18 - The Graduation

(Day 34, 1005 S.E)

Alden Carnibus woke with a headache. It was the mother of all headaches. And then, said mother was hitting him over the head with a spoon and probably thinking about moving on to rolling pins. The previous night flowed back to him in a series of wincing regrets. He couldn’t be sure in what order they flowed, but no matter how he rearranged the events, he ended up embarrassed.

At least they’d turned off the cameras, if only for common decency. The usually liberal-leaning public would be uncomfortable to know that he could have fed several starving families, (if there had been any in Old Jardinian) with the credit value of designer cocktails and halucinigenics he’d powered back last night. Never would a person of his stature use the filthy hallucinogenic augmented experiences dreamed up by the workers for any sort of useful productivity. He would certainly, however, mix them all together to see what happened.

And what happened was him coming back to lucidity, naked and, somehow, chasing a statue on his front lawn. Judging by the mud on his legs, and the torn up lawn, and finally the gardener standing by resignedly, he’d been at it for a while. At least misery had company, his party guests had disgraced themselves in admirable fashion. Only Austera Ditt, his accountant and general all-around kill-joy had kept it remotely together. She did like a cocktail or two though. They would be doing it again tonight, but Better, as part of the five year anniversary celebration of Carina Molecular.

Geniva, creative genius behind the successful reality TV show Old Money in New Jardinian had planted herself in the garden and was palms up in the sun, trying to grow when the effects of Carnibus’ party wore off. She was no more mortified than usual, though usually on the other side of the camera for these sorts of things.

The industrialist caste, what ought to have been comfortable and affluent unprecedented, were terrified. They were doing it big, even bigger than usual to cover the taste of fear. They could all sense it. The winds of change mussed perfect coifs and delicate outfits. They tried to Act Tough though, and competed to appear the most nonchalant at these absurd gatherings. Weakness was not an attribute of the meritocracy. They were sure of this.

His first, and most poignant warning of the brewing trouble had come around two years before. The unfortunate precursor to all this was the disappearance of his entirely unrequited love interest, the Director of the Meteorological and Geographical Conglomerate. In her brief time in their circle, she’d let it be rumoured that she was In The Know. She hinted that she knew of the true nature of their secret, to keep them on their toes. The secret they constantly endeavored to forget they had, the secret they refused to share even with one another; because who knew which industrialists among them shared it. To be outed as a fraud and imposter to the order would be devastating. A crumbled and tarnished legacy, was certainly worse, Alden thought, than death. Give me the death every time, he had thought, between bouts of self-delusion. This had given the Director tremendous power amongst the elite, even as the director of a simple survey firm. She had been a dangerous character. He liked that about her. Attempting to court her had made him feel alive, unlike the various hangers-on who often flashed him smiles, transparent with designs of upward mobility. He wished he’d had been more concerned when she had disappeared, though rumour has it that she’d taken a sabbatical in the Monkey’s back region. There had been a general sense of relief from his compatriots at the time.

Some weren’t sad to see her go, they hadn’t liked her lording their closet skeletons over them. Still, the disappearance had worried some the community greatly, as she had seemed to be the Dean’s confidante. A complete disappearance, so soon after her appointment? The Dean herself had explained away the disappearance as a sabbatical. This had a strange choice for one who so revelled in Being Seen, the industrialists had thought. This, combined with the disappearance of a fellow Mark of Excellence recipient several years earlier, elicited quiet rumours of burgeoning upheaval.

Alden knew firsthand that their little meritocracy was unraveling. Before they had celebrated their wealth, almost believing it was something, accrued, something deserved. Any self-righteous delusions were gone now, leaving in place a fearful desperation only held at bay by a constant stream of increasingly debauched degeneracy. And now there were whispers, or the things that preclude whispers, winks and nudges here and there, that a seismic shift was coming. Nobody would say anything of course, but they all knew.

Alden remembered it well, the eve of his graduation five years ago, ancient history now. He had known his potential, top of class. He had been selected to receive the top honor of his year, the Mark of Excellence. Other recipients like H. Levent, many years previous, had raced to the top of their respective industries like rockstars. To outsiders, they appeared to be afflicted by constant fits of apparent genius propelling them to inconceivable heights, and allowing them to monopolize their industries. There was something about this school, Alden had known, and yet on that day he didn’t feel any different than before. He certainly hadn’t experienced the sparks of genius that he’d assumed to have afflicted the others that came before him.

Then it was graduation day. The Mark came with a pressure he could already feel. He was one of two this year. Oddly, he didn’t have the best grades in the class. The criteria were slightly foggy, but he wasn’t going to make any noise about it now. Physics wiz and casual acquaintance Tyton Barnes was chosen too, though Alden didn’t know him well. Often the recipients numbered more than two, but not this time. His best pal Austera, with better grades and a concentration in heavy finance was, to her general chagrin, not chosen.

