Part One of a two-part short story.
Time to end the farce. Gravan was about to explode. He fought to control the snort of derision, steeled himself, closed his eyes, opened his mouth.
“I have to leave early, Dr Pastor.”
The university’s most senior psychologist stiffened more, if possible. Her unfocussed gaze wobbled. She’d never looked him in the eyes, never asked him what he wanted to do with his studies, about his life, or his reason for being. If he didn’t get away now, he’d spew venomous bile all over this insipid woman.
Her fingers tapped the clipboard. “I think we need to plan the next stage of your—”
“I have to move out of the student accommodation.” Back off, bitch! “End of year maintenance.” His mind was on more important matters. “Safety issues.”
The pass dangled from the desk by a strand of hair. Spider-silk thin, it garrotted the lanyard clip.
“I’m tired of it, Dr Pastor.” He’d give her the full treatment, push the decision to lose him. Gravan pointed at the pen. “This isn’t useful for me. None of it. I feel like everyone wants me to be a sheep, stay with the herd, baa when permitted, chew when given fodder. I’m not a herd animal and I don’t want to be a weirdo to avoid, but the connection is assumed. My name is Russian. I’m not. Norosk is wrong about me.”
His nose twitched, a rumble built in his chest. Gravan leaned his elbows on the desk, thunked his head to the surface. The clock ticked. He splayed his arms wide, smashed an elbow into the intray.
The hair untangled, broke. The pass dropped onto his lap. He sat back, wiped his hands down his jeans, slid the pass into the leg pocket.
“Where will you go?” Her pen ticked boxes and scribbled notes as she massaged her earlobe.
“Home,” he whispered.
If she followed her usual ritual, she’d fondle the missing lanyard.
“Home is reminiscence, not reality.” He needed to get out before she missed it. “Not now.”
“You’ve never mentioned anything about home before. Is it in Australia?”
Ah, back to the Russian problem. “Home is a place, and as I don’t have a place to stay here, I have to go back there and explain how I spend their hard-earned on this.” Gravan flung his arms wide. He stood and shouldered his bag. “See you next year, I suppose?”
“Come see me the first week, and I’ll give you the final report. No need to drag this out through your Masters.” She pushed the clipboard across. “Sign here.”
Gravan signed his ghost name.
“But do keep up the journal.” She opened the file and slid the notes inside without looking up.
How long before she noticed? Gravan lassoed his neck with her pass as he strolled the library arbour.
The campus was quiet. Hot, dry air rolled wisps of dead grass across the path. The stench of rancid perfume and clinical indifference drifted away.
This journey produced results to guard against next time. He needed a better plan to avoid the consequences of a similar mistake, however promising the initial premise felt. Russian! How could he be so stupid. People either feared to get too close or were intrigued and dug too hard.
And Professor Norosk, always watching, waiting for another slip. Would the arsehole be in the faculty offices, or in his third-floor professor’s suite? Both options left the beady-eyed Balkan too close.
No students wandered the empty spaces, no harried footsteps hustled from one wing to another, no lecturers prattled to their groups of hangers-on as they fled campus. Gravan pulled out his phone, checked the time and took the turn toward the Computing faculty.
It was too early to go in. He sidled along the stone wall that divided the library from the grassed quadrangle, followed it to the void between upper-level buildings and the IT faculty. He scanned the windows, saw light glowing through the broken slats of Norosk’s office. Did the professor leave it on? Was he partaking of an end-of-year dalliance? It could be a cleaner, or a timer. Or a trick.
Whatever it was, Gravan could wait it out. Strategic patience won more prey than confrontation. And it gave him time to journal.
At first, he’d written in code, expecting the psych to ask to see it. She didn’t, and even if she had, or he’d written it in longhand, she wouldn’t understand the subtext.
He wrote the day’s events and ended it with his real thoughts.
The unknown creates the darkest fears, and to overcome the lack of knowing, the quester must seek the first truth.
He dated the page, swapped the journal for his phone, checked the new app. A few lines of code updated the security access for Dr Pastor. He tested his other project for specific camera access, enlarged the view of the feed in the security office.
