An hour before Opal AM Brooks is ordered to inspect a visiting university, which had landed in a remote field on the Marches a year previously, he spilt the cat’s food on the kitchen floor. But now, driving to the border, he must not, he tells himself, let this mishap set his mood for the day, which has not been lifted by his difficulty in locating the site. Either the co-ordinates he’s been given are wrong or there’s something amiss with his navigator.
It’s almost lunchtime when he finds the correct spot, a large area of flat ground filled with row upon row of cabbages. The rain has slackened to a mizzle, though the worst of it can still be seen in the distance: a blur of spindrift hazing an upturned, boat-like hill. The field is bisected by a muddy path that leads to a university, leaning at an odd angle in the far corner. For such an institution, a prestigious language laboratory and research centre is what the government’s been told, it’s a surprisingly compact craft. As the cloud cover begins to clear, the gleam on its silver surface contrasts with the dull grey-green of the dripping cabbages. Opal wonders why the university failed to touch down at the site near the city, for which it had been given a permit. It’s characteristic of the government department for which he works that no one bothered to check this sooner. Apparently a deal with the farmer, a considerable number of whose cabbages must have been crushed by the descent, has been reached.
Opal logs into his organiser; no messages from the office and the news channel is down. He’s half way along the path when a hatch on the windowless side of the university opens; a moment later, a figure, who appears to be wearing fancy dress, steps out onto the top of a retractable ladder. He’s attired as some kind of mid-twentieth century agricultural worker. A hill farmer perhaps? Then the expensive tweed jacket and tie come into focus, lending him the look of a don at an abolished ancient university.
As the man descends the ladder, his expression changes from diffidently welcoming to wary.
‘I’m the Dean. What can do for you?’
Opal explains he’s from the Office of Education and Social Development. The Dean inspects him for a moment before giving a squirm and shudder. He has thin, fastidiously bred features, Nordic and symmetrical. His facial expression is set to somewhere between repulsion and outright nausea. Of course, he knows instinctively what Opal is, but what’s dismaying is how little effort he’s made to disguise his distaste. Even amongst the educated classes, some prejudices must still be alive in the colonies.
Thirsfield glances at Opal’s certificate of authorisation to board and sighs. ‘Oh well, I suppose you’d better come on up.’
Inside, the craft appears ill-equipped for a seat of learning. There is no central auditorium, only a series of compartments, their walls lined with machines. A few have screens spiky with charts; others are blank apart from inscrutable dials and tiny bead-like lights. Opal notes an absence of seating.
‘How many students are on your roll?’
Opal’s surprise must be evident, for Thirsfield, smoothly switching his manner from arrogant disdain to that of an eminent academic, explains that the Institute’s primary concern is research. They are currently engaged in field work.
‘And so you won’t be taking any students at all.’
‘I didn’t say that. There’s every possibility, once the course work and curriculum development are complete, that there will be…places for…successful candidates.’
‘And how many assistants are working with you?’
‘At present? One.’
‘And so the staff of this university consists of the Dean and one other member of faculty.’
‘You have it exactly.’
For a colonial, Thirsfield’s diction verges on the quaint. There’s a perception that visitors from the dominions lack the refinement of speech native to the inhabitants of the mother planet. And he’s without the rough cordiality and candour that Opal associates with an outer galaxy culture. Everything about him apes a fashion now only to be found fossilised on films made three centuries ago.
‘I’d like to know more about the nature of your research.’
‘Would you?’ Something of his earlier antipathy returns along with undisguised irritation. Perhaps he is being kept from important work. ‘This is an Institute for Language, as you’ll recall. The details were submitted to your department when we applied for landing and research permissions.’
‘No doubt. But it would be helpful if you could expand on your original statement.’
‘Oh, very well,’ he says, snarling the phrase. ‘We’re looking into early language forms, primitive orthography. That kind of thing.’
‘Brythonic, pre-Brythonic. If those terms mean anything to you.’
