Aphelion Issue 224, Volume 21
December 2017 / January 2018
 
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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 inventions.

“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, he began.

“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 effective.

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 duty.”

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.”

“Quite.”

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, Baptiste thought.

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 “refreshments”.

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 approach.

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 fashion.”

“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.”

“Oh, really!”

“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!”

“Professor MacKenzie!”

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 them weapons…”

“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?”

Baptiste nodded.

“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.

Baptiste nodded.

“They’ve failed you.”

Manny smiled.

“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.”

Manny nodded.

“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?

“Professor?”

Manny was looking straight at him now.

"Manny?"

“I’d like to thank you, sir.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that.”

“You’ve probably blown your career, sir.”

"I doubt it."

Manny frowned.

“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 something else?”

“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?”

Manny nodded.

“Otherwise, rationally, they might have failed me on a technicality but they would surely still have wanted to explore my claims, no?”

"Perhaps, Manny."

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.”

"And then?"

“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."

"Sir?"

“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.”

"Resistance? Escape?"

"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.”

"Quite."

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 poser.

“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 contact?”

"Unless..."

“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 their names?”

“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 research team.”

“I see. Interesting. I look forward to reading the written-up results in due course.”

“The research is scheduled to be published next year.”

"Good, good!"

The Rector grasped his hands behind his back again and gazed out onto the Senior Courtyard.

"Professor Wells."

"Rector."

“I received a delegation this afternoon, after the meeting, composed of all of your fellow Heads of Department.”

"Oh?"

“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.”

"Most kind."

“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?"

"Not really."


*****



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?”

"Manny Strickland."

“This Manny Strickland of yours. I don’t think he’s the first.”

"What?"

“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.


THE END


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 issue.

E-mail: Martin Westlake

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