Smoke hung heavily in the air over the smouldering ruins of the Institute. For several days the fire had burned, reducing the once grand establishment to nothing but ash and rubble. Here and there a blackened wall reached skywards, as if in denial of the catastrophe that had overwhelmed the aged buildings. Charred beams crackled and smoked as they cooled in the morning drizzle. Two men stood, surveying the disaster. One of them nudged something lying in the debris with his foot. It was small and metallic, just a sharp corner poking out from the indistinguishable carbonised mass round it. Some of the ash piled over the object blew away as a gentle gust rippled across the site. The man bent down and wiped the remaining detritus off with the back of his hand. It revealed an ornate metal picture frame, tarnished by the heat. A few shards of glass remained; the rest had shattered in the fire. A partially melted and severely scorched daguerreotype nestled behind the remaining shards. The man reached out slowly and carefully picked up the frame. With gentle touches he brushed ash and grime away with his fingers. The delicate features of a young woman began to appear through the dirt as a tear fell upon the image. The other man rested a hand upon his shoulder to comfort him. And that was when Doctor Rheingold broke down completely. Through choking sobs he whispered, “Since I cannot prove a lover…… I am determined to prove a villain, and hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
The rebuilding of the Institute of Alchemic Sciences took just under three years, which is about the same time it takes an ambitious young scientist to rise to the top of his profession. Doctor Rheingold, now Director of the Institute, peered out over his empire. The sun glinted off the fresh cut granite, not yet dulled with age. The glass roof of the Great Hall dazzled and the intricate leadwork was clearly visible, even from as far off as the Doctor’s study. The former Institute had been grand; the new was simply majestic. It seemed more resolute, more purposeful than its predecessor. And with good reason, for the new Institute, from cellar to weathervane, had been designed by Doctor Rheingold.
He smiled; though it would have been almost imperceptible to anyone had they been watching, for the corners of his mouth barely twitched and only the slight relaxing of his otherwise permanent frown betrayed the vaguest degree of pleasure. He turned away from the window and back to his guest.
Professor Norton regarded his boss with curiosity from the comfort of a leather wingback chair. Rheingold took a seat behind his desk and faced his colleague. When the election for the Directorship of the Institute came to pass six months ago, Martinsyde could see which way the wind was blowing and became Rheingold’s staunchest advocate. His loyalty had been rewarded by being elevated to Head of Faculty and consulted by Rheingold on matters of Institute policy. He was also Rheingold’s eyes and ears around the establishment. In short, the Director’s right hand man and thus largely despised by the rest of the Institute staff. The Doctor cracked his knuckles. “So…,” he said.
The Professor took this as his cue. “Morbidelli is a brilliant scientist and the Institute’s lack of support is being noticed and noted. More importantly, he is also very popular with everyone. Friendly, generous, approachable. Everything that you, dear Doctor, if you will forgive my frankness, are not perceived to be. He could be a threat to your position in four and half years time when the next election is due. Or sooner if the matter is forced.”
“What? After all I’ve done for the Institute? Rebuilt it from ashes? You think they would really vote me out?” Rheingold snapped. “Ungrateful bastards!”
Norton sighed inwardly. “Humanity can be very fickle. It is renowned for its selfishness and exceedingly short memory. If you feed a beggar he will complain that you didn’t give him your coat.”
“Your point is?” muttered the Doctor irritably.
“Greatness and benevolence are not one and the same. Are you familiar with Coriolanus?” the Professor enquired.
“Not really, no.”
“A great and victorious general is rejected by the people because he cannot show humility or benevolence; it is not in his nature. The Institute staff acknowledge what you’ve done to rebuild it, but, and this is a big ‘but’, if the leadership seems aloof and out of touch and they have an option to change it, change it they will.”
“So…what do you propose we do to change the will of the staff?” asked the Doctor.
Norton sighed again, audibly this time. Rheingold was an ambitious and driven man. He just lacked any understanding of human nature. It was only because the Doctor knew how much he relied on the Professor for his insights that Norton could be as frank as he was in conversation. “Tell me, dear Doctor, which is easier to change; the behaviour of many or the behaviour of one?”
Rheingold did not answer immediately. He just stared hard at the Professor and drummed his fingers upon the desk. Finally he spoke. “I see your point.” A long pause. “Any suggestions?”
Norton answered with a question. “What exactly is the issue with you and Morbidelli? There is history there, is there not?”
Rheingold’s eyes narrowed and his expression became darker, more threatening and the Professor wondered if he had finally overstepped the mark. Suddenly the Doctor stood, paused, glaring at Norton, then walked to the window and looked out. He talked with his back to the Professor, a deliberate act so that Norton would be unable to see sorrow in his face. “You are as perceptive as ever, Professor, which is why I trust you and confide in you. The simple fact is….” – again, a long pause – “…we both loved the same woman.” Norton inhaled sharply, loudly enough that Rheingold looked round. “Yes, hard to imagine but true. She, of course, chose Morbidelli.” He waited for the Professor to respond.
“But Morbidelli is….unmarried,” said Norton, eventually.
“That is because the young lady in question died.”
“She told me we had no future together and that she had become betrothed to that bumbling idiot. We argued. I was…exceedingly unpleasant I must admit, and said very cruel things. None of which I believed or meant, of course, but the damage was done. We were in my quarters, tempers were frayed and she threw a full glass of brandy at me. Unfortunately most of it missed me but hit the gaslight behind and the curtains beyond. It ignited and the place went up in flames before I had chance to react. I dragged her outside into the quadrant but she went back in, desperate to undo what had been done. But it was way too late for that. I tried to follow. The staircase collapsed as I reached it, carrying her down to her fate. That night I lost everything; love, the Institute, my humanity. And that is why, my good Professor, I hold the just slightest grudge against Mr Popular himself.” Norton remained silent for a while. The Doctor resumed his seat behind the desk. “No comment, Professor?”
The Professor cleared his throat. “That does explain your dislike of Morbidelli, irrational or otherwise.”
“Irrational?” Rheingold snarled.
“Well, yes. Putting emotion aside for a minute, one can hardly place the blame at Morbidelli’s door. The young lady chose him. That was her decision and her decision alone. All the consequences were as a result of that decision.”
The Doctor huffed. “Damn you and your cold logic.”
“Which still leaves the problem of your waning popularity,” said the Professor. “One can hardly be thought benevolent whilst clearly harbouring resentment towards the most popular member of the faculty.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I believe the expression is ‘keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer’. Promote the fellow. Ply his research with additional funds. Show interest. Make him think you respect and admire his work. Bring him into your circle. Have him somewhere that you can keep an eye on him.”
The Doctor leaned back in his chair and stared long and hard at Norton. God, the man was good. A true Machiavellian. “Very well,” he said, “we will indeed promote Professor Morbidelli, provide him with his own lab and fund whatever he needs funding. Which is what exactly? What is he working on at the moment? I could declare I have a particular interest so that the sudden attention does not seem out of place.”
“Morbidelli is working on a theory that there are parallel dimensions, alternative universes if you like, and that it is possible to create a gateway to these alternatives,” replied the Professor.
Rheingold arched an eyebrow in surprise. “Then I do indeed have a special interest in his work. If he is right then… well, you don’t need me to tell you of the potential benefits for those holding the reins. And you, Professor, can be his special adviser. I want to know everything that he gets up to.”
“Most certainly,” Norton grinned. “I’m looking forward to it already. I feel like the cat who has got the cream.”