They didn’t. Opal asks about the Dean’s arrangement with the farmer; satisfactory documentation is shown. Then he turns, as if about to go, and puts the question that’s important, being careful to present it as an afterthought.
‘And oh…yes…you’ll have heard of the increase in cognitive disorders in this area. Is that a phenomenon that’s…of interest to you.’
‘I know nothing about this. I’m not a gerontologist.’
‘A significant proportion of those affected are not old. Some are in their teens. They appear to have been affected by a form of dementia that rapidly deprives them of the power of speech, but after a month or so most make a partial recovery. The language they’re speaking is not one known to us.’
‘This Institute is primarily concerned with etymological research, semantic structures; patterns of standard and non-standard phraseology…grammatology. What you describe would be of interest to a neuroscientist.’
A tour of the university, granted reluctantly, and then the Dean’s ushering Opal back out onto the field with its cabbages and the return of a gentle rain. In place of a farewell there’s a request not to return unannounced.
Opal’s back on the main highway before he understands the import of the Dean’s failure to ask a single question about the unexplained incidence of dementia. It’s nothing to do with its irrelevance to his research; it’s not even down to a disinclination to continue talking to someone he finds abhorrent: his feigned lack of interest is to camouflage the fact that no subject is of greater importance to him.
The rain has brought out islands of green on the parched brown mountains, shining like a memory of what the land looked like before the Great Heat, centuries before Opal was born. Peaks turn to hills and ridges; then at last an undulating patchwork of fields, some under cultivation, comes into view. In the shimmer of distance, there’s a copse and just beyond it, what cannot be there: a church spire, a slender form tapering to a point. Has he slipped back several centuries? There are no ecclesiastical buildings of any kind left in the country. A movement in the cloud cover shifts the angle of light: no steeple, only a tall tree, a poplar perhaps, its leaves still brown from the drought. Wouldn’t Thirsfield have been happier in the Age of Religions? The way he looked at his visitor – the priestly disdain for a heretic.
Opal’s been driving for over an hour before he sees a road house, a low white building in a lush oasis, sprinklers twisting arcs of water on the lawns. He parks the vehicle and gets out. The shutters are down, although the establishment’s part of a chain that prides itself on twenty-four service. The sky’s heavy with bulbous, blue-black cloud. It’s uncomfortably close. As he walks up the asphalt path to the entrance, a door opens to reveal a man with an automatic rifle at the ready. He looks Opal up and down before waving at him to enter.
Inside, the tables are unoccupied. No one’s serving behind the counter. Fans whirr over the hum of the air conditioning as it alleviates the muggy heat.
The man’s wearing a black uniform with a company logo, name badge and his role description – Manager. His face, pallid and unshaven, betrays a mixture of irritability and nervousness.
‘And who might they be?’
‘I saw your government vehicle. Thought you might be coming to answer questions not ask them. Don’t you know this part of the county is in lockdown?’
‘I’ve problems with the news channel on my organiser. What’s happened?’
The manager gives a small sigh of exasperation, the habitual response everywhere to the shortcomings of officialdom.
‘A breakout at the hospital down the road. So-called secure, it is. About forty New Lingos escaped. They’ve been arming themselves with anything that comes to hand. They attacked a warehouse not far from here. Murdered the night-watchman and made off with food supplies.’
‘These were people recovering from dementia, I take it.’
‘Some people might put it like that. But their dementia’s nothing like what my great-grandmother had. She didn’t start speaking a new language, did she? I saw some of the mad bastards around here early this morning. I told the staff not to come in.’
Opal promises to report the sighting to his supervisor; in return, the manager makes him a sandwich and coffee. By the time he steps outside the dark clouds have moved eastward. A slow rumble of thunder; then the far horizon’s filigreed with fork lightning.
