Dissertation
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rating: +25+x

Dissertation


1994


12 July


"The Master of the Arts returns!"

"Fuck off." Harry tossed his laptop bag on the floor and shrugged off his distressed leather jacket. Lyle was splayed on the couch as only he could splay, practically wearing several dozen printouts and thin binders. The television was tuned to the Discovery Channel, on mute; Harry's framed Master of Arts degree hung over it, next to his housemate's framed MSc.

Harry draped the jacket over the couch and sat down, crushing several sheets of paper. The other PhD student didn't notice, furiously scribbling in a notebook. He was wearing a blue flannel shirt and jeans, both of them incredibly tight. This revealed Lyle for what he was: the thinnest, slightest man Harry had ever seen. "What're you working on?"

"I'm decoding Scout's thesis."

Harry blinked; Lyle's sentences tended to assume old subjects were still in currency, so they often took some parsing. "Scout's thesis?"

Lyle flicked a printout at him. It read:


WORDS HAVE POWER:

Propaganda, Poison, and the Giftschreiber, 1219-1642

by

V.L. Scout

a thesis submitted in accordance with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Graduate Department of the Department of History
University of New Brunswick

1915

Harry kicked off his workboots and nudged Lyle's too-thin arms with his sock feet. "Why are you reading—"

"Decoding."

"—decoding my supervisor's thesis?"

"Because I like puzzles."

That made sense. Lyle did like puzzles, and Dr. V. Lesley Scout certainly was one. For one thing, he seemed to be about eighty years old. This was well past retirement age, even for a tenured university professor. The second thing built on that: nobody at the university could remember when he hadn't been working there. Nobody. He was in all the departmental photos. He knew all the recent retirees. His office looked like a discount certificate showroom had been magically merged with a post-earthquake library. He had clearly been around for a long, long…

…long…

Harry stared at the printout. He cleared his throat. "Nineteen fucking FIFTEEN?!"

"Yup," said Lyle, still scribbling. "Your boy has been a PhD for seven decades."

"That's… impossible." Harry picked a page at random from the couch; it was a description of a battle, from the Hundred Years War. Harry didn't know European history, so if there were clues there, he couldn't see them. "He can't be… how old? Ninety?!"

Lyle tossed him another sheet.

"What's this?" Harry glanced it over.

"List of Scout's degrees, undated. See that first PhD?"

Harry did. "Toxicology, from Cardiff University. So what?"

"So, he references it in here." Lyle tapped the printout on his crotch. "Couple times."

"So…"

"So he already had a PhD in 1915, when he got his second one."

Harry cleared his throat again.

"WHAT?"


Asterisk43.png

Scout consulted his notes through his thin-lensed spectacles. "I still think there's too much speculation here."

Harry stretched, almost punching over a stack of books. There was barely room to breathe in Scout's office, for all the books. "Say what you really mean."

Scout smiled. "I mean you didn't cut the paranormal nonsense like I asked you to."

"What paranormal nonsense?" Harry affected an expression of wide-eyed innocence.

"Don't make that face, you're too smug-looking to pull it off." Scout tapped the thick sheet of paper which represented Harry's most recent dissertation chapter. "The paranormal nonsense about a novelist potentially possessing powers of foresight."

"Oh, that." Harry squirmed in his seat, mostly for effect. "I'm just reporting what the sources say."

"I've looked at those sources. They don't say anything about precognition."

Harry reached into his bag and pulled out a battered paperback novel: Futility, by Morgan Robertson. "Dude accurately describes the Titanic sinking, in detail, fourteen years before it happens. That's not precognition?"

"No, it's not. It's luck. Because precognition, and I'm surprised you don't know this, isn't real."

Harry reached into the bag again. "Well, you're gonna like my next chapter even less, then." He pulled out a second novel: Hubris, also by Morgan Robertson. "I got this from the rare books library. Might be the only copy in existence."

Scout looked at it the way Harry had looked at a bag of ketchup potato chips in the student centre commissary earlier that same day. "So you're carrying it around in your laptop bag."

"It describes the Gigantic sinking, also in detail."

Scout tented his fingers on the desk. "What's the Gigantic?"

"The Titanic's lost sister ship. It was erased from most historical records, but I found a few scattered references in the old newspaper microfilm archives." Harry looked very pleased with himself, because he was.

Scout sighed. "You've done good work on this thesis, Harry. Solid historical analysis of how literature depicts contemporary events. Good theoretical apparatus, tight, terse prose, sane conclusions. Why do you want to add this magical nonsense to the mix? You know it won't fly."

Harry sighed back at him. "Because it's real, Viv. Because it's real, it happened, and I want it in my dissertation. I want this thing to be good."

