by Matthew Olson

(extract from the first chapter)


My true love hath my heart and I have his,
By just exchange one for the other giv'n;
I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss,
There never was a better bargain driv'n.
The Arcadia, Sir Phillip Sidney 1554 - 1586


A Lost Child at Monksbridge Hall, Dorset

Friday July 28th. 2113 (Gregorian)

Monksbridge Hall had a long reputation with the local people for unearthly happenings. But the unnatural disappearance of Miriam Reeve was the first in what was to prove to be a new sequence of occurrences. The setting was a summer's afternoon in late July. The hot humid atmosphere was still except for an occasional small gust of wind that rustled the leaves of the willow trees at the river's edge. Each one a harbinger of the coming storm that promised a cooling relief from the all pervasive heat. In the middle distance a black storm cloud was gathering. Downstream, a small herd of cows waited patiently for the change in weather. They had waded out knee-deep in the river in an attempt to stay cool under the overhanging willows.

Unnoticed, a small child emerged from the back door of the large house and crept barefoot down the steps. She wandered across the lawn towards the river and walked on through the herb garden until she reached the box hedge, which was the outer boundary of her play area. Here she stopped momentarily, realizing that she should go no further.

On the other side of the hedge lay the turf covered mounds and the broken walls of the ruined Abbey. Beyond them was the river. This forbidden territory drew the small child like a magnet. She glanced nervously back toward the house to see if her mother was watching but could see no movement at the upstairs windows.

She moved into the proscribed area and ran quickly across the large expanse of cool turf. As she went, she jumped gleefully over the low turf mounds which covered the old foundations. Reaching the edge of the river she paused to look downstream at the cows. Then she climbed down the bank and sat to look upstream at the dark water under the bridge and the reflections of dappled sunlight.

She was excited to be down here alone but she half wished that she had not disobeyed her mother. The river looked shallow here and in an impulsive moment she decided to wade up to the shade under the bridge. She slipped off her dress and panties to keep them dry and placed them high on the bank. Next she waded cautiously out until the water was above her ankles. The river felt cool and refreshing after the hot summer sun. Getting bolder she waded in deeper. Suddenly she stepped in a large hole and sank under the surface.

The sudden shock of being under the water made her gasp and water rushed down her throat! Gasping and choking she surfaced again but panicked and could not regain her footing in the strong current. She went under once more and while still struggling it seemed to her as though she was only half conscious. Suddenly she sensed that she was floating and the next instant she was on the bank.

At that moment the storm commenced with a brilliant flash of lightning which struck amongst the ruins. Terrified she started to run naked back to the house. By the mounds, visible in the rapidly fading light, was an opalescent shimmering column. Strangely attracted she ran towards the light.

Chapter 1

The Rejection

Oxford, Monday February 8th. 2135 (Gregorian)

Joseph parked the city lecmobile outside the Macmillan College gates on the Camford campus. He was irritated because he was late but there had been the usual problem of finding a transport outside his apartment.

The system works well in theory, he thought, but there are still problems with the distribution. The transports always seem to be in the wrong part of Oxford. I think the students take joy rides in them.

He stood at the security port, "6957," he announced to the computerized gatekeeper. He waited for a few moments while the computer's speech recognition program scanned his voice patterns.

"Welcome, Dr. Dashper," announced the computer in a monotone. "You have an appointment with Professor Bates at 3.30 p.m. in room 207, Fell Wing and you are five minutes late."

The computer slid open the personal door and Joseph hurried to his appointment. As he crossed the quadrangle in the fading light, he noticed that there were a few students sitting on the garden bench. One greeted him as he passed.

"Good Afternoon, Dr. Dashper," hailed a pretty young blonde with flowing hair. "A beautiful day for February. I hope you get your department."

He recognized Professor Bates' daughter and stopped briefly to converse with her. It was important to be on good terms with all the students!

"Hello Alice! Yes it has been a glorious day. Are you planning to take one of my courses?"

"If you revive the department, I should love to," she replied.

Joseph felt cheered by her announcement. There was keen competition for students at the University. The number of students in residence on the campus had diminished greatly since the turn of the century. Computerized distance learning had abolished the need for students to live on campus. Those that did lodge there usually had some residential requirements for a science practicum.

