“I need to find you”
Paul wandered around the various atria of the British Library looking for a suitable café at which to meet with his guest. There were several options. He was rather impressed with the place – modern, busy, interesting. You needed to sign up to use the reading rooms – and of course he had done this, in fact it was in one of them that he had first found the book he now held a copy of under his arm – but anyone could use the vast public areas and facilities. You could probably run a business from here, he reflected, looking round at the various groups of individuals sitting together in the seating areas and in the café he had selected as the best. Several people had laptops open, many looked more like businessmen than students. No doubt several people were doing just that – using the place as an impromptu office or a free meeting room. Probably much the same thing went on in big libraries, airports and hotel lobbies everywhere.
In fact he had made the same decision himself, though the business he was hoping to transact wasn’t of a straightforward commercial nature; he saw it as more of a personal interest. He could have booked a private room somewhere, of course, but that would have meant creating a traceable record, risking awkward questions in future. And he was feeling particularly – well, not paranoid, but careful, at the moment. You never knew who might be watching you.
He selected the quietest available seat in the first floor restaurant, and sent a text message to the person he was expecting, to confirm his exact location. Then he opened up the book he had been guarding so carefully, since having traced his own copy through a specialist bookseller, and leafed through its many astonishing pages for the hundredth time.
It was a very obscure book, self-published some years previously through a company that had since gone out of business. He hadn’t been able to trace the author – though he hadn’t quite given up hope on this yet – and as far as he could tell, very few copies had ever been sold. It was unusual even for this library to hold copies of self-published material. Anyone publishing a book in the UK which had been allocated a proper ISBN reference number was supposed to deposit copies of it with the British Library, but in reality many self-published authors didn’t bother, and the library didn’t go out of its way to check. In this case, however, several copies had been deposited, and some basic enquiries had enabled Paul to determine that copies also existed in many other major city libraries, not only throughout Europe but in America and Australia. He didn’t doubt that once he’d checked Asia and Africa, he’d find some trace of the book there also.
So – someone had spent a lot of time producing a hefty book, had paid to have it printed in hardback, and distributed copies of it to libraries all around the world. And yet it seemed from his investigations that neither the author nor the publisher were promoting it or trying to sell it anywhere. This had struck Paul as very unusual and a mystery in itself. Why would someone publish a book but seem to have no desire to even attempt to make any money from it, not even to cover costs? And why not use the internet to attempt to disseminate it to a wider public? The only possible answer seemed to be that, not only was their motivation not financial, but they weren’t particularly interested in having lots of people see or read the book. All they wanted was for it to be officially lodged with appropriate literary authorities – for posterity, as it were, or maybe for some other, more obscure reason.
Paul turned the broad pages in front of him in puzzlement. This was no ordinary book – not a novel or a memoir or anything similar. He could understand why the library had found it so difficult to decide where to put the thing – a Librarian had explained to him that it had first been placed in the medical reference section, as it contained so many drawings of anatomy, had then been moved to natural history, because of the equal number of illustrations of animals and plants, and then again to linguistics, once someone had realised that the final third of the tome seemed to be detailing some obscure language, with pages and pages of vocabulary and grammatical tables. For a while it had migrated to the travel section, as the opening read much like a travel guide, with maps and city street plans included, and it had once turned up under geography, as someone had opened it at the section on mountain geology and assumed it was misfiled. Only after some discussion – by the Librarian and her colleagues over coffee – had the consensus become that since the whole thing, including the mystery travel guide, the strange animals, and the obscure language which none of them could find any other reference to, appeared to be a fabrication, it actually belonged – despite not having any narrative story – in the Science Fiction section.
Which was where Paul had found it, whilst searching for old copies of the Fortean Times – a magazine focusing on stories of the supernatural and unexplained mysteries. He had a particular interest in unexplained mysteries – both personally and professionally – which is why this strange melange of a book had interested him. Why would somebody spend so much time – it must surely have taken the author at least a year or more, full time – producing such an unusual and inaccessible piece of fiction, which wasn’t even clearly acknowledged as such?
