portraits, each as tall as a normal Hall and a Hall’s height from the floor. The Lords of the Museum looked down grim faced on their one thousand one hundred and seventy first active curator as he entered. It was the opposite wall, however, which caught Thomas’ attention. It bowed out in a giant curve to provide a huge expanse of floor space. In the centre three large arched windows looked onto the outside. It was chaos; literally. The multicoloured coruscation of 2nd Harmonic Space vibrated ecstatically round the mathematical bubble where the Museum intruded. Its illegal wavefunction was held in collapsed co-reference to the wavefunction of the rest of 1st Harmonic Space by a spider web of photon chains which anchored it to a hundred black holes scattered throughout the human local galactic group. Each one piped it with the ‘pseudo energy’ of the 1st Harmonic gradient of entropy which the Big Bang had set in motion. This was a docking bay, and interwing transfer station, by no means the grandest in the museum but an important one for J wing. Iris eyes opened into the ultra high energy void to form transit virtual and real tubes through to the I wing. Occasionally generative starships would restructure here, their superimplicit drives playing with the order of the holomovement to tease the right quantum potential out of the metaquantum field. From here, you could see them ghosting into existence, floating over bright waves of discontinuity and fading out again like seagulls riding a storm wind to hover over a cliff. Behind their grey lines rainbows of protest blossomed from 2nd Harmonic Space. It was the most dangerous of games, which if they got it wrong, could not only destroy their craft utterly but seriously pollute the galactic dimensional environment. When that happened, the fabric of space writhed in agony, the photon chains stretched under the strain and proto intelligent systems threw out extra anchors at the command of the Lords of the Museum to catch the new curvature and renormalise the whole structure. But to those inside the building, none of this was ever noticeable.
Crates of machinery parts, food stocks and other assorted supplies were stacked high all over the bay, and armies of robots were shifting them out through Hall 99. A couple of bored looking human clerks motioned to Thomas.
“What do you want ?”
“I’ve come to collect an exhibit.” The old man presented his pass which was scrutinised carefully.
“O yeah”, one said, “We’ve got that one. You’ll have to sign for it.” He took Thomas through a twisting alley of crates and boxes, then slapped a series of four black containers. Across each one was stencilled in red, J11,435,642. “That’s your crack of the cave isn’t it?”, the youngster said listlessly. The old curator nodded gravely. “Good now come to the ledger please.”
As they walked to the front of the Hall, Thomas mentioned the dark zone on the 107th floor of J2. “They probably know about it already”, the other said, nodding towards the portraits of the Lords. “As for what they want to do about it, I guess that’s up to them.” This didn’t seem a very satisfactory answer to the old man but he was beginning to realise he was out of his depth here. The patterns of 2nd Harmonic Space frightened him and the brashness of the clerks made him feel very provincial. He signed a big red manuscript book with great care and considerable flourish, entering 1171 in the box for the curator’s number. The clerk stamped some universal date in the book which the curator didn’t even know existed and filled in all the remaining details. There were over fifty entries on the page already and many hundreds of pages in the book, but from the yellowing of the counterage paper the ledger was clearly very old indeed.
“The robots will bring it up sometime next cycle”, the clerk said, already dismissing Thomas from his mind.
“Thank you”, the old man muttered. ‘Next Cycle!’, he thought, ‘So much for starting to set up the exhibit today!’. As he left the Hall for the long journey back, one more thing caught his eye. On the back wall, a group of climbing robots were carefully starting to take down one of the portraits of the Lords.
Twenty one days later, when Thomas received his next message, he thought it was notification of the arrival of his exhibit. He had been kept busy enough in the intervening time to hope that it wasn’t.
It had taken the rest of his lapse day to get back from the loading bay to his station but the effort had exhausted him. Indeed, Museum night was already beginning when he reached the familiar display of Erilet Mountain wind chimes in Hall 541 on level 434 of J6. He had dreaded the prospect of lonely unknown Halls in the dark and sank into a relieved and thankful sleep as soon as he got home. Then, with no lapse days left in cycle, an atmosphere generation plant on the 438th floor signalled to his station that it had a gas imbalance failure. The curator analysed the nature of the imbalance and decided to leave it until his Day eighteen patrol brought him to the relevant Hall, but it had been a difficult job when he got there.
Even the fixed Conclave days were tiring and seemed fraught with hidden tension as the tongues of his colleagues diced up a dozen speculations. His energy was drained in recounting the story of his journey to level 20, again and again. In truth, nervousness and anxiety were biting hard on the old man and he didn’t want the effort of installing the exhibit just yet. But this was no notification of delivery. The message ran as follows...
To: All curators, clerks and ancillary staff of the Museum of Mankind / General Circuit
From: The Lords of the Museum

