by EW Farnsworth

DR. SARAH PICKFORD’S surgical operation to extract the message from Sogguth’s brain was more successful than she had deemed possible. Underneath the message for Fatty Millstone were embedded the remnants of an elaborate plan with dire implications for Earth.

In the hot tub in the tenement on Picklock Lane, Dr. Pickford put the matter like this: ‘In rare instances, former messages can be read as if they are palimpsests where the original writing has been effaced to make room for later writing but of which traces remain. In this case, those traces can be recovered. I hope to have a complete transcript of the original within the next two weeks. As the text to be recovered will be encrypted, I am pleased to say check sums will help us in the decryption phase. A sample decrypt suggests the same algorithm was used in both the surface message and the subtext message.’

Fatty asked, ‘Do you suppose the hidden message was purposely left in place so we could find it?’

Ibngort interjected, ‘We probably won’t ever be certain about that, but smuggling classified Council traffic could not have had a better conduit than a palimpsest.’

Sogguth smiled. ‘While I was being sedated for the implant process, I heard the surgeons discussing their process. The lead surgeon was asked explicitly about the hidden message. She told her assistant, a cryptographer, not to worry as its presence had been authorized at the highest level. ‘Besides,’ she said, ‘the odds of its being found mitigated against discovery.’

While Sarah and Ibngort continued working on the messages, Fatty took Sogguth to the Cracked Bell pub for a pint. As they strolled, Sogguth asked many questions. For example, he asked, ‘What are your three greatest challenges as an alien living amongst humans?’

‘At the top of the list is humans’ intolerance of differences. Their deeply-ingrained hatred of “the other” is impossible to remove though it can be managed. Second on the list is the tabloid press whose penchant for invention is limitless as is their ingenuity for intrusion. Again, this can be managed. And third would be dealing with the humans’ impatience while waiting for long-term changes, good and bad.’

‘The Council has, with slight variations, the same three challenges. Intolerance and impatience seem to be universal characteristics among life forms generally. There may be no counterpart to the tabloid press for the Council, but the members are divided by issues. Ibngort Prbzt, for example, made a good impression during his implemented interrogation, but there were as many favouring his views as disfavouring them. By only a single vote, the Council allowed him to live and to return to Earth. If their vote should change, the ramifications would be untenable for humans’ continuance.’

‘Has the balance shifted since Dr. Prbzt’s return?’

‘Not yet—as the primary message to you indicates. But the provisions in case it does shift are still in place. I suspect the hidden message spells out what will happen from the moment the Council’s vote changes.’

The sheriff and his guest entered the pub and made their way to Fatty’s favourite table near the rear of the establishment. There the newshounds were embroiled in a heated discussion, and Crenshaw and Straight were on the point of coming to blows to enforce their respective, opposing positions.

The sheriff saw the state of affairs and stepped into the breach to stop the threat of violence from becoming physical.

‘Gentlemen, please cool down and have another pint. We can settle all our differences with rational exchanges of opinions.’ The words of the sheriff had an immediate palliative effect on the unruly reporters. The waitresses rapidly topped off the newsmen’s glasses and fetched Fatty and Sogguth pints of bitter.

Greasy Joan, the head waitress on duty, placed the two new pints on their coasters in front of the newcomers. Under her breath, she muttered, ‘You arrived just in time, Sheriff. Mr. Crenshaw started the ruckus, but, once he joined in, Mr. Straight refused to back down.’

‘Relax, Joan. Can you tell me what their argument is about?’

‘Well, Sheriff, it’s complicated. The tabloids are of two opinions on the matter of black holes in the universe. Mr. Crenshaw thinks a black hole will devour our solar system at any time. Mr. Straight believes black holes will never be menacing to us within our lifetimes.’

Sogguth remained silent during this interchange, but Crenshaw wanted to get his opinion on the record as he was looking for anyone’s support. ‘What do you have to say about the subject, Mr. Sogguth—with two Gs? Will we all be destroyed by black holes, or not?’

‘I am not sure my opinion will change the physics of the universe, Mr. Crenshaw. I usually refrain from making pronouncements about unknowns, the imponderables and the unknowable.’