The title didn’t help. It was just one word – ‘Pretonia’. And the author’s name was given as Charles Windar. It was this which had caught his eye – a rather obvious anagram of Charles Darwin. Paul had no doubt that no such person existed, but whoever had written the curious book must have felt some association with the famous explorer and naturalist who had changed the world with his theory of natural selection. Perhaps it was a tribute, Paul mused, as he studied a particularly detailed drawing of a creature that at first glance looked like a kangaroo – until you realised that instead of forearms it had huge pterodactyl-like wings folded up behind its back.
His phone beeped and he looked up to find that his visitor had arrived. He recognised him from his photo on a University website – an aging man, of short stature and with features betraying an oriental ancestry – and rose to his feet with a wave.
“Professor Lim!” Paul greeted his visitor with a smile and a firm handshake. He had been looking forward to meeting him. Though they had spoken on the phone and by email, this was their first face-to-face encounter.
“Paul Steele?” the academic’s accent was entirely English, his voice warm in tone. “It’s good to see you at last. You’ve got me very excited with this matter – I can’t concentrate on my work!”
“I’m pretty excited myself,” Paul replied. “Can I get you a coffee? Only I’ll put this away until we’ve finished if you don’t mind – can’t risk spilling something on it!”
He slipped the precious book into the zipped case he’d been using to carry it around in, whilst the Professor removed his smart coat and, folding it carefully, placed it on the seat beside him, together with his briefcase. Luckily the café wasn’t too busy, so it was only a few minutes before Paul returned to the table with two coffees and some small pastries, which his guest accepted graciously.
“So what is it you’re supposed to be working on?” Paul asked as they ate, and the Professor was more than happy to talk about his latest project.
“We’re studying an ancient parchment that has been found in South America. It is something quite special, I must admit. It has two languages written side by side, one known, one unknown. It could be of huge significance, similar to the Rosetta Stone – if we can prove it isn’t a fake of course.”
“A fake? But surely you can date the material?” Paul asked.
“We have done, of course. But you’d be surprised what can be achieved these days, with modern techniques and all the scientific knowledge that has been gained. Some astonishing fakes have been uncovered – it’s most distressing, I must say, to think that people would attempt to fabricate antiquities, to distort history in this way.” He shook his head. “It’s quite inexcusable!”
Paul sipped at his coffee. “But what about the new language? Does it look plausible?”
“Well, yes, it looks very convincing to me,” the Professor conceded. “The discovery and interpretation of unknown languages is my speciality, as you know – that’s why you have come to me, of course.” He finished off a last morsel of cake and licked his fingers in appreciation. “But I’m not the only expert in the world – I wouldn’t want to be, or there’d be no-one to have intellectual arguments with! There are plenty of other people who may have had enough knowledge to come up with something like what we’ve found. It’s only a few sentences after all – and boring ones at that! An inventory of livestock, food stores and suchlike, hardly the most compelling reading, but interesting nevertheless.”
“I would have thought that supports it being genuine,” Paul remarked, pushing his cup aside. “If you were going to fake a few sentences of ancient language, you’d make it something more significant, wouldn’t you? Like which Gods you worshipped, or how you interpreted the meaning of life.”
The Professor shook his head. “No, no, that would be far too obvious! You underestimate how clever these people can be. Food stocks would be a sensible choice if you were making things up.”
A girl came to clear their table, and they waited a moment until she had finished and moved on.
“So what’s the motivation to fake?” Paul wondered. “Money, I suppose.”
“Of course. Have you seen the strength of the antiquities market recently? I’m almost tempted to try it myself,” he added with the trace of a wink. “But not necessarily money. There have been cases where it has been done to ruin an academic rival’s reputation. So you see how precarious my profession can be? I need to be really certain my parchment is genuine before I publish. Half the paper will be a consideration of why it’s not a fake! I really will have to get back to it soon.”
“Well look,” said Paul somewhat sheepishly. “I really appreciate your time on this. If you wouldn’t mind just giving me your opinion, it needn’t concern you any longer. And as I’ve said before, if you want to let me have your invoice for consultancy, I’ll make sure that it’s – ”
He was stopped by the new expression which had crept onto Lim’s face – one of excitement, humour and cunning, in equal measure.
