There it was, in black and white. This was the fifth book I’d picked up from this archive, and they all kept referring to this without any explanation as to what they meant. The C-word. Sometimes with hyphen and sometimes without. But a cipher nonetheless, a coy evasion of saying something. The question was, what was it that they were not saying?
I sighed and pushed the book away from me, pushing my chair back from the table at the same time and coming to my feet. I could use a little IV-adrenaline, something to kickstart my mind this afternoon. I gestured towards the wall and a door formed and opened, the nanetic materials responding almost as though they were intelligent. Beyond the wall was a grassed courtyard with a couple of spindly trees grouped together like gossiping women, and a soft, grey bench soaking up the sunshine. I sat down on the bench and unzipped a sleeve pocket to get at my travel-pack. Zips were extremely retro but I was pretty sure that they were coming back into fashion so I was wearing it anyway. The pack opened to my fingerprint and I took an ampule out. I pressed in on my bicep and it wriggled, adjusting itself until it was over the pulse of a vein, and then reformed itself into a tiny injector. I pressed down and it slid neatly into my skin, delivering a shot of adrenaline directly to my bloodstream.
I relaxed a little as my blood chemistry caught up and the world seemed a little brighter, the sun a little warmer, and the air a little less stale. My mind turned easily back to the problem at hand.
I was working with the twentieth and twenty-first century archives which were notable for their difficulties. Unlike earlier archives the languages of those times were highly mutable and evolved rapidly. The writers and recorders of the times used slang heavily and seemed to believe that either anyone coming later would still be using this slang, or that their work was so ephemeral that it wouldn’t have to explain itself to anyone. Some of the tomes appeared to deliberately reference slang that they considered archaic, possibly as an attempt at humour, but more likely as a means of preserving some kind of meaning. I wondered if perhaps in the early twenty-first century there had been a crisis of literacy, with people looking at their written materials and wondering how they were to understand them. Certainly there appeared to have been an increase around that time of less permanent media, and built-in obsolescence that happened so quickly that it was almost like a kind of forced evolution.
I’d had some success with deducing meanings from these texts as a younger scholar, and now that my career appeared to be stalling a little I’d returned to them. Little progress had been made since I’d last looked at them, and my initial hope had been that there were simply so many texts in the archive that no-one had had any time. Now it looked as though I was rediscovering that everyone considered them a hopeless cause.
Consider my current woe: the c-word. It was plentifully referred to for nearly fifty years before it suddenly disappeared altogether. The phrase was meaningful and then, overnight, it just seemed to be forgotten by everyone. The problem I had, was that we had no way of knowing what the c-word was without an explanation.
The obvious answer was that it was the first word that came to mind when you were asked to name a word beginning with C; for us these days that would be Colostrum and people would look at you funny if you tried to suggest anything else. But what would it have been for people living nearly a thousand years ago? Did they even have colostrum, or have identified it back then? When I checked temporally appropriate dictionaries the first word in most of them was simply the letter C by itself, which seemed to have a rather arbitrary number of meanings, most but not all of which were derived from words beginning with the letter C. There appeared to be no agreement over which of these came first either, and that it was also used for words that didn’t begin with C made any hypothesis that the C-word was one of these hard to argue.
I’d established that there was a kind of educational children’s game played back then, where someone would soberly announce, I espy something beginning with and then name a letter. Children would then have to name words beginning with that letter until they found the right one, with the speaker didactically correcting them as they went. Presumably there was a punishment element for children who failed consistently to learn what the catechismical response was but this appeared not to be noted down. The canonical element for each letter wasn’t written down though – clearly they were thought so obvious that no-one would need to write them down, and since they were orally passed on to children that only reinforced their status as universally known.
I had a theory though that the C-word was corpse. There were an astonishing number of them present in that time period, when it seemed that the population density of the world was such that they could afford to just kill people for sport or because they wanted to test out some new weapon. The horrors and predations listed in many of their books and papers were a sure indicator that death must have been the constant companion for anyone living at that time. The only fly in the ointment, as it were, was that I couldn’t see why a writer would be coy about something that everyone would be so familiar with. Was it not the done thing to point out the corpse in the armchair?
A cloud passed in front of the sun and the bench began to reform itself into something a little more protective, in case a breeze arose. I took that as a prompt that I should get back to work, and got to my feet. Perhaps the next book would contain enough information to deduce which of nearly two thousand words the C-word was.