A Very Serious Case
by Martin Westlake
The Rector was his usual academic quarter of an hour late. The Academic Council meeting room slowly filled up.
The Head of the Academic Service, Baptiste knew, was spying on them
through a small hole near the hidden door from which the Rector would
emerge once he was certain that everybody had arrived.
It was pathetic stuff, Baptiste thought – all this old-fashioned mumbo-jumbo.
He looked around at the handsome oak wood panelling the Rector had had
installed at vast expense. His gaze was drawn to the tall oil-painted
portraits of the five Rectors who had served to date.
The current Rector was among them, though he had protested that he
didn’t want to be ‘hung’ until after his second mandate was over.
"The portraits are about the dignity of the College," he had
insisted. "We must," he’d continued, "create a dignified academic
atmosphere, as well as efficient academic practice."
“The College will doubtless exist for a long time to come. Let us give
the impression that it has existed already for a considerable time.”
The Administrative Board had, he told them, over-ruled him, the
principle being that each Rector was “hung” after she or he had served
a full five-year mandate. Exceptionally, the Rector had been
reappointed for a second mandate, hence the Administrative Board’s
decision – he had served a mandate and so his portrait should hang.
Nobody believed his story and it didn’t really matter.
Baptiste stared at the painting. It was a very good likeness.
In the picture the Rector, a tall, thin man, was wearing his favourite
cape with the high fur collar. The collar had been another of his
“Our students will expect it of us,” he had argued. “There must also be some symbolic
representation of the degrees we award. When they in turn become
professors, our students will want to wear their College gowns to their
own degree-conferring ceremonies.”
A pair of his trademark half-moon reading glasses were perched on his
thin but prominent nose. He was staring over the top of them at the
middle distance, which happened to be about half way along the long,
narrow meeting room.
What a poser, Baptiste thought. But the students lapped it up and so did many, if not most, of the faculty.
The curious thing was how rapidly all these ceremonial trappings had come to be not just accepted but owned by the academic community.
That was the Rector’s genius. He knew that every Head of Department in
the meeting room – and that would probably include Baptiste himself in
due course – would defend all the innovations he had introduced.
After all, each of them naturally aspired one day to become the Rector
for, with the exception of the founder, every Rector had first served
as a Head of Department. That had become the tradition. One day, if
Baptiste remained long enough at the College, he would become Rector.
Baptiste looked down at his screen and frowned. Today was going to be
an exceptional occasion for him and, possibly, for the entire College.
He looked through his presentation notes for the nth time and realised
that he had now pretty much memorised everything he would need to say.
So, once again, he ran nervously through the arguments that had brought him to this situation.
Was he making a fool of himself? He couldn’t entirely rule out the
possibility. But his professional conscience obliged him to take this
all the way, whatever the consequences for his own academic reputation.
In any case, it was too late now. He had signalled his intention to
raise a serious case under the last point of the agenda and now he
would just have to go through with it.
The gong sounded; a deep mellifluous tone. The Rector, Baptiste thought
as he rose to his feet, had no doubt chosen the gong as well.
“The Rector!” declared the Head of the Academic Service, his voice
muffled by the secret door, and then the door opened in the panelling
and out, slowly, regally, strode the Rector in person.
Baptiste wondered if he’d been an amateur dramatist in his youth. Increasingly everything, it seemed, was to be stage-managed.
The Rector took his place at the head of the table (his chair had a higher back than all the others) and sat down.
“Pray, be seated,” he said, and the thirty-odd members of the Academic
Council sat down with a rustle of robes and scraping of chairs. The
Rector looked slowly about the room, making eye-contact briefly with
every member of the Council, and each time, when contact was made, he
would nod faintly. At last, when he had done a full round of the room,
“Welcome, dear professors, ladies and gentlemen, to the twenty-seventh
meeting of the Academic Council of the World College of Alien Encounter
Studies. We have a very heavy agenda today and I would be grateful
therefore if we could each be disciplined with speaking time. Let me
first ask the Head of the Academic Service if we have a quorum.”
