Cecily picked up the piece of paper using a pair of tweezers, and shook it at Martin. “Where did you get this? Exactly?” She laid it down on her desk again, a large wooden bench with a laptop at one end and a set of labelled petri dishes pushed to the back. This was her laboratory, which she shared with five other scientists, none of whom had fewer than two Ph.Ds. Martin, perched on an uncomfortable lab stood, swallowed hard and looked at her. His hearing was still a little fuzzy and his ears ached in any temperature below 25C. He was carrying a pair of ear-warmers in his hands, having taken them off when he came into the lab.
“The Tailor put it in front of me after he turned the radio on,” he said. The memories were hazy as though someone had spilled acid over them and they’d been partly eaten away. He could remember the Tailor turning the radio on, and then the next thing he remembered was a smile full of yellowed teeth and the piece of paper. Then there was a kind of greyness when he knew he was there and hurting, and after that there were people around him again, talking to him in ways that didn’t make him want to curl up and die. He remembered flashing lights, but he couldn’t remember if there’d been an ambulance or not. He remembered a fast, bumpy journey while he was lying down, but not where he’d been while he was lying. His first memories that felt like his again were of waking up in a narrow, hard bed with pristine white sheets and seeing a middle-aged woman with curlers in her hair sat at the end of the bed, watching him.
“Did he say anything to you about it?”
“I couldn’t hear him, the radio was on,” said Martin. He shuddered; he could remember the first words, if that was really the right word to describe the noise, that had come out of the radio, and he really wished he couldn’t. No-one should have to vomit a language out of their throat to get rid of it.
“Before he turned the radio on, did he say anything to you about this paper? About Odnose B?”
Martin flinched so hard he fell off the stool and landed on the floor; the stool caught in his legs as he fell and ended up on top of him. Cecily raised an eyebrow, and waited to him to untangle himself and get back up.
“You can stand if you wish,” she said. Martin shook his head, and sat back on the stool, positioning it so he could lean on one arm on her bench. She frowned but said nothing.
“He said… he said something about the intent of the number station,” he said. “He said… he said I should ask what the intent of the numbers station was. I think. The memories are, I don’t know how to describe it. Like when you drop a mirror.”
“Crazed,” said Cecily nodding. “Yes, Odnose B does very strange things to the mind. It wouldn’t be surprising if your memories were all hazed and cracked like a mirror really. The agents say you were in there with the radio on for at least six minutes.”
“Was it that short?” Martin looked astonished when Cecily laughed. It was a modest chuckle at first that turned into a full roar of laughter as she saw his expression.
“Didn’t anyone–? Really? Oh. Well, in our animal experiments the rabbits and mice die after about 90 seconds, and the primates don’t do a whole lot better. We’re trying to get hold of a gorilla but it’s not easy. It might be easier now we can show that human subjects have lasted six minutes without death though. Six minutes of Odnose B is a fairly accurate description of eternity as I understand it.
Look Martin, did you read this note? Do you know who wrote it? It says here that there are high and low forms of Odnose B and that what you were listening to is the low form, and that’s why you’re here. I really, really want to know everything you know about this note.”
Martin swallowed. “Look, I think the Tailor wrote it, and I can remember a smile, it might have been his. I don’t know anything else about it though, he just put the note in front of me and I had to really concentrate to try and read it.”
“The agents said it was clenched so tightly in your hands that they had to give you a muscle relaxant to get it away from you,” said Cecily. “It sounds like you knew it was important at least; did the Tailor say anything to make you realise that?”
“I don’t think so,” said Martin. He blinked, his eyes slightly unfocused. “No, he didn’t say anything about the note being important. I think he just left.”
“No-one saw him leave the building, Martin. We don’t know where he went, or how he got out.”
“But we had it surrounded!”
Cecily said nothing, but put the note into a little plastic sleeve using her tweezers.
“We’ve suspected that there’s something odd about Odnose B for a while,” she said. “The texts we have disagree in places where we think we understand what’s being said, and there are substitutions that aren’t regular or maintained. If there really are two forms of the language, then that might help us work out which is which. But, and it’s big but for us, why are there two forms?”
“Two different kinds of speakers?” said Martin. “I dunno, posh people talking and common people?”
“Speaking a language that kills the speakers and the people who hear it?”
Martin stared at her.
“We can’t even figure out how this language developed,” said Cecily. “Or rather, our answers so far are almost as disturbing as the wretched language itself.”