“This place sucks!” I whispered.
“You already informed me what you think, Alex,” Mom whispered back.
“Didn’t you see that?” I asked. It was pretty clear that Mom was not getting the point. She sat in his cheap chair, as provided by the Van Senmut College library and smiled at the librarian, Dr. Ramancharan.
He sat behind his desk, which looked so old they must have forgotten to throw it out. In front of him lay a dirty looking book. Handwritten, too. The whole library looked much better than the book and the desk. It was wood-paneled, a top notch Apple computer on a mahogany desk, nice paintings, and some antique figurines lounged on the shelves, together with leather bound volumes. The librarian glanced happily at the book, and looked pretty self-satisfied. When I am fifty and have grey hair like him, I will be pretty depressed. That is going to take another 33 years, though, as I quickly calculated. About twice as many years as I lived so far. That is an eternity. Before I get there, though, I guess I should explain what I was doing in this boring place.
My name is Alex Khyan. I am a senior. A high school senior. What did you think? Right now I was doing what everybody else seemed to be doing: sending out my college applications. That was the trouble. Mom – I never met my Dad – had a lot to say about this. We could agree on one thing: the premed major seemed to be a good idea. There was an issue though: helping people sounded like a good goal, but there was not much adventure there. I would like an adventure or two. What if I were bored? Anyway, I went to visit the colleges I applied to and this one, the Van Senmut College, was one of them. Mom had a good friend here, Dr. Ramancharan, which I already mentioned. He was not a medical doctor, but a scientist, a director of the library and a historian of some sort. He seemed to be a good guy and spent a whole afternoon taking me around and enthusiastically explaining everything. Unfortunately, it seemed just like all other colleges. A little small, but otherwise as boring and depressing as the rest of them. So if I am wrong about my major and about the college, I will be double-bored. Finally, we separated and I joined my Mom for a late lunch. Afterwards, we came to the library to say our goodbyes.
So back to Dr. Ramancharan: There were not many wrinkles at his face except for the crow feet around his eyes, and he looked trim. Overall, he did pretty good job covering his decline and advanced age, but there were those little signs like his reading glasses, so I was not fooled. The trouble was, there was a mirror behind him and I caught a sight of myself right next to him. The fact was that I looked just like him: six feet, skinny, angular face, black hair and brown eyes. All I needed were those wrinkles, glasses and gray hair and we could be twins. That made me depressed again.
“So what is your decision?” He asked.
“I am not going to come here. I may not go to a college at all. I think this place is not exciting enough for me.”
Dr. Ramancharan sighed. “You disappoint me,” he said seriously. “I was hoping you will be more mature at your age.” He looked down at his desk.
That hurt some. Perhaps I should not be that hard on him. He may learn to be more reasonable as he gets older.
“What are you working on?” I asked him. That should appease him a little.
“You don’t like history,” he answered curtly. That was true. Computers were much more fun. For one thing, one could play games. It is even more interesting to play around with programming.
“Could I help you with the computer?” I proposed.
“Last time someone let you on the computer in your high school, you produced a virus that wiped half of the computers at your school, or so your Mom tells me,” he said.
That was an exaggeration. They had only twenty computers there and I had to fix only seven of them afterwards. That would be only thirty percent. I did not think Dr. R. would care about this important distinction, though.
“OK,” I said. “I am just curious what is that book you are looking at. Is it some student’s thesis?”
“I don’t know,” Ramancharan said and laughed.
“Can I have a look?” I reached for the manuscript, but he caught my hand and stopped me.
“Careful”, he said. “It is at least four hundred years old.”
“I should have guessed,” I mumbled. “What is so special about it?”
“It is the Voynich manuscript,” Ramancharan said seriously.
“And?” I asked.
“And,” he said and carefully lifted a page, “it the most mysterious manuscript in the world.”
“Really?” I said, impressed against my will. “I would have thought something from Babylon or Egypt would be more older and more mysterious.”