“We have a quorum, Rector,” squeaked the Head, an obsequious Englishman
to whom Baptiste had taken an instant dislike when he’d joined the
College faculty three years ago. The man was a loyal supporter of the
Rector’s various innovations designed to create “dignity” and Baptiste
realised with a sinking heart that he would be a ferocious enemy today.
“Then I declare our meeting open. Our first task is to approve our
agenda. The Council has had the draft agenda and all of the documents
relating to it for the statutory seven days, has it not, Head?”
“It has, sir.”
“Are there any objections to the draft agenda?” The Rector paused.
“None? Then I declare our draft agenda approved and I move immediately
to the first point, the deliberation of results for the first session
of the current academic year.”
The Rector passed the floor to Kristina Drake, who happened to be both
the Head of the Communication and Interpretation Department and the doyenne of the teaching staff.
Baptiste watched as she rattled through her Department’s results for
the year – an average one, it seemed. Might she be supportive? He had
thought of approaching her before the meeting, but everybody had been
so busy and, anyway, he wasn’t certain a prior approach would be
Everybody was so sensitive about their academic prerogatives – in part
because the Rector had created such a tense and rarefied atmosphere.
“This,” he would repeat whenever he got a chance, “is above all an academic
institution. The maintenance of the highest possible academic standards
is not just our priority as an institution, it is our solemn scientific
Kristina had been at the College from the beginning, twenty-seven years
ago now, so was currently on her fifth Rector and would, if she wished,
become the sixth – and the first female Rector – in three years’ time.
She had a kindly face and demeanour and always went out of her way to
foster consensus. Baptiste knew he’d at least get a sympathetic hearing.
Next up was Randolph MacKenzie, the Head of the Law Department.
MacKenzie was too old to make it to the Rectorship and, it seemed to
Baptiste, he was therefore determined to eke as much power and
influence as he possibly could out of his current position.
He was a dour, grey man and a typical lawyer in his insistence on due
process and respect for principles. There’d be precious little support
or understanding there, Baptiste realised.
As always, the Law Department had had an excellent year, with high
results across the board. The Rector congratulated MacKenzie effusively
before passing on to Laurence Nguyen, the Head of the Department of
Biological and Botanical Studies. Now, he was a nice man and had a good sense of humour into the bargain…
“Professor Wells… Professor Wells!”
Baptiste jerked back from his reverie.
“My apologies, Rector.”
The Rector nodded slowly.
“I pass the floor to the Head of the Department of Literature.”
As he got to his feet Baptiste heard MacKenzie snort. As usual.
Colleagues had told him that it was MacKenzie who had led the protest
movement against the creation of the Literature Department seventeen
years ago and he never missed an opportunity to communicate his
disapproval of its existence.
Baptiste went through the Department’s figures. In terms of results, it
had been a mixed year, with some brilliance and some disappointments
and then there was, of course, the serious case. He knew he shouldn’t
have mentioned it already. He could see the Rector bristling.
“We are well aware of the serious case, Professor Wells,” he said.
“Unless there is some particular reason, we’ll deal with it at the end
of the agenda as normal. Could you agree to that?”
“Of course, Rector. I merely mentioned it to indicate it as the missing result in the figures I have just given.”
Baptiste sat down with a heavy heart. Something in the Rector’s tone
and behaviour led Baptiste to suspect that he had already read through
the documentation and made up his mind. That was a blow.
His experience over the past three years with regard to so-called
serious cases had shown that the Rector was more amenable to the
position proposed by the head of the responsible department if he had
not had the time to make up his own mind beforehand.
Now Baptiste was worried. Had he been got at by somebody else? MacKenzie, for example? Bloody lawyers always read everything.
The meeting dragged on. Once all the academic results had been
deliberated and approved the researcher representatives were invited to
join the Council and the Rector started the open part of the meeting
with his traditional “communication”. He always gassed on, giving
everybody a chance to catch up on their messages. What a waste of time,
Then there was an amendment to the academic rules. MacKenzie sprang
back into action. Baptiste groaned inwardly. He shouldn’t have told Mr
Strickland to wait, he thought, but in deontological terms the meeting
was under way and so Manny Strickland would have to wait for as long as
it took. What had any of this got to do with possible first contacts
with aliens, Baptiste wondered?