‘That bandage around your head suggests you have been through major surgery recently. Did you, perchance, fall under the artful blade of our esteemed Dr. Pickford?’

To shield his visitor, the sheriff interposed, ‘A person’s medical information is strictly private, Crenshaw. You are a professional and you know the law. Mr. Sogguth is recovering from a delicate surgery. That’s all you need to know.’

Straight would not let the matter go without putting in his tuppence. ‘Sheriff, you often provide a Solomonic resolution for difficult situations. What do you think about black holes?’

‘All right. I will play. Then we shall return to our pints.’

The rowdy newsmen heartily made raucous noises of agreement. And the sheriff launched his view:

‘Astronomers have only recently discovered black holes. At first there were only theories, and now every week we are told a little more about the black devils, which now seem to be popping up everywhere. I don’t think our astrophysicists have learned everything they can about the subject. Now that space telescopes and spacecraft can peer out to the farthest boundaries of the universe, I am not convinced we have become smarter.

‘Like you tabloid newshounds, responsible scientists who are entitled to their opinions disagree without resorting to violence. Let’s be patient and try to learn what we can as new evidence comes to light. We have been unaware of their mechanics for the short time we have known about black holes and dark matter. I counsel patience while our experts sort everything out. Now Joan, please top off everyone’s pint!’

The sheriff’s common-sense pronouncement did nothing to answer the prevailing argument, but no one in the pub refused his offer of bitter. Sogguth slid down a little in his captain’s chair and sipped his pint. He was witnessing the sheriff in action in his native habitat, and he was clearly delighted not to have had to engage in fisticuffs.

The newshounds quickly segued to other matters of contention, and Crenshaw, for a moment, forgot his curiosity about Sogguth’s recent surgery.

When they had partaken enough bitter for one afternoon, Fatty and Sogguth slipped out the back way of the pub and walked through the public park to the sheriff’s tenement.

‘Sheriff, as you probably knew, the Council has amassed a significant library on the subject of black holes. I might have held forth using my memory, but my account would have raised more questions about me than it provided answers about the technical aspects of astrophysics.’

‘Sogguth, as I mentioned in the pub, time will provide answers, and there is precious little we can do about the broad movements of the heavens.’

Fatty gave Sogguth the Cook’s tour of the park, including its specialized gardens and apiary. Sogguth was particularly entranced by the flora planted to please butterflies. He lingered by the oxbow bend in the creek where blossoming watercress crowded the limpid waters. There a free-range tentacle swam up from the bottom of the creek to greet the newcomer. Instinctively, it approached the stranger without fear and rubbed its suckers up and down the man’s legs.

Fatty explained how Dr. Pickford had conducted a biopsy of a growth on the creature’s tentacle to conclude it was not cancerous. This account gave rise to their consideration of the treatment of single tentacles within the National Health System. Sogguth had strong opinions in favour of including them, but he acknowledged that doing so would require significant human resources and funding.

When they arrived at the tenement, Charles, one of Fatty’s clones, informed them that Dr. Pickford and Dr. Prbzt had achieved a cryptological breakthrough. Sarah and Ibngort were refining their clear deciphered text when Fatty and Sogguth arrived in her clinic.

Sarah said, ‘I am so glad you have returned. We have mixed news for you. The good news is we recovered a perfect version of the palimpsest and decrypted it. The bad news is the content of the hidden message. Essentially, we found an exhaustive plan for the alien invasion of Earth. The plan includes precursor actions in advance of the massive landing and establishment of internment camps for all humans who did not resist but did not perish. The latest revision of the plan post-dated Ibngort’s return to Earth from his interrogation by the Council.’

Energized by this news, Fatty asked Sarah, Ibngort and Sogguth to join him forthwith in the hot tub. Meanwhile, he sent Charles with a coded message to the Prime Minister requesting his presence for urgent discussions.

Sir Douglas arrived twenty minutes later to enter the hot tub with the others. Fatty asked Dr. Pickford to brief the PM as to what she had found out. The more she spoke, the paler the great man became. ‘I am most grateful you decided to bring these matters to my attention as soon as possible after they became known to you. Now, Sheriff, what do you advise as our best course of action?’