“Older, yes,” Ramancharan agreed. “More mysterious? No. Look at it.”
I bent over the book. “Someone has a lousy handwriting or it is an alphabet I don’'t know.”
“Neither do I,” Ramancharan said.
“So a mystery alphabet?”
I pulled up a chair and sat down. “There are others like that like Linear B in Crete, are not there?”
“You know about linear B?” Ramancharan said. “There may be a hope for you yet.”
Then he continued: “No, that is not the problem. We have writings in undeciphered alphabets. Bits and pieces of writing, it is not really surprising we cannot break it. The civilizations it came from all but disappeared, so we have nothing to go on. This is different, however.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. This was beginning to get interesting.
“It is called the Voynich manuscript after the dealer who brought it to America,” Ramancharan said.
“Where did it come from?”
“It was tracked down to Prague in 16th century. Before that, we don’t know. Here is the fun part. It is two hundred fifty handwritten pages on vellum with a lot of illustrations. People, mainly women, plants and stars, arranged into constellations. That much is clear. That is also all that is clear.”
I was going through the pages of the book.
“Nobody tried to decipher it?” I asked. “Surely all alphabets from medieval Europe are known?”
“They are,” Ramancharan agreed. “Not this one. This is what is so strange about it. You have a huge book written in an unknown alphabet and language and it is the only example that exists. Nobody found this type of writing anywhere.”
“It is very curly,” I said, “and even. And lots of symbols repeat. It looks like an alphabet, but if it is not, it could be a code, could not it?”
“That would be the logical conclusion,” Ramancharan agreed. “Except nobody was able to break it.”
I checked it out again. “C’mon,” I said. “What are the computers for? You could give it to military guys. I bet you didn’t. You could start with the most common symbol like Poe described in that story of his.”
“The Purloined letter,” Ramancharan nodded. “Right. Except they ran it through Department of Defense computers, and it didn’t work.”
“I thought they could break even Russian codes?” I said in surprise.
“Probably,” Ramancharan agreed. “Not this one.”
“Didn’t they try different languages?”
“Of course,” Ramancharan said.
That WAS interesting. “So what did they say?” I asked.
“They said it is probably a hoax.”
I took a deep breath.
“I know”, Ramancharan said. “It could be an excuse for a failure. On the other hand, it could be true except I don’t really believe that. Two hundred fifty pages is a lot of pages just to cheat someone. Few people have that patience.”
I went through a few more pages. “What about those plants?” I said. “Perhaps they could be matched to words.”
Ramancharan shook his head: “Nobody managed that and that is not the only problem with those plants. Some, possibly most of them cannot even be identified.”
“Unknown writing, unknown plants?” I raised an eyebrow. “How about the stars?”
“Unknown constellations,” Ramancharan said to complete the mystery triad. I whistled.
“So you are screwed.” Ramancharan winced.
“I mean you cannot break it unless you find something like a Rosetta stone.”
“What do you know about the Rosetta stone?” Ramancharan asked.
“It is a big stone that helped Champollion to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs,” I said.
“It had a description of victory of a king over some other king and it was written in hieroglyphs, Greek and Persian.”
“Right,” Rmancharan agreed. “A Rosetta stone would help. I was just wondering if we cannot figure out where it came from using an analysis of the vellum it is written on. If we could track it down to the source, perhaps we could find a translation. I have to ask my friend James if I could somehow acquire a sample.”
He reached for the phone. “Nah,” he pulled his hand back. “I will have to ask him personally. He does not like using phones. In fact, I am pretty sure he dislikes the last two centuries en bloc. I am going to see him. He should be in the library right now. Come with me.”
“Do I have to?” I asked.
“No, of course not,” he stopped in the door. “You can wait here.”