At very long last, the Rector reached the end of the public agenda. He
thanked the student representatives and the meeting was suspended for
Baptiste joined the queue in the toilets. MacKenzie had got there
before him and was already washing his hands. He stared at Baptiste in
the mirror above the wash basin. His face was contorted into an angry
half sneer and Baptiste knew then with certainty that MacKenzie had
indeed read all the documentation and tipped off the Rector.
When everybody had served themselves some tea or coffee and eaten cake or biscuits, the Rector called the meeting to order.
“I hereby open the third and last part of our meeting today. There is,
as usual, a single point; serious cases. I turn to the Head of the
Academic Service. The floor is yours.”
“The Academic Service has been informed about two serious cases, sir:
one from the Department of Communication and Information, and one from
the Department of Literature.”
“Then I would invite Professor Drake to present the first case.”
It was a touching story about a student whose family had become
refugees during the course of the year. A civil war had broken out and
they had had to flee. The student had finished all his course work and
passed all his exams, but he hadn’t completed his thesis.
The College rules were clear, Professor Drake reminded everyone.
Students who failed to submit their theses were deemed to have failed
the thesis requirement and, thus to have failed the course overall. She
would of course be prepared to implement the rules, but felt that such
mitigating circumstances might militate in favour of a more humane
MacKenzie was having none of it. He had his hand up before Drake had finished. The Rector gave him the floor straightaway.
“Professor Drake, I of course sympathise with the plight of your
student,” MacKenzie said, “but the Academic Council is not a
humanitarian organisation. Let us by all means put a point on the
agenda of a future meeting about the possible introduction of
provisions for such truly exceptional circumstances, but as the rules currently stand”
– he tapped the table top in front of him with his long finger nails –
“we have no option but to fail the student. We surely cannot create a
new provision and apply it retroactively to this case. We must respect
the rule of law.”
“I thank you, Professor MacKenzie, for the excellent and clear
guidance,” said Drake. “I confess I brought the case to the Academic
Council in part because it was so difficult to implement the rules
alone, given also that the student was very popular among his peers.
His case elicited a lot of sympathy and support. But I agree with you;
the rules are clear.”
“Does that mean,” the Rector asked, “that we all agree that the student has failed?”
Nobody objected. Baptiste realised that this assertion of academic purity was not going to help his own case.
“Professor Wells,” the Rector said, “please present your case.”
Baptiste rose to his feet.
“Dear fellow members of the Academic Council,” he began, “I bring
before you today a curious case of a student, Manny Strickland, who has
consistently achieved the highest scores in all of his coursework
through the year but who has presented his thesis in an unorthodox
“How so?” the Rector asked.
“His thesis is not a standard piece of academic research, Rector. It
is, rather, a long communication, purporting to be a message to
humanity from some extra-terrestrial and highly intelligent life form.”
“Not the Tevis gambit again!” he heard MacKenzie growl.
“No, no, Professor MacKenzie,” Baptiste responded. “Mr Strickland doesn’t claim to have fallen to earth.”
“Where’s he from, then?”
“The lunar colonies, as it happens, but I don’t think that really matters, does it?”
“Criminal Australians all over again,” MacKenzie muttered loudly.
Professor Nguyen shot to his feet.
“I heard that,” he said. “Rector, I must ask you to insist that
Professor MacKenzie withdraw that slight on the Australian people –
several of my ancestors were Australians and, of course, were not in
any way criminal.”
“Withdrawn!” MacKenzie growled.
“Colleagues!” said the Rector. “Let us please avoid any unnecessary
rhetorical flare-ups. I agree with Professor Wells that the place of
origin of the student in question is of absolutely no relevance. And I
agree with the spirit of Professor Nguyen’s interjection. As we know,
the lunar colonies ceased to be penal settlements several hundred years
ago. Professor Wells, please continue.”
“Thank you, Rector. The student claims to have been charged with a mission to inform us about the future.”
“Professor MacKenzie!” the Rector said. “Carry on, Professor Wells.”
