My Dear Rackham,
It has been good to engage in simple old-fashioned archaeological investigation for a few days. There was some of that at Mont-Bré after the action, of course, but at the time we were constantly on the lookout for unexpected arrivals, wary of Van Dyke, traumatized by what we had endured, and mostly concerned with gathering what we could and getting out of there. Now I work on a series of long tables set up in a musty wine cellar devoid of wine, sifting through all the fragments and detritus we were able to carry out with us. My work has been free from significant interruption, and your letter has, in most timely fashion, provided an additional piece to the puzzle.
First let me say I was overly pessimisstic in my earlier assessment of how much evidence had survived the explosion. With some careful and tedious work I have been able to reconstruct a few pages of Brown’s notes, and many more ur-Samekh runes from the shards of the Obelisk than I would have thought possible. Analysis of these led me to scribble “Von Neumann cxn??” in the margin of my notebook, so you can imagine my sense of delight and vindication when I read that name coming from you.
I was never a student of Von Neumann’s, as you know, but even my curiosity concerning his theories of ur-Samekh and Ashkur was enough to embroil me in a huge scholarly debate. Your work has kept you in proximity to that sort of thing, but since your mind is usually on the business side, perhaps you do not appreciate the full extent of it. I will attempt a summary, since, as is becoming increasingly clear, what I once would have taken as nothing more than an academic curiosity now may prove to be a critical question for the fate of humanity.
So then: Ashkur. Center of an ancient, and yet somehow incredibly advanced, civilization. A sort of near-Eastern counterpart to Atlantis. But whereas those who argue for the existence of Atlantis need only posit that some limited cataclysm caused it to sink beneath the sea, conveniently removing it from view, proponents of Ashkur can only explain the lack of archaeological evidence of its existence by recourse to the Deluge. Whether one interprets it as a Flood in the biblical sense or some other world-spanning event, something must have wiped the proverbial slate clean.
Von Neumann came to believe in Ashkur from the linguistic side of things. Even before he was aware of physical artifacts bearing ur-Samekh runes, he believed that there must be a root language, and that the civilization bearing that language was a sophisticated one. So convinced was he of this that he was willing say “Occam’s Razor be damned” and put forth a far-fetched antediluvian hypothesis to explain why no one could find physical evidence of Ashkur. Our own work investigating ancient sites played into all of this, of course. Von Neumann and his devotees took our findings as evidence supporting their own ideas. You know that I most often ran afoul of the Society by criticizing their, shall we say, ethical corner-cutting – but just as scandalous (to them) was the fact that I refused to denounce and/or distance myself from the “Ashkur nonsense.”
I have a new theory. Lacking the time, resources, or linguistic acumen to even attempt to prove it, though, let us call it a “working assumption.” There is a certain circularity to our current understanding of ur-Samekh. To wit: Language tells us there must be an ancient advanced civilization, but we can find no evidence of Ashkur, therefore it must have all been wiped out. Since it has all been wiped out, these strange runes we find at ancient sites must be from a language derived from Ashkur, not from Ashkur itself. But while this has been perfectly plausible from a linguistic standpoint, the dating of it all has never quite sat right with me. Granted, I am working here with evidence in the aftermath of a literal explosion, but nevertheless, it seems clear to me that the Mont-Bré Obelisk was impossibly, incredibly ancient. What if ur-Samekh is not derived from Ashkur, but in fact is itself the language, or at least a language, of Ashkur? What if these Obelisks come from a time before recorded history, and a civilization out of legend?
They have in some cases been literally interred, possibly rising from the ground, as you note, only in response to some meterological event, which would help to explain why nothing had been found until recently. And if we assume that the devastation in the Pandjaran and Coptic Colonies is in fact related to all of this, well, that would correspond to the supposed reach of Ashkur’s empire at its height.
I would say that all this sounds fantastical and improbable, but given all that we have seen and experienced in recent months, the mere fact that something seems unlikely in “normal” life hardly seems like a reason to discount it. I am including some notes of a more technical nature, especially concerning the dating of the Obelisk. I would be gratified if you would share them with MacTallan. If he agrees with me perhaps there is something to it; else you may safely discount the preceding paragraphs as the ravings of a man who has endured a little too much these past weeks, and is perhaps going a little bit mad.
Whatever we make of the past, it would seem that we have more than enough to contend with in the present. I, at least, need not worry that a lizard-man is reading my incoming mail. But I have much to unravel between Robards, Van Dyke, and Campbell, and that work is ongoing.
My first encounter with Robards since returning was a peculiar one. I expected him to want to see me right away, but it was three days before he sent for me. An aide escorted me to the governor’s residence, where the captain had converted a banquet hall into a sort of office-cum-audience-chamber. I expected that we would meet privately, but he wanted to hear my report right there, amid numerous members of his company and quite a few additional functionaries that I did not recognize – they must have been recent hires from among the local population of Garnsey. (Or perhaps members of the governor’s own staff, though I never saw the governor himself anywhere.) As a result I delivered a somewhat abbreviated and rather more circumspect version of events, with hints that there was More to the Story that I hoped would cause him to ask for a private meeting. But he thanked me for my report and dismissed me. On the way out, I could not help but notice that everyone around seemed very busy – but doing what exactly? I would have thought they were cooling their heels, waiting for repairs to the Sigsbee, and that my mission to Gallia would have been the very center of attention. Instead, I was practically ignored.