"It already is good. Better than it ought to be. The point of this exercise is to churn out a serviceable piece of work, get a job, then go crazy once you're tenured."

Harry put the books back in the bag. "I'm not crazy. I'm following the evidence to where it leads."

Scout plucked his dark grey fedora off the desktop and ran his finger along the brim, thoughtfully. "It's going to lead to you failing your thesis defense, and becoming unhirable."

Harry stood up. "Well, it's the journey that counts."


Asterisk43.png

"You actually said that? What a nerd."

Lyle hadn't moved from the couch. When he shifted, the couch made strange noises. It was an old couch.

Harry dropped his bag and coat again. "Find anything new, science dork?"

Lyle nodded, sitting upright and scattering paper everywhere. "Your Dr. Scout apparently has a cottage up at Lake Huron."

Harry paused before the couch. "Uh, dude, creepy?"

"Nah, all rich old dudes have cottages. It comes with the territory."

Harry sat down. "No, I mean it's creepy that you know he has a cottage."

Lyle laughed. "Departmental gossip. He's up there six or seven days a week now; only comes back here to do supervisory stuff, the odd fill-in lecture."

Harry nodded, suddenly wishing he had a soft drink. "Yeah. Tenure, plus he's old. Hey, how did you get departmental gossip on the couch?" He forced himself to get back up, with considerable effort.

"You've been out for hours. It only looks like I haven't left the couch. Anyway the people in your department give up the goods too easily."

Harry rummaged in the fridge. "That's code for 'Lyle Lillihammer is a frighteningly effective spy', yes?"

"Yes."

Harry came back to the couch, pop in hand. "So, what's so special about the cottage?"

"He telecommutes from it."

Harry paused, one hand on the can's tab. "Pardon?"

"He telecommutes from it. Does all the work he doesn't have to do in person."

Harry cracked the tab. "Weird. How much history work can he do by telephone?"

"Not telephone. Telephony."

"You lost me." He took a swig.

"The internet. He telecommutes via the internet."

Harry lowered the can slowly. "The fuck you say."

Lyle's cherubic, freckled face was beaming. "Your supervisor has an internet connection. At his cottage."

They stared at each other for a moment.

"So, he's from space, then."

"Definitely from space."


Asterisk43.png

1994


3 August


"This is even more ridiculous than the last one."

Harry shrugged. "The evidence is what the evidence is."

"You're honestly going to write that there was a fourth Olympic-class mail steamer, and it sank on its maiden voyage, but it also didn't sink, and the government covered it up."

"I've got access to all sorts of documentation—"

"From where?"

"From somewhere." Harry glared at his supervisor. "The citations are there. In the footnotes."

Scout paged through the chapter. "I note you've left the archival information out."

"Well, some of my sources don't want anyone to come looking for them."

Scout tossed the sheaf of papers onto his desk. "Harry, that's the entire point of citations. You're not a newspaper reporter, you're…" He pushed away from the desk. "Did Lyle Lillihammer get you this stuff?"

Harry didn't answer.

"I know he's been abusing the campus internet system. He's come this close to being expelled for it."

"He's come that close to being expelled because he knows how to find information, and some people don't want it found." Harry glared at him, feeling hot under the collar suddenly. "Some people like some other people I could name."

Suddenly, startlingly, Scout was smiling. "You think I'm hiding something, Harry?"

Harry made up his mind not to respond. "I do," he responded.

Scout rolled back to the desk and leaned over it, almost leering. His spectacles shone. "Find out what it is, and I'll let you publish your ghost ship story."


Asterisk43.png

"He actually said that? What a creep."

Harry was pacing in front of the television. "He knows we know he's up to something. He knows you've been poking around."

"God, I hope not." Lyle leaned back on the couch, hands behind his head. There were no more papers. "If he knows I've backtraced his internet access, I'll be in some seriously deep shit."

Harry stopped pacing. "What?"

"Dude's cottage has a twenty-four megabit connection. Do you know what that means?"

Harry walked into the coffee table. "FUCK. Shit. Fuck!" He rubbed his knee, then sat down on the table. "It means you've been hacking a tenured professor's internet connection. Did you bring Eileen into this?" Eileen was Lyle's long-suffering girlfriend.

Lyle nodded brusquely. "Yeah, she's had a lot of time on her hands since she dropped out, and they never took away her computer lab access." He rubbed his hands together. "Make a hacker out of her yet."

Harry nervously pushed Lyle's thermos off the table. "You're a bad influence."

Lyle waved the charge away. "That's obvious. What might not be obvious, to a humanities loser like yourself, is that said tenured professor's said internet connection is military-grade."

Harry rubbed his temples. "He's… what, then? CIA?"