“His thesis draws parallels with the various ‘discoveries’ of the
American continent by the Europeans. He presents three models: the
Norse model, the Conquistador model, and the Pilgrim Fathers.”
“Please, Professor, do not enter into excessive detail,” said the Rector. “Just give us the gist.”
“Yes, sir. Well, we know that the Vikings settled in Greenland in the
tenth century. Some of the settlers had been banished as punishment.
There is some evidence to suggest that they traded with the native
Indians, but after about five hundred years the settlements died out.
There had been no real intention to colonise.
“The Castilian Conquistadors were professional warriors – mercenaries,
bent on opening trade routes and exploiting new continents, from the
sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. They raped, pillaged and
plundered much of South America, wiping out several civilisations as
they went. The locals got in the way, as it were.
“And then there were the Pilgrim Fathers, who settled on the North
American seaboard in the seventeenth century. They sought religious
freedom and settled in America to escape persecution in Europe.”
“Rector!” MacKenzie had got to his feet. “It is late in the afternoon
already. Do we have to go through with this history lesson?”
“Professor MacKenzie, please be seated,” the Rector insisted. “Professor Wells, please hurry up.”
It was no good, Baptiste realised. They had been unconvinced from the
beginning. The longer he spoke, the less convinced they would become.
But, what the hell? He was determined to continue. He owed it to Manny.
“The thesis declares that the Viking model is already behind us; that
there were some desultory contacts in a much earlier period of human
evolution – so early that no trace of them has come down to us, not
even through the oral traditions.
“And the thesis declares that we should not fear the Conquistador
model. There may, in some far-off future, be such aggressive conquests
of various planets, but they are so far off as to be unimaginable. The
intelligences to be found ‘out there’ are not inherently aggressive.
“On the other hand, the student says that the model we should expect – and fear – is the Pilgrim Fathers.”
“Stuff and nonsense!”
Baptiste thanked the Rector and continued.
“The thesis reminds the reader that Portugese cod fishermen sailed up
and down the North Atlantic seaboard for decades before the Pilgrim
Fathers arrived. The Indian natives could see them and wondered what
they were and what they were doing. The ships rarely came ashore, and
then never for very long. They didn’t need to. They had everything they
required and were in a hurry to transport their catches back to Europe.
“Doubtless, the Portuguese crews could see signs of human life – smoke
columns, lights – on the mainland, but they had no interest in them.
“We are, the thesis argues, in a similar period now. We can see vessels
out there, moving back and forth. Whatever it is they are doing, they
are not interested in us and have no need to come here.
“But the student warns us that in some fairly near but undetermined
future a group of settlers will arrive. They will, at first, bear us no
ill will. They will be seeking liberty, rather than to suppress. But,
just like the Pilgrim Fathers, they will bring illnesses to which we
will be extremely vulnerable. The Earth will be ravaged by several
pandemics. And then the settlers, just like the Pilgrim Fathers, will
find they need things and start to trade with the survivors, and give
“Professor Wells,” said the Rector. “This is all very well, but what
exactly is the serious case that you wished us to consider?”
“I’m sorry, Rector. I have been unclear. I would like the Academic
Council to consider the possibility that the student’s message might be
authentic and, if it is, consider how we might react to it.”
“Thank you, Professor Wells.” He looked around the table. “Would anybody care to intervene?”
He said it, thought Baptiste, as though he were asking for volunteers to clear up a mess. Kristina Drake raised her hand.
“Professor Drake, you have the floor.”
“Thank you, Rector. In the first place, I would like to thank Professor
Wells for having brought his serious case to the Council. It seems to
me that we can all learn from such affairs. I have a lot of sympathy
for Professor Wells and I see similarities between this case and the
case we have just discussed. I understand that Mr Strickland, like my
student, is very popular among his peers?”
“But we are not, of course, being asked to judge popularity, nor are we
being asked to judge whether our students are being creative or
authentic. The College has an agreed set of rules and we must see to it
that they are implemented in a fair and equitable fashion.”
