"A squat grey building of only thirty-four stories."
— Opening sentence of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World
That's what it was, he thought, except it's only thirty stories. Other grey buildings towered on either side. Gerald Thorne sat again on the twentieth floor in front of the computer, but this time was different. The students would sign in soon, and he was afraid. They would find him, trying to look casual in his apartment. But formal too. It wouldn't do to be too casual. He wasn't their friend, he reminded himself. He was their professor. Should he get out his pipe? No, too obvious.
His teaching assistant was the first to pop in to the virtual meeting. Thorne saw his mouth move as he leaned in to the camera to reach his keyboard. "I'm here, Professor," said the lad. He was a good young man, surely. But Thorne had never had any desire to see his bedroom. Something about that Hokusai print on the wall worried him.
Perhaps his button-down shirt worried them. He'd taken the t-shirt off, then put it on again, then put this shirt over it. And his hair. He'd certainly never cared about his hair entering the lecture hall. It was early spring, so his jacket was appropriate. Was it virtually appropriate?
He looked at himself on the screen, his box half the size now that his TA was here. I look old, he thought. Of course I look old, he also thought. Everyone looks old on this thing. There was a quarter of an hour to go. He turned off his camera.
Thorpe swivelled his chair and looked out the window. He missed his wife. She'd always had a plant on the sill, clinging desperately to life. But he'd kept the place tidy. His books on Victorian literature were lined up, spines resting just slightly inside the edge of the shelf. The coffee cup was in the center of the coaster.
She would have scoffed at such order. Her books were read dozens at a time, scattered, and stacked around the place. He invariably had to move some to eat his breakfast, which he'd always made for himself. Then they would leave, every morning, always in a rush. She couldn't find her keys, or he had to go back for a file. He'd get home first, and start cooking dinner. Pasta usually. She liked pasta.
And now it was quiet. So quiet. The voices from his books no longer spoke to him for very long. He still smoked his pipe on the balcony, even though there was no one to stop him smoking in the apartment.
"Do you have your slides, Professor? I can load them up," said the young man. Thorne peered at the screen. Jason, it said under his face. Right, his name is Jason. Slides. Yes, he had slides. He'd had them converted to digital last year, when his department chair had told him he should.
The file was easy to find. His virtual desktop was neat, and he knew where everything was. He uploaded the slide set into the chat box and watched Jason's face as he saw it and began setting it up, his brow furrowed.
Thorne was not normally a fearful man, but he did not like looking stupid. This world in which the younger ones lived; it was their world. He had very little interest in it beyond convenience. He liked that he could order his groceries, and find used books, and they came to his door. He had tried some social media for awhile, but what people posted seemed frenetic and useless.
He watched as other little boxes opened. Bright faces, with bored expressions. Pre-bored, he thought. I haven't even started talking yet. They had their own lives, he knew. Long ago, he cared about that, the lives they had. He still had a dream of enhancing their lives. He was just less interested in the lives he was trying to enhance.
Thorne straightened his shirt, pushed his hands ineffectually through his thinning hair, and turned on the camera. Then he took a sip of coffee, as if he just happened to have appeared during a break. His first slide showed on the screen: "Death in the Victorian Novel".
Now he had to pay attention, make sure his microphone was on. "Can you hear me, everyone?" he asked, scanning the twenty or so boxed faces. At least ten more hadn't bothered to turn on their cameras. A few heads nodded, and Jason gave him the thumbs up. He began his lecture.
By the time he got to post-mortem photography, several other students had turned off their cameras. He could see a couple of faces that looked really interested. "This was not," he said, "as popular as some would have you believe. It was rarely done. But it points to Victorian feelings about death and loss."
As he continued to speak, he glanced at his own video box. He had frozen. "Can you still hear me?" he asked. Jason nodded vigorously. As he continued the lecture, his glance kept drifting to his own frozen self. Even after he paused so Jason could lead the question and answer, his video remained inanimate. I have died, he thought. Or if I did die, right now, it would look no different.
No one had noticed, apparently. Jason was attempting to elicit questions, answers, anything. Signs of life, thought Thorne. And their professor is frozen like Ozti, the Chalcolithic mummy. No one would know if he left. But where would he go? He was supposed to stay home. It hadn't occurred to him to do anything else.
The next class was two days later. He was nervous again, but this was becoming more usual. His slide appeared, but it was Kathy this time who loaded it, according to the little name. "Aesthetics in the Victorian Novel." There were fewer students, only twenty or so.
Slides and slides of pre-Raphaelite paintings, images of Elizabeth Siddal and Jane Morris. "Did you know," he asked them, "that Dante Gabriel Rossetti disinterred his wife to get back the book of poetry he'd buried with her?" They did not know. Nor did they look particularly surprised.
Next class, the following week. "Politics in the Victorian Novel." He had done some searching and had discovered a fact they might enjoy. "And you may already know," he said, "that Sybil, and other characters from Disraeli's book, appear in the first steampunk novel, The Difference Engine." The dozen students in the room nodded, unimpressed. It occurred to him that this modern work was now thirty years old.
"Fantasy in the Victorian Novel." Five students, two on camera. No teaching assistant arrived, so Thorne uploaded his own slides and began the lecture. Not a problem, he thought, like making my own breakfast. "The Time Machine," he said, "has been made into movies and comic books over and over". Both of the faces were looking down. Must be looking at their cell phones, he thought. Did they even watch movies or read comic books?
Two days later. He opened the virtual program ten minutes ahead of time and found his own slides. No one had entered yet as he loaded them onto the screen. "Solitude in the Victorian Novel." Still no one came in. He waited.
At a quarter past the hour, he got up from his chair. He left the volume up, so he could hear if anyone came in. When he became dizzy, his first thought was to pick up the phone. But he decided not to. As he lay down on the floor, he realised he couldn't do anything else. He gazed at the lamp hanging from the ceiling. It looked like a compass from here. He fancied it must be turning, because he knew he wasn't, so he tracked the directions as his breathing slowed. South-south-west, south, south-east, east. . .
(c) Lisa M Lane