“Mr Steele!” the Professor exclaimed, grinning. “The puzzle you have presented me with has been most fascinating, and you must not think of apologising for troubling me! You have come to exactly the right person, and I’m happy to give you my professional opinion.”
He reached for his briefcase and pulled out a sheaf of papers which Paul recognised. It was a copy of the section of the ‘Pretonia’ book which appeared to be describing the language of some fantasy world. As the Professor shuffled them into order, Paul noticed that they were covered with annotations and comments in red ink, so had clearly been studied in some detail.
“Now you must tell me, Mr Steele, the truth behind this material you have found. We have talked about clever hoaxes. If this is a hoax, it is the most ingenious I have ever seen.”
“Professor, what I have told you to date is the truth, and really all I know. The pages I copied to you appeared in an obscure book published a few years ago, by an unknown author who I have been unable as yet to trace.” Paul retrieved his precious acquisition and took it from its case, laying it before his companion. “Here is my copy – there is one other copy at least in this library, upstairs in Reading Room Three.” He began to turn the pages from the beginning. “It appears to be a detailed description of some unknown country. It is full of extremely convincing information – a whole political system is described, a whole social structure. A race of people live there – the Pretonians – but for some reason the author never fully describes or illustrates them. He does, on the contrary, describe in some detail various animal and plant varieties. I have shown these to biological experts and none appear to be known to science, although in most cases they are very similar to existing species.” He turned a few more pages, to the flying kangaroo and the various pictures near to it. “These drawings must all be entirely made up, as I have been reliably informed that none of these creatures exist today or have any relevance to the fossil record. And yet they are not childish monsters with no basis in fact, nor the surreal fabrications of a modern artist. They are all based on logic and seem plausible in themselves.”
Paul thought back to a similar meeting he had had with a zoologist a month or so earlier, and that person’s astonishment at the informed creativity someone must have possessed to conceive of the various animals described.
“Look.” Paul now repeated some of the nuggets of amazement that the zoologist had imparted. “This kangaroo thing makes sense – the strong hind legs would enable the creature to bound upwards, getting a head start on flight. It hasn’t got a big thick tail like a kangaroo, because it has a different form of locomotion. Then there’s its stance – it’s leaning forward because of the weight of its wings, and this is even reflected in the alignment of its eye sockets. If someone had just drawn a flying kangaroo, they wouldn’t have got that right! See the shoulder bone – it’s a completely different shape to that of any mammal that has forelimbs. And look at this close up drawing here – the creature is represented as having proto-feathers, like Archeopteryx had. Their structure has only been confirmed very recently, so the artist must have researched information that hadn’t even been made known publicly.”
Paul selected another of his favourites. “This monkey-like animal is coloured brown and has a surprising annotation. The colouration is due to its symbiotic relationship with a fungus, which grows on its skin and processes vitamins from sunlight. There’s no such thing known to man – but there are sloths with symbiotic algae growing on them, making them look green.” Paul tapped the page with his finger and sat back. “It’s a strange thing for someone to have made up, don’t you think? Why not just stick with a brown-haired monkey? Or green algae?”
Professor Lim turned a few more pages of the book thoughtfully, his eyes growing wide at some of the creatures portrayed.
“But this is all a fiction, of course?”
“Well yes, it has to be. Some eccentric has decided to create this whole other world on paper – but they must have been a very knowledgeable and intelligent, not to mention artistically skilful, eccentric.”
Lim looked up. “As I said, there are clever people in the world, and it’s not impossible that someone has researched very carefully and come up with sensible extrapolations. Well, the evidence is here before us. How can there be any other explanation?”
At this point the Professor’s expression regained its mischievous element, and for a long moment the two men locked eyes, both thinking their own somewhat radical thoughts.
“So we have an informed zoologist who is a brilliant artist,” said Lim, “as well as being a geographer, a sociologist, and of course, a linguist.”