Now MacKenzie was waving his arms. The Rector gave him the floor and
Baptiste watched, with a sort of disgusted fascination, as the old ham
rose slowly to his feet and then leaned forward, arching his fingers on
the table top.
“Rector, dear colleagues,” he began, “I am grateful to Professor Wells
for bringing this serious case before us. It is, in my opinion, a very serious case.” He pronounced each word very slowly and solemnly.
“I have read the documentation the Department of Literature submitted
and I am quite deeply shocked. Has this student submitted a thesis that
fully respects the College’s rules and requirements? The answer is
‘no’. On the contrary! Is this an original piece of research? No! Are
there footnotes? No! References? No! A bibliography? No!
“One might perhaps argue that this is a well-written piece of creative fiction"
– he spat the words out – "but I don’t think we can even argue that.
For if, as this Manny Strickland claims, the whole message was
communicated to him by some extra-terrestrial intelligence, then there is no originality involved whatsoever.
“Indeed, one could even argue that this is a case of plagiarism. Dear
Rector, my dear colleagues, I put it to you that this thesis is a
clear, a very clear, fail and I don’t believe we should waste another
moment in considering it.”
Baptiste emerged blinkingly into the bright sunlight and looked around.
He crossed the senior College courtyard and walked through the archway
that led to the junior square. And there, he saw with a mixture of
relief and apprehension, was Manny Strickland, sitting on the
ornamental stone sundial in the middle of the lawn, his nose, as
always, deep in a book.
“Manny!” Baptiste gestured.
Manny closed the book, jumped down from the stone column and walked
across the grass with his curious loping gait. He smiled apologetically.
“I’m sorry, Professor. I didn’t see you.”
“Sorry to have kept you waiting so long.”
“No problem, Professor, I brought a good book.”
“Where shall we go?”
“Perhaps outside the College, sir?”
They walked in silence out of the main gate, past the porters’ lodge,
stepping over the heavy beam on which the wooden gates rested
(doubtless another of the Rector’s attempts to create dignity).
They ignored the waiting electrocars, hovering for fares, crossed the
High Street and entered the public park opposite. It being the middle
of a weekday afternoon, the park was deserted.
A five-minute walk brought them to a picnic table and benches set on a
mound, surrounded by meadow plants – a pleasant place. They could hear
water babbling in a brook somewhere nearby.
Baptiste sat at one of the picnic benches and Manny instinctively sat
opposite him, the rough-hewn planks of the table top between them.
“Bad news?” he said.
“They’ve failed you.”
“That was to be expected, I guess.”
“Technically, they are completely right. You did not satisfy the
requirements for the submission of your Master’s thesis, and a fail in
the thesis means an overall failure. Those are the rules.”
“Yes,” he said. “The rules. And what about the message?”
“Dismissed out of hand. I’m sorry.”
“You tried, Professor. I could not have asked for more.”
“What will you do?”
He pointed up at the sky. Baptiste followed his arm and finger and saw
a three-quarters moon seeming to hover over the city haze.
“Back to the colonies?”
“It’s not so bad, Professor.”
“But what will you do?”
“Teach, probably. The schools are always desperate for teaching staff.”
“And your mission? The message?”
“It’s over, Professor. The message has been delivered, hasn’t it?”
Baptiste looked up at the same instant as Manny raised his head and
momentarily their gazes met. Baptiste found himself looking into those
strange, inscrutable almond eyes.
“And how do you feel, Manny? Will you be all right?”
“I’m not sure, sir, to tell you the truth. Since I was given the
mission, on my fourteenth birthday, I have lived with a growing sense
of destiny. And now, ten years on, I have met with my destiny. The
absence of that feeling will take some getting used to, but I’m sure
I’ll get there in the end. I used to fantasise that my people – as if I
knew anything about them – would come and take me back once I had
accomplished my mission, but I know they won’t. I’ll grow old and die
on the moon.”
Manny looked away at the meadow plants. Baptiste studied him; the tall,
erect figure, yet the usual angular points of the human frame somehow
rounded, giving him an animal aspect; the straggly, curly hair – just
like every other student at the College and yet somehow different;
those eyes; that constant sense of other worldliness.
