The Knowledge Vampire

"Information cannot be created or destroyed," wrote Spam carefully in his exercise book. Then he surveyed the room. Next to him, Huskinson was staring vacantly ahead. Too late: he was gone, exploring some new planet in his head, rescuing an inexplicably large-breasted princess from some unlikely danger. At the back, some of the kids were engrossed in a magazine, of the kind that Mr Botfrob kept getting caught with. But the rest of the class were concentrating, writing notes and paying attention. To an unskilled observer, the lesson might appear a success. Only Spam knew the truth.

"Except in Mr Botfrobís lesson," he wrote. At the front of the class, the friendly teacher was writing his own notes on the blackboard. It seemed to be something about the causes of the Second World War. In large capital letters, in the centre of the board, Mr Botfrob had written, "THEY STARTED IT".

The lesson was coming to a close. "So weíve covered a lot of ground here," said Mr Botfrob. "As youíll have seen, the Second World War owed its life to a whole cluster of complex reasons, which Iíve had to simplify slightly in order to talk down to your level. Now, are there any questions?"

There werenít, of course. If the students had learnt anything, it was that teachers got very annoyed if you asked them questions. Especially Mr Botfrob. Especially if the questions were being asked by the police, but that was another issue entirely.

Spam had a question. "Sir," he said, putting his hand up. The students who had been paying attention stared at him, wondering what he was up to. Mr Botfrob did a guilty double-take, as if heíd been propositioned by someone he suspected of being an undercover agent. Spam persevered. "Sir," he said again, "Iíve got a question. Just one. Itís to do with what youíve been saying."

"Go on," said Mr Botfrob suspiciously.

"What were the causes of the Second World War?"

Quickly all the other students stared at the pages in front of them, not wanting to get caught. They knew the standard teacherís cheat now - Mr Botfrob should congratulate Spam on his question, then get one of the pupils to answer it to "make sure theyíve been paying attention". But there were some things that Mr Botfrob simply hadnít learnt. The pressures and tensions inside him began to build up. Blood raced to his head, making the veins throb on his temples and his eyes bulge. His head seemed to expand as the colour deepened to red, then finally his skin burned so much that he went white hot and gave off a visible glare of anger.

"Have you not been listening?" he thundered.

The bell went, as Spam had known it would, just in time to save him, and Mr Botfrob began to cool down, disaster averted. The class began to file out of the room in a solid mass that became stuck in the doorway. Spam thought for a moment, then decided to push it. He was one of schoolís survivors, and that was because he understood how things worked. If something wasnít working in a predictable manner, he needed to know why.

Testing the heat in front of him by holding out a pencil, he approached Mr Botfrob. The teacher seemed uncomfortable at the prospect of a boy holding out a pencil so provocatively, but Spam could take no chances.

"Arenít you worried, sir?" asked Spam.

Mr Botfrob nodded dumbly, staring at the pencil.

"I meant about knowledge," said Spam. "At the start of the lesson, you knew all about the causes of the Second World War. By the end, we should all know, but in fact nobody does - not even you. Surely, at the very least, it should be a zero-sum game - if the knowledge has left your head, it should have entered somebodyís. But in fact, none of us have learnt anything."

Mr Botfrob spluttered, then finally managed to speak. "Itís not about learning," he said. "Itís about education." And then he fled to the sanctuary of the staff room, where not even Spam could follow him.

*

Huskinson didnít even know what knowledge was. Spam tried to teach him.

"Suppose I know what knowledge is," he explained. "Then I tell you. Now you know what knowledge is as well."

"But I donít," objected Huskinson. He had only been back in reality for five minutes, and it was already confusing him.

"So let me get this straight," said Spam. "You actually donít know anything? Youíve been at school all this time, and youíve learnt nothing?"

Huskinson tried to think of something heíd learnt, but it had gone.

"What happens in lessons?" tried Spam.

"You get put in detention for not paying attention," said Huskinson.

Spam persisted. "But what if you pay attention?" he said.

"Fear not, Your Highness," said Huskinson. "I, Huskinson the Iron Man, shall protect you from the vast river of killer fish that even now flows towards -"

Spam hit him. It was the only language he understood. This was literally true: Spam had hit him in French once, and Huskinson didnít get it.

"Eulerís Equation!" shouted Spam. "You must know Eulerís Equation, even if youíve forgotten everything else!"

"eip+1= ..." began Huskinson.

"Go on," said Spam, shaking him.

"= ..."

"= what?"

Huskinson shrugged. "Nothing," he said.