“With a sound knowledge of politics, engineering and cookery to boot! I haven’t shown you all of the chapters.”
“Well it could have been a collaboration, of course. Written by committee, as they say.”
“But there are annotations on the images throughout the book which are all in the same handwriting. I’ve done an analysis – there are over fifty pages on which the same handwriting appears, on everything from drawings of plants, to maps, to the symbols of what the language looks like written down, in the final section.”
“Aha, yes. The fabricated language that you sent me to study. That you wanted my opinion on,” said Lim, his eyes still twinkling.
Paul took a deep breath. “I’m very eager to hear that opinion.”
Lim leant back suddenly and considered his reply. “Mr Steele – have you heard of Klingon?”
“The imaginary language from Star Trek? Yes, of course. It has been developed into a real, useable language, apparently, by a hard-core group of fans. There are books written in it – I’ve had a look.”
“And Esperanto? The language that was conceived as an international one, and had many devotees, before English – or rather, American – swept the world as the language of choice and made it redundant.”
“Yes, I’ve looked that up as well.”
“Those are just two examples of languages that have been made up from scratch, with precise grammatical forms and an extensive vocabulary that has evolved with use into something approaching a real language.”
“And?” Paul waited, while the Professor smiled and folded his hands together, as if particularly enjoying the moment.
“Do you want to know how much more complex this language you have presented me with here – Pretonian – is, compared to either of those two examples?”
“Yes! How much?”
“At least a hundred times as much! There is no comparison!” Lim grasped his photocopied papers and waved them at his companion excitedly. “Since you sent me this text I have analysed it repeatedly, and in every way I know how. I have studied it in detail, compared it, quantified it, run it through computer programmes. The only thing I haven’t done is show it to anyone else, as you asked me to treat the matter in strict confidence. But I don’t need to ask anyone else – I am an expert, after all!” The Professor took a breath. “My conclusion is simple. And let me emphasise, this is a very different case from the parchment I mentioned earlier – that contains only a few lines, whereas the body of material provided here is substantial. Quite simply – I cannot believe anyone could have made this language up! Well, maybe, just maybe, someone with my vast experience could have done so, given a very long time, but that seems to me very unlikely. No, this language is too complex, too unique to be a fabrication. Some of the grammatical forms are so unusual… and the idea of having two completely different layers of vocabulary with such an intricate manner of connection… well, I’ve never seen anything remotely resembling it! Its structure is astounding, and absolutely original. Either your author is an absolute genius, or – ”
Paul felt his face flush with anticipation. “Or?”
“It’s a real language,” Lim announced straightforwardly. “A real language and an old one at that – one that has built up and evolved over ages, and is now able to convey the most astonishing nuances of expression… One thing’s for sure – I’d give up my career to meet someone who could speak it, no question!”
The two men sat looking at each other, considering, whilst around them the hubbub of the library and its café continued.
Paul had formed his own conclusions about the book already, of course, but it was interesting – very interesting – to find that his expert linguist had given such a strong and clear opinion on the text.
“So, Professor,” he asked, after a moment more of reflection. “If that’s your conclusion, how do you account for it? What’s your explanation of this text – where do you think this language has originated?”
Lim raised his hands with a shrug. “I was hoping you might be able to tell me! But I think,” he continued, when Paul didn’t immediately reply, “that maybe we should drop into the UFO section of this establishment.” He winked conspiratorially. “I think perhaps we are talking about visitors from elsewhere, yes?”
Paul laughed, but not unkindly. “You’re suggesting some alien being has made contact, and given this account of his own world to our mystery author?”
Lim smiled. “Mr Steele, I consider linguistics a science, and therefore as a scientist, I know there would have to be more evidence for such a theory. On the basis of the book alone, it is of course more likely – however difficult I find this to believe – that it is written by a knowledgeable oddball, with his own obscure agenda. But forgive me – ” he sighed and raised his eyebrows mournfully “ – if I allowed myself to fantasise for a little while about being at the forefront of communication with an alien race!”