"Let us hope that I get the department then. I should hear by the end of next week."

"Do you have a moment, Doctor Dashper? There is something personal I want to discuss."

"Not now, Alice. I have an appointment with your father and I'm late. Some other time perhaps?"

Alice's face fell and she made no reply. Joseph hurried on to his meeting.

I knew that I could get students interested in my courses, he thought, as he hurried into the Fell Wing. His area of expertise was Medieval History and Literature but presently there was no teaching of these subjects whatsoever. Joseph had to be content to lecture on Victorian History in the Department of Arts.

It would be a feather in my cap if Alice Bates took a course in my field of study.

He stood in front of the study door of Room 207 and knocked. "Come in, Joseph," boomed Professor Bates. "I saw you coming across the quad."

"I'm sorry that I'm late," said Joseph as he stood in the doorway. "I had no end of trouble finding a lecmobile. When I left my apartment it was too late to walk here."

"You should use a bicycle," said Professor Bates. "A long tradition on this campus. I wasn't going to wait much longer for you. Now come on in."

Professor Gregory Bates was the current Head of the Arts Department. He was stout man of medium height, balding with a fringe of white hair. He had been on the Oxford Campus all his academic career and had been a friend of Joseph's father.

"I might get a bicycle soon," responded Joseph. "I've been encouraged by this past winter; it has been so mild. Do you think that we are in for another spell of global warming?"

"I wouldn't know for certain," said Bates. "Not my area of expertise. Don't think the scientists know the answer either despite their exponential increase in numbers. Take a seat Joseph while I go and order the tea."

Professor Bates went out into the corridor. Joseph wondered why the Professor didn't use the video-phone until he remembered that modern communication devices had never been installed in this old building.

He moved to one side of Professor Bates study on the Camford campus and stood awkwardly near the wall. As he looked across the room he remembered his many visits here as a young boy. This room had previously been his father's study for as long as he could remember. He still resented in some small measure that Bates now occupied the study although his father had been dead for seventeen years.

The room almost looks the same, he thought. If I closed my eyes, I could almost imagine that father would return from class at any minute. He fondly remembered how his tall white haired scholarly father would open the study door and greet him warmly. He missed his father keenly even after all these years. He was certain that he would not have any difficulty in finding a permanent teaching position at Camford University if his father had still been alive.

He glanced out of the leaded windows on the left into the quadrangle where the late afternoon February sun was setting. Its dying rays feebly warmed the worn stone flags and the small lawn. The students all appeared to have drifted away.

Inside the room, comfortable old armchairs stood in two corners, flanking the long row of bookcases ahead. In the center of the room was a small table with four hardback wooden chairs. There was a starched white tablecloth on the table which was laid with fine china and silverware.

Professor Bates' study was in one of the oldest university buildings. These ancient structures were costly to maintain but the university professed to keep them for sentimental reasons. The cynics on the campus thought that the main reason was to attract paying visitors. There were newer buildings which were more suited for teaching but Joseph yearned to have a room on Fell Wing.

I'll not get a study in this wing unless I get a full professorship. These rooms are always allocated on academic seniority. He stared again at the well worn bookshelves tightly packed with rows of old books. These must be the same bookshelves that I remember from my youth.

He knew they were not the same books because he had inherited all his father's books when his father had died. Old style books today were mostly found in collections and museums. The advent of large scale electronic publishing had been the death knell for the printed page.

His father's collection had been unique and scholarly but apparently not of great value to collectors. Although, he remembered, the University had been somewhat disappointed not to receive them.

Professor Bates bustled back into the room. "Tea will be ready in about fifteen minutes. The kitchen seems to be busy this afternoon. Now please sit down."

Joseph sat in one of the armchairs.

"I heard that you've inherited the family ancestral home in Dorset from your uncle, Monksgate isn't that the name?"

"Yes I did inherit the house but it is called Monksbridge Hall," replied Joseph. "My father's family have lived there for centuries but my Uncle William being the eldest inherited the property."

"Did you ever live in the house?"

"From time to time," replied Joseph. "I stayed there a great deal when I was a child and more so after my parents died."

"Ah, yes," replied Bates. "Your mother died shortly after your father didn't she? She was quite a bit younger as I remember. Pneumonia wasn't it?"