Spam relaxed. "Thank the stars," he said. "Heís not taken that."

"Who hasnít?"

Spam looked into his friendís eyes. Should he tell him his suspicions? Then, as he saw Huskinson start to drift off, he realised that it probably didnít matter much anyway.

"The knowledge vampire," he said.

*

The knowledge vampire entered the room during Mr Botfrobís lesson, and sucked the information out of your head. Spam had never seen him do it, of course, which was the first serious problem with his theory, but he had no other explanation. He had checked his head thoroughly at the end of the lesson and found no obvious entry points, so he assumed the trick was done by placing a straw up the nose. Perhaps some kind of nasal plug might be in order.

That afternoon, after registration, he went to the school library and looked up everything he could find about vampires. There wasnít much - mostly a long, forthright, self-published monograph about why Mr Botfrob wasnít one, and people should really stop stabbing him with pencils. But he found some other information, and spent the evening gluing a couple of matchsticks into a cross, which he hung around his neck, and wore to school the next day.

He didnít last thirty seconds before he was sent to Mr Farpworth.

"What is the meaning of this?" asked the Team Leader.

"Itís a demonstrative pronoun, denoting a person or thing nearby," said Spam hopefully, but Mr Farpworth wasnít buying it. He sighed. "Itís to ward off vampires," he said. Mr Farpworth would think he was lying, and that therefore he had some more sensible, less embarrassing excuse. It was much easier than making one up.

"With a Christian symbol?" asked Mr Farpworth incredulously. "Would you remind me of the school regulation on religious symbolism?"

Spam sighed again, and recited. "Wearing the symbols of a particular religion is banned, as it offends people of other religious beliefs."

"And?"

"And wearing no religious symbols offends all of them," said Spam.

"Exactly. Thatís why I designed the Vague Religious Symbol, which symbolises any religious belief, including none. This is the only permitted religious symbol in the entire school."

Saint Street Comprehensive had in fact had a number of problems with religious extremism recently, and Mr Farpworth was always vigilant. Only last term Class 4C had become Christian fundamentalists, and had begun to ban anything they found offensive. Theyíd started with the sex education lesson, moved on to Religious Studies, and by the end of the term had banned every single lesson the school offered. In the end one of them had read the Bible, and decided that its message of peace, love and tolerance was so out of kilter with the Christian ethic of killing the heathens that they had to ban that as well. Once they realised that Christianity itself had to be banned on Christian grounds they went underground, and were now dedicated to rooting themselves out wherever they were found.

"I have a dream," said Mr Farpworth. "My dream is that this school shall be the most inoffensive establishment in the entire country." He glared at Spam. "That cross is banned. Burn it at once."

The riots caused by Spamís cruciform conflagaration died down after a day or two, thanks largely to Mr Farpworth immediate repressive response. But it left Spam exactly where heíd started. His increasing ignorance worried him. He wasnít bothered about losing his academic knowledge - he didnít believe most of it anyway. But what if he lost all his other knowledge? He didnít know much in any case, but maybe heíd just lost his knowledge of what he knew. He decided that, even though she charged by the hour, he could count on Persephone to give him some sounder advice.

"Vampires," she said, not laughing at him so long as he was paying. "Vampires donít have reflections."

"Of course not," said Spam. "Itís invisible."

"Then perhaps it has a reflection, but it doesnít have a reality," said Persephone.

Spam was amazed that he hadnít thought of this before, and in no time, Persephone had sold him a mirror, or rather, had sold him the rights to borrow one from the Science block boysí toilet, provided he collected it himself and returned it intact, without getting caught.

*

"A mirror?" asked Mr Botfrob incredulously. "I can understand you wanting to look at some of the boysí reflections, but not your own."

"Itís coursework," explained Spam. "Mr Gutwright wants us to talk to our reflections to build our self-esteem." In fact this was true, but the rest of the class had simply got their parents to do it for them.

Mr Botfrob shrugged and began the lesson. "And pay attention this time, Huskinson," he said.

"Yes sir," said Huskinson, and frowned. Even he was becoming suspicious at the size of the princessís breasts.

Spam tried to concentrate on the lesson, but he was more concerned at what was happening in the mirror. At first everything seemed normal, but then he noticed another presence in the mirror. An abomination from another dimension. A dark being, with pale skin, fangs, and a "chavs are scum" wristband.

Spam watched in horror as the being took out a long drinking straw. With an evil grimace, it inserted it up Huskinsonís nose and began to suck. Spam added another item to his list of things never to do.