He’s been driving for about twenty minutes when he sees them. A group of perhaps ten to twelve men blocking the highway ahead. They’ve chosen a spot where the terrain on either side is rough enough to discourage anything but a military vehicle from swerving off road to avoid them. Something about the way the way they’re grouped, huddled together and clutching staves, their shoulder sloped, suggests the primitive and tribal. Instead of slowing up, Opal accelerates, aiming for the point where they’re most densely gathered. At first, they spread their legs wide and wave their weapons in a display of defiance, but once it’s plain that he isn’t going to stop most spring away to the curb; a few even roll and bump down the bank, their sticks flying from their hands, legs and arms whirling. One man stands his ground, only to jump aside at the last moment, flailing a club impotently. Opal catches a glimpse of his face: an open mouth, drivelling; wild eyes electric with fury; the long hair entangled and serpentine. In his wing mirror, Opal watches them for a moment, reassembling raggedly in the road, before speed reduces them to specks. He returns his attention to the straight and seemingly endless highway ahead.
By the time he’s back at headquarters it’s dusk. A few yellow lights are on in the main administrative block, a white building with a pearly luminescence set against a navy blue sky. There are a few black wisps of cloud, the outriders of the final storm of the month; far above, a half moon hangs – a parachute suspended sideways. His supervisor has already messaged to say he’s working late.
When Opal reaches the office, there’s a strong smell of coffee. Every screen is lit up. The air of lassitude that usually marked the early evening shift is absent.
‘Ah, Opal, thanks for coming in. We’re trying to find out more about your Dr Thirsfield. Already we’ve come up with one thing that should enable us ask immigration to revoke his temporary residency.’
‘He’s not from the planet he says he from.’
‘And his name’s not Thirsfield?’
‘No, that’s his name – or part of it at least. He’s Crispin Coote-Thirsfield. At first we couldn’t find him on any academic website. Then we put his photograph through the systems. He shows up as a visiting lecturer at a college on one of the few planets in the dominions that has plans to secede. He stayed for a year. I’d imagine that some of his views proved a little too much even for that snake-pit of reaction.’
‘He certainly took a dislike to me. Although he was too clever say anything offensive.’
‘In that case, I’m sure you’ll take great pleasure in handing him the deportation order…as soon as we have it. But I’d also like you find out what he’s doing here.’
‘He claims that he’s a professor of linguistics.’
‘And that’s true. We’ve found some of the papers he’s published and his theories are…striking. He claims that encoded within us is the language of our ‘ur-tribe’. If you can somehow revivify its ancient vocabulary and semantic structures, which are passed down from our ancestors and indelibly stored within us, you will not only retrieve your linguistic inheritance, but also discover where you come from, the primal land of your people. Then you will find your place in the world and become more authentically human.’
Opal stared out of the window. The six o’clock space shuttle to S899, a habitable planet discovered five years previously and now a busy mining hub, rose smoothly into the darkening night.
‘I’m wondering if the New Lingos aren’t very old.’
The next morning the last of the storms carried eastwards reveals an arc of unsullied blue. Already it’s oppressively hot. Opening the office windows serves only to increase the intense heat. The scent of last night’s coffee lingers, giving the day’s new brew a dark edge. Although the air conditioners are on full, the atmosphere’s stuffy, with an acrid edge.
‘I’m sorry to have to ask you to go down there again. But this time we’ll get you an air- taxi.’
‘You’ve got the residency revocation already?’
‘No. But we’ll forward it to you once it comes in. The Department of Homeland Security’s also keen for you to poke around again before we order this man and his phoney institute off the planet.’
‘And when do I go?’
‘Ten minutes. And oh, one last thing: incredible though it may seem, Thirsfield’s a Christian, so he may be dangerous.’
‘But how can that…’
‘The planet he comes from isn’t even a member of the dominions. A sect went out with the second wave of colonists, right about the time people like you and me were gaining some well-deserved rights. It seems they’ve married Christianity to a cult of purity of language, body and blood. It’s just possible they have revanchist dreams of a grand return.’
