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Zero Sum

Reset (1986 and 2019)

Daughter of the most famous tree in Australian Universities –
The Philosophers’ Tree – 2016

Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

This wasn’t working out the way I’d thought it would. Time was running down the clock. I’d have to be out of here before about 11:45 at the latest; but the cops didn’t seem interested in processing any of us. 

I looked around the cell. There were six drunks in various stages of embarrassment; sitting or slumped; someone had thrown up in the bucket the cops had tossed into the cell as an afterthought, someone else was inarticulately arguing with unseen rivals, arms swinging and the odd kick out of the leg. One just sleeping it off. Most were bruised and some bloodied, but the damage wasn’t serious and most were feeling little pain, being quite drunk and probably still charged with the dregs of the fight’s adrenalin rush. 

We’d all been rounded up and thrown in the back of the van after a fight in the Drive Through Bottle-O at The Toxteth Hotel on Glebe Point Road. I had no clue what the fight was about and I wasn’t part of it at first. I’d been there to try and get my hands on a bottle of Absinthe for reasons that will become clear momentarily. 

I’d just made my purchase and exited the bottle shop into the driveway. I was twisting the brown bag around the long neck of the bottle, not really paying much attention, when I found that I’d walked my way into the middle of a blue. More combatants rushed out of the back bar and in moments there were about 10 blokes all going for it. A couple of what I assumed to be untidy and belligerent significant others barracking and throwing the odd kick into the scrimmage.  

I had to get away quickly, but before I could make my escape the cops arrived in force, smacked a few blokes a bit; y’know, to get them in line; snarled at the women and then pushed those of us that had been blocked from running off, me included, into the Paddy Wagon. That was a major problem; but at least I still had the Absinthe in the deep pocket of my overcoat. I had to hang onto that.

If I couldn’t get out of this and get about half that bottle of Absinthe into me before midnight I might just be forced to discover how hard it is to pass through The Discordance without chemical assistance. Either that, or I might just miss the biggest night of my life.

I sang out to the Custody Sergeant, trying to let him know I wasn’t part of the barney but he was too busy processing another bunch of drunks, this lot from The Ancient Briton; including a one legged bloke who was not only dead drunk, he was fighting mad, swinging his crutch at anybody foolish enough to find themselves within range; his anger finding inarticulate outlet in a series of throaty “arrghh”’s and the occasional “fungcung!” spat at anyone who made eye contact. He was wearing military medals on the greasy chest of his filthy jean jacket. He’s obviously thrown up on himself; the medals and the lower reaches of his long matted grey hair sticky with the stinking detritus of that effort. 

He was a handful, but having stripped him of his crutch the cops were having a slightly easier time wrangling him into the drunk tank. 

This was my opportunity. I spied the Absinthe sitting forgotten on the desk in the custody suite, no one was taking any notice of it. They’d be opening the cell door to get the one legged man in. That was my chance.

Two fairly burly constables had him by the shoulders, lifting and dragging him as he writhed and twisted. The old digger must have been made of sprung steel. He swung his good leg up against the grey metal of the door jam and pushed back with all he had. He and the two cops holding him collapsed to the ground while another two rushed in to assist; including the Custody Sergeant, who abandoned his paperwork to throw his arm into tidying up the melee.


The old boy was putting up a bit of a fight so I jumped the scrum in the cell doorway landing just in front of the desk. I grabbed the Absinthe by the long narrow neck of the bottle and immediately swung it at another young constable coming through the door. He ducked, loosing his footing and ended up face down on the floor. I hurdled him, stepping on his bum as he tried to get back up, and sprinted for the open door at the end of the short hallway that connected the Custody Suite with the front desk. The young copper who I’d threatened with the Absinthe had left the door open in his haste to assist in the furore going on in the custody suite. His mistake, my escape.

I burst into the foyer and made for the desk, deftly side stepping the female officer on desk duty, and vaulted over, a sure footed landing as I slipped the Absinthe into one of my long pockets; then, pushing the heavy glass doors two handed, I  exploded onto Talfourd Street at a full run, rolling a citizen taking a late night stroll with his dog. He threw a few choice epithets after me as I ran for the corner. I quickly looked at my watch; it was 11:50. I had ten minutes.