Or was it? Was this all one big confidence trick? Had Baptiste allowed
himself to be taken in? Was he even now seeking to convince himself
that Manny was what he said he was? After all, he had just been through
a pretty embarrassing humiliation in the Academic Council meeting.
That sense of other worldliness – couldn’t it just be the aura that all
people from the lunar colonies radiated? They had now been living apart
for several hundred years, long enough to develop their own accent and
culture. Was that all it was?
And this strange Manny; could it be that he was ‘just’ suffering from a
Messiah complex – a very convincing one? And was he, Baptiste, so far
taken in by this game of wish fulfilment that even now, with Manny’s
message truculently discarded by the Academic Council, he still felt
obliged to continue in his role?
Manny was looking straight at him now.
“I’d like to thank you, sir.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that.”
“You’ve probably blown your career, sir.”
"I doubt it."
“I don’t. Look at it from the College’s point of view, sir. The
institution has only existed for twenty-seven years. Just suppose I am
what I claim to be; a messenger from ‘out there’, a genuine ‘first
contact’. If they were to accept that, it would mean the beginning of
the end for the College. There’d be no need to theorise anymore,
everything would become practical. They’d have to start preparing for
the real thing. How many more portraits of Rectors would be hung on
those oak walls before they closed the College, or transformed it into
“I’m not sure that they thought about it like that, you know,” Baptiste
said, still feeling vestigial loyalty to his academic community.
“Professor, I am not necessarily talking about thoughts. Institutions are organisms; they have feelings, instincts, even.”
“Self-preservation, you mean?”
“Otherwise, rationally, they might have failed me on a technicality but
they would surely still have wanted to explore my claims, no?”
They listened to the stream. The meadow plants swayed in a faint breeze. The moon hovered over the city haze.
“And what about mankind, Manny? What if you are right?”
“We can’t know when the settlers will first arrive, Professor. You and
I might long since be dead – and maybe our children, if we have any,
and maybe our children’s children. Can we really care about the fates
of our theoretical great grandchildren? But the settlers will come
quite soon, of that I am certain. That is the message.”
“With respect, Professor, you have read my thesis. Look at the American
continent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Don’t worry;
mankind won’t die out – at least, not entirely, and not at first, but
it won’t be nice.”
“Plagues? Reservations? Inter-breeding?”
"All of that, I'm sure."
Baptiste got up.
“I should be getting back,” he said.
They shook hands. Manny smiled. His grip was firm.
“Thank you once again, Professor.”
“I did what I thought I should do, Manny, that’s all.”
“Not everybody follows their conscience so faithfully, sir.”
Baptiste began to walk away, then stopped and turned back.
"One thing bothers me, though, Manny."
“What’s the point? I mean, what’s the point of your people sending you? What’s the point of the message?”
Manny stood up and stared up at the moon.
“I honestly don’t know, sir. All they gave me was the message to
deliver. But I can speculate. Maybe, if people are aware of what is
going to happen already, they can start to plan for it.”
"I don't know, sir. Maybe."
He left Manny at the picnic table and made his way back to the College.
When he stepped back through the gates one of the porters called him
over to the Lodge.
“Professor Wells! The Rector would like to see you, sir.”
Manny had been right. Baptiste crossed the senior courtyard to the
Rector’s Lodgings and rang the doorbell. He was shown into the huge,
soft-carpeted living room and asked if he would like anything to drink
before being left alone with his thoughts. The Rector kept him waiting
for a long time.
“My dear Professor Wells,” he said, when he finally strode into the
room. He was still wearing the fur collar. “Please forgive me for
having kept you waiting so long.”
“Don’t worry, Rector. I had a lot to think about.”
“Yes.” The Rector gazed down above the half-moon glasses. “How are you, Professor?”
"Well, thank you, Rector."
“Let us sit down.” He gestured to two armchairs, surely positioned to
facilitate formal discussions (the Rector left nothing to chance).
"I'm sorry about..."
“No, no!” The Rector hushed him. “There is no need to apologise. You
did what you thought was right. Alien Encounters is, as you know, a
very young field of studies and we are all still on a ‘steep learning
curve,’ as they say.”