Joseph hesitated for a moment. He didn't wish to go over his parents' deaths yet again but he thought it politic to answer. "Yes, both my mother and father died in the last epidemic of retroviral pneumonia. My mother was only fifty one years old. She was twenty-five years younger than my father. I am afraid they got married late in life and had me even later."

"That was sad to lose both parents at once. But a number of children were orphaned in that epidemic."

"I was luckier than most. My uncle and aunt raised me like I was their own."

"I remember your uncle from when he would visit your father here on campus. He must have been a good age when he died?"

"Yes, he was ninety seven when he died but sharp right up to the end," replied Joseph. "He was the last of his generation."

"I can't remember if he had any children of his own," said Bates.

"He had one surviving daughter who was older than my mother," replied Joseph. "She is my nearest living blood relation."

"She didn't get the house then?"

"No, she didn't want it," answered Joseph. "She's married and lives in Canada. I don't think she will ever return to England. She has no children so she didn't want the house with all the trust and deed restrictions. The property can't be sold."

" A pity. Do you plan to live there?"

"Yes, as much as I can," replied Joseph. "The house is full of many happy memories for me plus all the historical and family connections. I'm afraid that the house is not modern but I like it. There are the foundations of an old Abbey in the grounds and the house is reputed to be haunted."

"Sounds like a white elephant. Are you sure you can afford the upkeep?"

"I think so. There's a trust fund to cover all the expenses. The fund is not quite large enough but the grounds and garden are open to the public through the Ancestral Homes Society. There's an admission charge which was shared between my uncle and the Society. The money will come to me now."

"You mean you have people crawling all over your house every day? That isn't very convenient!"

"Oh, no! Not the house," said Joseph, "just the grounds. The house is rarely opened to the public except on Special Days. But if funds become short then there's always the option to open the house more and increase the revenue from admission fees."

The professor looked grave. "Joseph, I asked you here today because I was a good friend of your father and I wanted to let you down lightly. I think that your proposal to re-open your father's old Faculty of Medieval History and English Studies will in all probability be rejected by the Regents next week."

Joseph shifted uneasily in his chair. He had been half expecting this but hearing the words filled him with dismay.

"Why will they reject my proposal? Everybody said it was a good idea and that the campus needed to go back to some of its earlier studies."

"Almost everyone in the Arts Department backed your proposal but ever since Cambridge and Oxford Universities merged, the academic emphasis has been on scientific studies."

"I know that but surely they could find the money for my small faculty?"

"Sadly, no. I'm afraid that Computer Science, Astronomy, Space Exploration, and Life Sciences take the lion's share of the funding these days. Here at the old Oxford there is little money reserved for so called soft studies. There is nothing left to discover in your area and certainly no chance of any funding from the private or public domain."

"But surely there's a need for students to learn how to do historical research?" protested Joseph.

"Your discipline depends entirely on the written or printed word. In this 22nd Century all possible research has been accomplished. Every piece of medieval work has been entered into computers and analyzed in every possible way. There is nothing new to discover."

"I don't agree," said Joseph. "What about my thesis?"

" I grant that your thesis for the D. Lit. on Homo-Eroticism among Augustinian monks was a masterly piece of work," replied Bates, "but it was all based on conjecture and inference. What universities want these days is hard data that they can research in a computer."

"What if I could find some new material?" asked Joseph.

"Joseph, there is nothing left to find! The libraries of the world have been scoured, including the Vatican, Russia and China. There is no more material. If there was, our rich friends in the Americas would have discovered it a long time ago."

"What do you think I should do?" asked Joseph.

"I suggest that you keep your tutoring position in History until the funding runs out next year and then consider transferring to the Department of Natural Processing Language. The work on a natural language interface for computers has not developed as fast as the early pioneers had predicted."

"But that's not my field!" protested Joseph.

"There is much work that remains to be done," continued Bates, "and the area of computer translation certainly needs a great deal of work. With your natural aptitude for languages, albeit dead languages such as Latin and Middle English, I'm sure you could make the transition into a permanent position and advance within the Department."

"But that's not exactly what I want to do," exclaimed Joseph.