I pulled up a chair and turned to the computer. Does he have a password? No. Sometimes I like technophobes. What to do, what to do. World of Warcraft? Not today: I spent the whole last week playing that. Nothing else I could think of held much appeal either. I glanced at the manuscript. Was he right about that or was he exaggerating to attract my interest. A cursory Google search confirmed it was all true. Hm. Now I have it in front of me, but do not see much advantage to it. I could download a copy. I did. So nothing worked, huh? This is a good computer, but it cannot be better than what they have at Pentagon. Of course, it all depends on how you ask the question. No computer will help you there.
I fished in my memory for a precedent. How other people decipher an unknown script? I drew a blank, except for the Rosetta Stone I used to mollify Ramancharan with. Should I have listened more? It was too late to cry over it. I leaned back in my chair. I guess it will remain a mystery, unless Ramancharan succeeds in his quest. The problem was that something was tugging on my mind. Or rather it was floating in there. I didn’t like it much. It was making me uncomfortable. I turned back to the computer and found the World of Warcraft. A few people were online. Who should I play against? Nah. I did not feel like it. Instead, I picked up an artifact Ramancharan had at his desk. I recognized an ankh, an Egyptian symbol of life. These archeologists. This could be easily a few thousand years old and they do not even lock it up in a safe. I put it down, got up and began to pace. The Rosetta Stone. I could not stop thinking about it. Champollion used it to break the code. How did he do it? I felt a familiar rush of excitement. That was it. It was somewhere there. Now if I could only grasp it.
I sat down again. The Rosetta Stone was known before Champollion knew that. The French, who invaded Egypt with Napoleon brought it back. Contemporary archeologists knew it was written in three languages and knew the other languages too. Yet, unbelievably, they could not break the hieroglyphic script. They just could not match Greek and Persian words to corresponding hieroglyphs. What did Champollion know? What was his angle? That was it. He knew the Coptic language which is directly related to the ancient Egyptian. He knew a symbol in an oval, a cartouche, meant a name of a king. What king he did not know. However, one of the drawings inside the oval was a picture of bee. In Coptic, it was ses. In this way he figured that the cartouche was the symbol and name of Ramses. In other words, hieroglyphs were not a simple picture script like, for example, Chinese. Those pictures meant something else: they did not identify an object, but they meant a sound. In other words, hieroglyphs were a semi-phonetic writing.
“That guy had some insight,” I muttered to myself. What did it have to do with what I was looking at, though? “If hieroglyphs are phonetic,” I said loudly, “this script, which looks like a bunch of letters like the Latin alphabet and thus likely phonetic could be instead a picture script.”
I leaned back and stared at the ceiling. What did they know at that time in medieval Europe? Chinese or Japanese language? Hardly. They were big on secrets though, and there were alchemists and they knew about Egypt. So it is back to hieroglyphs. I turned to the computer.
What if I take each individual glyph, or word, from the manuscript and try to assign to it a hieroglyph based on its relative frequency in Egyptian? I quickly checked the library sources, which as usually and equally unbelievably were not protected by a password. Here. I found a file containing studies on hieroglyphs. Now, if I could design a very simple application to do that, I could do the conversion.
It took about half hour, and in front of me was a transcript of the manuscript glyphs into hieroglyphs. I checked the door. Ramancharan was still missing. Good. Now, can I get a translation? I pushed a button. Below the hieroglyphs appeared a translation into the Latin alphabet, but in Egyptian as far as I could tell. What the hell? Oh, the next line was translation into English. I frowned. It did not make much sense. For example, this page: The traveler’s barge will pass the Gate if he know the name of the Gate’s Guardian, and reaches his destiny in the manner of Ra passing the though the Duat, and will be reborn like Ra once he passes the Twelfe Hour of Night. What does that mean? What is the name of the Guardian or whatever? The English version did not say. I glanced at the Egyptian transcript and tossed thoughtfully the ankh up and down. I tried the translator again and entered only the first few words “…the Gate’s Guardian…”. The program spat out several hieroglyphs and their pronunciation in English.
“,…” I tried it out. And then I was falling through the Night until the darkness overwhelmed my consciousness.