Featured May 20, 2021 Fantasy Literary Fiction University computer grad school campus poetry

Water Logic

By Rebecca Campbell
May 5, 2021 · 4,461 words · 17 minutes

From the editor:

In bare feet and a tattered coat, Gabe the seventh year grad student roams the halls of his academic institution, despairing of ever finishing his dissertation: that is, until he meets the peculiar Dr Leukos, professor of Fluidic Logic.

Rebecca Campbell writes weird fiction, often about the islands and woods on the west coast of Canada. Her work has appeared in F&SF, Clarkesworld, and Shimmer, among others, and has been shortlisted for the Sunburst Award.

From the author: Gabe has been working on a dead-end dissertation for years. Now he's broke and living in the basement of the computation centre, where he meets the peculiar Dr Leukos, Professor of Fluidic Logic.

Gabe, in year seven of a PhD in Literary Calculation, broke, his dissertation so far from finished he couldn’t imagine that it would ever end.

He solved the money problem by giving up his basement apartment on Amelia Street, where the stone walls oozed all winter, and moved the Collected Works of Jonathan Martinus into his basement office in the Computation Centre. He left nearly everything else behind, keeping two pairs of Levi’s 513s, and an enormous green parka from the Korean War. Three pairs of socks. More than that, Gabe reasoned, was extravagance for someone in his position. He might one day have to eliminate even these terminal luxuries, reducing his belongings to one suit of clothes and the Collected Martinus, carried through the city in his kit bag. But not quite yet, and while he had an office he could still afford to change his socks.

At first he walked barefoot to save his boots. He ate abandoned ham sandwiches, nicked leftovers from on-campus receptions. He tied his lengthening hair with string. In October he remembered that in the interests of weightlessness he had left his winter gloves on the sidewalk out behind the house on Amelia Street, so he cut strips off his towel and wrapped his hands for the cold walk from the Computation building to the English Graduate Reading Room and back again. He spent his days pouring over the punch cards and spreadsheets that should, one day, soon, eventually become the Index Arethusa, a statistical analysis of Martinus’s final long poem of 1833, Arethusa.

He knew the project was revolutionary in both English and Computation, so he almost didn’t mind that people avoided him. For that reason he chose to work at night, and share the empty buildings only with the Professor of Fluidic Logic, who had a basement office near his. Gabe only ever saw him at the end of a hallway, or slipping out of the common room as Gabe opened the door. Everyone knew Dr Leukos was a crank whose obstinate pursuit of analogue technology implied Soviet sympathies. It was fine, Gabe had reasoned, to be avoided by a crank when one is a revolutionary.

For five years his research had accumulated on spreadsheets and punch cards. Their susurrations and the dry wheeze of the department’s processors were – he often thought – the sound of his argument, the sound of words in an infinite shuffle, every syllable of those 4135 lines of poetry counted, classified, re-ordered by his instructions to reveal the profound and invisible orders that govern poetry itself.

And you, Arethusa, he murmured through the halls of the night-time university, listening for the sound his dissertation made, who in your courses limn the ocean deeps, the worlds below, O wellspring, Nereid-limbed.

He had read those lines for the first time on an afternoon in September of his first year at university. 1964. The Norton Anthology of English Literature open to page 371, and there was Arethusa, sudden like a rainstorm or a revealed truth. It wasn’t just the words, either, it was something behind them, elemental, something like the trickle and brim, like full ditches draining the woodland in April, or the palmate route a stream will cut across the beach and into the tideline. Something he called Arethusa because there was no other word for it, O wellspring, Nereid-limbed. The startle, awakening to the scent of water in his basement office.

He sensed it before he heard it, something moving behind the walls, first audible only at night, then constant when he knew to hold his breath and listen.

Once he woke past three in the morning with a bladder that felt as large and rigid as a basketball. On his way back from the men’s room he stopped in an otherwise un-remarkable length of wall to rest his fingertips against the plaster, where he sensed the faint, liquid rush. Not the sound of settling foundations, nor a distant janitor shuffling his mop down a mud-printed hallway on the second floor. Something more fundamental, like blood rushing his eardrums.

That was the week he found himself annoyed at those creatures who only dwelt in the building by day, who never listened, nor padded the long corridor to the men’s room as he did, to hear the water prattling through the drains as he brushed his teeth, and after that a sound so faint it might be the interior of his own body, rendered audible by the silence around him.