"Joseph be realistic. You don't have a great choice. We all tried in our Department to help. The majority of the Arts Faculty supported your application even though it would have meant reduced funding for everyone."

"You're saying that I had good support?" said Joseph amazed.

"Yes," said Bates, "but most of the Faculty didn't have altruistic motives. If you'd got your faculty I'm afraid you'd have been the only member and the burden of administration and teaching would have been heavy, assuming that you could persuade some students to take your courses."

"I'm sure I can get students," exclaimed Joseph. "Why your daughter Alice told me just now that she would take one of my courses."

Professor Bates laughed, "Joseph, you're refreshingly ingenuous. I think Alice is more interested in you physically than hearing you teach!"

Joseph blushed to the roots of his hair.

"Maybe you could get Alice for a student," continued Bates with a smile, "but that wouldn't help when the next round of funding cuts came. Some of the smaller Departments assumed that yours would be the first to go and this would take the pressure off them."

"What can I do?"

"My advice regarding the Natural Processing Language Department is the best, Joseph," said Bates. "Another course for you would be to emigrate to the Americas. They are still attempting to disprove that Shakespeare wrote his works."

"I'm not going abroad," said Joseph. "Do you think I will have a chance of reversing an adverse decision on appeal?"

"Not the remotest!" said Bates. "The opposition generated by Professor Gilbert Winchester in Natural Sciences is tremendous. If you had got the faculty he would have been a permanent thorn in your side. Don't upset him any further by appealing."

"I don't understand why Professor Winchester is so antagonistic."

"I'm afraid it has to do with your father," replied Bates. "He opposed Winchester in the human clone fiasco and Winchester never forgave him. He has transferred his dislike of your father to you."

"I have heard the rumors some years ago but I don't know the details. What exactly did my father do to Winchester?"

"When the Government lifted their ban on human cloning nearly forty years ago; Winchester was put in charge of Life Sciences to oversee the project."

"But Winchester is a physicist and a mathematician!" exclaimed Joseph.

"He is but he is also a brilliant polymath," said Bates. "He was put in charge because of his good administrative skills."

"The Government had finally seen the light over the population decline," continued Bates, "and they poured masses of grant money into the project. Of course, it had to go through the University Ethics Committee and your father was the Chairman. He bitterly opposed the project on moral grounds. He felt that the population decline was due to natural self regulation and that it would all even out over time."

"My father was wrong... at least so far. But the research was approved?"

"The experiments went ahead despite the opposition. The first fifty humans they produced seemed perfect. The experiment then went into full scale production before major problems arose."

"I have heard something about that," said Joseph. "Didn't the children develop some type of premature aging?"

"That's true," said Bates. "It was a condition called para-progeria. The children all became rapidly senile and died before they reached reproductive age. It was a scientific disaster!"

"What a sad fiasco!"

"Yes and the true extent was never revealed to the general public. They had five thousand frozen human embryos waiting to be implanted. These were all clones of rich and famous people, politicians and the like. The embryos were all destroyed."

"I can understand why Winchester was upset. It must have been humiliating for him," said Joseph, "but it wasn't my father's fault that the experiments went wrong."

"Your father was gracious. He didn't rub Winchester's face in it but the fact that your father was proved right stuck in Winchester's throat. They never spoke to one another again."

"Winchester thought he could solve the problem," continued Bates, "but he was unable to determine why the clones aged so rapidly. The Government re-introduced the ban on human cloning and Winchester was transferred to Astro-Physics. He was lucky to keep his Faculty position."

"Thank you for explaining all that to me," said Joseph. "I will be careful not to cross Professor Winchester."

"Well, now! If you chose to leave Academia," said Bates. "You could always find a position in publishing. You have excellent computer skills and I would give you good references."

"I appreciate your kind offer but my family have never been in commerce," said Joseph.

There was a knock on the door.

"Ah, that will be the tea. Come in Griggs!"

An elderly manservant came into the room pushing a small tea trolley. He was closely followed by Alice Bates.

"Put the things on the table, Griggs. Alice what are you doing here?"

"Mummy sent me! She is outside the College gates in a lecmobile. She said you were supposed to meet her!"

Bates took out his pocket organizer and peered at the screen. "Dear me, I'm supposed to be talking to the Faculty wives club. I didn't hear the alarm."