I pulled the bottle of “Grande Absente” from my pocket thinking the brand entirely appropriate for my great escape; in a Franglish kind of way. I tore off the plastic seal, unscrewed the cap and glugged as I ran. This was going to get messy.

I turned into St John’s Road running as hard as I could, the super slug of Absinthe already making its way around my brain. 

Turning into Glebe Point Road, my pace now picking up on the down hill slope, I found the light from cars, street lamps, shop windows beginning to shatter and split into fractal patterns of great beauty, but I had no time to appreciate that beauty or ponder its cause. I continued to push as hard as I could, keeping a backward eye on the corner, expecting at any moment for cops and cars, “blues and twos” going, to be after me. 

Now the combination of α-Thujone and 140 proof alcohol was messing with my consciousness at some fundamental level and all I could do was keep running. My vision began to narrow as the wormwood took effect, the fractal light effect starting to compromise my vision, I was having trouble keeping pace and my gate was irregular. Still no cops in pursuit. I couldn’t work that out.

I’d had enough of the Absinthe. More and I might not make it. I slipped the bottle over a front fence, dropped my coat and ran on. At least now I’d look different to any pursuing police.

The run to the end of Glebe Point Road was a kaleidoscopic blur with occasional explosions of intense white light, though there was a memorable carom off a fence, onto the bonnet of a parked car, but I was feeling no pain, just a compelling urgency to run. 

At University House I shot out onto the asphalt at Parramatta Road, narrowly missing being skittled by a bus hurtling down the kerbside lane; my brain only registering the threat as I skirted round the front of a Mini screeching to a halt in the next lane, completely freaking the small asian woman driving. She shouted at me in her shock, but it was Chinese, and I had no time to apologise. 

Keep running! Don’t stop!

Through the main gate at Sydney University, I ran up the rise towards Fisher, diverting through the ground ivy under the fig trees and along the back of the library to the door at the bottom of the stacks fire stairs. It was unlocked as promised. I pulled the door open and fell inside. I was really feeling nauseous and uncoordinated now. It took two attempts to get upright. 

Inside I looked up the fire well and wondered if I could take all those steps in my deteriorating condition. I pushed off and, after a few slips and a fall that badly barked my shin on the steel steps I finally made it to L6 with seconds to spare. I was damn near ready to collapse in a spreading green puddle of numb Absinthe oblivion. But not just yet.  

Eric was waiting for me, a worried look on his face and a lit spliff glowing on his lips. He offered me the joint as I ran towards him, but I just grabbed his arm and dragged him toward the small but widening circle of ultraviolet light further up the open aisle. I was trying to get the word “Absinthe” out so he’d know I was prepared, but my mouth wasn’t working. He took a very quick look at his watch, his face momentarily worried by a look of concern for my state,. He must have smelt the Absinthe on my breath. It was now or never. We both jumped over the widening circle of pale bluish light and landing within it, simply disappeared from the timeline.

As was always the case, as soon as we’d cleared the circle it popped leaving nothing to show we’d ever been there except the faint, dissipating smell of weed. 

I didn’t have time to wonder what the Glebe Police would make of my escape and disappearance, or enough time to wonder whether there was enough Absinthe in me; in fact there was no time at all, for anything. 

Within The Discordance time is irrelevant, doesn’t really exist, so its very difficult to even describe what The Discordance is or what its effect is, until you’re out the other side. If you thought of your mind being pulverised and shredded, then carded like raw wool, then spun and knitted together again, and again, and again in increasingly complex patterns, until, with a similar pop, you appear dazed and confused on the other side; usually on your knees retching away the nausea induced by the Translation through The Discordance. The experience is not something you want to repeat often, and while smoking or ingesting THC helps with ameliorating the worst effects of the smearing of your consciousness, the lack of a Specific against that effect is a significant disincentive to Translation on a regular basis. If I’m caught short, as I was today, there are other compounds, both natural and synthetic, that will do the job. Perhaps not as well as weed, but at least the Translation won’t leave you a dribbling wreck. Absinthe is a good one, though it has to be distilled according to the original recipe, otherwise it won’t contain enough alcohol.

