Jason knew there was something wrong, very wrong. The teacher was distracted and tense. Indeed, the whole class felt as though they were standing on the edge of a precipice waiting for a final push into oblivion.
The Head of the School was dying and with her death, no one knew how many words would be lost. Her illness had come on so suddenly she hadn’t yet passed on all her knowledge to her successor. The others didn’t even have a name for her disease. The Masters had searched anything that would help but to no avail. For half a century she had been the custodian of the words starting with C and D. Her last days had been spent passing on as many as possible but now, with her final breaths, she explained doloriferous to the Masters and expired.
The Masters wept, doloriferously.
In the country of Breland words had power and their use was proscribed. Use of more than two syllables was frowned upon and three would call down upon the speaker such opprobrium as to render him or her a social pariah. The Word Wardens and Editors were everywhere, listening, watching, peering into everybody’s lives, editing, purging the lexicon and ensuring compliance with the LAW.
Jason stared at the chalk board trying to concentrate on the words there. Long words, difficult words, banned words. Learning them and understanding them was the entire reason for the secret Word School. Holding on to the language, keeping it diverse and safe for some imagined future when the country would be free again and the words released from the shackles imposed by the government.
Jason closed his eyes, repeated and repeated the words from the board, his classmates were doing the same. The teacher, Junior Science Master Porteous intoned the ritual to calm himself, “I am a sesquipedalian. I will safeguard the sacred syllables of erudition, the solemn sophistication of sophistry. Words are my life, my love, my learning.”
“They must be found.” The Boss said, his voice flat and ominous. “One school is left; it must be closed. Find it and kill it. Kill it now.”
“My Lord!” The Editors intoned and marched out into the street. The populace scattered as the Editors strode through the city, searching, scouring the streets for the one last school.
The Boss had been in charge of Breland for over a century, ever since the downfall of the last Erudite Parliament. The people had ceded control to the Boss after the chaos that followed the end of the Great Debate when the country was sundered from its neighbours. The Boss contended that overly elaborate language was at the root of the country’s problems and that simplification held the key to a happy population.
His first act was to limit use of certain words, the bans came later. Free speech was still allowed but only using approved vocabulary, the number of words constantly revised downwards. He purged the libraries and burned the dictionaries; newspapers were shut down, writers imprisoned or banished and all opposition quashed by the ubiquitous Word Wardens and Editors.
This led to the formation of the Lexicography Resistance and the set up of the secret Word Schools. These hidden institutions were dedicated to the preservation of the language for future generations. But to remain secret, it was decided that no written records would be created and the Masters dedicated themselves to memorising the banned vocabulary; the Schools would become a living thesaurus.
Jason and his classmates watched from the top of the tower as the Editors came closer. “They won’t find us, will they?” he asked.
“They won’t, they don’t know how to ask the right questions.” Porteous gave a small nervous laugh, ‘at least I hope not.’ he thought.
Jason wasn’t so sure, it looked to him like the Editors were zeroing in on the tower. “We’ve got to get out of here! They’re coming this time Master; they know we are here.”
“How can you tell?”
“Look at them, all of them are turning this way. We have to go.” Jason tugged at the Masters sleeve, “I know a place where we can hide. Come quickly!”
The Porteous, Jason and his classmates ran through the school corridors and down the winding stars to ground level. “Quickly, in here!” Jason urged his schoolmates and the Master through a small door in the side of the building. The stairway leading down was badly lit and smelled of dust and old age. “Careful!” said Porteous.
They continued down until they felt the air change. “Wait a minute.” said Jason. He reached up and pulled a switch and light flooded the old tunnel. The scrape of claws as the rats disappeared out of sight.
“Where are we?” asked the Master.
“Look.” Jason pointed at a red circle on the dirty tiled wall, “Mornington Crescent. At least I think that’s what it says.”
“How did you find this place Jason?”
Jason pulled a piece of paper from his robe, “I followed this. I found it, it’s a map.”