He slept in the Korean War parka. By November it smelled, a second skin of always-slightly-damp cotton, like a tent overwintered in the rafters of a garage. But the smell didn’t matter because at the other end of his season underground, the programming complete, he would uncover Arethusa’s secrets. The inaugural argument of a new era, where literary study would be the management of data: its hidden currents and laws; the substraits of meaning that we readers sense, but cannot know. A painless, linguistic vivisection, Arethusa laid bare from text to subtext, down to quanta of literary significance, of relationships imperceptible without inhuman statistical insight.

By January the strips around his fingers frayed so badly he cut another quarter of his towel to replace them.

Officially, Gabe met the Professor of Fluidic Logic (the one with Soviet sympathies) early on a Sunday morning in March. It was nearly Spring outside, but the basement remained wintry. Wintry like Jonathan Martinus in his last weeks, fleeing his creditors in Glasgow and starving in a boarding house as he scratched the last words of Arethusa cross-wise over the poem’s first pages. A textual ouroboros, Gabe called it, as the end overtook the beginning in a secret instruction to readers, a reminder that the poem – like the hydrosphere itself – never ceases its cycle. That was from the introduction.

On his way back from the men’s room he stopped to listen for the rush. It was obliterated by the crash of metal on stone. He followed the sound, and around the corner he saw that Dr. Leukos stood before a doorway, an acetylene torch under his arm, masses of pipe around his feet.

“Dr Leukos?” Gabe picked up the pipes.

“Oh,” he said, finally. “Oh.” Then he unlocked the door and led Gabe into a service corridor that ran the length of the building, twenty feet wide in some places, and filled with ducts and bundled wires, abandoned furniture and buckets and mops, very dark, then weakly lit. Dr. Leukos led him among the pipes toward another doorway, then a workbench, a broken easy chair in red velvet, a lamp with a pink glass shade. More important than all that, though, was the long wall opposite the door, which held an enormous aquarium, filled with glass and Lucite pipes and gates and tanks. At the bench Dr Leukos fussed with the copper pipes, and set the acetylene with other canisters on the workbench.

“A Philips machine?” Gabe asked.

Dr Leukos grunted and for a moment they admired the network of transparent acrylic tubes through which water rippled with a faint, rushing music. Many of the system’s components disappeared through the walls, through holes cut raggedly in wood, and plaster. Someone – Dr Leukos, he guessed – had chipped a messy trench in the terrazzo through which the copper snaked.

“How big is it?”

Dr. Leukos grunted. He looked up from the bench and said in his sharply accented English, “Big.”

“I didn’t know– ”

“–of course not. What’s your name? And why are you always here in the night? I have heard you and had to go the other way.”

Gabe introduced himself, and explained about the Index Arethusa and the emergent field of Literary Calculation, but Dr. Leukos never left his workbench, nor looked up. When Gabe finished, Dr. Leukos grunted again, and then lit the Acetylene torch and made some adjustment that sent sparks flooding the workbench. He didn’t wear a mask. Gabe waited, his face averted, watching shadows scattered by Dr Leukos’s water integrator.

“You will help me carry these.” Dr Leukos said, “I need them installed while the others are gone, or they will complain about the noise I make. They are always complaining, so I must work at night.”

Gabe followed Dr. Leukos back out to the corridor, and then so far along it he wondered if they’d passed the building’s foundations, and now crept beneath the quadrangle outside. They left through another of the service doors which Gabe had often seen, but never noticed, and then another door, and a corridor, this one full of transparent pipes lit by an internal luminescence like sea-water in summer.

“What is it?” Gabe asked. “Why does it glow?”

“Dinoflagellates,” Dr Leukos said. “Pyrocystis Fusiformis.” Gabe thought of night swimming in black water, out of reach of the shore, and blue-green light haloing their limbs. Bright rings of water around them in the dark sudden, irrefutable evidence of the microscopic universe.

“But why?” He asked.

“Because they’re pretty.” Dr Leukos answered, his voice temporarily and uncharacteristically mild. “And I miss the ocean.”

He tapped the Lucite overhead with one finger and Gabe thought he saw the light ripple, as though responsive, and a sympathetic glow illuminate Dr Leukos skin. But perhaps it was only his nighttime eyes: when he blinked it was gone.

After that night Gabe often followed the glow of Pyrocystis Fusiformis along the service corridor to Dr Leukos’s workshop. Dr Leukos wasn’t welcoming, but eventually the man let him help, and he carried armfuls of copper pipes, and was even allowed to touch the Lucite logic gates.