The Fisher Stacks Portal isn’t like most of the others. It only propagates every now and then when conditions are right. If it weren’t for the copper cladding on the building it wouldn’t propagate at all. It was an electromagnetic thing. I must ask Faraday about that the next time I see him.

Predictably, when we landed I was on my knees retching. Most of the unprocessed Absinthe and the remains of my last meal were now on the ground in a virulent green pool populated by vari-coloured “chunks”. What is it about carrots? I couldn’t even remember the last time I’d eaten carrots. I felt like minced meat and had trouble forming a coherent thought. So, same old, same old. 

Eric helped me up and cleaned me off. He seemed OK; but then Eric always has the best weed.

“Come on,” he said, “we’ve got an appointment to keep.”

“Is she really going to be here this time?” I asked weakly. Feeling like a wrung out dish cloth, I needed some good news.

“I hope so.” Eric always had a way of making uncertainty sound both reassuring and exciting.

“What time is it here?” My mind, now clearing rapidly, I had begun to ask the relevant questions. It’s sobering how sobering Translation can be. Physically I was weak and trembling; mentally I was beginning to feel as sharp as a tack.

“Just gone seven in the evening. February 15, 2019.”

“Times the one thing I’ve never really adjusted to. I mean, I get it. It will always be sometime between 1860 and 2050 for me, and while I don’t understand the portals and The Discordance business, I do know it works, most of the time, but …, well…, time…; its supposed to keep “slipping slipping into the future…..”, not like some lucky dip, some dance to the music of time, a waltz here, a cha cha there. Yesterday today, tomorrow last week”

“You’ll get used to it in the end. We all do. Though it does take “time”.

Oh, ha ha, very funny! What are we going to do about the mess?”

Eric looked at the puddle of green muck seeping into the chip mulch. We’d popped through in the corner of the main quad where the old Jacaranda once stood. Only a short hop from Fisher L6 to the quad, if you don’t count the 33 years. The new Jacaranda clone was making the best of all the care and attention the gardeners were lavishing on it. Spindly now, in time it would grow and spread to once again provide shade for undergraduates and their tutors as they, together, teased out the hidden intricacies of existence.

Eric kicked some mulch over the vomit and trod it in. “Come on, there’s a few things we have to do first.” 

We stepped over the low sandstone wall into the deep shadows of the cloister and made our way to the stairs in the Philosophy corner of the quad. There were no philosophy students about. Eric always seemed to know when it was clear to pop in.

Edmund Blackett’s beautiful neo-gothic quad has been completely renovated over the past few decades, both externally and internally. Gone are the rickety stair cases, the tiny offices and cubbies that had been built into and divided up the grand Victorian spaces, to provide much needed accommodation for the growing legion of lecturers, tutors, professors and their staff. Even the basement levels have been remediated to their late 19thcentury state. However there was one suite of basement rooms that hadn’t changed much since the early seventies. Those rooms notionally housed the Department of Quantum Consciousness.

That’s where we were going. To keep an appointment with a legend. 

Well, she’s a legend to me anyway. I’d never thought that I would meet her. We inhabit different bubbles. She was almost mythical, a shadowy character of immense but hidden power, an alchemist able to look into people and transmute their everyday existence into something else entirely; and, here’s the kicker; given that this was her first iteration, she was completely clueless as to the real nature of her abilities. She did it all without knowing just what it was that she was doing and how. 

When Eric had said that he needed me for this particular little operation and explained what we would have to do, I was beside myself with excitement. Not only would I be Translating through to different bubbles for the first time; that alone would have been exciting enough; but I was going to meet the one person in all of time that had the ability to spontaneously access the atemporal folded space continuum and thereby see it all, all at once. If only she knew what she had, could do……., but this was her first iteration. 

Blake’s “Tyger” began intoning in my mind as we made our way down the long dimly lit corridor to Eric’s suite of rooms. For some reason my mind had booked Gough Whitlam to do the voice over. (I don’t know why it was Gough. I haven’t had the training the others have had. Apparently I’m “a natural” at this game; though none of it has ever come naturally to me.) 