Then the Professor leant forward furtively, and added in an undertone. “By the way – who are you Mr Steele? And why didn’t you want to meet me at the University? Do you work for the Government?”
Paul closed the Pretonia book and placed it carefully back into its holder. “I’m afraid I don’t have any answers for you, Professor,” he said, “but I assure you, if it was within my power, I would be happy to recommend you as Earth’s primary alien translator!”
Following his companion’s cue, Lim scooped up his copied pages in preparation for leaving, but then hesitated, as if trying to make up his mind about something. The decision didn’t seem to take that long.
“Okay,” he said, looking at Paul through narrowed eyes. “If you won’t tell me what this is all about, I’ll just have to take you at face value. But listen – I hadn’t finished explaining why I was so convinced by your text. There’s another reason I’m sure it’s a genuine new language.”
Paul’s interest was aroused. “Oh?”
“Yes, I have a surprise for you – and something tells me you’ll like it!” Lim lifted his briefcase once more onto the table and flipped open the lid. “You see, your book prompted me to do a little snooping around of my own, and I’ve found an item that, well, has rather convinced me of something.” He rummaged in the case. “It occurs to me I could have sought to make this a business transaction – but no, in the spirit of scientific collaboration, or perhaps just shared interest in intriguing mysteries – I may as well let you have it, as I had intended. But if there’s any chance of remaining involved in this business – if that extra-terrestrial opportunity you mentioned should ever come up – please let me know, and I will consider it my reward!”
Before Paul could formulate a reply, a thick package had been deposited on the table in front of him.
“What is it?” he asked, half excited, half suspicious.
“I will leave you alone to enjoy it,” said Lim, standing up. “We can always speak again – but right now, I have a pretty young lady waiting to meet with me in a hotel! Alas, only to discuss a forthcoming conference, nothing of a more interesting nature – but I should go.” He held out his hand. “A pleasure meeting you, whoever you are.”
Paul shook the hand gladly. “Won’t you wait while I open this? I’m intrigued.”
“No, no – I couldn’t bear the excitement of seeing the expression on your face! I shall content myself with imagining it, as I sit on my underground train. Goodbye!”
As the Professor rushed off, Paul sat with the package in front of him and wondered if he should take it home before opening it – but his curiosity was far too great for that to be a possibility.
He glanced around but the café was quiet and no-one was anywhere near. He unwrapped his gift and saw that it was another book. A different size, a different binding – and a different title and author. ‘Helespentium’ it was called. By Francis Krade. He looked at the date, quickly – published in New Zealand, a couple of years later than the other book – and then began to turn the pages.
His expression was indeed one of pleasant surprise and shock as he saw the content. Again maps and geological diagrams, again animal drawings, again a thick final section describing an unknown language. Only this time everything was completely different. Most of the animals had no legs, and were drawn in curved form, like coiled snakes or creeping caterpillars. The plant life was illustrated in shades of blue and purple. The language was symbolic, and there were pages and pages of translation of the intricate hieroglyphs, and complex diagrams attempting to explain their use.
But there – he saw immediately that the handwriting he had identified as the author’s in ‘Pretonia’ was present in this book as well, annotating several of the illustrations. It was incredible – two extremely detailed accounts of some non-existent place and culture, both written by the same author, and within a few years of each other. Either some mad person had very little to do all day but fabricate alien worlds, or –
He sat for a long time, looking through his new treasure, and thinking hard. Some odd phrases in the book caught his eye and fascinated him.
“In the outer regions a strange form of consensual slavery exists – individuals can choose to enter into a contract of service for a limited time, and many do so, as a means of avoiding the onerous responsibilities of full citizenship.”
And in another place…
“The successful reproduction of these higher organisms requires two quite distinct matings to have taken place. The first is based on genetic compatibility, the second concerns the adequate care of the young.”
Eventually, Paul wrapped the second book up again in its covering, and clutching both volumes tightly, set off for the exit and the outside world. Here he paused, looking out at the London streets and then up at the cloudy sky.
“I need to find you,” he said under his breath. “Whoever you are, Mr Darwin-Drake, I need to find you soon – before somebody else does!”