Two hours later, the pilot of the heli-taxi decides against landing in a field of full cabbages. Opal’s faced with a short walk to the university. Without difficulty, he opens the gate leading to a pasture with a spinney. As his manual dexterity is improving every day, he’s no longer in danger of dropping the cat food in the mornings. Clearly he’s getting the hang of his new pair of hands. It always takes time for the right neural connections to re-establish themselves.
Just when Opal reaches the edge of the spinney, a rabble of New Lingos, dressed in little more than rags, rushes out. Chattering and babbling amongst themselves they appear oblivious to his presence. With a shock, he understands their speech has regressed to something close to pure onomatopoeia: one’s pointing in the direction of a stream, in spate after the recent storms, and making a sound like rushing water; a second emits shrill avian noises.
This time Thirsfield’s already on the steps of the spacecraft. He must have heard the heli-taxi arrive.
‘You’ve still no manners, I see. What if I’d been too busy to receive you? But one shouldn’t expect much from a mongrel cobbled together from dead men’s parts and perhaps a few morsels of machine. Tell me…is any part of you from the original?’
‘My brain. And that’s all that counts. Continuity of consciousness is the definition of identity here.’
‘You’re an abomination. Amalgamated man – the term flatters you. But I suppose you’d better come in and say whatever it is you’ve been sent to say.’
Inside, there’s an unfamiliar sweet smell. A robot in white robes raises a silver cup aloft.
‘My thurifer. Authentic in his own way – he’s all machine. Unlike you. Tell me, why should a handful of hybrids, AMS like you, lord it over the ordinary people of this planet?’
‘We’ve lived for longer. All the wisdom and knowledge are ours. You’ve made a mistake with this language experiment of yours. The New Lingos I’ve just passed in the fields are one up from the baboons. Is their speech the essence of human communication that you’re looking for? Nothing more than shrieks, squeaks and roars?’
‘It’s how we began. Now I presume you’ve come to tell me to leave.’
Opal glances at his organiser. The residency revocation had arrived.
‘I have that authority…yes. But first I’ve a few more questions.’
‘Which I won’t be answering. For you see we’ve already left. While you were putting me to rights my versatile assistant was attending to our departure. We should have reached the troposphere by now.’
The thurifir had left with non-pareil stealth.
Thirsfield permitted himself a smile. ‘You see all the dead flesh you’ve commandeered isn’t properly receptive to motion. How old are you, by the way?’
‘A hundred sixty-four.’
‘Although some segments of you are less obscenely venerable, I daresay.’
Opal AM Brooks would not allow himself to do anything as undignified as panic, not in front of this man who could be no more than forty at the most. In any case, dominion spacecraft would be sure to intercept them before they left the galaxy. All this was no more than an irritation. Opal would be back in his bed in a day or so. Unless…and here Opal struggled to remember the word from a history lesson of a century and a half ago…unless…his captor was intent on…martyrdom. ∎
Charles Wilkinson’s publications include The Pain Tree and Other Stories (London Magazine Editions, 2000). His stories have appeared in Best Short Stories 1990 (Heinemann), Best English ShortStories 2 (W.W. Norton, USA), Best British Short Stories 2015 (Salt), Confingo, London Magazine and in genre magazines and anthologies such as Black Static, Interzone, The Dark Lane Anthology, Supernatural Tales, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, Phantom Drift (USA), Bourbon Penn (USA), Shadows & Tall Trees (Canada), Nightscript (USA), and Best Weird Fiction 2015 (Undertow Books, Canada). His anthologies of strange tales and weird fiction, A Twist in theEye (2016), Splendid in Ash (2018), Mills of Silence (2021) and The Harmony of the Stares (2022), appeared from Egaeus Press. Eibonvale Press published his chapbook of weird stories, The January Estate, in 2022. He lives in Wales. More information can be found at his website.
Sumit Roy, a.k.a scorpy, is a self-taught freelance illustrator, graphic designer, and digital artist from Basirhat, India. Sumit work has also appeared in Weird Horror Magazine and other publications around the world. See more of Sumit’s work at his website.
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