The vampire frowned. What on earth did Venusian princessesí underwear have to do with the Battle of Britain? Oh well, you learnt something new every day. It turned to Spamís reflection, brandishing its straw.

"Itís up to you now," said Spam to his reflection. His reflection nodded, and turned to the vampire.

"We need to talk," he said.

*

"I was once as you," said the vampire, sitting nonchalantly on the table. It was a while since it had had a chat. "I once walked the world of mortals, living a finite life, doomed to die, as are you all. Decay, rot and despair stalked my footsteps. Didnít have many friends, oddly enough."

"I can imagine," said Spamís reflection.

"Yes, even at this very school I lived out my mortal days, daydreaming and doing my best to avoid learning. Then one day, I was, well, shall we say, recruited."

"Recruited?" said Spamís reflection.

"A new teacher arrived. A teacher with enthusiasm and energy. A teacher with a zest for knowledge. A zest which he wished to pass on."

Spamís reflection shuddered. He had met such a teacher himself, and had almost learnt a number of French irregular verbs.

"One day, he kept me back after the lesson. Naturally, I assumed I was in some kind of trouble. But no, it was worse than that. He had a book. A book which he wished to show me. A book which was to prove my downfall."

"What was in this book?" asked Spamís reflection.

"Eulerís Equation," said the vampire. "A simple raw piece of information. Once I saw it, I was addicted, as the teacher had known I would be. Oh, he was clever. He started me off with a few soft facts, for free. But soon we were moving on to harder stuff. I turned to crime to feed my hunger for knowledge. I neglected my earthly needs, caring only for my next facts.

"But oh! The student was to become the master. Though I appeared to be his bitch, I gathered my knowledge carefully, made my plans and bided my time. Slowly I learnt the secrets of thought transference. I was able to bleed all the knowledge from his brain and install it in my own, leaving him an empty, withered, dried-out useless husk of a man."

"Mr Dangleberry!" cried out Spamís reflection. So that explained all those Maths lessons.

"Quite," said the vampire. "But the cost to myself was terrible. I had given up my own humanity, passed into the other realm, and become a creature abominated by nature."

"Hang on a minute," said Spamís reflection. "If you did this by thought transference, what are you sucking out of peopleís noses?"

"Never mind that," said the vampire, hastily hiding the straw. "Thatís just something else I like to do. Since then, my crazed hunger for knowledge has caused me to wander the corridors of this school. Here I can feed on all the knowledge I want. After all, no one else is using it. But now, the question arises as to what to do with you."

"I shouldnít bother with me," said Spamís reflection. "I donít know much anyway."

"But you know something no one else does," said the vampire. "You know of my existence. Such individual knowledge is precious to me." The vampire removed the straw from his pocket and brandished it threateningly. "And yet ... I like you. I shall make you a deal."

"What deal?" asked Spamís reflection, suspiciously.

"Join me," said the vampire. "Become as me. Follow me through eternity, feeding on the brains of your fellow pupils, acquiring the knowledge of mankind. Together we shall learn the secrets of the universe!"

"Iím not sure I like knowledge," said Spamís reflection. "It hurts."

"Oh? said the vampire. "Then try this for size." It bent down towards Spamís reflection, its lips glistening with saliva. Spamís reflection trembled as it placed its lips against his ear, and whispered. At once, his eyes widened, his jaw dropped, and he stared at Huskinson who was sitting vacantly next to him.

"You see?" said the vampire. "There is so much we can learn. I will give you twenty-four hours to decide. And if your answer is no ..." Once again, the vampire held the straw up. "You shall become Mr Dangleberryís apprentice!" With an unearthly laugh, it floated from the room, passing straight through the door.

*

After Spam compared notes with his reflection, he realised he was in trouble. His first act was what he always did when he was in trouble - he blamed Huskinson for it. This didnít seem to work this time though. He knew that the traditional remedies against vampires would be ineffective as well. There was only one weapon. At home he armed himself with a small bundle of straws, but he knew that if it came to a fight he would be no match for an experienced vampire.

Lying in bed that night, he examined all the knowledge that he had gathered during his life. Perhaps he wouldnít miss it. He had learnt too much in any case. He thought of the secret that the vampire had whispered to him. Perhaps it would be better to lose all his knowledge, than to gain everything. What kind of a life would it be, living only in mirrors, having no real existence?

What would happen if he found himself in a wobbly circus mirror? Would he actually be that shape? If he got trapped in a periscope, would he be able to see round corners?