Porteous inspected the map, “Look, look at this!” he pointed to a spot on the left of the map. “It says Westminster! But what if it’s Wister! That’s where the Boss is. If we can get there. Maybe, just maybe, we can do something.”
“The Editors, the Boss controls the Editors from there. We can stop it. Has anybody got a torch?”
“Right, look if we follow the tracks, along this black line down to, to” he turned the map and peered at the faded type, “Embankment, then along the green line to Westminster.” He clapped his hands with glee and threw off his teacher’s robe revealing a blue uniform emblazoned with gold stars.
“Who are you sir?” Jason stuttered, “What are you”
“Not now, Jason! We have work to do.” He jogged off down the track, “Don’t dither you lot, follow me now.”
They ran through the tunnels as fast as possible until they reached Embankment Station.
“Which way now sir?”
Porteous looked around, “There!” he pointed, “Look” The faded arrow read Circle Line. “Hurry up.”
The Westminster station had working lights, “That’s odd!”
“No, it isn’t Jason. This must be how the Editors get around the city. This is how they always turn up without you knowing where they came from. Through the tunnels.”
“So, sir, what do we do now?”
“We’re going to pay the Boss a visit.”
“Yes, now! It’s sooner than we expected but I must take this chance. We might not get another one. Hurry!”
They climbed up to street level and out into the square in front of the Palace of Wister and it was raining.
“Very good Jason, five syllables, but don’t shout, A warden might hear you and now is not the time. Trust me.”
“But what are we doing here?” Jason didn’t sound scared just confused. The people in the square were taking no notice of the group despite the Master’s strange costume and the boy’s academic gowns. They didn’t have the vocabulary to understand, nor the curiosity to question.
The erstwhile Master smiled down at the teenager, “All of you gather round, listen closely. I am from a cell of the Lexicography Resistance you won’t have heard of us. While the Word Schools looked after the language, we were holding onto the real history, not the fiction that is taught these days. We also tried to disrupt the Boss’s plans. Not always very successfully.”
Porteous looked into the faces of each of the boys, they were young, early teens mostly, but they seemed unafraid, their eyes filled with idealistic fervour.
“I am here to try to get rid of the Boss.” the Master said, “And with your help, to free Breland from his tyranny. The History Schools have been planning this for a long time, but we had to wait until he was vulnerable before we could act. This seems too soon but I don’t think we have a choice. We have to take this chance.” Porteous pointed at the Palace, “The Boss is in there, but all the Editors are out looking for your school, the last one of its kind, the final home of words. Words he doesn’t understand, and they will bring him down! Are you with me?”
A chorus of yeses from the boys.
He walked with his pupils towards the building, the few Wardens scattered around the square ignored them until the were close to the main entrance.
“Stop! Who are you? What are you doing here?” the Warden asked. He was dressed in the traditional red and gold uniform, complete with black hat and a pikestaff held across his corpulent middle. He glared at them from under beetling brows, “Well?”
The Master gave a small bow, “A school outing sir, to show my pupils the beauty of the home of the Boss.”
The Beefeater harrumphed and peered myopically at the boys. “Well then you may pass.” He brandished the pikestaff then planted its heel firmly on the ground, “But be good!” he admonished.
“We will sir.” Porteous gave another bow and led the boys to St Stephen’s entrance. The palace wasn’t really the seat of government any longer, more a tourist attraction. The MP’s function was now mostly ceremonial, an annual get together to rubber stamp the Boss’s edicts.
After the usual perfunctory security checks, they walked though St Stephen’s Hall, the younger pupils gawped at the ornate surroundings, the gilded statues and elaborate murals.
“Where are we going sir?”
He sat the class down on the benches lining the hall and hunkered down in front of them. “I don’t have time to tell you the full story, but the Boss wasn’t always the Boss.” He glanced around making sure no one was listening. “He used to be called the Speaker and he was a person and he wasn’t in charge.”