Gabe was happy for the respite from his own work.  Gabe’s problem – or, one of them – during those weeks was that Arethusa disintegrated into ever-smaller units as he dissected it, and the connections between them proliferated in ways he had not foreseen, so the Index Arethusa grew exponentially with each day’s work. He had set out to prove what he had always sensed: that there was a quantum of meaning in poetry, particularly in Arethusa that lay not in the obvious narrative, but in the relationship between words, in the deictic particles that bound thought to thought, that mapped Martinus’s intellectual landscape, even while it told the story of a Nereid, a minor Arcadian god, and a secret river that runs beneath the Mediterranean. Such a reading was beyond statistics.

One late night Gabe was sitting on a toilet staring at the men’s room floor, thinking about pronouns, and the proximal and distal relationships of this and that, or these and those as Martinus used them in the third Canto. He fell asleep for a moment, his head near his knees, and when his eyes opened he was staring hard at the drain in the middle of the floor. It was covered with a metal grill, patinated to brown. Behind it lay darkness.

Or not – darkness that gleamed with the flat, unnatural light of the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. On the other side of the grill water trickled. A rill, a beck, a single rapid winking up at him in the light of a 3am basement bathroom.

Gabe flushed. He washed his hands. He listened to the white rush of the water around him. He thought of his own body constituted in water, and the effluent that flowed from him – even now – and from the city. There was rainfall in the province’s hinterlands that rushed toward him and away along ancient waterways, that had preexisted the city and which – encountering its concrete, its water-greedy suburban greenbelts – flowed through and around but never stopped, only paused, and tumbled on. There were the named rivers and their valleys, the Humber and the Don: racing / After, onward, then, to Ortygia’s / Holier shore, where sleeps my Arethusa.

A vast network in place, and toward which the Leukos Machine already crept, even if Leukos didn’t admit it was so.  The first hint of a system so complex it might, Gabe thought, be adequate to the work of representing Arethusa, the well-spring, the Nereid-limbed. For a moment he sensed it, the slight, the tenuous channels that water will cut through anything that bars its way.

Gabe had cultivated the monomaniacal perspective of the basement-dwelling graduate student, so it was easy to imagine a hydrospheric world-computer as vast as the index he had imagined. He reasoned that Dr Leukos had already begun it in the walls of the very building in which he sat, in the substance which he had drunk, and eliminated, and flushed away; in the city’s systems, its flora, the tender roots of grass, and the deep roots of black walnut and red oak, the nodes, the connections, the reservoirs in winter-dormant perennials, the memory of trees. His mind rushed outward through campus greenspace and city parks, the culverts and storm drains, the ravines.

He had learned that the ideas that came to him in the middle of the night were best kept to himself. It was one of those weekends, when even Dr Leukos stayed away, when it was early on a Sunday morning, those days which were very long and – having the place to himself – he wandered, listening to Arethusa’s calculations course the walls.

A month later Gabe sat on the floor of the workshop, using one of Dr Leukos’s diagrams and building a Łukasiewicz logic gate from acrylic components, assembled in the jig that he had designed (Dr Leukos hadn’t noticed this innovation, but Gabe thought he would appreciate it). He was waiting for the solvent cement to set on the last round, before he’d test its joins, and add it to the pile he had already made, the components labeled and boxed and then – one of the nights when he was unwelcome in the lab, when Dr Leukos did the meticulous and arcane work, they would be deployed.

“Do you ever think, Dr Leukos, of what would happen if you flipped a switch? Or. No. A nozzle. A duct. If you turned a tap?”

Dr Leukos looked up from his diagram.

“Do you ever want to open a valve and let it out into the. The.” Gabe searched for a word that would describe the thing which he had glimpsed through the drain in the men’s room, the hydrospheric computer composed of all the conduits water might take – animal, vegetable, mechanical or geological – and the rationales of its flow. He held the gate in his hands as it fused into a translucent mass of curves, reservoirs and cloaca. The word that came into his head was ridiculous, but still he said it: “Into the plumbing?” What he meant to say was, out of the secret river and into the open but he thought Dr Leukos would have a better grasp of plumbing.

“The plumbing.” Dr Leukos said. He joined Gabe on the floor, squatted near the pile of components. “Flipping a switch, as you put it dear Gabriel, would only do something if the water were the computer. The water is not the computer.” He held up an acrylic elbow joint. “No more than the territory is the map. The water alights, temporarily, within our closed system, and we use what we know about its behaviour to model another quite different system. One would think that a man so well educated in literature would understand analogies.”

Gabe set the finished gate on the floor beside all the others. Dr. Leukos stood. He was smiling in a kind way that suggested he had discovered something important about Gabe’s nature. Perhaps that he was an idiot.