"CSIS. But no, I don't think so. He dresses like a spook, but he's too easygoing. Also, again, he's about a billion years old. You know what they say about old spies."

"I don't know what anyone says about anything. I only associate with dead people, and you." Harry stood up. "Wanna go for a drive?"

Lyle stood up, too. "Where to?"

"The only military-grade cottage in Huronia, assuming we can find it."


Asterisk43.png

They took Lyle's truck, a beat-up old Chevy which had once been red, and was now nearly pink. Lyle's father had, after the judicious application of fifty dollars cash, just barely been convinced not to donate it to a farm. It had a tape deck, and they had tapes, so it wasn't the worst drive they'd ever taken. But it was a long one; they'd started with The Piper at the Gates of Dawn when they left the campus around 8PM, and they were on Atom Heart Mother by the time they reached Grand Bend.

"I was really hoping we'd get to Dark Side," Harry remarked as the tiny town rolled past. Each of them had one arm out their window, as though attempting to hold the old beater together.

"I was really hoping there'd be somewhere to eat around here," Lyle remarked, glancing up and down the deserted main drag.

"We're only, what, twenty minutes out now?" Harry stared at the map. "There's, like, zero detail on this thing."

"That's because we're headed to a provincial park." They cruised out of Grand Bend, and Lyle began picking up speed. "They don't make detailed maps of those for motorists."

He could obviously feel Harry staring at him, so when they hit the next stop light he returned the look. "Yes, I knew it was in a park before we left."

"How the fuck does someone have a cottage in a provincial park?"

"It might be even crazier than that," Lyle remarked. "I sure hope not, because it's not easy to stash and hide a pink truck."

"Why would we need to stash and hide it? It's not a fucking time machine."

"No, but it is a civilian vehicle."

A few moments of whooshing relative silence passed.

"Explain that statement."

"Well, I could only get enough data for a relative fix. Our Dr. Scout is either holed up in Ipperwash Provincial Park, or, and I have to stress the unlikelihood of this, Camp Ipperwash."

"Camp Ipperwash."

"Yeah."

"As in, Canadian Forces MILITARY Camp Ipperwash."

"Yeah."

"Lyle, what the serious fuck."

Lyle pulled his arm back into the truck, and rolled the window up. It was getting cool out there, as midnight approached. "I guess I could've told you, but I figured your righteous indignation over the dissertation stuff would only extend to taking a walk in the park."

"As opposed to what? Breaking into a military camp?" Harry leaned back against the headrest, mind racing. "You're seriously fucked in the head, you know that?"

Lyle grinned. "It's been said," he said.


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When they'd first gotten into the truck, Lyle had thrown his jacket over a box sitting in the middle of the bench seat. It was hard plastic; Harry had been resting his elbow on it, but it was staring to ache, and with that ache came a terrible realization. He pushed the jacket away to reveal, as he'd suspected, a toolbox.

"Came with the truck," Lyle remarked as Harry opened it up.

"So this is just a coincidence?" said Harry, brandishing the pair of wire cutters which had sat in pride of place atop the pile of tools.

Lyle shrugged, glancing in his rear-view mirrors. "I've seen the movies, there's always a fence around these super-secret government installations."

"Now it's a super-secret government installation?" Harry's heart was pounding. "Lyle, you're going to get us killed. Turn around."

"Might be a bit late for that." Lyle's voice had slipped into an eerie calm which Harry had long since learned to associate with one of his bad ideas gone, predictably, worse. He twisted in his seat to look out the rear window.

A black sedan was following them.

"Uh," said Harry. When he turned back, he could see another sedan through the windshield.

Lyle was still checking his mirrors. "Gaining on us," he remarked coolly.

"Can't you give it some gas?"

Lyle favoured him with a smirk, and did him the honour of not responding.

As the sedan in back of them gradually accelerated, and the sedan in front of them gradually decelerated, the distance between Harry and Lyle's moods increased exponentially. "How are you so calm about this?!" Harry fairly shouted.

"Because I know what's going on," said Lyle. "They've been watching us. They're going to escort us in, and make sure we don't tell anyone what we know."

"Who?!" Harry's shout now needed no qualifier. "WHO'S going to do that?"

"The Men in Black."

Harry grabbed his best friend by the shoulder. "Who the fuck are the men in black?"

Lyle pointed out the windscreen, then jerked a thumb over his shoulder. He converted the last gesture to a middle finger; Harry hastily pulled the hand down. "How are they going to stop us from talking? Are they going to wipe our memories, or something?"

This time Lyle actually glanced at him, disbelief in his bright blue eyes. "Wipe our memories? Seriously? They're the Men in Black! From, like, all of pop culture? They stop us from talking by murdering us."

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