In my mind’s ear Gough’s tone had that smooth mordant, sardonicism that characterised his best speeches.    

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies,
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

What the hammer? what the chain,
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp,
Dare its deadly terrors clasp!

When the stars threw down their spears
And water’d heaven with their tears:
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

Tyger Tyger burning bright,
In the forests of the night:
What immortal hand or eye,
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.

“That’s ya lot comrade!” Gough’s gratuitous sign off echoed in my empty head as we went through the solid oak door and into Eric’s rooms. She was my Tyger and I was soon to look upon her fearful symmetry, feel the burn of her gaze.

“Here,” Eric said indicating a studded leather Queen Anne chair, “sit down and relax. Have a smoke, you need to calm yourself.”

I sat as Eric tossed me a small hinged tin; his “Junior Smoker”s Kit”, as he called it. The best weed in the western world. I opened the tin noting how shiny with use the corners were, and began to roll a fat joint from the mull in the “kit”. Eric was right. I was agitated, over excited. I needed to get my poo in a pile.

Eric stood on the Persian carpet in the middle of the room and lifted his hands to spot directly in front of his gaze. I love it when he does this. 

He made a twist with his left hand and then grabbed the bolus of light that he had conjured there with his right; then he spread the light until it began to stress, change frequency. He flattened the smear of coloured light until it seemed a uniform ultrablue, then he unfolded it, carefully unpicking the edges and peeling back the folds until he had what he wanted.

“See.” Eric said, turning the light image towards me so I could see it too. “She’s just arrived at the house.”

I could see her as she got out of the Landcruiser and made her way over to the fallen down house. My heart skipped a beat, so I toked on the joint and held my breath while Eric closed the view and, as if trying to push away smoke, flapped his hands in the area that had held the vision of her.

“I’ve got to go and get her. I won’t be long.” Eric was looking around as though he had misplaced something. “Have you pocketed my Junior Smoker’s Kit?” I had, absently. I handed it back. “Wouldn’t do to turn up unprepared.”

Eric then fixed me with a hard look, as though he were trying to decide whether I should be read into the rest of the plot. He finally decided in the affirmative, or so I assumed. 

“While I’m away getting her there’s a real possibility that she may turn up here. About 85% I’d say. She may be quite a bit younger so don’t be alarmed if….,” Eric shrugged, “…when you see her.” He gave me a happy “OK?” sort of smile. “If she does drop by, just tell her that I’ve stepped out for a few minutes. It’s of paramount importance that you don’t let on to her. Remember this is her first iteration. She still doesn’t know.”

“You mean that later there might be two of her? The one you’re going to get and the one that might just turn up?”

“That’s precisely what I’m saying. In fact before this is over its possible that we might be graced with many more of her. The probabilities are rising.” Eric nodded. “The more the merrier! She really is something else.”

I squirmed in the chair a bit. This was turning into a very interesting evening.

Eric came over and took the joint from my slack fingers. It was first class goods. He took a deep pull and held it for several seconds; then exhaled a thick cloud of stinking smoke. He returned the joint, then made a gesture with both hands, not dissimilar to a magician’s flourish, and simply disappeared with a pop of bright blue light. As he disappeared I thought I heard his voice, as if from a great distance, say, “Back soon.”

Geeze I wish I could do that. 


* The jacaranda was a historically significant specimen of Jacaranda mimosifolia tree planted in 1928 that stood in the south-eastern corner of the University of Sydney main quadrangle, and now describes its clone replanted in the same location. It’s now accompanied by an Illawarra Flame Tree in the South West corner of the Quad in honour of the Gadigal people on whose land the university stands.

For many years students have lived by the folklore that any undergraduate who fails to study before the tree’s first bloom appears will fail their exams.

The tree has also been the backdrop for thousands of graduation and wedding photos over its 88 year lifetime. (Including Emmjay, his former wife and both of the Emmlets – you too Waz and Sche ?)

In 2014 the University advised that the jacaranda was nearing the end of its natural life and hired a specialist jacaranda grower to take cuttings. Grafted onto the base of other jacarandas, the cuttings have produced two clones. This means that the University will be able to replace the jacaranda with genetically identical stock.