He wondered if the problem with the Computation Centre was an inability to reckon with poetry. Perhaps, he thought, perhaps water only consented to complete Dr Leukos’s assigned tasks, as Gabe consented to build logic gates and carry copper pipes to the dusty reaches of a service corridor. Perhaps they should have more respect for the water.

Jonathan Martinus understood, Gabe thought. We should be grateful to the element that constitutes us, and on which we depend. Water is generous. Water is irresistible.

“She needs a name, a real name.”

Dr Leukos indulged one of his intentionally-awkward silences, and when he spoke his voice was very, very dry. “I do not find it necessary,” then he paused, and Gabe was pretty sure he was taking the piss when he added: “Perhaps Leukos Machine Mk. 3.”

“Arethusa,” Gabe said. “Her name is Arethusa.”

The thunder ricochets down the shallow river valleys that run on either side of the city. The rivers – one is called Don and the other Humber – have no associated gods, as far as anyone in Toronto knows. They can still hear something like divine wrath rattle up-country.

Then the first collection of raindrops, like cat’s paws batting at heads, winkling through the fine wool of summer suits and soaking dresses to the skin. Men hold newspapers over their heads, and women run to save their sandals. And the students on the quadrangle flee for the Library’s atrium with their guitars for an impromptu, interminable folk-sing, bass provided by the rumble and drench outside. All over the city the squirrels soaked in five minutes, the crows in less, the little starlings, and the sleeping raccoons, the pigeons flee for their roosts in the girdered overpasses. The street cats satched, and the old retriever tied to the railing outside the bar endures with Christian patience the bathwater runnels in which he sits, scenting the air with wet dog. A girl in a long dress crouches on the step of her row-house, ringing out her skirt and unaware that the water has crept into her basement apartment and saturated the green shag carpeting, and now climbs upward, wicking through the stack of journals she has kept since she was twelve, and destroying the blue sateen suit she meant to wear tonight.

In the high country the waters do not abate. The ravines flood, and the highways that follow them to the lake shore.

The first collection of raindrops is an irritation. The second is remarkable. The third is frightening. In the beginning people hide under awnings, out of reach of sudden rivers, and cling to the still-warm and spattered brickwork. It can’t last, they think, and look up through the curtaining rain to the sky – bruise-black to the north, and thunder-green over the lake. Just wait it out, let the water run past them through the dry stream-beds of streets, through the basements and corridors, subway tunnels and ductwork through which the waters rush with their burden of garbage, first the body of a mouse, then a rat. A man on the twentieth floor of a glass building is troubled by the water-blackened sky, and wonders if the flood will rise forever, claiming corridor after corridor until the whole world is drowned.

On the afternoon of the high country flood Gabe had succeeded in modeling fifteen lines of Arethusa, using Dr Leukos’s theory and his own research. Perhaps Dr Leukos had noticed the proliferation of acrylic and copper in the service corridor. Perhaps he had heard Gabe’s recitation as he worked:

From well and earth she springs again
To open sky, a mingled creature. Wild
Stone-daughter, root-child, of fallen petals
And all the fair ones born. And I pursuant,
Arethusa, to far shores, and seas unknown

Or perhaps not. Perhaps no one heard Gabe.

The lines – first parsed, then lemmatized, then translated into gates and junctures analogous to networks of meaning: the deictic play of prepositions, the relationship of shore to sea, between petal and spring, the cistern-stanzas, the channeling verbs that ran out like water from the page to his mind and conjured in language and Lucite his own mingled creature. Arethusa, Nereid-limbed, who fled from him through the service corridors and ducts of the Computation Centre’s sub-basements, but who he conjured into being with the principles of the Leukos Machine.

And then a rill crept over the grey terrazzo, revealing as it passed the sudden, miraculous depth that wet stone possesses. It was not the gleam Gabe noticed first, nor his wet socks, but the room’s sudden freshness. The water collected against the arch of his foot, and finally he looked up at the door, where the water ran toward him, revealing an otherwise-invisible slope to the building’s foundation.

He finished the sentence he had begun dissecting before the rill nuzzled his foot: And far thy / Murmuring waters run from glacial / Fell and lowland fen, toward the richer /deeps. He watched the tiny flood, and thought of the vast, analogous network he had glimpsed, and toward which he groped with each newly constructed gate and reservoir. The rill – which he found he already called Arethusa – reached the far wall under the desk, then another tendril slipped under the door, over the lip of his sill, and another, and another crept toward him.

He had just thought of Dr Leukos alone in the workshop when the lights went out. The darkness was startling in its warmth, the deep, stony scent of it, and – even through the earth and the building’s walls – the shudder of far-away thunder.