In his vivid memory of the day, it all started with a bang. In his mind, he was again in the student thoroughfares that led to the grand halls. He had been showered in nods and congratulatory greetings from fellow students he’d met. From those he hadn’t, he acknowledged awed whispers, mostly from those younger years who only knew him by reputation. He was going to be big, they all knew it. So, it was a striking diversion from this comfortable glowing norm when, after clasping the hands of some well wishers in the year below, he smacked into someone examining, of all things, a column in one of the wider student halls.

Alden, shocked that someone wasn’t paying attention to him, was completely off balance. They both hit the deck. Alden knew her face. She had been him, a few years earlier. A promising young grad who’d nearly received the Mark, burgeoning with seemingly endless potential. Like him, investors had loved her character. They had bet big. And - she’d fizzled out, as far as he’d heard, working some dead end role. At least it was Acropolis, but the name alone wasn’t enough for those destined for greatness. For a middling student, sure, that was the dream. But her shadow had been huge. And so quickly too - had the candle dimmed. This was not a good omen, of all the encounters he might have had. The warm embrace of self-congratulatory feelings - gone in an instant, replaced with some ancient sense of impending loss. She did not apologize, she seemed quite preoccupied, eying him up and down, and then moving back to the column, holding some kind of terminal device. Shaken, he resumed his triumphal parade toward the grand halls where the graduation was to take place, feeling anything but triumphant.

Hours later, the entire student body and guests having suffered wandering monologues and academic posturing, it was time for the final push, the main event. Striding more confidently than he felt, he seemed to appear at the front of the ornate convacorium, length of preceding carpet a vague memory in the face of the events about to transpire. He looked back, smiling uneasily at the rows of dignitaries and family. Had he even walked that great length? He had been churning over his first ever encounter with fallen Eustace, but the pure grandiose and spectacle of his long-awaited moment had silenced his self-pitying deliberations, for the moment.

As a Mark recipient, the elite of the class, though by of course, an opaque standard, he was the first to reach the Faculty heads. They seemed oddly starstruck. They had already had begun to treat him like the larger-than-life character he would become. This was because they knew, or at least had privately guessed what was about to unfold. They deferred to the dean, who was basking in the tradition, eyes closed, a slight smile on her face. After taking a private moment, the Dean grabbed Alden heartily by the forearm and pulled him in close. The Dean made no attempt to temper unfettered confidence. Her smile was one usually reserved for those with fangs.

They sure were big on theatrics here, he’d thought at the time. The Dean whispered something into his ears, or maybe it was just heavy breathing. Alden couldn’t remember, because in the next moment a black box was shoved into his other arm. The dean then nodded knowingly at the new director of the M&G Cong. who’d been announced as an honoured guest. The black box was about a foot square, and speckled black carboplast with a symbol embossed in a gradient of dark purple to blue on top. A symbol he’d never seen before, but would be unfortunately more or less omnipresent in his life from this point forward. It was the bottom-heavy hourglass motif of Alovian. The box smelled faintly of potato chips, oddly.

“Take this token of atonement, and go forth, and do great things.” He wasn’t sure if the dean said it, the box had said it, or it had always been in his head, waiting for this moment. Hmm.

He’d stifled a laugh, thinking the whole procedure ridiculous. These fogeys lusted for tradition. The Dean, usually reserved and wholly academic herself was nearly in a trance, swaying with what looked like, er, power?.

Tyton Barnes, the fellow mark of excellence recipient, was greeted by the dean with equal fervour, and Alden saw a similar box pushed into his hands before they were both lost in a rush of academia, now apparently eager to suck up to himself and Tyton, a unique but not entirely distasteful reversal of fortune.

He politely nodded and shook his way through the crowd. It had been a long ceremony. He’d look at the box later, now it was time for small sandwiches.

Coincidentally, he’d never seen Tyton Barnes again. It had been a great disappointment for a recipient of the mark of honour to slip into anonymity. Any questions around this minor strangeness were quickly answered by the Dean, who let it be known that Tyton just hadn’t been ready for his role as a technological savant of Old Jardinian - and was living a quiet life away from the starlight. Most people believed her, but it had been a popular topic of gossip among the other recipients who more or less made up the core of Old Jardninian’s Industrialist Caste.

Filled with catered sandwiches, and after exchanging final pleasantries with the more demanding of the faculty, dressed as they were in traditional and peacock-esque finery, Alden found a private moment in a window alcove in the atrium outside the main reception room where to the gala was to be held, to open the strange box.

He’d been cursing it’s awkwardness, with so many prospective hand shakers and the occasional fist bumper. He’d had half a mind to leave it under a table somewhere - but that changed as, bathed in the light of the early-afternoon sun flowing through the mighty (and slightly drafty, if we’re being honest) windows of the Academy atrium, he opened his graduation gift.