Griggs silently left the room. Professor Bates muttered his thanks to the departing servant.

"Alice will you stay and give Joseph his tea? I must hurry down to your mother." He turned to Joseph. "Joseph, I'm sorry about this but Alice will look after you."

Bates departed in great haste.

"Poor Daddy he is always forgetting appointments. He hates the organizer and turns the alarm off all the time. How do you like your tea, Joseph? May I call you Joseph?"

"Milk and sugar. Yes, you may while we are in private but you must always call me Doctor Dashper in public."

They both sat at the table while Alice poured the tea. "Help yourself to the scones, Joseph. Daddy tells me that you have inherited a manor house."

"Not exactly, I have become the trustee of my family's manorial home. I have the use of the building and grounds in my lifetime."

"Did you become the Lord of the Manor?"

"Yes," said Joseph. "I did. The title comes with the property but it doesn't carry any privileges."

"A pity," said Alice. "No 'droit du seigneur' then?"

"That's a hoary old myth," laughed Joseph. "The Lord of the Manor never deflowered virgins on their wedding night. If the privilege ever existed, it was only in France or Italy. It was probably an impost devised by the lord - it's only mentioned in tax records. The poor villagers had to pay a tax to preserve their daughter's honor."

Alice paused and stared hard at Joseph before speaking again.

"Have you ever had a girl friend, Joseph?"

"One or two. Why do you ask."

"Some of the students think you only like men. You are always with those two male lecturers from the Science Department and they never bother with the opposite sex."

Joseph laughed. "Students haven't changed much! When they don't know something, they invent a great deal of mischievous nonsense. I can assure you that my appetites are normal."

"But you aren't living with anyone. You're not in a serious relationship!" persisted Alice.

"If the right person came along I would be."

"Would you live with me Joseph? I want to start trying to get pregnant."

Joseph suddenly realized where the conversation had been leading. He would have to be careful not to upset her feelings.

"The University have an absolute ban on sexual relationships between lecturers and students. It would not be possible for me to live with you while I work here as a teacher."

"But it would be if we went through the formalities. We could enter a legal temporary marriage and, if I didn't get pregnant, it would be automatically dissolved at the end of five years."

"I'm afraid I wouldn't be able to do that. When I get married it will be for life."

"What a romantic notion! Practically no one these days stays with the same partner for life."

"I know but I'm a Catholic. My religion only allows remarriage when one partner has died."

"A Catholic? I didn't think any one practiced those archaic religions?"

"Well I do. My mother was Catholic and she brought me up in the religion even though religious belief is unfashionable."

"But all the services are in Latin. How can you possibly understand what is being said?"

Joseph smiled. "You forget that I am a Latin scholar and so were my father and mother. We had a bilingual household and frequently spoke Latin at home. But even if I wasn't, it wouldn't make any difference. The services are all in English and have been for almost two hundred years."

"Don't they ever have Latin Services?"

"Not here in Oxford. The Church of St. Mary Magdalen used to conduct the old service once a month for the traditionalists but the services ceased about ten years ago."

"Is your religion so important to you that you couldn't consider living with me?"

"I'm afraid so. My mother wanted me to become a priest and take a vow of celibacy but I decided finally to follow the same career as my father."

"Could you at least make an attempt get me pregnant? We could have a secret affair."

"I'm afraid that is utterly impossible. I would never engage in such a deception."

"I don't understand you, Joseph. Here I am offering myself, almost begging, and you stand on your high moral principles. Are you sure you truly know what you want out of life."

"Certainly. I want to advance my career and become a full professor with my own department. I would also like to revive my father's old faculty here at Camford but your father says that isn't likely, at least not in the near future."

"I'm sorry to hear that but, when you've got all that, will you marry?"

"In all probability but in the meantime I don't want a relationship that would take time and energy away from my chosen career."

"Then don't expect me to ever marry you! My reproductive life-span is much shorter than yours. I'm not prepared to wait for years until you make up your mind."

"Alice, I'm sorry to disappoint you but all this was your idea. I'm afraid I cannot accommodate you. I must request that you don't repeat this conversation outside this room. You know how rumors start."

"Don't be afraid. I would be too ashamed to tell any one how I offered myself and you rejected me."