I was able to find out a little more in the following days, largely by making the rounds in my capacity as expedition’s physician, checking up on soldiers still recovering from injuries over the past months. They were, to a man, bursting with pride that their captain had seen fit to extend the umbrella of his benign wisdom and leadership to the people of Garnsey. And indeed, the general populace appear to look up to him as well. For no good reason, he seems to be taking on the administrative duties of governing this island!
Whether he is wielding it consciously or not, I suspect his Ability in all this. His charisma is literally supernatural, and he seems to be deriving deep satisfaction from the devotion of others. One the one hand, this has left me free to continue my research unhindered. On the other hand, it is a little disconcerting to watch those around me fall increasingly under his spell. My meals and leisure time are now spent with Jacobs and Sharma, who, despite having almost nothing in common with me, remain immune to Robards’ charms – perhaps as a result of our extended absence. Make no mistake, they remain loyal to him. But when the bawdy songs sung in taverns or at the mess hall were replaced by rambling, multi-versed odes to their commanding officer, they found it difficult to share in the general level of enthusiasm.
Robards did set up me up with this wine cellar below the residence to do my work, but since then I have not seen him. I also have nothing to update when it comes to Van Dyke. When Bertram let us off at the pier, he wasted no time in disappearing into the mist. If I ever do get an opportunity to make a proper report to Robards, I will leave it up to him whether to seek out the spy and take further action – although now, hearing from you that Thorpe considers him a “turncoat” makes me wonder whether I should say anything at all. At any rate, I have often gazed at the college on the hill and wondered what Sanders and Van Dyke have going on up there. All I know for sure is that they have kept to themselves and, as a result, presumably are not under the captain’s sway. I still have the vials we took out of Bennington’s lab there, but have not had time to properly analyze them – just one more thing I have yet to do but have not done yet.
My work investigating all the Mont-Bré evidence did yield one interesting tidbit possibly related to the Society. I discovered some encoded messages in the innocuous-seeming documents we took from the encampment at the chapel. It turned out only to be a schedule for delivery of additional supplies – but among those supplies they were due to receive was an aero beacon. This is significant because if we assume Brown was operating on his own, I cannot imagine how he would get his hands on one. But with military connections, or a Society connection, it becomes much more plausible.
This brings me at last to the one decent bit of legwork I have accomplished since I last wrote. Yesterday I went to the grotto to pay a visit to Campbell and the other New Columbians on the Sigsbee. By his orders, reportedly, they remained near their ship and did not get out into the populace much, if at all. Not knowing whether he was in on whatever N.C./Society conspiracy we may have going on around us, I thought it best not to go alone; Jacobs came along, eager for a change of scenery, as did Alia, recently-arrived, and herself eager to check in with her sister-in-flight, Alona.
Campbell was at his wit’s end. Apparently, ever since Robards set himself up in the governor’s house (and helped himself to most of the man’s responsibilities as well), he has lost all interest in helping the New Columbians with their ship. The Sigsbee is very nearly seaworthy again, but final repairs had been held up for days waiting for a delivery of supplies from Stockport. We spoke at length and he implored me to intercede on his behalf. All the while I was examining his behavior, looking for a sign of some hidden agenda. He seemed for all the world like an exasperated officer just trying to get his ship going again – though it’s not at all clear where he would take it even it could go anywhere.
While we spoke, Alia and Alona had their own conversation. (Jacobs in the meanwhile arm-wrestled with members of the Sigsbee’s crew. Or perhaps it was a head-butting competition? At any rate, he won.) These flyers that we rely on – they are an enigmatic bunch. I remember when we lost the Skylads, and there was talk of how females might be better-suited, physiologically speaking, to the task of piloting aeros. It all seemed very sensible. But I am beginning to suspect that they learned a good deal more in their training program than just how to fly. Of necessity the Society had a hand in that program, but the flyers do not seem to be loyal to anyone but themselves. Alona is technically a member of the crew of the Sigsbee, but while most of that crew has been confined to the grotto, Alona has been plenty busy making deliveries and performing scouting operations.
We emerged from the grotto safe and sound. On the way back to town, Alia informed me that Alona would be making the next run to Greysham, and if I wanted a letter to be sent along I should give it to her. I must have betrayed my concern with an expression on my face, and indeed, I did start to say something, but then she gave me The Look. No doubt you are familiar with it. No words accompanied it, but what I understood it to mean was something to the effect of: “You don’t know if you can trust Alona, but you have put your trust in me, and I say you must also trust her, and this is my way of demonstrating it. You could object, but that would make our ensuing conversation a tedious one, so think carefully before you speak.”
So this letter is hopefully reaching you via Alona, who, in answer to your question, may well have been running missions for the Society, or someone else entirely, but if you object to her, you will have to take it up with Alia.
I read your account of the spiraling patterns in the forest with great interest, but have no insight to add at this point. Whether the Cairns will have brought you new revelations, or betrayal, or both, I am eager to hear.