In the hallway the water covered his toes, then wet the threads that hung down from his frayed jeans.  He walked upstream, the current warm as bathwater, coloured like creekwater, as though it had passed through streambeds and pastures, among roots and stones that had stained it faintly amber before it reached his grey stone basement. The air roared, and the staircase at the end of the hall was a waterfall, the doors at the bottom blown open by Arethusa.

The service corridor was downstream, and he felt his way along the walls through which the amber water ran, illuminated by the faint light of Pyrocystis Fusiformis, so he followed Arethusa’s deep sea gleam to the workshop. It was then, he thought afterward, that some barrier up above must have broken, some culvert jammed, because as he opened the door the water eddied and rose to his knees.  He shouted “Dr Leukos?  Are you there?”

Arethusa the Nereid-limbed lit the room around her. Her mutable form fixed – unnaturally – by acrylic and copper, glass and steel. The scent of water. Then the flood to mid-thigh. To his hips, climbing up along his spine.

The darkness limned only by Arethusa, the multiform, the protean. The water up to his waist,

Flip the valve, he thought. Let her out. Let her in.

And when he smashed the first of the glass reservoirs the room filled with her oceanic glow, the colour of nightswimming, he thought, as his face brushed the exposed beams of the ceiling. And I pursuant were the last of his words, as the water filled his mouth, and his thin, seeping blood joined the hydrospheric computer he had imagined. Gabe was a weak sort of river-god, lord of a small portion. He felt again the stab of his first reading, the sympathetic surge of blood in his heart as she spilled through him.

His forehead pressed to the ceiling, then under the rising water. He pushed off the floor, and clung to the bare beams, the water pushed at his closed mouth, and bubbled in to his ears, and then down his throat. It was warm, but then came the panic, and then the burn, and the struggle for breath he had not expected as Arethusa poured into his lungs and filled him to the brim with a faint, green, glow.

The white gate. The luminous glance. Then darkness absolute.

Gabe threw up, a hot slurry down his chest. When he opened his eyes he saw Dr Leukos, the old man with the ragged face leaning over him in the hallway, the water still running past them down to a sub-basement. Dr Leukos – his thin white hair plastered to his scalp – around them there were floating punch cards, an office chair, paper cups and reams of paper.

He struggled to sit up. Dr Leukos shushed him, “Gabriel, you should be careful–”

Gabe wanted to say, no, I didn’t drown but found he couldn’t speak, only cough and wretch. There was light around them, a blue-green glow: Arethusa, familiar, lighting the receding waters of the basement.

It was more than the water. It was the old man’s skin as well, his eyes, shedding light, though Dr Leukos hid his face in his hands. Then said to Gabe, who could not answer: “Pyrocystis Fusiformis, or so I have called it. I am told, though, they should not flourish so in blood, so perhaps not. It should perhaps have another name– you might call it Arethusa. I am sorry, dear Gabriel. I think I should have warned you. But perhaps it was already too late.”

Somewhere the upcountry flood abated, left the city in a faint, blue-green shimmer, lost – for now – in the lake’s darkness.

After the paramedics and the hospital. After recovery, a stern conversation with his twin supervisors, with the heads of departments and the deans. A scramble to salvage something from the water, the paper-mash that remained of his research. A perfunctory and awkward defence: questions about database design and the zeugmatic constructions in the third Canto, Gabe’s debt to Roberto Busa, Martinus’s debt to Cowper.


At the end of the summer Gabe returned to his office for the Collected Martinus. He left the Korean war parka in a garbage can.

Dr Leukos didn’t knock. “Gabriel,” he said from the doorway, “You are finished now. You will leave us.”

“Yes,” Gabe said. Dr Leukos waited another moment. Gabe wanted to know about the acetylene the old man carried, about the bulging pockets of his jacket, but Dr Leukos did not volunteer, and Gabe did not ask.

“You are happy with the outcome. You are content,” Dr Leukos said.

During his defence Gabe had heard her: the rush across his eardrums, had known that if it was dark he, too, would have possessed the faint luminosity of the deep.

He wanted to tell Dr Leukos that, but said instead, “it was okay. They asked the wrong questions. But it’s done now.”

“Yes, Dear Gabriel. Yes.”

He held out his hand and Gabe shook it. It was wet – not with sweat, Gabe thought. With floodwaters, he thought, and under his skin, with Arethusa herself.

Dr Leukos left. When Gabe shut his office door behind him he followed the old man’s watery footprints, past the walls where, even now, Arethusa might be reconstituting herself.

This story originally appeared in Capricious.