* * *
“Sir, was John Collins evil?” The question came from a student in the front row of the lecture theatre’s seating. Two rows further back, Blanchett leaned forward, studying Professor Lambert’s reaction intently.
The Professor frowned for a moment, then said, “John was a loyal comrade and a war hero. Whatever you may have been told about him, I knew him, and he was not evil.” His voice was mild, but his face wore an owlish glare directed at the front row. In the dimness of the lecture theatre, the lines in his face became craggy and fierce. On the screen behind him, Collins’ face stared placidly down at them, one of the famous photos from him the early days of the Delta War.
From near the back of the room, a voice called out, “But he destroyed time, didn’t he?”
An audible rustling ran round the room as the students looked nervously at the Professor or tried to catch a glimpse of the questioner. On screen, Collins’ face was replaced by a screen-saver animation. It was a stylised drawing of the Clocktower being built, a tree of tangled black steel and ceramic against the dull grey background of the endless Causal Sea. The top widened sharply and spread into the white mushroom-cap of the City. The animation looped round to restart.
“You’re a new class,” Lambert said coldly, “so I’ll let that pass this once. In my classes, you must always be wary of careless statements like that. Precision is the essence of history. To answer the question as charitably as I can, no one person destroyed time, either by causing the collapse of the origin timeline or any of the other collapses in our history. Nor,” he held up a finger for emphasis, “did any one person cause any of the Temporal Wars. We will be covering the causes of each of these wars in due course. The assumption that John is to blame is a gross simplification.”
He paused and looked around the room, “Some of you are probably about to bring up the subject of Collins’ book, ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’. You may have been told that the book is banned because it is dangerous, because it describes the technologies which caused the Alpha Collapse. Well, I’ve read it, and it doesn’t. Yes, ideas it contained guided the engineers and technicians who did cause the collapse, but John wasn’t one of them and opposed their work. And if any of you are considering reporting me to the Truthers for reading a banned book, I read it during the Delta War, long before it was banned.” Lambert finished with a look that was almost a sneer. Blanchett thought she could read pride in his face. She wondered if her Council superiors could actually be right; was Lambert really Collins in disguise?
Another student asked, “So you don’t believe Collins was a Nihilist?”
Lambert barked a sharp, mocking laugh, “The Nihilists destroyed everything they touched. It’s because of them we live in this overgrown tin can,” – he gestured vaguely at the animation on-screen – “instead of on a proper world. If John had been a Nihilist, there wouldn’t even be that much. He’d have destroyed the Oracle and everyone on board after the Battle of Tibulon.”
“So you don’t agree with the Truthers?” the questioner pressed. Blanchett winced. She knew there were no Council agents other than herself assigned to monitor this class, but the other student seemed intent on making trouble.
Lambert, for his part, shot a wary glance at the doors at the back of the room. When he spoke, his voice was milder, his scowl less deep, “Well, of course, all historical perspectives must be considered. This would be a very deficient history class if I shied away from the Truther opinion out of personal sentiment, but you must surely admit – and I intend to show – that Controller Vilsteir’s evidence is unsatisfactory.”
Still staring at the Professor, Blanchett frowned. Other members of the Council militia said that Lambert’s controversial rhetoric on this point proved that he was Collins. She didn’t believe it, but she had to admit that it would make sense for Collins to talk in this way. Corrupting the youth, they called it.
Uncomfortable to let his statement stand, Blanchett spoke up, suppressing a nervous shiver, “What’s wrong with the Council’s evidence?” She tried to sound as nonaggressive as possible, affecting genuine curiosity.
In spite of her efforts, Lambert picked her out with a laser glare. Suddenly, she felt glad of the combat bodysuit she wore under her student ‘disguise’. It would provide little protection, but the knowledge that she was in some small way prepared for violence was reassuring. Lambert’s face softened a little as he said, “Well, personally, I have two problems with Vilsteir’s claims. Firstly, they go directly against my personal experience. I knew Collins. John was a close friend, and he just wasn’t like the character Vilsteir writes about. Secondly, he refuses to release his sources into the public domain. I call that bad practice.”
“But he’s still preparing his commentary!” Blanchett protested.
"As he has been doing, without aid or any apparent training in historiography, for twenty years. In the mean time, he has spearheaded a campaign to suppress alternative accounts. Banning books, for heaven’s sake! ‘A Radical Subjectivism’ is a harmless work of abstract metaphysics and deserves to be read and understood, not expunged.”
“It was the government that banned ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’, not the Council,” said Blanchett, feeling more confident.
“At the Controller’s very public urging. I doubt you are old enough to remember that unpleasantness, but-“ Lambert was cut off by the noise of the door opening. His eyes went to the back of the room and widened sharply.
Blanchett half-turned to follow the Professor’s gaze, and froze in her seat. Collins himself stood in the doorway.
* * *
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