“On reflection, I remain convinced about the student’s sincerity, but I
also entirely accept the Academic Council’s decision. His thesis did
not satisfy the College’s requirements, and that is all.”
“Yes, Professor. That’s right. Academic rigour must be our priority as
an educational and research establishment and, as I like to say, it
should also be a scientific imperative.”
Baptiste marvelled at the way his language had inadvertently changed to
match that of the Rector. He watched as the Rector stood up and walked
over to the window. He was clearly about to deliver a speech. What a
“Do you remember the old joke, Professor?”
“Which one would that be, Rector?”
“That the surest proof that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that it has never tried to contact us!”
The Rector chuckled (or that, at least, is how he would have described
the noise emerging from his mouth). Baptiste forced an obliging laugh.
The Rector suddenly frowned, drew himself up to his full height and
linked his hands behind his back.
“The fact is, though, that ever since man found the first irrefutable
proof that there was intelligent life beyond our solar system he has
been confronted with a fundamental conundrum; why has there been no
“You are going to say unless there has already been such contact but man is simply unaware of it, right?”
“Yes, Rector, that’s right.”
“In a way, as you know, that is why your Department, the Department of
Literature, exists; to see what the creative imagination can tell us
about what we cannot – or at least do not yet – know. Perhaps they’ve
already been and gone, as those Russian brothers imagined. What were
“The Strugatsky brothers, sir? Arkady and Boris. 1971. Roadside Picnic.”
“That’s them! Yes. I know the Department has a research project running along those lines, does it not?”
“Yes, sir. It’s based on a systematic search of the literature in order
to address two fundamental questions: could we know if such a passage
had occurred and, if so, how? In fact, Mr Strickland was part of the
“I see. Interesting. I look forward to reading the written-up results in due course.”
“The research is scheduled to be published next year.”
The Rector grasped his hands behind his back again and gazed out onto the Senior Courtyard.
“I received a delegation this afternoon, after the meeting, composed of all of your fellow Heads of Department.”
“You are a much-appreciated and esteemed member of the teaching and research staff, Professor Wells, of that there is no doubt.”
“It is kind of you to say so, sir.”
“I have been asked to stress that to you.”
“Indeed, the feeling expressed to me was that the College could perhaps
best benefit from your pure academic prowess if it were to relieve you
of as much administrative work as possible.”
Baptiste watched the Rector’s hands wringing one another behind his back.
“Are you asking me to stand down as Head of Department, Rector?”
"In a word, Professor, yes."
"Do I have any choice?"
Later, in the Porters’ Lodge, Baptiste bumped into Kristina Drake. She
was clearly in a rush, but stopped to talk to him nevertheless. He felt
himself blushing. As a future Rector herself she would, of course, have
been in the delegation that had visited the Rector. MacKenzie probably
insisted that she lead it.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Did you agree?”
“Yes, I did.”
“It’s for the best, Baptiste.”
She had never used his first name before.
“Well, whether it is or it isn’t, I didn’t really have a choice.”
“Rectors have to play the game, Baptiste.”
“What do you mean? I don’t understand. What game?”
“This serious case of yours; Manny Something?”
“This Manny Strickland of yours. I don’t think he’s the first.”
“He might think he’s alone, but there have been others. Don’t, please,
quote me on this, but we’ve all been getting such messages for quite a
while now. But what can we do? We’ll hopefully be long gone by the time
the first settlers arrive.”
“And, in the meantime, the College will flourish and its academic activities will continue, is that it? Is that the game?”
Kristina Drake smiled.
“Good bye, Baptiste. Have a good summer break. Get a good rest. I’m sorry, but I must dash.”
She leaned forward and kissed the air somewhere near his cheek, then
stepped over the wooden bar, walked out into the bright sunlight,
flagged down an electrocar and was gone.
© 2017 Martin Westlake
Bio: Martin Westlake is a British-born resident of Brussels,
Belgium. His last Aphelion apprearance was The
End in our April, 2017
E-mail: Martin Westlake
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