“How do mean sir?”
“The Speaker was like a referee, making sure the MPs behaved themselves. But after the Great Debate it was decided to replace the person with a computer, an artificial intelligence so that things would always be fair and rational.”
“If it’s not a man why do we say he and not it?”
“I have no idea Jason, convention perhaps. Anyway, we think the computer struggled with the complexities of the language and that’s when the curbs began, it’s rulings in this place began to become laws. Increasingly, the Speaker took over until about eighty years ago it began to call itself the Boss. The androids, we call them Editors now, weeded out dissent and the Word Wardens, mainly recruited from the masses of the unemployed were sent out to enforce the Boss’s rule.”
“How can we make a difference, though?”
“The Boss, the Speaker, used to be a servant of the Parliament and somewhere in its programming that idea still lingers. We are going to remind it. We are going to ask it questions, and those will be filled with your laboriously learned words.”
“We’re going to overload it?”
“But how can we get him, IT, to answer, sir?”
The Master held up something that looked like a credit card, “With this, this is an interface key, one of only two remaining. We have been keeping it safe for a moment like this.”
He led the boys through the building to what used to be known as the Speakers Court and now was the home to the Boss. The two metre high chrome edged red white and blue boxes that housed the AI covered two thirds of the floor. Three tiered rows of monitors showing scenes from around Breland stood between the boxes and the viewing public. Two Beefeaters stood guard in front of the screens.
“Now, boys split into two groups. I need you to distract the Beefeaters. Surround them, talk to them, ask them questions. Keep them occupied.”
“What kind of questions?”
“Anything, why they’re called beefeaters, ask them where the uniforms come from. Anything. Now go!”
The boys scampered off to do the Master’s bidding. Porteous waited until he thought the time was right and slipped unnoticed behind the screens.
It was hot and stuffy with only a few feet between the back of the screens and the humming computer banks. It took his eyes a minute or so to adjust to the gloom before he spotted what he was looking for. Porteous slipped the key into the narrow slot and after few seconds a row of small lights changed from red to green. He heard a scream from the other side of the screens.
“Order! Order! The Members must come to order! Order! Order!”
Porteous skipped back to where the boys and the tourists were staring wide eyed at the screens. The usual scenes of Breland had been replaced by one huge spectacularly ugly face.
“Mister Speaker, on a Point of Order!” Porteous yelled.
The face turned to look where Porteous stood. “Point of Order the Member for …” the face looked perplexed.
“Pontypridd Mister Speaker.”
“Pit reed, yes.”
The boys gathered round the Master, “On a Point of Order Mister Speaker.” The Master shouted at the screen, “The acceleration of the implementation of antidisestablishmentarianism, in conjunction with the increasingly disputatious convergence of antiauthoritarianism and contraindicated conformity is leading to a preternatural partitioning of the population of Scotland.”
The face on the screen writhed in confusion. “What!”
“This is it boys your turn, bring your words to bear, remember start with Point of Order.”
“Point of Order, Mister Speaker. The bowdlerisation of our unexpurgated, alliterative, anthropomorphic accretions of the allegorical accounts of our authorial actualisation is in actual danger.”
“I guess you were on A’s Jason.” The Master laughed and turned back to the screens, “Come now Mister Speaker how can you answer these allegations?”
“Mister Speaker, Point of Order. Terminologically speaking, transubstantiated tautological technicalities have created tangentially intolerabilities and must be sequentially segregated. How to you propose to do this?”
“Good one Stephen, I guess you were on Ts and S’s.”
The room was getting hotter, the faces on the screens twisted and warped, darting looks at the questioners: its mouth squirming, its cheeks quivering. Small pieces of words stuttered out. The boys continued to yell more nonsensical questions. Smoke leaked though the screens, the face increasingly frantic broke into smaller and smaller pieces. A smell of burning then a final flash and the screens went blank.
There was a moment of silence then all the boys cheered.