Following certain political changes of which you may be aware, a recent trans galactic meeting of the board of governors of the Museum of Mankind has passed a resolution condemning the administration of the Lords of the Museum under their 3rd dynasty. After a vote of no confidence the entire Museum Aristocracy has been deposed and the board have selected other representatives for the 2nd Harmonic Universe. As your new Lords we will form the 4th dynasty when it is to be hoped that the currently poor standards of care and efficiency will be raised. It is our desire that in recognition of this aim the Museum of Mankind shall henceforth be known as the Universal Museum.

No immediate changes will take place in the situation of staff but substantial long term developments are planned of which you will be notified in due course. We shall trust in, and expect your co-operation. Let us all serve the Museum!
On the fourth day of the next cycle Thomas received a visit from one of the new Lords. His exhibit had been delivered to the empty Hall prepared for it on the previous day. As he was setting to work to unpack the cases rapid footsteps made him sharply raise his head.
“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming “, cried a crazed voice. To the old man’s great consternation and horror, Gabbling Jack ran into his room, his arms waving wildly up and down.
“Get out”, Thomas shrieked. “This is my zone! Mine I tell you! What are you doing here? You’ve never been here before. It isn’t a Conclave and you don’t come up here!”
In his sudden loquacious outburst Thomas for once out talked the famous gabbler, but he had never seen such a breech of protocol before and it shocked the words out of him.
“They’re coming, they’re coming, they’re coming”, was all the other white haired figure answered in a sing song chant as he danced around the Hall.
“Whose coming? And why don’t you go?”, Thomas shouted.
“They’re coming! I’m going! They’re coming! I’m going!”, an excited Gabbling Jack mocked until the two curators were all at once fighting each other across the Hall. They stumbled to the floor, tumbling and wrestling in a ludicrous burst of frustrated old age rage that threatened to break their stupid old bones. At last, Thomas rolled over, panting with submission as Gabbling Jack sprang over his legs and cartwheeled to the other doorway with all the agility he had developed in modelling the living mineral.
“The Lords are coming, Tommy my boy, so watch out!”, he called in a parting shot.
“But you’re down two floors”, Thomas told him anxiously, ”you can’t go up !” for the other was making for the upper floors.
“They’re coming! I’m going!”,was all he heard, receding on the dusty air of the ages into Museum infinity.
Thomas stood in silence for more than five minutes after Gabbling Jack had gone. He needed time to regain his equilibrium. Gabbling Jack must have been here since his own last visit to these parts, he decided. He must have been responsible for the evil pools of liquid he had found in front of the exhibits in Hall 641, though what they were, Thomas didn’t know. In his slow way, he recovered his strength for the task in hand. He never heard the Lord arrive.
The Lord was tall. The black cloak of office Thomas remembered from his youth as trailing on the floor, only reached his superior’s knees.
“You are curator 1171.”
It was a statement, not a question, but Thomas answered anyway.
“Yes Lord.”
“You are working on your new exhibit today.”
“Yes Lord”
“Good.” The voice was deeply melodic but muffled by the plates of an atmospheric plant in miniature; a breathing device which partially covered the Museum Lord’s face. A mucous fluid dripped from it, leaving a splattering of drops on the polished floor beneath the visitor.
“It must be finished today.”
And now Thomas guessed what would be in the boxes, for he recognised the unmistakable nature of the face behind the mask.
“Soon we must change the air here “, the Museum Lord said, as if to himself.
And now Thomas knew the nature of the certain ‘political’ changes and in a flash of inner certainty he knew what would be in the cases and why his Hall had been chosen.
“There will be a party of Hive Kings who will wish to visit these Halls in a few days time. You will be ready for them.”, the Abragil stated. “They will want to see our victories commemorated. The displays should be very graphic.”
“Yes Lord”, Thomas said.
  DMFW 11/01/89

Cover image: Museum Sky by DMFW


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