"Please accept my apologies, Alice, if I gave you the wrong impression in any way. I like you but you must exclude me from your plans. I must be going now. Thank you for the tea and thank your father for his advice."

"Thank you for nothing! You old fashioned misogynist!"

Joseph smarted at the insult but realized that further conversation would probably aggravate the situation. What a mess! He had never guessed that Alice held such strong feelings for him.

He stood up.

"Goodbye, Alice. I'm leaving now."

Joseph left the study and Alice watched him through the window as he walked across the quadrangle.

She felt a blush come to her cheeks at the thought of her bold proposition. She thought he would have jumped at the opportunity. Men found her attractive. Joseph was tall and good looking. Why didn't he want a relationship? Perhaps the others were right! He must like men more than women.

After Joseph left the old wing he proceeded across the quadrangle to his small study in the Murdoch block. The thought that he wouldn't get his department was more on his mind than Alice's proposition. He had hoped against hope that he might have persuaded the University to make a teaching position for him.

Joseph opened his study door. The message flag was slowly blinking on the built-in video screen on the wall.

"Messages!" commanded Joseph.

"You have only one message, Doctor Dashper," announced the electronic voice. "It is a long one from the University of Paris."

"Read!" commanded Joseph. He listened in amazement as the computerized voice spouted out at length.

I've never had a message from them before. I wonder what they want? He sat as the computer droned on. It was a request for him to join in a human fertility testing project. They were planning to test both males and females with a graduate education and introduce the fertile ones to each other. Either with a view to marriage or sperm and egg donation. The project was designed to breed humans of superior intelligence who might solve the world population problem.

"Stop, delete!" commanded Joseph. The screen shut down.

What an elitist proposition! I won't be of any use to them. I have already been tested and have no sperm. His pride hadn't allowed him to tell Alice the real reason for his refusal but she must have suspected. Males with an inadequate sperm count were in the majority.

It would certainly be a serious problem if the human population died out. The last few remaining would have a much reduced life-style despite modern technology. The retirement age had already been raised to eighty years and there was talk of abolishing retirement all together. The next thing was certain to be euthanasia for the non productive elderly.

Joseph wasn't worried. He had his life and was determined to enjoy it. If the human cloning had been successful, Winchester would have reaped world honors. No wonder he was an embittered man. But my father didn't cause the experiments to go wrong; he just prophesied a bad outcome. It was unfair for Winchester to oppose my re-opening the faculty just because of something that happened forty years ago.

He sat on his settee and reflected on the conversation in Bates' study.

I'm certainly not going to emigrate. I can't sell Monksbridge and it would be impossible to manage the property from thousands of miles away. Uncle had always insisted that I inherit the property. I can't leave my responsibilities there to someone else.

He remembered how it had always given him a great sense of entitlement to sit in one of the older rooms of the house and know that his father, grandfather and a myriad of other ancestors had also sat in the same room. It gave him a great sense of continuity and a solid feeling of belonging, a sort of rooted destiny.

Belonging was not a feeling that Joseph currently felt at the University. More and more he felt that time was running out for him. Here I am at thirty years old, he thought, with a terminal degree and no permanent position.

He had briefly considered a commercial career but publishing these days was all electronic and held little attraction for Joseph. True a few books were published in the old way, printed on paper, but these were few and far between and mostly to order for wealthy bibliophiles. Joseph preferred the old books to these modern imprints.

Books used to be printed to be read not collected! I love holding the old books. They have a nostalgic musty smell and the binding feels so good in your hand. The modern books for collectors aren't the same.

You couldn't summon a musty smell with an electronic page either but he would admit that searching the text was easier on a computer. His only hope at the University now appeared to be a position in Natural Language Processing.

What a boring job that would be. Computer interface languages are so sterile. How could any one expect a language for a computer to have any soul? My languages may be dead now but they had once been spoken for centuries.

I'd certainly miss working with Latin. There's a richness of syntax and vocabulary that's unconstrained by the limitations of electronic circuitry. However, working for the Natural Processing Language Department would have some advantages. It would allow me to stay at the University and not be forgotten. I'd be ready should another opportunity arise to restore my father's faculty.

He was still sitting on the settee when his two friends burst into the room.

Back to Dashper Sci-fi

Back to Home page