Fatty, whose forte was emergency response, answered, ‘First, the critical intelligence must be contained among the five persons in this hot tub. Second, a small group outside this tub must become the nucleus of a rapid surveillance-and-reaction team to deal with manifestations of the advance work of the alien forces as they arrive. Third, a still larger group must be prepared to deal with mobilization to combat the alien forces if and when they invade Earth.’

‘Do you have any estimate when the invasion is likely to take place?’

‘None whatsoever. Everything depends on the balance of views within a single body—the Council—that we cannot have insights into. So we have to be ready for anything, anywhere and at any time. When the decision is made by the Council to prepare for their invasion of Earth, we will probably have no prior warning, and their activities will be perceived as individual, anomalous events rather than as integral parts of a well-orchestrated plan.’

‘Sheriff, I shall need your counsel to prepare all our counties for all stages of our reaction. As soon as possible, please meet my amanuensis, who must be included in all our related intelligence operations. He will be your conduit to me, and I shall use him as my conduit to you. I will count on you for dealing with the press and other mass media. God forbid the public should ever learn the truth until it is time for them to act together against the threat.’

The PM departed at once, and the sheriff was left to his own devices. The four principals continued bathing as they discussed their own plan of response to the invasion threat. Another thirty minutes elapsed before the PM’s amanuensis arrived. Without divulging to him the substance of the two messages, Fatty explained that at the suggestion of Sir Douglas, they were going to form an emergency action group, comprising the sheriff of every county in the nation. He said that they did not know much about the threat except it was real and lethal.

‘The crucial thing is to be ready for anything. All anomalous events will be processed here at this tenement, and an encrypted monthly digest will be posted to participating sheriffs. There will be no mass meetings of the group because those might alarm the general populace. Lethal events will be explained to the press as unfortunate, but entirely normal occurrences.’

Sheriff Millstone knew the six clones he would appoint to serve as watch standers at the tenement. He called a meeting of those stalwart offspring and gave them their initial instructions: ‘You six will form a team assuring coordination of all intelligence about unexplained attacks against this nation. As needed, additional staff will join you to handle a growing number of anomalous cases throughout the country. The information and analysis you provide will be used directly by the Prime Minister and relevant sheriffs of counties throughout the land. You will have a command centre in this building equipped with a hotline for tips from the public at large. Since nothing like your group has ever been formed before, you will be learning as you go. You will be expected to use your wits and your intuition to sift and winnow whatever you receive. In all likelihood, you will find the most compelling details. I will help turn your insights into actions to neutralize if not eliminate the threat.’

Cybele asked, ‘When does our work start?’

‘It starts right now.’

‘Are we interested in past events, or only future ones?’

‘That’s a very good question, Cybele. Be alert for any past anomalous events that seem interesting. Do research on past and present events that seem remotely mysterious. Try to anticipate future events however possible and stick to your analysis until you are told to desist by me or by the PM or by his amanuensis. Do you have any questions?’

‘I have a question,’ said Charles. When the sheriff recognized him, the clone asked, ‘Since most of us have other tasking, what priority does assignment to these new duties have for us?’

‘Your new duties have the highest priority. Use your common sense when backfilling yourselves as you shift to accommodate your prioritized tasking.’

The sheriff assigned the six watch standers to a spacious room he expected to refit with everything a modern command centre required, starting with a telephone tip line and two networked computers. He placed Sogguth in overall charge of the centre and told him to be in touch for anything necessary to do his job.

The sheriff told Sogguth, ‘I find it ironical that this day began with a consideration of black holes and ended with our devising putative measures to combat a black mystery with the same kinds of uncertainties as the black holes have. How does your head feel this evening?’

‘I may need a cold pack on my skull to get to sleep, but otherwise I feel all right.’

Sheriff Fatty Millstone checked with Dr. Pickford to be sure he was not pushing his visitor too hard in the wake of his brain surgery.

‘The best exercise Sogguth can have is cerebral. You have given him just what his doctor ordered. I will monitor my patient’s situation daily and let you know if his assignments need adjusting.’



EW Farnsworth’s Picklock Lane stories are available now from Amazon

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