Takeaway containers on the desks, two uniformed guards eating. Not long to wait now. But where was Norosk?
The summer night faded to a landscape prickled with white dots in the wide expanse of eternal black space. Gravan’s shadow disappeared in the tapestry of wind-blown branches, broken path lighting, and the deepening purple sky.
At exactly ten p.m. Norosk’s window went dark. Gravan logged into the camera system and expanded the screen for the hallway outside the professor’s suite. He wasn’t there, but Gravan wasn’t stupid enough to make assumptions about Norosk.
The next stage of the project confirmed his admin privileges, and listed the scheduled processes. All ready. The feed from the security office showed the room empty.
The patrol was out. It always started in the library and went anti-clockwise through the rooms, halls, lecture theatres, faculty buildings, and ended in the cool corridors of the computer building where the best vending machines lined the walls like pokies.
Gravan sidled along the wall to the emergency fire door and checked the time. The first icon flashed. He pressed go. The timer commenced. He slid Dr Pastor’s card into the security slot. The panel flashed green and Gravan shoved it open. The fluorescents kicked out a desperate attempt at light, flickers and crackles like half-arsed lightning and gravelly thunder. He swiped the phone and double-clicked the second icon.
System reset? Y/N?
He pressed Y and selected cameras and lighting for all university buildings.
3-2-1. Reset initiated.
Even if Norosk was watching the feeds, he’d see nothing. The full reset would take thirty minutes. Gravan would be gone before it finished.
The lights went out with a clunk. Gravan made his way to the last door in the lower hall. His room since he’d rekeyed the deadlock. He unlocked the door and swung it open. All the previously stored items were neatly stacked along the back wall, and his personal project sat on the large table, everything up and running, the output data structure ready to interrogate.
To work. He folded his cuffs back.
Search parameters: foster homes, care homes, court-appointed removals, delinquency care for juveniles, births for a specific period. Anything to do with kids in all types of care. If anything returned for a male of the approximate age, he’d check the original source material and note the name, the town, and whether he’d visited that location for a previous search.
Sweat scratched down his back, clung to his skin in itchy clumps. The air-con burst into life, clunked and rattled like a monster in its death throes.
Speed it up, he hissed at the too-bright screen. He copied the relevant output reports to his external storage device, confirmed the copy, deleted the project code, and reinitialised the system.
One step forward on the road to his first truth.
The first step in a journey of a thousand places — or paces? Wasn’t that a Chinese proverb? Gravan wanted to know how many steps remained, not incentive to start. He wrapped his jeans around the laptop in his backpack and folded both spare shirts around the new phone.
The room as empty and grey as the sea after a southerly storm, clinically clean, everything neat and folded away, the curtains snapping in the breeze that blew away the scent of the alcohol cleanser and any evidence of a student known as Gravan. Ready for the next lost soul.
He closed the door and walked away. This was the end point of one journey. He was ready to traverse the trails toward the unknown path. No more than a dot on the map, but with a train ticket and all his worldly goods, Gravan was ready to write his new story.
The backpack held everything he owned, meagre possessions, all earned through drudgery. Washing dishes, mopping floors, serving jacks and jills and karens and kens, smiling as he poured drunks into other people’s cars.
He did nothing to reveal his best skills.
The servitude paid his way. It got him a good phone, cash to buy without credit checks, and a degree course in the higher institutions. Soon, he’d have privilege, a name that earned respect and inclusion.
Not for him the outer edges of the inner circle. He’d be with the educated, the intellectual, the people who made things happen in the real world. Big things, history-making things.
He’d intrigued them with his evasiveness of the family connections, but they pushed him out when his history washed away like footprints inundated by a floodtide. However close he got, it always ended when they pursued answers to the vital question:
Where are you from?
It wasn’t about the where, though. That question had a turbulent undertow. Who are you to those who matter? Why do you seek admission to our world? What is your history that we can benefit from the connection?
Everything and everyone else superfluous, less substantial than wraiths within shadows. That was the reality of the question.