Inside were some technical documents, some blueprints, and a letter, on a thin, dark material. There were strange sets of symbols accompanying all of the text.

_From the desk of Rotating Research Chief & Potato Chip Enthusiast Gaan Gaax_

_To Dean_

_Perpetually, we wish to express our sorrow and disappointment with the transgressions and failures of our predecessors at Chronus Station. This is a token, to express our gratitude and appreciation for the assistance during the dark times immediately following the events. We thank you for continuing support as we travel our reparation journey. We do not forget the hubris of our ancestors, and will not assume to tell you in what way it will most benefit the people of Greater Jard - we humbly suggest you will know best._

He had tossed the note aside. He looked at the blueprints again, and the technical documents. He did not understand many of the components. But with the right machinery, he could build them. And he knew enough to know it would make him very successful, very fast. He also now knew, the likely source of the elusive nature of the genius affliction that seemed to strike so many Spuria Graduates. An elite group, that were likely bound by a single secret that, if revealed, would shake them to the core. But the temptation, no, the opportunity of becoming an industrialist, which in Greater Jard carried with it untold riches, celebrity and public favour was impossible to ignore.

Alden had walked into the gala that night with a heavy heart, and a mind fogged with contemplation. The gorgeously dressed and culturally important conversed atop lavish cocktails. They mingled beneath towering columns and towering, adorned windows in the tastefully repurposed convocarium. It had room for a thousand standing revelers, if the event dictated. And tonight, it did. Back slaps and business proposals bounced off Alden like rain on the gorgeous ferns of the jungles around Sodden. It was largely his night as a Mark recipient; but he’d barely taken in much of substance, let alone noticed the general thrill when the Dean stepped onto the central stage and announced the new Director of the Meteorological and Geographical Conglomerate. Pundits on the margins of the gallery energetically discussed her potential influence within the elite of the city. She was not a self-made industrialist perhaps, though a powerful entrant to the arena to be sure. Socially, the new Director had been left for dead, and now those who’d bought into her potential for pennies were overjoyed. The crowd loves a comeback story. Everyone saw the birth of a star that evening, amidst the others that shone, inside the gala, and outside, above the picturesque view of the gardens. Everyone but Alden, who had been uncharacteristically absent in all but the literal sense, trying to make sense of the fortune that had befallen him earlier in the day. It would turn out that he’d pay enough attention to this new Director later, anyway.

Now, five years on, he wondered idly if the Dean had chosen him for the Mark because she thought he’d be easily wooed by the trappings of the stature, and as thus, avoid any slips of the lip. He’d been one of the last recipients too - the dean hadn’t even shown up to the graduation ceremonies the last two years. She’d been mysteriously absent from all of the self-congratulatory social affairs that so entranced the industrialist community. A subject of speculative whispers across the community. Nobody had wanted to whisper too loud however - Alden for his part, was quite keen on keeping the social balance (with him on top) in place.

Distant memories in the face of present difficulties, anyway. The raucous partying had failed to distract from some grave concerns concerning productivity at his company. He had software gremlins, and their chaotic exultations were inflicting exponential damage on his assembly lines. It seemed more parts ended up on the floor, or embedded in the roof (or unlucky worker), than in a finished product. His frantic requests for support had gone unanswered, even those marked ‘High Importance’.

His pleas for support had in the past, been addressed by the same Dean of the academy, by whom the original reference materials and following updates were distributed by. She appeared to be the only one with actual contact to these mysterious, grovelling benefactors. But recently, silence. It was like, after years of perfect luck everything was failing, all at once. It was like there were some force pulling his efforts apart, as if perturbed by the very existence of his business and ambitions. He was fighting a battle against an emergence of chaos that he could not see, nor hear and yet appeared to be arriving with exponencial energy and viscosity. He had been feeling a dark cloud growing on at the edges of his mind. Was it uncertainty, or was it actually there - at the side of his vision where he couldn’t quie see? He was frustrated and frightened - he imagined he was on a c-rail shuttle travelling at increasing speed, and the with the rail system falling apart beneath him - he wasn't sure if he was more afraid of the crash or unknown destination. He wondered idly if this is the type of thing that would drive someone mad.

He guessed that his almost-equals in the Old Jardinian elite were dealing with similar concerns, everyone had seemed more jumpy than usual this past year or two, and that was saying something.

His factories were beginning to grow dark. And thus, the gravy train had cometh to a full stop. A remarkable clarity had found him after last night’s hallucinogenic escapades. As the radio silence had continued from his generous and secret benefactors, he would have to get drastic. He would have to call upon the Dean, and risk a nibble on the hand that had fed him his advantageous position.

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