Suddenly Spam sat bolt upright in bed. So the vampire lived in mirrors and was hungry for knowledge? Then let him have knowledge.

The next day he arrived at school early, almost on time in fact, ready to save the staff and pupils from a doom that they didnít even know about.

*

"Which brings us to the terrible tragedy that signified the end of war in Japan," said Mr Botfrob, writing the word "Gotcha" on the blackboard. Spam set his mirror up once again, waiting for his visitation.

"I love the Second World War," said the vampire to his reflection. "Thereís always more to be learnt about it. Some new history arises every day."

"Donít tell me how it ends," said Spamís reflection. "We haven't got to that bit yet.

"Youíll love the twist," said the vampire.

Spamís reflection put his hands over his ears. The vampire shrugged.

"And so to our deal," it said. "You have a decision to make."

"Iíve made up my mind," said Spamís reflection. "I canít join you."

"A shame," said the vampire, taking out its straw. "You could have learnt everything known to man."

"Itís not really about the knowledge," said Spamís reflection. "Itís more about the straw up the nose. I think Iíd really like that."

"You would?" said the vampire, startled. "Most people arenít really up for it."

"I really want it," said Spamís reflection. "I did it on my own last night, but I think it would be better if someone else did it for me."

"Well," said the vampire, recovering. "Youíre in for a treat, then." He leaned towards Spamís reflectionís nose.

"You do realise Iíve got a cold?"

"Donít you worry. Itís better that way. Now, letís see what youíve got." The vampire inserted the tip of the straw into his nose.

"Just a minute," said Spamís reflection. "Before I forget. Iíve got something I want to show you."

The vampire stopped, puzzled. The real Spam reached under his desk and pulled something else out. It was the mirror from the boysí toilets in the Languages block. Persephone would be furious when she realised - he hadnít paid her for this one. Carefully he set it opposite the original one. The vampire looked out from one into the other.

"But what is this creature?" it said. An infinity of mirrors reflected each other, each one displaying the vampire.

"A creature whose knowledge is equal only to yours," said Spamís reflection. "I know nothing. Next to me, this being is an encyclopedia. And there is an infinite number of them."

"Gracious me!" cried the vampire. "What great knowledge! I had never dreamt of such an opportunity! So, you unearthly beast, you feel you are a match for me? Then open those nostrils!"

Spam learnt a very important lesson that day. "Never suck your own brains out with a straw," he wrote in his exercise book. It was the first thing heíd ever actually learnt in Mr Botfrobís lesson, and he thought he should have got more marks for it, because as knowledge goes, that was a blinder. He could only watch in astonishment as an infinity of vampires sucked at each other, absorbed their own knowledge even as they were drained of it, and collapsed on the floor, empty worn-out husks, every one.

And as the corpses shrivelled up, Spam could see wisps of knowledge escape, like gas during the weekly Friday afternoon double-maths farting contest. Slowly it dissipated in the air, and then was gone. And Spam laid down his mirrors, his work done.

*

"So you still havenít learnt anything?" said an exasperated Mr Botfrob.

"No, Sir," said Spam sullenly. "After I killed the vampire, I thought all the blocks to learning were removed. But it still isnít working. Perhaps there are other supernatural creatures at work, eating our brains: or perhaps thereís a fundamental flaw in the nature of knowledge itself. Perhaps it can only be taught, never learnt."

Mr Botfrob sighed: heíd heard it all before. "So would you care to read to the class the essay you wrote on the history of the Second World War?"

Spam looked at the paper in front of him. Heíd begun to panic when heíd realised that he still didnít know anything on the subject. As time had gone on, heíd become increasingly desperate, and finally had focussed on the one thing he knew for sure: the piece of knowledge that the vampire had given him. He stood up.

"Venusian princesses make their underwear from the skins of schoolboys," he read.

There was laughter throughout the class. Only Huskinson didnít seem amused. "How do you know that?" he hissed. "Martian traitor." But then he was off again, on a new adventure. The balance of power in the universe lay in his hands, and Spam preferred to keep it there - it kept his hands out of trouble. He sat down again.

He never found out where the knowledge had gone when the vampire had died. He guessed it was just flitting around, trying to find a home, or even a mate. In some ways it was exciting to think of all the knowledge that just hung in the air, invisible, like radio waves that make no sound until they reach a receiver. But Spam was no receiver of knowledge, and it remained forever beyond his grasp. Sometimes, out of the corner of his eye, he thought he could see the causes of the Second World War: but when he looked, it had gone.

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